“She wasn’t only my guardian, but she was my best friend and still is, because we only had each other. That’s all we had.”
— Lila, describing her sister Anne
Mark Skorecki and Ruth Tempelhof were married in Lodz, Poland, on September 1, 1931, eight years to the day of the German invasion of Poland and the end of the world as they knew it.
Anne was the first child. She was born in July 1935. This was one year and six months after Hitler (legally) assumed power in Germany. Lila was born in November 1937. The Skoreckis were assimilated Jews. They spoke Polish fluently (with no tell-tale “Jewish accent”). They were familiar with Polish customs, and dressed in the modern style. All of this proved decisively important during the war when the family was “passing” as Poles on the “Aryan side” of Warsaw.
But Anne’s appearance was a problem, as she explains in her documentary: “I’m olive complexioned and have dark, curly hair. My sister was fair, she still is, and had lighter hair. She looked very Polish. And I looked Jewish.”
Mark had four brothers and four sisters. He was the youngest boy. His family had been in the lumber business for several generations and the name “Skorecki” was well-known in that field. Mark was extraordinarily gifted with his hands. He was an engineer, an architect, a builder, and a furniture maker. He enjoyed working with wood most of all. He had his own shop (and worked as janitor of the apartment building, in lieu of paying rent). Long after the war in her reminiscences Ruth recalled, “My mother always told me, ‘Mark is a good man to marry. He will take care of you through it all.’” Time and time again Mark’s “golden hands,” along with his courage and agile mind, were crucial in surviving the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Ruth, whose father was a watchmaker, was a very proud woman with social ambitions. She dressed fashionably and took elaborate care with her appearance. She dressed Anne to resemble Shirley Temple, whose popularity as a film star soared during the pre-war years. During the war Ruth exhibited ingenuity, steel nerves, acting skills, and extraordinary courage. Lila says in the documentary: “My mother was always thinking of tomorrow.”
Lodz was a large industrial city (textiles) located near the German border. Its population consisted of Jews, Poles, and Germans. Many Jews and Poles lived in desperate poverty, but the Skoreckis enjoyed an upper-middle class existence. They lived in a comfortable apartment in a building on Legionow. The building still stands (the street has been renamed Zielona). Across the street was the famous Kosciusko synagogue (reform), known as the “German synagogue.”
Anne describes her life before the war: “…the most pleasant time that I remember is Sunday afternoons with my father, going for ice cream, and balloons, and enjoying things that children enjoyed.” Lila was too young to remember anything before the war.
Anne was five and Lila two when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Mark and other Jewish men fled Lodz and headed east. Based on memories of the correct (if harsh) behavior of German soldiers during World War I, Mark assumed they wouldn’t harm women and children. He had no idea that Russia would attack Poland on September 17th, trapping him on the Soviet side of the new border. He was unable to return to Lodz. Ruth was left alone with the two girls (for two years and two months).
The Germans occupied Lodz on September 7, 1939. They were rabidly welcomed by the ethnic German population (Volksdeutsch), which set about robbing and tormenting the Jews, for whom the world changed in the blink of an eye. On November 13, 1939, the Nazis ransacked and torched the towering synagogue across the street from the Skorecki’s apartment. Anne witnessed the destruction of the synagogue: “My first memories of that, the beginning of war, is when everybody in the house that was there was very upset crying and looking out the window. Out of curiosity I did too.”
The terror wasn’t confined to Jews. The Germans sought to wipe out Polish nationalism. Shortly after destroying the synagogues, they equipped Polish priests with sledge hammers and ordered them to destroy the Kosciusko (national hero) monument on Liberty Square. The Germans grew impatient and simply dynamited the monument. The majority of Poles were ruthlessly expelled, and the region was renamed Wartheland and attached to Nazi Germany.
Violence raged against the Jews. The Germans were wild with fury and sadism from the very start. Mark’s mother Natalia was struck by a German automobile and killed. Jews were registered and ordered to wear the Star of David patch (front and back), publicly distinguishing them from the non-Jewish population. Registration and identification of the Jews were early steps towards the ultimate goal of annihilation. Anne remembers watching her mother sew on the “Star of David,” and describes the scene: “That’s when the difference began. That’s when I felt we were different. And being Jewish was something that caused grief. And, you know, was just part of the struggle that began.”
In March 1940 Ruth and the two girls were summarily expelled from the family apartment with “two little suitcases” and ordered to the ghetto. Ruth had to prepare the apartment for German officers who were the new occupants. The ghetto, located in a dilapidated neighborhood, was the first Nazi ghetto created in occupied Poland. It would be the second largest in population (behind Warsaw ghetto) and endure the longest (until August 1944). Forty-six thousand people died of disease, beatings, shootings, and starvation in the Lodz ghetto. The rest were transported to Chelmno, a nearby village, and gassed.
A paid courier named Zilberberg appeared in the ghetto in search of Ruth. He had been sent by Mark from the Russian zone. Based on a photograph, Zilberberg recognized Ruth on the street. She nearly collapsed when informed that Mark was still alive. He instructed Ruth and the children to join him in Bialystok, a city in the Russian half of Poland. This was quite a distance from Lodz and on the other side of a forbidding border. With Zilberberg’s help, Ruth and the girls slipped out of the Lodz ghetto in a garbage truck. “We left with a big scar in our hearts,” Ruth recalled. “We were the garbage this time.”
After a harrowing journey across Poland (an SS man opened fire on them), Ruth attempted to smuggle her and the children across the border. When these efforts failed and Lila fell desperately ill, Ruth turned around and carried the girls to Warsaw. Ruth’s brother Henry Tempelhof lived in the (former) Polish capital with his wife Mery Mejnster. He was office manager of Czyste Hospital, the well-known Jewish hospital in Warsaw. She was a surgeon, an exalted position for a woman (and a Jewish woman) in that time and place. Two years later, after indefatigable efforts to save people during the Nazi liquidation of the ghetto, both would perish. They are another pair of forgotten heroes.
Ruth and the two girls were prisoners in the Warsaw ghetto. Its doors swung closed on November 15, 1940. “A wave of evil rolled over the city as if in response to a nod from above,” wrote the Jewish historian Emmanuel Ringelblum in his ghetto diary. Five hundred thousand Jewish people were surrounded by high walls topped by barbed wire. Germans, with Polish and Jewish police, stood guard. The purpose of the ghetto was simple: to concentrate the victims in a single locale, another step towards annihilation. Anne remembers dead bodies on the street: “And they would cover up the body with a newspaper and take whatever possession this poor soul had.” There were almost five hundred thousand Jewish people in the Warsaw ghetto and almost a quarter of them died of starvation.
With the German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, the German-Russian border disappeared and Mark was able to make his way to Warsaw. He arrived on a Saturday in December 1941. “Passing” as a Pole, he entered the ghetto and found Ruth and the girls. He hadn’t seen them for over two years. They were on the verge of starvation. Anne, then six years old, describes the knock on the door when her father reentered her life: “And I remember my father saying that when he saw us he was afraid to touch us. He was afraid to touch us because we looked so frail.” Lila was four years old when her father returned: “And he came in and she [mother] was telling me that’s my father. I said, ‘Who is that man.’ She says, ‘That’s your father.’ I said ‘No it’s not,’ because I didn’t remember him.”
The Germans operated factories in the Warsaw ghetto that produced goods for the German war effort. With his “golden hands” and keen organizing ability, Mark was appointed foreman in the division of Schultz’s factory that produced wooden soles for concentration camp prisoners. He won the respect of the Volksdeutscher manager who became dependent on him to meet production quotas.
On July 22, 1942, the Nazis and their collaborators (including the Jewish police) began the round-up and deportation of the Warsaw Jews to the Treblinka death camp. Jews in the ghetto were marched to the Umschlagplatz (loading place) and forced onto cattle wagons for the fifty miles (or so) journey in the stifling heat. Adam Czerniakow, head of the Judenrat (Jewish Council), scribbled a note before he committed suicide: “I am powerless, my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I cannot longer bear all this. My act will show everyone the right thing to do.”
Anne was seven and Lila five. Once again Mark’s “golden hands” were crucial. He built a hiding place in the bottom of what Anne and Lila call “a vegetable bin” (a potato bin, actually) and equipped it with “two little benches” and a “potty.” When Mark and Ruth left for work at Schultz’s factory each morning, they hid the girls in this “vegetable bin.” Anne remembers the Germans (and Jewish police) searching the building, “and you could hear them walking up the stairs. And they came into the room, you could hear them talking, and yet we weren’t found.” Lila recounts hiding in Schultz’s factory under a stack of wooden soles and later in the basement: “The Germans used to come with their boots, you know how they walk, and with their dogs sniffing…They could smell us but we were hiding some place where they couldn’t get to us, so it’s by a miracle that we’re here.”
In a curious way, as Anne comments in her documentary and historian Lawrence N. Powell explains (p. 198) in his book Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, The Holocaust And David Duke’s Louisiana, the parents saved the girls and at the same time the girls saved the parents. They gave the parents a reason to continue the struggle. This was a time when it seemed impossible not to lose hope and give up. As Ruth remarked in her memoir, “All the time I told myself when I give up and fall apart then my children are lost too.”
In January 1943, several days before the first Jewish revolt in the ghetto (and three months before the final revolt on April 19th), Mark arranged to smuggle Ruth and the girls out of the ghetto in a Polish garbage truck that had German permission to come in and out of the ghetto. Ruth and the girls were dropped off on the street on “Aryan side” of Warsaw, where the Germans ruled supreme and ruthlessly and the Poles lived as third-class citizens, subject to arrest at any moment. Mark was assisted by two people: a former Polish soldier (possibly connected to Zegota, the secret Polish organization helping Jews) and the Volksdeutscher manager. These individuals were paid for their services but all the same risked their lives to help. A guard at the gate was bribed. On the “Aryan side” Ruth and the girls, “passing” as Polish Catholics, caught a tram across the Vistula River to the Praga district of Warsaw.
Here lived Katarzyana Piotrowska and her twenty-seven year old daughter Natalia in an apartment building at #15 Lochowska (the building still stands). The father and son in the family had died. Mark joined Ruth and the girls eight days later. He slipped out of the ghetto in a German automobile, having bribed an SS officer’s chauffeur. The Piotrowskas were informed that the Skoreckis were Jewish when the arrangements were made. They understood what they were getting themselves into but nonetheless agreed to rent the Skoreckis a room. The Piotrowskas turned out to be very kind and very brave. Ruth attested after the war, “The smile on their face warmed me and gave me new strength to start my new life.” Anne says, “Well, this is what we call the “Righteous Gentiles.” Lila describes “Righteous Gentiles” generally: “I have a lot of respect for them. I think they risked their lives for the Jewish people. A lot of Jewish people wouldn’t be alive today if it wouldn’t have been for them.”
The Piotrowskas informed their neighbors that the Skoreckis were relatives displaced by the war and in need of a place to stay. The truth had to be hidden from both the German brutes and their anti-Semitic neighbors. The Nazi penalty for helping Jews was death, collectively applied. The Skoreckis paid the Piotrowskas for room and board.
The Skoreckis attempted to “pass” as Polish Catholics on the “Aryan side.” Mark obtained work in a nearby lumber yard. With her blond hair and blue eyes, Lila easily “passed” as a Polish girl. She raised no eyebrows. She was now being raised as a Catholic child. She had her own prayer book and rosary beads. She didn’t have to pretend. She believed that she was a Catholic – no different from the Piotrowskas: “I thought I was Catholic like they are, went to church with them. I had an Easter basket. I did everything they did.”
Anne was a different story. She was old enough to know that she was Jewish and understood the life or death necessity of keeping it a secret. According to the stereotypes of the times, Anne looked unmistakably Jewish. Her olive complexion and curly hair were impossible to hide. She was compelled to hide in an armoire when friends visited the Piotrowskas. She was a hidden child in the ghetto and on the “Aryan side.”
The Skoreckis lived with the Piotrowskas for ten months but suddenly everything changed. It was in October 1943 when an anonymous Polish woman living across the street noticed Anne on the balcony. Ruth sat her there for a spell at night, partly hidden under a babushka, to catch some fresh air. The woman was suspicious and threatened to denounce the Piotrowskas for hiding Jews. Informers like this woman were a plague throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, and Warsaw was particularly dangerous in this regard. In addition to the ordinary neighbor who could be dangerous enough, professional scoundrels were at work. They frequently blackmailed Jews who were attempting to “pass” as Christians on the “Aryan side.” There was a brisk business in this sort of lethal skullduggery.
Anne and Lila give us accounts of what happened when the family was denounced and forced to flee. Mark made arrangements with his Polish boss, a man named Smolenski, and moved the family to the lumber yard where Mark built a tar paper roofed dwelling. Smolenski recognized the name Skorecki from pre-war days and knew that the family was Jewish. Although a well-known anti-Semite before the war, he kept quiet. Anne says, “He did. He looked the other way. Not ‘til after the war did my father really know that the man knew.”
Once again during this five year ordeal, Mark’s talent and personality won over his employer and saved himself and his family.
On April 19, 1943, three months after the Skoreckis escaped the ghetto and found shelter with the Piotrowskas, the Nazis and their collaborators marched into the ghetto. The final assault coincided with the start of Holy Week. A carousel was set up in Krasinski Square, adjacent to the ghetto, for the amusement of the Polish population. The juxtaposition of gaiety and murder was jarring (and memorialized by the poet Czeslaw Milosz). The Germans rained incendiaries on the ghetto and set it on fire. The fighting lasted until May 8th, when the last Jewish fighters committed mass-suicide in a bunker under the building at Mila 18.
A year and four months after the Jewish revolt in the Warsaw ghetto, fighting again erupted in Warsaw. On August 1, 1944, the Polish underground army (the AK or Home Army) rose up against the retreating Germans. The Russians, approaching from the east, stopped on the Vistula River (in Praga, the neighborhood where the Skoreckis lived) while the Germans (and their auxiliaries) crushed the Polish fighters and slaughtered the civilians. Stalin was only too pleased that Hitler destroyed the Polish nationalist elite in Warsaw, who were mostly young people by this stage of the war. This saved Stalin a lot of trouble. Decapitating the leadership class was the policy of both dictators in Poland from 1939 onward. The fighting in Warsaw lasted until early October. The Polish fighters were allowed to surrender before being marched off to wretched POW camps. The civilian population was expelled to the countryside. The Germans dynamited Warsaw, leaving behind a pile of rubble. Afterwards the city was rebuilt in totalitarian style by the communists – except for the Old Town which was restored to its original architectural splendor.
The Skoreckis left Praga (on foot) in the summer of 1944. They lived for a short time with a Polish family in the countryside. Once again Mark’s “golden hands” proved indispensable. The Skoreckis were liberated by the Russians in July 1944. Anne was ten and Lila seven. The family returned to Lodz. Very few Jewish children survived in Nazi-occupied Poland. As Anne tells us, her mother attempted to register the family and was met with disbelief: “They looked at her like she was mad, because the Germans had killed a million and half children. There were no children. My sister and I were an oddity.”
In Poland one ruthless occupier replaced another, and the second occupier would remain for the next forty-five years. Mark arranged for the family to be smuggled out of Soviet-occupied Poland, by way of Czechoslovakia, to the American zone in Germany.
The family lived for several years in the equivalent of a DP camp in Tirschenreuth, Germany, where the family felt safe for the first time in six years. Ruth described her fellow survivors: “These were Hitler’s leftovers. To tell the truth, we were all invalids and all had our sicknesses.” Adam, much adored son, was born in October 1948. His birth assured that the Skorecki name would go on.
Lila recounts how her father bluntly told her that she was Jewish: “I said, ‘What is Jewish?’ I had no idea.” Lila, “passing” as a Pole for two years, was imbued with anti-Semitism that she had unconsciously absorbed during the war.
In November 1949 the Skoreckis travelled by boat to the United States and landed in New Orleans at the disembarkation wharf on Poland Avenue, an irony that nobody seemed to notice. A reporter from the New Orleans Item interviewed the family prior to Thanksgiving. Ruth told the reporter: “One day is not Thanksgiving. Here it is all days. All days are good.” When Lila posed for a photograph, she “automatically” knelt in prayer at her bedside as she had done so often in war-time Poland: “Everybody said, ‘Why did you kneel down and pray like that to take a picture? I don’t know. I just…I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.”
In the Deep South, where racial segregation was rigidly enforced, the Skoreckis found themselves on the safe side of the racial divide. They had survived in a world where they were targets of destruction because of their religion (and race, according to the Nazis). Now they lived in a world where people were defined (and marginalized) by the color of their skin. Anne describes her experience with Jim Crow segregation on a public bus: “…people would get on the bus much older than I, and I’d been brought up where you were supposed to give your elders your seat, you know. You’re the young one, somebody older comes in, you’re supposed to be polite, and I couldn’t do it.”
Anne married Stan Levy in 1956. They have three daughters and six grandchildren. Lila married Norman Millen in 1961. They have two daughters and six grandchildren.
Lila has never been able to rid herself of the fear that she felt during the war. She didn’t talk about the past with her daughters: “I wanted them to have a childhood like Anne and I never had, so I really never burdened them with any of those terrible, terrible years that we went through.” Lila says that Anne was “the brave one” and her guardian: “Well, she wasn’t only my guardian, but she was my best friend and still is, because we only had each other. That’s all we had.”
In the 1960s Ruth dictated her war-time memories to a neighbor who was a seminarian turned law student named Harry Hull. He typed out the manuscript that became the basis of Lawrence Powell’s book about Anne.
Ruth died on July 23, 1973. This was thirty-one years and one day after the deportations from Warsaw to Treblinka began. Mark died on May 14, 1991.
In 1990 and 1991 Anne repeatedly confronted David Duke, neo-Nazi, Klansman, and Louisiana legislator who maintained that the Holocaust was “exaggerated.” In his run for governor in 1991, Duke won a majority of the white vote of Louisiana.
For many years Anne and Lila, the rare child survivors of the Holocaust, have visited schools with us and made presentations at our workshops. Anne leaves us with this message: “You have to embrace, and be willing to listen to the other side. I mean, we’re all the same.” Lila defines the “lesson” of the Holocaust: “The lesson is that sometimes it’s not what you do that you get punished for, but who you are.”
Both Anne and Lila suffered flood damage to their homes during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. They had to start over, not for the first time.