Survivor STORY

In a small room in the ghetto, they gathered as a family for the last time. Tosia’s grandmother, Tzril, showed her family members the two Sabbath candlesticks that she had refused to give up when the Nazis took all of their valuables. She told them that if anyone were to survive, she wanted them to have these precious heirlooms that had been passed from one generation to another. With that, she placed them in a box and buried them in the garden.

The theft of her family’s possessions was only the beginning for Tosia Schneider. When the Nazis invaded the small, Polish town of Horodenka, they forced her family and the other 5,000 Jews into a narrow portion of the city: the ghetto. As Tosia packed up her things, she placed her pet kitten on the cart they were using to move her family’s meager belongings, but her mother, Genia, forbade her. “There won’t be enough food,” she told Tosia. Sure enough, her mother, a teacher, was right again.

Within the walls of the ghetto, conditions were cramped and there was never enough to eat; everyone was starving. The Jews of Horodenka lived in fear of the Nazis and the random shootings that took place everyday. They were all required to wear a white armband with the blue Star of David, which the Nazis intended to use as a form of humiliation. However, Tosia and her fellow Jews wore the armbands with pride. “It was a passport to death but was not a badge of shame,” she remembers.

One day, the Nazis ordered everyone to line up for a typhus vaccination. However, Tosia’s parents wondered suspiciously why the Nazis were taking a sudden interest in the health of the Jews. Instead of going for their vaccinations, her family hid in the flour mill where her father worked. They came out of hiding only to find that the 2,500 Jews who had lined up for the vaccination had been taken out and shot. Adding insult to injury, the surviving Jews were forced to pay for the bullets used to shoot their friends. The next time the Nazis called for a line up, Tosia’s family hid again. As a result, they escaped deportation and murder at the Belzec death camp, a fate suffered by most of the remaining Jews in the ghetto.

In October of 1942, Tosia said goodbye to her father, Jakob. He was considered a “valuable” Jew for his services as the manager of a flour mill, and was required to stay behind when the rest of the family was deported to the Tluste ghetto. He promised to bring his family back to live with him, but the plan did not work out. That was the last time Tosia ever saw him. She later learned that he died in the Holocaust. The same hunger and deprivation they had experienced in Horodenka also existed in the Tluste ghetto. Suffering from starvation, her mother contracted typhus, and died in the winter of 1942.

Now orphans, Tosia and her older brother Julek were deported to the Lisoce labor camp where they were forced to work in the fields. Throughout the summer of 1943, Tosia and Julek labored around the clock on a threshing machine, working alternate shifts. During one of her breaks, the SS came to the fields and started shooting. The commander of the work detail rode out on horseback and ordered them to stop, but it was too late. The next morning, Tosia found Julek dead in a mass grave that he had been forced to dig before his murder. He was only seventeen years old.

After that, Tosia felt no reason to live. The only thing that kept her going was her mother’s admonition for her to survive and tell the world about the atrocities. However, without her family, life was almost unbearable. One day, her French commander approached and asked her age. Tosia lied and told him she was eighteen. As a result, she was allowed to work for the summer, knitting sweaters. She quickly became friends with another girl in the house named Fritzka. This break from the toils of the labor camp saved Tosia’s life.

When winter came, however, the two had to go back to the barracks. In the harsh conditions, Fritzka contracted typhus. Tosia would bring her snow to try to cool down her raging fever, but there was no hope. When Tosia left for the fields one morning, she somehow knew that it would be her dear friend’s last day. While she worked, Tosia heard shots. When she returned, her friend was gone and all that remained was a blood stain in the snow in front of the barracks. She later heard that when they came to take her, a young person offered to help her into her shoes, to which Fritzka replied, “Where I’m going, I don’t need any shoes.” Tears still well up in Tosia’s eyes when she talks about her dear friend.

After that, news of the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad kept her going. In March of 1944, the Russians liberated her camp. Even then, though, she was not out of imminent danger. Soon after liberation, the Germans bombed the camp in order to kill as many Jews as possible and get rid of the living evidence to the atrocities they had committed. Fortunately, Tosia escaped the bombing.

After liberation, Tosia experienced anger, loss and confusion. Her faith in both G-d and man were sorely tested. She moved to the United States to join her aunt. In 1950, she married Fred Schneider, also a Holocaust survivor. Today, they have three sons and five grandchildren. She now lives to carry out her mother’s wish that she tell the world of her experiences. She has not been able to retrieve her grandmother’s candlesticks, but this remains a dream that Tosia wishes to fulfill.

Today, when Tosia talks about her experiences, she says, “I hope my children and grandchildren will try to understand and take to heart the history of our people, our family. And I hope that they will always be mindful of the dignity of every human being, and struggle against bigotry and discrimination.”

Judaism and Jewishness

What I do recall, rather than particular poems or things, is a sense of the great sense of love that they instilled in us for our heritage, for our traditions, the sense of ethics and faith that had in so short a time be challenged so severely. And yet, when I look back and I think, how could they do it in such a short time? You know, they had us, when the war ended, started rather, I completed 4th grade elementary school and yet the sense of who I was and of what was expected of me, what I wanted out of life was so clear. And yet, both my parents and the school had such a short period of time to instill that sense for us … As a person of Jewish faith, no matter how they tried to denigrate us, the Germans, no matter what they tried to do, I had a feeling I knew who I was. It was they who was, they who were, an animal behavior and just beyond contempt. No matter what they said I knew who my people were. As we will later speak about, I had an opportunity to live on Aryan papers, and when I tried to think that I would have to live in a world without Jews, to try to live, pretend that I am something that I am not, I just couldn't do it.

Liberation

And I remember waking up the next morning and going to the window and I couldn't believe my eyes. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I couldn't believe my eyes. There were streetcars on the road, people were walking, women in high heels. It was like a town, like the war wasn't - the total devastation a few miles away. It was unbelievable ... So a few of us went down on the street and were standing on a street corner - needless to say we were quite a sight. As I said, I had wooden shoes, I had a Ukrainian peasant dress that I wore for - and Jews started, surrounding us and asking questions, "Where are you from?" Most, many people had relatives across the border in Poland. And a man came over and asked me, I told him I was from Horodenka, he said he was a cousin of my mother's and took me home with him. And so there, I came in there and the first thing, my aunt (I called her my aunt, they eventually adopted me), I took, I said burn my clothes, and scrubbed me from head to toe. And I remember for the first time looking in the mirror in the bathroom and being totally shocked. I remember a child's face. I didn't know when I grew up, and I didn’t know, I haven’t seen myself for all these years.

Coping

Nobody thought of trying to help us. Nobody thought of, that it was something necessary. We just tried to swim or sink the best we could. And as I said, the best thing she could say is, "Forget about it and start a new life." And even when I was married, I would wake up screaming, my husband would wake me up screaming many a time. It was usually the same dream.

Bad dreams?

Yes. But then life takes over. We were married 1950; our first son was born in ‘53 in New York. And I thought I will never have children. First of all, when the war was over I thought to myself that I never want to love anybody, I never want to lose anybody, that I'll just live my life by myself. And then I thought that bringing children into the world, Jewish children, and yet there were so many conflicting feelings. Then I wanted to repopulate, I wanted to have a big family, to try to reconstitute if you will, the life that was.

Explore themes found in this biography:

Tosia Schneider