My parents, Hania Sternlicht and Avrum Kurz, married on March 21, 1939, after a courtship that began in their teens. Six months later, my mother was pregnant with Moishele and Germany conquered Poland. Germany imposed heavy taxes, confiscated Jewish homes and businesses, and killed Jews for minor offenses, such as not stepping aside for a German officer. My parents, like many other Jews accustomed to state antisemitism, hoped that it would pass.
Without warning, before dawn on July 22, 1942, a Sabbath morning, the Nazis occupied Biecz. They arrested Jewish males between eighteen and thirty-five, including my father, Avrum, and his brother, Shlomo, and took them to Prokocim near Krakow, a Nazi hub two hours away, to work as slave laborers. Out of the 178 men taken to Prokocim, my father, my Uncle Shlomo and only 10 other men survived until liberation.
The older men, the women, including my mother, and children, were left behind but they heard rumors of mass shootings and other atrocities committed in neighboring towns. When the SS returned to Biecz three weeks later, at 5 A.M. on Friday morning, August 14, 1942, the Nazis ordered everyone to gather with a packed bag in the town square. Some of the assembled were stripped naked before they were shot and dumped into a communal pit near the Jewish cemetery. The largest number were exterminated in Belzec — a not well-known extermination camp.
My grandmother Mindl and other members of my family refused to vacate their homes. They did not believe that they were being offered the possibility of “relocation.” Understanding the threat, they hid in attics, closets and basements. When Hania and her sister Idly came to her with their young children, Mindl denied them entry into the attic with the rest of her family. She feared, her grandchildren’s cries would endanger everyone. Biecz Jews, confined to a ghetto in a small area of the town, were easily identified and captured. All the members of my family who remained in Biecz were killed. While her mother’s eviction hurt Hania, it saved her life.
My Mother’s Journey To Becoming a Slave Laborer
Hania and Idyl ran into the forest on the outskirts of town. At night, Hania noticed a cigarette flickering; an SS officer was on the prowl. Hania froze; Idyl did not. Within moments, Hania heard a shot and her sister’s screams. She knew Idyl and her young daughter, Esther, had been killed. Hania prayed, “Ribbono Shel Olam,” Creator of the Universe, “Hoshiana,” “Please Save Us,” and “Al Tira Ra Ki Ata Imadi, “Don’t Fear Evil, God is With Me.” Fortunately, little Moishele did not cry.
By the next morning, August 15th, a Sabbath, Hania arrived on foot at Mr. Kosiba’s farm on the periphery of town. He was a Catholic customer of her parents’ dry goods store, who offered to help her family in return for being “loaned” inventory. Nonetheless, he refused to let Hania into his home, fearful of being killed by the Nazis for hiding a Jew. Hania promised, if discovered, she would claim that she secretly snuck in. To his credit, he relented, housed and fed her. (We honored his family at Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile.) Independently, 13-year-old Ira Goetz also fled to the Kosiba farm. To survive, they had to escape. Fortunately, Hania had money to pay for train tickets, which Mr. Kosiba’s son purchased for her
Hours later, Hania and Ira attempted to follow the stream that snaked toward the Lubicz train station. Dressed as a Polish peasant, her hair in a babushka, wrapped in a shawl, she carried Moishele, her two-and-a-half-year old son, in a sling, while Ira helped her with her belongings. They lost their way; flooding from a severe summer storm obscured the path. Dismayed that they had missed the midnight train, soaked and exhausted, they reluctantly returned to Mr. Kosiba’s farm. Fortunately, he let them dry out and rest for a few hours in his home. The storm likely saved their lives. Waiting to kill Jews trying to escape, that evening, SS troops patrolled the station all night.
Early Sunday morning, August 16th, in broad daylight, Hania and Ira set out again. By disguising themselves as country folks and walking into town separately, they succeeded in boarding the train to Krakow, the major city near Avrum’s work camp, which Hania knew well from business trips and family visits. Hania hoped to stay with her extended family in the Krakow ghetto, but without papers, she could not. A Biecz acquaintance helped her rent a room near Plaszow, Avrum’s work camp. After women were admitted to what had been an all-male camp, Hania voluntarily became a slave laborer.With black hair, dark brown eyes, a long pointy nose, and a circumcised son, she could not pass as an Aryan. Hence, she felt safer inside the camp, with her husband and child, than living outside, where Nazis and Poles hunted Jews.
Life in Slave Labor Camps
With her job peeling potatoes, Hania was able to keep Moishele by her side and had access to extra food. Later, assigned to factory work, she was forced to leave her toddler alone all day in the barracks, with a few slices of bread and some onions. She described him as a beautiful, dark-haired, dark-eyed, old soul, who seldom cried. A German officer in charge of the area played with him, fed him and kept his existence a secret. Very grateful to the officer, Hania offered him a diamond earring. It’s amazing she had it, and even more amazing that he refused to take it and said, “Keep it, you’ll need it to take care of your baby.” My father’s key to survival: while he was short and slight and older than many slave laborers, he was hard-working, muscular and strong from years hauling building supplies in his family’s retail business.
Hania took risks to stay alive. From her job sorting fabrics in camp, she secreted away some clothing and later bartered it. Stealing from the Germans was risky, as was leaving camp to trade and buy extra rations. But Ira, the boy she had helped escape, told me that he protected her when she would sneak back into camp. Ira was a Gestapo pet because he was blonde, blue-eyed and Aryan looking. He diverted the guards from shooting Hania at the gate and helped her bring food back into camp for family and friends.
Hania described “selections,” a euphemism for killing the sick and weak, as terrifying. They occurred randomly but always before a relocation. In the summer of 1943, my mother was transferred from Prokocim-Płaszów to Jerozolimska, a few miles away. Carrying Moishele in full view of an officer, neither she nor Moishele were shot. She felt she had cheated death.
Several months later, on November 14, 1943, another selection occurred. To mask their brutality as the Soviet army approached, the Nazis planned to burn Jerozolimska and transfer those able to work. In that lineup, a kapo, a Jewish policeman, grabbed Moishele out of Hania’s arms and shoved her to the ground. When she stood up, her son was gone — and she never saw him again. She had kept him alive, under harrowing conditions, for fifteen months in slave labor camps. As she later recounted, she thought about him and mourned his death every day of her long life. But the kapo saved her, even though during most selections, mothers routinely were killed along with their children.
Hania and Avrum were next taken with 2,500 other laborers to Skarżysko-Kamienna, the most gruesome and oppressive of all the five camps in which my parents toiled. It was run by a private German company, HASAG, which used slave labor to produce ammunition for the army. The day began and ended with a lineup. Violent SS men, guards and kapos forced the Jews to stand, sometimes for hours, in heat, cold, rain or snow, for a head count, to check that no one had escaped. After 12-14 hour shifts, they were given watery vegetable soup and two pieces of dry bread. Hania and Avrum and other Bietchers were fortunate that Ira generously shared the food he stole from the SS kitchen where he worked. Otherwise, they would have died, like many slave laborers. Hania and Avrum were assigned to Section C, where poisonous picric acid was used to manufacture explosives. It turned Hania’s and Avrum’s skin yellow and their hair red. More prisoners collapsed, starved and died in Section C than in either Sections A or B. Avram recounted that the air reeked of decaying dead bodies, stored under the barracks until the Germans held a mass burial and burning.
It took my mother five months before she realized she was pregnant again. The familiar markers of pregnancy – loss of her period, weight gain, tiredness and hunger were irrelevant. She had lost her period years earlier, was constantly tired, hungry and her belly was flat. By her fifth month, my activity in her womb reminded her of her pregnancy with Moishele. Her friend, who could not believe she was pregnant said, “My belly is larger than yours”.
Hania sent a message to Avrum through the camp grapevine: “You have a reason to live.” My father understood. But his brother, Shlomo, was furious that my father had endangered my mother with his recklessness. While Hania claimed her pregnancy gave her hope, it also made her fearful and much more vulnerable to being killed.
Indeed, how did she get pregnant? Yes, couples had sexual relations infrequently, given the harsh conditions and that women and men slept in separate barracks. My mother was on a starvation diet, had stopped menstruating years earlier, was poisoned from picric acid, and had recently recovered from a bout of typhus. A story in the Times of Israel of May 5, 2021, recounted the stories of children born in concentration camps; all of the mothers were already pregnant when they arrived in the camps.
For many years, I was so overwhelmed and ashamed of my birth story that I rarely spoke of it. To celebrate my fiftieth birthday, I planned to chant the Haftorah at Passover morning services on April 15, 1995 at my recently discovered supportive and loving community, B’nai Jeshurun. It was particularly meaningful that my family’s liberation coincided with the Jewish people’s deliverance from slavery to freedom. I wanted to talk about my birth and my son Steve suggested I interview my parents.
Over the years, my mother shared recollections, but recalled fewer details than my father. She blamed typhus for her memory lapses, but she also preferred to forget. My father liked to dwell on the past, but out of anxiety, I closed my heart and ears and forgot most of what he said. And I was reluctant to ask my father about my conception. I remembered his discomfort watching sexy film scenes around me.
When I asked him about my conception, my father laughed and said, “You’re a big girl now.” Then he shared something about the day before he and Hania were scheduled to be separated and sent to different camps (Avrum to Schlieben, the men’s division of Buchenwald, and Hania to Leipzig-Shoenfeld, the women’s division of Buchenwald). On July 29, 1944, work was at a standstill because the camp was being dismantled and burnt to the ground. He and my mother, for the first time in over a year, made passionate love behind some shrubbery. My parents had married for love five years earlier, but feared they might never see each other again.
My Mother’s Pregnancy
The rumor of pregnant women in Hania’s Leipzig-Schoenfeld camp infuriated the guards, as it represented hope for a Jewish future. On a cold January morning, they forced 6,000 women to stand, shivering in thin, striped cotton uniforms until the pregnant women identified themselves (or were identified by others). My mother stepped forward first. (Two other women were also pregnant.) A female Ukrainian guard, working in the camp, yelled, “You are out on the next transport,” which was code for an appointment with death. But by January 1945, the Nazis were encircled by the American and Soviet armies and had lost control of their transit system.
But, why did the Nazis not shoot Hania? The Nazis deflected resources from self-defense to killing straggling and struggling Jews, even as the Nazis escaped the approaching armies. My mother’s luck held up yet again. She fell asleep at her job examining munitions and confessed to a German supervisor that she was pregnant and exhausted, yet he simply asked her to stop work when she could no longer remain awake.
Shortly before my birth, the Nazis ordered a forced march out of the camp. My mother believed that if she stayed behind in the infirmary, she would be killed by a time bomb, a Nazi practice designed to avoid allowing any Jews to be saved by Allied soldiers. However, too weak to walk, she had no choice but to stay back. My mother’s close friends, Eda Manne and Lucia Feld, before leaving on the forced march, decided to share one loaf of bread so they could give my mother their other loaf since she had no food.
Hania lost touch with Eda and Lucia and did not know whether they survived until, by sheer coincidence, she encountered Lucia, (who was still in touch with Eda), her husband Yulek and their son Seymour in the elevator in our apartment building in Washington Heights, NY. Hania, Eda and Lucia remained close friends for the rest of their lives. Eda and Lucia later recounted that the forced march was particularly brutal and oppressive; many Jews died from exhaustion and German bullets. Staying behind saved Hania’s life.
I was born on Friday, April 13, the day Leipzig-Schoenfeld was evacuated. On her own, at 4 A.M. Hania gave birth and cleaned me with her breast fluid. Hours later, a female Russian doctor, a fellow inmate, used scissors to sever the umbilical cord.
It is a mystery and a miracle how my mother survived on a starvation diet and gave birth to a healthy child. Chubby as a young woman, she had a cushion of fat. But I think my mother’s biggest asset was her strong desire to live. (Even when she suffered from congestive heart failure at nearly 102, she fought to stay alive and enjoyed eating.) She was unusual in maintaining good physical hygiene. She washed herself and her clothes daily in cold water. Consequently, she avoided catching lice and other parasites. By contrast, “Mussulmans,” as they were known in the camps, gave in to despair. They stopped caring, and became the walking dead.
My mother maintained her faith. She believed God protected her for loving and honoring her parents, as commanded in the Ten Commandments. Her charm and isolated acts of kindness by non-Jews also saved her. Most of all, her good luck was central. My mother’s most oft-repeated blessing was “May you have Mazel,” luck in Yiddish. Richard Wiseman, in his book The Luck Factor, wrote, “we label luck that which confounds us about the world. Lucky people pay attention to random things, listen to their intuitions, go with their gut and have the expectations they will be lucky.” That describes my mother.
Until recently, I believed we were rescued by the American Army on April 14 — a day after my birth — when Buchenwald Concentration Camp was liberated. However, I learned from historians at the Leipzig Nazi Forced Labour Memorial Museum that the US army liberated the city of Leipzig and the HASAG Leipzig concentration sub-camp on April 18th. Therefore, my mother survived in the infirmary for 5 days after my birth. The historians noted that two Soviet women doctors, also camp inmates, fed and clothed the sick with the food and clothing they found in the SS pantry. The US army brought my mother, unable to walk, to a US administered hospital in northeast Leipzig, to recover.
Germany killed more than three million Polish Jews. My parents were the only couple to survive the Shoah from Biecz, their Polish village. My mother, deeply grateful and proud, loved to recount my birth story. My father wanted to disavow any Jewish ties after the Holocaust, given the atrocities that he and Hania endured. My mother, however, believed that God saved and chose her. She insisted that Hitler not win, that they keep their legacy alive. They remained observant Jews until their deaths. [PLACE PHOTO OF PHIL BEING SWORN IN]
My parents overcame starvation, shootings and mass exterminations. Their courage, resilience, shrewdness, physical endurance, will to live, and luck continue to inspire me. My father lived till he was 95 and my mother until age 102. They requested “Holocaust survivors” be engraved on their tombstones.
Estare Weiser and her husband David live on the Upper West Side and have been members of BJ since 1992, when they attended a family friend’s bat mitzvah there and were totally blown away by the services. Coming from an observant Jewish background, Estare taught Jewish history before working on Wall Street. The Weiser’s have two sons, both lawyers married to physicians, and four grandchildren. Estare loves to read, meditate, practice yoga and create art.