Former teacher writes book on escape from the Warsaw Ghetto
TORONTO — For as long as she can remember, the holiest day of the Jewish year has held special significance for Helen Drazek Wajs. On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1942, her father, Samuel Drazek, survived a terrifying incident in wartime Poland.
It happened on his way to the Warsaw Ghetto factory where he and his wife Manya worked as slave labourers. Drazek was certain he would be killed when a German officer arrested him and led him to a roundup massacre.
But after a short time – perhaps because Drazek had succeeded in convincing the officer that he was a valuable worker – he was ordered to leave.
“People did not survive these massacres. The fact that my father did is unreal,” Drazek Wajs told The CJN over coffee in her Toronto apartment. Her father, a traditional but not strictly observant man, vowed to attend Kol Nidrei services for the rest of his life, and despite ill health in later years, he did.
Drazek Wajs is self-publishing a book about her late parents’ survival, and her own. The book, Odyssey Through Hell: Escape from the Warsaw Ghetto, is expected to be in print soon. Author Anne Dublin, with whom the book was written, added historical context and did part of the editing.
Drazek Wajs, a former school teacher and general studies principal of a Jewish school in Montreal, survived most of the war separately from her parents. Born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941, she was smuggled out 14 months later via a courthouse with separate entrances for the ghetto and Aryan sides.
Helen Drazek Wajs today FRANCES KRAFT PHOTO
Her parents had arranged for a wealthy Christian couple – clients at their prewar haute couture atelier – to look after their daughter. In 1994, Yad Vashem designated rescuers Janina and Leon Nasierowski, who also ended up sheltering Manya and Samuel, as Righteous Among the Nations.
By the time Drazek Wajs was reunited with her parents at age four, they were strangers to her. She was living in a modest cottage in a Polish village, because her rescuers had joined the resistance and been deported to a concentration camp. Although she was treated well, she remembers being hungry and cold, and said she had to wear a coat and hat indoors to keep warm.
To ease their daughter’s transition, the Drazeks stayed in the village for several weeks, so she could get to know them before they took her away. They left with a large, heavy crucifix, carrying it everywhere until their daughter was ready to give it up.
Before settling in Montreal in 1952, the small family, who had lost about 100 relatives, lived in Europe and briefly in Israel. A cousin in Belgium had seen their names on a list of survivors, and helped them build a new life there. In Montreal, Samuel and Manya established a fur business, Créations de Paris, which they ran for about 35 years until they closed it to retire.
Luck played a big part in her parents’ survival, Drazek Wajs said. They worked under a German officer who “acted as a real Nazi, but never touched anybody.” Samuel had no idea the man was actually Jewish, but felt he could trust him to deliver letters. It wasn’t until after the war in Paris that they crossed paths again by chance, a moving reunion described in the book.
Drazek Wajs’ stories have an immediacy attributable to the fact that, whenever her parents talked about the war, she wrote their stories down immediately afterward. Without the notes that she compiled over decades, “there’s no way I could have reconstituted what happened.”
The book honours a promise she made to her parents to remember and tell the world their story. Several years ago, she contributed two poems to an anthology edited by Shlomit Kriger, Marking Humanity: Stories, Poems & Essays by Holocaust Survivors.
Drazek Wajs has also taken part in some Holocaust commemorations, mostly in Montreal, where she lived until she and her husband moved here eight years ago to be closer to their children.
Although their grandchildren have participated in the March of the Living, Drazek Wajs said there’s no way she could step onto Poland’s “blood-soaked” soil.
However, she noted, the courthouse where she was rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto is still standing, and her grandchildren who have been on the March shared her story when they were there.
“I’m represented,” she said.