Survivor: Doli Sadger Redner

Doli Offner (now Doli Redner) and her older sister, Lea, stood single file along with a group of young women at Auschwitz as Dr. Josef Mengele walked past, dispatching each with a flick of his thumb to one side or another. Lea was sent to the labor camp line and Doli to the gas chamber. Doli couldn’t move. She daydreamed about being reunited with her mother and let herself be pushed ahead by the other girls, who were crying and shoving as whips cracked down on them. Then, suddenly, she was pulled from her line and moved to Lea’s. Doli didn’t know who saved her life, but at that moment she thought, “If somebody did that for me, I’m not going to give up.” 

It was summer 1942. Doli was 13. 

Doli was born on April 2, 1929, in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), to Jakub and Toba Sadger Offner. Lea was born in 1924.

Jakub owned a hosiery factory in Chemnitz, Germany, and then a retail store, selling silk stockings, socks and gloves. 

The family lived in an apartment building they owned. For Doli, life in her Modern Orthodox family was “very, very beautiful.” She attended Jewish school and loved Shabbat, when she and her sister were allowed into the dining room, where the table was set with a white damask tablecloth and adorned with crystal, silver and her mother’s delicious food. 

In fall 1938, however, as persecutions against Jews increased, Doli’s parents sold the store and made plans to move to Palestine. They shipped their household goods ahead and awaited papers.

But on Nov. 9, in what came to be known as the nationwide pogrom of Kristallnacht, Doli heard “screaming, shouting and the splintering of glass” and sat huddled with her family in their dark apartment. Later that same night, Nazis pounded on their door and arrested Doli’s father. 

Doli, her mother and sister were forced to move to a one-room apartment in their same building. Then, one night in December 1938 or January 1939, a man came to the door and handed Doli’s mother a package. “Be gone by morning,” he said. 

The next day they took the train to Katowice, Poland, where they encountered Jakub, 50 pounds lighter and covered in boils. He had escaped from Dachau with the help of Freemasons. After several weeks in Katowice, the family went to Oswiecim, where they lived with Doli’s maternal grandfather and her mother’s two sisters. 

In early September 1939, the Germans bombed Oswiecim. German soldiers came to the house demanding the names of the Freemasons who had helped Jakub escape. Jakub soon left. The family later heard he had been shot somewhere in Poland by the Germans. 

During this time, to keep busy, Doli apprenticed to a dressmaker. 

In April 1941, the Jews of Oswiecim were loaded into cattle cars and taken to Bedzin. Doli lived in one room in the open ghetto with her mother, sister, grandfather and Tante Rosa.

One morning, at 4 a.m., banging on the door awakened Doli’s family. Two Gestapo with pointed bayonets and a Jewish policeman stood there. “Get ready,” they said. The family was marched to a town square, where selections were carried out. Doli’s grandfather and Tante Rosa were taken away. 

Doli, her mother and sister were sent back to the ghetto. Knowing the soldiers would return, they slept every night wearing two dresses and two sets of underwear. 

Soon after, again at 4 a.m., two Gestapo appeared and escorted them to the square. On the way they passed a wheat field where Jews had been hiding. The Germans had set the field on fire, and Doli remembers hearing screams. 

In the square, Doli’s mother was selected for transport to Auschwitz. Doli and Lea, meanwhile, and about 50 young women, were left in the square all night. 

The next day they were taken to Birkenau and later to Auschwitz, where Mengele made his selections. Those who passed were transported to a labor camp in Bausnitz, Sudetenland, to work in a spinning mill. 

Doli held various jobs at the mill, working alongside Czech and German townspeople, some of whom risked their lives to sneak her extra food. Still, she said, “We were starving.”

The prisoners worked six days a week, from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Every Sunday they cleaned the entire camp and washed and mended clothes. Doli had two summer dresses, two sets of underwear and a pair of leather lace-up shoes, which she wore for four years. 

A year and a half later, they were marched to Parschnitz, several miles away, and housed in an abandoned spinning mill. It was old and “full of vermin,” Doli remembers.  

They woke at 6 a.m. for roll call, which often took several hours, sometimes in snow or rain. After a cup of ersatz coffee and a slice of bread, they were marched back to Bausnitz, where they continued to work in the factory. 

In the winter of 1944/1945, work at Bausnitz ceased. They remained at Parschnitz, digging ditches and laying railroad ties. “It was very hard labor,” Doli said. They received food — a slice of bread — only on the occasional days they were selected to work. 

Then one day the gates opened, and Russian soldiers announced, “You are free.” It was May 1945. Doli was just 16. She was 5-foot-7 and weighed 70 pounds. With nowhere to go, she and Lea stayed at the camp, hiding from the Russian soldiers and eating whatever food they found. When it ran out, they traveled to Prague.

They stayed there for three months, at a YMCA that served as a displaced persons camp and then a women’s residence. 

In February 1946, with Passover coming, they went to the Jewish Agency for matzahs. A British officer heard them speaking German and asked their names. He then burst out crying. “Your father was my best friend,” he said. 

The officer arranged for Doli to go to England under a special program for children under 17. Later he helped Lea immigrate to Palestine. 

Doli arrived in England with a change of underwear, a toothbrush and a comb. She reconnected with family friends from Breslau, the Gelbards, who bought her clothes and other necessities and became her surrogate family.

Doli attended high school, secretarial school and some college and later worked for the Jewish Refugee Committee. She became a naturalized British citizen in 1952.

One Sunday in 1956, Mrs. Gelbard invited Doli for tea. There, she met Aron Redner, who had left Breslau in 1938 and joined the Royal Air Force. “The moment I met him, his fate was sealed,” Doli said. They married in a judge’s chambers three months later, on Dec. 26, 1956.

Doli had previous planned to immigrate to Canada, so she left for Montreal the next day. Aron arrived later, and they were married again, this time in a Jewish ceremony on Lag B’Omer, 1957. They adopted their daughter Tina in 1963. 

In June 1964, Doli, Aron and Tina moved to Simi Valley to be near Lea, who then lived there with her family. Doli worked as a home economics teacher at Simi Valley Adult School. Their daughter Jackie was born in 1965. 

Later, in the 1990s, Doli and Aron moved to Phoenix, this time to be closer to Tina and her family. Doli became a real estate broker. 

In 2011 the couple moved to Palm Court Retirement Living in Culver City. 

Today, Doli is 84 and she likes to take walks, play Pan and knit. She enjoys her children and three grandchildren.

In 2011, Doli published a memoir titled “1938,” which is available on Amazon. 

“Just don’t think it can’t happen to you. It can happen to anyone,” she said. 

Rebirth in Wroclaw

When Curt Fissel stomped on the glass after his wedding in the southwestern Polish city of Wroclaw, the congregation erupted into loud applause and a resounding chorus of “Mazel tov!”But the joyous response went far beyond heartfelt good wishes to Fissel and his bride, Ellen Friedland, both of Montclair, N.J.

Their emotional nuptials took place Sunday in the historic, partially reconstructed White Stork Synagogue, which just four years ago was a ruin. It was the first Jewish wedding there in 36 years, and it marked a symbolic milestone in the life of the small but reviving local Jewish community.”This is a sacred moment in Jewish history,” said Rabbi Michael Monson of Montclair’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah, who traveled to Wroclaw (pronounced VRAW-slav) from New Jersey to perform the ceremony.

“It is a statement to the world that the Jewish people, wherever we may be, are alive and well.”Fissel, a photographer, and Friedland, a political reporter for the New Jersey Jewish News, decided to marry in Wroclaw to make their personal joy a public celebration – not just of a united Jewish peoplehood, but of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland since the fall of communism a decade ago.The near-capacity congregation included as many as half of Wroclaw’s estimated 600 to 1,000 Jews, nearly 200 non-Jewish townspeople and about 30 friends and family of the bride and groom from the United States and Israel.

“I’ve never been to a synagogue and wanted to see a real Jewish wedding,” said Anna, a 19-year-old Catholic student who attended with her parents and aunt. “It was beautiful, amazing – there was more passion, love and friendship than in my church.”

Also present were representatives of local Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox churches, as well as the U.S. consul from Krakow and the German consul from Wroclaw.

Local television, radio and newspapers covered the event, which began with the signing of the ketubah – the wedding contract – and ended with a party featuring klezmer music, Israeli dancing and a kosher buffet prepared in the Jewish community kitchen.

“Our wedding is about more than a personal union bridging different lives and families,” said Friedland.”It is also about a union bridging different Jewish communities, and it is about a union bridging different times in Jewish history,” she said. “In the small marriage of two people lies an intangible, optimistic and enormous hope.”

Friedland and Fissel first came to Poland about four years ago. Like most American visitors to Poland, they expected to learn only about Jewish death: the annihilation of 3 million Polish Jews during the Holocaust; the death camps; the devastated shtetls, cemeteries and synagogues.

They were amazed to find small Jewish communities that had begun emerging, like seedlings through ashes, after the fall of communism.

Fissel, born a Christian, reclaimed his own distant Jewish roots and converted to Judaism.”My Jewish roots are seven-and-a-half generations back,” he said, “but with my conversion I reconnected my Jewish soul to Judaism.”

Their documentary film, “Poland: Creating a New Jewish Heritage,” was completed in 1997.During their work, the Jewish community in Wroclawand particularly the White Stork Synagogue became powerful symbols of the destruction and revival of Jewish life in Poland.

“Why Wroclaw? We don’t know,” said Friedland. “When we started coming to Poland, we felt the spirit of the 3 million dead Jewish souls, and they brought us here, specifically here, to this synagogue and this Jewish community, at a time when the synagogue had no roof and no floor and there was little apparent hope for the future.”

Thanks to a grant of more than $1 million from a German foundation, the synagogue has a new roof and its ground floor has been restored, though its two balconies and exterior still need reconstruction.

Before World War II, Wroclaw was part of Germany. Then known as Breslau, it was home to some 30,000 Jews, the third largest Jewish community in Germany. It was a center of the Reform movement.The neoclassical White Stork Synagogue, completed in 1829, was designed by the same architect who designed Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. The famous Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary was located across the street.

During World War II, Wroclaw’s Jews were herded into the synagogue’s courtyard before being deported to Nazi death camps. The synagogue itself was desecrated and used as a stable.

After the war, Wroclaw became part of Poland. Over the decades, the synagogue became a ruined shell.Jewish life began to revive in Wroclaw after 1989, as young people began to claim Jewish identities amid new religious, social and political freedoms.

Today, Wroclaw has Poland’s second largest Jewish community after Warsaw’s.Nearly 45 children will be enrolled next year in the Jewish school, run by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and community leaders are seeking a rabbi for the congregation.

The Jewish community took back ownership in 1996. Ambitious plans foresee turning the synagogue and the adjacent, rundown Jewish administrative buildings into a full-service Jewish community center. “It will be a real, living Jewish center,” said Kichler.