Rachel’s Story

In early 1939, when Rachel was ten years old, Mr. and Mrs. Dershowitz decided that they had to leave Limanowa because of the escalating antisemitism in the town. They saw how their neighbors stopped shopping at Jewish-owned stores, and realized that it was becoming impossible to continue making a living. It was already hard enough for the family to make ends meet, so Mr. Dershowitz sold his leather store and the family moved to Gorlice, another small town in Poland, where Rachel’s aunt lived.

After six months of unemployment in Gorlice, Mr. Dershowitz decided to move once again. His mother, Rachel’s grandmother, lived in Frysztak. He decided to take Rachel and her two younger sisters with him to Frysztak, while Mrs. Dershowitz and Rachel’s older sister remained behind to care for their apartment in Gorlice. They said goodbye to one another, thinking that they would see each other again soon enough, and joined the masses of people at the train station.

“She said, ‘Don’t cry. We will reunite. This will pass.’”
—Rachel Dershowitz

Mr. Dershowitz and the girls boarded the train, but after only a day of travel, on September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, and the train was suddenly bombed by German airplanes.

Mr. Dershowitz tried to get his three young daughters out of danger immediately, continuing to travel East by any means available, away from the invading German army. The family left the train and began walking through fields. They saw a lot of destruction as they fled. They later were able to join others on trucks, carts and carriages as they passed through various towns. Local Jews in these areas gave them food and shelter until Rachel’s family eventually made it safely to the city of Kolomyja, in the part of Poland that was now under Soviet control as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact . Mrs. Dershowitz and Rachel’s older sister, Bronka, remained in the part of Poland occupied by Nazi Germany.

Without her mother or older sister, Rachel was the oldest girl, so she had to help look after her younger sisters. The girls were terribly homesick. Her youngest sister, Chanka, cried constantly for her mother and refused to eat. Mr. Dershowitz missed his wife, as well.

Rachel’s mother, Lea Dershowitz.
Rachel’s mother, Lea Dershowitz.

One night, while Mr. Dershowitz was out, Soviet soldiers came through the door and announced to the children that they were being transferred to a better place. They told the girls that they would be able to go back to school. The girls started to cry for their father, but the soldiers took them by force. Later that evening, Mr. Dershowitz found the girls crying for him at the train station. He had arrived with some food and managed to join them just in time, before the train started moving away, taking them even farther from their loved ones. Rachel was 12 years old.

The girls and their father were completely uncertain of where they were heading. During the night, the trains would stop briefly and the soldiers would bring buckets of soup to the passengers. This was their only food. Because no one was able to wash their clothes or hair, lice were rampant. It was a miserable journey. Finally, after two months of traveling under these conditions, the trains arrived in an icy, wooded area called Siberia.

In the camps in Siberia, each family had their own small room with a table, a chair, and beds made of wooden planks, and several families shared a common kitchen. Every able-bodied person was immediately sent to do various types of work. In the mornings, Mr. Dershowitz showed his permit to leave the camp and then walked to the nearby village to sew leather for shoes. Rachel went to do work in a saw-mill, while her younger sisters had responsibilities back at the camp.

“Who walks in the woods alone at night?”
—Rachel Dershowitz

Conditions were very difficult in the camps in Siberia, and everyone was weakened by the hardships. When Zvetla suddenly caught pneumonia, Mr. Dershowitz was frustrated and despondent about his inability to care for his sick daughter. He was losing his strength from day to day. Now, Rachel found herself taking care of both her sisters, as well as her father. On her own, Rachel resourcefully devised a successful plan, selling her few personal belongings, a ring and her father’s watch, in order to buy the necessary medicine to treat her sister’s pneumonia.

During this time, the family managed to make contact with Mrs. Dershowitz. Rachel and her sisters were so relieved to hear from their mother, though they cried terribly when they received her letter. It had been such a long time since they had last seen her. The letter came with a package of some clothing for the girls. This was the very last time they ever heard from their mother or sister, and they never truly learned what was to be their fate back in occupied Poland.