“There is not a day or night not to dream of my people.”
- Felicia Fuksman
Felicia Fuksman (Lewkowitz) was born in Lodz, Poland, on May 20, 1920. Lodz was an industrial city (textiles) near the German border and had a mixed population of Jews, Poles, and Germans. Felicia was the second oldest child. She lived with her parents Abraham and Hana, her brother Simon and Shmil, and her sisters Rachel and Esther. Felicia’s father was a tailor. The family lived in a one room apartment at #7 Brzesinka. “I’m coming from a very poor home,” Felicia says in the documentary. “But we had a very happy life because we had each other.” Felicia worked during the day and studied at night school to become a nurse, “and I had a lot of friends in school. I was a happy teenager. And I thought I am on the top of the world because I didn’t experience no better life and I thought that is the best that I can have, and I was happy with that.”
The horizon grew dark in the late 1930s. After Hitler seized the rump state of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, he turned his attention to Poland. Its leaders had grossly misjudged his intentions. Hitherto the militaristic, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic government of Poland was viewed by the Western democracies as an ally of Nazi Germany, not least of all on the issue of Jews. But now England and France issued guarantees of Poland’s independence. This was an attempt to dissuade Hitler from further aggression. Felicia loved Poland and was a Polish patriot. In the documentary she says that everybody in her circle was confident that Poland would triumph over Germany, believing that England and France would come to the rescue.
Hitler unleashed his armed forces on Poland on September 1, 1939. Three days later England and France declared war on Germany but didn’t launch the expected (and promised) attack. Felicia was visiting her beloved grandmother Hanja in the small town of Zgierz near Lodz when the war broke out. German planes dropped bombs on the town and toppled a nearby house. Hanja and her grandchildren recited the prayer Shema Yisrael: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” The prayer is recited in the morning and the evening – and in times of danger. Felicia had no idea that Hitler’s goal was the destruction of the Jewish people: “There were two wars actually. One against Jews, and one on a regular front.”
The Germans quickly occupied Lodz and burned the city’s many synagogues and prayer houses. They dynamited the Kosciusko statue, symbol of Polish independence, and plundered Jews and Poles alike. The Nazis and their many collaborators were thieves as well as murderers. There was mad rush to profit off the misfortune of others. The Germans beat up Jews and ripped off the beards of Orthodox men. As Felicia tells us in the documentary, the occupiers were sadistic and took pleasure in degrading the Jews: “They were having a lot of satisfaction and to see us fighting over that crumb of bread.”
The Nazis ruled by terror. People were afraid to resist. Collective retaliation was inevitable. Felicia’s father and her brother Simon were seized on the street by the Germans for “work” and never seen again. Western Poland was renamed Wartheland and incorporated into the German Reich. The majority of the Polish population was brutally expelled and forced to seek an existence elsewhere in German-occupied Poland.
Lodz was renamed Litzmannstadt in honor of the World War I general who captured the city. The Jews were ordered to wear a yellow “Star of David” patch – sewn on the chest and on the back of their outer garments. In February-April 1940 the Nazis established a ghetto in the northern part of Lodz called Baluty, a district impoverished long before the war. This was the first ghetto created in Nazi occupied Poland and the second largest in population (behind Warsaw). The ghetto was surrounded by walls and guarded by German SS and their collaborators (including Jews). Ethnic Germans lived throughout the city and provided another barrier to escape. The Jews in the Lodz ghetto were unable to communicate with the outside world. Jewish resistance with weapons was impossible. Gypsies from the Lodz region were also imprisoned in the ghetto. Its population reached 200,000. In the autumn of 1941, 38,500 Jews from Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Luxembourg arrived in the ghetto. The misery and violence in the ghetto took them completely by surprise. “Unlike the original ghetto inhabitants, who had been exposed to malnutrition over a period of several years,” Sara Zyskind wrote in her memoir, “these newcomers had no time to develop a defense against the disease. The death toll among them soon reached inordinate proportions.” The mixture of nationalities in tight quarters, with little food, further sowed discord and despair. Felicia says that the poverty of her youth prepared her for the ghetto: “And because I came really from a very poor home and not starvation but we didn’t have any luxury, so I gradually got use to this kind of life in the ghetto.” The ghetto represented an early stage in the Nazi murder campaign. The Jews were concentrated in one locale, facilitating their eventual deportation to the death camps.
Felicia describes the hunger in the Lodz ghetto where “every ten days we were getting a ration of a piece of bread, and some marmalade, some barley. This was just enough to eat for one person and not to have enough. Not just provided for ten days. But we were trying hard to survive on it.” Disease was rampant. Felicia’s older sister Rachel died of tuberculosis, and her younger sister Esther froze to death on the street while begging for food. Her grandmother Hanja died in bed – with Felicia present. Between 1940 and 1944, 46,000 Jewish people died of disease, shootings, and starvation in the Lodz ghetto.
The Nazis established a Judenrat (Jewish Council) in Lodz. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski was appointed “Jewish elder” and held responsible for executing German decrees. Felicia believed that Rumkowski was corrupt and exploited his position for personal gain – and sexual pleasure. Under German scrutiny, the Judenrat operated ninety workshops in the ghetto, employing 77,000 Jews. These workers received extra food (a paltry amount). “Only work can save us,” Rumkowski declared. It was because of those factories that Felicia remained alive during the next four years (and the Lodz ghetto lasted until August 1944). The role of the Judenrat is controversial. One view has it that the Judenrat collaborated with the Nazis and assisted in the destruction of its own people: trading the lives of some to save the lives of others (including Judenrat members). A contrary view argues that the Judenrat tried to alleviate Jewish suffering in an impossible situation, and to survive another day. A Jewish police force was subservient to the Judenrat. It enforced the Nazi decrees (and received extra food for its troubles) and played a heartless role in the ghetto’s life – and death.
In view of the wretched conditions in the ghetto, the Germans feared a typhus outbreak (that would affect them). With her experience as a student nurse, Felicia possessed valuable skills. She was assigned to the job of taking care of workers in a workshop and later a hospital. As a result of her “war-essential” work, Felicia received extra food and avoided being placed on the list for “evacuation.”
Felicia’s friend Bronia Lewkowitz (same as Felicia’s maiden name) was born in Poland but moved to Salzburg, Austria, before the war. She was a highly skilled surgical nurse and lived comfortably with her husband and two daughters. Her husband was murdered by the Nazis during Pogrom Nacht (Kristallnacht) in November 1938. Her two young daughters were sent on a “Children’s Transport” to England. Bronia was deported to her native Poland where she ended up in the Lodz ghetto. She met Felicia when both worked in the former “Hospital for the Working People.” Bronia, in her mid-forties, helped Felicia immensely – she wouldn’t let her give up. Felicia explains the source of Bronia’s strength: “Her determination to survive was so great that it had a lot of influence on me. Because she had…she wants to see her children. She says she has to see her children. And she will see her children.”
The Nazis began deporting Jews from the Lodz ghetto to the Chelmno death camp in January 1942. The unsuspecting victims received official notices from the Judenrat: they were being sent to “work camps” in the countryside. Everything was done under the guise of “resettlement.” Jews were allowed to take twelve kilograms of luggage and ordered to report to an assembly point (the prison courtyard on Czarniecki Street). As a devious enticement, the Germans promised each (starving) deportee a loaf of bread. Deceit was a major element of the annihilation strategy. Carrying rucksacks and suitcases, stuffed to the brim, people trudged to the trains – not knowing what lay ahead and unable to imagine it. In regular transports between January 1942 and September 1942, 116,000 Jews were deported to Chelmno.
Chelmno was the first death camp established in Nazi-occupied Poland and began operations on December 8, 1941, coincidentally the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. At Chelmno the Nazis used gas vans (resembling furniture moving vans) to asphyxiate people. The bodies were taken to a nearby field and dumped in pits. When the tide of war changed, the bodies were exhumed and burned in huge pyres. The Nazis attempted to erase the evidence of their crimes. They were the first Holocaust-deniers.
The Nazis launched a massive “action” to deport the children and the old people from the ghetto in September 1942. “The decree cannot be revoked. It can only be slightly lessened by our carrying it out calmly,” Rumkowski explained in an address to the ghetto. “Brothers and sisters, hand them over to me. Fathers and mothers, give me your children.” During nine days of terror and bloodletting, 20,000 children and old people were seized and deported to Chelmno. During these terrible days Felicia worked in a hospital where “sometimes we kept a dead body a little longer in order to receive a slice of bread for this dead person because it was counted, so many slices of bread per person and we counted the dead bodies sometimes so we had a couple of slices of bread more.”
Felicia’s mother Rachel was murdered in the ghetto. Her younger brother Schmil, thirteen years old, was led to the courtyard. Felicia describes the last time she saw him: “I was still with him ‘til last day. They took him away and they put him, they formed two lines in the courtyard, and they put my little brother in the line with the old, sick people so I know he will not survive this either.”
With the approach of the Red Army in August 1944, the Nazis liquidated the Lodz ghetto. Felicia was loaded onto one of the last transports. To deceive the Jews about their destination, the Germans permitted them to take twelve and a half kilograms of their belongings. They were given loaves of bread. Most were sent to the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In sum, 145,000 Jews from the Lodz ghetto were murdered at Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Felicia and Bronia were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp near Furstenberg in northern Germany. This was a women’s camp. The conditions were deplorable. Of 132,000 prisoners at Ravensbruck, 92,000 perished. Felicia tells us that she fell ill (with typhus) and was rescued by Bronia: “And I knew my family’s gone. So I gave up. I really didn’t care if I live or die, but she pushed me to it. And she had so much influence on me.”
In the last months of the war Felicia and Bronia were transported from Ravensbruck to a Nazi labor camp at Wittenberge in eastern Germany. She worked as a slave in an airplane factory, and “they gave us just a uniform to wear from blue jean material. Nothing underneath. No socks. Not even underwear. So it was very cold. But we wrapped ourselves in the paper.”
As the Red Army approached Wittenberge in April 1945, the Germans dynamited the camp intending to murder the remaining prisoners (who were witnesses to the Nazi crimes). Felicia and her friends slipped out of the camp and searched for food in abandoned German homes. As Felicia tells us, the girls found some potatoes in the basement of a German home: “And as we boiled the potatoes a shot came through the window and she fell immediately dead. And without any excitement, with no feelings, I stood, she was lying in the front of me dead, and I stood to finish boiling the potatoes. We couldn’t wait to be ready. We were hungry. And I’m just thinking: what became of me at the time? I was so cold, so without any feeling. And we left her behind and we took the potatoes.”
After the war Felicia returned to Lodz in search of family members. She knocked on the door of her family’s apartment and was cruelly rebuffed by a Polish woman, a former neighbor who was the new occupant: “She was so surprised to see me, that maybe I should apologize to her that I’m still alive.” Ordinary people, like this neighbor, profited from the murder of Jews. They seized Jewish businesses and Jewish homes. Hostility greeted many survivors when they returned to their homes. Jews were killed after the war, sometimes by their former neighbors. Some forty Jewish survivors were murdered by Poles at Kielce, Poland, on July 4, 1946.
Felicia spent a year in Lodz waiting for family members to return from the camps. None did. Felicia was the only survivor in her family. Life under the Soviets was grim and oppressive. Felicia worked as a nurse in Lodz until saving enough money ($25) to pay a smuggler to take her out of the country. Hidden beneath the seat of a truck, Felicia arrived in devastated Berlin, then occupied by the Americans, the British, the French, and the Russians. She spent three years in a “Displaced Persons” camp in the French Zone. Felicia felt safer in the former Nazi capital than in her Polish hometown.
Bronia immigrated to England and was reunited with one of her daughters. She suffered from the cold weather in England and eventually moved to Israel where her other daughter lived (and where the climate was less harsh).
In 1950, not knowing anyone, not having any money, and not speaking a word of English, Felicia obtained a U. S. visa and traveled by ship to New York City and then by train to New Orleans. There she met Max Fuksman, a fellow survivor from Lodz.
They lived in the same neighborhood before the war but didn’t know each other. The couple married in February 1951. Felicia explains: “We really didn’t marry for love in the beginning, because we just have the same need for each other, so much in common, that we thought it will work out eventually. But it worked out very well. We were very happily married.”
The Fuksmans owned and operated Fox [Fuks] Furniture on Magazine Street in New Orleans and were known for their generosity. They raised three daughters.
On one memorable occasion Bronia came to visit Felicia and stayed several weeks. Felicia’s daughters called her “Aunt Bronia” and have the warmest recollection of her. Overwhelming tragedy was again visited upon Felicia when Max died in a car accident in 1982.
For many years Felicia travelled across the Deep South telling her story at teacher workshops and school presentations. Her message to young people was blunt: “To fight. Because it’s up to them. They can prevent from happening again because history repeats itself, and it can happen again if we let it.”
Felicia lost her home to flooding after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. She died on October 17, 2012, and was buried next to Max in New Orleans. They had five grandchildren.