By Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha "Jewish Press"
This is not just another Holocaust story. It is the chronicle of how three sisters survived, alone and together, a series of Nazi concentration camps during World War II to tell their story of human endurance. That not one or two but all three made it out alive is, as the eldest puts it today, “Impossible. I don’t know how we lived. We survived with nothing…not even our hair.”
Only girls at the time, the sisters, all of whom resettled in Omaha, displayed a remarkable resolve that belied their years and that still defines them today. Their individual stories have been told, but never their combined saga. Sisters of the Shoah in name and in blood, the former Bojman girls are old women now but their spirit burns with the rigor of youth. Known by their married names — Mania Friedman, Rachel Rosenberg, Bluma Polonski — they remain defiant witnesses to the Nazi genocide that killed millions, including their parents and brothers, and that would have claimed them, too, but for their three golden fates and three iron wills.
“It is sad and it is deep,” is how a teary-eyed Rachel, the middle sister, describes her and her siblings’ odyssey. It’s a legacy that’s had a profound effect on their families, too. For example, Rachel’s three children witnessed her frequent crying jags and their father Carl’s obsession with the Holocaust. Rachel said in recent years she promised herself, “‘You’re not going to be miserable…live as happy as you can…see the light instead of the dark.’ I’ve tried to help myself to live normal and to be like everybody else, which I’m not. But I try.” A son, Stuart Rosenberg, said despite the nightmare his mother and maternal aunts experienced “they are truly remarkable people with an incredible appreciation for life.” The significance of their story, he added, is in the resilience and resistance their survival represents.
Not all survivors have fared as well. A cousin of the sisters never got over losing her family, including two sons, to the Holocaust. She committed suicide. “My cousin didn’t want to live. I do. I like life,” said Rachel. “In my eyes, I have everything I want. I’m the richest person in the world.”
The women today enjoy the comfortable lifestyle they made for themselves here, but the horrid memories of what brought them to America are never far away. This past Mother’s Day, the oldest sister, Mania, encapsulated the dichotomy of their lives in her heavily accented voice, “Our life is beautiful and miserable, you understand? After the war we had no family. We had nothing. How many times I said, ‘God, take me away not to suffer too much.’ We went through more than hell. But this is our life. We have to take everything. At least I have pleasure from my children. All over I have pictures of my children,” she said, gesturing at the dozens of photos adorning her refrigerator, walls, hutches and tables. “As long as I’m alive I want to see them, not hidden away in a drawer, because we have family again.”
The phone rings and it’s Rose, the mother of Mania’s only granddaughter, Jennifer, whom she adores. “Oh, thank you, Rose. Happy Mother’s Day to you, too. You give me joy in my life,” Mania says. “You give me the biggest diamond that can be — Jennifer.” When Mania mentions she’s telling her Holocaust story to a visitor, the conversation abruptly ends. She explains that her daughter cannot deal with the subject: “She said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to hear it.’”
For Bluma, the youngest sister, the specter of the Holocaust is not as immediate as it is for her older siblings but it is still ever present. Three years ago she made a pilgrimage with her children and several of her grandchildren to the Polish death camps. “This was my wish. To make this journey before I go away, because I’m a survivor and when we go away nobody’s going to be left anymore,” she said. “It was a sad wish. My husband didn’t want to go because it broke his heart. I said, ‘If you’re not going to go, I will. I have to.’ I wanted to say goodbye to the ashes.”
Bluma and her family visited Treblinka, where her mother and youngest brother were killed, as well as Auschwitz, where she and Mania were imprisoned together and where Rachel and another brother were confined in a separate compound. “In Treblinka I kneeled down, I cried and I talked to my mom and my little brother. I said, ‘I’m here. I’ve just come to see you and say goodbye.’ I said a kadish and after the prayers it started thundering and lightning…like she heard me. It was very emotional.” At Auschwitz, she went inside the very barracks, No. 25, where she and Mania were interned. “I thought I would have a nervous breakdown,” she recalls. Finally, she went to her hometown, which she found stripped bare of its Jewish heritage. “There’s nothing left,” she said. “It’s like we never existed.” Back home, she counts her blessings. “I’m thankful to God for every single day.”
Born into the Polish-Jewish family of Rose and Morris Bojman, Mania, Rachel and Bluma grew up alongside their three younger bothers in a stately home in the largely Jewish rural village of Wolanow, Poland. The orthodox family was well off, with their father working as a cattle buyer and running his own butcher shop and their mother earning money as a seamstress. The three sisters were leading typical schoolgirl lives, with Rachel learning the seamstress trade, when Poland was invaded by German forces in 1939 and the first anti-Jewish decrees were enacted soon thereafter. The mounting menace turned violent when German bombers attacked the village and an explosion destroyed a house across the street from the Bojman residence, killing and maiming several inhabitants. “I remember the bedding was wet with blood. People were cut up in little pieces,” Rachel said.
With their movements and actions curtailed, the Jewish populace was restricted to one small section of town where the Bojmans resided. Some of Wolanow’s Jewish residents were thrown out of their own homes and herded with refugees from neighboring hamlets into the small Jewish ghetto, which more and more resembled a prison. The Bojmans’ home was soon overcrowded with dozens of displaced people. Occupying German forces increasingly isolated their captives by driving Jews into concentration camps, dividing families in the process, throughout the countryside. It was at this time the Bojman family was irretrievably split-up. The sisters’ mother fled with their youngest brother, Motel, to the nearby village of her brother and his family, where she felt they’d be safe. The rest of the family was taken to Szalkow, a holding site on an area farm where conditions were far better than anything the sisters would know again until after the war ended six years later. Then, in the cold calculations of the Holocaust, Mania, Bluma, a brother, Aaron, their father and a cousin, Carl Rosenberg, were inexplicably sent to Camp Wolanow while Rachel and her brother Jacob stayed at Szalkow.
To this day, Rachel cannot fathom why she and her brother were separated from her family at Wolanow. “That’s such a puzzle in my mind,” she said. As to why her mother went off alone with her baby brother, she speculates she acted out of fear and denial. “My mother preached, ‘The Germans will not hurt us — they are a cultured people.’” Before leaving, Rachel’s mother gave her a diamond ring. Rachel bribed a German guard with that ring and found someone to drive her to the village where her mother and brother were staying. “I went to get them,” Rachel recalls, but her mother resisted. “‘No, give me two more days,’ she said. She cooked for me my favorite meal and made a package for me to take back to my camp.” By the time Rachel came back, the village had been ethnically cleansed and, as she later learned, her loved ones taken to Treblinka, where they perished.
Camp Wolanow. This was the first of the camps Mania and Bluma weathered. As in other camps, males and females were segregated in overcrowded living barracks and on grueling work details. The sisters’ father and their brother Aaron were there, too. Operated by the Germans, the holding camp was manned by many Polish guards and terrorized by roving Ukrainian execution squads. The close quarters, unsanitary conditions, poor food and inadequate shelter became a breeding ground for disease. Typhus swept through the camp that winter, felling the sisters’ father, who grew too weak to work, excuse enough to be killed. Bluma, then only 10, snuck into her father’s barracks to comfort him and to hide him from the guards, but she was spotted and thrown into a crude shack known as “the death house.” There, “cold, barefoot and crying,” she cowered among the other prisoners awaiting almost certain death. When word of her capture reached her cousin Carl, already a young man who’d earned special privileges inside the camp because of his tailoring skills, he came to her rescue. Half-delirious with typhus himself, Carl pleaded with the guards for her release. As Bluma recalls, “He said, ‘Please, let her live a little more. She’s my cousin.’ And they let me out.”
Survival at Wolanow was determined in part by luck, the guards’ whims and inmates’ own wits, wile and will. To survive, Bluma and Mania became hustlers and scavengers. Bluma, the smaller of the two, was adept at sneaking in and out of tight spaces to steal boots or brooms, which they made, or other valuable items the girls came across in camp and traded for scraps of food. “I was the provider,” Bluma said. “I was very aggressive.” In their foraging for supplies, the sisters said they got brazen enough to dig a shallow tunnel — with their bare hands — in the snow and ice. The tunnel, beginning under a section of barbed wire on the camp’s perimeter fence, ran into the surrounding woods and led to a clearing a few yards away. There, Bluma said, she and Mania came above ground and headed straight for a house occupied by a friendly Gentile family. The woman of the house knew the Bojmans from before the roundups and gave food and shelter to the two brave little girls, who scurried to her place via the tunnel whenever they got hungry.
On what proved to be the last run the girls made to their secret sanctuary, Bluma said the woman informed them it was getting too dangerous to aid them any longer and she forbid them from returning. That night, Bluma said she and Mania hid in the woods when they heard machine gunfire coming from the camp. Returning to camp at daybreak, she said they came upon a scene of surreal carnage, with hundreds of frozen corpses, riddled by bullets, laying on the ground as mourning relatives weeped over them. Among the bereaved was their father, crying over the death of his son and their brother, Aaron, a victim of the mass execution.
As related to the sisters by their father, Aaron was selected for a contingent of
prisoners earmarked for another camp but, instead, he hid in a barrel, hoping to elude his captors. When a guard overturned the barrel Aaron was killed with the others on site. The bodies, according to Mania, were buried in a mass grave.
From Wolanow, Mania, Bluma, their father and Carl were transported to a Polish transit camp, Starahowice, where they were detained before being shipped, by train, to dreaded Auschwitz. Degradation and violation ruled their lives at Auschwitz. Like many others, Mania and Bluma endured torture. “The women guards went with their bare hands inside us and tore things,” Mania said. “We were screaming. We were bleeding. Oh, God. I don’t know how we got children. This was a miracle.” The sisters’ father was transported from Auschwitz and eventually gassed in Buchenwald.
Meanwhile, Rachel, along with Jacob and assorted cousins and aunts, were deported from Szalkow, where they enjoyed relative comfort, to Blizyn, a harsh labor camp where they were “cold, hungry and dirty.” She and other women were forced to carry heavy cement blocks for buildings under construction. Jacob tended animals. Eventually, Rachel was spared the hardship and indignity of being a human pack mule when the guards called a group of inmates together one day and asked who could sew. She raised her hand and was reassigned to a giant sweatshop where she joined hundreds of other prisoners making uniforms.
The drudgery of work-filled days and the anxiety of uncertain fates left inmates drained by night, when they “sat around for hours and talked,” Rachel recalls, “about why they are doing this to us, what’s going to be tomorrow, who’s going to live through this, who’s going to tell? We dreamed. We looked outside and saw there’s still a world. We saw people working in the fields. The sky was blue. The birds still flew. I thought, God, if I could only be a bird. We were 16-17 years old. We never dated. We never knew boys. We were afraid but there was nothing we could do. The hurt was so deep. The ocean wasn’t as deep as our hurt.”
The pain only got worse at Auschwitz. “Well, I knew this was going to be our end,” Rachel recalls thinking upon arriving at that foul place. It was by pure chance she became aware of her sisters’ presence there. One day while walking in a line of prisoners at the edge of the compound that bordered another enclosure she saw Nathan, the brother of her cousin Carl, working on a railroad gang. They made eye contact and “he threw me a chunk of bread.” Further down the line she spotted her sisters laboring on the tracks the transport trains ran on. “I went closer to the gate, up to the barbed wire, and I screamed, ‘Mania…Bluma,’ and they saw me and they waved to me. I threw them pieces of that bread.” It was the last time she saw her sisters until months after their liberation.
“The living was very bad there,” Rachel said. “Every morning we had to stand in line to be counted. We had to be naked for Mengela (the Nazi war criminal, Joseph Mengela, who experimented on inmates). We were afraid. He chose — this girl to the left, this girl to the right…you go to work, you go to die.” As Bluma puts it, “If you had bones, you were not good. If you still had a little meat, you could still work. One day he made a selection and I was on the wrong side and they took me away. I was scared, but I couldn’t cry anymore — our tears were dried up. We were numb already. We were like cattle led to the slaughter.” Bluma said she escaped the ovens when, in a roll call, she gave the wrong number tattooed on her arm and rejoined Mania in the fit-to-work group.
At Auschwitz Rachel once again lugged cement blocks. On their way to work Rachel and fellow inmates passed by a crematorium. “We saw the flames and the black smoke,” she recalls. “We said, ‘Well, next time it will be us.’ We knew there was no tomorrow for us.” In a building piled high with victims’ discarded apparel she salvaged fabric to clothes for her, relatives and barracks-mates.
It was at Auschwitz the sisters’ brother Jacob met his end. Rachel, who’d been his protector during their life in detention, took his death especially hard. “One day we were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when the SS, who targeted the young, took him away from me,” she said. “I didn’t want to let him go. I cried and begged them to let me go with him or to take me instead, but they just grabbed him, threw me down and led him away to a truck. I couldn’t do anything but put a sweater around him so he’d be warm. I followed the truck as far as I could.” Having him wrenched away from her to be gassed is, she said, “my biggest hurt.” It is why, she feels, she’s been an “overprotective” mother.
Although the sisters had no inkling of it at the time, by early 1945 the Nazis were in disarray and inmates like themselves still able enough to work, albeit malnourished, were in a position to stay alive and be liberated by advancing Allied troops. As if surviving Auschwitz were not enough, the sisters defied fate once more when commandeered to work as human slaves in munitions factories on the Czech-German border — Mania and Bluma in Darezenstrat and Rachel and some cousins at another site, where they toiled in a series of cellars or tunnels variously sorting potatoes and splicing electric wires. By late spring, the prisoners could see their captors were anxious. Some guards fled. Then, on May 8 1945, Mania, Bluma and the others were marched into the woods by the remaining guards. When a limousine approached, the sisters feared the worst. “We thought it was the SS,” Bluma said, “but it was the Red Cross. They said to the Germans, ‘Stay here. You lost the war. It’s over. The people are free.’ This was our liberation.” On the same day, Rachel and her group were liberated by the Russians.
The sisters, mere skeletons by then, were cared for by a combination of international aid workers and Czech nationals.
Against all odds, the sisters persevered the worst that, as Bluma puts it, “human done to human,” and have gone on to see many tomorrows. While their post-war life has been heaven-sent in comparison with the hell they survived, there have been many struggles. Soon after their liberation, Mania and Bluma went to Wolanow to salvage what they could from the family home, where they were rudely rebuffed by the Polish family occupying it. The sisters only retrieved a photo of their father before being driven off with threats and invectives. Mania and Bluma were reunited with Rachel, Carl and other relatives at a pair of displaced persons centers in Germany, namely, the city of Lanzburg and the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, which the British liberated. At these sites the extended family eked out a meager existence the next few years. “We didn’t have money or anything, but we were still happy. We were together…and we were free,” Rachel said.
During their limbo of a refugee existence, Carl, the oldest and most resourceful, “was like a father to us,” Rachel said. “We were very naive. We didn’t know from life. He took care of us. He protected us.” Carl, who long fancied Rachel, married his cousin in Germany, where their first child, Morris, was born. Mania and Bluma also met their mates in the DP camps. By 1949 the sisters secured papers to start anew — with Rachel, Carl, Bluma and Joe going to America and Mania and Zalman resettling in Israel. Their cousins scattered to the four winds. In 1958, Mania and her family rejoined her sisters in America.
Rachel credits then-Jewish Federation of Omaha executive director, Paul Veret, with helping her family get established in the community and Jewish social maven Sadie Newman with making them feel welcome here.
All three sisters feel blessed they overcame their shared tragedy and trauma to find a foothold in America, where they started from scratch to build bountiful lives for their families. Along with their husbands, fellow survivors like them, the women found business success, reared healthy children and became doting grandparents. For years, Rachel assisted her husband, Carl, who now suffers from dementia, in their own tailoring business. She still does fittings and alterations in their basement workshop. Mania and her late husband Zalman owned and operated the popular Friedman’s Bakery in Countryside Village. Bluma’s husband Joe, now retired, was the longtime owner of Ak-Sar-Ben TV before selling it in 2000.
The sisters are proud to have come so far from so little. “We had no language, no money, nothing, and look at what we accomplished,” Rachel said, motioning to her big, beautiful house. Toiling long hours beside their husbands to earn extra money, the women made sure their children had “everything they wanted,” Mania said. Working hard also helped ease the women’s heartache. “Being busy is a healing,” Rachel said. Even so, harsh memories linger — the bitter past a constant reminder of what they witnessed. “I hold it in my heart. I remember everything,” Mania said.
Forgotten and abandoned during the war, the sisters carried on when all hope seemed lost and realized what once seemed impossible — a life free of fear and want. “I didn’t have anything but a dream and my dream came true,” Bluma said. “Well, God had to give us something, too.”