By Yvette Finkelstein
Two families; two heartbreaking stories plus one. On Monday, April 29, two speakers, Ellen Hollander and Ellen Kaidanow, shared their poignant stories in commemoration of Yom HaShoah 2019 at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle. Sponsored by both New Rochelle Hadassah and Beth El Sisterhood, a packed audience listened in stunned silence as Ellen Hollander told the story of her husband, Jack, the youngest survivor of the Demblin Ghetto in Poland, while Ellen Kaidanow talked about her mother-in-law, also named Ellen Kaidanow, who sat silently in the audience, listening to the story of her survival.
A Generations Forward speaker from the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center (HHREC), Ellen Kaidanow began her talk with a startling beginning. She explained that she was adopted as a child by a Catholic family, her aunt is a nun and her upbringing was firmly rooted in Catholic theology. While working in San Francisco, Ellen met and fell in love with her husband, Joseph, who explained that he felt responsible to continue his Jewish heritage and wanted his family life to be infused with Judaism.
Joseph and Ellen have three children, live in Harrison, New York, and the family is active in the HHREC, UJA, and several other local non-profit organizations including being members of the Jewish Community Center of Harrison. Ellen, who converted to Judaism, felt it was “bashert” that she met Joseph and feels that “part of my fate and purpose is to be a witness for my mother-in-law’s story.” She says she “wants to honor her (mother-in-law) and help others of all religions have a personal connection to the Holocaust so they become witnesses.” Ellen explains that by listening to stories about the Holocaust, “You create new witnesses to the Holocaust,” and these stories must continue to be told. Ellen beseeches others to become “upstanders,” not “bystanders,” standing up to injustice through words and actions.
Ellen Kaidanow “Sr.” is a woman with four names: Shifra, Marusia, Shura and Ellen. Shifra was born in Dubno, Poland, in June, 1936, to a family who owned a candy store and maintained housekeepers. Shifra loved being a “kid in a candy store,” and especially enjoyed the attention she got from Aunt Jenia and Uncle Rubin, as well as from her beloved nanny, Lena. When German “actions” began in their town, Shifra’s father and uncle were forced into hard labor camps and the family worried from minute to minute, fearing they would not return home. To protect his family in the event of these “actions,” Shifra’s father built a 10 ft. x 10 ft. bunker which provided a hiding place for the extended family.
Wonderful, courageous Lena was an “upstander,” as she came to the ghetto wall, sneaking food to Shifra and her family. When the family learned of a “final action,” Lena got word to Shifra’s father that she was willing to take one child into hiding with her. Shifra was chosen and Lena pretended Shifra was her illegitimate child, giving her a new Christian name, Marusia. Lena hid Marusia on her brother’s farm until that became too dangerous. Lena again fled with Marusia, this time to her sister’s farm, situated in a more rural location. Marusia was now eight years old, living in hiding, not being allowed to go to school, having no friends and being afraid to be Jewish.
Aunt Jenia and Uncle Rubin learned about Marusia’s whereabouts and traveled for weeks looking for her, but the search had a painful ending when Marusia didn’t want to leave Lena, the woman who had become her mother. Finally traveling to Russia with Marusia, Jenia and Rubin called her “Shura,” a typical Russian name, akin to Alexandra. Lena, Jenia and Rubin were ordinary people who did extraordinary things, saving Shura from the fate of the rest of her family.
Jenia and Rubin traveled with their young son, Victor, and Shura to a displaced persons camp in Germany. They eventually booked passage for Shura and Victor on a boat bound for the United States; the children were 12 ½ and 9 1/2 years old. Jenia and Rubin followed eight months later. Shura was renamed Ellen and was enrolled in school on Long Island. Ellen was 16 ½ years old when she married 19 ½ year old Jerry, also a Holocaust survivor from Poland. They have three children, Joseph, Shari and Pamela.
Ellen Kaidanow “Sr.” is now 82 years old. She and her husband, Jerry, are both long-time members of Beth El Synagogue Center. They have seven grandchildren. Last summer, Ellen “Jr.” traveled to Dubno, now in the Ukraine, with her mother-in-law. They stood at the main gate of the Dubno Ghetto, walked the streets of Dubno and visited one of the memorial sites where 6,000 Jews were murdered. They were able to meet Lena’s family and visit her grave, paying homage to Lena, the woman who risked her life to save the life of Ellen “Sr.”
Ellen Hollander and her family have been members of Beth El Synagogue Center since 1976. Ellen developed and taught the Judaic Arts program in the Beth El Religious School for 26 years. Upon retirement, she became an active member of Beth El sisterhood, where she served on the program committee, the membership committee and currently co-chairs the synagogue’s gift shop. A Life Member of Hadassah for 39 years, Ellen and Jack have been married for 39 years and are the parents of three grown children and three beautiful “grands.”
Ellen stood at the podium trying to maintain her emotions as she began talking about the miraculous survival of her husband, Jack and her mother-in-law, Saba, from the hands of the Nazis. Ellen’s story was carefully scripted, with accompanying slides, but she cautioned her listeners to the reality that no one can really understand the devastating emotional and physical pain experienced by those living amidst filthy surroundings, undergoing utter devastation. We must, however, continue to hear and share the stories of those who survived the Holocaust.
Saba, Ellen’s mother-in-law, gave birth to Jack in September, 1941, when the family was already living in the ghetto. Saba’s husband, Beryl Ledermann was forced to work in a labor camp. Jack was only six months old when his father was arrested, imprisoned and killed by the Polish police because he had broken curfew and was discovered celebrating Purim. Because of Jack’s being an infant, Saba remained hiding in the ghetto when others were forced to the market area for “selection.”
Knowing that so many people were murdered and sent to their deaths in concentration camps, Saba ran from the ghetto to the Demblin forced labor camp with her son, rather than risk being discovered, feeding Jack bits of sugar to keep him from crying. By 1944, with the Germans losing the war and the Russians advancing into town, those Jews who had survived were transferred from the Demblin camp to another camp further west and forced into menial labor. Upon liberation in January, 1945, the survivors endured living in empty houses, scrounging for food, existing on boiled potatoes. Saba was shot and in critical condition, but the Jewish community rescued her, taking her to a hospital in Warsaw, where she remained for several weeks. Some of the family members who survived found each other, eventually making their way to the American sector of Germany where they were placed in the Deggendorf Displaced Persons Camp. Jack, who was four years old, was discovered to have TB and was sent to a convent/sanitorium where he learned several Catholic prayers.
Following the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, the family located a relative in New York who would sponsor them and set upon their journey to America.
By Yvette Finkelstein