Clue-in-the-box: The Search for the Cousin Who Escaped the Ghetto

The contents of the box Ofer Aloni found in his father’s apartment revealed the forgotten saga of his aunt Sarenka, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt.

On April 19, 1948, five years after the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, the monument commemorating the event was inaugurated in the Polish capital. Thousands of young people, partisan fighters and Holocaust survivors, joined by representatives of the Jewish people and the Polish government, and by delegations from around the world, marched through the streets of the destroyed city to the place where the uprising began.

Thousands gathered around the monument, designed by sculptor Nathan Rapoport. Rabbis wrapped in prayer shawls carried a coffin containing prayer shawls that had been collected in Auschwitz. There were speakers from Poland, world Jewry and the Jewish community in Palestine. The high point of the ceremony was the unveiling of the monument by the Polish education minister, as an army orchestra played. The monumental sculpture would become one of the symbols most closely identified with the memory of the Holocaust − in particular with acts of heroism.

Rapoport’s sculpture shows seven powerful figures bursting out of flames. The central figure is apparently Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the revolt. The other figures are unknown, among them a bare-breasted woman holding a baby, seen behind Anielewicz. Her representation recalls the woman in the famous work by French painter Eugène Delacroix, “Liberty Leading the People” (1830). In the French painting the woman is holding a flag; in Rapoport’s sculpture she is holding a baby.

Sixty-five years later, in April 2013, on the 70th anniversary of the uprising, thousands gathered again at the monument in Warsaw. Among them were representatives from Israel and the Diaspora, along with local dignitaries. One person was denied entry to the site and removed by the police: Ofer Aloni, a multimedia artist from Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, who wants, in his words, “to shed light on all the Warsaw Ghetto uprising heroes who have been censored.” He also claims to know the identity and the story behind the woman and the baby in the sculpture by Rapoport (the sculptor himself was born in Warsaw but managed to escape from there in 1939).

If Aloni is right, Rapoport memorialized his aunt, Rachel Zylberberg (Sarenka) and her infant daughter Maya, whom Sarenka handed over to the care of
others before deliberately entering the besieged ghetto, in order to join the rebels and fight alongside them to her death. Ofer is named for his aunt − sarenka in Polish means “fawn” (like ofer, in Hebrew).

The turning point in Aloni’s life came in February 2012, when his father was in the midst of moving to a new apartment in Tel Aviv. A red metal box, dating back to World War II, was found while the old place was being cleared out.

“We opened it and found a treasure,” Aloni says. “I’d known for years that I was named after my aunt Sarenka, the sister of my mother, Ruth, who died 28 years ago. But only now was her story revealed to me.”

The box contained a large number of letters in Polish, written by his aunt to his mother, along with old photographs of the two. “They lay in the box untouched for 69 years,” says Aloni. “It’s a personal and national treasure that was put in an old, corroded metal box and found in Tel Aviv.” “Code of hope” is the name he bestowed on his discovery. “It’s a treasure that contains harrowing contents − letters and photographs that are bound together by hope,” he says.

According to Aloni, one of the photos was a genuinely rare find: an original copy of the famous photograph that was taken on Lag Ba’omer (Jewish Arbor Day) in 1938, in Warsaw, which shows Anielewicz, Sarenka, Moshe Domb and others. According to Aloni’s information, his mother gave the photo to Rapoport, which aided his creation of the famous monument in Warsaw. If so, the woman in the sculpture might indeed be his aunt Sarenka, and the baby his cousin Maya, whom he is searching for.

Aloni has been in a state of excitement and agitation since finding the box. His journey in the wake of the discovery has taken him to books, museums and archives in Israel, Warsaw and elsewhere, and he has met with many people who have heard about Sarenka or knew her. After learning about his aunt, he decided to focus his efforts on a search for her daughter, Maya. “I discovered that I have a cousin. This is not just some nice story about looking for a lost relative; there is something very concrete here. She would be 72, so finding her is a realistic proposition,” Aloni says.

In the meantime, with the help of a genealogist – attorney Rony Golan – he was able to locate Maya’s birth certificate. Now, with the aid of research assistant Michal Berman, foreign embassies and archives, he is not leaving a stone unturned in his effort to track down his cousin.

“Not a day goes by without us working on it,” Aloni says.

Torn in two directions

Aloni’s comprehensive research enables him to retell a story that was shunted to the margins of history. It is the story of Rachel Zylberberg, nicknamed Sarenka because she was small and full of life. She was born on January 5, 1920, in Warsaw, to Alexander (Sender) and Masha, religiously observant Jews who were the proprietors of a grocery store at 34 Nowolipki Street. It is the story of an athletic, idealistic young woman, who attended Yehudia high school and joined the left-leaning Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, in which she was a beloved group leader and friend. She was also a member of Bahazit (On the Front) along with Mordechai Anielewicz.

When the war broke out, she moved to Lithuania, then under Russian control, in the wake of her activity in the movement. Part of the time she hid in a convent called the Little Sisters, in a forest about six kilometers from Vilna. She was part of a group of 20 or so young people, among them Abba Kovner − later a noted Israeli poet − who from there issued the cry: “We will not go like sheep to the slaughter.”

The letters Sarenka sent her sister Ruth, Ofer Aloni’s mother, are a fascinating historical testimony to the life of a participant in the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt in the period before that seminal event. Reading them, one feels the writer oscillating between optimism and pessimism, despair and hope.

Thus, on June 10, 1941, Sarenka wrote to Ruth, from Lithuania, “Life is flowing here with, how to put it, serenity. We are working, sometimes at home, sometimes in the city. It is very pleasant here. The atmosphere has changed − even I feel that life here is completely tolerable, and the situation improves by the day. One way or the other, we are living, and that is not in the least tragic. Well, we wash in the river or the lake, get a tan, admire the beauty of nature in all its splendor. It is impossible not to be moved by a marvelous sunset or by the quiet murmur of the water in the river. It is completely out of the question for anyone not to like this place.”

Later in the letter, she shares with Ruth her longings for Poland and reveals that she is torn between her Jewish-Zionist beliefs and her affection for her homeland. “Sometimes I miss Poland,” she writes, “the familiar mother-tongue, a conversation in Polish, which is close to my heart. And there are also those Sunday parties, with music and dancing in the open field. You know ... I miss the spirit of Polishness. I feel its absence, I live within it and I love it. I feel sentiments for Polish songs and for that language, which here is treated with demonstrative hostility. They do not like to hear Polish, even though everyone here knows the language. Whereas I rebel at every such moment and want precisely to speak and sing in Polish.

“I love Poland, even though I hate what happened. And what happened is, after all, not the Polish people, it was a different element, and we must not blame the people for that. I am angry. Angry that I am being obliged to lose the Polish in which I live and in which I have not yet ceased to think my thoughts.”

In another letter, dated May 20 (the year is not stated), Sarenka writes to her sister in a pessimistic mood: “I am worried because of the silence of our relatives in Warsaw and I fear for their well-being. I sent them a postcard today. A month has passed already with no sign of life. Until now they wrote quite frequently. As you see, the situation in the world is growing worse by the day. The Germans are winning. I am constantly becoming sadder ... I am so sorry for Poland ... In reality, after all, there is no difference whether someone is killed on the front or falls victim to a pogrom. I am referring to us, the Jews. Still, we must hold on. Our historic role has not yet ended.”

Maya is born

Sarenka’s partner was Moshe Kopito, a close friend of Anielewicz. On February 20, 1941, a baby daughter was born to the couple in Vilna. She was named Maya − her Polish name was Yodviga Sogak − and she is Aloni’s lost cousin. Two weeks after giving birth, Sarenka wrote a letter to Ruth informing her that she had a daughter.

“It’s a pity you can’t see her. She is so beautiful and so sweet you could die,” Sarenka wrote, adding, “Her name is Maya. Do you like the name? Now she is sleeping, but at night she puts on concerts for us and doesn’t let us sleep ... Our little girl is endlessly sweet ... Be well and write as quickly and as often as possible. And don’t forget to give my regards to everyone. Regards from Moshe and from our little Maya. Yours, Sarenka.”

Kopito was murdered by the Nazis on the way to buying milk for Maya. Afterward, Sarenka placed the baby girl in an orphanage. “Since then, all trace has vanished of Maya, the rebels’ daughter,” Aloni explains today.

Sarenka was subsequently recalled to Warsaw by Hashomer Hatzair. Haika Grossman, who was active in the Jewish underground and would later become a member of the Knesset, was sent to bring her back. For the journey, Sarenka disguised herself as Grossman’s daughter.

“This time I did not come to Warsaw alone. I arrived with Sarenka. I had to bring Sarenka from Vilna to Warsaw after the tragedy that befell Moshe Kopito, her boyfriend. We decided to bring her to her family in Warsaw and co-opt her into activity,” Grossman wrote in her 1950 autobiography, “People of the Underground” (published in Hebrew).

Sarenka entered the Warsaw Ghetto in January 1942, determined to carry out two missions: to tell the residents there what she had seen at Ponar, adjacent to Vilna, where Jews were murdered systematically, and to stir a revolt against the Nazis from within the ghetto.

“One day we were called to a brigade assembly, to meet with a female emissary from the Vilna Ghetto. I think her name was Sarenka (or maybe Rachel?). We all sat on the floor. Before us stood a young woman, about 22 years old, whose hair was already streaked with white. She looked so pretty and noble in the dim light, but her eyes seemed dull” − that is how Aliza Wittis Shomron, a member of Hashomer Hatzair in the ghetto, recalls her first encounter with Sarenka.

‘World of fantasies’

According to Wittis Shomron’s testimony, as recounted in her memoir “Youth Under Fire” (2002, Hebrew), Sarenka was the driving force behind the uprising. She remembers Sarenka saying to them, “I have come to tell you and to warn you. We have definite reports about the liquidation of the ghettos all across eastern Poland, in the Ukraine and in Lithuania. We have decided to defend ourselves. The young generation that remains in the ghetto has decided not to go like sheep to the slaughter. Half of us will stay in the ghetto and the others will try to break through to the partisans.”

Moshe Domb, who was a member of Hashomer Hatzair in Poland and was in the same unit as Anielewicz and Sarenka, relates Sarenka’s part in sparking the revolt at length in his work of fiction, “Schmelzownik” (2000, Hebrew). He quotes from the fiery speeches Sarenka delivered to her movement comrades: “‘What are you busying yourselves with? What is happening to you?!’ she burst out in fury in the first meeting at the movement’s house. ‘Are you caught up in a world of fantasies?’ she hurled at us fiercely. ‘The nation is being destroyed, and you are playing games of pretend, distracting yourselves from the reality? ... Hitler is plotting to wipe out the Jews of Europe, and the Germans are executing this in a methodical, sophisticated way. Warsaw’s turn will come too! Has it not penetrated your consciousness that it is necessary to get ready to resist and to die with honor in a struggle? You are living in a fools’ paradise, shutting your eyes and deluding yourselves like all those who manage to evade the inferno for a time and persuade themselves: It will not happen to us.’”

Domb describes a harsh exchange of words between Sarenka and Anielewicz: “When he raised the subject of the movement’s ideology and modes of education, she launched into a furious tirade against him: ‘You are putting the young people to sleep and preventing them from seeing the reality of the situation, and in the end they will be led as sheep to the slaughter together with the Jews who are deluding themselves that “It won’t happen to us.” We will die! We will die! We will die!’ she exclaimed angrily. ‘But the question is how we will die. Will we die without honor, without defending ourselves? Will we leave behind shame and dishonor? Will we disgrace ourselves and the generations to come? History will condemn us for all time!’”

Sarenka had no use for politics, power games and the struggles between the various Jewish organizations and movements that were active in Warsaw. Finally, when the decision was made to take up arms against the Germans, she explained, as quoted by Domb, “We, a small group of young people, are determined: The Germans will pay with their blood for our blood and our lives. Jews will no longer go to cattle cars without resistance. We will avenge our trampled honor!”

The uprising broke out on April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover, after the Germans began an operation to liquidate the ghetto. It is considered the first urban revolt in Nazi-occupied Europe and the largest uprising by Jews in the Holocaust. Taking part in it were members of the Zionist Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB, in the Polish acronym), under the command of Mordechai Anielewicz and consisting of the left-wing youth movements, as well as the Revisionist Jewish Military Union (ZZW), commanded by Pawel Frenkel, from the Betar movement.

The Yad Vashem website (English version) provides the following account of the uprising: “The invading German forces were surprised by the ferocity of the resistance of the armed groups, and by the perseverance of the ghetto inhabitants, who had fortified themselves in bunkers and hiding places. The fighting outposts of the Jewish Fighting Organization, under the command of Mordechai Anielewicz, were spread out far and wide across the ghetto. The Jewish Military Union fought side by side with the Jewish Fighting Organization; the former concentrated their efforts on the Muranowski Square in the north part of the ghetto, and in the industrial area of the brush workshops.

“After three days of fighting, the Germans ... began systematically setting fire to the ghetto, turning it into a giant firetrap ... Most of the Jewish fighters did not view their actions as an effective measure by which to save themselves, but rather as a battle for the honor of the Jewish people, and a protest against the world’s silence.”

The Jews in the ghetto fought the Germans heroically for a month and more, the Hebrew site adds.

Sarenka was killed on May 8, 1943, in the bunker under the building at 18 Mila Street. As described in a collection of articles about the Holocaust edited by the late Prof. Israel Gutman (in Hebrew), the Germans surrounded the main shelter of the ZOB at that address, cutting off its five entrances. Inside were about 100 fighters and 200 civilians. Most of the members of the Jewish Fighting Organization fell at this site, among them Anielewicz. Some committed suicide; others were victims of the mines and grenades thrown by the Germans.

Sarenka “fell with her weapon in her hand,” as the historian Melech Neustadt wrote in his book “Destruction and Rising: The Epic of the Jews in Warsaw,” published (in Hebrew) in 1946. Hers is one of the 51 names of participants in the revolt that are engraved on a small monument at the site on Mila Street.

Arens’ efforts

Aloni, Sarenka’s nephew, believes that she and others who took part in the revolt have been wronged and have not been accorded the glory that is their due. He is certainly not alone in thinking this. Seventy years on, the events of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt continue to stir powerful feelings of anger, envy and rivalry among organizations and individuals alike who believe that the whole story has not been told.

Thus, for the past few years former defense minister (and Haaretz contributor) Moshe Arens has been trying to correct what he calls an “historical wrong.”

Arens has been crisscrossing the country in a lecture tour based on his book “Flags Above the Warsaw Ghetto” (English version 2011, Gefen Publishing House). He tells everyone who is willing to listen that Frenkel and his group were shunted out of history for political reasons: because they were on the wrong − namely, the right − side of the map.

“It is part of the Bolshevik principle that ruled in Israel when the left was in power,” Arens said earlier this month in a talk he delivered in Shdema. “They manipulated history and hid the actions of Pawel Frenkel, despite their importance. The academics, whom one would have expected to research the events and arrive at the right conclusions, were also connected to the establishment. They were not predisposed to arrive at the truth, and their academic activity was consistent with that approach.”

According to Arens, some of the fighters in the revolt, such as “Zivia Lubetkin, Antek Zuckerman and dozens of others, escaped through sewage tunnels, reached Israel, wrote books and told half the story. There was no one left to tell the full story.”

Arens’ activity has produced results. Last year, in an act of cooperation between Israel and Poland, a plaque commemorating Frenkel was installed in Warsaw. This year, the Israeli Philatelic Service issued a stamp in his honor, depicting the battle in which he was killed, after he and his people raised the Zionist and Polish flags over Muranowski Square.

It was not only the role of Arens’ Betar movement that was suppressed for many years in Israel: Other participants in the uprising also found themselves shunted aside, particularly the non-Zionists, such as the members of the Jewish Labor Bund and the communists. For example, Marek Edelman, a Bund activist and one of the leaders of the uprising, is considered a “national hero” in Poland, whereas in Israel he is almost completely unknown, certainly to the young generation. Because he was an anti-Zionist and chose to remain in Poland after the war, his name is anathema in Israeli schools.

Yet, if Edelman’s name still rings a bell for a few Israelis, probably no more than a handful have heard of Pinchas Kartin, the commander of the communist underground in the ghetto.

Kartin was parachuted into Poland and made his way into the ghetto in order to lead the armed force of the Communist Party. Using the name Andrzej Szmidt, he became commander of the military organization of the antifascist bloc. In May 1942, a Gestapo agent who infiltrated the ranks of the communist movement informed on him, and he was arrested and murdered. It was only afterward that the Jewish Fighting Organization was established and Anielewicz, whom many publications cite as Kartin’s deputy, became the organization’s commander.

In search of Maya

Aloni, who declines to give his age, was born in Ramat Gan and now lives in the fashionable Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv; he is divorced and has children. A self-described “multimedia artist,” he paints, writes, develops apps and works in marketing and advertising.

Since discovering the box of letters and photographs, he has added “Sarenka” to his name and now calls himself “Ofer Sarenka” on his own exit2Hope website. Aloni is currently pursuing one mission, which he describes as “illuminating the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as [the story] has never been told before, in order to find Maya,” his lost cousin.

A subchapter devoted to Sarenka in Neustadt’s book ends with the words, “Her [Sarenka’s] daughter Maya survived and is in Vilna.”

The Internet campaign Aloni has launched on YouTube, Facebook and at http://www.exit2hope.org/ is his last hope of finding her. He has almost finished writing a book (in Hebrew) on the subject, titled “Code of Hope,” and points an accusing finger at those who are responsible for the fact that the search for Maya has only begun now, 70 years late.

“Educational organizations and museums are censoring the existence of Sarenka and her comrades, while publicizing Mordechai Anielewicz,” he says. “Our history rests on vested interests and ‘personal relationships.’ As George Orwell put it so succinctly, ‘He who controls the present controls the past,’” says Aloni. “The absurd thing is that instead of lauding the aspect of cooperation and social connection that marked the uprising, the names of the other fighters are not mentioned − maybe for fear of undercutting the honor or the important role of the leader of the uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz.”

David Bachar
Avishai Teicher
David Bachar