My Mother’s Story of Survival

Saturday, December 25, 2010, marks the first year anniversary of my mother’s passing.  My twin sister took home with her last year a copy of a film recorded by a filming crew that was sent to Cleveland, Ohio as part of a project that filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, initiated called the Shoah Project.  Shoah is the hebrew word for holocaust.  Steven Spielberg sent film crews all over the country to capture on film the stories of the remaining survivors of the holocaust, so that their stories may be preserved.  My mother was interviewed and filmed as part of that project.  My sister drafted the following story from the interview she listened to which she is submitting for entry into a holocaust survivor’s cookbook, which will contain their personal stories and recipes.  (Boy, do I regret not learning how to make gefilte fish from her, and a few of her other recipes)

I wanted to share this.  It’s not a particularly happy story, but then again, at this time of the year, being the holidays and the end of the year, most people do reflect their upon their lives, and what they do have and are grateful for. Grandmother Pa’Ris’Ha has spoken a bit about the Cherokee Trail of Tears, our government’s forced removal of the Cherokee from their homelands in North Carolina and surrounding states that occurred here in this country between 1830 and 1840.  I am only one generation away from what happened to my parents.  It was a lot to take in, as a child, learning about these events.  I put my sister’s writing in italics.  (There are a few phrases that are not in English, don’t worry about it, just skip over those parts, you’ll get the majority of it).

Helen (Jachimowicz) Potash

This photo can be found in the book "Lodz Ghetto." My mother is the girl standing on the right side of the photo by the fence. Her younger brother is in the center of the photo. They are awaiting deportation via cattle car to the concentration camps.


My mother, Helen Potash, was born Haya Jachimowicz June 26, 1929 in Lodz, Poland. She was the youngest of 5 girls and had a younger brother Moishe. Her parents named her Haya, meaning life, to prevent an “ayin hora” evil eye for being the fifth girl. They finally got their “kaddish” when their youngest, a boy, was born.

In 1940, at age ten, Haya moved with her parents, older sister Masha, and baby brother Moishe, to the Lodz ghetto. Three older sisters went east to avoid the ghetto. The sisters sent letters until 1942 and afterwards, were never heard from again. Haya’s mother became ill and was unable to walk. Young Haya worked her own 8 hour shift for her ration card, and then did her mother’s 8 hour shift for that ration card. Still, they were starving and her father succumbed to starvation and passed away. He laid in the apartment for a full week until his body was removed.

After five years in the ghetto, Haya boarded a cattle car to Auschwitz with her mother, sister, and brother. There were crammed in that compartment with not less than 100 people and only a small window for air. No food or water for close to a week. Arriving in Auschwitz, there was a lot of screaming and shoving. Haya and her family lined up with the others and walked up to the inhuman Dr. Josef Mengele, may his name be erased. He pointed his riding crop one way for Haya and Masha, and then pointed to the other line for Haya’s mother and brother. Not wanting to be separated from their mother, the two girls went behind Mengele’s back to join their mother. Mengele, yimach sh’mo, noticed, and grabbed both of them by the scruff of their necks and threw them to the other direction. Haya remembered then rolling down a small hill. They never saw their mother or brother again. They did not know at that time, but had they stayed in the same line as their mother and brother, they would have immediately be taken to the gas chambers.

After only a very short time, (less than two weeks) Haya and Masha boarded another cattle car to a work camp in Hamburg, Germany. They were woken up at 4 am and forced to stand at roll call for several hours. Then they walked for a couple of hours each way to a train that took them to a knitting factory. Later she was given a job working in the camp kitchen. One day she was walking by herself to the latrine, and two men walked up to her and said “Shema Yisroel”! No one else was around. Haya was speechless. She never expected to hear those two words in that camp in Germany! They opened their briefcases and handed her several sandwiches! She stuffed them in her pockets and the men left. She never saw them before, and she never saw them again. She shared the sandwiches with her sister.

In August of 1945, Haya and Masha were again shipped out by cattle car to Bergen Belsen. My mother pauses to describe what she saw there. Piles upon piles of skeletal bodies. Those still living looked catatonic, crying out for water. My mother found a small cup and collected water from a leaky pipe in the latrine and gave water to the people there.

One day there was a lot of commotion and all of the German soldiers fled. The inmates ran to the fence to see what was happening. The Hungarian guards that were there opened fire on all of the women and girls with machine guns. People on either side of her were dropping from the bullets. Again, Haya didn’t know how or why she was spared. Soldiers arrived on trucks and announced in every language, “Don’t panic! The war is over! We will bring food! Don’t worry!

After the war, my mom’s sister married another survivor and remained for a time in Germany. My mother came by herself to America on one of the first Children’s Transport. Because there was no one in New York to claim her, she was sent with one other girl to Cleveland, Ohio where she went to live with a foster family. She was 17 years old and attended Heights High School for two years before graduating with honors. She met my father, Bernard Potash, a survivor from Trochenbrod.  (See his sister’s – Betty Potash Golds’ incredible account of being a Trochenbrod survivor)

My mother was the proudest mother in the world of her three sons and twin daughters. She told everyone she had a full house – Three kings and a pair of queens! She became the proud Bubbe of 16 grandchildren and “Super Bubbe” to her great grandson! I am submitting her story on the date of her first yarhzeit, May it Be a for a Lichteke Gan Eden!

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4 Responses to My Mother’s Story of Survival

  1. pcarroll7 says:

    Aho! May your Mother’s spirit and strength live in you as you carry on your life’s mission. Thank you for sharing. We are truly blessed. Ko-pi-sti-ya

  2. I am deeply touched by this sharing. I appreciate and love you.

  3. Rose says:

    While looking through the blogs I found your story. of your mom It is deeply touching and for me it seems her survival was blessed manifold so you can come and bless this dimension with your gifts.
    Its hard to put words to it what I feel as a German.
    When I lived in Ohio my dearest friend was Jewish. Together we worked through it. She took me to any jewish film or lecture there was about the shoah. Already in Germany (having been in left party) I had intelectually confronted the past of my people, but emotionally was another thing and it took the patience and guidance of this dear friend. There is more to say and I hope we find time when we might meet to share and talk with each other.
    Today I see the bigger picture on a spiritual level. My mother told me her story of suffering and pain caused by this this terror and horror put on people jewish, german, russian and so on. And so I took on a special responsibility for peace between nations and healing of generational patterns, as this all happened with my people and in my country and culture.

  4. It was my privilege to be Helen’s creative writing/memoir teacher through OASIS for a number of years. I observed as she got courage to write and talk about her experiences. She was a strong woman; may her memory be for a blessing.

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