University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Students Fascinated by Tale of Survival

Sabina Zimering gets students' undivided attention

by Terry Hokenson

Dr. Sabina Zimering mesmerized the 8th grade students at Minneapolis Talmud Torah on May 13, as she unwound the electrifying details of her experiences in Poland and Germany during World War II. Students filled every available seat in the Holocaust Room. The room's walls, covered with horrific images of that era, accented Zimering's story.

It was September 1, 1939, in Pietrkow, the town in Poland where Zimering grew up; and she was returning home from the farmer's market, when the air-raid sirens went off again. She thought it was just another exercise, but then the ;round began shaking. It was the beginning of the World War II, and Sabina Zimering was 16 years old.

She told the kids how the Germans closed the Jewish schools and businesses, including her father's coal yard; and finally forced all the Jews to move into the ghetto, the old, cramped part of town. Slowly one thing after another went. wrong. They all had to wear the Star of David, so they could be recognized as Jews. There was not enough food, nor clothes. Jews were forbidden to congregate. There were arrests and deportations.

Illegally and at great risk they pursued education. Zimering tutored younger students in her family's home and took college courses in the home of two professors. Conditions grew worse over the next three years, until rumors began to circulate. "We heard that the Germans were going from one ghetto to another," Zimering recalled. "They would surround the lace, and . start sorting out the people. Young, healthy men and women were taken for slave labor. The rest were put in cattle cars, and as we all know, they ended up in gas chambers."

Shortly before the Pietrkow ghetto was to be emptied, Zimering's mother told her that if her Catholic friend, Danka, would give up her ID, she might pretend to be a Pole and perhaps survive. Danka and her sister had been lifelong friends of Sabina and her sister Helka. Incredibly, Danka's family provided three false IDs to Zimering, her sister and her mother. The two girls escaped only two or three hours before the ghetto was surrounded.

Thus began an odyssey of "hiding in the open," the title of Zimering's book (which is awaiting a publisher). On their father's advice, the sisters went to Germany as Polish volunteers to work in a labor camp. At one point, on the verge of being discovered, they decided to run. They were arrested at the railway depot. When the director of the camp was summoned to the police station to identify the girls, instead of angrily condemning them, he asked the police commander to return them to the camp, where, he said, they were good workers and well-liked.

But others had already accused them of being Jews and they were forced immediately to run again. Trying to reach Switzerland, they made it to Regensburg, where thanks to Zimering's quick thinking and good luck, they found jobs in the sumptuous Maximilian Hotel. It was some time before Zimering realized that the guests were all high-ranking German military officials. She was still working there when American soldiers displaced them all.

When Zimering ended her story, teacher Barbara Taragan invited questions from the students. A boy named Josh asked, "Did the man who bailed you out when you were arrested, did he know you were Jewish?" Zimering replied that she suspected he did believe they were Jews and wanted to help them.

Judy asked, "When you didn't want to go to the [concentration] camps, did you know they were gassing Jews and killing them there, or did you just know you didn't want to go there?" Dr. Zimering replied, "Shortly before our ghetto was liquidated, someone was back in town that had escaped and was spreading the news, what was to happen .... It was known."

A third student asked, "Did you ever go to the camps?" Zimering said, "Luckily, I went to the camps only as a visitor. Later on we went back and visited Auschwitz, Treblinka and the Warsaw ghetto, all the places where these terrible things had happened."

Taragan asked Dr. Zimering: "How did you feel about `hiding in the open?"'

Zimering replied, "Scared. Sometimes it's hard to imagine where you get - the guts and the energy and wit .to do it. Apparently, the survival instinct - I never considered myself very brave or special."

Another adult asked, "Some survivors, they decided to keep it quiet, and not to say a word about it. [Former Secretary of State Madeleine K.] Albright -- we know her family decided to cover it. Did you, the minute you came here, start talking about it? When did you become comfortable ....".

Dr. Zimering said, "The minute the war was over, I thought, this is it, I don't want to pretend anymore, I want to be who I am. I want to be a Jew. I had to change my false documents, and for that you had to go, at that time, to a CIA office. [This was still in Germany, immediately after the liberation.] I didn't know any English; I had to ask for CIA-officers that spoke German.

"The first man I spoke to became very suspicious, and he said, 'False papers? How did you get them? You know it's not legal. I'll have to look into it.' He spoke very good German, he was an officer, an American of German background. He said, 'Something isn't right, come back in a week, I'll have to look into it.' I thought, 'Is this a liberator?' So I didn't go back to him.

"But I found another CIA office and I told the same story to another man, and that man jumped up, was full of joy, and he said, `You are Jews and you survived? Where are you from? Where is your family?' And the man didn't know what to do for us. He was a German Jew who grew up here [in the U.S.]. For him, to meet someone like us was a great event. He said 'Oh, yes, there will be no problem. We'll get the documents for you, come back in a couple days.' We came back in a couple days and he was transferred somewhere else." They eventually got the documents anyway.

Another student asked, "How did you stay in touch with your father and brother when they were in concentration camps?"

Dr. Zimering answered, "While they were in the slave labor camps, people smuggled letters back and forth. Once they got to Buchenwald, there was just no chance."

She added, "I hate to talk about all these sad things, but I guess that's history and as long as any of us survivors are around, we should pass it on."

Josh then asked, "How many languages do you speak?"

Dr. Zimering replied, "I learned quite a few, but I could communicate with several languages, because Polish is part of Slavic languages, and if you know Polish you can understand Czech And Yugoslav and Ukrainian and Russian, and then I had German in high school as a foreign language, and Hebrew and, of course, Yiddish: So, quite a few. But unless you use a language, it really evaporates quite fast!"

Another student questioned, "Did your sister and brother immigrate?"

Zimering replied, "Oh, yes, my sister and my brother live here. Shall I give away the secret?" Gesturing to two of the girls, in the room, she said, "There are the two granddaughters, of my brother! Each time I see them, they're taller!"

Barbara Taragan concluded, amid enthusiastic applause, "You have touched us tremendously, Dr. Zimering, and I assure you, we will all share your story with our family and friends.

Original article appeared in American Jewish World, June 1, 2001.