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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:            PENINA BOWMAN
INTERVIEWER:       JOHN KENT
DATE:                      JULY 31, 2000

LOCATION:             ATLANTA, GEORGIA

Transcript (PDF)

BIOGRAPHY

Penina Bowman was born Pszy Weisz in Cluj, Romania on April 19, 1927. She grew up in a very Orthodox home with her parents, one brother and two sisters. As a teen, Penina enjoyed reading and studied to be a seamstress.

In 1940, the area of Romania that Penina’s family lived in was annexed by Hungary, an ally of Nazi Germany. More and more restrictions were imposed on Jews until the Jews of Cluj were finally rounded up in May 1940. After more than a week in an overcrowded brick factory with no food except what they had brought with them, the family was loaded onto a train and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Penina’s family was separated when they arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her brother and father were transported on to the Dachau concentration camp, where her father would later die. Penina’s mother was sent directly to the gas chambers while Penina, her sisters and an aunt were sent to a barracks. Penina and her two sisters managed to escape the constant selections, although their aunt was eventually taken from them. Finally after six months, all three sisters were selected for a transport to the Mahrisch Weisswasser labor camp in Czechoslovakia. Penina and her two sisters spent the next six months working in an electronics factory. The Soviet army liberated Mahrisch Weisswasser on May 8, 1945.

Penina and her sisters travelled back to Cluj after the war. One sister reunited with her fiancée and decided to remain in Cluj. Penina and her other sister joined a youth group headed to Palestine. The sisters travelled with the group throughout Europe, eventually stopping in Salzburg, Austria, where they were reunited with their brother. Penina was also introduced to an American soldier, Harold Bowman, in Salzburg. Penina and Harold dated until he was sent back to the United States. Penina and her two siblings soon moved on to Italy and in 1946, boarded a ship to Palestine. The British intercepted the ship and the siblings were sent to Cyprus and later interred in Atlit. Meanwhile, Harold had come to Palestine to study in Tel Aviv. Harold and Penina were reunited and married in March 1947.

In October 1947, the young couple moved to the United States so Harold could complete law school. Penina and Harold settled in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois and later moved to Clearwater, Florida and Houston, Texas. While raising three children, Penina was busy writing, painting, gardening, bowling, and volunteering in numerous organizations. In 1993, Penina and Harold moved to Atlanta, Georgia to be closer to their three grandchildren. Harold died in 2008 and Penina passed away in 2018.

Scope of Interview:

Penina introduces her family and describes growing up in a very Orthodox family in Cluj, Romania. She talks about the influence of Zionism as well as the antisemitism and restrictions her family encountered in the early years of World War II. Penina recounts how her family was rounded up and transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She recalls how her aunt influenced her life. Penina credits her sisters with helping her survive in Auschwitz-Birkenau and later in a labor camp. She describes the cruelty of the camp guards. Penina explains how her experiences did not impact her positive attitude and how she shared the lessons with her children and friends. She talks about returning home after the war and reuniting with her brother. Penina recollects how other survivors struggled to adjust to life after the war. She explains how she met her future husband in Austria and her experiences traveling through Europe with other survivors intent on immigrating to Palestine. Penina details her arrival in Palestine and reuniting with her husband. She explains how she and her husband moved to the United States. Penina reflects on her decision to not let her experiences overshadow her positive attitude. She shares how raising her children, maintaining a religious home, continuing to learn and keeping busy helped her achieve a balance in her life. Penina mentions how other survivors sought revenge after liberation. She discusses travelling to Europe and Israel. She contracts how she and her children have processed her experiences with the way her siblings and other survivors have. Penina reflects Israel’s statehood and the lessons of the Holocaust. Penina shares how much she enjoys being a grandparent.

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