Holocaust Tale

A Holocaust Survivor's Tale

Sara Apelbaum (nee Masler) lived in Horodenka with her family at 12 Myzkvize street. This is the story of how she and her family escaped the Germans and how they eventually made their way to the United States.

The story was contributed by Elke Apelbaum Savoy, who originally published it as an article in the Staten Island Advance on July 2, 1991.

Freedom Doesn't Come Easily for Some

Holocaust Survivors Trace Their Troubled Past

by Elke Apelbaum Savoy (1998)

 "I came to America to escape the bombs and the shooting. I wanted to raise my family in peace, in a country where war doesn't reach your doorstep," said Sara Apelbaum, a Holocaust survivor who, in 1949, at the age of 20, emigrated to the United States with her husband, Josef, and her infant son.

Life was difficult, at first, for this young woman who spoke no English. Three weeks after her arrival in the United States, she gave birth to her second child in Beth Israel Hospital.


From left to right: Josef and Sara (Masler) Apelbaum, Simcha, Kreisel, and Hersh Masler. The photo was taken in Szczecin, Poland, in 1946.

That child was me, and this is a story about my parents' struggle for freedom.

 "I couldn't understand what anybody was saying to me at the hospital," Sara reminisced. "They told me to get out of bed the day after I gave birth. In Germany I had to stay in bed for two weeks after I gave birth to my son. I was sure they were making a mistake, but I couldn't communicate with them."

 She was alone in the hospital when she gave birth. Her husband couldn't be with her because he didn't have 15 cents for carfare, and there were no baby sitters available for their son. Her mother was still in Germany, hoping for a visa.

 "My husband had no job. We were living at the HIAS, a refugee center in lower Manhattan, where we slept in dorms and had no kitchen. Yet none of these things could bother me," she said.

 "I had food to eat, and my life was not in danger. Finally I was in America."

Fleeing the Nazis

 Sara's journey to America was long and arduous. It began in 1941. Sara had the normal life of a 12-year old girl in Communist-occupied Horodenka, Poland.

 Then, one night in 1941, "normal life" came to a screeching halt. Rumor had it that the Germans were coming.

 Sara's father, Moishe Masler, a ranking Communist Party official, was selling stationery supplies for the Communists. He felt duty-bound to return those supplies to the Soviet Union.

 Sara's Aunt Tobe came to speak to Sara's mother, Kreisel: "Take your children and run away from here. The Nazis are killing the children of Communist collaborators. Save your children!"

 That night, as Moishe was readying the horses and loading up the wagons, Kreisel was arguing with him to take the family with him. At first he refused. He just wanted to return those supplies. Kreisel insisted. She pleaded, screamed and cried. Hours went by. Finally he agreed.

 "It was the middle of the night when my brother, Simcha, came to wake us up," Sara recalled.

 "My mother had sent Simcha, who was 13 years old, to get me and my little brother, Hersh. Hersh was 9 years old. My mother stayed by my father. She was afraid to come and get us. She was afraid he'd leave without us.

 "That was the last time I was ever in Horodenka. After the war, there was nobody left. All my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my friends...none of them survived. How could I ever look at that town again?" she declared.

 Sara and her family traveled for days and nights with the Nazis on their heels.

 "We were about to cross a bridge over the Dnieper river, when we saw that the Germans were dropping bombs. They were trying to blow up the bridge. We had no choice, so we took a chance and crossed the bridge. We were lucky because the bridge blew up right after we crossed it."

Optimism Tempers Hardships

 When they got to Russia, nobody wanted the stationery supplies. Sara laughed, "There was nobody to return them to... But in a way, those stationery supplies saved our lives..."

 Their first stop was in the Ukraine. But that was safe for only a few months. Soon they had to flee again. They traveled on open freight cars.

"If you are Jewish, and you want to live, find a stair on this train and hold onto it for dear life. The Germans are an hour away!"

 "My legs got frozen," Sara recalled, painfully. "We slept all night in the snow. But we had to travel like this. If we waited for a train with seats inside, it would have been too late. When my father asked the ticketmaster if we could get seats on the next train, he said, 'If you are Jewish, and you want to live, find a stair on this train and hold onto it for dear life. The Germans are an hour away!' We traveled nonstop for 24 hours..."

 Sara continued, "All the time that we were traveling, on the trains and in the wagons, my mother would always sing, 'Mir faren kin Amerike' (We're traveling to America). I thought my mother was delirious from starvation. She lost half her body weight by the time we got to Uzbekistan because she had been saving her food ration at each meal. When we ran out of food, she divided her share again, for us, the children.

 "But she wasn't delirious. She always believed that somehow we would get to America. In America we wouldn't have to run anymore."

Finally, They Arrive

 The Masler family arrived in Uzbekistan, where they spent the remainder of the war years.

 Life in Uzbekistan was difficult, but Sara insists, "We had it easy, compared to what the people in the concentration camps lived through. We were starving, but we weren't in prison. We didn't have to suffer the daily selections. We didn't have to stand naked for daily inspections. Our family stayed together."

 Sara's father died shortly after they arrived in Uzbekistan. He contracted dysentery. The hospital didn't have any antibiotics for him.

 "I saw him the day before he died," Sara recalled. "He asked me to bring him some food. I wasn't allowed into the hospital. He shouted to me from the window. I said I would come back tomorrow with the food. The next day my mother and I shouted for him to come to the window.

 "'Moishe!' my mother shouted. 'Moishe! Come to the window.'

 "A man came to window and said, 'Froy [Mrs.] Masler, don't shout. Your husband can't hear you anymore.'

 "'Where is he?' my mother asked.

 "'He's dead,' the man replied.

 "The bowl of food fell to the ground and broke into pieces along with our hearts and hopes," Sara sighed. "Our screams and cries could have rivaled the screams and cries of Mordecai."

 "But where is his body? I have to make a funeral," Kreisel cried in despair.

 "It's too late! He's already been buried in a mass grave," the man said quietly, as he turned and left the window.

Survived by their Wits

 What was left of the Masler family -- a 35-year-old widow and her three young children -- survived by their wits for about five years. They sold soap on the black market. They did what they could.

 "As time went on, we learned how to deal on the black market," Sara said. "Sometimes we even did well."

 "But we had some close calls, too," she continued. "My brother Simcha was tall for his age, and they kept on trying to draft him into the army." One time, they nearly succeeded.

 "Simcha came home and told us he had been unable to convince the draft officers he was too young to serve in the army. He had orders to report for induction the following morning."

 "Mama," he said, "please don't cry. I want you to take my boots. They're made of leather, and you can get a lot of money for them. Sell the boots and use the money to buy food for yourself and the other children..."

 "Simcha wrapped his feet in rags, and reported for duty," Sara continued. "He was inducted. They shaved his head and gave him a uniform. Then they noticed his feet."

 "You cannot serve in the army without boots!" the officer roared.

 "But sir, I'm poor and I don't have any," Simcha explained.

 "Young man, we have no boots to issue to you. You are officially discharged from this army. Go home," said the officer.

 Simcha was never drafted again.

 "We thought we would have such stories to tell when we would return to Poland," Sara sighed. "But there was nobody to tell them to. We don't even know how they died. Were they shot? Were they gassed? Are they maybe living somewhere and we can't find them. Who knows?"

Getting to America

 After the war ended, the journey to America began. "We had no home left for us in Poland," Sara said. "The war was over, but Jews were still being murdered. The Poles who were living in our homes were not anxious to hand over the keys to us... We decided, we have to go to America, even if we died trying."

 "I was 17 years old in 1946, when I met Joe," Sara explained. "He had family in Berlin. He said if we went to Berlin, we would be able to emigrate legally to America. Of course, crossing the border between Poland and Germany was illegal and very dangerous. The border police were shooting to kill. But Joe had a lot of experience crossing that border. He was in the smuggling business and had crossed several times successfully."

"After the war there was nobody left. How could I ever look at that town again?"

 Sara and Joe decided to give it a try. But Sara's mother insisted she would not allow her 17-year-old child to go to Berlin unmarried. It was then decided that the planned engagement party for Sara and Joe would be transformed into a wedding.

 "My wedding was a surprise to me, and to all who were invited," Sara explained. "We danced all night. Then we were afraid to let the guests go home. The streets were so unsafe. So everybody slept over; the guests, the musicians, everybody. We piled so many people into one bed that it broke."

 After a first attempt failed, the second attempt at crossing the border was also difficult. When they realized the border police had spotted them, the men retreated. They decided they would return to Poland and be prepared to bail out the women. They thought the police would be more lenient with the women.

 Sara recalls, "They threw me into a jail cell and left me there all night. The Russian soldiers were interrogating some Polish prisoners. I made up a story. I said that my mother and I had gotten separated during the war. I found out my mother was in Berlin and no matter where they send me, I will try again to get to my mother. Somehow they took pity on me. They gave me special documents and sent me off to Berlin."

 Sara continued," I went straight to the Displaced Persons camp to find my husband's family. This is how I introduced myself to my mother-in-law.

 "When she saw me, she started to shriek, 'Oh my god! They killed my son! He would never have let you come here alone!'

 "Back in Poland the same scene was repeating itself. My mother thought that I was killed because Joe returned alone."

Reunited at Last

 Finally, Joe and Sara were reunited. They spent the next two years waiting at the DP camp for their turn to go to America. During that time, they had a baby. Still they waited, and Sara got pregnant again.

 Several months later Joe, a pregnant Sara, and their infant son Moishe boarded the plane for the 11-hour flight to the United States.

 I was born one month later. I was the lucky one. The first in our family to be born in America.

 One year after that, Kreisel and her two sons arrived in the USA. Her only remaining brother, who had sponsored her, died of a sudden heart attack two weeks before she arrived.

 Kreisel felt old and worn. She had lived through so much. She was 44.

 Yet two things kept her going. She had saved her children and she had finally come to America. Her dream was realized.

Elke Apelbaum Savoy teaches English as a Second Language at an intermediate school in Brooklyn, where she has created a Holocaust education program. She lives in Cranford, New Jersey, with her husband Kenny and their sons Adam and Jonathan.

Sara Masler Apelbaum passed away March 24, 2010. She is buried at the King Solomon Memorial Park, Clifton, New Jersey, in a plot reserved by the First Horodenker Sick and Benevolent Society, where she lies near her mother Kreisel, her brother Simcha, and her landsmen.

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