The photo album that 91-year-old Miriam Pollin was leafing through last week at her home in Kfar Vradim comprises an extraordinary record. The pages are filled with striking photographs of the commune in which she found refuge during the Holocaust.
Pollin was one of a group of about 10 Jewish boys and girls who were able to escape Nazi Germany and other Nazi-occupied areas and find shelter in Stockholm. While millions of European Jews were being slaughtered, they started a factory in the Swedish capital that produced wooden toys and decorative objects, and thus helped to support themselves during the 1940s.
For decades, this photo album was kept in the home of Eva Warburg Unger, a German Jew who saved the lives of many children, including Pollin, during the Holocaust, by getting them out of Germany and into Sweden. Unger died a few months ago at age 104. Her family donated the album to the Jeckes Museum, also known as the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, in Tefen.
Pollin, who volunteers in the museum’s archives, was utterly thrilled to come upon this album, and added a description, in German, to each picture. “Here’s Gidi, this is Yocheved. Here you see Yardena and Rachel. This is Tirza and that’s me,” she says, pointing out the pictures.
In addition to the photographs, the Jeckes Museum also holds a number of the wooden toys that were made at the factory. These include figurines of dwarfs, a statue of Bambi and one of Nils Holgersson, the famous Swedish fictional character.
But behind these lovely wooden figures there is a harrowing story. During a visit to the museum last week, Pollin related her life story. For her, World War II didn’t begin in 1939, as the history books say, but six years earlier, when the Nazis came to power. “When people say to me, 'You were so lucky, you got out before the war,’ I correct them. I didn’t miss the war. The war began in 1933,” she says.
Miriam Pollin (nee Kurzbart) was born in 1926 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) and grew up in Hamburg. After the Nazis came to power, the Gestapo began hounding her father Georg (Yom-Tov), who owned a kiosk that sold newspapers and cigarettes, because he was a communist.
Her father was arrested and released several times before ultimately being placed in a concentration camp. He later immigrated to America with a new wife after he divorced her mother. Her sister also went to America. Her brother went to Palestine, where he subsequently enlisted in the British Army.
Pollin remained in Germany with her mother, a hat maker. Conditions for Jews were steadily worsening, especially around the time of Kristallnacht in November 1938. “I went to the store to buy bread. The store was full of people. When my turn came, the saleswoman said: ‘I don’t sell bread to Jews.’ It was horrible. And no one said anything,” Pollin recalls.
Later on, from the window of her home, she saw a German teacher with his students throwing a rock at the window of the nearby synagogue. She also remembers seeing Gestapo officers going around with flashlights searching for Jewish names on the front doors of houses.
She was saved from a similar fate thanks to Eva Warburg Unger, a German Jewish woman from a wealthy Hamburg family who had immigrated to Sweden and managed to bring many Jewish children there from Germany. “Eva had a way of giving every child the feeling that she had a special love for them. When she looked at me, I knew she was looking within me and knew all my fears,” says Pollin.
A few months before the war broke out, Warburg arranged for Miriam Pollin to emigrate. On February 1, 1939, she boarded a train on her way to Sweden. “My mother escorted me to the train and she was crying. But I didn’t know that this was the last time I’d ever see her,” says Pollin, before bursting into tears herself.
In Sweden, Pollin joined a commune of young Jews, all of them refugees ripped from their families in occupied Europe who’d found refuge in Stockholm. Together they opened a factory to make wooden toys and decorative objects. “Joining this group saved my life,” she says.
“We worked hard and we had success,” she says. “We made wooden animals and gnomes and figurines of Jesus and Mary.” When they could take a break from work, the members of the commune found time for cultural life. The photo album includes pictures of a play they put on, with scenes from different periods in Jewish history, including one about Jewish slaves in Egypt and one about the Jews in the camps. “We were only 16-19 years old, but we acted like grown-ups,” says Pollin.
In the commune, she also met her future husband, Oshi. “He also came from Germany. When he arrived at the commune, I warmed up some food for him and listened to his story of how he traveled as a stowaway on a ship bound for Denmark,” she says. “Within three weeks, he was mine – for the rest of his life. I was 17 at the time and he was 19. We were together for 72 years after that.”
But the escape Pollin found in Sweden was overshadowed by the fate of her mother, who was left on her own in Germany and ultimately deported to her death. Pollin received her last letter from her in November 1941. “My mother wrote that they were starting to send people away, and that she was going to be sent away too. She wrote that I wouldn’t hear from her for a long time, but that we’d see each other again, and she asked me to make sure I kept in touch with my siblings,” she says.
After the war, she and Oshi came to Palestine. When the first ship they were on was turned back to Cyprus, they escaped by digging a tunnel underneath the detention camp. When she finally arrived here, Pollin says, “Only here did I feel like I’d come home,” she says. Her first job was as a dishwasher at the legendary Penguin Café in Nahariya, which has now been in operation for 77 years. Later on, she became a tour guide. Today she is a grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of seven which makes her “the richest woman in the world,” as she describes it.