In these tales, the truth and authenticity are to be found in the details that show these people were not just statistics. They were ordinary folk leading unassuming lives when the terror of the Holocaust descended upon them.

Written by Susan de la Fuente
Contact info: sdlfsusan at yahoo dot com

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Against All Odds

David Grabinski (later Grabin), and Bella Szulman, z"l, each spent the war years in a series of concentration camps. Remarkably, they survived extreme cruelty and debilitating conditions without bitterness or loss of faith, and went on to lead full and productive lives in America. David, the youngest of seven children, grew up in a small, warm community in Schlesin, a rural town in western Poland near the German border, while Bella came from Lublin in eastern Poland. Her father was connected with the Lubliner yeshiva.

David and Bella were introduced by a mutual friend after liberation by the Russian army in Theresienstadt. Upon recovering a semblance of health, the survivors returned to their hometowns to see if any family members had remained alive. David's entire family had been killed by the Nazis, except for his eldest brother who had lost his wife and children. Bella, who had been separated from her parents and two younger brothers since 1939, learned that none had survived, and she left Poland for Germany.

Fate decreed that their paths would cross again soon. Bella was working with the sick in Landsberg, Germany, in a large camp for displaced persons that housed Jewish survivors from September 1945 and on. Landsberg served as a rehabilitation center or "decompression chamber" for these sufferers.

One afternoon, a sudden impulse compelled Bella to leave work early. Fortuitously, David and his brother were just arriving in the area to seek employment. While they were walking their bicycles up the steep hill, David saw Bella across the street. This chance meeting enabled him to renew an acquaintance that endured and led to a marriage of some 40 years. Bella was 19 when they married in Landsberg in November 1946.

At the time of her deportation, 12-year-old Bella pretended to be older in order to work and stay alive in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and other death camps. Many times during selections, she would switch lines or groups instinctively, sometimes to stay near a friend, somehow shunting herself away from the jaws of death. With remarkable acumen and inventiveness,she occasionally secured food supplies. At times, when they were in transit, waiting alongside the railway tracks, she would spy a potato field. She scrounged some matches and furtively cooked a few hastily-dug potatoes.

During her internment in the Plaszow slave labor camp near Krakow, she worked briefly as housekeeper to the sadistic commandant Amon Goeth (known to many from Schindler's List). Goeth would stand on his balcony and pick off with his rifle any prisoners who were working too slowly. Bella's hours of work were from early morning till late at night. Once or twice when the household slept, she took a sharp instrument and punched holes in the food.

When Goeth barked out gruffly at breakfast time, "Why are there holes in the food? What's happened here?" Bella feigned surprise and said, wide-eyed, "Oh, dear, maybe a mouse got into the pantry!"When Goeth told her to throw out the food, and bring more, she deftly packed the food up to share later with other starving inmates. Her Auschwitz number was A-18009, which added up to 18 (representing chai or life). She took this as a sign that she was destined to live through the war and in despairing moments, it helped sustain her.

David was 19 when the war began. The son of grain dealers, he had helped in the business since age 14, and was used to hard physical work. Though only five feet three inches tall, he was broad and strong. Even as a small child of eight or nine, he had shown remarkable resolution, stopping the family seder when a stray grain drifted from the rafters into his plate of soup. He ran to the rabbi and though the latter sought extenuating circumstances, David stood by every detail of his story.

Later on, a determination to persevere even when his strength ebbed from starvation helped him survive and emerge from chaos and cruelty with his priorities intact. After his son's birth, David obtained a pigeon and cycled all the way to an adjacent town to have it slaughtered properly.

In January 1941, David agonizingly parted from his family in the hopes of staying alive. Jewish families were rounded up from their crowded billets with Polish farmers as unpaid laborers. They were crammed into cattle cars and sent to Lodz. Then they were herded into an empty factory and ordered to turn over their valuables. David's uncle was beaten to death for his property. As part of a labor detail, David and three others had to clear away the bodies and clean up. They were then waved back towards the main group. The four approached the guards, explaining that they belonged to a different group. To his sorrow, David was unable to say goodbye to his family, who went eastward to their deaths in Treblinka.

During the coming years, David experienced 17 different camps, always trying to stay alive by performing the grueling physical labor he was assigned. The weak were shot dead - a kleinigkeit, or small thing, for their captors. Once, to avoid a mass grave work assignment (none returned alive from those harrowing expeditions to the forest) - he and a friend scaled a sheer brick wall, one story high. The support of a few close friends from his hometown helped him survive, as they were shuttled around Eastern and Western Poland, Latvia, and Germany. Another comfort were a few photos of happier times that he kept throughout the war.

At the end of 1944, Grabin was sent to Buchenwald where he was further traumatized by the flames leaping from the crematoria and the rank odor of burning bodies. During the Allied bombings, the Nazis intensified their cruelty to the Jews, as if their hapless victims were to blame. In April 1945, he had a brief interlude in the infirmary collapsing from weakness and malnutrition. His friend dragged him out in dead of night, saying the camp was being evacuated - just in the nick of time. The next day, the Gestapo blew up the infirmary and its patients.

According to Yad Vashem, 250,000 concentration camp prisoners died during the death marches conducted by the Nazis at the end of the war. It is a mystery how Grabin survived the next 3-and-a-half weeks, marching to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. He was in pitiful condition, bullets whizzed by freely, and food and water were not supplied. He would sitbeside a tree if there was a rest stop, not having the strength to pull himself up unaided. In a visual history interview by the Spielberg Foundation, he describes climbing over piles of dead people every morning. He was so broken that every night and morning he prayed to G-d to end his life, though not via a bullet.

"But G-d didn't want to take me," he continued wonderingly," He told me, 'Suffer, suffer, and you will survive.'"

Both David and Bella were destined to survive and later, their close partnership enabled them to enjoy happier times. Though he suffered from nightmares, this did not impact on their family life, which was warm and loving. Their son Irving (Yitzhak Hanina) was born in Germany, and their daughter Minnie (Haya Michla) a year after their arrival in America in 1949. (Later they would have 10 grandchildren, all living now in Eretz Yisrael).

They settled in Richmond, Virginia, where they became pillars of a small community of 50 religious families. Though at first David worked in a commercial bakery, he was happy to become manager of the kosher butcher store. That was a G-d send from the religious point of view. Though it was painful for the Grabins to talk of the past, they spoke of their Holocaust experiences to family and friends, and David also addressed Jewish Day School students on the topic.

Bella, infinitely grateful for the blessing of having her own family, also found time to assist her husband in the business. She was loved for her kindness and hospitality, always supplying kosher meals to travelers and to the sick and lonely. Her charitable involvement was outstanding, her purse open for all causes. Though their means were modest, she gave freely and often, anonymously. She died at age 59 after a long illness - the one hardship she could not overcome - but her personality left a lasting imprint on all who knew her.

David remarried some years later, continuing to lead a full and active life in Charleston, South Carolina. He died recently at a ripe old age, and is sorely missed by his community.

His children speak of their late parents with great pride, aware that their legacy of kindness and charity must be transmitted onwards.

First published in The Jewish Press (Link)