Surviving terror in two generations
Auschwitz survivor Liza Zajac Novera — who goes by Lea — was on an anniversary cruise with her husband to Iguazu Falls in September 1977, when she got the call. Her sister-in-law told her that armed men had come to their apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and had taken away her two sons, law students. Lea and her husband, both Holocaust survivors, flew back immediately, returning to an overturned apartment and neighbors who all appeared to have been “deaf and blind” to the kidnapping.
Like thousands of others during the 1970s military dictatorship in Argentina, her sons had just disappeared — in this case, likely because one of them was politically active at school.
“There were a lot of people that lived like in Germany, that didn’t want to see,” Lea said. “Everyone was scared; no one saw anything when they took them. The fear paralyzes — that they’ll come to take you and kill you.”
In the following days and weeks, Lea wrote petitions, went to police stations and filed a writ of habeas corpus to obtain her son’s release — but the only answer she received was that her sons had disappeared. She reached out to friends in the United States to pressure the Argentine Embassy. The sons of another Holocaust survivor from Lea’s building had also been kidnapped by the government and never returned.
“She was scared to talk, but I wasn’t scared,” Lea said of her neighbor. “They [the Nazis] already took everything. I wasn’t going back to Auschwitz again, and if they [the military] killed me, what did it matter if they took everything away from me?”
A week after his disappearance, her older son, Jorge, was found beaten up and tortured, and a month later her younger son, Hector, returned in the same condition.
“It was simply destiny, the fight, luck, I don’t know,” Lea said, regarding why her sons survived and also the answer she gives as to how she survived the Holocaust, which took more than 80 members of her family. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is Jan. 27.
Lea, who refers to the Holocaust as “my tragedy of yesterday,” was born in 1926 and grew up in Hajnowka, a village along the Bialowieza forest in eastern Poland. She fondly recalled her large lower-middle-class family. She attended a Polish primary school and spoke multiple languages well — a skill that helped her to survive Auschwitz-Birkenau. Lea calls herself a frustrated historian, because she was never able to pursue that career.
“I was brilliant; I loved studying,” she said with a smile. “I was very much a dreamer, and until this day, I love nature.”
Lea’s family lived in the area of Poland invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin divided the country between them.
“Hitler breaks the pact, and there my tragedy begins,” she said.
When she was 13, Nazis moved her family “in our nightgowns, like refugees” into the Pruzhany ghetto, which was populated by Jews from Bialystok and neighboring small Jewish communities. She recalls how her childhood best friend — a Christian girl — once came to see her from behind the ghetto’s fence.
Despite the starvation in the ghetto, she said, “We still had hope because we were still together.”
But on Feb. 2, 1943, Lea’s family was deported to Auschwitz, a four-day journey without food or water. People in the ghetto had heard about the Nazis’ gas chambers, and the Pruzhany ghetto’s Judenrat, a committee of Jewish notables, had killed themselves in order not to have to organize the three transports liquedating the ghetto.
“There haven’t been words invented to describe it, not even Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ ” Lea said. “You can’t describe it. You won’t understand.”
Upon reaching Auschwitz, a mass of bodies fell from the cars onto the train platform, as Nazis shouted right and left, quickly separating the women and men and creating a group for forced labor. Lea’s mother, already in the truck that would take her and their family to the gas chamber, screamed at Lea to run to the stronger-looking group and join her 26-year-old aunt, Sara. Lea’s 10-year-old sister ran after her, but a Nazi caught and hit her, forcing the girl to join her mother in the truck.
“I instinctively ran,” Lea recalled. “Why did I run? I still don’t know why. I had wanted to die with her, with my family. … It was the last look my mother gave me.”
After selection, prisoners’ names and ages were registered. The prisoner who registered Lea saved her life, insisting that she was 18 and not 16, her actual age. After the women’s heads were shaved and they were given number tattoos, they were sent running to the showers, where Lea said they prayed that gas wouldn’t be pumped in.
For the next few months, Lea worked with laborers collecting wood from destroyed houses. They were made to move quickly, and anyone who fell while working was killed on the spot. When her best friend, Malka, tripped, a Nazi’s dog pounced on her. Lea was forced to carry Malka’s body back to the camp, and she remembers the girl’s arm slapping her with each step.
“Until then, I had never seen a dead body,” she said. “When I returned [to the camp], I got melancholia. I stopped talking, I couldn’t eat bread.”
Her aunt saved her, shaking her after finding her in the barracks a few days later refusing to move.
“After that, I got used to death,” Lea said.
Hard labor injured Lea’s leg, and when she couldn’t walk anymore, she went to the Auschwitz hospital, an “antechamber of death,” in which Dr. Josef Mengele decided who would live and who would die. She approached one doctor, a Soviet medic and prisoner of war, who upon hearing Lea speak Russian, hugged her and said, “I can’t cure you, but I can try to save you.”
For the next six to eight months, whenever the doctor heard about an upcoming selection in the hospital, she would send Lea back to the work camp, where she stayed a few days before returning. But one day the doctor wasn’t there, and the infamous Dr. Mengele came and sentenced all the patients to death.
“With his spidery, twisted fingers, he lifted up the skin of my right arm and shouted out my name,” Lea said.
Upon hearing Lea’s fate, a secretary from the hospital, who also watched out for her, erased Lea’s number from the book with the numbers of the women chosen to die, replacing it with the number of a woman who had died the night before.
“I was waiting, and they didn’t call my number,” Lea said. She was the only patient from the hospital not sent to the gas chamber.
She stayed in the hospital until she was brought to new blocs in Auschwitz to classify the clothes of the gas chambers’ victims, during which she came across her mother’s coat. She worked with Belgian and French Jewish girls who “protected me and loved me,” partly because she spoke French to them, and they shared extra bread with her.
“I survived thanks to the solidarity and help of my companions,” Lea said.
At the end of January 1945, with the Red Army approaching Auschwitz, Lea joined almost 600,000 Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners on the four-month death march. Every three prisoners were given one piece of bread, and the Nazis hid among them when Allied planes flew overhead so that they wouldn’t drop bombs.
Falling down or refusing to walk on the march was fatal. When Lea finally fell, unable to support herself with her wounded leg and expecting to be shot, a Soviet prisoner of war guarding the prisoners urged her to get up. She continued walking, helped by her aunt.
Lea and the other remaining prisoners were liberated by Soviets close to the Elba River on April 23, 1945. After hearing the hurrah of the Soviets from a barn the Nazis had put them in, they came out and told the soldiers what had happened to them. She remembers how one of them started to cry when she told them her entire family was dead.
“I didn’t dance on one foot, I didn’t cry, I wasn’t happy — nothing,” she said. “I told myself, ‘And now what?’ ”
After a short period in Poland with a small community of survivors, Lea decided to come to Argentina by way of Uruguay after hearing from relatives there.
Since “they [unofficially] didn’t let Jews go to Argentina,” Lea pretended she had relatives in Uruguay. The ship she took carried mostly Nazis fleeing Germany to Argentina, where they were welcomed by the government.
“I wanted to scream when I saw Nazis escaping like rats,” she said. “But they were the majority, and I shut my mouth.”
She crossed over illegally into Argentina from Uruguay and became a legal citizen three years later. Lea worked as a librarian, and in 1952 she married Marcos, who had jumped off the train to Treblinka at age 16 and joined the partisans in the forest. Her first son, Jorge, was born in 1953, and her second, Hector, in 1956. She has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“The first years after the war, when we arrived, no one wanted to listen,” she said. “It [Auschwitz] was so horrible.”
But eventually Lea started telling her story to children in schools once a week and became part of the Generations of the Shoah organization in Buenos Aires, through which she shared her story with teenagers. She also joined a literary workshop and compiled a book titled “Historias de Mi Mochila” (“Stories From My Backpack”) in 2010.
Argentina has experienced its own attacks of anti-Semitism, with the 1992 bombing of its Israeli Embassy and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA building, home to one of the country’s umbrella Jewish organizations, in which 85 people died.
“Here, there’s anti-Semitism — not brutal like in Poland — it’s an anti-Semitism that’s underlying, hidden,” she said.
However Lea, whose life motto is “being worthy of living,” is hopeful.
“The world has advanced a lot,” she said. “People now know that it wasn’t only against the Jews, but against all the democracies of the world.”
Lea’s sons also recovered from their trauma and were able to return to normal lives after their kidnapping.
“Despite my horrific condition [after torture], and my young age, I returned to work, to do my normal things, be with my girlfriend and with my friends,” said Hector, who now works in the industrial and commercial sector. “I never gave myself up or thought I wouldn’t survive.
“My mother’s experience was more dramatic. Luckily we were able to continue forward with our lives, and in that sense, our situations were similar, but I think that it’s an unfortunate coincidence.”