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Sidra Kranz Moshinsky
Writer, educator, researcher, facilitator
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My mother might be the youngest Holocaust survivor

My grandmother used Catholic papers to give birth in 1944 Poland, and gave up the baby while she was in hiding. Today, that baby is 80
Naftali Hendel with baby Emilia. (courtesy)
Naftali Hendel with baby Emilia. (courtesy)

Over the years, awareness has grown of the ordeal of Jewish children during the Shoah and of their distinctive experience as survivors over the ensuing decades. Research, support groups, books and conferences are devoted to this sub-group within the larger category of survivors because of the “uniquely unique” nature of their plight: they were targeted mercilessly as they served no purpose as slave laborers; they were particularly vulnerable to cold, hunger and disease; most hiding places and partisan forests were not suitable as places of refuge given children’s innocent and unpredictable nature. For these and other reasons, the survival rate of children during the Shoah was significantly lower than for adults. The nature of memory is complex so that what these child survivors remember may be more vivid or less or simply non-existent, but the indelible tracks are there.

My mother, Emma Kranz (nee Hendel) falls into an even smaller group of what I am coining infant survivors. Her parents, my grandparents, Hanka and Naftali married in haste and without ceremony around the time of the deportations from the Warsaw ghetto in July 1942. Hanka was from Warsaw, Naftali from Radom and they decided to relocate to Radom where they hoped their survival odds might be greater. They were young and for a time had work in the various slave labor operations following the mass deportations from the town’s ghetto. As the noose tightened, Naftali secured a hiding place for Hanka, himself and three of his younger brothers, with a couple of others soon joining. Though the Polish family who hid them in a hidden room adjacent to their apartment risked death in doing so and ultimately saved lives, they profited handsomely from the arrangements. At times, extortion meant they profited even more. Hanka, with her fair complexion and perfect Polish, assumed false papers. It was she who would sell the jewelry to get the cash to pay the “rent.” 

It reveals a great deal about hope, love and enduring humanity that in the midst of war my grandparents — optimistically, naively, foolishly, who can say — decided to start a family and my grandmother conceived some time around mid-1943. Years later, when I asked about the timing, she recounted that this was a period when they were sure the war would soon be over. How wrong they were. I can only imagine the mixed feelings of blessing and angst my grandmother, malnourished, living in cramped conditions and under enormous stress when she went out on risky forays, would have felt as she watched her belly grow.

Hanka travelled to Warsaw to give birth and my mother Emilia (now Emma) was born in a Catholic hospital in April 1944, an exceptionally rare time and place for a Jewish child to be born. Warsaw’s ghetto had been utterly destroyed the year before and there were no Jews officially living in the Judenrein (Jew-free) city that had once been home to nearly 400,000 Jews, approximately a third of the city’s population. But my grandmother was there as a Catholic, not a Jew, as her papers attested. 

There was no way a newborn baby could live in the small hiding place. Her cries would have meant the end of all of them (the group even slept with strings attached to each other so that they could stop each other from snoring). A trusted former employee of the family agreed to take on the infant Emilia. The explanation for the neighbors was that the baby was the product of a liaison on the part of the husband. 

The woman and child must have bonded because when my grandmother came to collect her daughter at the end of the war, the woman was reluctant to surrender her and Emma was distressed about being put into the arms of a woman who seemed to her a stranger. These are the threads of the infant survivor experience. My mother remembers nothing of this period. That doesn’t really mean much in terms of impact, although it does protect from painful conscious memories. 

History wasn’t done yet. Having survived the Shoah itself, Emma became a double survivor when she and her mother were shot at by intruders in their apartment in Radom in the aftermath of the war. In November 1945, my grandmother had three fingers shot off as she held my mother protectively. One of my grandfather’s brothers, Aron Hendel, was killed on the spot. The motive is not clear and various have been suggested: to scare returning Jews out of the town; to intimidate the family who had launched legal action to try to recover property; or just armed robbery. It was a time of lawlessness and crimes against Jews were treated lightly. Any vague thoughts of remaining in Radom, indeed Poland, indeed Europe, were quickly abandoned. 

Emma at 80 (image courtesy of author)

Three years ago, incredibly on her birthday, my mother was contacted by a young Polish historian named Lucasz Krzyzanowski. He was trying to track down what had become of the infant who had narrowly survived the shooting and whose existence he had learned of and written about in his book Ghost Citizens: Jewish Return to a Postwar City (Harvard University Press, 2020). Was she, Emma Kranz living in Melbourne in 2021, the Emilia Hendel from Radom 1945? Indeed she was, emails were exchanged and a Zoom call scheduled between Lucasz and the descendants of the Hendel family. 

I’m writing this on my mother’s 80th birthday. That’s almost as young as a Holocaust survivor can be nowadays. Her birth and survival have a somewhat miraculous quality to them, despite their tragic context. And of course with her life comes mine, come ours. She and my father, also a child survivor, are the last of our family’s physical links to Warsaw, Radom and Boryslaw, cities that are simultaneously familiar and foreign, as well as to the Shoah itself, although the places, the faces, the memories and the legacy live on in our biological and cultural DNA. The past is never fully past, it rears its head, its impact rises to the surface, yet time also marches on and our mother, our grandmother, our matriarch, Emilia, Emma, she, whose life began so unpropitiously, reaches the grand milestone of four score. Yasher koach, Mum, may you continue in strength. 

About the Author
Sidra Kranz Moshinsky is a writer, researcher and educational leader. Having taught and led in Jewish education for over fifteen years at a number of schools, she is now working on projects across the community, including the Jewish Museum of Australia. Sidra is also a board member of Stand Up Australia: Jewish commitment to a better world and is a regular contributor to The Jewish Independent.
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