A Twinkle in My Grandfather's Eye: Israeli Woman Learns About Dead Mother's Unlikely Survival Story Through Personal Diary

My grandfather's wartime diary sheds light on the fate of Jews from the small Polish town of Sokal - including Einat Drach's mother, who knew little about her story.

It was almost pure coincidence that brought the two of us together several weeks ago. Yet another of those emails from someone who had learned of my connection to the town of Sokal, searching for any information I might have about survivors, or, as in this case, simply wanting to connect. This time it happened to be a woman from a small communal village up in the Galilee.

Of the 6,000 Jews who had lived in Sokal − a small town in Eastern Poland ‏(now part of Ukraine‏) − before the war, only about 30 survived it, among them eight members of my family and, as it turned out, five members of hers, including her mother.

Had she lived, Einat Drach’s mother would have celebrated her 80th birthday last week. But she died 30 years ago, three months short of Einat’s wedding day.

Her mother, Mania, later known as Miriam, never talked much about her past or how she survived the Holocaust. The only information Einat was able to elicit from her over the years was that she had escaped a series of roundups in the Sokal ghetto, thereby avoiding deportation to the death camps.

Together with her parents and baby brother, Mania eventually fled the ghetto and was given shelter by a local Ukrainian family. However, after several months of hiding, the young girl, for whatever reason, took off on her own into the forests and convinced another Ukrainian family to take her in. Miraculously, she, her parents and her brother all survived.

The photographs Mania left behind show an extremely beautiful young woman with dark hair, blue eyes and a ready smile. They exude a vitality that Einat, the eldest of three children, finds unusual, looking back. “Most of what I remember is her long and excruciating battle with cancer, and when I’d push her to fight harder, all she’d say is she left all her strength behind back there,” she recalls.

Several years ago, Einat, herself a mother of three, turned 50, passing the age her mother had been when she ultimately lost her battle to cancer. Einat believes something about safely crossing that mark prompted her to embark on a rather unusual project: videotaping the recollections of any individuals she can find who knew or knew of her mother, her ultimate goal being to edit the collection into a short personal documentary.

For Einat, it’s as much about creating a legacy for the eight grandchildren her mother never knew or saw, as it is about fitting together the bits and pieces of the puzzle that was Mania’s life.

And here’s how, thanks to my late grandfather’s dogged insistence on chronicling his own experiences during the war and those of his fellow townspeople, I was able to help her out with one significant piece of that puzzle.

Several weeks before Einat contacted me, while researching another story I had met Rivka Aderet, a film expert and curator from Beit Hatfutsot: the Museum of the Jewish People, and a leading authority on prewar footage of Jewish life in Galicia. We ended up talking about a documentary film I had made about the woman who saved my family along with several others during the Holocaust. Aderet was naturally interested in some of the clips I’d used in my film, since Sokal was located in Eastern Galicia, about 80 kilometers north of Lviv. I offered to send her a copy.

Not long after, at the suggestion of a neighbor who had learned about her project, Einat happened to contact Aderet to find out whether any films had ever been made about Sokal. “Funny you should ask,” was Aderet’s response, “because we just had a woman send us one last week. Here’s her email.” And thus the connection was made.

No less curious about her family’s survival story than she was about mine, I asked Einat to call me as soon as I received her email. At one point in our conversation, I stopped her and asked what her mother’s name was. “Mania, and later in Israel, she became Miriam.”

“And the last name?”

“Schiffenbauer.”

The name definitely rang a bell, so I asked Einat to stay on the line while I grabbed a book from the shelf. It was the English translation of my grandfather’s wartime diary, and I quickly found the passage I was looking for.

Young survivor

“Einat, I hope you’re sitting down, because I have something I want to you to hear,” I said. I began to read her the passage in my grandfather’s diary that told the story of her mother, about how she had been taken for dead after the war, but about how one day in August 1944, dressed in rags and holding a small bag, she suddenly showed up in town, approached my grandfather in the street and asked him if there were any Schiffenbauers left alive, and about how overjoyed my grandfather was to discover this young survivor and reunite her with her family.

Also contained in that passage was the answer to the mystery of why little Mania had left the hiding placing she shared with her family and gone out into the forest on her own. “Three months before the liberation, the man at whose home the Schiffenbauers had taken shelter told them he wouldn’t be able to keep them in the house much longer,” my grandfather, Moshe Maltz, wrote in his diary. “The 12-year-old girl said to him, ‘That’s all right. I’ll leave and go somewhere else so you have one less person to worry about.’”

It was a few weeks later that Einat showed up at my doorstep, her tripod and camcorder in hand, along with a bunch of old photo albums she had come to share.

By then she’d had some time to digest the passages I’d shared from my grandfather’s diary. After thinking it over, she told me she wasn’t all that surprised by her mother’s act of altruism. It reminded her of yet another story, one she had somehow forgotten over the years but which now seemed to make much more sense.

When the Schiffenbauer family had decided to flee the Sokal ghetto, sometime in the spring of 1943, they were stopped soon after they snuck out by an armed German soldier. “My mother would always tell me how he pointed his gun at them, but rather than huddle together and hold onto each other − what she thought would have been the most natural thing to do in that situation − each of her parents ran off in a different direction, her father carrying the baby boy, leaving her, an 11-year-old, alone in front of the German. My mother grabbed his knee and begged for mercy. ‘Don’t you have children of your own?’ she pleaded with him. He pushed her away, but she ran back and grabbed him again, holding on even tighter this time, until finally he shoved her away and said, ‘Just get out of my way. I never want to see any of you again.’ And that’s how she saved her family from his bullets.”

Einat showed me her mother’s photos. I showed her the original Yiddish version of my grandfather’s diary. We talked about how strange it was that here we were sitting in an apartment in Tel Aviv, when almost 70 years ago, her mother had that remarkable encounter with my grandfather in the streets of Sokal. We talked about how hard it was to imagine a child that young having the courage to put her life on the line for others.

Having lived longer without her mother than with her, Einat was grateful beyond words to be handed back a piece of this very special woman, who suffered for so much of her relatively short life. As for me, I was grateful yet again to the man who’d had the foresight to put it all down in writing, enabling me, his granddaughter, to experience remarkable encounters like this one so many years later. 

Nir Keidar