A Montgomery County woman talks about her time in Poland’s Lodz ghetto during the Holocaust
The next day, Rozines called her niece to say she’d had dreams and remembered something else—a girl in a wheelbarrow her father had helped save early on. She also remembered flour on her father’s hands. He’d been in charge of delivering 100-kilo bags to the ghetto’s bakery. He would poke a small hole in them and take home bits of flour in an interior pocket the dressmakers had stitched in the ghetto residents’ clothing for the purpose of smuggling food. It’s a story Rozines often tells at the museum.
“They could only take a handful. Otherwise, when the Germans weighed it, they would know,” she explains. Her mother would use the flour however she could to cook, but sometimes they’d eat it raw. “Some people say, ‘I never could eat raw flour,’ but believe me, if you’re hungry, you eat raw flour.”
Roy says Rozines remembered small sensory details at first, which led her to ask more questions. The two talked nearly every night over the three months that followed, Roy recording her aunt’s memories on index cards. “She was just remembering and remembering, and I wanted to get it all down,” Roy says. “Then one day she said, ‘Jennifer, I don’t remember anything else.’ ”
Initially, Roy thought she’d write a book for Rozines and both of their families. When she’d written about half the story, she gave it to her editor at Marshall Cavendish, an educational publisher, who then forwarded it to the company’s fiction editor. That editor encouraged Roy to write the book as historical fiction. “[Sylvia] conveyed it so that I could feel what she was like as a child,” Roy says. “Other things she told me matter-of-factly, but the really scary parts, the lonely parts, it was as if she was telling me from her eyes as a child. She would tell me, and then she would just stop. There was silence, because I think we both realized: Wow.”
When Roy sent her aunt the manuscript, Rozines couldn’t bring herself to finish it at first. When she finally did, she called Roy. “Jennifer, you understand me,” Rozines told her. “And Hava and Itka, my little friends—now they are alive again.” To this day, Rozines says it’s hard for her to read Yellow Star. “[When] I talk, I don’t cry,” she says. “But once I see it in print…”
At the Holocaust Museum this summer, Rozines was speaking to students from Texas when a 15-year-old said to her peers, “Please, let me talk.”
“She started to cry right away and she said, ‘My grandfather designed the buildings in concentration camps,’ ” Rozines recalls. “She said, ‘My grandfather was always sorry. He lived in this country, but he was a very sad man.’ ” The teen asked Rozines if she could give her a hug, then apologized and said her grandfather regretted his whole life what he’d done. Rozines wondered what the girl meant by “the buildings,” but didn’t want to pry and ask if he’d designed the gas chambers and ovens. “It’s not your fault what your grandfather did,” she told the teen.
When the young girl from Florida asks Rozines how she survived the Holocaust, she starts at the beginning. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Germans took the old part of Lodz and made it a ghetto, she explains, surrounding the city’s industrial area with barbed wire and soldiers who guarded the entrances. One of the anti-Semitic laws that had been enacted required all Jewish people to wear the Star of David—a yellow star—on the front and back of their clothing.
“The schools were only open for a couple months, and then all the children, if they were 12, they worked in the factories,” Rozines says. Younger children like her stayed by themselves. “If you read my book,” Rozines says, “you’re going to see that I stayed with two little girls.” Those girls, Hava and Itka, lived in the same building, where six or seven people often shared a tiny apartment with a kitchen, she explains. The girls invented games and made dolls from scraps of sheets and pencils, and played with them until their parents returned home from work.
Many of the things they’d brought into the ghetto, including clothing and young Sylvia’s toys, had been sold to the Polish people on the other side of the gates in exchange for food. “I remember a carriage with a doll that had a beautiful gown,” Rozines says. “But food was the most important thing to survive.” When they ran out of their coal ration, they broke their furniture to cook with. “It’s sad to say that we knew a father who was so hungry he took his children’s slice of bread. …The people who were not so well-off and used to hardship [fared better], but the rich people, they died very fast.”
A one-page handout the museum produced about Rozines’ life details how deportations from Lodz to the Chelmno killing center began in January 1942, and how the German soldiers went street to street rounding up children to put on the trains. Hava and Itka didn’t survive.
Parents were told that their children were going to a special camp where they would learn and be safe. Sylvia’s father didn’t believe it. “They took children out by force from the mothers’ arms,” she says. “My father came up with places to hide me.”
The night the German soldiers reached the street where her family lived, her father ran with her to a cemetery, hoisted her over a tall brick wall and dug a hole in the ground. She remembers other children left sitting between gravestones. “I don’t remember if he used his hand or if he found something. He covered me—all around me was sand and dirt, and I had to stay quiet,” she says. “He didn’t leave the cemetery. He stayed around, I think as if he was cleaning up, in case the Germans came and asked what he was doing.” Rozines had to remain in the hole for a day and a night, worrying and waiting for her father to smuggle her back to their apartment. Her mother placed a white sheet in the window when it was safe to return.
“This was my nightmare,” she says, “that the Germans found me, and I see the German taking the gun and I say to my father, ‘He’s killing me.’ The same dream for more than 10 years, until I came to America, and then for some reason it stopped.”
The mother from Florida’s eyes close for a few moments. Sharina takes a deep breath.