When we asked the question, “Does the Holocaust affect your political views?” a surprising number of survivors clearly stated that they do not harbor any hatred towards the groups in Europe responsible for the destruction of their families and communities. Regardless of their wartime experiences many survivors are able to separate out their emotional responses toward the perpetrators of the specific crimes against them from their views of all the national, ethnic and religious groups that collaborated with the German Nazi government in the genocide of Jews in Europe during World War II.
NARRATOR: In studying political beliefs such as tolerance the survivors told of their prewar family of origin lives that revealed the importance of family of origin relationships in the formation of beliefs of tolerance and intolerance. Ann is one such survivor, whose interview demonstrates the importance of both of her parents’ influence in forming her beliefs of tolerance towards the perpetrators of the crimes against her family.
NARRATOR: Ann was born in 1931 in a small town 100 kilometers from Vilna, Poland. There were 1200 people in her town, 350 of whom were Jews. Her mother was a seamstress. Her father rented an orchard and took care of trees. He was a religious Zionist and a yeshiva student never learning a trade. He died in Canada at the young age of 57 years old. Ann and her family escaped from the ghetto and survived in hiding in the forest for the entire war, until liberation. She married in 1951 to a chemist who worked for Du Pont. She and her husband had three children. At the time of the interview, Ann belonged to Hadassah and the Holocaust Education Committee and was active on the Holocaust speaker’s bureau. Here Ann reflects on her prewar life and on her experiences with antisemitism as a child in prewar Europe.
ANN: I was born in eastern Poland. I don’t know whether they were called Litwaks, but actually, part of the place where I was born is more, now it’s Byelorussia. It was 100 kilometers from Vilna, but when I was born, it was under Polish rule. So we consider ourselves eastern Poland. It changed hands in 1939, when, with the last division of Poland, this part fell under the Russians. Until ’41, when the Germans came in and occupied it. And then we were liberated in ’44. And now, I was there, visited last year, and it’s Byelorussia — part of Byelorussia. As a matter of fact, even though we were considered Litwaks, but to go to Vilnius now, you have to cross the border, and you have to have a separate Lithuanian visa. You cannot do that.
INT: It must feel very strange.
ANN: It is. But I have no interest to go to Vilnius anymore.
INT: Now, you told me that you are married. And how many years?
ANN: I am married forty years now.
INT: And what is your husband’s name?
ANN: My husband’s name is Edward Ephraim Jaffe.
INT: Was he called Ephraim as a child?
ANN: As a child he was called Ephraim. But he didn’t want to let go his original name, so he added Edward, and kept Ephraim as his middle name.
INT: But when he’s called to the Torah, he would be…
ANN: Be Ephraim, yes.
INT: Tell me about your education.
ANN: Very spotty all the time. Because before the war I managed to finish just two grades. Then when the Russians came, we had to repeat some grades, because we didn’t know any Russian. So I think we had to repeat the second and the third grade. Then during the war, of course, Jewish children were not allowed to go to school under Nazi occupation. And when I was liberated, I went to fourth and fifth grade in Byelorussia, where I was, after the liberation, those two years. And when we came in displaced persons’ camps in Germany, I finished, what grades did I go through there? Sixth, seventh, I think, and eighth grade, in the camp schools. And these were not normal schools. But this is where I learned Hebrew well, in those schools.
INT: In what language were you taught?
ANN: The instructions were in Yiddish, primarily. But we had a lot of teachers from Israel, that they sent in, and a lot of Hebrew was taught, and I loved the language, and I acquired it quite well. So after that, years have passed, and when I came to Canada, I found out that they have a Hebrew teachers institute, and even though I did not have fully completed high school, I had enough knowledge of Hebrew to join that institute, and I did. And when I got married and came to the United States, and we lived in New Jersey, I found out that they have here, too, in New Jersey, such a Hebrew teachers institute in West Orange, so I joined there. And to study to become a teacher. And then while studying I realized, I said, I’m working for a teaching degree, and I don’t have a high school diploma! (laughs) So I went and took a high school equivalency course, and I passed it, so I got finally, when I was almost finished with all my, you know, Hebrew teachers studies, that I got a high school diploma at the same time. And I’ve been teaching Hebrew school for the past thirty years now.
INT: At what level do you teach?
ANN: All levels. Right now I teach in a Hebrew high school. Over the years, you know, when you teach, you acquire a lot of knowledge. Hebrew I knew quite well. And I also knew Jewish history quite well. I always studied it, and loved it. And also we learned quite a bit in the Hebrew teachers academies about Biblical studies and so forth. So I actually teach, I love teaching the language best, but I have taught, you know, Bible, history, anything that has to do with Judaic Studies, I’m really able to teach.
INT: So you’ve made a career of being a Hebrew teacher.
ANN: When you say “a career”, I have never taught full-time, because I was raising a family at the same time as I was teaching. But I always liked to be involved in teaching, and I still do ’till today.
INT: Well, that’s a career.
ANN: (laughs) Well, I don’t know whether you would call it a career, but it kept me busy a little bit.
INT: That’s a wonderful long history of having contributed to Jewish education.
ANN: Yes. I felt that this was important, otherwise I would not have done it. Because I never had to do it for the money. I always did it for my own pleasure, and for my conviction, knowing that we have to, our children have to know a little something about their roots, to be proud of who they are, and of what they are.
INT: Now tell me, did you have any experiences of anti-Semitism in your shtetl?
ANN: Yes. That was always, always there.
INT: When did you first become aware of that?
ANN: As a child. When you went to school. You knew that on a Christian holiday, you just did not go out of the house. Mother would say, “Stay in.” Because chances were that our Christian neighbors, with whom we were really friendly, that their kids would probably come by with rocks and throw them at you, and call you “Christ-killers.” Because this was something that was openly taught, in schools, and in the church, and at home. That the Jews are the Christ killers. They are to be disliked and hated.
INT: So there were children who could be your friends…
ANN: One day…
INT: How did you handle that? How were you able to live with that inconsistency?
ANN: You simply knew, you simply knew that you were Jewish, and when you were Jewish you were a second-class citizen, and you had to stay out of the way of the Christians. And that’s it. In a little shtetl like this. You did everything you could to befriend them. And I remember my mother was friends with some of the families up the street, the Christian families, where she would do things for them, any time they needed something. They knew they could call on her, and she would always do things for them. And it is these same friends’ children that later would come by and call us “dirty Jew,” or throw rocks at us. And you know, she was even reluctant to go and tell the parents, because she was afraid that the consequences will be even worse; that the kid won’t like it, and then do it even more. So we did feel the anti-Semitism. Especially after 1938, where the Polish nationalists, it was a vibration of what was happening in Nazi Germany. When they started to stand around the Jewish shops, and shout constantly, “Jews, go to Palestine!” You know? “Jews, get out of here. We don’t need you. Jews, you are the bloodsuckers,” and so forth. You know, that’s when we became aware, you know, that things are very bad. Anybody who could, tried to get out. But there was no place one could go.
INT: How did this affect your father’s business? He dealt with Christians.
ANN: Sure. But you see, the village people, were the more primitive people. They didn’t go to church, were a lot more mentshlich, where you know, you dealt with them. My father did them a lot of favors, and so they always knew, you know, where you could come, where you could find a place to sleep over, and to have a meal. And because they were very poor, those fishermen, too. And my father, if he had a few zlotys, which was the Polish money, saved, what he would do, he would go and buy new nets, and bring it to the fishermen. And he would give it to them, and he would say, “Look. I know you don’t have money. Catch fish. I will, as I buy the fish from you, you will slowly pay me out, because you need the tools to work.” And they appreciated it very much. Because a farmer who had nothing could not get enough credit to buy a new net or something like that. So he showed a lot of kindness to them, and these are the people who later on in the war years, helped us really, with our survival.
INT: But it was the people closest to you who were the ones who made the most trouble.
ANN: That’s right. The ones in the shtetl, who lived in the shtetl, and sometimes they would bring in instigators from outside, that were not even local people. And the anti-Semitism was felt, as a child, I remember very much so. My older brother, who already went to a Christian school, to the public school, what we call. I remember we always, my mother would run ahead and see to it that the kids don’t beat him up on the way home. The Christian children. Because Jewish kids were a very easy target. First of all, Jewish kids didn’t fight back. I have a cousin who’s a few years older than myself, and I just met him on a trip, when we went back to my home town. And I asked him, “How come you were the only one who wasn’t afraid of the Christian kids?” He says, “What do you mean? I was afraid like everybody else.” But in those days, you carried your books to school in a wooden box, you know, like a carrying little case, made out of wood. So he said, “I made sure that my schoolbag, that wooden schoolbag, I always carried an extra rock in it to make it heavy. And I would go very quietly, I never ran from them. And as soon as I would see one of them sneaking up in back of me, I would take that wooden box, and I would swing it back. And when they saw that they cannot start up with me, that’s when they left me alone.”
INT: Were you personally afraid?
ANN: Yes. I remember being afraid. I do remember that I was personally never beaten up. My brother, my older brother was. But I was not. But I was afraid, of course. Especially on a Sunday, when they would come from the villages and start drinking. And when they were drunk, it very often happened, that they either would fight with each other, or the easy target was a Jewish home. To come by and break the windows. (pause)
INT: What do you think about the changes that have taken place in Europe since the war?
ANN: I don’t see big changes. (laughs) To be honest with you. The change is only now, they have less Jews to hate. But having gone back. But having gone back twice already to my area where I was born and raised, and I will tell you, I doubt it whether their hatred, even though there are no Jews left, Jews have not lived in my home village for fifty years, and they seem to be, Ach, so glad when we come, only because we can dish out and give them things that they want. But to say that I see any particular love, or regret at least, for what happened, unfortunately, I have not found it. That is, so I don’t really think that much has changed, especially in Eastern Europe. I have not gone back to Germany since I left it, but from what I read and I hear, they are trying to do something in the schools to make the younger generation more sensitive to what happened, and teach them about the Holocaust. Hopefully it will have some effect. But not having lived there, you know, for the past forty some years, I really don’t know whether any changes have come about or not.
INT: Do you think it’s possible, or likely for the people to change?
ANN: I don’t know whether change, but certainly the Germans are intelligent people, and if properly taught what their dictatorship of Hitler has brought about, hopefully they will become a little bit more sensitive to others. They still, you can see how they feel about foreigners. All those countries that are very nationalistic, are prone to this kind of discrimination. If it’s not Jews, then they have Turks there now, they have other minorities.
INT: So it’s others. It’s the “otherness.” It’s the xenophobia that they have.
ANN: That’s right. It’s always looking for an excuse. Somebody else’s fault for the ills of the country. And if you’re a foreigner, you’re a very easy target. And the Jews were always considered as being foreigners, outsiders, you know, and especially when you are an affluent group, amongst, you know…
INT: And the irony, of course, is that the Jews felt so much at home in Germany, and they really felt like they were Germans.
ANN: That’s right. You see, there, the hurt was even greater, probably. In Poland, at least, we were never equal citizens.
INT: You didn’t have any illusions.
ANN: There is always anti-Semitism. We always felt like, not second or third class citizens. And so we knew our place. We knew we never had any hopes of achieving, being equals to it.
INT: So you weren’t rejected, and you weren’t disappointed?
ANN: I remember always living in fear, even before the Nazis came. Pogroms. I mean, we were at their mercy. We would buy our peace and tranquility with favors, and with money, from the local, you know, from the local population. So it’s no wonder that when the time came, that they were so eagerly participating with the Nazis to get rid of the Jews.
INT: I wonder, too, with that difference in attitude, whether it helped the Polish Jews to think about saving themselves, whereas the German Jews might have felt safer for too long?
ANN: (sighs) Maybe it was easier for some of the Polish Jews, because they already knew, they’ve learned, they knew what was coming. The German Jews were taken, probably, by surprise. They could not believe that in their cultured country, it will happen such a thing. We already, we expected, you know, that if a change comes, that we didn’t expect much mercy from them.
INT: And you lived among simple people, too.
ANN: Yes. I lived in a small village. Shtetl. What you call today, you’d call it a village.
INT: So the people were not sophisticated to begin with, so you didn’t have the illusion that you were all part of the same intellectual cultured class.
ANN: No, definitely not.
NARRATOR: Ann discussed in her interview the idea of seeking revenge after liberation.
ANN: There was a law; it was called Anderson’s Law. There was a Polish general Anderson. And he helped the Russians fight the Nazis, with the condition that after the war, you know, when Poland will become an independent state, that all former Polish citizens will be able to allowed to return to Poland. Now, we were considered former Polish citizens, so we had an opportunity to leave Russia. And my father saw it, and he said, “No way are we staying here. We are leaving as quickly as we can.” Because one of the militia men from my home town was captured, and he was brought to trial in a neighboring town, and my father went to be a witness. And when he was asked, what did he do? And my father said, “He tortured and killed most of the Jews in our home town.” And the Russian judge looked at him and he said, “Can you tell me what else did he do besides killing Jews?” You know, as if killing Jews was no crime, you know. So when my father came back, my father thought quickly. He says, “Yes. He killed communists.” That was already a crime, you see? So he was given fifteen years, and fifteen years later we heard he was released, and he is living somewhere, if he’s still alive, without…
INT: But that took courage on your father’s part to speak up. Why would he want to call attention to himself?
ANN: This was already after the war, you understand? Because we wanted, if they caught one of those murderers, we wanted them to be punished. And we never took the law in our own hands. There were opportunities where we could have probably captured them. Once captured, we could have quietly killed them. See, this is the makeup of the Jewish people. We do not look for vengeance. We look for justice. And so my father came back very disappointed. He says, “The communists are no better than the Nazis, probably. They don’t like us here either. If killing Jews is not a crime, then we’ve got to get out of here as soon as possible.”
INT: He was wise enough in that instance to see.
ANN: To see the light. Yes. And not only himself, but every other Jew there in town, he was very much respected by all the people.
INT: He told them all to get out?
ANN: Everybody. As a matter of fact, I found one Jewish girlfriend there now, and she remembers that my father came and begged her aunt. He said, “You are Jewish. Why are you staying? Get out of here. You have no business.” And she refused to go, and that’s how she stayed. And my father wanted to take that girl away from her aunt. And adopt her and take her with us, and her aunt wouldn’t let her. So she stayed.
INT: So she lived her life there.
ANN: Right. And she’s not interested in leaving now, because she says she has never known any Jewish life. She married a Russian, who abandoned her with a child, and her daughter, who thinks of herself as being a Russian, married a Russian, and her grandchildren are Russians, so she says, “Where will I go?” You know? That’s where I will remain. They constantly joke about the fact that their babushka, that their grandmother, is a “Yavrika,” is a Jewess. (laughs)
INT: So you went…
ANN: From that town, yes, we left, the first opportunity we had, we took that transport out of Russia into Poland. We came to Poland and we realized, there, too, it’s, we thought it would be an independent Poland. But we looked around, and we see that it’s the same communists occupied by Russian forces, and by then the Israeli Bricha, what was called, was already well-organized in Poland. And they helped, you know, with the underground, it was an underground..
INT: What was the Bricha?
ANN: Bricha was the Israeli organized secret armed forces.
INT: Does it come from the word baruch?
ANN: No, no. These are probably the first letters of…
INT: Oh, it’s an acronym?
ANN: An acronym of some kind of organization. But they were the ones who volunteered to come into Poland and into Russia everywhere, and to quietly smuggle out the Jews from there. And they were the people. And they told us, you know, there is a way of getting out from Poland. We did. We followed their example. And we left Poland at night, smuggled out with a guide to Czechoslovakia. From Czechoslovakia they smuggled us out to Austria, and from Austria into Western Germany, under American occupation, and this is how we ended up.
INT: So did you end up in a DP camp?
ANN: DP camps in Western Germany, right, where we lived for, what, from 1946 until 1951.
NARRATOR: Ann continues in the interview to explain her belief on the importance of tolerance.
INT: Ann Jaffe, a survivor, and today’s date is November 11, 1994. This is tape number three.
Now I was just beginning to speak to Ann. She was telling me that she had attended a conference, and I was asking something about it. So why don’t you tell me.
ANN: Yes. Here in Wilmington we have, it’s called the Helena Wynne Preston Holocaust Education Committee, and I’m part of it. I head a speaker’s bureau, and that’s why I’m always invited to come and speak to the people. Once a year we have a seminar, educational seminar, for teachers from public schools, to show them how to teach the Holocaust. And then at the very end of it, it culminates with, they break up in small groups, and a survivor speaks to them, shares their story, and tells them what we do when we come into the classroom. After they finish the unit, we would like them to invite one of us to talk to the children and share our story.
INT: So this is really a selling job on the teachers first.
ANN: On the teachers…
INT: To convince them of the need and to let them know what you can do, and perhaps allay some of their fears.
ANN: Teachers must know first, themselves, what happened, and how to teach, and then…they can start. And I must say, in Delaware, we’ve been very fortunate. They’ve agreed to implement Holocaust education in public schools, and so we have a tremendous demand now on speakers. And unfortunately, not enough who are willing to go out and speak to the schools. But those few of us who do, we have four, who go willingly. And…
INT: What’s the most gratifying thing that happens to you, when you go to a school and talk? Can you give me an example of a child, or some situation?
ANN: Yes, yes. In many schools — this happened to me in a church rather than a school. The CCD group, that’s from the Catholic Church, their youth group, which I used to go here in one of Mary Magdalene’s, every year. And after I finished talking to the young people — these are high school age students — one young man came over to me, and he shook my hand, and he says, “Mrs. Jaffe, you have changed my life. I will never look at life the same,” he said. “You have opened up my eyes to what it means to be a human being, a forgiving human being.”
INT: So he was touched by the fact that…
ANN: That I harbor no hate against anyone. That I realize that people have behaved very cruelly towards the Jews, but I realize that it’s not because each and every one of them is a cruel individual, it’s because they were taught from childhood to hate Jews, and these are the effects from teaching hatred. If these same human beings would have taught tolerance and kindness and love, I’m sure we would live peacefully with our Christian neighbors; they would not have behaved so cruelly towards us. This is a result, and that’s why I try to always emphasize, when I talk to them, they have to stop, even in their own families. When they hear a derogatory joke made about, whether it’s about Jews, or Blacks, or any other ethnic group, they should not just sit and laugh along and have fun, but it has to be stopped and explained that there is no such thing as “I’m better than somebody else.”
INT: Almost forcing somebody to take individual responsibility to speak out.
ANN: That’s exactly what I tell them. I show them that the whole world were not murderers, but they stood by and watched and did nothing. And this is why Hitler could accomplish what he did. If those well-meaning people would have spoken up, and would have protested against it, he would not have reigned so freely as he did. He thought that nobody cared, so why shouldn’t he proceed with his plan to exterminate the Jews? I whole-heartedly believe that.
INT: So is this what keeps you going, and doing these things, despite the terrible pain that it causes you?
ANN: It is painful every time. And I speak so often. I go, ach, there are years when I am at least, at least a dozen or two dozen times in different schools. And every time you remember something new, and it touches your emotions and you become overwhelmed, and the rest of the day I cannot function properly anymore. But yet I feel it’s my duty to do that, because I am one of the few very, very fortunate survivors who survived with my parents. And my parents were able, after the war, to give me that comfort and strength to be able to turn that hate that I felt against the whole world, and especially all those Christians who have collaborated with the Nazis, to turn it around into a positive force. And that’s why I feel, I have the obligation to do it.
INT: So you feel if your parents had not…
ANN: I might have been an entirely different person. If I would have survived all by myself, and had no one to turn to, and no one to teach me the difference between wrong and right, I might have been an entirely different person.
INT: But they must have been unique, because why was it that they didn’t feel terribly bitter? Your mother’s mother willed herself to die after everything started. What was it about them?
ANN: With my mother it was a very strong and deep faith in G-d. She truly believed, you know, she did not think that G-d had a hand in it, but…
INT: She didn’t feel that G-d had caused it?
ANN: Caused this to happen, of course. But she had a very strong and deep faith in G-d, and this is what Judaism teaches us, you know, love thy neighbor. And “thy neighbor” doesn’t only mean the Jewish neighbor, it means all mankind.
INT: Well, your mother lived her life that way when she was in the old country.
ANN: Yes, even in the old country, and here, too. She came here without knowing the language, and lived amongst Christian people, and you should see how all her Christian neighbors loved her. With great respect, because she respected them. And went out of her way to be nice and kind to them, and they in turn responded to her the same way.
My father unfortunately died shortly right after he came here. But he was very instrumental. Because I had many discussions with him after the war about hating those people, and you know, he always stopped me. He never let it go any further. And he said, “I know it’s terrible to suffer,” he said, “but will you be happier if you will turn into the type of individual that have hated us?” He says, “It’s not right. That’s why we suffered, because others hated us. If you will become a hateful person, you’ll only hurt yourself, and not the people that you hate.” And he was absolutely right.
INT: It’s incredible for somebody to be able to feel that way, and express that. How old was your father when he came here?
ANN: My father, we came in 1951 to Canada. He died in Canada. And he was born in l899, so he was then 52 years old. And he died when he was about 57.
INT: He got a late start being a parent.
ANN: Yes, yes. He was a unique individual. Both my parents. I feel I was very fortunate to have such wonderful parents.
INT: Do your children get upset when they see the amount of time that you spend doing this, and the affect that it has on you?
ANN: No, no. My children are so supportive of everything that I do. And not only that. They admire me. Every time my son calls, he says, “Ma, you’re the greatest. Ma, keep on doing it.” He feels that I’m doing the right thing. My husband is not very happy with it. (laughs)
INT: What is his concern?
ANN: His concern, he feels that I should be a little bit more selfish, and think of myself, and if it upsets me, I should not do it. But then, he didn’t go through the Holocaust, and so he doesn’t know the obligation and the responsibility that we feel.
INT: So he’s looking at it more as…
ANN: From a more selfish point of view, right. Why should I be upset, and why should I do this kind of thing. He always says, “You’re driven, you have to do all those things.” And it’s not just speaking about the Holocaust. It’s other things that I do for Israel and for other organizations. And I feel that this is what life is all about. He always tells me, “You could have such an easy life. Why do you have to get involved in everything?” But I feel that to have an easy life and not an interesting life is terrible. It’s terribly dull.
INT: So do you have memories of a lot of the children, a lot of the people that you’ve met over the years, and their reaction to you? Is that important?
ANN: It is important, but I very rarely find a Christian child that comes up to me and will later on say, “Oh, you spoke to us.” It happened a couple of times, but not too often. But very often after I’ve finished speaking, they will come by, and very quietly say they admire me. They are so sorry that I had to suffer so much in my childhood. And that they appreciate the fact that I have enlightened them, and after they’ve studied about the Holocaust, that they actually met somebody. Some say, “We feel it’s a privilege that we actually met a survivor in person.”
INT: So what you’re really doing, is you’re putting a face on the number six million.
INT: Because it’s hard to imagine numbers, but to meet somebody, and hear her story, all of a sudden, it personalizes it.
ANN: That’s exactly what I tell the children, when I start out. I say, “Six million is a very large number. Some of you don’t probably know how to write that down on paper. But to me, it’s not six million. To me it’s three hundred individuals that I knew as a child. Faces, names.” This is what it means to me.
INT: And you have no way of knowing, also, how it affects the children after they leave. What they might, how they might feel. So…
ANN: I will tell you. I spoke in a school this week. I don’t know whether I told you about it. When they came in, and how they reacted. And at the end, when I finished speaking, and they finished with all their questions, those rough and tough kids who…
INT: This is from an inner city school.
ANN: Inner city school, right. How when they walked by, and “Thank you, thank you, thank you. We are so glad you came. Oh, boy, were you good. We can tell you’re a teacher.” From these kind of kids, I don’t expect any other remark. But that was a lot from them.
NARRATOR: Ann’s interview also demonstrates the importance of messages that the survivors received from members of their prewar families, often parents, but sometimes a sibling or grandparent—that functioned as a guide for their future tolerant attitudes. The messages may have been given to them just prior to the war, in the normal course of growing up, during the war, or after the war. In the chapter, “If Somebody Throws a Rock on You, You Throw Back Bread,” in the book Transcending Trauma: Survival, Resilience, and Clinical Implications in Survivor Families, I have written in more depth about tolerance and intolerance in Holocaust survivor families. Ann’s story demonstrates the conclusions in this chapter on the influence of prewar family of origin relationships and messages for positive impacting beliefs about tolerance.