Fifteen-year-old Sonja Zyskind, dressed as a boy in pants and a shirt, her braids concealed under a cap, walked with Mrs. Novak, a former customer of her father’s textile store, toward the center of Piotrkow, Poland. As they reached the Hortensja Glassworks factory, they saw the men lining up, Jewish slave laborers, preparing to return to the ghetto. “Go,” Mrs. Novak said, pushing Sonja into the line.
Sonja had been living with Mrs. Novak, posing as a blue-eyed, blond-haired relative. And although Mrs. Novak treated her kindly, and was well paid by her parents, Sonja feared she would be caught. She planned to sneak into the ghetto, where her mother and sister were confined.
The men halted at the gate while a guard counted them, something Sonja hadn’t anticipated. “One too many,” he reported. He recounted several times, repeating, “One too many,” over and over. Sonja’s stomach hurt, but she remained silent. Finally, another guard urged, “Let them go already.”
As a young girl, Sonja had been, in her words, “a bit of a spoiled child,” beloved by her parents, grandparents and two uncles. But now she felt alone. “You got unspoiled,” Sonja said. “You had to do a lot of things.”
Sonja was born in Piotrkow Tribunalski, in central Poland, on Oct. 11, 1927, to Rachela and Shlomo Zyskind. Her sister, Itka, was born in 1930. The well-off and traditionally religious family lived in a spacious three-bedroom apartment above Shlomo’s store.
At age 7, Sonja attended public school, living mostly with her maternal grandparents, whose maid walked her to school each morning. After school, Sonja often treated friends at a candy shop, where her grandfather had arranged charging privileges.
But on Sept. 5, 1939, that life ended as Sonja watched German soldiers marching into town. “Don’t worry,” her parents said, trying to reassure her. But Sonja learned later they were already making arrangements to hide her.
Once inside the ghetto, after leaving Mrs. Novak, Sonja shed the boys clothes. Underneath was her school uniform, a black satin dress with a white detachable collar, which she wore for the duration of the war, washing the collar whenever possible.
In October 1942, before Sonja’s arrival, a great aktion had taken place in the ghetto, in which 18,000 to 22,000 Jews, including Sonja’s father, were shipped to Treblinka and murdered. About 2,500 workers remained, with special permits. This included Sonja’s mother, Rachela, who worked in the Judenrat (Jewish Council) kitchen, keeping Itka with her. Sonja, who lacked a permit, couldn’t see her. Instead, she stayed with those who had emerged from hiding, moving from place to place to avoid capture. “The less I showed my face, I was better off,” Sonja said.
“I knew I am not going to live,” she said.
But eventually the Gestapo found her — she believes she was betrayed— and she was taken to the Great Synagogue, where about 300 people were being held. “I knew I’m not going to live,” Sonja recalled. She bit her tongue, hoping it wouldn’t happen, and prayed to God to save her or take her as soon as possible.
Then one day she heard a Gestapo officer call her Yiddish name, “Sura Zyskind.” She was certain she would be the first to be killed. Instead, she was taken to the Judenrat building, where she briefly saw her mother. (Sonja later learned that Rachela had bribed someone to secure her release and that the others in the synagogue were trucked to the Rakow forest and massacred.)
Weeks later, Sonja and 29 other girls, selected for their excellent eyesight, were transported to Skarzysko-Kamienna, a labor camp about 65 miles southeast of Piotrkow.
The girls spent 12 hours a day at an ammunition factory, sitting in front of machines, three to a machine, inspecting bullets. Sonja’s job was to check each bullet through the machine’s magnifying glass as it passed on a conveyor belt, removing the defective ones. If she missed one or if she fell asleep — which sometimes happened — the female Gestapo officer, Mrs. Hirsch, or the Jewish forewoman, Lola, slapped her.
Lola, whom Sonja described as beautiful, hunchbacked and “worse than the Gestapo,” resented Sonja, and decided to have her hair cut off as punishment. Sonja was dragged to the barber and undressed. But she escaped, running through the camp naked. “Kill me,” she shouted, “but you’re not going to cut my hair.” She prevailed.
In August 1944, as the Soviet army approached, the Skarzysko prisoners were transported to a labor camp in Czestochowa, about 95 miles west. Sonja worked with the same girls on the same machines, but without Lola.
The Soviets continued their advance until one day in mid-January 1945, amid the sounds of falling bombs, the girls noticed the Germans had disappeared. “I’m going home,” Sonja announced, running out of the factory with a group of girls, joined by several young men.
The group walked and hitched rides on horse-drawn wagons whenever possible, scavenging for food in empty houses. After a month, Sonja and about six others reached her grandparents’ house, now occupied by several families. “You still alive?” one person asked her. After waiting, they were reluctantly let in.
Several days later, as the group sat in the dining room, shots were fired through the window, with one nearly grazing Sonja’s head. She fled.
At the Jewish Committee office in Piotrkow, Sonja met Bluma Rosenwald, a family acquaintance, who invited her home. Sonja became friendly with her son, Waldek (also called Israel). Together, they traveled to Prague, where they learned Rachela and Itka had survived, and then to Bergen-Belsen, where they reunited with them at the displaced persons camp. “Everybody cried,” Sonja recalled.
Sonja and Waldek married on April 2, 1946, in Bergen-Belsen. Their daughter, Jeanie, was born there in June 1948, and their son, Sam, in December 1953, in Los Angeles, where they had immigrated to two years earlier. Waldek died in 2009 and Sam in 2011. Sonja now has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
In California, Sonja and Waldek ran a chicken farm for six years in what is now Winnetka before moving to Los Angeles and buying two liquor stores, which they sold in the 1990s. The couple then managed office and apartment buildings. After Waldek’s death, Sonja continued, retiring in 2016.
Sonja previously had told her story publicly only once, to the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project in 1999.
“I didn’t want to tell it. What for? There were so many stories — mine was not missing,” she said. But at her daughter’s urging, she agreed to be interviewed by the Journal.
“I’m glad that I did it,” Sonja said. “I’m old. I’m 90 years old.”