Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
This is Home Now$

Arwen Donahue, Rebecca Gayle Howell, and Joan Ringelheim

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780813125473

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813125473.001.0001

Oscar Haber

Chapter:
(p.42) (p.43) Chapter 2 Oscar Haber
Source:
This is Home Now
Author(s):

Arwen Donahue

Publisher:
University Press of Kentucky
DOI:10.5810/kentucky/9780813125473.003.0004

Abstract and Keywords

Oscar Haber, born in BrzeŹnica, Poland in 1910, was one of ten children raised in a family of devoutly Orthodox Jews. He and his wife Fryda were the only survivors of their family. They both speak perfect Polish so they were able to live clandestinely as non-Jewish Poles with the help of a priest. Oscar and Fryda were able to conceal their true identities even after the liberation. They tried to start a new life in Belgium and Israel, and then had a son. The three of them then moved to the United States, became American citizens, and were able to exercise their faith and rights. Oscar has friends of another faith who accept him for who he is.

Keywords:   Oscar Haber, Poland, Orthodox Jews, Israel, United States

I first visited Oscar and Fryda Haber in their Lexington home in May of 2000. On that day, I interviewed each of them, beginning with Fryda, who spoke carefully and graciously, yet somewhat reluctantly. Oscar, by contrast, was impulsive and eager to speak. Two weeks later, he and I continued our interview, and after five hours of taping, we had still barely begun to scratch the surface of his memories.1 Oscar learned the English language relatively late in life, and sometimes his phrasing is difficult to understand. Listening to him speak is, nonetheless, a riveting experience.

Oscar Haber was born in Brzeźnica, Poland, in 1910. He was one of ten children (including a half-sister), raised in a family of devoutly Orthodox Jews. His family owned the biggest farm in the village; they kept cattle and horses, and grew everything they needed to survive.

AD:

  • What language did you speak at home?
  • OH:

  • Well, the first language we spoke, that was Yiddish. My father was very religious and he want us to know the Yiddish. But we had Polish Gentile servants, so we have to speak Polish, too. And [we were] surrounded by peasants who are speaking Polish and you have to know the language. In the school was Polish of course. When I went to school there was German, too. So I had German, Polish, and Yiddish, and of course, Hebrew, which was the liturgical language, to pray. At the age of three we (p.44) started already to learn Hebrew, and we knew to pray, and most of the prayings until today, I know by heart. And the first when you opened eyes at the religious house, the first [thing to do] is to wash your hands. And to make a blessing about the washing the hands and you make a blessing for the food and you have to thank God that you got up in the morning.
  • AD:

  • You had the opportunity to attend a public high school, a big step for a Jew from a shtetl. Did you go to high school because your father wanted you to have special opportunities?
  • OH:

  • Further studies wasn’t the main purpose of my father. My father would have very much liked me to go on and study Jewish, maybe [even] rabbinical studies. But I was very stubborn. A cousin of mine was a dentist. And I liked the way he was living. My older brother remained Orthodox. I was enjoying more the free life. This religious life didn’t match my character. I was always looking on the broad world, and life was, for me, more interesting outside the religious life.
  • AD:

  • You mentioned that you were a Polish patriot.
  • OH:

  • Yes. Deep in my soul I was Jewish, but we are living in a Polish country, this is Poland and this is our homeland and we owe to be loyal to our country. By [age] twenty-one everyone has to [serve in the] Polish Army, except somebody unable to fulfill the demand, sick and so forth. And a lot of my colleagues and a lot of Jewish people started to do everything to avoid to go into the Polish Army. I didn’t try it even. I did it full-hearted, and I think it was my obligation to do it. I understand that it is a common responsibility when you are a citizen of a country, you live there, you have to do what belongs. I loved Poland. I loved the country. It gave us opportunity and then that’s it.
  • AD:

  • When you were in the Army then, in 1935 and ’36, were you discriminated against at all for being Jewish?
  • OH:

  • It’s difficult to say, because you have so many things to do that you don’t have the time to play these games. But the Polish officers generally, generally, were anti-Semites. Of course, they didn’t want to show up as anti-Semites. But you could feel it, you could feel it. It was difficult to advance, to be a Jew and to be a high officer in the Polish Army.
  • AD:

  • When war broke out in 1939, you wanted to fight for your country, and you went away to the Russian front. By that time you were engaged (p.45) to your wife, Fryda. You were caught underneath the Russian occupation in the East for several months, and then you made your way back to your home village of Brzeźnica, where Fryda and your family were waiting. You and Fryda married in 1940. And then you were working in Pustków, a concentration camp. Were you interned there as a prisoner?
  • OH:

  • No, never. That was one of the miracles of this war maybe. There were not many Jews who are allowed to go in the camp and to leave the camp. When I came to this camp, I volunteered. That was a working camp and therefore I was put into this camp as a dentist. At the end of 1940, I organized this little dental clinic there. And what could I do? If somebody has toothache, I could help, or to make an extraction, to pull out a tooth. And so in beginning, that was about a year, I had an SS ID, that I could come to the camp and I left. After a year approximately, there was an order to take the SS ID’s from all the Jews. But, I think because I was there [as] a volunteer, there was an order of the commandant of this camp. He said, “The Jewish dentist can come to the camp whenever he wants. And every time when he comes, they will give him a post [an SS escort] who [will] bring him in the camp and when he is finished, he will come to pick him up and take him out from the camp.” That was unbelievable.
  • AD:

  • Did you know him personally?
  • OH:

  • No. I knew the head of the working office. He was an officer in the Polish Army with a German name. Only when the Germans came in, he became a German. And he was very good to me. I was very good to him. I gave him all kind of bribes. And when I came to this post, I said, “I am the Jewish dentist. I need to go to the camp, please give me company.” And they give me an SS man, who brought me to the camp. By the entrance to the camp there was another SS man, he gave me over to him. He opened the gate and let me in. And when I was ready, I went to the office and I said, “I want to go out.” Well, it is miracle that I am alive and that I am here. But that was something which was really extraordinary. I didn’t hear [of] a similar case in all my experience of camps and Jewish labor.
  • AD:

  • Were you treating Jewish patients only or were there other prisoners there who you were treating?
  • OH:

  • My treating [within the camp itself] was only Jews. But the SS commandant took my treatment—and other SS people came—in my private practice [at] home. Because in the house where I live I make also a little (p.46) clinic what gives me my income. A barter business, people brought me food and I treated them. The SS were not allowed to go to a Jewish dentist, not to a Polish even, nor to a [non-SS] German. They had to go to an SS. But they knew that they will have a special treatment at the Jewish dentist, so some of them came. And that was a very difficult task, because I didn’t have this modern equipment, which the German have. And there was a lot of cases which I couldn’t treat them at all. But they were insisting, they were insisting. And so some of these SS people came in and they brought me also some tea, some coffee, because it was not on the market, even black market was not to get it. But the SS had everything.
  • In May of 1941, when Jews in the area began to be deported to ghettos, the Habers were told by the German authorities that they had a half hour to leave their farm. But because of their good relations with their Polish neighbors, they had been warned about the evacuation orders the day before, and so had time to transfer their belongings to a neighbor’s house. Meanwhile, Oscar went to the regional governor and asked to be allowed to stay, since he was working in the camp as a dentist. Due to a miscommunication between the authorities, Oscar’s family was allowed to stay as well—but they had to give up their home to Polish villagers who had been evacuated from their own homes when the Pustków camp was built. A Polish woman, Mrs. Soltys, who had two rooms in her house, took Oscar’s entire family in.
  • The following May, when the area was supposed to be “cleansed of Jews,” Oscar was told that he could no longer work in Pustków. One of Oscar’s patients—a priest—offered to help by providing the Habers with false papers that would enable them to live clandestinely as non-Jewish Poles. However, these papers were only offered to Oscar and Fryda, who did not look Jewish, and who spoke perfect Polish, unlike other members of Oscar’s family. Making the decision to accept the papers and leave his family was “the most tragic decision of my life,” Oscar said. Only three of his brothers survived the Holocaust.
  • Oscar and Fryda were sent by the priest to a dairy farm, where they passed, with the help of their false papers, as non-Jewish Poles. Oscar posed as a Polish officer in hiding from the German Army. As such, he was soon asked to fight with the Armia Krajowa, the Polish underground Home Army, also known as the AK.
  • (p.47) OH:

  • Where I was there on this farm, there the Armia Krajowa started to organize. And I went there [posing as] a refugee from the German-occupied territory. I said I am from Poznan, and I am hiding away because I was a Polish officer and I am hiding from the German Army. I organized a sanitary station. When some of them were wounded they brought them to me and I gave them some bandages or some treatments.
  • AD:

  • The AK has a reputation for being very anti-Semitic. Did you have any trouble or close calls with that? With anybody finding out you were Jewish?
  • OH:

  • From person to person, I didn’t. They didn’t know that I am Jewish. We never spoke about it.
  • AD:

  • Were you afraid at all during that time?
  • OH:

  • Well that is difficult to say, afraid. But you are always watching what you are saying, what you are doing, not to be different. You have to drink alcohol, the moonshine like they are, and to do everything like they are doing when they come together. And if they are cursing, you have to curse, if it is damn, or another. Scared? Of course, you are always scared.
  • AD:

  • Was your Polish good enough that you could pass well as a Pole without worrying about language problems?
  • OH:

  • Our Polish was exceptional, very good. Otherwise the priest wouldn’t give us papers.2 Appearance and language, that was the things which was the most important. And there was no blemish in my language, and so till today the Polish people who come here and we are friends, they say our Polish is immaculate.
  • AD:

  • Did you have any challenges with being in church and having to adopt this persona, where everything had to be just right?
  • OH:

  • Not at all. First of all, I adopted it very easy because living in a village, you are involved in the peasant’s life. And so I knew about the habits and about everything how the Poles live. And even being Orthodox, my father was very, very accepted in the peasant community. They respected him very well and they came and they lived together. And he spoke immaculate Polish and so did all my family. And interesting enough, the children all were speaking Polish [at] home, only when father wasn’t there. Because we had a farm, in the summertime father was always in the field. When my father came, approaching the house, immediately we have to speak only Yiddish.
  • (p.48) AD:

  • Your family was unusual, then. I mean, it was common for Polish Jewish families to be segregated and to just associate with other Jews. But your family was much more integrated.
  • OH:

  • Our closest Jew was living a mile from us. A mile in Poland is like hundred miles here. Distances are different. And the other Jews were coming to us to study religious things by the teacher which we have in our house. And they were really poor Jews, poor Jews.
  • AD:

  • Did the people who were sheltering you know that you were—
  • OH:

  • Oh no. They knew that I am AK, and that I am officer, but no, they are not suspicious that I am Jewish. Because the son, which is studying for priest, said, “If I will catch a Jew, I will cut in pieces and they should put salt on it.” He was a very, very bad anti-Semite. At this time they were still teaching that the Jews killed Jesus and so forth. So, this young priest, no wonder that he hated Jews. That was indoctrinated.
  • On the dairy farm, Oscar became friendly with another farm worker: Franciszek Musiał, a non-Jewish Pole who was to be instrumental in Oscar and Fryda’s survival. Eventually, Oscar drew Musiał into working for the AK.
  • OH:

  • And this Musiał was a very nice man, very nice man. And he was not like the common peasant. He was already more civilized because he was working in France as a miner, several years. And we exchanged different opinions about the political situation. About the Germans, about the Russians, so forth. He was inviting me in his home. We are drinking and eating there. And he invite the neighbor. And I have also some news from my fellow man. So they accepted all the news from me as an intelligent Polish officer and Polish patriot, of course. And that was always with the alcohol, with moonshine. I drank moonshine in my life, maybe I could make a bath in it and swim.
  • AD:

  • Was that hard to get used to? Drinking that much without letting something slip when you were drunk?
  • OH:

  • I never allowed [myself] to be drunk. I always want to have my clear mind, because that was the most dangerous thing, to lose your mind. To be drunk. So when I felt, I run it out somewhere, I make like I am drinking another one, another one, but I didn’t drink it. But still it was quite a bit. I am happy that I could tolerate it as much as I could.
  • (p.49) In May of 1943, someone in the village who knew that Oscar and Fryda were Jewish denounced them to the authorities, and the Gestapo came to arrest them. They escaped, however, to the forest, where they made contact with a peasant who, at their request, contacted Musiał. Musiał then risked his life, and the lives of his family, by arranging for the Habers to live with his sister. They lived there and with the sister’s son, passing as Polish Catholics, until the time of liberation.
  • AD:

  • What happened towards the end of the war? Did you have information about the position of the Russian front through your involvement with the AK?
  • OH:

  • Well, you could hear. First of all, there was a situation, more than four months. The Russians stopped on the river, they didn’t cross the river Vistula to help the Polish resistance, the Uprising in Poland, for political reasons. They want the Poles to be annihilated by the Germans and then will go and kill the Germans. And we have all the news about the uprisings. In the bunker where our commandant was sitting, they had a radio, which they are listening to BBC, they have all the news and the movements of the Russian Army. And we are waiting, and then you didn’t need the knowledge, you heard the bombardment with the Russians started on the river there, from a distance to bombard artillery. And then they started to move. And that was it. And so we became so-called liberated.
  • It was the greatest shock and the most difficult moment in our lives. That was the liberation. You don’t have where to go. You couldn’t find nobody you know, or anybody of your people. You cannot stay in the place where you were. We were in a village. They were not sympathetic to Jewish survivors. I survived not a Jew, but suddenly I felt that I am back a Jew. But I couldn’t officially declare it. I had to stay on my Aryan papers. And how to go and where to go? Because to go to my other village where I was born, I wasn’t sure that I will be accepted. And I wasn’t sure to go to Kraków, for example, because I didn’t have where to go. Even not where to sleep at night. And you don’t have money. And you don’t have nothing, because you have already sold out whatever you had. So, that was the most terrible time in all this events which we had, the so-called liberation. But when I came to Kraków, I started to settle, I start to organize my life.
  • AD:

  • Did you feel in any way as if you were free?
  • (p.50) OH:

  • It was a very, very mixed feeling. On one side you felt the Russians are coming, you will not be more in danger as a Pole, but as a Jew, you continue to be in danger. And then came the reality. You find out what happened. Because until now, you heard only, they killed here, they killed here, they killed here. But the disaster so big, you realized only slowly when you were liberated. When you came to the big city, Kraków, which has before the war ninety thousand Jews, and you barely find five or six people which are Jews. That was a trauma. And you were asking yourself, why me? Because there were wiser people than me, speaking Polish better than me or the same like me, having connection with people. Why didn’t they survive? And what is the role we have to play by being alive? Try to organize a Jewish life, or forget about it? No Jews, no Jewish life. You are Polish. Go on, be a Pole. And that’s what many Jews did. There are until today Jews which are living as Poles. They said, “Forget about it.” But we couldn’t do it. Our roots are too strong.
  • We didn’t know what to do. We were poor like mices. We had to find something to eat, not to speak about finding a way to organize your life, to start to be a human being. You start to realize you live surrounded in animosity. And you look for some Jews. And I found some. That was already in Kraków. I remember the first night we didn’t have where to go. No home. But somehow we met somebody. I think I knew these people or recognize them as Jews. And I did ask him, “Who else is here?” He said, “Come with me.” And I went with him. We came in a dark room and there were already several Jewish people, survivors from all kinds of surviving. And we sit there in this dark room and started to sing Yiddish songs, very nostalgical Jewish songs. All the Yiddish songs were sad, all were sad. But in this moment, they were healing. They were like balsam on a wound. Remembrance, for a moment, your heritage. And we passed this night, I don’t remember, on songs and somehow sleeping sitting on a broken couch. All together there were maybe six, seven people. And each one with his song, not with story. We didn’t talk yet about story.
  • But we woke up in the morning. We were in the clothes which we had, these poor clothes. We find out from one of them that one of my friends survived. And somehow I met him. He said, “I got back my apartment. There are two bedrooms, a kitchen on the third floor.” But he says, “You can go there. And somehow we will find there some way to sleep.” (p.51) But there were already some people in, which survived Auschwitz. And then came other people. We all were there, but we didn’t have a bed to sleep. We slept on the floor.
  • And so we are being there with all these people around us, other people living there. And Fryda went to the apartment which was their house before the war. And there was the janitor, which was the janitor before the war. A dirty, drunk man. And she gave the address where we are living. And he, “And what will be if I bring you a post from your father?” And she says, “Well, you will get a hug and a kiss.” A few days later he came with a card, postcard from Auschwitz. And he said, “Miss Fryda, I get a kiss.” And she give him a kiss and a hug. “I got postcard from your father.” And he is sick and he asks to come to pick him up.
  • So I went there with the Russian trucks, I went there with taking ammunition to the front. There was still war, but Auschwitz was already liberated. And he was the one who remained in the hospital there because he couldn’t go farther.
  • AD:

  • This is around January 1945. Did you know what had happened at Auschwitz?
  • OH:

  • Well, I knew from Polish accounting, but when I came there I found everything. I didn’t have the time and the courage to go to look what happens around. And when I saw him, I had all the history. That was a man who was taller than me and he was fifty-six pounds, I guess. I took in a blanket a heap of bones. And Fryda took care of him, and he came to his quite normal.
  • AD:

  • At that time, were you thinking that you wanted to stay in Poland permanently?
  • OH:

  • I didn’t think so much about Poland. I didn’t want to stay with the Russians. I knew the Russians before. Poland I wouldn’t mind to stay, because I had my roots there, you know? With all minuses I thought I would be able to organize a good life in Poland, even I thought in my dreams, on our farm. I said, I will keep the farm. I’ll keep a clinic there, help the people. And have a nice living on the farm. But when I thought about the Russians and their system, I would not have my freedom, so I start to think to move from Poland somewhere. The nearest approach was to Belgium, where Fryda has a brother of her father.
  • And we stayed in Belgium for five years. I organize, even illegal, a (p.52) little clinic, and I treated Jewish patients, refugees who came there. But slowly I make a living off it and I had a possibility to make a decent living. In the meantime, as we have been there for close to two years, Israel was established. So I said, “I want to go to Israel.” Well, Fryda’s father didn’t want to go. He preferred to stay in Antwerp. Well, he knew the languages and he had his brother there and he had the support from [his] two brothers, so he decided he will not go with us. In the meantime, our son was born. He was already two years old.
  • My uncle from the United States sent us a visa and he even want us to come to the United States. But I found that, after all we survived and surpassed, my place is Israel. This is the only place for a Jewish person to live. That was my conviction.
  • AD:

  • What happened after the war that made you come to that conclusion?
  • OH:

  • In Antwerp, where there was quite a number of Jews, when you were looking for an apartment for rent, it was in the windows written, “Not for foreigners.” And that meant not for Jews. In some of the apartments was written exactly what I said, “No Jews.” We came, and the administrator showed us the apartment and the conditions where it was not expensive. It was nice and the place was nice. And when it came to write the lease, he says, “Yes, but you are not strangers?” And we said, “Yes, we are strangers. We are from Poland.” And he said, “But you are not Jews?” I said, “Yes, we are Jews.” So, “I am sorry, I have instructions from the owner, no Jews. I am sorry, no Jews.” And that gave me a lot to think about. So that means there is no place to live here for the Jews.
  • And therefore I decided to go home. Nineteen forty-eight, when Israel was declared [an] independent state, I was doing everything possible to go to Israel. I want to go home, because after all I am Jewish. There we have a state. I don’t want anymore to be a stranger. I said, “That’s the one place where nobody would tell me as a Jew you have to live. You have all the rights.” And that was the reason.
  • It was a very hard time there in Israel, too. And when I decide we are going, we organize. We brought everything, because in Israel we knew there is nothing, refrigerators and the stove, furniture, hardware, what we need for the kitchen for a living. We took everything.
  • In April of ’51 we left for Israel. And we rented an apartment, which (p.53) was a living room and a bedroom, a hall, a kitchen and a bathroom. That was all. It was in Givat Haim, a suburb of Tel Aviv. I organized in these three rooms, the hall was the waiting room, the bedroom was the clinic. And there was a bed which was, in the day, closed like a cabinet. In the day I could accept patients. And the living room was the bedroom for us. We were sleeping there in the bedroom. And the child was there. There was a terrace. It was nice. After working there about two years, I made one bigger apartment and a separate clinic. And life became more comfortable.
  • AD:

  • You spent some time studying in Germany as well. Did that happen after you had gone to Israel?
  • OH:

  • Yes. I became vice president of the organization of the dental association in Israel. A big part of Jewish dentists in Israel, their origin was countries where they spoke German. And there was not world literature in Hebrew in this profession. So we needed German-speaking [lecturers]. So we started [to] organize at the universities in Germany some courses for professional progress. And I went to Bonn, where I stayed for three months. And I make my graduation doctor there in Bonn and then Marburg.
  • AD:

  • How did it feel, as a Jew, to be doing these studies in Germany?
  • OH:

  • In general, the staff of each of these universities were very forthcoming and very gentle and very willing to help us. Even we knew that some of them were with a Nazi past. The more Nazi they were before the war or during the war, the more forthcoming they were after the war. They didn’t know, they said, about anything what happened before.
  • You come there, you have to accept the reality. Of course, you knew exactly that you are stepping on the burning ground. You know this is not the place where you should be. But it is not only there. This is the reality of life and this is the future of life. There is no place for you on this world. Israel has relations with Germany, with France. However, we know there are still a lot of anti-Semites. And they are everywhere. There are anti-blacks, there are anti-yellows, there are anti-Asians, there are all kinds of antis. This is the reality of the world now. You know, it sometimes is for me difficult to accept the general view of the Jewish world about the Polish anti-Semites, about Poland. I born in Poland. I got my education in Poland. I lived there. And I was a Polish patriot. And so were many, (p.54) the majority. And to say that the Poles were all anti-Semites, I will not put them in this category. People are behaving very often, very different in different situations. There is in every human being, there is an anti. But you have to come to some point that you are living in this world, which is very differentiated, and if you will not accept this, there is no place for you. Because every day brings surprises. We are not done with wars. We are not done with discriminations. It was, it is, and it will be forever, forever.
  • AD:

  • When you first moved to Israel, did you feel a sense of relief, or a sense of being at home, as you had hoped to feel?
  • OH:

  • Well, this is a very sensitive question. When you came to Israel—how difficult it is to say—there was a gap between these born Israelis, long living in Israel, and newcomers. Like everywhere, a stranger gets feeling of a stranger. But in the beginning, a lot of people who were the elite in Israel came from Poland, Russia, maybe Czechoslovakia. Some came from Germany, too. Zionists. They felt [they were] the elite, and you felt [that they regarded you] when you came in with a feeling, “How could you survive? You must have done something which is not right, that you could survive the Holocaust. Because my parents, my uncle, my grandparents, my brother, my sister, they were killed. Everybody. Nobody is here. And you survive. You must be guilt of something. You have to feel this guilt.”
  • AD:

  • Did people actually say that to you?
  • OH:

  • I heard it. It wasn’t meant maybe special straight to me, but I heard it. I heard it in a quite clear voice. “These people who survive, they were collaborating with the Germans.” And that gave you a very, very bad feeling.
  • AD:

  • Will you say a little bit more about how you dealt with that? I mean, you had such high hopes of finding a place where you would really be at home.
  • OH:

  • I was maybe more fortunate than the majority of newcomers. First of all, because I was involved in the Zionist organization, and secondly, because I knew the language. And that gave me a very great advantage not to be singled out. That was worse with people who couldn’t communicate. And they had to communicate in other language, which was in Yiddish or in German, and the Israeli-born children didn’t speak Yiddish. They (p.55) didn’t want to speak Yiddish. I think they’re quite chauvinistic. And the same thing can be said about the long living in Israel. “We came here and we built this country. We fought for this country and we gave us a country.” You know, that was also a very strange feeling. But with the time you got used to all kind of treatment in your society.
  • But the problem of Israel is not solved and will never be solved in my opinion. That’s war … my son, for example, was in two big wars, in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. And that was one of the main reasons that he left Israel. He said he had enough of wars, when he came to the United States for studying his business, so he found that he would be better here. And he stayed here. And therefore we are here. We came after him, otherwise we wouldn’t be here in the United States. I would be in Israel until today. And I’m not sorry that I did it, because I’m not sorry of one step in my life. I don’t look backwards. I take the reality. I am here happy. I live happy. And so is my son. I have two grandchildren. My granddaughter graduated now from the university here in Kentucky. But she lives also to Austin, Texas, where my son lives. And our grandson is in Virginia Beach. So now we are without children and without grandchildren, but we have here very good friends. And we are happy here, making our life here.
  • AD:

  • When your son was growing up in Israel, did he ask you about your past and about the Holocaust years?
  • OH:

  • The first years, I myself couldn’t talk about it, neither could my wife. And she is until today not so outspoken. And then concerning our son. In the first grade, he asked about whether we could help him with something in his homework. And mother told him, “I’m sorry, but go to Father because I don’t know.” So he ask a very simple question, “Mom, did you ever go in your life to school?” So it is difficult to say that we spoke with him about the Holocaust because it was a painful thing to go on to put it on your children. But of course when he growed up, when he went to high school and later on to military, he realized what happened and he asked some questions. But not too many, not too many, not too many. And I think until we came here, to the United States, he learned more about all of this than all his staying in Israel.
  • AD:

  • I would have guessed that in the schools your son would have been taught about the Holocaust because he’s living in Israel. But from what (p.56) you’re saying, it sounds as if there was not very much talk about the Holocaust.
  • OH:

  • You are right. In the first maybe ten years there was no talk about the Holocaust. Later on, bit by bit it came out and they start to exchange knowledge of the world with all other countries in Europe and the United States. And the Jews from the United States used to come, family members looking, searching for family, and some of them finding. Here they found a sister, here they found a brother, after not knowing that they survived. So when they start to come somehow together it was more exposed in the reality of course, and this opened the door to more knowledge about the Holocaust.
  • AD:

  • When did you first go back to visit Poland?
  • OH:

  • I went to Poland about after fifty years. We decide to go when the parents of our good friends, which live here in Kentucky, came to visit here. It was a very old Kraków family which knew the business of Fryda’s parents and he by himself helped one Jew to survive. And they are very, very nice people. We met them and became friendly. They really embraced us and they asked us to come to Poland, to be their guests there. And to see, “You will see it is not so bad.” That was one thing. The other thing was we wanted to see our savior, Musiał, and his family. We wanted to see him because he was older than we are and we wanted to see him alive still. We supported him from Israel. We were sending parcels and money from time to time. And we supported him and he was very thankful. They were not rich people, very poor peasants. And he also wrote us that he will be happy to see us. So we decided we will go, we will see how it is. We had a very good time there. We went to these villages where we used to be in hiding. And we went there and met the people. There was a very exciting experience. And we really enjoyed to see everything from [this] perspective, it gives us some good feeling that we could do it.
  • AD:

  • When you left Poland, there were people who didn’t know at the time that you were Jewish, but you were friendly with them, such as the people who hid you. Did you have any encounters with people like that?
  • OH:

  • No, I didn’t meet more people. I will tell you, I didn’t want these people to have different feelings, that I was Jewish and they couldn’t know and could even help me, maybe they will be sorry that they did it. I don’t want to put them in this conflict. You can never know human thinkings, human spirits, human soul. You never know. I don’t want to hurt people.
  • (p.57) AD:

  • Do you consider yourself an American now?
  • OH:

  • Yes, I’m an American, a loyal citizen, and I know about what happened in the United States, politically and socially, and I am very involved. I mean spiritually, because physically I can’t more. But I am a Republican. I cannot say I don’t like Democrats because they are democratic. But I don’t like Democrats because they are more socialistic. And whatever smells of socialism or communism is for me a red flag.
  • AD:

  • When did you come to the United States?
  • OH:

  • In 1980. Because my son was living in Kentucky, I came to Kentucky.
  • AD:

  • Are you a member of a synagogue here in Lexington?
  • OH:

  • Yes, I am a member of the Conservative movement. I accept it. Many things which they change in the meantime [since I entered] the synagogue. There were no women called to the Torah. There were no women rabbis. Now there is. But if they ask my opinion, I will not be an exception. I am for the majority. You decided that you want it this way, I will agree. But not that I am fond of it, not that I like it. And that is my opinion.
  • AD:

  • Do you have friends here in Lexington who are Jewish or non-Jewish? What kind of community do you have here?
  • OH:

  • Well, I can say really friends are non-Jewish. This is the majority. These are really the Polish people, which are helping me in need, when I had to go to an emergency, I call to the Polish people. They come even in the middle of the night and they bring me to [the] emergency [room]. I don’t have to go in ambulance. And other things also, they are really good friends. So, I really don’t differentiate it. But they are my friends not because they are Polish, [or] because they are Catholics or they are Christians.
  • AD:

  • Was it ever important to you to talk with other people about your experiences during the Holocaust? Did you get to a point where you felt like, “I really have to tell people that’s what I experienced and to be around people who understand?”
  • OH:

  • I was talking several times in school, whoever invite me to give them, I give them my own experience. But there was a Remembrance Day in the St. Luke Church where there are members, two or three Christians, which are my friends. And they are always counting on me that I will be the speaker. And I for nine years will be making the Remembrance. And (p.58) they make it such a honorable day that was really a pleasure to talk to these people and to explain to them.
  • I must tell you, to my disappointment … I don’t know, maybe not disappointment, but take the reality like it is. I didn’t have occasion to say my opinion or even something about the Holocaust to Jewish people [in Lexington]. If they invited me to the temple when there was Remembrance Day, they were asking me to light a candle. That was all. And they were making some prayers. The same was here in our synagogue. And such a small number of people [come] that it is really not worth it even to open your mouth to talk to them. But I wasn’t asked to talk about the Holocaust. I wasn’t asked. They talk, they make some prayers, and that’s all. And that was very miserable, miserable. I was ashamed that I was a part of this Remembrance Day. Jews are not interested in it. Maybe they have it enough in books.
  • AD:

  • Do you feel that the people who were born here and who are from here have been less receptive to you personally than have the newcomers?
  • OH:

  • Well, I feel it maybe personally, but I don’t blame them. Maybe they were expecting more involvement from my side in their community life, which I couldn’t do, first [because] of my age, secondly my language is not good enough. To speak with my accent, to talk about my experience and to be active in their community, it wasn’t easy. The other thing is, one influential person told me that they feel humiliated in my company. That I am too special for them, so therefore they are hesitating approach me. I am a stranger for them and I will remain always to them a stranger. However, they are friendly. If I approach them they answer my questions, but that’s all, that’s all. What can you do? That’s the reality.
  • I did not interview Oscar again until December of 2007. His wife had passed away two years before, and he now lived alone in an assisted-living facility. He answered the door in a black kimono, brightly patterned with cherry blossoms and figures of Japanese women, which he wore over pajamas. He apologized for his informality, saying he had been at a party until two in the morning and had forgotten our appointment. I marveled at how dapper he managed to look despite my knock having woken him up, and at the fact that at age ninety-seven he was still partying into the morning hours.
  • (p.59) AD:

  • When you were a young man in Poland, you had a strong Jewish identity, you had a strong religious sensibility in your home, and yet you were surrounded by Polish Catholics and you felt very comfortable with Polish Catholics. And now towards the end of your life, your closest friends are not Jewish, but many of them here in Lexington are Polish Catholics.
  • OH:

  • [Laughing] That’s right! That’s the reality. I have here more Polish friends than Jewish, which are really my good friends and supporters in all kinds of ways of life. And they are Catholics and going to the Catholic church, and I am going to the Jewish synagogue. And they know that I am Jew, and I am invited to their parties, and they all know me as a Jew, and they are all welcoming me, and they are all hugging me and kissing me and happy to have me.
  • I am living the life now, American Jewish Polish. And that’s what I am. I am American the same way that I was Polish. I never thought I would live here, because I thought Israel is my home. But I decide to live in the United States. I am a member of the Republican Party, and I love my life here. That’s it. I have my grave already paid, and my bones will lie here, close to my wife where she lies. Unfortunately she passed away two years ago. And I am continuing. Sixty-five years together, in bad and in worse. What can you do? That’s the will of my Lord. He gave me life, he keeps me, and I hope he will keep me as long as he wants. I am ready every day to meet him, when the time comes.
  • AD:

  • Did your childhood in Poland prepare you for your life now?
  • OH:

  • That’s very difficult to say. I am not the same I was fifty years ago. I still think about my past and I remember everything, exactly everything. Nights and days and even hours. I remember, I remember, I remember the first people I met when I open my eyes. Who, what, where. God gave me the ability to remember. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. But that is his will, I cannot change. I am looking on the world, on my life, with open eyes, with a strong belief in reality. And in destiny. Whatever happens to me, that is destiny. You have to be prepared for everything, but this is my theory: a human being is the victim of his own destiny. There is no two ways you could go. You make plans, but you will go where the Lord will bring you, and there you will be.
  • Notes:

    (1.) Oscar was interviewed by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education on September 16, 1996. In interviewing Oscar, I occasionally refer to things he related in that first interview.

    (2.) Many small-town Polish Jews before World War II spoke Polish as a second language, if they spoke it at all. Yiddish was the language of the shtetl, and as such it was all the more difficult for many Polish Jews to conceal their identities after the war began.