Survivor: Donna Tuna

Suddenly, midday on Sept. 1, 1939, Donna Tuna — then Golda Tajchman — spotted planes flying low over her small town of Ryki, Poland, machine-gunning the inhabitants, who were running, panicked, in all directions. Donna, along with her mother, sister Regina, and younger twin siblings, Feige and Avrum, raced to the riverbank. They stood in the water the entire night, hidden by tall grass, watching the wooden structures of the shtetl erupt in flames. The next morning she returned with her family, to find her father had been killed and their house burned to the ground. “I felt I was 200 years old, and I was not even 12,” Donna recalled.

They retreated to their aunt’s house. A few days later, German soldiers marched into Ryki and pounded on doors. “Juden raus!” (“Jews out!”) they shouted. Donna peeked through the keyhole and saw soldiers putting people on trucks. She also saw them shoot her great-grandfather because he was not running toward the trucks fast enough. “I was so scared,” she said. The family inside the house, however, was spared.

Born on Sept. 24, 1927, Donna was the sixth of eight children in her religious family. Her father, who was in the grain business, prayed twice a day, and her mother baked every Thursday night for Shabbat. Donna remembers living “in a beautiful house on a beautiful street.” When the war broke out, Donna’s older brother Henry and older sisters Saba, Pola and Karola were living in Warsaw.

Saba took Donna to Warsaw. There, hearing that Jews were escaping to Russia, Donna, Karola and Saba, along with Saba’s husband and his two siblings, went to the train station. They traveled east, getting off at a small town and walking to a Russian border crossing. The guards, however, denied them entry. They stayed at the crossing for six days, walking around all day and sleeping on the frozen ground at night. Finally, more and more people arrived, and they broke through the barrier.

Donna’s group walked until they reached Ogrodniczki, a village near Bialystok in Soviet-controlled eastern Poland. They registered to work in Russia and were put on a cattle train, sitting on the floor of a car that had frozen walls and an iron stove in the center. Whenever the train stopped, they gathered wood. After a month, near the end of 1939, they arrived in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.

They were given one barracks room for the six of them. They were also given a saw, a tree trunk to cut for firewood and a tar-coated pail for washing. They melted snow for water. Donna attended school and did chores, including standing in line for hours for bread. More than once, in weather 30 degrees below zero, so cold her hair froze, she had to hold her place in line all night.

In spring 1941, Saba became very ill. The group, then including Saba’s baby, Alex, boarded a train for Mogilev, a warmer city in Belarus. In June, however, the Germans attacked, and Saba’s husband was drafted into the Red Army and killed almost immediately. Donna and Saba, along with the baby, went to the crowded station to flee on a train; it was packed, but they managed to snare a place on the steps, riding outside the car. Their trip lasted weeks, according to Donna, before they arrived in Chelyabinsk, east of the Ural Mountains.

Donna again attended school. She owned one dress, a navy one, with buttons, which she wore frontward one day and backward the next. On days when she washed the dress, she stayed in bed all day. As a student, Donna was allowed only 200 grams — about 7 ounces — of bread a day. Sometimes she came home from school so hungry she couldn’t do her homework.

In fall 1943, old enough to work at age 16, Donna procured a factory job, which raised her daily allotment to 800 grams of bread.

One day, in May 1945, people poured into the streets, dancing and celebrating the war’s end. Donna registered for permission to return to Poland. The process took months, and, during one visit to the registration office, she met her future husband, Izak Tuna, a fellow Pole.

Finally, in the summer of 1946, Donna and Izak traveled to Strzegom, in southwestern Poland, where they were married in a civil ceremony in March 1947. Their daughter, Sofia, was born the same year. In 1951, they moved to Wroclaw, where their son, Mark, was born in 1956.

In 1957, the family was finally given permission to leave Poland for Israel. There, Donna learned that her mother, sister Regina and twin siblings had been taken to Treblinka. Donna’s other siblings survived, including Henry, who helped sponsor their move to Los Angeles in 1960.

Donna studied English and business machines at Fairfax High School and then worked at J.J. Newberry and Fedco, retiring in 1982. Izak worked in the aerospace industry.

In 1965, they became U.S. citizens, officially changing their names to Donna and Mike (Izak had become Miroslaw in Poland). They also bought a house, where they still live.

In 2004, Donna and her husband returned to Poland with Sofia and Mark to visit their birthplaces. Donna refused to travel to Ryki.

Today, Donna, now 84, spends time reading magazines and classic novels. She takes walks and also cooks healthful soups.

She and her husband have always resided near Fairfax Avenue. As she told her daughter in 1960, “These are my family. I will live always with the Jewish people.”