October 20, 2018

Rachel Gastfrajnd Schwartz: Teamed with her sister during worst times

When Rachel Gastfrajnd and her older sister, Henrietta, first reached Detroit, in September 1946, Rachel was eager to write about how they survived the Warsaw Ghetto, three concentration camps and a death march. Rachel was 15, her sister, 17.

“Everything was so vivid,” Rachel recalled.

Then the nightmares set in.

Hoping to help the sisters, their maternal aunt,  Bessie Partovich, who had immigrated to the United States in the 1930s, set some rules: They had to put the Holocaust behind them and stop speaking Polish.

“You’re American girls now,” she told them.

“It was all meant to forget the bad experience,” Rachel said. “And people in general didn’t want to believe it or talk about it.”

Rachel took her aunt’s words to heart. For decades. Even her two American husbands and her sons were kept in the dark. It wasn’t until more than 50 years after the war, in 1998, that she felt comfortable enough to give testimony to what is now the USC Shoah Foundation, a decision she attributes to having seen the premiere of “Schindler’s List” in Krakow, Poland, in 1994.

Then, she went another 18 years before breaking her silence again, addressing a group of B-17 Combat Crewmen and Wingmen in Long Beach last October.

“Since the soldiers came to liberate us, it just touched me,” she said.

She also spoke this year at USC Hillel’s Yom HaShoah commemoration.

Rachel was the youngest of four children born to Sara and Israel Gastfrajnd. Her father owned a mattress factory on the ground floor of their apartment building in Warsaw. The family was financially comfortable, and Rachel remembers her parents as very loving.

Life was joyful until the morning of Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany declared war on Poland. As bombs fell on Warsaw, the Gastfrajnd family huddled in the basement of their building.

Sometime after Oct. 16, 1940, the family was forced to relocate to the Warsaw Ghetto, moving the mattress factory, which then produced cots for the German army, inside their cramped quarters. All six family members helped out. “That’s why we were still alive,” Rachel said.

Rachel and her family lived in constant fear. Food was scarce, dead bodies littered the streets, and soldiers often conducted raids. “We had to hide all the time,” she said, often in large barrels placed behind a door.

While the family succeeded in staying together in the ghetto, Sara often told her children, “Whoever survives the war, we have two aunts in Michigan,” drilling their names into their heads.

On the first day of Passover in 1943, as Nazi troops were attempting to liquidate the ghetto, buildings erupted in flames. Rachel and her family were forced to abandon their apartment, clustering with others at the Umschlagplatz, the holding area near the train station, believing they would be resettled in the East.

Guarded by German soldiers with rifles and dogs, people were screaming and crying. The men and women were separated. “That’s the last time we saw our father and two brothers,” Rachel said.

After several days, Rachel, Henrietta and their mother were crammed into a cattle car and transported to Majdanek, the concentration camp outside Lublin.

Waiting in line, they approached the SS officer conducting a selection. He pointed for Rachel’s mother to go right and Henrietta to the opposite side. He then directed Rachel to follow her mother. Henrietta burst into tears. “No, no, no,” she shouted. The SS officer stared at both sisters for a good minute and then motioned for Rachel to join Henrietta. “Maybe I reminded him of a daughter or somebody,” Rachel said.

Rachel learned about the gas chambers and crematoria, realizing her mother’s fate. Hopeful their father and brothers were still alive, the sisters focused on good memories, often by singing popular Polish and Yiddish songs. “We tried to lift ourselves up,” she said.

In fall 1943, Rachel and Henrietta were transported to Skarzysko-Kamienna, then a forced labor camp in east-central Poland. They shared the same barracks, and during their 12-hour work shifts, Rachel produced ammunition while Henrietta toiled in the mines.

In late July 1944, with the sounds of Soviet gunfire in the distance, two girls whom Henrietta had befriended at work invited her to join a group planning to escape into the forest that night. Rachel, they explained, was too young. Henrietta declined their offer, refusing to abandon her sister. Those who fled that night — estimates vary from 250 to thousands — were slaughtered by the Germans.

Soon afterward, the camp was evacuated and the remaining prisoners transported by cattle car to Buchenwald, a concentration camp near Weimar, Germany.

The two girls worked in an ammunition factory where an elderly German civilian supervisor took a liking to them, often slipping them a hard-boiled egg or apple.

In early April 1945, as the Soviets were closing in, the prisoners were marched out. “It was bitter cold,” Rachel recalled. They walked for several weeks, sleeping in fields and sometimes deserted barns. “We were just starving. We were eating grass,” Rachel said. After two weeks she began hallucinating.

One day, they awoke in a barn near the Elbe River to the sounds of soldiers speaking Russian. It was late April 1945, and they had been liberated. “We were probably unconscious by then. I’m sure of it,” Rachel said.

Several weeks later, having regained some strength, they began the chaotic journey back to Warsaw, riding in jeeps driven by Soviet  soldiers and by walking.

One night, while staying with a German family — elderly grandparents and their grandchildren — Soviet soldiers showed up. “What you have been through, we want to kill these people,” one soldier said. The sisters said no. “I was so sick of killing and death,” Rachel said.

They reached Warsaw in late June, discovering that their father’s factory had vanished and strangers inhabited their apartment. A neighbor told them that their father and older brother, Rubin, had been murdered in Treblinka. “We don’t have knowledge of Hershel,” Rachel said of her other brother.

The girls knew they didn’t belong in Poland anymore and dreamed of immigrating to the United States or Palestine.

The Jewish underground smuggled the sisters out of Poland, to the Landsberg displaced persons camp near Munich in early 1946. While there, they connected with their American relatives.

They docked in New York on Sept. 1, 1946, traveling a few weeks later to Detroit, where 40 relatives greeted them at the train station. “It was just unbelievable. My sister and I were very lucky,” Rachel said.

Initially, they lived with their Aunt Esther and Uncle Meyer Pechensky, but six months later, because of Esther’s failing vision, they moved in with Aunt Bessie and Uncle Louis Partovich.

Rachel graduated from Detroit’s Central High School in 1949. Two years later, she married Edward Schwartz. Their son Jeffrey was born in August 1953, and son Bruce in August 1957. In 1960, they moved to Los Angeles, attracted to the climate. After her first marriage ended, Rachel wed Arthur Lambert, who died in 2000.

In 1967, Rachel began working for the Feuer Corp., an air-conditioning company. Around 1991, she became a Realtor for Coldwell Banker and currently works in the company’s Santa Monica office.

In November 2012, Henrietta and Rachel spoke at the dedication of the Henrietta and Alvin Weisberg Gallery at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Mich., which Henrietta and her husband sponsored. It features a World War II-era German cattle car, which the Weisbergs purchased, and is dedicated to Sara and Israel Gastfrajnd and Rubin and Hershel Gastfrajnd.

Rachel now says that she still doesn’t want to speak regularly about her Holocaust ordeals, though she also feels a responsibility.

“In a way, maybe it’s time,” she said. “If we don’t say it, who’s going to say it?”