In the summer of 1944, Liesje Polak, a young Jewish woman from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, experienced a miracle. Just a few months her parents' deportation to a death camp from which they were never to return, Polak boarded a train in Nazi Germany on her way to British-ruled Palestine. Her unprecedented stroke of luck was made possible by the conclusion of one of several prisoner exchange agreements between Germany and Britain during World War II.
Polak was among a tiny group included on a list of 222 Jews whom the Nazis gathered at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in preparation to send them to Palestine in exchange for members of the German Christian Templer community, whom the British were deporting to Germany. Figures from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem show that only some 550 Jews escaped Nazi-occupied Europe between 1941 and 1945 through such agreements.
When Polak, whose later married name was Auerbach and who used the Hebrew first name of Elisheva, was told by the Nazis that she would be going to Palestine, she couldn't believe her ears. Hope had become reality, she wrote in a book "Broken Silence" that she coauthored with in her sister, Betty. It was unbelievable, she recounted, to find herself in a regular train car with seats and windows on her way to freedom in the land of Israel.
But the journey to freedom was riddled with frustration and concern. At times the train was forced to stop due to debris that had piled up on the tracks from artillery shelling. Up to the last moment, she harbored the fear that the rescue operation would fail. Would she really make it to Palestine or, in a typical act of Nazi cunning, would her group be sent to their deaths? she wondered.
When the group arrived in Vienna, they were housed in a building under the auspices of the Red Cross. From the window of her room, she was to witness a scene of horror. In the yard of the building, she saw trucks full of Hungarian Jews on their way to Auschwitz, weeping, terrified, shocked. Polak stood watching, terrified and petrified. What could she do for them? she wondered. She threw them a little bread. And while they were on their way to detention and death, she was on her way to freedom and life.
The following day, she departed Vienna with the rest of her group on a train journey via Hungary and Bulgaria that stopped in Turkey, where they were loaded on a ship that sailed back and forth on the Bosporus until the final arrangements for the exchange of populations was completed. They were then put on a train, in the company of British soldiers, through Syria and Lebanon and ultimately arrived in pre-state Israel.
The entire group, she later recalled, was moved to tears on reaching Israel, and began singing Hatikva, the national anthem of the Zionist movement and later of the State of Israel. Truth be told, she said, they did more crying than singing. As they headed for Haifa, their route was lined with people welcoming them and throwing flowers and candy into the train's open windows. Despite a sense that they were in a foreign country, with people speaking a language that she did not know, she was now home, she later wrote.
Once settled, she enrolled in the nursing program at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital, finishing nursing studies that she had begun at the Jewish hospital in Amsterdam. And having had her life spared once in the Nazi-British prisoner exchange, in April 1948, it was spared again, during Israel's War of Independence.
Hadassah Hospital, on Mount Scopus, was under siege at the time and travel to and from the area was only possible by armored convoy. On April 12, on leaving home to join a convoy to the hospital, she was advised that the trip was too dangerous and that she should go home and try again the following day. Her classmates were thrilled to learn that they had the day off, but she had nothing to do at home and insisted on making the trip.
She arrived at Mount Scopus unharmed. The convoy the following day, however, was ambushed by Arab attackers, who killed 78 people, including her fellow nursing school classmates.
Among her patients later was none other than Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Imagine, she wrote to her sister, Betty, who survived the Holocaust and with whom she wrote "Broken Silence." She was given the task of giving Ben-Gurion a shot in his behind! When she approached Ben-Gurion, her hands were shaking with excitement. But, she added, Ben-Gurion was entirely devote of pretention.
After the War of Independence, she married Hans Auerbach, another survivor of Bergen-Belsen, and they settled in Moshav Regba in the north of Israel. Liesje Auerbach-Polak died last month at the age of 95. She is survived by two children, five grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and her sister, Betty Bausch-Polak, who is 97.