Raul Hilberg estimates that over a million Jews living under German occupation survived the Holocaust and were still alive at the end of WWII. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 186). Each of their stories constitutes a minor miracle: a combination of fortitude and luck, which was relatively rare. Most of the million Jewish survivors were those living in Romania (in the Old Kingdom regions) and Bulgaria. In both of these countries, the leaders of the government, for various complex reasons, changed their minds about sending all Jews to concentration camps.
A second group of survivors made it against all odds, despite the dehumanizing conditions of the concentration camps. They were either liberated by the Allies from Auschwitz and other concentration camps or escaped the grueling death marches, once the Germans evacuated the concentration camps.
A third group of survivors attempted the near impossible: they hid, resisted or fled the Nazis. Many had to adopt more than one disguise or alias. They ran the risk of being shot or sent to concentration camps as soon as the Nazis and their collaborators discovered their real identities. These survivors, Hilberg observes, tended to be young, in good physical condition, and usually had a particular psychological profile that set them apart from most victims: “The contrast may be glimpsed in three important traits: realism, rapid decision making, and tenacious holding to life” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders 188). Because they tended to be not only incredibly lucky but also exceptionally resourceful and resilient, their stories sound the most “fictional” and even implausible, particularly to readers today, which are far removed from the hardships of the Holocaust.
If any survivor story shows that truth can be stranger than fiction, it’s Alicia Appleman-Jurman’s Alicia: My Story (New York: Bantam, 1988). In a glowing review, The Pittsburgh Press called the book “As exciting as it is inspirational. In fact, a good bit of Alicia: My Story reads as if it were written by one of our better writers of fiction”. This book reads like fiction, indeed. In an autobiographical narrative the author describes her survival against all odds in Nazi-occupied Poland. While Alicia lost one of her brothers under the Soviet occupation of Poland (when he disappeared without a trace after having been recruited for training by the Red Army), once Germany invaded Poland the situation for Jewish families became far worse. The Gestapo systematically went from house to house hunting for Jews, often aided by the Ukrainian police and the Ukrainian Nationalist guerillas (Banderovcy). The Nazis and their collaborators searched every nook and cranny of Jewish homes, even in basements and attics. Often crying babies would inadvertedly betray entire families trying to escape capture and an almost certain death. Jews were rounded up to be placed in ghettos, or shot on the spot, or sent to concentration camps. Alicia was not yet a teenager when she was compelled to leave her home and go into hiding with her mother, after the Gestapo murdered her father and brothers. Over the course of the next few years, she adopted various disguises and provided not only for herself and her mother, but also helped others. She disguised herself as a peasant, worked hard labor on several farms, and even aided some of the Soviet partisans who took refuge in nearby forests.
Once the war ended, Alicia’s incredible story did not stop. She began working as a guide for the Brecha, the Zionist Underground Railroad that smuggled Jews into Palestine. She made it her life mission to share her survival story in order to inform and inspire generations to come. Talking about her painful past became a therapeutic, not only educational, experience: “As I continued talking I realized that if I were to survive at all and escape from the swamp of anguish and despair, I would have to reach out to people, to those who survived like myself, and perhaps sometime in the future, to all people. I would not be able to continue to hate, because I knew in my young heart that hate could eventually destroy me. But I would always remember what had happened to my family and to my people and would never be able to forgive those who committed the crimes” (Alicia: My Story, 272). To this day she describes her experiences during the Holocaust in schools, at conferences and on her website, http://aliciamystory.com/.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon