Anne Levy and Lila Millen
Two Sisters in the Warsaw Ghetto
“She wasn’t only my guardian, but she was my best friend and still is, because we only had each other. That’s all we had.”
– Lila, describing her sister Anne
Mark Skorecki and Ruth Tempelhof were married in Lodz, Poland, on September 1, 1931, eight years to the day before the outbreak of war. Anne was their first child. She was born on July 2, 1935, a year and six months after Hitler took power in Germany. Lila was born on November 15, 1937.
Life Before the War
Mark and Ruth Skorecki were assimilated Jews. They spoke Polish fluently and without a “Jewish accent.” They dressed in the modern style. They were familiar with Polish culture. All of this proved decisive in 1943, when the family lived “illegally” on the “Aryan side” of Warsaw, “passing” as Poles. But Anne’s physical appearance endangered the family. As she explains, “I’m olive complexioned and have dark, curly hair. My sister was fair, she still is, and had lighter hair. She looked very Polish. And I looked Jewish.”
Mark’s family had worked in the lumber business for several generations. The name Skorecki was well-known in that trade. Mark was quiet and serious. Small talk was not for him. His talents were many. He was an engineer, an architect, a house builder, and a furniture maker. He loved working with wood. He could make anything. He had “golden hands.” Ruth recalled long after the war: “My mother always told me, ‘Mark is a good man to marry. He will take care of you through it all.’”
Ruth was very different from her husband. She was outgoing and socially ambitious. She dressed fashionably and took elaborate care of her good looks. Material items were important to her, and self-esteem was no stranger. Her courage (and acting ability) emerged during the war. She was always one step ahead of the Nazis and their collaborators. As Lila says, “My mother was always thinking of tomorrow.”
Lodz was a large industrial city (textiles) located near the German border. The population consisted of Jews, Poles, and Germans. Poverty was widespread, but the Skoreckis enjoyed an upper middle class existence. They lived in an apartment on Legionow (Zielona today). The towering “German synagogue” (reform) was directly across the street. Before the war, Anne says, “the most pleasant time that I remember is Sunday afternoons with my father, going for ice cream, and balloons, and enjoying things that children enjoyed.” Lila was too young to remember life before the war. She didn’t know she was Jewish. Anne didn’t have that advantage. When the war came, she was old enough to know that being Jewish was something she had to hide.
September 1, 1939
Anne was 5 years old and Lila almost 2 when the war began. Mark was among the Jewish men who fled Lodz to escape the Germans. He didn’t think the Germans would harm the women and the children. Their behavior during the First World War had been harsh but “correct.” When the Russians attacked Poland on September 17th, Mark found himself trapped on the Soviet side of the new border. Ruth was left alone in Lodz with the two girls. She assumed Mark was dead.
The Germans occupied Lodz on September 7, 1939. The Volksdeutsch wasted no time in robbing and tormenting the Jews and the Poles. On November 13, 1939, the Nazis torched the “German synagogue.” Anne caught a glimpse of the conflagration: “My first memories of that, the beginning of war, is when everybody in the house that was there was very upset crying and looking out the window. Out of curiosity I did too.”
The terror wasn’t limited to Jews. The Germans wanted to destroy Polish nationalism. Polish priests were ordered to take sledge hammers and demolish the Kosciusko monument on Liberty Square. The Germans grew impatient and dynamited the monument. The Polish population in the region was uprooted and expelled. The region was renamed Wartheland and attached to Reich. The German occupiers were wild with fury and sadism from the very start. Mark’s mother Natalia was killed on the street when a German automobile purposely struck her. Jews were registered and ordered to wear the Star of David patch (front and back). These were initial steps leading to the ultimate goal of annihilation. Anne watched her mother sewing the Star of David patch on their clothes: “That’s when the difference began. That’s when I felt we were different. And being Jewish was something that caused grief. And, you know, was just part of the struggle that began.”
In March 1940, Ruth and the two girls were summarily expelled from the family apartment with “two little suitcases” and ordered into the ghetto. But first Ruth had to prepare the apartment for the new occupants: German officers. The ghetto, located in a filthy and dilapidated neighborhood, was the first Nazi ghetto created in Nazi-occupied Poland. It would be second in population (behind the Warsaw ghetto) and endure the longest (until August 1944). Forty-six thousand people died in the Lodz ghetto. The rest were transported to a nearby village named Chelmno and murdered in gas vans.
A paid courier named Zilberberg appeared in the ghetto. He was searching for Ruth. Mark had sent him from the Russian zone. Based on the photograph Mark had given him, Zilberberg recognized Ruth on the street. Mark wanted she and the children to join him in Bialystok, in the Russian half of Poland. This was, of course, on the other side of a forbidding border. With Zilberberg’s help, Ruth and the girls slipped out of the ghetto in a garbage truck. “We left with a big scar in our hearts,” Ruth recalled many years later. “We were the garbage this time.”
After a harrowing journey across Poland (an SS man opened fire on them), Ruth and the girls arrived at the German-Russian border (near Treblinka, then a mere village). The border was heavily guarded and impossible to cross. Meanwhile, Lila fell desperately ill. Ruth changed plans. She reversed direction and took the girls to Warsaw, where her brother Henry Tempelhof lived with his wife Mery Mejnster. He was the office manager at Czyste Hospital, the famous Jewish hospital in Warsaw. She was a surgeon.
Hitler Invades Russia
Once the Germans invaded Russia on June 22, 1941, Mark was finally able to make his way Warsaw. He arrived (on a Saturday) in December 1941. He slipped into the ghetto and found Ruth and the girls. He hadn’t seen them in over two years. They were starving. Anne, 6 years old at the time, describes when her father reentered her life: “And I remember my father saying that when he saw us he was afraid to touch us. He was afraid to touch us because we looked so frail.”
Lila was 4 years old when her father returned: “And he came in and she [mother] was telling me that’s my father. I said, ‘Who is that man.’ She says, ‘That’s your father.’ I said ‘No it’s not,’ because I didn’t remember him.”
The ghetto was sealed on November 15, 1940. “A wave of evil rolled over the city as if in response to a nod from above,” wrote the Jewish historian Emmanuel Ringelblum in his diary. Five hundred thousand Jewish people were surrounded by brick walls topped with barbed wire. Germans, with Polish and Jewish police, stood guard. One fourth of the ghetto population would die of starvation. Anne remembers corpses lying on the sidwalk: “And they would cover up the body with a newspaper and take whatever possession this poor soul had.”
The Germans operated factories in the Warsaw ghetto that produced goods for the war effort. With his “golden hands” and organizing abilities, Mark was appointed a foreman in Schultz’s factory producing wooden soles for concentration camp prisoners. The Volksdeutscher manager became dependent on Mark to meet production quotas. This connection was very important. Mark got word of round-ups before they happened.
Deportations to Treblinka
On July 2, 1942, three weeks before the “great action” in the ghetto, Anne turned 7. Lila was 4.
On July 22nd, the Nazis and their collaborators, including the despised Jewish police, began the round-up and deportation of the Warsaw Jews to Treblinka. Jews were marched to the Umschlagplatz (loading place) and loaded onto cattle wagons for the seventy kilometers journey. Adam Czerniakow, head of the Judenrat (Jewish Council), scribbled a note, “I am powerless, my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I cannot longer bear all this. My act will show everyone the right thing to do.” He then committed suicide.
In this most dangerous hour, Mark’s “golden hands” were crucial. He constructed a hiding place in the bottom of “a vegetable bin” (a potato bin, actually) and equipped it with “two little benches” and a “potty.” When Mark and Ruth left for the twelve hour shift at Schultz’s factory, they hid the girls in this “vegetable bin.” Anne remembers the sound of the Germans and their collaborators as they entered the building, “and you could hear them walking up the stairs. And they came into the room, you could hear them talking, and yet we weren’t found.”
Lila describes hiding under a stack of wooden soles in Schultz’s factory and in the basement of a building: “The Germans used to come with their boots, you know how they walk, and with their dogs sniffing…They could smell us but we were hiding some place where they couldn’t get to us, so it’s by a miracle that we’re here.”
Who Saved Whom?
Historian Lawrence N. Powell, in his book Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, The Holocaust And David Duke’s Louisiana, makes this point: Mark and Ruth rescued the two girls, and the two girls rescued Mark and Ruth. How? Anne and Lila gave their parents a reason not to give up. Two reasons, actually. Anne shares her thoughts regarding this seeming paradox:
Escape to Aryan Side
In January 1943, a few days before the first outbreak of fighting in the Warsaw ghetto (and three months before the Jewish uprising that began on April 19th), Mark arranged to smuggle Ruth and the girls out of the ghetto in a Polish garbage truck. Mark was helped by a former Polish soldier (possibly with Zegota, the Polish organization helping Jews) and the Volksdeutscher manager at Schultz’s factory. The necessary bribes were paid. Ruth and the girls climbed out of the garbage truck on the “Aryan side.” They were lucky. No passerby screamed “Jews!” But what a shock it was for them suddenly to be outside the ghetto and in a world that seemed almost normal. Ruth and the girls took a tram across the Vistula River to the Praga District.
Awaiting them were Katarzyana Piotrowska and her 27 year old daughter Natalia. Their apartment faced the street from the second floor of a two story building at #15 Lochowska (the building remains). The Piotrowskas knew the Skoreckis were Jewish. This was understood when the arrangements were made. The Nazi penalty for helping Jews was death, collectively applied. The Skoreckis paid the Piotrowskas for room and board. Nothing could reimburse them for their courage and humanity. The Piotrowskas warmly greeted theIR new tenants, as Ruth recounted years later: “The smile on their face warmed me and gave me new strength to start my new life.” Anne says, “Well, this is what we call the Righteous Gentiles. Lila adds, “I have a lot of respect for them [Righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust]. I think they risked their lives for the Jewish people. A lot of Jewish people wouldn’t be alive today if it wouldn’t have been for them.”
The Piotrowskas were wary of their neighbors and afraid of being denounced. They let it be known that the Skoreckis were relatives who had been displaced by the war and needed a place to stay.
Life on the Aryan Side
The Skoreckis began a new existence “passing” as Polish Catholics. Mark soon joined the family and obtained work in a nearby lumber yard. His talents were quickly recognized. The manager of the lumber yard, a Pole named Smolenski, grew to like and admire Mark. In addition, he became dependent on him.
Lila, with her blond hair and blue eyes, looked like a Polish child. Her looks raised no eyebrows. She received a prayer book and rosary beads (her first gifts) and attended church services with the Piotrowskas. Lila didn’t have to pretend to be Catholic: “I thought I was Catholic like they are, went to church with them. I had an Easter basket. I did everything they did.”
Anne had two problems. She was old enough to know she was Jewish, and her olive complexion and curly hair were unmistakably Jewish. She couldn’t leave the apartment. When neighbors knocked on the door, she hid in the armoire. Both in the ghetto and on the Aryan side, Anne was a “hidden child.”
Revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto
On April 19, 1943, three months after the Skoreckis escaped to the Aryan side, the Nazis and their collaborators marched into the ghetto with the intention of crushing the resistance. They were met by gunfire and Molotov cocktails. The assault coincided with Passover and Holy Week. As was the tradition, a carousel was set up in Krasinski Square, adjacent to the ghetto wall. Despite the burning ghetto and the sound of machine gun bursts, Poles flocked to carousel. This juxtaposition of gaiety and music on one side of the ghetto wall and flames and screams on the other was memorialized by Czeslaw Milosz in his poem Campo dei Fiori. Fighting in the ghetto lasted until May 8th. The last Jewish fighters committed suicide in a bunker under the building at Mila 18.
Betrayed on the Aryan Side
The Skoreckis lived with the Piotrowskas for ten months. At night, Ruth sat Anne on the balcony. She needed some fresh air. Ruth took the precaution of hiding Anne’s hair under a babushka. Informers were a plague in Nazi-occupied Europe. Warsaw was particularly dangerous in this regard. There were professional scoundrels who made a business out of blackmailing Jews, and there were also ordinary people who refused to look the other way. One night, as Anne tells us, a Polish woman across the street noticed her on the balcony. She threatened to denounce the Piotrowskas to the Gestapo. The penalty for harboring Jews required no explanation.
After the betrayal, Mark made arrangements with his Polish boss, a man named Smolenski, and moved the family to the lumber yard. Smolenski knew the Skoreckis were Jewish. He recognized the name from the lumber business before the war. Although a well-known anti-Semite before the war, he kept quiet. “He did,” Anne says. “He looked the other way. Not ‘til after the war did my father really know that the man knew.”
August 1, 1944
On August 1, 1944, as the Russians approached Warsaw, the Polish underground army (Home Army) rose up against the Germans. The Poles wanted to take control of Warsaw before the Russians got there. But Stalin would have none of it. The Red Army stopped on the Vistula River and waited as the Germans and their auxiliaries crushed the Polish uprising and slaughtered the civilians in Warsaw. If Hitler wanted to destroy the flower of the Polish nation, Stalin would help in any way he could. Decapitating the leadership in Poland had been the policy of both dictators since 1939. The unequal fight in Warsaw lasted until early October. The Polish fighters were sent to POW camps. The civilian population was expelled to the countryside. The Germans dynamited (nearly) every building in the city. They left a field of rubble. The Red Army crossed the Vistula and occupied the ruined city on January 18, 1945. Warsaw was rebuilt by the Communists after the war, but only the Old Town was restored to its original splendor.
Liberated by the Russians
The Skoreckis returned to Lodz once the Germans were run out. Anne was 10 and Lila 7. Anne tells us that her mother met total disbelief when she tried to register the family: “They looked at her like she was mad, because the Germans had killed a million and half children. There were no children. My sister and I were an oddity.”
Escape to Germany
had very bad experiences when he lived under the Soviets between 1939 and 1941. He was determined to get his family out of communist ruled Poland. By illegally crossing on foot into Czechoslovakia, they reached the American zone in Germany and lived for several years with a group of survivors in Tirschenreuth, Germany. In this town, near the shuttered Flossenberg concentration camp, Anne and Lila enjoyed what remained of childhood. Mark and another survivor built a bus out of scrap and started a bus company (EzKa, it’s still there). Mark’s “golden hands” continued to work miracles. As for the other survivors in Tirschenreuth, Ruth observed: “These were Hitler’s leftovers. To tell the truth, we were all invalids and all had our sicknesses.” Ruth gave birth to Adam in October 1948. His arrival meant the Skorecki name would go on. He became the focus of Ruth’s attention and aspirations.
Telling Lila the Truth
Lila, “passing” as a Pole for two years in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, had unconsciously absorbed the Jew-hatred of that time and place.
Lila tells us how she reacted when her father told her she was Jewish: “I said, ‘What is Jewish?’ I had no idea.”
Arriving in New Orleans
The Skoreckis arrived in New Orleans in November 1949. Their boat docked at the wharf on Poland Avenue. A few days before Thanksgiving, a reporter from the New Orleans Item interviewed the family. Ruth said, “One day is not Thanksgiving. Here it is all days. All days are good.” The newspaper’s photographer asked Lila to pose. She “automatically” knelt in prayer, as she had done on the Aryan side in Warsaw. Lila says, “I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.”
In the Deep South, where racial segregation was enforced by terror, the Skoreckis, being white, were safe. But Anne hadn’t forgotten what it felt like to be “different.” She describes her experience with Jim Crow segregation on a public bus: “…people would get on the bus much older than I, and I’d been brought up where you were supposed to give your elders your seat, you know. You’re the young one, somebody older comes in, you’re supposed to be polite, and I couldn’t do it.”
Anne married Stan Levy in 1956. They have three daughters and six grandchildren. Lila married Norman Millen in 1961. They brought two daughters into the world and have six grandchildren.
Lila says the fear she felt during the war has followed her, and she didn’t want to pass that on to her daughters: “I wanted them to have a childhood like Anne and I never had, so I really never burdened them with any of those terrible, terrible years that we went through.” Lila says that Anne was “the brave one” and her guardian: “Well, she wasn’t only my guardian, but she was my best friend and still is, because we only had each other. That’s all we had.”
In the 1960s, Ruth dictated her war-time memories to Harry Hull, a neighbor and seminarian turned law student. Sitting at Ruth’s kitchen table, he typed out the manuscript that became the basis of Lawrence Powell’s book Troubled Memory. Ruth died on July 23, 1973, thirty-one years to the day that the first transport of Jews left Warsaw for Treblinka. Mark died on May 14, 1991.
Confronting David Duke
David Duke, neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan wizard, and state legislator, ran for Louisiana governor in 1991. Anne confronted him repeatedly. He informed her that the Holocaust was “exaggerated.” Duke lost the 1991 election but won a majority of the white vote.
For many years, Anne and Lila, the rare child survivors, participated in the Southern Institute’s teacher workshops and school presentations. Anne’s message is clear: “You have to embrace, and be willing to listen to the other side. I mean, we’re all the same.”
Lila defines the “lesson” of the Holocaust:
Anne and Lila both suffered heavy damage to their homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Not for the first time, the two sisters had to start over.