A Jewish Grandson Remembers His Grandmother, A Holocaust Survivor

comment aborder fille site rencontre By Joey Spitz, Portland, Maine

Dzhalilabad My grandmother, Heddy Spitz, was born Sarah Henyu Smilovic. To me though, she was Bubbie.

unisexually Born October 20, 1920 in Munkacs, a small Czechoslovakian town in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, Heddy had a childhood filled with the warmth of a loving family. One of fourteen children, she was encouraged to learn a trade and became an apprentice to local wig makers Julia and Joseph Spitz, the man for whom I am named. Arthur, their son, and Heddy were teenage sweethearts who fell in love and hoped to marry. Yet sadly any hope for a life together quickly ended in May 1944 as the Nazis deported the Jews of Munkacs.

Ordered out from her home, Heddy watched in horror as the Nazis killed and plundered, ripping the beards and raw flesh off the faces of the religious men. With panic she grabbed clippers from her pocket and hastily cut the beard her father had piously grown for 30 years. Unable to take any of her belongings, Heddy, her family and the Jews of Munkacs, were paraded out of town to the cheers of their neighbors. After weeks of uncertainty as to their fate, they were ultimately led to cattle cars. Squeezed by the masses into trains with no food or water, Heddy spent countless days in darkness.

Joey’s grandmother (top, second from the right) with her parents and siblings before the war.

Auschwitz, 1944

When the train finally came to a halt, Heddy exited next to the bodies of those who had died along the journey. She arrived at Auschwitz, greeted by the sign “Arbeit macht frei – work makes freedom.” The Nazis immediately sorted the arriving prisoners into two lines: one for the old and weak and one for the young and healthy. She watched as her mother, sisters and nieces were sent to the gas chambers never to be seen again.

My Bubbie described the scene in her memoir as follows. “Auschwitz was a strange spot in Europe. There were treasures of gold, silver, diamond, hair, teeth…the killing went on to the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. The crematoriums bellow black fumes. While the sounds of music mingled with the stench of burning flesh. Life went on.”

She willed herself to live. Surrounded by death, many prisoners opted for a quicker end, and grabbed the surrounding electrified fence. “I stood and looked around at the electric wires around the camp”, she said. “I promised myself [that] I will not approach the wire. I wanted to live and always hoped for a better tomorrow.”

After many months of living each day with constant hunger and the fear of impending doom, Bubbie was sent to a slave labor unit along with four of her remaining sisters. Marching in the snow for 120 kilometers, she thought of the words of her mother, “the only way you will survive”, she warned “is to stick together.”

With a Nazi rifle at her back, Bubbie spent long days digging holes in the snow to thwart incoming Russian tanks. It was winter 1945 and Bubbie’s hands and feet were frozen. As she began to develop severe frostbite of her feet, she turned to her sisters and told them she could no longer march. She knew that the Nazis would soon kill her. Yet her sisters would not abandon her. ‘If you are going to die, we will die together’ they said.

Escape from Auschwitz, 1945

That night, sleeping in a barn filled with straw, the sisters planned their escape. When morning came and the Nazis ordered everyone from the barn, the sisters remained hidden underneath the hay. The Nazis sent in German Shepherds and found eleven other girls hiding. Bubbie and her sisters remained hidden in silence as the piercing sounds – gunshots, screams, silence- emanated from outside the barn. One wrong move, one accidental noise and the Nazis would find them.

But as time passed, the Nazis gave up looking and continued on their way. Hiding in silence, the sisters heard a farmer enter and warn that the Nazis would soon be back. ‘If there are any Jews hiding in here’, he cautioned, ‘leave immediately for you are not safe.’

Although they were no longer in Auschwitz, they remained in fear, hiding from death at every turn. As they continued their journey, without any destination beyond simply surviving, Heddy’s sister felt something strange in the shoes she had been given at the camp. Peeling back its insole, she noticed a gold coin, likely hidden by a fellow inmate before their death.

As they continued their journey, they heard Russian songs coming from a pair of boys in the distance. Thinking on their feet the sisters spoke in Russian and pretended to be Russian refugees fleeing the carnage of nearby Dresden. They handed the boys the gold coin, the only possession they had on this earth, and asked for their help. The boys replied that they had friends in a nearby village who could help find the sisters places to live and work. Bubbie spent the remainder of the war hiding her true identity while working as a hairdresser for families in the village.

After the war

Months later, when the war finally came to an end, Heddy was miraculously reunited with her teenage love, Arthur. Years after meeting in his father’s wig store, they were reunited and hopeful for a better life together. But there was no future for them in Europe. Their homes had been destroyed. Their families murdered. Even their wedding, which took place in a displaced persons camp, was ransacked and looted. Unable to leave, they spent over a year languishing in a refugee camp until obtaining visas to come to America in 1947.

Joey’s grandmother and grandfather (in the back) with her four kids and Joseph and Julia Spitz (seated in front).

Arthur and Heddy embodied the American dream. Arriving penniless with little education they scrimped and saved and built a number of successful businesses, including Heddy’s House of Wigs, a national chain of wig stores. She had cut hair to survive the war, and now, she used that same skill to build a thriving business in The Land of Opportunity.

As I share my Bubbie’s story, typing the details of horrors I will never truly know, I cannot help but feel lucky to be alive. For without her pursuit of life in the face of death, her bravery and her optimism, I would not be here. She gave me, her four children and ten other grandchildren the gift of life and the spirit of resiliency. I hope that by sharing her story with you I am able to honor her memory one retelling at a time.

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Joey Spitz

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