Their childhoods were forged in terror, surrounded by death. They survived against the odds, thanks to courage, luck, and guile.
But survive they did, and their adult lives are marked by successful careers, loving families and contribution to their communities. They are the “Hidden Children of the Holocaust.”
“Here we are, we overcame all those hardships, we are proof that Hitler didn’t win,” said Rosa Sirota of Fair Lawn, who is coordinating an art and book exhibit April 5 to May 31 at the Maurice M. Pine Library in Fair Lawn. The 16 artists and writers scheduled to participate are members of the Hidden Children of Bergen County.
The show opens with a reception on Sunday, April 5, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. The exhibit can be seen during library hours. Admission is free.
The Bergen group is a chapter of the worldwide group of survivors, the Hidden Children Foundation, formed in 1991, said Sirota. Its initial gathering in New York City drew 1,500 survivors, and another 400 couldn’t be accommodated because of lack of room.
Each one has a different story, Sirota said. And their stories are the stuff of fiction, except that they are true.
|Rose Sirota stands next to her sculpture of her granddaughter, Danielle McDonald, which will be in the show. Photos by Charles Zusman|
Sirota and her mother spent two years living with a Ukrainian peasant woman, pretending to be Christians. “That was the only way to survive,” she said. “We were scared from the moment we woke up until we went to bed.”
“I couldn’t have a friend; my mother was afraid I would say something,” she continued. “Everything represented danger.”
As the Russians advanced, the Germans retreated. She and her mother lay on the floor for hours as bullets whizzed overhead.
They made their way to their native city of Lvov. Her mother remarried, and they traveled west, through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, France, Venezuela, and finally to these shores.
“I am very fortunate,” she said. “Now I have children, I have grandchildren. You never forget, but we were able to establish successful and satisfying lives.”
Evelyn Ripp likely owes her life to an uprising in the Lachva Ghetto, then Poland, now Belarus. She was 11 at the time, when Jews turned on their Nazi tormentors, and she, her father, and little sister fled to the forest. That’s where they lived for two years, on the run with partisan fighters. “We had no hope, no tomorrow,” Ripp said, recalling living on potatoes for two years.
After their rescue by the Soviet army, they learned they had lost the rest of their family, and they were stricken with grief anew. But there was no time to mourn.
Circumstances taught the survivors to adapt, to have initiative – attributes that helped them achieve successful lives and careers.
Going to school at night, Ripp earned a bachelor’s degree and a pair of master’s degrees and went on to teach English and Russian.
“We brought something positive here. We didn’t just come to take,” she said.
Similarly, Sirota holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees and taught Spanish and computer applications. She took up sculpture after her retirement.
“Experience taught us we have to rely on ourselves; our motivation comes from within,” she said.
Their experience also taught them compassion, and many in the group volunteer in their communities.
The Hidden Children do not want to live in the past, but rather to accentuate the positive, Sirota said.
Goldy Hess of Cliffside Park is another participant in the show. She wrote “The Four of Us,” telling of escaping from Germany to Italy, then being held in internment camps and escaping to Switzerland, an ordeal that lasted from when she was 5 till she was 10.
“With all that happened, we shouldn’t be here,” she said. “We were hidden, we were chased, we were scared. In spite of everything we survived, and look what was accomplished.”
“We are artists, writers, doctors. In spite of all adversity we came out of it,” she said. “This is what we want to show.”
Gerda Bikales fled her native Germany in 1939, when she was 8, and an odyssey of fear and hiding followed. Her father had come to the United States earlier, and she and her mother traveled through Belgium, then France, and finally she was spirited into Switzerland.
“We were running, and we didn’t know where we were running to,” she said in a telephone interview.
Ultimately arriving in the United States, Bikales worked her way to a master’s degree, then became a social worker and a lobbyist for public interest groups. She and her husband have two children and five grandchildren and live in Livingston.
Her book, “Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” recounts her experience on the run.
“In some ways, we’re still hiding,” said Carl Hausman of Teaneck, explaining that the stories of the Hidden Children are not well-known. The retired painting contractor, who turned his attention to sculpture and writing, sees the show as leaving a legacy for future generations.
“We want to leave something behind so people will know,” he said.
Hausman and his family were deported from their home in southern Germany to France when he was 7, where he eventually was hidden on a farm until the war’s end. He was brought to the United States, and when he came of age he was drafted into the army and was sent to Austria as a translator. His return to Europe on the side of the victors was payback of a sort, he said.
His story is told in his book, “Rescued.”
Susan Gold, a college teacher and writer from Englewood, is the author of “The Eyes are the Same.” She was born in Zloczow, Poland, and from age 7 to 9 hid in a bunker under a barn in nearby village.
“All of us who led traumatic lives were able to rise above and be contributors to the world,” she said.
Clemens Loew of Fort Lee is a psychoanalyst by profession and a sculptor and photographer by avocation. He was born in Poland in 1937 and survived with his mother with false identity papers. During the last two years of the war, he hid in a convent outside Warsaw.
One of his works at the show will be a bronze piece showing his father, who died in a concentration camp, behind bars. Loew’s son Shannon modeled for the piece. He doesn’t remember his father, and creating the sculpture allowed him to experience his father for the first time, he said.
“The show is an expression of aliveness and spirituality by people who had been severely traumatized as children, and yet their spirit persevered,” he said.
Roza Jaffe of Teaneck is a designer’s sample maker. She was 7 when the Germans occupied her native Bessarabia and marched their victims to a camp in Ukraine. She was returned to Romania and taken in by a family. Liberated by the Russians, she went to an orphanage in Odessa, and eventually to Warsaw, and then Israel and the United States. She and her husband have one daughter.
Irene Frisch, an author and painter, was born in Drohobycz, Poland. She was able to hide during the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel, where she attended law school and served in the army. She came to the United States in 1960 and lives in Cliffside Park.
Lore Baer is a graphic designer born in Holland, where she was hidden in the countryside during the Holocaust. She has a degree in art therapy, has taught, and has served as an adviser to the Teaneck Council of the Arts. She helped found the Hidden Children Foundation and started the Bergen County chapter with Myra Genn of Tenafly, an author and contributor to “Three Generations Speak.”
Genn’s father was killed by the Nazis when she was 3 and she and her mother survived by being hidden over a barn in a small town in Poland. She is a psychotherapist.
Ed Lessing of Westchester is a painter and graphic designer. Born in Holland, he was in hiding from 1942 to 1945 posing as a Christian farmhand and a member of the Dutch armed resistance. Lessing worked on a kibbutz in Israel before coming to the United States. His wife is also a Hidden Child from Holland.
Sculptor and painter Ephraim Peleg was born in 1936 in Krakow, Poland. He and his brother were cared for during the war years by the family’s former maid and her family. After the war he was taken to Israel, where he eventually studied art. He and his wife had four children. The oldest, Avi, was killed in the 1982 Lebanon war and it was then that Peleg decided to explore Jewish themes in his art. He lives in River Vale.
Artist Sylvia Sherr of Cliffside Park studied the faces on old family photographs, and her work was influenced by those uncles and cousins lost in the war. She came to the United States with her parents and a brother and settled in Milwaukee. She received a degree in art and later taught.
Charles Roman of Teaneck contributed to the book “Holocaust Odysseys: The Jews of St. Martin-Vesubie and Their Flight through France and Italy.” He was born in Vienna, then fled to Switzerland, Luxembourg, and France, where he escaped from a deportation train. He made his way to Italy, where he was liberated in 1944. He came to the United States and served in the Army in Korea, and is retired from his own business.
Painter Ann Shore, of Great Neck, N.Y., is the president of the Hidden Child Foundation. She was born in the small Polish town of Zabno and survived with her mother and sister by hiding for two and a half years in a hayloft above a farmhouse belonging to a widow of a farmer.
She wrote of the foundation, “Our goals are to teach young people the consequences of bigotry and hatred, and to pass on our legacy to future generations.”