Into the woods: Holocaust survivor speaks to Villanovans

Megan Angelo

Anne Jaffe makes “Survivor” look ridiculous.

Like contestants on the grueling reality television series, the Delaware woman spent over two years of her childhood living in the woods with her family. Survival depended on the bare materials of nature, but their reward was neither a million-dollar check nor a brand-new SUV – it was their safety and their freedom.

The Jaffes made the forests of Poland their home during the last months of the Nazi occupation in Europe. Unlike other Holocaust survivors, the Jewish family from a small village in Poland never saw the vile insides of a concentration camp. They managed to escape the executions that took place in their town and the trucks that hauled their neighbors and friends to places such as Auschwitz and Dachau.

When Jaffe spoke at Villanova last Wednesday, she recounted some of her experiences during the years of the Nazi occupation as well as some of the vivid life lessons she retained from them.

Jaffe spent three years under Nazi occupation. In her small Polish village of 1,200, only 32 of the 350 Jews survived the Holocaust.

She was 10 years old when the German army rolled into her hometown. “How could we possibly escape?” Jaffe remembered thinking. The only mode of transportation available was horse and buggy, which would be futile against the speed and power of the Nazi tanks.

Because the village was so small, Jaffe explained, the soldiers did not bother to ship the Jews to concentration camps. “Immediately, the killing started,” she said candidly. “Their mode of killing was simply to bring them out and shoot them. Another popular tactic of the army was to pack the local synagogues with Jews and then set fire to them.”

The Germans relied on the Christians who lived beside the Jaffes to carry out their violent orders. Jaffe recalls seeing the familiar faces on the side of the enemy as one of the most agonizing parts of her experience. “If you don’t know who your executioners are, you’re still dead when they shoot you, but it’s a little easier to take,” she said bluntly.

Though many of the town’s Christian “volunteers” had previously been close with the Jaffes, she remembered seeds of prejudice being sown long before the Nazi occupation. “Hatred toward the Jews was openly taught at home, in school and in the churches,” she said. “On a Christian holiday, I never dared to go out in the streets. The Christian kids would chase us, throw rocks at us and call us Christ-killers.”

As a child, Jaffe was subjected to abominable public displays of torture. She recalled watching the village rabbi being beaten up for refusing to set fire to holy Jewish texts as well as the pointed massacres that German soldiers scheduled for Jewish holidays. “When they [the Germans] were done with the Jews, they let them go home for one night, so we would see what they were doing,” she said. “Then, the next day they arrested them again and executed them.”

The Jaffes, however, were, as she said, “extremely lucky.” Through a series of serendipitous encounters, the entire family (with the exception of one of Jaffe’s older brother) was saved from death. First, Jaffe’s mother, a seamstress, prolonged the family’s lives because a German official wanted new dresses for his wife. Taking a cue from his own wife, Jaffe’s father began to seek work immediately and soon became

sponsible for a Nazi greenhouse. His new job would spare them from death a second time.

Soon afterwards, the family was informed by a Jewish man from a bordering town to run into the woods and hide there.

Safely out of the glaring visibility of the village, Jaffe said, “For the first time, we had the slightest glimmer of hope.” For the next two years, each forest refugee would concentrate on keeping the fire going, concealing rendezvous with the local farmers who provided them with food and hiding during the periodical raids of the German army.

The Jaffes learned that the Nazis had ceased to occupy their country on July 4, 1944 – the day represented independence to Jaffe long before she ever became an American citizen. Now, however, the United States is close to the survivor’s heart. At the conclusion of her speech, she praised the country she now calls home as a “wonderful democracy.” As a new war triggered by misunderstanding and hatred was getting underway, Jaffe was filled with love and gratitude for America. “You have no idea, young people, how lucky you are to be born here.”