Survivor: Sidonia Lax

Early on the designated morning in December 1943, 16-year-old Sidonia Lax (née Sydonia Lewin) and her parents, Cyla and Isaac, left their bunker in the Przemysl ghetto, where they had been living for three months, and made their way to a building near one of the gates.
July 8, 2015

Early on the designated morning in December 1943, 16-year-old Sidonia Lax (née Sydonia Lewin) and her parents, Cyla and Isaac, left their bunker in the Przemysl ghetto, where they had been living for three months, and made their way to a building near one of the gates. Having heard that the ghetto would be liquidated, Cyla had devised an escape plan. The Polish policeman who patrolled that gate, a friend of Cyla, had agreed to turn his back as they passed. And Polish-Catholic friends had consented to hide them. Cyla, who knew the way, went first, with Sidonia and her father ready to follow. But as soon as Cyla crawled out the window, shots rang out.

“Run!” Isaac cried as he and Sidonia fled back to the bunker. “We were scared stiff,” Sidonia said. 

Sidonia was born on June 8, 1927, in Przemysl, Poland. The family lived in a large apartment, with two maids, a cook and a full-time governess for Sidonia. A block away was the retail store where her parents sold men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, which they manufactured. 

Although Sidonia describes her childhood as “spoiled and overprotected,” her mother made sure she learned to scrub floors, do laundry and bake. And every Friday, Sidonia delivered a bag of groceries to an impoverished Jewish family living in a basement.

In early September 1939, with the Germans heading toward Przemysl, Sidonia’s parents hired a wagon and the family set out for the Romanian border. But a few weeks later, after learning that the Russians now occupied Przemysl — having divided Poland according to the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact — they returned.

When the family arrived home, however, they discovered that the son of the poor Jewish family whom they had been feeding weekly since he was a child had commandeered their apartment. They were forced to move.

Sidonia, who had attended Polish public schools since age 7, found herself in a Russian school. Still, life continued fairly normally and her parents continued to shield her from news of the war as best they could. 

But in June 1941, Germany broke the nonaggression pact and invaded Russia, reoccupying Przemysl on June 28.

Restrictions and forced labor roundups quickly followed. 

A Jewish quarter was designated in late autumn 1941, and by March 1942, Sidonia’s family had moved there and was sharing a room with several families. 

On July 15, 1942, the ghetto was sealed, followed by more forced labor deportations and large aktions involving roundups, deportations and exterminations.

During one of the aktions, Sidonia heard the Germans coming and darted into a nearby workshop, where she climbed onto a high shelf and stacked paint cans in front of her to hide. When the SS entered, she remained there, breathless and scared. “I’m surprised they didn’t hear my heart beat,” she said. They left soon after.

Assigned to a work detail, Sidonia was given a sledgehammer and pick to smash large boulders into pebbles to be used in road construction. “My muscles were so large that I was ashamed of them,” she said. But she also noted that the work later saved her life.  “I looked strong,” she said.

As the situation became more desperate, the men in Sidonia’s family’s apartment building began working through the nights digging a bunker in the cellar. But they were unable to dispose of all the fresh dirt without arousing suspicion, so the women spread it thinly across their floors. 

The bunker, concealed behind a false wall, was the size of a small room, with a deeper hole in a corner to serve as a toilet. About 35 people, from infants to elders, lived there.

Sidonia and her parents remained underground for three months, unable to wash or change clothes. Sidonia’s skin turned yellow, and her hair crawled with lice. People chatted and took turns sleeping, but mostly, Sidonia said, “We just sat there.”

When Cyla’s escape attempt failed and she didn’t return, Isaac was distraught. A few days later, he heard that someone had smuggled apples into the ghetto, so he left the bunker to get some for his undernourished daughter. “My father never came back,” Sidonia said. 

A week later, SS dogs discovered Sidonia, now 16, and the remaining 10 or so people in the bunker. Sidonia escaped into a nearby attic, but was captured the next day and taken to jail in the ghetto’s Section A, a labor camp overseen by SS Unterscharführer Josef Schwammberger.

In the cell, which she shared with others, Sidonia heard a voice calling her through the window one day. It was Sala Friedman, whose husband, then a tailor for the Nazis, had worked with Isaac. Sala told her that Cyla had been arrested because a different policeman had been on duty that morning. Both Cyla and Isaac, who was later also arrested, had separately begged to save Sidonia. And both were shot by Schwammberger.

A few days later, a Jewish policeman, Ignace Feiner, fetched Sidonia from her cell. Sala had pleaded with him to save Sidonia and, feigning sadness, he had approached Schwammberger, explaining that his fiancée had just been locked up. The officer walked away, giving permission to Ignace to free her. Soon after, Sidonia heard gunshots and knew her cellmates all had been murdered. 

Sidonia remained in the ghetto work camp until, a few weeks later, she was transferred to the Plaszow labor camp near Krakow.

In March 1944, she was transferred to Pionki, near Radon, Poland, where she worked in an ammunition factory. There, Sidonia earned extra rations by fashioning new soles from garden hoses for the kitchen workers’ shoes. 

Three months later, Sidonia was taken to Auschwitz, where she was processed, given a sack-like uniform and tattooed with No.  A-14821. 

In August 1944, Sidonia was transferred to Bergen, where she helped set up tents. Then, in early November 1944, Sidonia was transported to Elsnig, a Buchenwald subcamp near Torgau, Germany. There, she worked 12-hour shifts in an ammunition factory, filling grenades with chemicals. 

But as American forces approached in April 1945, the prisoners were loaded onto a freight train and evacuated. When the train stopped in Potsdam, outside Berlin, however, the Allies bombed it, assuming it was carrying ammunition. With the train and her uniform on fire, Sidonia jumped from her car. “I tumbled in the grass and squelched the fire,” she said. 

Sidonia, along with three other escapees, walked to a German farm where the farmer, unaware they were Jewish, gave them clothes and food. Soon, they were liberated by Russian soldiers. 

Sidonia made her way to Bytom, Poland, where she worked in a hospital as a nurse’s assistant and where her cousin and only surviving relative, Artek Engelhart, found her. They returned to Przemysl.

Eventually, Sidonia and Artek, along with other survivors, traveled to Neu Freiman, a displaced persons camp near Munich. Sidonia lived there until Artek contacted her uncle, Samuel (Muli) Liebshard, her mother’s brother, who lived in L.A.

Sidonia arrived in Los Angeles in March 1947, living with her aunt and uncle above Sunset Boulevard in what is now West Hollywood. She attended Belmont High School for three months and then took night classes to become a medical laboratory technician, working at two laboratories and then Temple Hospital. 

Sidonia met Lewis Lax first at a Mizrachi Organization dance and again, in late summer 1948, at Highland Springs Resort in Beaumont, Calif. After he bought a car, they started dating regularly and married on Jan. 16, 1949. 

Sidonia and Lewis’ daughter Genie was born in October 1949, followed by daughter Irene in May 1953 and son Bernard in October 1956. 

Lewis first worked as a dental laboratory representative. In 1955, he founded Classic Creations, a knitwear business in downtown L.A. Sidonia worked with him.

The couple closed the business in 1982, and Lewis died in 1994. 

Sidonia is now 88, a grandmother of six and great-grandmother of two. She began telling her story to schoolchildren in 1991 and she continues to speak. She has also gone on nine March of the Living trips, including one last spring.

Sidonia attributes her survival to the common sense inherited from her mother and the strength acquired crushing boulders. But throughout the war, she mostly worried, “Do I have a full stomach and will I live another day?”

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