It’s hard to decide where to begin the story of Tsiporah Singer, whose experiences during World War II left their mark in the form of a host of habits and gestures that outsiders would have difficulty understanding. She tends to begin with her happy childhood before the Nazis rose to power.
But one could easily start with the two months in which she was thought to be dead and her family sat shiva for her after she didn’t return home from the ruins of the city where she was studying, or with the long list of tragic and decisive events in which she made courageous decisions that seem in no way consistent with the gray hair and thin body of a woman who has difficulty walking.
But on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, on which we deal with a vital debate an on how the Holocaust should be explained to the younger generation - while dealing with its lessons is being shunted somewhat aside - it’s possible that the beginning of Tsiporah's story is actually found in the small black-and-white drawing hanging in her house for 58 years. A drawing that contains within it an extraordinary story and two insights that are important for her to convey to future generations: “Even within the purest evil you can find human beings, and our duty as Jews is to remember that in the face of the suffering of nations and people in distress.”
The name of the person who was in possession of the picture is Claus Himmelstos, a Wermacht soldier who was sent to Iwye, the town of her childhood, after Poland was occupied by the Nazis. Their acquaintance began when he evacuated a drunken German soldier who had entered her family’s home and passed out on the couch.
After a brief conversation, he proposed that she come clean for him and later help him with the distribution of medicines from a neighboring Jewish home the Nazis had seized. He told her that he had a PhD in chemistry and that he had joined the Nazi party so he could find work and support his wife, Friedel, and their two children. “Friedel won’t believe it when I tell her what we’re doing here,” he told her more than once.
The clinic was a place where fragments of information would slowly be pieced together, revealing the terrifying fate of the Jews under Nazi occupation. Himmelstos, who was the only one who knew that Tsiporah understood German, allowed her to continue listening and collect information that would turn out to be very valuable to her in her efforts to save herself in the ensuing years.
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Before his unit left for the Russian front, Himmelstos told Tsiporah that if they are killing Jews in other places, they would also kill them in Iwye. He accompanied her to the gendarmerie (German police), where he spoke to a commander he was friends with and asked him to save her and her family when the really bad times come.
It wasn’t long before the conversations in the clinic became reality and the S.S. rounded up all the Jews of Iwye. Tsiporah, like the thousands of other Jews in the town square, was on her knees with her hands behind her head, when she saw the police commander and reminded him of his promise. Her family was sent to the right – to life, at least temporarily. Other families like hers, whose fathers had already been murdered, were sent forward and had their lives ended in minutes as shots were heard from the forest. The ghetto era had begun.
Tsiporah, her two brothers, her sister and her mother lived in one room with another family. Food was hard to come by and after a few months the forced labor they’d been sent to perform in the neighboring city ended. Himmelstos, who had returned to the area en route to a leave in Germany, heard that another aktion was imminent. He made his way to Iwye, found Tsiporah and gave her a poison capsule to carry in case she ever decided that death would be better than life.
“Before he left, he told me that he was embarrassed to be a German and would certainly be even more ashamed after the war ends. He asked me to repeat his address in Munich over and over and made me swear that I’d write to his wife Friedel if I survive,” Tsiporah would recall.
Fifteen years later, she got up the courage and wrote a letter to 14 Johann Herzog Street in Munich. An emotional response from Friedel wasn’t long in coming.
“The biggest joy we’ve had this year was the fact that we got your letter … we thank you with all our hearts for the sign of life you’ve sent us … my husband wanted to write to you himself but he was afraid it would hurt you. Sometimes memories open up old wounds.” Friedel said her husband had been taken prisoner by the Russians and that he returned from the war “very sick and weak, but at least he came back.”
They asked to keep in touch, but Tsiporah had a hard time with that. Their letter included a small drawing that Himmelstos or his friend had sketched when he was in Iwye, which showed a view from her childhood – Iwye’s main street, with a synagogue in its center. Since then the drawing has been hanging in Tsiporah’s living room in Netanya.
Unfortunately, that piece of paper with its optimistic reminder is a fascinating but unrepresentative chapter of the family’s tragedy, whose first victim was Tsiporah’s father, Yaakov Zurawski, who was murdered in the forest with 30 other town notables a short while after the Germans arrived. The second aktion that Himmelstos had warned about took place a few days after he left, and Tsiporah was evicted from Iwye along with the rest of the town’s Jews. She arrived with her family in the city of Lida, where they worked on building a train station for the German firm TODT.
One day the chief engineer at the site noticed her, called her “shvartze” (black in German because she had dark skin), and said he was taking her to be his wife’s maid. It soon transpired that one of this woman’s friends had been Tsiporah’s childhood babysitter. This link from the past changed the attitude of the engineer, who stopped calling her shvartze and instead nicknamed her Fanny. This relationship played a pivotal role during one of the hardest days of her life, which also was the day she was given another opportunity to survive, in September 1942.
When the work on the train station was finished, the Germans stuffed the family into cattle cars in which they traveled for two days to what they’d been told was a new job. When they arrived, they discovered a gate with the inscription Arbeit Macht Frei, next to which there was a sign that read “Sobibor.”
Tsiporah’s little sister, Haya Rachel, 11, who was screaming from tooth pain, was immediately sent ahead with their mother. A short time later, shots were heard, but no one knew then that Sobibor was a death camp.
As she was on the platform waiting for her own fate to be determined, she was spotted again by the same engineer from Lida, who was drunk. Apparently he had accompanied the train. “He said he was so happy to see me, and when I asked him why, he told me, ‘They killed all my Jews, they suffocated them with gas like rats,” she later recalled.
His words were a blow to her; she suddenly understood that her sister, and her mother, Rivka, who had told her to take care of her younger brothers, were dead, and that she had to think of a way to save herself and her two brothers from the same fate. She asked the engineer what was going to happen to them. He replied that some of them would be taken to Majdanek and some to Trawniki.
Those names meant nothing to her at the time, but when he mentioned that he was returning to Lida she asked if she and her brothers could go with him to the luxurious train car he’d been riding in to use the bathroom. “I told him that we were millionaires and that I would give him the addresses of all the places that our family had property,” she said. He agreed, and she hurried to find her brothers – Elimelech, 16, and Haim Leib, 13 – but couldn’t locate them.
Instead, she ended up with two young girls who refused to detach themselves from her. Precious time was wasted; all the other Jews were already in the cattle cars. And so, on the same day she lost her mother and sister, she was also separated from her brothers forever. Her face gets pained to this day when she tells of how she got into the engineer’s car without them.
The next day, S.S. men who were also traveling in that train car noticed her and the two girls. The Germans woke up the engineer, who had slept off his liquor. “He saw us and asked me what I was doing there. He stopped the train, yelled ‘Out,’ and then fired three shots, apparently so they should think he’d killed us. But he fired in the air.”
Left in the middle of nowhere, Tsiporah decided to turn herself in to the nearest gendarmerie, remembering that the police in her hometown had been relatively nice. She managed to persuade the policeman that she had jumped from the train after a rape attempt. The three girls were sent to Czstochowa, where Tsiporah told the head of the Judenrat about the gas chambers.
Fearing she would be punished if it were revealed that she was the source of the horrifying news, she implored him that if anyone asked him for the source of the information he should say that two men who had come to the ghetto had told him about the existence of the death camps.
For decades later she wondered if she could have done more. Then, in 2010, at the Shabbat Hatan (a special celebration preceding a wedding) for her granddaughter Yael and her fiancée Matan, she learned that Matan’s grandfather, Ben Zion Koren, had fled the Czstochowa ghetto a short time after she’d arrived. When Tsiporah asked why he had fled, it turned out that the head of the Judenrat had told him about two men who had revealed that the Germans were annihilating the Jews with gas, which spurred him to flee to the forests.
After Czstochowa, Tsiporah bounced among several work camps where they made different types of weapons for the German army, which was gradually sinking into defeat. She was living in inhuman conditions while hearing the thunder of the allied artillery when she was forced to run to the train station and ended up on a train to Bergen-Belsen.
There she suffered from typhus and dysentery, “But I came out of it and told myself that evil cannot control the world, I just wanted to stay alive,” she says. “I remember lying on the floor, I couldn’t walk anymore, and some German came and turned me over with his boot, that’s how weak I was. He said, ‘Shvartze, this is the end for you.’ I tightened my fists and said to myself, ‘you’re wrong, I’m going to live.’”
In April 1945 the British liberated Bergen-Belsen. She still gets emotional when she talks about how she crawled to the gate and saw the first British tanks and the white flag the Germans had hung on the camp’s tower. She remained there several months and slowly recovered. During that period she was forced to carry many bodies to the ovens, since the smell was so awful that one could hardly live there.
It was in that awful place that she met Haim Sheinzinger, a Polish-Jewish soldier who had joined the British Armored Corps. They married on January 8, 1946, her 23rd birthday, without a suit or a wedding dress – without anything, actually, as both were the last remaining members of their families.
She was sent by the Red Cross to Sweden, while he still had to finish his army service. They were reunited in London, moved to Scotland, and after they’d somewhat established themselves, they moved to Israel in 1961 with their only daughter, Leora, my mother.
In more ways than one, her life stopped in Europe, where she experienced loss and abuse that’s hard to describe, and coped bravely with situations that seem so distant from the peaceful woman who celebrated her 96th birthday this year. She always makes sure to say she’s happy. If you ask why, she talks with a gleam in her eye about her five great-grandchildren, three of whom are my children. They are mischievous children without a care in the world, who wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for their great-grandmother’s story of courage. “This is my victory,” Tsiporah says.