In November 1940, when Ephraim Apter was a year old, the gates of the Warsaw Ghetto closed and overnight the city's Jews who had been crowded into the area were cut off from the world. His father Max, a salesman for Max Factor cosmetics established by a Polish Jew who immigrated to the United States found himself far from his job beyond the ghetto walls. But he could still make a living selling cosmetics to women.
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“Who bought cosmetics in the ghetto? Who thought in that hell about lipstick and face or hand cream?” said 76-year-old Apter last week in his home in Tel Aviv. He answered the question himself.
“It turns out that within the misery the poverty and despair in the ghetto there were women who tried to maintain their femininity. A little makeup could create an illusion of life and hope, and paint their black lives pink.”
In later years his father told him that in the ghetto's streets one could see corpses on the sidewalks, and walking alongside them were women wearing lipstick and rouge.
A friend and client of Max’s by the name of Zygmunt Bonczak was the owner of a drugstore chain. When he noticed the distress of the Apter family in the ghetto, he got his own family to smuggle Max and Ephraim out of the ghetto in a dangerous operation and in great danger to himself. He also took care of Zina, Max’s wife and Ephraim’s mother, who escaped on her own.
The first of the lucky ones was Ephraim, who looked Polish Christian as much as anything else. Zygmunt’s brother entered the ghetto on his bicycle, loaded Ephraim into the bike's basket, and away they went, pretending they were father and son. The Bonczaks later told Ephraim that a German guard even patted his head.
The destination was the Warsaw suburb where the Bonczaks lived. Ephraim adopted the name and identity of a Polish Christian child, learned to pray to Jesus and to cross himself. He was ordered “never to make pee outdoors,” as he put it, so that the other children wouldn't see that he was circumcised.
One of them, Jurek, whose mother was murdered in the Holocaust, was also a Jew. The Bonczaks hid him and his father too.
Ephraim’s parents remained in the ghetto for the time being. His mother left the ghetto every morning to work in a German textile factory. One evening, about a year after being separated from Ephraim, she was arrested by German soldiers in a roundup while she was returning from the factory. At the notorious Umschlagplatz square she saw how the Germans were forcing the Jews to board the train waiting there. That was supposed to be her fate too.
The following seconds were like a scene out of a movie. “She realized she had nothing to lose, and in a flash she decided to pull out all the stops,” Apter says.
Next to the train car that was supposed to take her to her death, she looked a young German soldier straight in the eye and in fluent German asked him to spare her life.
“Do you have a mother in Germany? Is she waiting for you to come home safe and sound?” she asked him. When he said yes, she said: “I have a little boy whom I love very much who is waiting for me to return to him.”
The soldier may have been hypnotized by Zina’s beauty or captivated by her charm, or shocked by her chutzpah. Whatever the case, he let her go and she fled as fast as she could. Within a few hours she was able to see her son again, and found refuge alongside him with the Bonczak family.
Now Zygmunt Bonczak began to plan how to smuggle out Max, Ephraim’s father. He did so via the city’s sewage system a few days before Christmas 1942. For fear that his Jewish appearance would endanger his family and the Bonczaks, Max found a hideout in a remote village with an old friend, a Jewish agronomist, who was married to a Polish woman and was also pretending to be Polish.
Later Zina and Ephraim were also brought there, after several months with the Bonczak family. There they hid until they were released by Russian soldiers on their way to Berlin in 1945.
“We heard the artillery. As a child I was terribly impressed by it. Suddenly the door of the cellar where we were hiding opened, and a Russian soldier appeared. My mother, who was born in Russia, jumped on him joyfully and spoke Russian to him,” says Apter.
His father Max left the cellar on crutches because after so many months in hiding he had trouble walking.
“He took me to the main road, where the Russians were arranging the corpses of thousands of German soldiers,” Apter recalls. He still remembers his father’s words: “Look how the wheel turns. These people on the ground are the people we were so afraid of until a short time ago.”
When the war ended Ephraim was 6 years old. At the end of 1948 he immigrated to Israel with his parents. “I ignored my past and hid it. We didn’t talk about the Holocaust at home. The subject was taboo,” he says.
In his new home in Tel Aviv he tried to go back to being a child. “I came to Israel without any formal education. Until then I hadn’t learned a single song, I didn’t know about the Jewish holidays, the Bible, mathematics nothing. I didn’t have a childhood. I didn’t even attend kindergarten,” he says.
There were other problems. “I was a child with clear fears of abandonment. I was afraid that my parents would disappear and I would be alone in the world, because all our relatives were destroyed in the Holocaust. It haunted me for years,” he says.
When he was drafted into the army, where he served as an artillery officer, his transformation into an Israeli was complete. He fought in the Six-Day War, the 1967-70 War of Attrition against Egypt, the Yom Kippur War, and the first Lebanon war. Despite the fear of losing their only son, his parents let him serve as a combat soldier. “They were proud of me,” he says.
His father Max started a small cosmetics factory that manufactured creams and perfumes. The younger Apter, who studied economics, joined the business and later imported the products of world-renowned companies. He became wealthy.
In the '80s Apter renewed the connection with the Polish family that saved him, visited the elderly Zygmunt Bonczak in Poland, and asked Yad Vashem to recognize them as Righteous Among the Nations. In 1988 Zygmunt, his wife Jadwiga, and his parents Jozef and Maria received recognition as Righteous Gentiles.
“I’m not sure whether I would have been able to do what the Bonczaks did for me," Apter says. "I don’t know whether I would have had the courage, the emotional strength and the humanity that they showed.”