MADISON — A beat-up burgundy leather purse looks perfectly ordinary, but it is part of one family’s story.
It is a story of sacrifice, struggle, adapting to outside forces and, finally, thriving.
The old pocketbook, its lining torn by the many years and many miles of a grueling journey to several countries and three continents, belonged to Chana, 26, newly married to David Sobocki, 32, in 1940.
The young Jewish couple, like tens of thousands of Jews, escaped with their lives from Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, seeking a new home, a safe harbor. The Soviet Union had already annexed Eastern Poland at the time.
Chana kept the purse — her family’s lifeline — by her side, as it held all of their precious identity documents.
Now it is in her daughter’s safe keeping some 77 years later at her Madison home.
Helena Schanzer, 77, recently gave a talk about her parents’ journey to young religious students at Temple Beth Tikvah ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is April 8. The program, held on Zoom, was part of a year-long intergenerational program at the temple.
Schanzer’s mother and father got married in a hidden wedding ceremony before they escaped Poland, walking 300 miles to the Soviet Union. And that was only the first leg of their decades-long migration.
Schanzer, an infant during part of this exodus, only learned its scope about 28 years ago from her mother who was “lying on her dying bed,” Schanzer recalled.
Her parents never spoke of it to her, she said.
“The parents didn’t talk about this — they didn’t want to traumatize their children. They felt guilty about it — they left their old parents behind,” Schanzer said.
She said she also felt guilt and embarrassment at never having asked her parents about these events before.
Donna B. Fedus, gerontologist with Borrow My Glasses, who helped Schanzer put together her talk, said her first reaction was, “I just find this to be so powerful.”
“It was so gratifying... I loved the idea that Helena got to tell her story because it was one of her regrets that she didn’t ask more questions of her own parents,” Fedus said.
Looking back on her conversations with her mother, Schanzer said her mother’s words stuck with her: “‘I don’t know where I got the strength to survive.’”
In 1940, Schanzer’s mother and father were secretly married by a Rabbi in Lodz, Poland, in a room with sheets on the windows to keep the gathering hidden from the Nazis.
Enacted in 1935, the Nuremberg laws stripped Jews of all of their rights and ultimately led to their segregation, imprisonment and the “final solution” — genocide, during the Holocaust.
From 1938 to 1941, “The Nazis aimed to make Germany judenrein (cleansed of Jews) by making life so difficult for them that they would be forced to leave the country,” according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum [ https://bit.ly/39kcihm].
And this was repeated in German occupied countries.
But no one would take the Jewish refugees, Schanzer said. In 1938, representatives from 32 countries got together during the Evian Conference to decide what to do with them.
“Nobody wanted to take the refugees — sound familiar?” Schanzer said.
When her mother began telling her of their ordeal, Schanzer wanted to get every word down as her mother had never spoken to her about those years.
“I sat by her bed and I started writing,” she said.
In Lodz, Poland, Schanzer noted that her parents were a modest and hard working couple — her mother a seamstress and her father, a tailor.
Lodz at the time, “was a very vibrant Jewish community. Actually Jews had been there for 1,000 years. They had theater, they had an intellectual community. A city with a lot of textile [production].”
They walked to the Ukraine, “because my parents weren’t wealthy — they didn’t have a car, they didn’t have a truck.” The refugees used every means of transport available — carts and even bicycles, historians noted.
They headed for Russia because it was an Allied power, which would allow them to live there so long as they could work, according to Schanzer.
“Russia at the time was very poor — they didn’t have much food, but they were accepting refugees.”
When they finally arrived — they were put on a train, which they only learned later would take them to Siberia.
Schanzer does not know how long it took her parents to cross the border into Russia, but noted in her talk, that it would be about as far as walking from Madison, Conn. to Washington, D.C.
When they got to the Soviet Union they were told to get on a train, she said, and “they didn’t know where they were going.”
Her mother told her about “terrible stories” about the conditions on the train. “They were huddled together. They were divided.” Some sat on the floor and restroom facilities were few and far between.
The train, “would drop them off where they needed people to work” in remote areas, she said.
“My mother spoke six different languages. She spoke a little Russian — so she asked ‘Where are you taking us?’ because the trip was very long.”
“So my parents escaped — they were assigned to go work in Siberia” where the record low temperatures could reach 52 below zero Fahrenheit.
In Siberia, their diet was spartan — “They ate onions and potatoes.”
There, her father “had to work in the woods cutting down trees,” while her mother was assigned to ride into the forest on horseback, bringing the men food.
Only one day she got quite a fright when she accidentally ran into a bear with five cubs.
“The horse went wild,” nearly throwing her. After Chana got back to camp she was in shock, according to Schanzer.
Because her mother was well regarded — she was a “good worker” and “they respected her,” they assigned her a job in the kitchen.
The terrifying incident was a blessing in disguise, though.
”For something terrible it was the best outcome,” Schanzer said. “And that was the best job to have because you could steal, you could get food. Food was very scarce.”
In 1943, the couple’s fortunes turned when they were allowed to move south to Uzbekistan where “the weather was milder and there they could work in the black market.” However, selling in the black market was illegal activity and risky.
“In the black market you buy things and sell them on the street and my mother always tried to sell more,” Schanzer said. “There was no food, there was no milk.”
It was here that Schanzer was born.
Her mother got caught by the police “and they took her to jail for one day and she begged, ‘I have a baby at home — don’t take me. Who’s going to take care of the baby?”
They let her go, said Schanzer, after her mother promised “not to sell on the streets anymore.”
There were other trials for the family.
Towards the end of the war, the Soviet Union was pressing refugee men into service to fight on the frontlines.
“They started rounding up the men to go to the front to fight against the Germans,” Schanzer said.
“My father started hiding in different roofs and he even dressed as a woman at times so they wouldn’t get him.”
Once the war was over, the couple had a decision to make, as the Soviet Union gave refugees the option to stay and become citizens or leave the country.
The family decided to go back to Poland and try “to see what was left of their family.”
“Nobody was alive,” Schanzer said. “The house had been ransacked, Polish people were living there.”
Saddened and discouraged, the couple left for the displaced persons camp run by Americans at Kassel, Germany. During this time Schanzer’s younger brother, Simone, was born.
While they were at the camp, they, like some 175,000 other Jewish refugees, were searching for a new home. At the time, Palestine was under British control and Jewish immigration was severely restricted there, according to the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum.
Getting visas proved to be very difficult as well.
“They had to wait and see where they could get a visa,” Schanzer said.
“A passport and a visa was saving your life.” Chana’s purse was crucial to the family’s survival as it was their “document bag” where their papers were held.
“All the documents were there, and I brought it to the United States!” Schanzer said, with a triumphant smile.
In 1950, when Schanzer was 7, her parents found they could get a visa to Australia where Chana had a cousin.
“Australia was one of the few countries that accepted the refugees,” Schanzer said.
There, the couple lived above the cousin’s jewelry store in a storage area at first.
“As things got better, my father was working very hard there as a tailor and my mother as a seamstress,” Schanzer said.
The large textile companies there would bring work to the couple on weekends, according to Schanzer.
Unfortunately this did not last, as her father, David, was stricken with tuberculosis and could not work. He recuperated in the Black Mountains in Australia because it was thought the fresh air would be beneficial to him.
In search of a better life, Schanzer’s mother, Chana, wanted them to leave Australia and move to Chile, where they had an uncle who was successful there “and was helpful to people.”
That trip took about a month on a passenger ship through the Suez and Panama Canals, stopping in ports in India and Spain, to name a few, Schanzer said.
Once arriving in Valparaiso, Chile, her father was incensed when he saw the meager huts on the hills, where the poor lived, Schanzer said.
“My father was shocked and started to complain to my mother ‘Look where you brought me.’”
And it was difficult to adjust — the family did not speak Spanish.
A religious man in the Jewish faith, her father was also troubled that he could not find Kosher meat. However, later they could found a way to get it from Argentina, Schanzer said.
The family prospered — with the help of the uncle, her parents were able to purchase a children’s clothing store that her mother managed.
In Chile, Schanzer met her husband, Harry, who was a noted vascular surgeon.
She also went to university and received a degree in occupational therapy and a master’s degree in counseling.
In 1968 they married, and in 1971 they left for New York.
“My husband was very ambitious — he wanted to learn how to do a better kidney transplant,” Schanzer said.
So in 1971, they left. Her mother, Chana, was at the airport crying, worried that they would never come back again.
Schanzer told her “Mom how can you say that, we’re only going to be gone for a couple of years.” But years later, this would haunt the daughter.
They did settle in the U.S. permanently but visited Chile twice a year.
Schanzer later learned more of her mother’s anguish at leaving Poland. “She left her parents and never saw them again.”
Shanzer said about her family’s trials: “This is a story of a simple family that had this horrible experience — many times not knowing what would happen.”
“They had to adjust and adopt to very difficult circumstances, but they ended up thriving, she said.
And just recently, Schanzer celebrated the first day of Passover and her husband’s birthday with her two children and six grandchildren.
There was an important part that she did not include in her talk, she told them.
“I just wanted to mention to my family while we were all there,” Schanzer said.
“How fortunate I am — having my husband, my great children and grandchildren,” she said with pride in her voice.
Editor’s note: Temple Beth Tikvah’s intergenerational program is called 2 Way L’Dor V’Dor, meaning from generation to generation. The program is funded by a Community Grant for the Jewish Elderly from the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven.