Survivor STORY

"The world must know of the horrors that can be committed by humans to other human beings in order to learn how to guard against it ever happening again.”

Bella Urbach, was born on Aug. 22, 1931 in Zdunska Wola, Poland, a suburb of the industrial city of Lodz. Her parents, Abram and Golda, owned a textile factory and Bella had a good life – attending school, handling chores around the house and helping care for her four younger siblings.

The Nazis changed all that when they invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. One of the first moves they made was to impose a series of laws restricting the rights and freedom of Jews in the country. Fearing for the safety of Bella’s aging grandfather, who lived alone in the nearby village of Pabianice, the Urbach’s decided to have Bella check on him. Bella had blonde hair and fair skin and was able to move about the countryside without drawing much attention. Her father, meanwhile, had to cut off his beard (grown for religious reasons) when he decided to join Bella and his father in Pabianice. His hope was to bring the entire family to the little town, a plan that fell apart when the Germans outlawed travel in Poland without special permission.

Conditions only worsened over the next few weeks and months. Bella’s grandfather was placed in a nursing home – where the family hoped he would be safe. Meanwhile, Bella and her father remained in Pabianice until December of 1941 when the Nazis started selecting Jews for transport to Chelmno, a death camp outside of Lodz. The full mechanized evil of the Holocaust had yet to be put into place – no massive gas chambers or crematoria. Instead, the Nazis killed Jews at Chelmno by locking them in vans, then running a hose from the exhaust system of the trucks into the sealed-off area where the condemned were cramped together. Unfortunately, Bella’s father was deported to the camp. He was never heard from again.

Jews who remained in Pabianice, including Bella, were returned to Lodz and moved into the ghetto there. Like other such areas across Eastern Europe, the space was cramped, often filled with ten times the number of people it had been home to before the war. There was little food and sanitation was poor. Families were often forced to share small apartments with one another, struggling against the elements and the brutal behavior of their guards.

Bella and her 15-year-old brother Moshe were reunited in the ghetto, but she was devastated to learn that her mother and four younger siblings had been murdered by the Nazis. Moshe then told Bella about her older sister, Reisel. She escaped selection, only to watch the rest of her family being marched away. She then noticed a young woman who was pregnant being selected for extermination. Frantic, Reisel told the guards that she was also pregnant so she could be with her mother and the rest of her family – even in death.

Life in the ghetto continued to deteriorate as more people were packed into the small area and the weather turned frigid. The dead and dying were all about – people freezing and starving or succumbing to disease. Moshe, weak and malnourished, contracted tuberculosis. He went to sleep one night and simply didn’t wake in the morning. Bella, now completely alone, fell ill with typhus and was hospitalized.

After being released from the hospital, Bella was sent to work at a munitions factory in the nearby town of Czestochowa. Still weak from her battle with typhus, Bella became ill again, this time with rheumatic fever. One day, weary and unable to work, Bella missed a required roll call. As punishment, she was told she would be beaten and, in her weakened condition, such torture would probably have killed her. A German factory worker took pity on Bella and told the Nazi officer in charge that her work was vital. She was spared and allowed to return to work. Bella has always remembered the man who stepped forward and saved her life. Even in the darkest days of the Holocaust, she recalls, there were people who still understood right from wrong and were willing to perform acts of kindness.

The war continued to rage across Europe as the Nazi death machine swallowed up entire Jewish communities. Ghettos were created, filled with Jews from across the region, then emptied out when everyone – men, women and children – were transported to nearby concentration camps. Before allied troops put an end to Hitler and the Third Reich, six million Jews would be slaughtered. As the fighting played out in January of 1945, Bella was sent to Ravensbruck, a camp for women in Germany. She was stripped, her head shaven, then showered and sprayed with a toxic powder to kill fleas and other disease-carrying vermin. She was given a striped prison uniform to wear with a Jewish star prominently displayed on the front and back of the shirt.

Bella and all the other inmates of thse camp were forced to do grueling manual labor, made even more difficult by the brutality of their captors. A female guard once beat Bella, screaming at her to work harder and faster. During such moments, Bella often wished to die. Yet she also knew she wanted to live and that it was important that she survive to keep the memories of her family and friends, lost in the Holocaust, alive by sharing their stories.

After only a month at Ravensbruck, Bella was on the move again, this time to Dachau, a concentration camp in southern Germany near Munich. It was here that she finally managed to escape, slipping away from her guards as she was being marched to yet another camp. She fled into the nearby Bavarian forest where she found shelter and, the next morning, the help of a farmer. He offered her milk and potatoes for breakfast, a feast for Bella, who hadn’t had much to eat for months. She stayed with the farmer for a few days, then wandered from town to town before finding a farmer in the town of Wiedergeitingen who was willing to take her in.

Once again her blonde hair and fair skin made it easy for her to move about without being noticed. She told the farmer and his family that she was an orphan, knowing that if she had revealed she was a Jew they might be unwilling to shelter her or, worse, call the authorities. She worked hard and over the last few weeks of the war grew close to the family and began enjoying her life on the farm.

Bella didn’t quite understand how close the farm family wanted to be. When the war played itself out a few weeks later, the farmer and his wife told Bella she would marry one of their sons. Bella protested, telling the parents she couldn’t marry their son because she was Jewish. The mother was horrified and Bella learned once again what it felt like to be despised simply because she was a Jew.

Bella made her way to a camp for Jewish refugees. Such “Displaced Person” camps were springing up across Europe, havens where people could find shelter and regain their health and energy. On her first day at the camp, Bella was spotted by another refugee, Pinkus Solnik. He fell in love with her at first site. They were married the following year, On Jan. 29, 1946.

Three years later their first child Golda, named for Bella’s mother, was born in the camp. Later that year the family received permission to immigrate to the United States. They eventually settled in Atlanta and went about the work of recreating their lives. Soon Bella and Pinkus had two more daughters, Betty and Rosalie.

Bella survived the horrors of the Holocaust and has always remembered the promise she made to herself at Ravensbruck, the woman’s camp in Germany – keep the memories of her family and friends alive by sharing their stories. And now her daughters, Betty and Goldie, share her mission. They tell stories of the Holocaust so people will remember those who were lost and, just as importantly, to make sure such an atrocity never happens again.

Racism and Race Relations

So one time actually I went on a bus (we didn't have a car, of course) I went on a bus and I sat down, not on purpose, I just sat down with a black lady. I didn't know it's not allowed. I didn't know that I'm supposed not to do it. But then people came over and told me I should move and I'm not allowed to sit here. And I said, "No, I'm not going to move. Hitler is already dead and I can do whatever I want to! And I don't know the reason why I should move! I sat down here, I want to sit here." And I didn't want to move. And other people came over, I mean, people came constantly over, didn't want to let me sit there. When the black lady, understood more than I did, so she got up and she walked away from me. So, that was the first experience. And I learned, little by little I learned, that - which I didn't think it was the right thing to do - but I learned how that's, actually, the black people didn't have the same rights than the white people, which was very, very surprise to me. I thought I'm coming to a free country.

Making a Living

He worked so many hours, he woke up six o'clock in the morning and came home twelve o'clock at night, in grocery. In one way it was good, because that kept us from becoming insane, kept us not to think what really happened to us, what really we went through. And we were busy having, too busy with everything else than to think about our past. Too busy with work, with raising children, building a home, building, making sure that the children are not different than the rest of them, their friends.

How did you do that? How did you raise American children when you were European?
Well, actually you get, you get Americanized. You do get Americanized, little by little. And when children were a little older, a little bit older, they said to me, "Don't speak Yiddish, speak English to me!" I could speak Yiddish to them and they answered me in English. And they want me to learn English very badly. My husband went to a school for lessons. When he came home he showed me what he learned and that's how we learned, actually.

American Dream

Building a new life in a free country, of course. My husband has now a little pillow what it says, "God bless America." Took in so many people from D.P. camps and every one of us worked very hard, and built up a beautiful life so they can have something for the future. And saved penny by penny. If my husband made ten dollars, I spent five, if my husband made twenty dollars, I spent ten, and that's how it was going up. If he made thirty dollars I spent fifteen, so we can save for the future, and we should not be dependent on anybody else.

And then when we moved to the 14th Street and I still had two children, the third one was born later. I had a neighbor upstairs, Sarah Kinsler, and the children called her Aunt Sarah. And when they started going to school, like first grade and kindergarten and second grade. They, and You know how children can be, "have a grandmother, you don't have a grandmother, I have two grandmothers." She said, "I have a grandmother too. My Aunt Sarah is my grandmother." Because she had gray hair, she was elderly woman at that time from me. And, so the children said, "How can an aunt be your grandmother?" So, but the children suffer, shows you that the children went through, not only I went through, but the children felt that they are different too.

Bella Urbach Solnik