We recently had the opportunity to speak with Janet Singer Applefield, a child survivor of the Holocaust. In part one of our interview, we learned how the invasion of Poland disbanded her family. Today, Janet continues her story of survival and shares her hopes for the next generation.
Janet, when we left off, your father was taken to the Krakow ghetto and your mother was brutally killed. What happened next?
Maria had an apartment in Krakow. I remember staying there very well, because there would be times when she would lock the door, and go out in the evening, and lock me in. There was no electricity in the apartment, so I was really scared. One day, there was a knock on the door, and when Maria opened it there was an SS officer standing there. He marched in, and said he had an order to search the apartment to see if she was hiding any Jews. He ransacked the whole apartment. He turned furniture over. He came up to me and he… held up one of my braids and he asked who I was, what my name was. Maria said that I was her niece, [and] that she was taking care of me because her sister was sick. He looked at me with steely… eyes and he turned around and left. [I] distinctly remember what he looked like – he was blond, blue eyes, and he was wearing shiny black boots that came up to his knees. I can still hear the clicking of his heels as he descended the stairs.
My father was living in the ghetto, and every morning at 4 o’clock he and other prisoners were marched to a local cable factory. My father worked on… an assembly line making electrical cables. He kept a photo of me in front of him. It was the only reason he wanted to live – knowing that he gave me away, and he had to survive, knowing that he had to find me. [He] knew he had to make transfer arrangements [for me], because Maria said she could not keep me indefinitely – she was obviously risking her own life. He was able to get in touch with a cousin who was living on falsified Polish papers, and she agreed to take me.
[M]y care was transferred… to my cousin, a young woman in her early twenties. My father gave her every bit of [his] money… and she was able to obtain a birth certified from a Catholic priest, of a little Polish Catholic girl who died. My cousin was very young…very confident, very brazen. She was [also] very mean and cruel to me. She used to beat me with a fireplace poker. One time, she beat me so severely that all my fingernails turned black and got infected, and all my nails fell off. [Another] time, she threw me in the river [and] told me to swim. I almost drowned – I couldn’t swim. There would be times when she would go out and leave me on the front stoop, lock the door, and I would be sitting there all day long, hungry and cold.
I used to have to take these very big and heavy boxes to the post office [for my cousin]. I could barely carry them. I didn’t know at the time what was inside those boxes, but later on I found out that my cousin had a Polish boyfriend that used to come and visit with her, and he had a shoe factory, but behind the shoe factory they were making ammunition. [My cousin] was in the Polish resistance, so inside those boxes were shoes and boots, and…all types of armaments: guns, bullets, and grenades. And I was mailing these all over Poland to other resistance groups.
One day [my cousin] told me she was going to the city to meet her boyfriend, and she took me with her. When we arrived, she took me into a church and told me to sit and wait for her. So I sat and I waited for her, and waited, and waited, and waited, and she never returned for me. I finally walked out of the church… the whole street was cordoned off. I heard that the Gestapo had been alerted – someone told them there had been a meeting of the resistance, and [they] came and arrested everyone.
Here I was, 7 years old, and I didn’t know what to do. I was walking up and down the street, crying, and suddenly a woman came up to me and asked what was wrong. I told her that my cousin was gone, she was arrested, and I asked her [to take me to the bus]. She said “No, no, no, you’re too little” and she took me… to the apartment of a woman named Alicia.
I had a story that I had to tell, in case I was ever captured. My story was that I was the daughter of a Polish officer, and that both my parents were from Warsaw, and they were killed in a bombing raid, and I was being taken care of by my cousin who was now arrested. Alicia accepted my story and said I could stay. But I couldn’t stay right there in that apartment, for three reasons: one was that there was an SS officer living in the building and they were afraid; another reason was Alicia’s mother was very active in the resistance, and her apartment had all types of ammunition and shortwave radios, and [even] a hospital; and the third was that the Gestapo always returned after they made an arrest.
That evening, her older son took me … to a farm that was owned and operated by the Catholic Church. So I remained on the farm. I remember one time, we had just killed a pig [which at the time was illegal], and in the kitchen there was one big mess because we were… making sausages, and suddenly there was a knock on the door. Someone came to tell us that the Gestapo was on the way, because they came quite often to pick up cheese, butter, eggs, whatever. Very quickly they cleaned everything up [and] hid everything in the attic. When [the Gestapo] came, I was really scared. I’m not sure what made me do this, but I said, “Give them vodka,” and I started to dance and sing, and they were drinking and laughing, and finally they left.
When the war ended, my cousin’s father found out where I was, and he came to get me. And although I really didn’t want to go, because I was afraid of him, the family [on the farm] didn’t feel that they had a big enough right to keep me. So I left with him, but he actually didn’t keep me. He turned me over to the refugee center in Krakow, with a whole bunch of kids. I was 10 years old.
Every day there were lists posted on the wall with names of survivors. There was a woman – her name was Lena – [who] came every day looking at the list for her family. And she came across this room full of children, and made a decision that she had to do something for [us]. We were in one big room, and we were well-fed and safe, but they didn’t really know what to do with all of us – there were about 70 of us. And so in time, [Lena] was able to open two orphanages. I remember the night we left to go to the orphanage. We had to leave in the middle of the night because anti-Semitism was so severe after the war; there were men and women picketing in front of the refugee enter, carrying hateful slogans, that all Jews should have been killed. So we left in the middle of the night. We climbed into these trucks. [O]ne of the trucks went to an orphanage for children that had tuberculosis – many [of our group] did.
I ended up living in [the other] orphanage. I was always afraid that the home would be attacked. [Lena] was able to obtain ammunition, and the older children were trained [to use it]. One night, a Polish woman knocked on our door to tell us the home was going to be attacked, so the children took their positions [onto] the roofs and on the balconies, and they waited. In the middle of the night, Polish men [came] on horseback. They were carrying torches… and they were shooting at the home, but the children were able to defend [it].
One day, Lena called me down to her office, and said “I have news for you. Your father has survived.” She had gone to Krakow to pick up some provisions, and she overheard a man asking about his child. She asked him to describe what his daughter looked like, and when he did, she said “I think I have your daughter.” I always remember the reunion with my dad, because when I first saw him I was so scared of him. He looked like a skeleton. I hadn’t seen him for about 3 and-a-half years. He was hugging and kissing me and telling me he was going to take me away, and I really didn’t want to go.
He couldn’t really take me right away because he was so sick, so he rented a room nearby. He got stronger, and in time he took me and we went back to our town, and we lived with a few of [his] friends who survived. But we were unsafe there, too. There were notes posted on our door saying we would be murdered. Several of my father’s friends were murdered after the war. My father went to the police chief asking for protection, and the… chief said that all he could do was give my father a gun. [I]t became clear that we had to leave that town. We moved to Krakow, which was safer because it was a big city, but it became clear to my father that we really needed to leave.
It took two years for us to get the proper documentation. My father had two brothers – one in Palestine, the other in the States – and he asked me where I wanted to go. I said I wanted to go to America, because I had heard money grew on trees. In time, we got documents from our distant family who lived in New Jersey. We came to the States March of 1947. I was … almost 12 years old.
When my uncle took me to school in the United States, he took me into the office and said, “What name do you want? You have to have an American name.” I thought for a moment and I came up with the name Jeannette because I remembered we had a French cousin who lived in Paris and used to come to visit, and her name was Jeannette. She was very beautiful and glamorous, and she had long red nails! So, I said “Jeannette,” and my uncle said, “In English, it’s Janet.”
Why is it important for anybody to reflect and remember on the Holocaust, and what does Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, mean to you?
The Holocaust was the most heinous crime in the history of the world, so we must remember it so that we don’t allow it to happen again.
People make choices, but choices make history. I am a witness to history, and the people who hear me also become witnesses.
What are your hopes for the next generation?
I hope they will perpetuate the legacy of the Holocaust. I know that my children and grandchildren will continue my legacy. I visit many schools, and I ask the students for a special favor: I ask them, how many of you will be able to tell my stories to others? Most often the kids all raise their hands. I thank them, and say because they heard my story they are witnesses to history. I urge them to think about the choices they make because even the smallest acts of kindness have a ripple effect.
What can people who read this blog do to get involved in Holocaust education and remembrance?
They can contact Facing History and Ourselves. They offer many workshops. They also have a great reference library, and they’re very willing to lend out of that library.
They can also contact the Holocaust Center, Boston North, at Salem University, which also has programs. Teachers or any group can request Holocaust speakers for their organizations or schools.
In addition to speaking to the next generation, what are other things you do to pass down your story?
I do some volunteer work in Bay State Prison, and I’ve spoken to prisoners about the Holocaust. I’ve done some work in the court system, juvenile courts, and I’ve worked with perpetrators of hate crimes. But I mostly speak at schools. I enjoy the middle schools because the kids ask questions, and they’re very open.
Want to continue the legacy of those who perished in the Holocaust?
Join us on Sunday, April 12 at 10:30 a.m. in Faneuil Hall for JCRC’s Community Holocaust Commemoration of Yom HaShoah.
Janet Singer Applefield earned her Masters of Social Work at Boston University. As a clinical social worker, she has counseled a wide variety of patients, and she currently provides psychotherapy and behavioral management services to patients at nursing homes. In addition to her public speaking engagements, she is writing a memoir chronicling her experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust. Janet has three children and five grandchildren. She lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
You can contact Janet Singer Applefield at www.janetapplefield.com.