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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Survivor: Adela Manheimer

“Who wants to go home?” the SS soldiers asked the 500 women who had just been delivered to Grünberg/Schlesien, a forced labor subcamp of Gross-Rosen in Lower Silesia. Adela Manheimer, née Kestenberg, an only child who, in her words, was “naïve and upset and sick for my parents,” raised her hand. An SS soldier armed with brass knuckles proceeded to beat her. She fell to the ground, her body swollen, especially around her eyes, but she managed to stand up, knowing that if she didn’t, she would be carted away. It was February 1942, and Adela was 20 years old. 

Adela was born on June 21, 1921, to Wolf and Eleanor Kestenberg in Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland. Ten years before her birth, her parents had lost two children, ages 12 and 13, within a week from tonsillitis.

Adela’s father was a tailor and fabric salesman who owned his own shop. Adela remembers he was always collecting money for the poor, especially on Purim. 

The family, middle class and very religious, lived in an apartment. Adela attended Bais Yaakov in Dabrowa until she was 15 and then a private accounting school in Bedzin, four miles away. “I was spoiled,” Adela said. “I had everything.”

The Germans entered Dabrowa in early September 1939. Adela, then living at home and assisting in her father’s business, looked out the window and saw the town engulfed in flames, including the nearby shul. A Polish girl who worked for the family began emptying out drawers in their home. Adela confronted her. “If you say one more word, I will go to the Germans,” she answered. 

The family tried to live as normally as possible, Adela said, but “every day we were sitting and waiting for what was next.” 

After several months, Adela was working seven days a week sewing uniforms for German soldiers. She understood that this job would save her from being shipped to Germany. 

During this time Adela attended a party at a friend’s house in Bedzin, where she met Wolf Manheimer. In late January 1942, the two families celebrated Adela and Wolf’s engagement at Adela’s house in Dabrowa. 

Wolf’s parents planned an engagement party at their house in Bedzin a week later. But that day, Saturday, Feb. 7, 1942, Adela and the other young women in the workshops were rounded up and marched to waiting trucks. Adela’s mother came running, trying to slip her daughter a piece of cheesecake, but she was spotted by an SS soldier and beaten.  

The women were taken to Sosnowiec and held in a building for one or two days. From an upstairs window Adela saw her mother standing outside, crying. She later learned that both her parents were shipped to Auschwitz. 

From Sosnowiec, the women were transported to Grünberg, where Adela worked 12-hour night shifts weaving blankets for the Wehrmacht. Once a day, the prisoners were given some bread, a piece of butter and watery soup. “If you were lucky enough to find a little piece of potato in your soup, you saved it for a second meal,” Adela said. 

On Sundays, the young women didn’t work. Instead, Adela said, they “fought with vances (bedbugs).” They also endured selections as SS soldiers lined them up and counted them off by 10s, with every 10th woman dispatched to Auschwitz. “Many times, I was number nine or 11,” Adela said.

One day, unable to work because a bedbug in her ear was creating a painful ringing, Adela visited the medical clinic. A German nurse reported to an SS soldier that she was lazy, and the soldier, wearing a large finger ring, beat her up. 

At the end of January 1945, with the Soviet forces approaching, Grünberg was evacuated and the prisoners forced on a death march. In the bitter cold, Adela walked in thin clothes and only one shoe and carried a ragged pillow, her only belonging. At night the women slept in fields, even in the rain, or in barns. With no food, Adela sometimes ate grass.

One day, with her feet so swollen she could hardly walk, Adela hid inside a dog house, where an SS soldier found her. “Dirty Jew,” he said, holding a small gun to her head. “If you want to run away, why do it in the daytime?” Adela waited for him to shoot, saying to herself, “Shema Yisrael, shema Yisrael.” When he abruptly ordered her back to the line, she ran, dropping her pillow on the way. She saw him coming after her and began shaking. He handed her the pillow and left. 

On March 6, 1945, the group stopped at Helmbrechts, a subcamp of Flossenbürg. “It was a terrible place,” Adela recalled. On April 13, the death march resumed. 

The group arrived in Volary, Czechoslovakia, on May 3, 1945. Adela, along with about 30 prisoners who were incapable of walking, were loaded onto a truck. “We were taken to be killed,” Adela said. But American planes bombed the truck, and pieces of shrapnel pierced the pregnant SS woman sitting next to Adela, killing her. 

In the chaos, Adela forced a friend from Dabrowa, Tzipora Magerkewitz, to jump off the truck with her. They walked through a field and came to a small lake. “I couldn’t swim. I had to take a chance,” Adela said. They walked in, discovering the water rose only to their chins. They then crossed through woods, where snow still covered the ground. 

They learned from a German man passing by that 18 girls from the truck had been shot. 

Eventually they walked toward the mountains, where they ran into French POWs who helped them. On May 5, which marked the end of the war, the POWs carried them to a makeshift hospital the American Army had set up. Adela weighed 77 pounds. “They gave us farina; they built us up,” she recalled.

Weeks later, Adela and Tzipora went to Salzburg. From there, Adela traveled to the Foehrenwald displaced persons camp where her fiancé’s brother found her. She was eventually reunited with Wolf at the Feldafing displaced persons camp. 

“You’ll never be happy, because I’m sick,” Wolf told Adela. He had been shot by the SS when he tried to escape from a cattle car and was shipped to Mauthausen, where he was beaten every day. But Adela would hear none of that: “I will never leave you. It’s going to be Ruth and Naomi,” she answered, referring to the biblical story. 

Wolf spent time in a sanitorium in nearby Gauting, where Adela cared for him and also assisted 12 other survivors, cooking extra food and mending their clothing. 

After Wolf had partially recovered, he and Adela, in a borrowed dress and veil, were married in Feldafing on March 30, 1947. Their son Aron was born on Jan. 29, 1948. 

Wolf spent more time in Gauting, but he also needed surgery, so they left for Heidelberg and, later, Munich. 

In 1951, Adela, Wolf and Aron immigrated to the United States, arriving in Cleveland on Sept. 7. Their daughter, Rose, was born on June 4, 1953, and the family moved to Los Angeles in 1959. 

Adela worked at various jobs, retiring in 1972. Wolf, who never recovered from his war injuries, died in 1984. 

Today, Adela is 92 and participates in Jewish Family Service’s Café Europa and UCLA Hillel’s Bearing Witness program. She also writes poetry and takes classes at the Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center. She also enjoys her family, including six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, who call her every Friday.

In 1995, Adela took her son and daughter to Czechoslovakia for a 50th anniversary commemoration of Germany’s defeat. 

“It was the best thing I ever did in my life, to show my children where I was liberated,” she said. 

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