By Betty Leigh Hutcheson
Aliza, Our Holocaust Survivor, Addressing the Mission. Photograph by (ret.) Lt. Col. Peter Lerner in April 2011.
Aliza Goldman-Landau buried her cousin’s son the same day she served Shabbat dinner to six members of our tour. She had agreed to be a host for the evening meal after services at Kehillat Mevasseret, a reform synagogue in a Jerusalem suburb. That Aliza continued with her commitment was incredible to us, but was a minor feat for this quiet, tiny woman—small in stature but large in spirit. Even more astonishing that evening was hearing her life story.
Aliza emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine from Poland, arriving in 1947 by way of Cyprus when she was 9, an age when our children are considering treats, swimming pools, soccer in the park, and the secret comfort of a parent’s lap. Aliza’s life was much different. By the age when she was old enough to enjoy outdoor sports, her family had left Lodz to hide in the woods during the Nazi occupation. They hid in the forest for months and ate what they could find around them while the Nazis destroyed Jewish culture and lives throughout Europe.
When the forest no longer provided enough sustenance, Aliza’s mother left their hideout to search for food elsewhere, leaving six-year-old Aliza with her brother and father. Nine days after she left, Aliza’s brother died from starvation mere hours before they were discovered by the Nazis. Three German soldiers took them to a pit to be shot. Her father stood crying before their guns, holding Aliza’s dead brother while Aliza clung to his leg. At that moment, the younger of the three soldiers looked Aliza in the eyes. She withstood his stare. Her unflinching gaze was her salvation—the soldier could not shoot her. He pushed the other two men away and shot Aliza’s father, understanding that Aliza would fall into the pit with him.
What must Aliza have thought at that moment, falling backward into an abyss, almost deaf from the shots and not knowing if she was still alive? What must she have felt at age six when she woke to find her dead father on top of her brother in a mass grave?
It grew quiet and dark. At last, she opened her eyes to the night sky. Above the pit, Aliza could see stars on one side and trees on the other. Remembering her father’s earlier advice, she ran toward the trees and listened for the sound of dogs or other evidence of villages and people. At last she heard voices and cried out to a Polish family. They took her in and nursed her back to health, spoonful by spoonful.
She called the woman who cared for her Mother Minsk, her second mother for nine months. One day, Aliza opened the door to a visitor who had come to Mother Minsk for food. The woman was interested in Aliza—how she looked, where she had come from, how she had come to be in the woods. This information traveled with the visitor to Lodz where Aliza’s mother had been using her nursing skills in an orphanage. Aliza was reunited with her mother by chance, by a stranger who had come looking for food.
Aliza’s mother surely had a story of her own escape and recovery, but not one that Aliza shared with our group. Instead, she told us about the 130 orphans that her mother somehow chaperoned through Europe and eventually onto a boat bound for Haifa. Once there, the British turned the survivors away as part of their policy to stop Jewish migration to Palestine. The ship went on to Cyprus, where Aliza’s mother left again to smuggle 65 of her charges to their future homeland.
Aliza also made it to her future country, to a kibbutz where she learned Hebrew and thrived, eventually marrying another kibbutznik and building a life for herself in Israel—a life with a family, a career in early childhood education, and the vital work she does now: witnessing and telling her story. Since 2011, Aliza has traveled many times to Poland with Witness in Uniform, a program run by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces that teaches a new generation about the Holocaust. When we visited her home in May, she had already toured with soldiers in Poland seven times this year. Aliza helps young men and women to understand and remember the past that she had shared with 9 million European Jews. They will bear witness when she no longer can.
After dinner, we wanted to help clean the kitchen, but Aliza refused our offer. She preferred to talk. So, we learned more about her family and experiences, and looked at pictures of her husband, children, grandchildren, and cousins. In the middle of one grouping, there was a photograph of Aliza flanked by soldiers amid tall evergreens in an Eastern European forest. She looks as strong as the soldiers if only half their size. Her hair is bright white in the sunlight, and she strides forward, considering the camera, not looking away.
Despite the misery she had lived through, Aliza is not bitter. That night she graciously and generously offered us her home, her food, and her life’s story. We will remember her and her powerful model of light, of possibility, and of the importance of not turning away from the past. As she said about IDF soldiers in an interview while in Poland:
“It’s very important to be with them here and to tell them my story because I was there. In a few years from now, maybe there won’t be anyone to tell the story. So, it’s very important for me to give the torch to them so they can tell the world: Never forget what’s happened here.”
The quote above is taken from an interview by (then) Major Peter Lerner published in an IDF blog in 2011.
Visit cbebk.org/israel to read more reflections from the May 2019 Israel Trip.