Home International News Learning forgiveness wasn’t easy for local Holocaust survivor Ann Jaffe — ‘It...

Learning forgiveness wasn’t easy for local Holocaust survivor Ann Jaffe — ‘It didn’t happen overnight’

Wilmington resident Ann Jaffe is a Holocaust survivor. Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens

LEWES — Ann Jaffe remembers her father asking the wounded Russian to kill his family quickly.

Her family had fled into the bitterly cold woods during the Polish winter to escape the Nazis. Now, the Germans had surrounded the forest and were trying to cut off any escape.

As they ran through the woods, they noticed the wounded Russian partisan left behind by his comrades.

Her father saw the wounded man lying in the snow had a rifle, so he begged him to kill his family before they could be caught and tortured by the soldiers.

“I am sorry,” he said. “But I cannot. When they left me, they left me with only one bullet for myself. Run away because if you are caught with me, you will certainly be killed.”

They left and soon heard a loud voice singing patriotic Russian songs. They knew then that he had chosen to use his one bullet.

Her family, cold, hungry, suffering from typhoid and covered with lice, would ultimately survive except for one brother. Of 350 Jews in her small village, only 32 would live to see the end of World War II.

The Holocaust survivor and Delaware resident will speak at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 7. She speaks as often as she can about her experiences to schools and churches.

She has done so more than 300 times and she brings a message of kindness and love, despite the desperate darkness of those days.

It was not easy, but she overcame the hatred and rage which threatened to overwhelm her when she found out that people had known what was happening to Jews, Russians, Catholics and other “undesirables” and had done nothing.

Her father told her that she had suffered hatred and that hatred would “consume her” if she allowed herself to give in to the rage and bitterness.

“It took a while. It didn’t happen overnight,” she said.

“I am without hate to anyone,” she said.

Ten of those 32 surviving Jews were saved by a kindly Christian farmer near their village, she said. He sheltered them under a pig pen for ten months. They crammed into a pit dug under the swine, coming out once each night to stretch their cramped bodies and eat what meager food the farmer could spare. They breathed through tiny pipes dug into the dirt. “He would stand there and cry because he felt so bad,” she said.

She explained that Russia and Germany had divided up Poland. She lived in Eastern Poland, which was controlled by Russia, so it was better for Jews. That all changed in 1941, when Hitler attacked Russia.

Within days, the Germans were in her village and they took everything and gave it to Christians if they wanted it. There was a 10-day-old baby in the home, but the Germans took their cow so there was no milk for the baby. They took their horse, bicycle and gold wedding bands worn by her mother and father.

The Jews had no rights, could not go to school and had to wear the gold star proclaiming that they were Jewish. “I was too young to understand the terrible things hate can create,” she said.

Soon, the Germans formed militia from the local Christians to do their bidding.
That was difficult because it meant her friends and neighbors often turned against her. Many Christians turned against them, although they may have had little choice.
Others did not.

Some, like the farmer who sheltered the 10 survivors, performed tiny acts like leaving milk on their back step. Those small kindnesses meant they risked their own lives, she said.

Jews who could work or were mechanics or carpenters lived a little longer because the Nazis needed them. Her father had no special skills, but he went to work each day and his reward for a day’s labor was one extra slice of bread to eat.

Others were not so lucky.

At one point, the remaining Jews were gathered together. Ten men were sent out with shovels. “We knew they were digging a trench for us,” she said in a 2011 presentation videotaped at Mississippi State University.

German officers called out the names of people with skills the Germans still needed. If they were called, the Germans also allowed their families to remain alive. Her mother’s name was called.

“Are you the village seamstress?” she was asked.

When she replied yes, the officer said “I need some dresses made for my wife. I think I will let you live a little longer,” she said in the video.

Her mother returned home to an empty house and had to ask permission to retrieve her sewing machine so she could do the work.

She found two people arguing over who would claim her sewing machine, one of whom was her best friend. “If you had died today, wouldn’t you have wanted me to have this?” she asked.

“We were best friends, but did you ever even leave me a little milk for the baby?” her mother asked, daring to raise her voice to a Christian. Such defiance could mean instant reprisals, but Jaffe said the woman realized her mother was right.

Her mother’s former friend was ashamed and left them a jug of milk and a loaf of bread before her family was forced to leave their village. “No one said who it was from, but we knew,” Jaffe said.

Another time, her family was loaded on two trucks to be taken away. Her father noticed the man who employed him and asked if he didn’t still need his labor. Within minutes, the man had obtained papers to allow her father to continue to work. No one else on those two trucks survived, she said in the video.

Later, freedom fighters would attack the area and assault the German garrison, allowing her family to flee into the woods with only the clothes upon their backs. The freedom fighters took them into the woods, but could do no more for them, she said.

“We have no use for you. We need young people and you are middle-aged and have babies,” she remembered them saying.

So, they were left with no food in the freezing forest to try to survive. At night, they would find kindly farmers who could spare a few potatoes or a few beets. There was little food and they lived in constant fear. “I wished I were dead,” she said on the video. “Many days, all that we had were three or four potatoes.”

Once, they were given some black peas and her mother made soup. “There was no onion or salt or anything at all to make it taste good, but it tasted like manna from heaven,” she said.

Her family managed to slip between the Nazi soldiers and leave the forest to make their way to a neighboring village where people gave them food.

Eventually, her family would sneak across borders at night and make their way to a displaced person camp, where they lived for five years before they could emigrate to Canada and then America.

She has returned to her homeland several times and her brother still returns to help care for a mass grave site and the Jewish cemetery. Her family has searched and found children and grandchildren of those who helped them to tell them of their kindnesses and sometimes to bring a small gift.

“There were many good and kind Germans,” she said. “There are more good people in this world than bad ones.”

When asked if she is concerned about rising hate crimes, she interrupts the question. “Of course it concerns me,” she said. “I hoped people would become a little smarter after World War II.”

Asked what she would say to people who commit anti-Semitic acts, she said “How would they like it if someone expressed this kind of hatred toward them? Would they be happy?”
She believes hatred is taught. “Hatred does not come from thin air,” she said.

“You cannot remain silent,” she said. “When you see an injustice done, you must speak up and let your voice be heard.”