Name at birth: Henya Jukin
Place of birth: Stepan, Poland
Year of birth: May 2, 1927
False name in hiding: Henya Shulakowska
My grandma was only thirteen years old when her family moved into the ghetto formed by the Germans in her hometown of Stepan, Poland. When I was thirteen I was dealing with bullies in middle school, studying for my bat mitzvah, getting my braces off. She was just so young.
Her story is very different from that of my grandpa's; but it is a story of courage, of heartbreak, and of determination to live. And it is real.
The following is the brave tale of Enid Henson, my grandma, and her survival during the Holocaust:
1927-1939: Stepan, Poland
(Now located in contemporary Ukraine)
My grandmother lived a typical adolescent life in Stepan, Poland, a town near Rovno. She had four sisters and one little brother; her father was a butcher. Their family home was larger than most: it had two bedrooms, a big living room, a nice kitchen and a garden. They even had a cow and chickens in the yard.
"My usual life...we woke up in the morning. We got dressed. We had breakfast. And we went out to school, eight o'clock. And before school we played; I played with children. And then, we came home from school for dinner...I had homework to do. We played outside a little later.
It was just normal, like here [in America]."
Teachers at my grandma's public school never treated the Jewish children differently than the Poles or the Ukrainians who also lived in Stepan. "Everyone was like equal," she explains.
When news of the coming war broke out, everyone in town went over to one family's home who owned a radio to listen. But my grandma was not concerned - she had her friends, her family, her school. She remained unaffected.
September 1939: Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland
In 1939, the Russians came into Poland and occupied Stepan.
Previously, I had never heard anything about this Russian occupation; there were so many subtle tensions across Eastern Europe during the lead up to WWII that I had never known. But suddenly, Stepan became a communist town, and everyone began working for the Russian government. My grandma switched into a Jewish private school and began to learn more Russian and Ukrainian and Polish, in addition to her Yiddish. Food rationing began.
"There wasn't enough food, so we had to go stay in line for everything that we needed: sugar, bread...There was always lines. Always lines. This wasn't like going into the store to shop like it was before."
Things were changing in Stepan politically, but the Jews were treated no differently than the people of other nationalities in town. No ghetto. No unique, Jewish abuse. No yellow armbands.
That is, until the German's took over.
1941: Nazi occupation of Poland
"When the Germans came, we stayed a very short time in our home; then, they created the ghetto."
The ghetto was build around where the main synagogue in Stepan had been. The German's erected a large fence enclosure around the few streets of the ghetto, and forced the women and children to live separate from the men. My grandma, along with her four sisters and little brother, lived in a one-bedroom apartment with twenty-five other people. They all slept in the kitchen, and only saw their father by sneaking to the men's side.
The synagogue became the place to keep potatoes.
Meals were given once a day: soup and a piece of bread. But my grandma sometimes ventured outside of the ghetto to find more to eat.
"I went [to people] who were close to the ghetto and they were only Ukrainian. They used to be our neighbors. I used to bring them a tablecloth sometimes in exchange for food or potatoes, a piece of bread, things like that. When I got caught, they took everything away from me."
Climbing the fence to the outside area of the ghetto was risky, but, as my grandma explains, "if you are hungry, nothing stops you."
"I was the gutsy one, the risky one."
Anyone who could walk and had two hands was forced to work. Even four and five year olds worked. They all hauled things, working on city-improvement projects outside of the ghetto. Life continued as such for nine months, until rumors began to circulate that the ghetto was to be liquidated.
1941: Liquidation of the Stepan ghetto
My great grandfather, my grandma's father, went with the men of Stepan to dig a mass grave site in the forests of Kostopol (near the larger city of Rovno (now Rivne)).This was supposed to be a grave for Jews from other ghettos.
"After a while, they sent the group that my father was in back to the ghetto and they took another group of men and sent them to Kostopol. Then, the other group came back after a couple of weeks, and my father's group went back. And that was the last time I saw my father.
That was when they [dug] the graves for us. The Stepan ghetto."
My Grandma's escape
But my grandma never saw that grave.
On the day that the Germans came to liquidate the ghetto, my grandma and her family, along with the other women in their apartment, decided to go up into the attic to hide.
"We had a...ladder, and we took the ladder with us so, in case they want to come up, they will see that nobody is there. And also, we knew from other towns that, let's say it happened in one night, whoever survived that night they [the Germans] didn't bother anymore. They lived a little bit longer.
...We were laying all through the night hoping that the morning will come, and they will stop. Meanwhile, this really didn't happen in our town."
Instead, the German Gestapo came through the homes on a raid.
"We heard the Gestapo, they spoke in German, 'Jews out! If you're not going to come out we'll find you and we'll shoot you on the spot!
There was shooting going around all through [the street]. Crying and killing and shooting.
...Finally, they came to our house.
'Any Jewish people!? ...I know! Where is the ladder? You must be there!'
They could see the Gestapo from the window. My grandma even recalls their brown uniforms. They were terrified, and one woman began to lower the ladder down. My grandma stood with her mother, watching. Maybe it was her innate "guts." Maybe it was shock. Maybe it was that she was thirteen and young and desperate. But my grandma left her mother's side and jumped out of the window.
"I jumped to the other side of the house...after me jumped another young girl...younger than I was, and my mother's cousin, a woman in her early thirties."
She had nothing but what was on her: her clothes and her mother's overcoat. She never saw her brother, Mendel, her sisters, Tona, Chaya, Malka and Bune, or her mother, Belya, ever again.
Most likely, they were murdered at the mass grave site in Kostopol, but my grandmother never found out for sure the fate of her family.
My grandma ran and ran and ran - jumping over the fence of that ghetto one last time, past the screaming Ukrainian children yelling, "Jew! Jew!", past the Jewish cemetery. With that little girl and her mother's cousin in tow, my grandma crawled on her stomach through fields and farms, finally reaching a barn, only to then be threatened by Ukrainian police.
They continued crawling.
Fall 1941 - Winter 1942: Forests near Virke, Poland
"We started to look for a place where there were no Ukrainian people. Where the Polish people lived."
There had been mounting tension between the ethnically Polish people and the Ukrainians in the area; the Ukrainians sought recognition and dominance over the Polish region, and agreed to side with the Germans in their quest to oust the Jews in order to receive that recognition. My grandmother hoped that the Poles would be sympathetic to her, and help her survive.
"We met two other boys...and we teamed up and we we're all walking together. Just walking in the middle of the street...people didn't know us, the kids didn't know us...we just walked.
Until we reached the Polish Virke."
They lived in the woods, only entering the towns to beg for food. Later, they came across four other Jewish children, hiding like them. These children, however, were known refugees. Germans were looking for them. My grandmother decided that her "team" should separate from these children, and, only a couple days later, she heard them being captured and killed in the forest.
The older woman who traveled with them went into the town for food one day and was killed.
But my grandmother, that little girl named Perl, and those two young boys, Michol and Laizar, all survived together, living off of the kindness of the Polish people who offered them food and even shelter when it became cold.
But soon, it became more dangerous for the Poles to help the young boys.
"The boys [were] Jewish-looking. I didn't look Jewish. They didn't want the boys in the house."
When fighting broke out in Virke between the Ukrainians and the Poles, those boys, Michol and Laizar, joined the Polish partisans and survived the war. My grandma remained friends with Michol, who later settled in Israel, for the rest of her life.
But when the boys joined the resistance, my grandmother had found one family, the Janickis, who continued to provide her with food. They were a young couple with two children, both younger than my grandma, but the family decided to risk their lives to help my grandma, anyway.
In the winter of 1942, the Ukrainians began a cleansing of the ethnic Poles in Poland, and there was violent fighting in the streets. Houses were burned down. Pistols were fired. The Janickis lost everything and decided to flea Poland. They also decided that they would take my grandmother with them.
"My Polish lady said to me, 'You can't go to Partisans. Because, you're a young girl. You know what partisans can do to young girls! So where we go, you go'
So we all had to escape...[and] I went with them [to another town in Poland]. I stayed with them, not too long. We all had no homes. Her house was burned, everything was burned. And there was no work. So they decided to go [to Germany]. The German people...needed people to work on the farms; most of the young people [there] were in the army. So they [the Janickis] decided to go to Germany, and they said to me 'You'll come with us.'
I said, 'Come on. The minute they'll see a German soldier, they'll recognize I'm Jewish! And what's going to be with you? Never mind me! What's going to be with you?'
And she said to me 'Don't worry.' And I went with her. With them."
1942: Rovno, Poland
My grandma became a Polish girl that day. Michalina got my grandmother some new papers, changed her name from Henya Jukin to Henya Shulakowska, and told her she was their cousin and had lost her entire family in the war. Which wasn't all that far from the truth.
She was only fourteen.
The family boarded a train en route to Schneidemühl, Germany, but along the way they stopped for work in Rovno, Poland.
"Before we got deeper in Germany, we had to stop in Rovno. We stayed there a few days and they [the Germans] took us, the young people, to work. They put us on a truck, and when I got on a truck, I saw this girl sitting. We never exchanged a word."
It was Perl.
"In fact, there was another girl from my town [Stepan] on the truck. We never said one word. Like we never knew each other."
The girls showed their recognition only through their eyes; they feared that their slightly accented Polish would reveal their Jewish identities. For several days, they saw one another and never spoke a word.
1942-1945: Schneidemühl, Germany
(Now contemporary Pila, Poland)
The Janickis and my grandmother then took the train deep into Germany and, for three years, my grandmother worked on a Nazi's farm, pretending to be a Polish refugee worker.
"I felt very normal. Very normal...[I thought about my Judaism] only at home. By myself. When I went to sleep. But I had Polish friends; a boyfriend, Polish; we we're one Polish family. At that time, I started to feel Polish."
While my grandmother worked on the farm with the Janickis, the German lady of the house lost her house maid. In the meantime, because Yiddish was close to German, my grandmother had become fluent in German. Soon, the lady of the home chose my grandma as her new maid. My grandma moved into the house, translated mail for the woman and her husband, and even served meals at their dinner parties. The couple often entertained Nazi officers; my grandma served them, too.
That German woman grew to love my grandmother, even offering to adopt her as her own child. My grandmother politely refused, vowing to to remain with her Polish "family."
My grandmother hid her identity from everyone - even at times from herself.
And when they were finally liberated by the Russians in April of 1945, my grandma thought she was the only Jew left in all of Europe.
Spring 1945: Post-Liberation search for Jews in Lodz, Poland
When the war ended, my grandmother cried. She felt alone and confused. She yearned for her family. She was only seventeen.
The Russians who liberated them told my grandmother and the Janicki family that they had three days to go into the German homes and take whatever they wanted. The Germans had left, and the area soon became a Polish territory. I had never really considered the details of the immediate aftermath of liberation, but I never imagined that the survivors would be allowed to ransack German homes.
They only took food and clothes, according to my grandmother. Only what they needed.
After the war, wherever the Janicki's went, my grandmother went. But after a couple weeks, my grandmother needed to find out if other Jews had survived. So, she and Michalina traveled to Lodz, Poland.
"We walked in the street [going to the Jewish office in Lodz]. It was raining. Drizzling sort of...and there we see three men walking towards us. And...they were holding umbrellas. And they stopped us, and they staid to us...'[Would you] like to buy and umbrella?' And I said, 'Maybe, but before we decide to buy an umbrella, I want to ask you a question.' They looked to me Jewish. So I asked, 'Are you Jewish?' They looked to me like they were going to kill me! They thought I'm Polish! An anti-Semite!
'Why are you asking that question?'
...I said, 'Because I am Jewish.'
My grandmother explained to these men how she had hid with Michalina, how she had survived. But they refused to believe her. They asked her to speak Yiddish - but when she tried, it came out German. They asked her to list the Jewish holidays, but when she did, they dismissed her answers as common knowledge. Then, they asked her to write in Hebrew, something only a Jew would be capable of.
She took a pencil over to a nearby windowsill and wrote in Hebrew the words that they dictated to her. Finally, she had proved it. She was Jewish.
These men took her in as one of them; embraced my grandmother and helped her get the papers to travel back to Germany as herself, Henya Jukin. She cried "like a baby" when she separated from her Polish family for Berlin, but she needed to be with other Jews. She needed to find out if others had survived.
Summer 1945-1949: Hanover, Germany
My grandmother traveled with these three men to the office for Holocaust survivors in Berlin. Waiting outside the office, one of the men she was with recognized another young man standing nearby who had been from Lodz. He was standing with his two sisters and his brother-in-law. It was Leon, my grandfather.
Right away, my grandpa asked these men if my grandma was "spoken for." When they said no, he took her out. They went to a movie.
After a few days in Berlin, my grandmother and her travel companions were moving on, towards Munich. She parted from my grandfather, expecting never to see him again.
But along the way to Munich, the train made an unexpected stop in Hanover, Germany.
"When we went to the Jewish committee [in Hanover] to sign in...they gave us stamps to go and get food.
...And then my husband came, the next day! I was inside in the office to tell my story, like I am telling you now, because we had to register...and they gave me a card [with my real name, Henya Jukin]...when I walked out from the office...[Leon's brother-in-law] saw me coming out so he ran and he embraced me! ...He said, 'Henya! Henya! Guess what? We're all here! Leon is here! My wife is here!'
So we met again.
...'You were supposed to stop in Munich?' [Leon asked.} I said, 'Well, didn't you talk about Munich? Everybody talked about Munich! Well, this was the stop. Here we are.'''
My grandma and grandpa did not go on to Munich, however. Instead, they remained together in Hanover until 1949. They got married in Hanover in 1946, and had a baby soon after. They went to more movies, took long walks through the town, and learned to enjoy life as free people.
"We had a nice time!"
In 1949, my grandmother's uncle who had been living in Brooklyn since World War I sponsored my grandmother, grandfather and their little baby (my uncle), and they all left for America.
1949: Move to America
The rest, I suppose, is history.
My grandma never did find out what happened to her family, but she remained in touch with Michalina Janicki for the rest of her life. Like my grandpa, my grandma also suffered from night terrors. She cried more later in life than she did during her time in Hanover, as time continued on and she had more time to reflect. But she remained thankful for life and love and happiness, even after discovering that no one in her family had survived the Holocaust.
She had seen the downfall of Hitler. She had survived. He had not.
In a moment of reflection, my grandma notes, "I have made for myself a beautiful life."
And thanks to both of my grandparents' survival, I am here, telling their story, and living my own beautiful life.