My Bobba’s Story (Ann Monka)
by Shari Lippa (2003)
The word Holocaust means devastation, destruction, and total consummation by fire. The Holocaust was the worst genocide in recent history. Today, the word specifically refers to what is one of the darkest periods in modern history. Years of terror during which one nation and its leader, Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, tried to annihilate the Jews of Europe, and succeeded in destroying six million of them. World War II, a global military conflict that, in terms of lives lost and material destruction, was the most devastating war in human history. It began in 1939 as a European conflict between Germany and an Anglo-French coalition but eventually widened to include most of the nations of the world. It ended in 1945, leaving a new world order dominated by the United States and the USSR. Ann Monka, my grandmother, is a survivor of World War II, and shares with me, her most astounding years as a child in World War II.
Adolf Hitler was a German political and military leader and one of the twentieth century's most powerful dictators. Hitler converted Germany into a fully militarized society and launched World Was II in 1939. He made anti-Semitism a keystone of his propaganda and policies and built the Nazi Party into a mass movement. He hoped to conquer the entire world, and for a time dominated most of Europe and much of North Africa. He instituted sterilization to enforce his idea of racial purity among German people and caused the slaughter of millions of Jews. Jews were not the only victims of the Nazis during World War II. The Nazis also imprisoned and killed people who opposed their regime on grounds of ideology, such as Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, Germans who were mentally impaired or physically disabled, and captured Soviet soldiers. Hitler began to form his political views: a strong sense of German nationalism, the beginnings of anti-Semitism, and a distaste for the ruling family and political structure of Austria-Hungary. Like many German-speaking citizens of Austria-Hungary, Hitler considered himself first and foremost a German.
My grandma, Ann Monka, who I call “Bobba,” miraculously survived World War II. It is hard for her to tell her story at times, so this is why I chose to interview her. I finally got a chance to better understand her story and pass it on to others. My grandma is a very strong woman who faced a hard life. She has a great personality and always makes others feel important. Ann was at the tender age of ten when World War II broke out in 1939. This began a decade of horror and displacement for her and many others. She witnessed the destruction of her town, mass executions, and deportations of Jews to concentration camps. Her life as she knew it ended abruptly. Ann said, “I still remember, although sixty years have passed since the war began, all the atrocities that took place. Being so young when the war broke out and because the Holocaust years had such a great impact on my childhood and growing up, I haven’t forgotten anything.”
Ann Monka was born in the city of Lida, Poland. It is located in the eastern part of Poland. Ann said, “It was a small city, which had a population of 30,000, of which 12,000 were Jewish.” Her immediate family consisted of her parents Leon and Sarah Stolowitzki, her sister Bella, and brother Michael. Her father was a controller of a large brewery in Lida. Ann lived in a middle class neighborhood in a wooden, three family home. The house belonged to her grandmother, who had three children and gave each child an apartment. They spoke Yiddish in their home. Ann attended a public school from first grade through fifth. She attended a Jewish school where they spoke Hebrew and Polish. She later attended a Russian school where she learned Russian.
In 1941, after a very heavy bombing, the city of Lida was occupied by the Germans. Ann’s first recollection on this bombing was that her home was burned down right in front of her eyes and she remained homeless. A ghetto was formed and all the Jews needed to wear the yellow Star of David in order to be identified. Schools for children were interrupted. My grandma’s family lived under the Germans for a year and a half. Ann said, “Eventually there was not enough room for 10,000 people in a small ghetto.” The Nazis took the entire ghetto out to a field, where mass graves were prepared and shot 6,700 Jews. Among them, she lost her aunts, uncles, cousins and her little grandmother who she adored. Ann said, “As a child I found it very difficult to understand what was happening.” She lived under the Germans until 1943 when the second elimination was done by putting the remaining Jews on trains headed for Maidenek Concentration Camp.
My grandma and her mother were separated from the rest of their family because they were hiding in an attic above the brewery where her father worked. The Germans who were looking for all the remaining Jews never found them. Ann’s father, sister, and brother were put on the train. At this point my grandma and her mother had no hope that they would ever see them again. Ann and her mother escaped hiding in the city. Ann said, “During this time there was only one thing on our minds and that was to join the Partisans.” They spent eight days looking for the Partisans in the woods. Susan Bachrach in her book Tell Them We Remember, explains that, “Life as a partisan in the forests was difficult. People had to move from place to place to avoid discovery, raid farmers’ food supplies to eat, and try to survive the winter in flimsy shelters built from logs and branches.” They came across a man who led them to a group of about twenty people. Finally, my grandmother did not feel so alone. They slept under the trees and berries were their source of survival. “The partisans lived in constant danger of local informers revealing their whereabouts to the Germans.” Weeks went by without the Germans finding them.
Ann said, “I got up in the morning after sleeping a whole night in my mother’s lap. I got up in a very good mood. For some reason I felt warm that morning and from a distance I saw my sister.” She thought she was dreaming. “The first words out of her mouth were that Papa and Mike are alive,” Ann said. Bella told Ann the story about how they were herded onto the trains and that they had the notion to try to escape. The Germans put about fifty people in each train car and locked the cars from the outside. Every train car had a little window, small enough for a child to pass through. Ann’s brother Mike managed to open the door from the outside by climbing through the window. “Fifty people had the opportunity to jump of this moving train; however, they froze from fear except for eleven people who courageously jumped. Among the eleven people were my father, brother, and sister,” said Ann. Her family reunited in the woods about three months after being separated and joined the partisan group in the forest of Naliboki, close to Minsk, Russia, under the command of Tuvia and Zeush Bielski.
My grandmother Ann and her family owe their lives to the bravery of the Bielski brothers. The Bielski Brigade and “family camp” was different than most partisan groups. Most of the partisan groups consisted of single men. Because their sole purpose was to fight and inflict as much damage as they could on the enemy, membership was limited to able-bodied men prepared for battle. Those unable to fight were left to fend for themselves. What made the Bielski camp different than other partisan groups was the fact that this camp provided shelter for women, children, and old people. In the confines of the camp the fighters protected them. The Bielski was primarily immobile. They built a small city within the confines of the dense Naliboki forest.
In the Bielski camp, everyone worked. A school was established for the children. The forest camp was half- jokingly called Jerusalem, a sardonic comment on harsh conditions in the forests. The groups survived by raiding local communities for food and by serving as a civilian support system for other partisan brigades. Killing the enemy was only one of their tasks. Helping the members of the camp was of equal importance.
My grandmother and her immediate family were the one and only family unit that survived in tact in the Bielski camp. The Bielski brothers saved 1,200 Jews from slaughter. Today, there are over 5,600 people who owe their existence to these brave men. I am a direct survivor to the Bielski brothers.
After spending two years in hiding, Liberation came to all members of the Bielski camp. In December 1944 the camp was liberated by the Russian Army. Some of the partisan fighters met up with the Russian soldiers and were told that the war was over. The people were free to return to their hometowns. For my grandmother this was impossible since there was nothing remaining in their town to which to return, since her home had been burned down when the Nazis first entered her town. At the end of the war, the city of Lida became part of White Russia. Her family decided to try and return to the city of Lodz, Poland, where her father originated and had a large family. As a result of the war, my great-grandfather lost contact with his relatives. He had not been in touch with anyone from 1939 to 1945. They traveled to Lodz together to search for survivors. Sadly, they discovered that not one member of his family had survived. In Lodz, my great grandfather lost his mother, three brothers married with two children each, two sisters married with children, and many aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Since no family member could be located and since conditions in Poland were awful after the war, my grandmother’s family thought that their best bet would be to go to Palestine. There was nothing left for them in Poland. However, in their attempt to leave Poland they were faced with many obstacles. They tried to get papers that would allow them to leave Poland and journey to Palestine but the British, who were in control of Palestine at the time, refused them entrance. Many ships of survivors en route to Palestine were detained in Cypress. When survivors who were still in Europe heard about this they became afraid to attempt the journey. As a result my grandmother’s family left Poland by train and traveled to Czechoslovakia. They traveled like gypsies not knowing where they would end up. From Czechoslovakia they traveled to Hungary. In Hungary they learned of an organization known as “Unra.” This group assisted survivors and set up D.P. (displaced persons) camps throughout Europe. With the help of the Unra my grandmother’s family received assistance and were sent to Austria. In Austria they were moved from camp to camp. They resided in four different D.P. camps. “The displaced persons camps were a short-term solution for may refugees who were on their way home, or who showed no desire to return to their countries of origin, or who were unwilling or unable to remain in their homes once they did return.”
Life in the D.P. camp was a paradise in comparison to the life they left behind in the woods and in finding refuge after the war. In the D.P. camp the children were not allowed to go to school in Austria. The adults were not allowed to get jobs. Food was rationed and restrictions were placed on all the people. The survivors themselves organized makeshift schools to occupy the children’s time. It took some time, but eventually the ORT organization (a non-profit organization designed to train people in a vocational trade) came to the rescue of the survivors. ORT set up trade schools. These vocational schools provided opportunities to learn a trade. In 1947, my grandmother received a diploma in sewing from ORT. That degree proved to be very useful when she finally arrived in America.
Meanwhile, months turned into years and the survivors made new lives in the camps. However, they were anxious to move forward. My grandmother’s family continued to apply for visas to immigrate to Palestine, but was refused. Miraculously, through the newspaper they found relatives in America who were looking for any family survivors. These relatives came to the United States through Ellis Island after W.W.I. They were my grandmother’s great aunts. Once these aunts made contact with the family in Austria, they immediately sent out an affidavit for the entire family to come to America.
Immigration after W.W.II was a difficult time because millions of people lost their homes due to the war, and were desperate to come to America to find freedom. These immigrant Jews were arriving to the U.S. all at the same time, so it was difficult for the U.S. to take everyone from one ethnic group at one time. Our government at this time closed their eyes to the truth of what was happening in Europe. President Roosevelt sent ships back to Germany at the onset of W.W.II because our government did not let them in, or even off the boats onto our shores. People that had contacts in the U.S., mainly family members, who were already citizens, could petition for relatives to come to this country because they had first priority. Otherwise, they had to wait for a quota, which is a predetermined quantity of refugees that were allowed in this country each year. They also had to pass medical tests in order to come into the U.S., so they had to be relatively healthy.
The United States government did not honor my grandmother’s family’s visa on a preference quota as survivors trying to enter a free country. Instead, they had to continue waiting for the quota. The entire process took four long years. Finally permission was granted and on November 21,1949 my grandmother, her mother, and father arrived in the United States. The three of them traveled on one ship. My great uncle, (my grandmother’s brother) arrived on another ship and my grandmother’s sister arrived with her husband, whom she married in the D.P. camp on Thanksgiving Day, 1949.
My grandmother was twenty years old when she finally came to America. Ten years of her life was stripped away due to the war. She lost her youth, her teenage years, and education. All she wanted to do when she arrived to America was catch up with her education; however, her father was fifty years old and could not find work in his profession as an accountant. My grandmother’s brother was immediately drafted to the Korean War, even though he did not speak English. Thus, my grandmother, at the age of twenty had to go to work to support her family. Her trade in sewing came in handy and she was hired to work in a millenary factory. Sewing hats became her trade. As a matter of fact, she has always had a passion for hats and is rarely seen without one.
Immigrants viewed America as the land of opportunity and a place where if one worked hard, one could achieve great things. Many immigrant Jews did not fit in with other existing Jewish communities because the American Jews grew up with a different background then the European Jews. The European Jews had a different approach and mentality, so this made it difficult for immigrant Jews to fit in.
America eventually provided her family with the opportunity for a new beginning and a wonderful life. My grandmother met my grandfather in 1951 and was married in 1952. He is also a survivor with his own unique story. They bought a business in my grandfather’s trade and through hard work achieved the American dream. They raised three children, sent them to college and graduate school. Each of their children is successful and has careers that give back to society. My mother has taught me to cherish my freedom and my heritage. I am proud to be my grandmother’s first granddaughter. I have driven her to schools in New Jersey where she talks openly about her experiences during the war. It is amazing to think that after all she has been through she is able to educate my generation about the atrocities that occurred to our people. I only hope that the students that she addresses will learn to be tolerant of all human beings so that we can live in a country that truly symbolizes “The American Dream.”
My mother said, “My mom is the strongest woman I know. Given all that she has endured, she maintains a very positive outlook on life and has never complained about her suffering as a child during the Holocaust.” My grandma is a very special woman in my life. I am very proud to have such a wonderful grandma and I will never forget her horrendous story about the Holocaust.
Lippa, Rosalyn. Interview by Shari Lippa. Montville, New Jersey, 14 October 2003.
Monka, Ann. Interview by Shari Lippa. Montville, New Jersey, 17 October 2003.
Monka, Ann. Telephone Conversation with Shari Lippa, 5 December 2003.