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After liberation from a slave labor camp, Sally Finkelstein Horwitz and her sister returned to Poland where anti-Jewish pogroms forced them to seek refuge in Germany.
Photos and Artifacts
Bombing damage in Zwolen, Poland, September 8, 1939. Credit: Courtesy of the Regional Museum in Zwolen.
Mary Finkelstein Glick, Sally Finkelstein, Frances Finkelstein, and Leon Glick, ca. 1946. Credit: Courtesy of the Horwitz Family.
Sally Finkelstein Horwitz, Frances Finkelstein Klarfeld, and Mary Finkelstein Glick, ca. 1990. Credit: Courtesy of the Horwitz Family.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
Sally Finkelstein Horwitz was born in Zwolen, Poland, on July 12, 1928. The war broke out when she was 11. By the time she was 14, she had lost both of her parents and found herself in one of the most notorious German labor camps. Liberated when she was not yet 17, she built a new life in New Haven, Connecticut, where she arrived around her 21st birthday.
Sally’s testimony offers a harrowing account of war, senseless cruelty, and mass murder seen through the eyes of a very young girl whose childhood ended all too soon. It also shows how, in times of disaster and breakdown, the bonds of family gave people something to hold on to and live for. A key theme of Sally’s story is how three sisters stuck together, took care of each other, defied the odds, and lived to see the liberation.
Zwolen was a smallish town in central Poland near Radom. Its 7,500 inhabitants were divided almost equally between Jews and Poles. The two groups were, as one scholar put it, “intimate strangers”—separated by religion, language, and history; linked by economic ties and casual friendships. While Zwolen was not spared the rising antisemitism that gripped Poland in the 1930s, Poles and Jews lived side by side and, on the whole, without violence. Indeed, Sally’s family lived in a house owned by Poles. Sally also recalled helping a Polish neighbor decorate her Christmas tree and set the table for the traditional Christmas Eve meal, the Wigilia.
Sally was one of five children—four girls and one boy. Her father, nicknamed “Hoykhe Leybl” (Tall Leon) because of his height (he was 6’4”), was a carpenter. The family of eight, counting Sally’s grandmother, lived in one large room. But the Finkelsteins, while not well-to-do, were happy, close-knit, and did not lack for basic necessities. Like most other Jewish children growing up in interwar Poland, Sally went to a Polish primary school where she acquired fluency in Polish. In the afternoons she attended a Jewish school. Her close childhood friends were both Jewish and Polish.
Sally’s happy childhood came to an abrupt end on September 1, 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. The Germans bombed Zwolen on September 6, killing about one hundred people and destroying many buildings, including the Finkelsteins’ home. Two days later, the town fell to the Germans. Beatings, constant harassment, and roundups of Jews for forced labor began almost immediately, and many of the Jewish men who were taken away never returned.
At Sally’s mother’s urging, Leybl and their young son Meir went off to hide with a Polish farm family they knew well. They were never seen again. After the war, Sally learned that they had been turned over to the Germans and killed, although she never found out if it was that particular family who had denounced them or someone else. (Poles risked death for hiding Jews and about 750 were indeed executed. But their greatest fear was not the Germans—there were relatively few of them in the provinces—but being informed upon by their neighbors.)
In 1940 the Germans established a ghetto in Zwolen. There was no surrounding wall, and Jews could easily trade with Poles for food, but conditions were harsh. Sally saw German violence firsthand. Her last glimpse of her father’s mother was just after an SS man had broken the elderly woman’s arm. Her mother’s mother died in the ghetto. Sally was especially shaken when she saw Germans abusing the town’s rabbi, pulling the elderly man’s beard while blood streamed down his face. In April 1942 the Germans sealed the ghetto and began to deport groups of men to nearby labor camps. At the same time, conditions in the already overcrowded ghetto worsened when the Germans forced 4,000 Jews from surrounding villages to live there in preparation for the final deportation.
On September 29, 1942, the second day of the Jewish festival of Sukkot, Operation Reinhardt, the German plan to murder all the Jews of occupied Poland, reached Zwolen. All Jews were instructed to gather in the main square. Special squads of German SS and Ukrainian guards then ordered all 8,000 Jews in the ghetto to make the 10-mile march to the nearest train station at Garbatka, where they would board a transport to the death camp of Treblinka. (A hundred people, mostly elderly, were shot in the market square.)
While they waited to board the train, Sally’s mother comforted her younger brother Velvl, one of Sally’s beloved uncles, who had been badly beaten. Sally recalled how her mother cradled Velvl in her arms and wiped his brow, while Velvl’s four year-old daughter, Esterke, pranced around, unaware of what awaited them.
At the last minute an SS man picked out a number of young women from the crowd to get on a truck that would take them to a labor camp at Policna. The group included Sally and two of her sisters, Manya and Franya. That was the last time they saw their mother and their youngest sister, Leah, and Velvl and Esterke, all of whom were murdered in Treblinka.
For some months, Sally and her sisters stayed at Policna, where they picked potatoes from dawn to dusk. A kindly Polish foreman, Gogacz, took a liking to Sally and offered to hide her and adopt her as his daughter. (He and his wife were childless.) He also saved her life once by jumping in front of a German guard who was about to shoot her. Sally appreciated Gogacz’s offer but refused to be separated from her sisters. After the war, Sally learned that the Germans had executed Gogacz. He was one of several Polish acquaintances who showed Sally kindness.
One day in late 1942 or early 1943 the Germans chose 40 girls, including Sally and her two sisters, to board a truck to the dreaded labor camp of Skarzysko-Kamienna. Skarzysko had been an ammunition factory that produced bullets, shells, and mines for the Polish Army. After the occupation, the German firm HASAG took over the plant, enlarged it, and by 1943 it was producing about 30 percent of all the ammunition used by the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. HASAG’s director, Paul Budin, was a ruthless Nazi and a skilled bureaucratic infighter who kept HASAG independent of SS control, even as he worked closely with the SS to bring thousands of Jewish laborers into the camp. Most did not make it out. Of the 25,000 Jews who passed through HASAG in Skarzysko, 20,000 died.
Sally and her sisters wound up in Werk A, where they made artillery shells. There was little food, typhus was rampant, and there were constant selections, where the Germans dragged weakened and sick prisoners off to a nearby shooting pit. Each day the prisoners had to endure the torture of standing in line for hours until the Germans had made a proper count. There were also public hangings, which they were forced to watch. Sally and her sisters all came down with typhus. Had they been alone, they would not have survived. But they took whatever risks necessary to help each other. Once Sally saved Franya from imminent execution by begging a German to save her life.
In the summer of 1944, as the Russians drew nearer, Sally and her sisters were transferred to the HASAG plant in Czestochowa, where conditions were somewhat better. The rapid Russian advance left the Germans no time to evacuate HASAG Czestochowa, and the camp was liberated on January 15, 1945.
For most survivors, the long-awaited liberation was a mixed experience. The joy of survival was tempered by the psychological trauma of confronting the enormity of loss. Once the struggle to survive the Germans had ended, new challenges emerged. What now? Where do I go?
Postwar Poland was dangerous for Jewish survivors. Many Jews who returned to their former towns were murdered by Poles who feared that they had come to reclaim lost property or their former homes. Many killers of Jews had another convenient alibi: Jews, supposedly, supported the hated new Communist regime. Jews were pulled off trains and shot. Forty-two were killed during the Kielce pogrom on July 4, 1946, which broke out after a rumor spread that Jews had kidnapped a Polish child. Historians do not agree on how many Jews were killed in Poland after the war: estimates range from 500-600 to 1,500, with the higher number being the more probable.
When Sally returned to her hometown of Zwolen after the liberation, she asked a Polish neighbor, to whom the Finkelstein family had entrusted many possessions, for some clothing. The Polish woman swore that the Germans had taken everything, but Sally later noticed that the woman’s daughter went to church wearing Sally’s aunt’s coat. The memoirs of a number of Jewish survivors from Zwolen—which were recorded in Yiddish in the Zwolen Memorial Book—relate how, in most cases, former neighbors and even former friends were openly hostile. A few Jews were murdered, and Sally herself narrowly escaped death when shots were fired at a place where she had been staying. Paradoxically, one of the few Poles who acted decently was one Kochanowski, who was known before the war as a rabid antisemite. He gave some survivors food and clothing—and warned them to get out of town if they valued their lives.
No wonder that Sally, like many other survivors, wrote that after the war, she felt safer in Germany than in Poland. Most Jews who were left in Poland, as well as the many Jews who had survived the war in the USSR and had returned in 1946, fled the country after the Kielce pogrom and wound up in displaced persons (DP) camps in the American zones of Germany, Austria, and Italy.
These DP camps, supported by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, helped give many survivors a new lease on life. Organizations like ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training) taught them new trades and skills. Many, like Sally’s sister Manya, married and began new families. The birth rate among the Jewish DPs between 1946 and 1949 was extraordinarily high.
By 1949, U.S. immigration restrictions had finally relaxed to the point where many Jewish DPs could relocate. Sally arrived in the U.S. in July 1949 and settled in New Haven, Connecticut. She met her American-born husband Morton a year later. They had three children. Sally became an important figure in the survivor community of New Haven and was also active in the Jewish Historical Society. She passed away in 2014.
Additional readings and information
Karay, Felicja. Death Comes in Yellow: Skarzysko-Kamienna Slave Labor Camp. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 1996.
Gross, Jan. Fear—Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz: An Essay in Historical Interpretation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Sally’s 2014 obituary in the New Haven Independent, which includes Sally’s own account of moving to the U.S. in 1949: https://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/obituaries/entry/sally_horwitz_86/www.PKN-NewHaven.Org.