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RESISTANCE, RESILIENCE & HOPE: Episode 9 – Ida Paluch Kersz

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[Andy Miles] Hello, and welcome to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and Studio C Chicago.

The mission of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center is expressed in its founding principle: Remember the Past, Transform the Future. The Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the memories of those who were lost and by teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice, and indifference. The Museum fulfills its mission through the exhibition, preservation, and interpretation of its collections and through education programs and initiatives, like this podcast, that foster the promotion of human rights and the elimination of genocide.

On this episode, we hear the story of Ida Paluch Kersz.

Ida was born in Poland in May 1939, just months before Germany invaded Poland and the Second World War began. The Nazis immediately occupied the city she lived in, creating a ghetto that ultimately saw the deportation of 35,000 Jews to Auschwitz concentration camp. In the summer of 1942, with deportation imminent, her family tragically came apart, but Ida was given a new life, her Jewish identity known only to her new parents, a young Polish Christian couple anxious to start a family. Ida’s twin brother was also saved, but the two would not see each other — or know the other’s fate — for 50 years.

[Ida Paluch Kersz] I got this Chicago Tribune and there was this picture of this young man and I also have a picture of my grandparents, and when I looked at him and I looked at my grandfather, you know, I saw him in his face. And I said, I have to find out more about him. And the lady who interviewed him in Warsaw, I found her and I talked to her, and she said, “Ida, he does not have any memory.” I say, “Give me his phone number.” And I called Poland and one of his sons answered and I told him, “I want to speak to your father.” He said, “He’s not here.” I say, “Well, when your father comes, tell him to call me because I think he may be my twin brother.”

[Andy Miles] Ida Paluch Kersz arrived in Chicago in 1963, having spent the previous six years in Israel, where she had married and gave birth to her daughter, Esther. In Chicago she found work in a microphone factory and later owned a dry-cleaning and alteration business, eventually selling the business, divorcing her husband, and moving with her daughter to Skokie. She remarried in 1976. A few years later, she made a visit to the newly opened Holocaust Museum in Skokie, where she became a volunteer and speaker, contributing countless hours sharing the story of her survival with thousands of students and visitors to the museum. She currently serves on the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center’s Board of Directors and lives in Winnetka, Illinois. In 2019, her memoir, Unveiled Memories, was published.

When Ida was born in May of 1939, the second of twins, her arrival was unexpected.

[Ida Paluch Kersz] They didn’t even know there were twins. They thought one child.

We spoke over Zoom.

AM: When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, your father volunteered for the Polish army?

IP: Yes. He believed in Poland. He was a Bundist. You know, that was the organization who thought they were going to integrate Jews and have the same rights as Polish people. So that’s why he volunteered. And my mother was left with three children. I don’t know how she made a living then without husband’s support. I think the rest of the family was taking care of her, the sisters.

AM: And where did your father end up when he went into the army?

IP: That was very short, you know. The Germans invaded Poland and won the war very quickly, in a few weeks. And my father ended up somewhere by the Russian border. The Polish army ended up running away toward Russia. And at the border, the Russians were already aware what’s happening, you know, what the Germans were doing to the Jews, and they told the Jewish people, get away from Poland; come to Russia. And my father, with other people, they went over the border because they invited them. And he ended up in Russia and the Russian government sent those people in different locations because they needed working people. So my father ended up in Uzbekistan and he worked there in coal mine and he was a tailor, so sometimes he was doing tailor work for the very important, you know, generals and whatever; they wanted to have regular suits.

AM: So you were taken to the ghetto. The Gestapo put people in groups and went to the mothers and took their children away. And your family — you, your mother, older sister and twin brother — were put in a selection line to be taken away and killed.

IP: Yes, and when they came to my mother, you know, and she saw what’s happening, you know, she became aware of it and she could not separate from her children. I understand it was like already two days that they were standing there and waiting, and everybody was, you know, out of their minds, what’s happening, because they knew this is not normal behavior, this separation. And my mother started to run across, you know, the place and into the building and we followed her. What else could we do? And then she opened the door of this building and I know she went to the left. I don’t know why I remember that. Now I know she was looking for a window. You know, and finally she went like a few flights up, and as we stood, I saw my mother going out the window and disappearing. And that came to me later, this memory, that I did see my mother laying out, dead body. I remember that.

And then I remember that my aunt, my mother’s sister, she took us into hiding. I don’t remember how it looks, the hiding. The only thing I know that — because of my other aunt who survived told me that we were in hiding in the building in the ghetto. And she told me, my aunt, that I was crying and she put her hand down my mouth and she almost choked me. And since then, I didn’t like my aunt. (Laughs.)

AM: She was doing that in order to keep you quiet?

IP: Quiet because there were many people. You know? So that’s what I know.

AM: The chaos that your mother’s suicide caused really allowed you to make that safe passage with your aunt, and your mother’s death actually ended up saving your life.

IP: I do remember chaos. People running in, you know, directions, probably trying to run away from there.

AM: And in that chaos, that’s when your Aunt Rose swooped in?

IP: Yes. Grabbed us, yeah. I just remember walking with my aunt by the barbwires and this man calling her name, “Rose.” “Rozia” in Polish.

AM: A man named Wilhelm.

IP: Wilhelm Maj, like the month of May. I know that he — my aunt took me over the, you know, fence with barbwires, and he grabbed me and he put on me his jacket and took me to the train station. And then I remember he knock on the door of his wife and she answered the, you know, door and he told her, “Josephine” — “Jozefa” in Polish — “I brought you a Christmas gift.” It was Christmas night. And this woman embraced me, accepted me. She cleaned me up. She, you know, washed me; you know, I was full of lice and whatever. And she told a friend, which I called my Christian godmother, and they took me to church and baptized me, and I became Irena Maj, my new name.

AM: And Wilhelm had a condition for taking you, which was that you would remain with him forever —

IP: Yes.

AM: — that they would raise you as their daughter.

IP: As their child.

AM: Yeah. And you mentioned being baptized and renamed, because at the moment that they took possession of you, your birth identity was something that you obviously needed to conceal.

IP: Yeah. I didn’t know my name is Ida. And the trouble also was that I spoke Yiddish, not Polish. At home we spoke Yiddish and my mother had to hide me so I wouldn’t come out and play with children until I learned Polish and I learned how to pray in Polish.

AM: So not only did you have to learn certain Polish prayers to pass as their Christian daughter, but you had to learn Polish.

IP: Yes. At age almost four, three and a half.

AM: Which luckily is the best age to learn a language, but —

IP: Yeah.

AM: And you’ve described your new parents as being very loving.

IP: Loving. Yes. Spoiling me. I remember even getting a bicycle.

AM: So to earn a living, your father, your new father, took a horse and wagon and went around villages in the town.

IP: He sold tobacco — yeah, sold tobacco, cigarettes, and vodka.

AM: OK. And what happened to him?

IP: Well, the business kind of, you know, was good, so he invited his two cousins to join him, and when they came to a village called Odorz, the Gestapo was waiting for them and they shot all three of them. And I understand the people that were there, they betrayed them for probably some sugar or whatever they got from the Gestapo. And my mother told me that some people told her that as he was running, he was calling my name. He said, “What’s going to happen to Irena?” They thought it’s his wife, Irena, but he worried about me.

AM: So as you say, someone had betrayed them to the Gestapo, and they had ammunition for the underground and the partisans?

IP: Yes. There was ammunition.

AM: So was Wilhelm an active part of the underground or was he just caught up in —

IP: No, he was active. He was a very brave man. If you see his picture, you could tell that he was a very brave man, and very patriotic.

AM: Well, between that work that he was doing and then, you know, as you described him calling your name at the time of his death and the way he had rescued you, you know, he sounds like a great and heroic man.

IP: Person, yeah.

AM: So you were, once again, left with a struggling mother, and she was a pregnant widow.

IP: Yes.

AM: So these were hard times.

IP: Terrible. You cannot imagine how terrible it was. Always cold and always hungry and no place to sleep.

AM: And at this time your mother and you were rolling cigarettes and putting vodka into cleaned-up bottles you’d find on the streets?

IP: Yes. And sometimes the vodka was half vodka, half water. My mother was very inventive, you know. She put wax and then a penny and it looked like it’s real, you know, original bottle.

AM: And there was also a shortage of food and clothing at that time. And Poland is not a country known for its warm weather.

IP: Right. It was terrible. I still have arthritis fingers that are crooked because they were frozen and no shoes, so my mother cut either the whole in the shoe and she used to put paper, you know, to keep warm. And they were wet anyway.

AM: Despite you having been successfully integrated into this family, passing as a blonde, Polish Christian girl, there still was a threat hanging over your mother that she had this Jewish child.

IP: Oh, definitely. Somebody would say something she would be dead. The whole family maybe would be dead.

AM: Because somebody might have been able to recognize you from —

IP: No. They wouldn’t recognize me. I absolutely didn’t look Jewish. I looked Polish.

AM: I meant recognize you from the previous town that you had been in or —

IP: No, no, they wouldn’t.

AM: So I know that at the time you were basically picking potato peels out of the garbage and surviving on that.

IP: Yes. Yeah.

AM: And when you were on the trains, you were sometimes separated.

IP: Yes. That was horrible. You know?

AM: And why did that happen?

IP: Because the train was so full of people, when my mother got out, I didn’t have time because somebody stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me out of the train, you know, the wagon. It was horrible.

AM: And were you ever apprehended?

IP: Yes. The train conductor took me home and somehow my mother managed that somebody will call the station, whatever, in the other town, and eventually they brought me back to her. There were some good people. They were not German. They were Polish.

AM: And at this time, not only were you passing as a Christian, but you weren’t personally aware that you were Jewish.

IP: No. No. I hated Jews.

AM: Yeah. And you were aware of this sort of anti-Jewish feeling that was all around?

IP: Oh, yeah. I participated. I was told that the Jews killed Jesus and they’re terrible people, you know, like devils and they kill Polish children and catch them and, you know, use their blood, kill them, use their blood for their holidays. I heard it all the time. Not from my mother; it was talked — people didn’t have anything to do [but] set in groups and talk about ghosts, talk about Jews constantly, how terrible those Jews are, you know, blame everything on Jews. If you didn’t dress up nicely, “Oh, you have the taste like a Jew.”

AM: And why do you think Wilhelm and Josephine were not antisemitic in that same way?

IP: I think they were real Christians that believed that you have to love your neighbor like you love yourself. They were real, real Christian, not, you know, just for show.

AM: So prior to your Polish father’s death, your mother, Josephine, had been pregnant —

IP: Yeah.

AM: — and when she had her baby you moved in with your in-laws, and your grandpa had taken the death of his son quite hard and it drove him to drink —

IP: Crazy. Crazy, crazy. Vicious. Not only me — everybody. He kicked his wife. He beat us. You know, he ran around. We had to run out. He was so vicious. That’s why we went away, too, from the house, you know, just to be away from him. So the baby was left with the grandparents and we were trouble. We were, you know, looking for bread. There was not enough for everybody. We did it even after the war. What else could we do?

AM: Yeah. And when you were away from the house, you really had to be careful to not attract the attention of the Gestapo because, even though you were passing as a Christian Pole, you were still subject to their whims.

IP: Anybody. Whoever didn’t look, you know, at them straight or whatever, they could do anything. They were powerful, that they’re going to catch my mother and take her on a, you know, truck and take her away for work or whatever. They did it on the street. They’d catch people for work.

AM: And when they did find people without papers and such, they would drag them off the train and shoot them on the spot.

IP: Yes. It was horrible.

AM: And is that something that you witnessed?

IP: Yeah. I witnessed something even worse. I witnessed a massacre that came back to me 30 years later. Yeah. I put it away, and then when I met my brother and we were walking by the fire station, it came back to me, that I was standing there in front of a house inside and waited for my mother, and suddenly I saw everything. I saw the whole scenery.

AM: Is that — are a lot of your memories quite vivid?

IP: Yes. I wish it wasn’t.

AM: Right. Right.

You write in your book that “life in those days was full of dark secrets, dark skies, and dark apartments.”

IP: Yeah, and running to the basement.

AM: Of your grandpa’s house?

IP: Yeah. Yeah, because there were sirens and you had to cover the windows. I think they were afraid of Russians coming.

AM: So the sirens were being sounded for the bombings?

IP: Yeah.

AM: And how often was that happening?

IP: I don’t remember, but quite often, I guess.

AM: When you mentioned the dark secrets in that passage, what are you referring to?

IP: People were whispering around me. You know? They were whispering. I asked something — “No, no, no, children don’t have to know it.” You know? Like I say: “Where is the neighbor? He was here today. Where did he go? He didn’t come back?” They said, “Oh, you don’t have to know it; you know, he went to” whatever. Now I know why he wasn’t there. So because it was a passage to another side of another street, after a while they nail it down because they took it apart and made the ghetto, so I couldn’t go, you know, through this passage anymore. And I remember once, before they locked it, that there were people sitting sad, you know, and now I know they were the Jews. So it comes back sometimes to me.

AM: So you hadn’t really had a sense of the course of the war in terms of who was prevailing. But toward the end of the war you did discover that the Germans were losing and the Russians were coming.

IP: I heard about the Russians.

AM: And one day the Germans just left, taking with them whatever they —

IP: They — (inaudible) — everything. Yeah.

AM: — you know, had absconded with.

IP: It was very quiet, like the city stood in place until another day or two days later we hear this noise, music, and this comes tanks with Russian, with accordions, you know, playing music, and we were so happy. People were happy. I didn’t know why they were happy because of them, but they told me they are liberators. You know, “Now everything will be different,” and there was so much happiness and they were drinking with them, you know. And I don’t know. We were very happy. Everybody was happy. But after awhile, they left; you know, they went toward Germany.

AM: So after the war, a Jewish delegation came to visit and your mother told them that she had sheltered you and was able to use that as sort of leverage to get an apartment?

IP: Yeah. They organized themselves, you know, like a charitable organization to help each other, because they were homeless. So some of them lived in Czestochowa. There were a lot of Jewish people and they came and they say, “I want my apartment.”

AM: But the people who were involved in that effort wanted to make an exchange with you, which was that you would have to learn about your roots.

IP: Yeah, they wanted to send me to Palestine, actually. They didn’t mean to give it back to my mother. They wanted to take me to the train station and send me to Israel — not Israel; Palestine at that time.

AM: And they took you to a Jewish synagogue.

IP: That was scary.

AM: Yeah, for you, having the anti-Jewish sentiment that you had and having heard everything that you had heard, this was the last place you wanted to be.

IP: Yeah. I thought they’re going to murder me and use my blood for matzah.

AM: Yeah, because you believed what you had been told.

IP: Yeah.

AM: And while you were there, you were basically trying to escape.

IP: Yeah, but I couldn’t. Everybody had an eye on me.

AM: Yeah, and then getting back out on the street, that’s when you did actually scream for help.

IP: Yeah, I almost started a pogrom. The whole Poland heard about me. That’s how my aunts discovered me because of that incident.

AM: So the police showed up and you actually ran to your grandfather’s.

IP: Yes. I didn’t go to my mother. Why did she give me, you know, to a place like that?

And now, grandpa knows I’m Jewish. And what does he say? “Well, now I’m going to wait till somebody comes for Irena. You know, the Jews have money. I’m sewing a big pocket for that money,” and started to be a little nicer to me.

AM: So three of your aunts had survived, and as you said, they heard the rumor that a girl, you, had almost caused a pogrom, and basically said, you know, wouldn’t it be something if this was Ida? And they went about to find out if it was you. How did they do that?

IP: They took a train and went to Czestochowa and they knew it could be Ida because my aunt, before she died, she let everybody know that one of the twins, the girl, was given [to] a man in Czestochowa. That was it. So they went to Czestochowa, you know, to look, and they went to the Jewish community and they told them — (laughs) — don’t go to grandpa. But you know, they arranged that they will look at me, you know, from across the street. And the minute they saw me they knew it’s me because I looked like my sister.

AM: So they obviously couldn’t just apprehend you.

IP: No.

AM: They went home and they started to decide what to do about this.

IP: Yeah. And in the meantime, my father shows up. He came back from Russia because, you know, anybody who had Polish citizenship could come back.

AM: And he got in touch with your aunts?

IP: Yeah, because it was the same town where we all lived.

AM: So he then went to the town and made arrangements to go to your grandfather’s house.

IP: Before that, my father wasn’t that anxious to go to find me. I have to tell you: He did not — he waited and waited; finally, my aunt’s told him, “Leon, if you don’t take her, we take her.”

AM: And why was he not anxious?

IP: He didn’t want to have children.

AM: Did he not want the financial burden or —

IP: No, he liked to be a bachelor.

AM: OK. But he was eventually cajoled into making the trip.

IP: Yeah, because he believed what will people say if they find out that he doesn’t want me? It was so important in those days, Jewish people counted on “what people will say” — not what I’m going to feel, just what people will say. That was important.

AM: But for you, this was a complete stranger and you didn’t recognize him.

IP: And a Jew.

AM: Right. So what happened?

IP: Well, eventually he had to go to the Jewish organization, tell them, and when grandpa and my father met and my father showed me a picture and I recognized my mother. I still recognized, you know. So my father knew I’m his daughter. And he told grandpa he wants me back. And grandpa — “Well, the Jews are rich”; he wanted, you know, a certain amount of money, because across the street there was another Jewish child hidden and when the parents pick her up, they gave her a lot of money, so he heard about it, so he wanted the money too. So my father had to collect money from all over and I think he sold my grandfather’s house or something and finally gave him a few hundred, like, dollars, not what he demanded. And the money went very fast toward the vodka.

AM: And while one might assume that this was a happy reunion, it wasn’t a happy reunion at all.

IP: I spit at him. You know what I told him: Too bad Hitler didn’t finish up all the Jews. My poor father. He had to hear it from his daughter. He cried. I screamed. I wanted to jump out the window when he took me to the aunts, to my aunts. I was so petrified. It was horrible. I’m telling you.

AM: I mean, you were depressed and scared?

IP: Abandoned. Abandoned by God. I was in shock. I was in complete shock.

AM: And what did you father plan to do with you?

IP: He didn’t have a place to take me so he put me in the orphanage, lucky in the Jewish orphanage — (laughs) — where I had food.

AM: And in the orphanage you were basically part of a group of lost little souls.

IP: Like me. We all planned, you know, to run away and go back to our Polish parents, because some of the children were given away from the Polish parents who couldn’t keep them anymore so they sent them. But they tried to tell us, you know, about some holidays, Jewish holidays. I didn’t understand it. You know, it was like a fairy tale because they prepared the children for Israel.

But not for long I was there because my father came back after he got married, 1, 2, 3, you know, with another woman from Auschwitz. It was horrible. She didn’t want me either, you know. She lost her children and she was jealous that I was alive, not her children. She was very miserable. She hid food from me. She was a very, very terrible — I felt like Cinderella.

AM: And during that time, I assume that you were, you know, longing for your Polish mother and your little sister and grandmother.

IP: Yeah. I wanted to see them, yeah.

AM: And were you able to start seeing them again?

IP: Later. Later. Grandpa discovered me. You know how he discovered me? Because my father took a picture of me when he took me out from grandpa and there was a nice picture and the photographer put it in the window. And when grandpa was walking, you know, through Sosnowiec, hoping he would meet us, he saw the picture. So he asked the photographer, do you know where the people are of this child? And he said all the Jews are in Wrocław. So he went to Wrocław. And he was smart. He went to the Jewish school to look for me. And that’s where I was. And when I saw him — my goodness, the devil is here, you know. So I went to the teachers and explained to them and they said, he’s not going to go with you, you know. They ordered two taxis, one for me with the teacher and one for him to take to my father’s home. And he started to beg my father forgiveness and whatever, that my sister crying for me and, you know, my mother, and, you know, he’s not going to drink anymore, yeah, you know, that I come, you know. So eventually, my stepmother took me for a holiday there, you know, and the first thing I did out of the train station, I said, you go to grandma and grandpa and I’m going to my mother, my sister. Since then, we saw each other on vacations.

AM: And the loving warmth of your mother was a stark contrast to what you were getting from your biological father and his wife.

IP: Well, it took me a long time to believe he’s my father, you know. And he sent me to a Jewish school, and on the way I went to the church, you know, to pray. And eventually over there there were some nice kids; they were Zionists and they told me about Israel, you know, about what happened; I heard stories, and I started to open up my eyes, you know, because I got older and I understood that I am Jewish, and wanted to go to Israel! You know, after the war, the government allowed to have Hebrew school and a Jewish school, just to show the world how open-minded they are, but then they closed the Hebrew school and all the kids joined the Jewish school. And I became very friendly with this girl that was in Hebrew school, until today, and she kind of told me all about it, you know, about, you know, the Jewish religion — not that I understood it much. Until today, I’m not religious. I’m just, you know, conservative, believe in holidays and tradition. So that’s what happened.

AM: I do want to talk a little more about the family dynamic. You have a quote in the book where you say, “Often I questioned my reality in the hands of a hateful stepmother and a weak father who did not protect me.” What were some of the ways that he was failing to protect you?

IP: If she said something wrong about me, he was quiet. There were neighbors who came and stood for me and he did nothing.

AM: So eventually, you and your dad and his wife were able to migrate to Israel, and arriving there, you talk in your book about forming an instant bond with the nation and people of Israel. You say: “I began to feel a love and a bond with the Jewish land. Exhilarated and with great pride, tears of joy flowed when I realized that this was my homeland. I had come home.”

IP: Yes. Even right on the boat when I look around, it’s so bright, sunshine, people smiling, nobody walking around like in Poland, you know, looking for food, or, you know, a line to buy something. People were stopping me on the street, “Oh, you cute blonde child”; you know, they were so impressed. And they all thought, are you from Russia? (Laughs.) “No, I’m from Poland.” They say: “From now on, you learn Hebrew. Don’t speak Yiddish.” You know, I never wanted to speak Yiddish, but when I came to Israel, that was the only language I could, you know, communicate, but then I went to a kibbutz and I learned Hebrew.

AM: Yeah, I mean, the contrast with Israel and where it’s located in the world and the kind of climate that it has to a very gray and often cold Poland must have been, you know, very eye-opening for you.

IP: And the people. The people are so nice. When I came to kibbutz and they put me to work and, you know, I already have a headache and bloody nose and they told me, sit by the tree in the shade. I say, “Yeah, yeah, I will; after that, I’ll work.” And the guy said, you know, after work: “My child, go home, rest,” and they never put me in the field work.

AM: While you were in Israel, and you were about 18 years old by then, it became apparent to you quite quickly, I think, that, you know, everyone seemed to be still looking for lost family from the war.

IP: Everywhere. I go on the bus and they ask me, “Where are you from?” “What’s your name?” Yes. All the time.

AM: And you basically heard of reunions happening every day.

IP: Yeah, one girl in the kibbutz found her mother because people say, “Oh, there is the one woman looks like you and you look like her,” and, you know, she was actually from my school and she found the mother. And then another lady — that wasn’t that good because she walked down the street and she found her first husband. She was already married to another one because, you know, she didn’t know her husband survived and went to Israel. So there were cases like that.

AM: So you did find a job —

IP: Yeah.

AM: — and you eventually stayed with your cousin who had a camera —

IP: Yes.

AM: And that led you to meet your future husband, a photographer?

IP: Yeah. Well, he was divorced with a son and we started to talk and he asked me, you know, if I would marry him, and I thought, oh, he has a son, I’m going to be such a good stepmother.

AM: And you were still, like, in your late teens and he was a bit older, right?

IP: (Laughs.) Fourteen years older. And the son was with his sister-in-law. The sister-in-law said, “I’m not going to give up a nine-year-old child to an eighteen-year-old,” you know, so he stayed with my sister-in-law.

AM: And you had your daughter, Esther, in 1959?

IP: Yeah.

AM: And that was while you were still in Israel.

IP: Oh, yeah, six years.

AM: But at the time, during those six years, what was your intent? Did you plan to stay there or were you thinking to move to the United States?

IP: I absolutely didn’t want to move to United States. The problem was that my husband and his brother had a photo studio, and in those times people started to buy cameras and do their own, you know, pictures. You know the cameras — Polaroid, and our business went down and it couldn’t support two families. So eventually, somebody — one of his family went to the American embassy and signed up because he, too, was looking for work and my husband said, “Why don’t you bring us an application too?” You know? And a year later, the embassy calls us and because of our situation, he decided — he decided; I didn’t want to go, but, you know — so we came to the United States.

AM: And you had in aunt in Chicago?

IP: Yeah, because my aunt was here.

AM: And did you speak a word of English?

IP: None. But I met good people that helped me.

AM: So here you were, living in Chicago, learning English —

IP: Working a factory.

AM: And you met a woman, Mrs. Davis.

IP: Yes. Walking on Howard Street and she took in my daughter. And she introduced me to some very nice people, the Surlin family, and they had a daughter the age of my daughter and they became good friends until today. They were the best neighbors.

AM: And they basically were able to show you how to become American?

IP: Yes. They took us to McDonald’s. (Laughs.)

AM: So when did you move to Skokie?

IP: I moved to Skokie in 1972 or 3. I had a business. I opened a dry-cleaning store with alteration in Chicago by Morse Avenue. It was such a Jewish neighborhood, and then it changed. Then I sold my business and went into computers — back to computers. That’s when I sold the business and came to Skokie.

AM: And is that when you had divorced?

IP: Yes.

AM: So you decided to move to Skokie as a single mother.

IP: Yeah, with my daughter, yeah.

AM: In 1992, you went to New York City for a conference of hidden children of the Holocaust, and that turned out to be a real watershed experience for you.

IP: Eye-opening, yeah. Yeah. Well, everybody brought some pictures, some documents. It was chaos there, you know, especially when the press found out about it; there were people with cameras and whatever. And I had this picture, you know, the miracle picture. And I put it on. Nobody recognized anybody, but some people were lucky; they did. And suddenly I heard people speaking Polish, so I joined a group that spoke Polish and they told us that now, after fifty-something years, their Polish parents tell them you are not my child; you are Jewish, and that’s a big shock. And they say almost every week, every day somebody comes with the same story and they don’t know who they are. And when I heard that, I say, this is the place where I have to go and find my brother and my sister. I didn’t know, you know, that she’s not here.

So, you know, it took me time and before I went, I got this Chicago Tribune — you saw that Chicago Tribune — and there was this picture of this young man and I also have a picture of my grandparents, and when I looked at him and I looked at my grandfather, you know, I saw him in his face. And then he wrote something that he has no memory but when he came from the orphanage, he had the people who took him from the orphanage. They had a little tag that said that he’s Tomcio. Tomcio. And he looks like, you know, my family and then he has this “Tomcio.” And I said, I have to find out more about him. And the lady who interviewed him in Warsaw, I found her and I talked to her, and she said, “Ida, he does not have any memory.”

I say, “Give me his phone number.” And I called Poland and one of his sons answered and I told him, “I want to speak to your father.”

He said, “He’s not here.”

I say, “Well, when your father comes, tell him to call me because I think he may be my twin brother.” Like, shock there. Well, and then, you know, later I get a phone call and man’s voice, you know, answers and he said, “You left a message with my son; you think you are my twin sister. When were you born?”

So I said, “May 3rd, 1939.”

He said, “For sure you’re not my sister. I was born,” you know, some other date, whatever.

I say, “How do you know for sure you were born 19-whatever?”

He said, “Because my Christian birth certificate says so.”

So I say, so is mine. You know?

He said, “Well, why don’t you come to Poland? I’ll, you know, help you to look for your brother.”

Well, before he hang up, I said, “Do you have any memory?”

He said no.

So I say, “Why don’t you send me a picture from your youngest age?” you know, because we have this picture where we sit on our mother lap. And a few weeks later he does send me pictures. And when I looked at the picture, his little son looks like me in the picture. And then he wrote, “I told you I don’t remember anything, but I remember I was always praying, ‘God help mommy, God help daddy, and God help Mr. Leon.’”

So I said, “Do you know who is Mr. Leon?” He said no. I said, “You were always praying for our father. He’s Leon.” So we started to cry, and you know, we know that we are the lost twins.

And then I went to Poland and —

AM: Before you talk about that — in this time that all of this was developing and you were basically putting these clues together and having these conversations, what was your state of mind during that time? Were you just very excited? Nervous?

IP: All of it. (Laughs.) All of it. And very anxious to meet him, you know, in person.

AM: Yeah.

IP: When we met, I started a sentence, he finishes the sentence, you know. I like this, he does too. We order the same things. We go, you know, so many things together that it’s unbelievable. Yeah.

AM: And I know that when you went to Poland, this was known to the press, to the local media.

IP: Because he said so. He called the Polish television and I called the Israeli television, when I found out, and they all met us at the airport. And then the whole world found out about it.

AM: Yeah. And you remember that moment of reunion vividly?

IP: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. He told me he’s going to faint, so I had to take him to a chair.

AM: And what about you?

IP: Well, I was the strong one. Of course, we cried. Yeah, we cried.

AM: Yeah. And you proceeded from there. I know you stayed for about a month.

IP: Yeah. He told me: “What? You came for two weeks? After 53 years?” So I stayed there and they had another gathering of hidden children, and the Polish camera continue and they made the documentary, which we didn’t like because it was antisemitic.

AM: And for his family, this was their discovery that —

IP: He’s really Jewish.

AM: Yeah. Some of them were not happy about that.

IP: No. They said don’t tell anybody, you know, that you are Jewish. One of his sons in school, they asked him, are you Jewish? He said: “No, my father is Jewish. I’m not Jewish.”

AM: Yeah. And while you’re there and you’re there, as you mentioned, for a month, the media is still following you around.

IP: Yeah, we have the documentary, and took us to a concentration camp.

AM: And during the war, that was an experience that you were spared of, but your brother actually had been at Majdanek. What happened to him there?

IP: He doesn’t know exactly what. He doesn’t have much memory. But when I met him and he went to the doctor, she was Jewish, she took me away so he won’t hear it, and she told me, “You know, your brother was, you know, medically experimented.” And then — because he had marks, he had marks, and his behavior, and he said that he had something in his leg, like a piece of steel; they removed it. And you know, they couldn’t put a number on him because he was a child — he was too small, so they put it on the leg, the number. And the Polish stepparents, they were embarrassed that he was Jewish so they removed it.

AM: And he, too, was liberated by the Russians, but they found him in a toilet at Majdanek.

IP: Yeah, he was thrown in the toilet, yeah.

AM: And they took him to the hospital, so they basically saved his life.

IP: They were good to him, yes.

AM: As you said earlier, Ida, you brought your Polish mother to the U.S. a couple of times. And when she came and visited Skokie, it was quite an eye-opening experience for her, seeing the abundance of America in contrast to Communist Poland.

IP: Yeah.

AM: And you found out in that visit that she had had her husband, your Polish father, return to the ghetto for your brother and sister.

IP: Yeah. When she found out that I have siblings, then she told him “go! Go bring them.” And there was nobody there anymore.

AM: So when you were in Skokie, you went to that Holocaust museum and they asked you to volunteer.

IP: Yeah.

AM: But at that time, from my understanding of what you wrote in your book, you didn’t really think of yourself as a Holocaust survivor.

IP: No.

AM: It was they who identified you as one.

IP: Yeah. Well, they said — first of all, they said children are not Holocaust survivors; they didn’t remember; you know, they didn’t suffer. And finally, somebody told me: “Yeah, you did suffer; you told us. You are a Holocaust survivor.” You know? And then I knew I am a Holocaust survivor, and then I met other Holocaust survivors and they were gathering. We have an organization so huge now, you know, of federation of hidden children and first generation, second generation, third generation. It’s very big.

AM: But you did start to speak publicly about your experience.

IP: Only in the Holocaust museum.

AM: OK. And what was that like? Because at that time in your life, were you reconstructing a lot of these memories?

IP: Yeah, it was very hard to tell. My mouth got dry. You know? Words wouldn’t come. And sometimes I started to cry, you know, and I learned to, you know, to speak; now I’m a good speaker.

AM: But is it still hard?

IP: Very hard. The nightmares don’t go away.

AM: And it was during the ’80s that you and other survivors started to come out of “hiding” almost.

IP: Yeah. I talked to thousands and thousands already, to people. Yeah.

AM: And in that, you say, you found a purpose.

IP: Yeah, I miss it not being there. I miss it very much because I know that I leave a lot of impression and I get letters from students and they say that I am, you know, a hero to them, which I am not. My Polish mother is the hero. And they hope that I will find my sister. You know, the most lovely, lovely letters I get from the students. It makes my heart, you know, so satisfied.

AM: And in becoming a speaker at the museum, you’re an educator, but during that time in the ’80s, you started to educate yourself about what had happened —

IP: I learned the history of the Jews. I learned the — I didn’t know anything in Poland about Jews, the history of Jews. Nothing. I learned here. I took books and learned from the beginning, you know, history of the Jews.

AM: So the last thing I want to touch on is something that I found to be pretty profound in your book, which is that you write that you learned to “survive as a Catholic, a Jew, a Communist child, a Zionist, and an American.”

IP: Right. I’m adaptable. (Laughs.)

AM: And you said earlier that your Polish mother is your hero.

IP: And my angel. Yep, she’s my real angel. And I tell you something: I don’t know why but I sometimes come across people that I think they are angels, that they help me really in very important situations. Not many but I don’t know why it happened to me. It’s like somebody watches over me, because otherwise I would be dead. And that’s why I am as I am because she was the example to me. She was the hero. She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t afraid to speak up.


You’ve been listening to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Chicago’s Studio C. If you’d like to learn more about this episode and the series in general, please visit studiocchicago.com/holocaust, or ilholocaustmuseum.org. And please share this podcast, rate it, and subscribe.  

I’m Andy Miles and I’d like to thank executive producers Marcy Larson and Amanda Friedeman for their assistance and guidance in bringing this podcast to fruition, Ida Paluch Kersz for her time and candor, and I’d like to thank you for listening

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Photo credits: David Seide

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