Mary (Marysia) Stawska Elkan was born in Czestochowa, Poland, to Regina and Meir Stawska. The Stawska family lost their business and were forced to relocate into the portion of the city that became a ghetto after the German occupation. Mary worked as a slave laborer, including inspecting bullets in the ammunitions factory in the ghetto, Hasag-Pelcery. There she met her future husband, Morris Elkan.
Czestochowa was liberated by Russian forces on January 16, 1945. After trying to locate members of their family, Mary and Morris made their way to Bamberg, Germany, which was in the American zone. Mary later found out that her brother, Janek, was killed while working for the Underground, and her parents were murdered in the gas chambers at Treblinka.
Although Mary wanted to emigrate to Palestine, Morris's only remaining family member, a sister, lived in Atlanta, so the couple decided to make their new home here. The couple arrived in Atlanta on July 4th, 1949.
Morris, who had some experience in the camp dying hair to get an extra piece of bread, became an apprentice to Mr. Adolf in the Doctor's Building on Peachtree Street and earned his license as a beautician. Eventually, the Elkans were able to buy a small beauty shop where Mary, after having given up her childhood dream of becoming a pharmacist, worked as the receptionist.
So coming in here coming to the States, especially on July 4th meant to us a lot, a lot. I remember going closer with the ship and looking at the Statue of Liberty. It just warmed my heart. I said, "God is alive." I came here with my husband and my little toddler, Jeannie, which is named after my mother, Regina, and we could still see people walking around with flags when we came to Atlanta. It was early afternoon and we were so sad that we missed the parades or whatever. The flags were still flying, and that was just a wonderful feeling, just to be free and just to make sure that we're going to raise our family on this happy ground. Not on that ground there, that is soaked with blood.
How would you say Morris was affected by the war afterwards? How did it affect his outlook, his personality, his values?
Well, he was always very happy-go-lucky. You know - We are here now. And he would quiet me, you know, many times during the night. I would get up screaming, because I felt like I'm running, and I just had the doorknob right in my hand, and it's further, its further, I cannot open it up. And here, you know, I mean, I was chased. And so I would get up sweating and screaming, and he would wake me up, "Shhh, you are free. Don't worry, we are here, we are in America. I'm protecting you, nobody will do us any harm." So he was, he was pretty optimistic.
Were you and your husband aware of raising your children in any particular way or with any particular attitude?
Do you know that we tried our best to mask all that, because I remember in school, the children had some programs or whatever and mine would come back, "Well, Susan's parents were there, both of their grandparents were there. Where are our grandparents? Don't we have any cousins? Where are they? Are they going to come?" And I said, "no, they cannot come." "Well, can we send them a ticket? Can we buy them a ticket so they can come? And I say, "Well, we don't have the money to send them a ticket." "But you can charge it!" Which was so funny, because they learn very early, you know, you don't have the money, you just go in charge it. We did not discuss with them anything because it was very difficult. I was really choking. I can't. To this day, I was asked so many times to come and speak. I can't, because I'm breaking down. I just can't. I'm really choking with tears.
About religion, if you go through times like we did during that the war, it's very easy, because you hope. And who is there? We trust in God. So that trust was gone, until we joined the Ahavath Achim synagogue with Rabbi Epstein, because we wanted our child to grow up knowing that she is Jewish. And just many times I was rebelling. Why should I go there? Nobody's there to listen to us. They didn't listen to us before, so who's going to listen now? But once you're there, once I listened to the sermons and opened the book, and even if I do not understand Hebrew sometimes it made me feel like, like a child comfortable on a mother's shoulder. You know? The mother holds you tight. This is how it felt to me, and that was that way of return again.Life Lessons and Perspectives
What message would you like to convey? What would you want people to learn from testimony like this?
I would love for people to know that the world is beautiful. The world is just beautiful, and there's room for everybody. But there's no room for hatred. People have to learn to be people, to be humans, to do something worthwhile, instead [of] just trying to see who they can hurt next.