This piece was originally written March 26, 2015, my 75th birthday. It was prompted by Rabbi Yaakov Astor’s book The Hidden Hand, the Holocaust, The Judaica Press, Inc. 2009. This book made a tremendous impression on me. Rabbi Astor claims and proves that throughout history, Jews were led by Divine Providence, Divine Supervision. That does not mean that evil and persecution were averted. “At one end of the spectrum is the obvious miracle, e.g. the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. At the other extreme is hester panim, literally ‘hiding of the face.’” God hid his face.
Divine Providence “includes the good and the bad.” Rabbi Astor also quotes from the Torah and Prophets that calamities were predicted. However, the fact that the Jewish people survived after being expelled from their homeland and suffered numerous expulsions and pogroms is, according to the Rabbi, proof of Divine Supervision. He concludes that “This raises the classic question regarding the nature of evil in the world and Hashem’s role in it, which is beyond the scope of human understanding.” The human mind cannot comprehend the Divine reasons why evil occurs.
Of course, I was aware of the Jewish belief that nothing happens by accident, that Hashem has a plan and a hand in everything that happens. However, Rabbi Astor’s book displayed, through Holocaust history, that many so-called coincidences could not happen by pure chance.
For many years I have been wondering, thinking and feeling guilty that I survived. I was born in Tarnów, Poland, six months after German occupation and am one of a very few thousand Polish Jewish children to survive. In addition, I was never separated from my mother, was not given up to a Christian family for safe-keeping. I also had the unbelievable good fortune that both my parents survived. I often asked myself, why me? Why did I survive while one and a half million Jewish children were brutally murdered?
The first person who indicated that there was no answer to my query, that no one can say why, was my husband. He added that maybe the reason for my survival was that my children, grandchildren and descendants would become contributors to Yiddishkeit and humanity. I took his words to heart, hoping that he was right and that there was a reason for my survival.
Some of my friends suggested that my reason for surviving was to do precisely what I was doing, namely telling the lessons of the Holocaust to the community at large. A couple of rabbis used me as an “example” in their sermons of Hashem’s miracles — because I survived, two observant families were created whose descendants in turn are being raised to carry on our religious traditions.
I am well aware that some people will find these arguments offensive. Why you, will they ask? What makes you so special? What did you or your families do to be safeguarded while others, from much more learned, pious and righteous families were butchered?
I do not have any answers to these questions, nor can I think of any reason or particular mitzvahs my ancestors performed that would merit my survival. True, my grandparents were pious and righteous people, but so were millions of others. As far as I am aware, there were no great Tzadikim, or Gedolim among any members of my extended family. So, I do not have any answers as to all the whys.
What I do know, as I look back on my life, there seems to be unbelievable “coincidences” which are hard to explain rationally. First, I was not supposed to be born at all. My mother was three months pregnant with me when Poland was invaded. Many of her contemporaries, who were also pregnant, had abortions. Mother already had an appointment for one, but as German bombing increased on the railroads, and my parents lived near a train station, there were frequent blackouts. The doctor was worried that one would occur during the procedure and thus endanger Mother’s life. Besides, my paternal grandfather, a very pious man, was pleading with Mother, not to abort. I was to be his first grandchild and, besides, abortion is strictly forbidden in Judaism unless the mother’s life is in danger. As a result, my life was spared, and I was born on March 26, 1940.
In September 1942, the second Aktion in the Tarnów Ghetto turned into a deportation of children. At first, my parents were tempted to give me up and save themselves. As they were trying to leave me, I started crying. My parents had a change of heart and decided to be deported together with me. This action saved the three of us because a member of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) intervened on Father’s behalf and the three of us were released and returned to the ghetto. That was the second time my life was saved.
Following that incident, Father procured false Aryan IDs for Mother and false birth certificate for me. He then bribed someone to drive us out of the ghetto and out of town. During the next few months, Mother escaped from town to town because I, the two-year-old, kept compromising our identity. The second time it happened, we escaped one day before the Gestapo came looking for the woman with “the black-haired daughter.” She was then offered a job as a maid with a German family under the condition that she would put me in an orphanage. This would have been an opportunity for her to save herself. She refused to be separated from me. In the end, we both managed to survive hiding on the surface — living as Poles among the Polish population.
As I reflect on my life after recently celebrating my 80th birthday, I look back on the journey I traveled. The physical, emotional and psychological changes I went through turned me into the person I am today — a real metamorphosis as I titled my memoir.
So many things happened in the interim. I, who was a shy girl afraid to open my mouth in public. Even in a social setting, I was afraid to say a word or offer an opinion. Now I have become a leader in the Jewish communities of St. Louis and Baltimore. In both cities, I started and led a Holocaust Child Survivor Group and a Second-Generation Group. Though I promised myself I would never do this again, something inside me made me start a group in our new hometown. I am enamored with the organization, programming and success of this new endeavor. And I continued speaking to schools and community organizations until COVID-19 stopped me.
I have been blessed with a wonderful life, fantastic children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and a happy marriage of 60 years.
There is a Guiding Hand directing my life.
Read more by Felicia Graber.