A Montgomery County woman talks about her time in Poland’s Lodz ghetto during the Holocaust
“How did the Polish people treat you after the war?” the mother from Florida asks.
“We were just standing on the street being happy [to be liberated],” Rozines says. Soviet soldiers liberated the people in her ghetto on Jan. 19, 1945, the day before her 10th birthday. Her mother, father and sister all survived. As some of the survivors climbed through holes cut in the barbed wire, Polish people flooded into the ghetto, taking whatever they could find. Sylvia taps one of the pictures on the table in front of her. “By the time we returned to our apartment [in the ghetto] the next day, everything [we’d left there] was gone,” she says. “They took the frames. Our pictures were on the floor.”
When her family went back for their belongings, a blond Polish woman walked by them. “ ‘Look at how many are still left over, ’ she said. I was 10 years old and I had no schooling, and yet I understood exactly what she was saying,” says Rozines, who knew the woman was referring to Jewish prisoners.
Realizing that anti-Semitism was still widespread in Poland, Rozines’ father paid someone to show them the way from Poland to Germany, where they settled temporarily in a camp for displaced persons. She doesn’t know how her father found the right people to get them there. “We went to the woods, [and the vehicle we rode in] had gasoline tanks in the front and we were sitting in the back. It was a bumpy ride,” she says. “When someone is filling up the car, I can still smell it.”
From the camp, her father arranged for someone to walk them to the French border. Rozines’ uncle—her mother’s brother—was living in Paris. “They didn’t have such things as a passport,” she says. “You just walked to the border, and once you arrived you got papers because you were an escapee.”
It was in Paris that Rozines finally was able to begin school, at age 12. She was placed with kids her own age, but had to attend first grade for an hour every day to learn to read French. “The children and teachers were very nice, but it was very hard to catch up,” she says.
When Rozines’ mother died of cancer 4½ years after their arrival in Paris, she was so devastated that she stopped going to school. “It was a big tragedy,” she says, “and I became very ill because I couldn’t understand how we could survive [the ghetto] and she dies at 45, just when things were going better.” Rozines assumed some of her mother’s duties, cooking and cleaning the home she shared with her father—her sister was already in America—and she read. She was taken by American author Pearl Buck’s tales about life in China. “I never had a childhood,” she says. “When I became sick when I lost my mother, I started to get books. I learned a lot from reading—my education was really from reading.”
Rozines immigrated to the United States at the age of 21 and settled near her sister, who had moved to Albany, New York, with her husband years earlier and opened a dry cleaning business. Two years later she married David, another Holocaust survivor from Poland she met on a blind date that was set up by someone who worked for her sister. They had one son, raising him in Rochester, New York, where Sylvia worked in the New York state school system for 24 years.
When Rozines settled in Montgomery County, she joined a women’s group at her synagogue. They needed a speaker to talk with kids. She began there, being careful about telling the dramatic parts of her story. “Talking to the kids wasn’t bad, but talking to the ladies, that was hard,” she says. One time, while speaking to a group of women about her experience, she read just one page of the speech she had prepared. “I thought I was going to die,” she says. “My heart was banging and I was sweating.”
Silence had been the key to Rozines’ survival, she says, from her early days in the ghetto, where she played quietly with Hava and Itka, to her final year in Lodz, when she and the other children spent days hidden and barely speaking in a cellar. Talking, let alone loudly, was a matter of life and death.
“This was my biggest thing here in America. If somebody told me something that upset me, I couldn’t fight back,” Rozines says. “Let’s say you have an argument with another worker, and I couldn’t speak up. I was 56 years old and I wouldn’t speak up. There was still that little girl who didn’t want to make waves.”
She was 58 when the Holocaust Museum opened in 1993. She attended the opening with her husband and son, and from there she began sharing memories with her immediate family—and slowly with others. After Yellow Star was published, Rozines participated in Portraits of Life, a program and exhibition about area Holocaust survivors that was created by the Paul Peck Humanities Institute at Montgomery College and launched in 2005. Survivors speak to middle and high school students, as well as other audiences, and Rozines participates a couple of times a year. “They asked me to speak, and that’s how I began to speak to schools, and after that I had enough courage,” she says. “I applied to the [Holocaust] museum.”
Before she began, though, she made a promise to herself that if the nightmare returned—the dream in which a German soldier points a gun at her and she calls out to her father—she’d stop volunteering. Thankfully, it didn’t return, and her story has inspired many who’ve heard it in the years since. “I have giant bins filled with letters and pictures,” Roy says. “Some are from small towns, others inner cities, and they often say, ‘I relate to this even though I don’t know any Jewish people because I’m a minority, too.’ ”
An Irish Catholic girl from Chicago was so moved by Rozines’ story that she began organizing fundraisers when she was in middle school, raising hundreds of dollars for hunger-related charities. She and her mother have kept in touch with Rozines, and when they came to town for a wedding, Rozines went to dinner with the family, including the girl’s grandfather. “He was a [U.S.] soldier during the war,” Rozines says.
A few years ago, a young girl named Vivian came to meet Rozines at one of the First Person events at the Holocaust Museum and told her she’d read Yellow Star 22 times. “She just stared at me. She couldn’t talk,” Rozines says. “I knew what that was like, not to be able to say anything.”
Roy is struck by how her aunt has blossomed over the years. “It was profound. It’s still profound,” she says. “I wondered: How did she keep that quiet [for so long]? Every time I see her speak I am amazed at how beautiful and composed she is. She could be a social activist because of how poised she is—and how humble.”
This past April, 138 Holocaust survivors, along with supporters from around the country, gathered for the Holocaust Museum’s 25th anniversary celebration. Rozines was one of six survivors who had the honor of lighting candles in remembrance of those who lost their lives.
At the museum, a question in one of the information guides reads: “Now that you have seen, now that you know…what will you do?” Rozines thinks about that when she sees stories about the Syrian refugee crisis, rampant sexual abuse allegations, and the challenges facing refugees and immigrants. She wonders today, as she did when she was a child: What makes some turn away as people are abused, while others take a risk to help?
When asked why she continues to volunteer, and to participate in programs like Portraits of Life and the First Person series, she says, “In my old age, I want to do something to give back. We have to give back and help one another.” She shares her story in the hopes that younger generations will know about the Holocaust, she says, and so other people don’t have to suffer. In Sharina’s copy of Yellow Star, like so many others Rozines has signed, she writes: “To read and to remember.”
Christine Koubek’s work has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, Poets & Writers, Arlington Magazine and more. She’s on Twitter @ckstories.