Survivor: Sarah Leisner

Sarah Leisner — née Kanzer — was digging foxholes in a frozen field in northern Poland on the bitter cold and dark afternoon of Dec. 31, 1944, when she spied several small houses nearby, with smoke rising from the chimneys. “Let’s break in and steal a needle and thread,” Sarah, 19, suggested to a friend working with her, thinking that her older sister, Bella, a seamstress, could repair the ripped dresses they were wearing as prisoners in a forced labor camp.

With no guards in sight, they walked to the closest house and opened the door, startling an elderly couple. “We’re Jewish,” Sarah explained. “We need a little thread and a needle.” The woman gave the girls hot milk — “Till today I don’t forget the taste,” Sarah said. The woman also gave the girls three bags of food and the sewing items.

When Sarah and her friend returned to the field, the prisoners and guards were gone. With night falling and temperatures below zero, Sarah knew they would freeze to death if they stayed. She opted to return to camp, certain they would be killed, but “at least Bella will have the food,” she reasoned. When they reached the entrance, they tossed the bags over the fence as SS soldiers aimed their guns at them. Ruth, a German kapo known for her cruelty, suddenly intervened. “Don’t shoot. This lady works very hard,” she said, pointing to Sarah. She then ordered the girls to clean the latrines. 

Sarah’s mother, Chana Lazarow, was 19 when she married Gedali Kanzer, a widower with eight children, and together they had six more children. By the time Sarah, the fourth born, arrived on March 9, 1925, in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, her half-brothers and -sisters no longer lived at home.

Gedali was a butcher, and the family was poor, living in a two-bedroom apartment with no indoor toilet and no running water. Still, Chana cooked Shabbat dinner every week for the very observant family, though Gedali always brought home one or two poor Jews, and the children sometimes went hungry because there wasn’t enough food.

In fall 1938, Chana died of pneumonia. “I was 13, and I had to grow up,” Sarah recalled. She dropped out of Jewish school to care for her younger sister Shayna and younger brother Moshe.

In June 1940, the Soviet Union took over Lithuania. Jewish schools and organizations were closed down. A year later, on June 14, 1941, hundreds of Jewish families were exiled to Siberia.

Two weeks later, on June 22, 1941, Sarah woke to the sound of falling bombs, as Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Almost immediately, Jews in Kovno were ordered to wear yellow stars and forbidden to walk on the sidewalks. Soon after German Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) and bands of Lithuanians rounded up Jews and executed them at the Seventh and Ninth Forts, originally part of a 19th century fortress.

By Aug. 15, Kovno’s approximately 29,000 Jews were relocated to the ghetto in Slobodka, a Jewish suburb. Sarah’s family moved in with a stepbrother — 13 people lived in one room. 

Jews age 16 and older were ordered to work, but Sarah did not register for her identification card. Instead, she worked at the airfield digging out dirt and laying cement, taking the place of other ghetto residents, who gave her their identification cards and paid her with a sandwich. 

In the early morning of Oct. 28, 1941, all Jews, including the old and infirm, were ordered to congregate in Demokratu Square. The day was cold and rainy, and families waited in long lines to pass by a Gestapo officer for inspection. When Sarah’s family finally reached the officer, he directed her father and younger sister to the right, and Sarah, Bella and Moshe to the left. The next day, more than 9,000 Jews, including Sarah’s father and sister, were executed at the Ninth Fort in what was called the Big Action.

Soon after, Sarah’s two older brothers were taken by the Germans. 

Meanwhile, Sarah registered for her own identification card, and she and Bella were assigned to work in a meat-processing factory, where they plucked 100 to 200 chickens a day.

In fall 1943, the SS took total control of the Kovno ghetto, transforming it into the Kauen concentration camp and sending many Jews to forced labor sub camps.

Sarah and Bella were transferred to a sub camp in Aleksotas, a Kovno suburb, where they worked at the airfield. Moshe, their younger brother, lived with them. One day, on March 27, 1944, the guards released the girls late from work. When they returned to the camp, everything was quiet. Then crying and screaming broke out as the prisoners discovered that the children and the elderly had been taken away. Moshe and hundreds of others had been sent to Auschwitz, Sarah later learned, as part of the Children’s Action. 

Sarah and Bella worked in yet another labor camp, in the cornfields. Then, in July 1944, they were shipped by cattle car to Stutthof concentration camp.

A month later, they were taken by boat to a Stutthof sub camp, where, along with about 350 women, they dug foxholes for German soldiers all day. 

In late January 1945, less than a month after the German kapo had spared Sarah’s life, the prisoners were evacuated on a death march as the Russian front was approaching. They walked all day, sleeping in barns or silos at night. Those who couldn’t walk were shot.

One late afternoon, having not eaten for three days, Sarah spotted a doghouse and fresh dog food. She raced for the food, with three girls following and falling on top of her. Sarah soon felt a warm liquid running over her body. It was the blood of the girls, who had been shot by guards.

The prisoners were then confined in a large silo in Chinow, where typhus was rampant. Three weeks later, on the morning of May 10, 1945, Sarah woke up as a Jewish girl burst into the silo, holding a loaf of bread in each hand. “We’re free,” she shouted. “The Russians are here.” 

Sarah eventually traveled to Bialystok, where young Zionists had established Kibbutz Gordonia. She wanted to go to Palestine, but was first sent to Pöcking, a displaced persons camp near Munich. It was there that she met Menachem (Murray) Leisner. 

Sarah and Murray traveled to Marseilles, and were married on Aug. 9, 1946, while waiting for a ship. They finally departed on the illegal refugee ship Latrun, but it was intercepted by the British in Haifa, and the passengers were taken to a refugee camp in Cyprus. Sarah was pregnant. 

Finally, in May 1947, Sarah and Murray arrived in Palestine, living in a military camp. Their daughter, Zippora, was born on June 6, 1947. 

Sarah and Murray later moved to an apartment in Kiryat Bialik, north of Haifa. Then, on March 17, 1948, two Jewish boys blew themselves up in a suicide mission that destroyed two British trucks. In the explosion, Zippora, who was asleep in their second-story apartment, was hit and died. 

Sarah and Murray remained in Kiryat
Bialik, eventually building a house and opening a bicycle shop. They had three sons: Steve, born in 1949; Gary, in 1952; and Ed, in 1958.

On Aug. 9, 1964, they immigrated to the United States, settling in Los Angeles, and in 1967, they opened Murray’s Iron Works. Sarah worked in the business, retiring in 1988. Murray died in September 2011.

These days Sarah, now 88, enjoys the company of her three sons, four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. She also visits with friends at Roxbury Park.

Sarah remembers her father telling his children before he was murdered, “If somebody of you survives, tell the world.” Sarah is the last survivor of his 14 offspring, and she took his words to heart. 

“I want to tell the world,” she said.