History came calling to the Kentlands Clubhouse on June 14 when Holocaust survivor Sylvia Perlmutter Rozines lent a voice to her story vividly captured in the book “Yellow Star,” written by her niece, Jennifer Roy.
Born in 1935, Rozines was four-and-a-half years old when the Germans invaded her birthplace of Lodz, Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Lodz was the second largest Jewish community in prewar Poland, and an important center for industry. Six years later, on Jan. 19, 1945, Rozines was on the cusp of her 10th birthday when the Soviets liberated the Lodz ghetto. More than 160,000 Jews had been isolated in the city’s northeastern section; only about 800 remained. “Of the 800, a handful of children survived, and I was one,” Rozines said.
With courage and grace, she shared a montage of memories sequencing her life as a young child in the German-occupied ghetto. “It was a happy time before the war, we had a good life. My mother was a great cook and we had beautiful clothes and toys, so this is why we had so many things to sell for money and food.”
“Life was very sad (in the ghetto),” said Rozines. “Even the birds didn’t come because there was no food on the ground, nothing to eat.” The effects of starvation, disease and overcrowding are reflected in “Yellow Star” where apartments cramped with multiple families are described as “boxes of grief and fear,” and Rozines, a growing girl, ponders, “I have my eighth birthday while in hiding and then my ninth. Time goes on, and so do we.” Rozines said people still hoped, “It’s not going to last long. The will of living was how to survive.”
“When the Germans took the children away with the propaganda that they were going to camps, many parents gave the children because they couldn’t watch them starve,” said Rozines. Rations such as “a little soup, which was mostly water, and a piece of bread” were given to workers and “sometimes, by the time your turn came, the food was gone.” In the wintertime it was very tough. … They stopped giving us coal, so we used some furniture at the end in the oven” for fuel.
“Life was very hard. Young boys ages 12 or 13 had the job to pick up the bodies. I saw many bad things like the mothers giving up the children.” Parents were told they could keep one child and were ordered to decide which, boy or girl, would be given away. “My father hid the boy behind the armoire and told him to stay there. Then my father imitated a German and ordered everybody to come out. The boy remained in place. This family survived.”
“I had a very courageous father,” said Rozines. “I’m sitting here because my father saved my life many, many times.” Isaac Perlmutter sought a variety of hiding places to protect his family because “the Germans used to find the places,” said Rozines. Near their apartment’s backyard was a cemetery where her father dug a hole and hid her covered with grass for 24 hours. She said she started to cry, “‘I don’t want to die.’ I lived in fear all the time wondering ‘when are they going to come and grab me?’”
When the Germans decided to liquidate the ghetto, Rozines said everyone was told they could take one bottle of water and one belonging. “So, they chose 800 people. The leader was a very horrible man. He did the selection of who would stay and who would go. We didn’t know anything, but my father had a premonition at the last minute about going to the train. He had investigated a cellar, a place to hide.” She and others hid in the cellar for “a period of time.” After the ghetto was liberated, her father “paid someone to get us across the border into Germany” and Roy writes, they “remained in a detainment camp for a few months … received permission to go to Paris, France … where Sylvia spent her teenage years.” Rozines came to America in 1957.
A fence crowned with barbed wire cordoned off the ghetto. Rozines smiled as she recalled the stark contrast on the other side of the fence of geraniums at an apartment window. “I said to myself, ‘One day, when I’m liberated, I’m going to have flowers, if I survive.’” To this day, on Mother’s Day every year, her son brings her a pot of geraniums.
During the question and answer period, resident Jacob Opper stood up and said, “Sylvia, your story is mine.” Opper was six years old when he and his family fled Poland and were ultimately deported to Siberia when they refused to become Russian citizens. “We knew we could never leave Russia if we became citizens.”
Attendee Mina Parsont said, “I was one of the hidden children too.” It was many years before she could talk about her experiences because nightmares would come, but she said it is important to speak “because in order to understand history you have to know not only the present, but also the past and never forget.” Kentlands resident Mel Swerdloff reflected, “Everybody’s story is different, but they’re all the same—they all survived.”
“When I came to America, I put away my story like you put something in a drawer and you lock it,” said Rozines. She considered herself shy until her husband passed away in 1999. “I found myself by myself, and I had to take care of myself, and little by little I came out.” She started volunteering and speaking at the Holocaust Museum in D.C. A profound excerpt from “Yellow Star” reads, “I have always been shy and quiet, unlike other children … perhaps this is one reason I am still here in the ghetto. I know how to be invisible.”
Her appearance was hosted by The Village at Kentlands & Lakelands whose chair, Fran Randolph, and activities and program coordinator, Linda Natale, echoed the organization’s desire to build its membership, which provides services to seniors with the goal for seniors to feel part of the community, stay connected, and age in place.
For more information, visit www.villagekentlandslakelands.org.