Holocaust survivor recalls heroes who saved him
Published: June 29, 2007 | 6411th good news item since 2003
To commemorate Holocaust Martyrs’ Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, a retired Glen Burnie physician who survived the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland will speak tomorrow at Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold.
The tale that Dr. Joseph Taler, 84, plans to tell began when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and one group thought it had the right to dominate the others.
Though the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling fast, the message is still needed, said Ellyn Becker Kaufman, Temple Beth Shalom’s education director.
“If you don’t remember it, it could happen again, and not necessarily to Jewish people, but people anywhere in the world,” she said. “If we allow ourselves to go into such a prejudiced mode as happened in World War II, it could happen again.”
Dr. Taler said earlier this week that another holocaust is taking place today, this time in Darfur, where government-backed militia is exterminating Africans. Dr. Taler, 84, retired in 1991 after practicing medicine in Glen Burnie for 37 years. The Annapolis resident estimated that fewer than 10 Holocaust survivors live in Anne Arundel County now.
“I am the only one who speaks on the subject,” he said.
Dr. Taler’s tale is not only about cruelty, death and destruction, but also about human decency. It is as much about life as it is death, he said.
When German troops marched into Poland, Dr. Taler was a 16-year-old boy living in the comfortable town of Rozwadow, the only child of a pharmacist mother and a lawyer father. He was a straight-A student with lots of friends and a bright future.
Dr. Taler and a small handful of relatives were able to avoid extermination for one simple reason – a few Christians risked everything to save them.
“In my case, I was helped by six different Polish Christians, people who didn’t know each other,” Dr. Taler said of the people who forged documents, smuggled food and hid the Jewish boy.
“They saved my life; they would have been shot or taken to a concentration camp – it was at the discretion of the person who caught them,” Dr. Taler said. “There was no penalty for killing a Jew or a Pole.”
In this strange and dangerous world, even the slightest turn of events could prove deadly, Dr. Taler said.
The Christian underground forged work papers that allowed Dr. Taler to walk the streets and hold a job, instead of being rounded up and taken to a death camp.
“I told them to keep my first name, Joseph, so that I would know to answer when anyone spoke to me,” Dr. Taler said.
Dr. Taler said he quickly realized a deadly possibility: If the forged papers showed his actual age, he likely would be put into the youth labor corps, the junakis. Joining this group would require a physical, and a physical would reveal that Dr. Taler had been circumcised, in a society where only Jews underwent the procedure.
“The man who took me up in the middle of the night told me to step into the courtyard of (a particular) apartment house, and take off my armband that bore the Star of David and showed that I was a Jew,” Dr. Taler said. “He gave me my false identity papers and we crossed the street and were in the Aryan section.”
Dr. Taler disappeared into the darkness as Josef Skwarczynski, a Polish Catholic who was born six years before Joseph Taler the Jew. With these papers, Dr. Taler found work in a train yard, where he shoveled coal and stoked train boilers.
One day, he saw an engineer, a young man who had gone to school with him. The man knew that Dr. Taler was a Jew, and all he had to do was shout out, and Dr. Taler was as good as dead. Each time Dr. Taler saw the man, he would bury his face in a handkerchief as if wiping away sweat, until one day he didn’t see the engineer in time. “He smiled at me and walked on,” Dr. Taler said.
World gone mad
Life under the Nazis was marked by one bit of insanity after another, Dr. Taler said.
Anyone who liked onions “too much” could be revealed as a Jew and carted off, since “everyone knew” that Jews liked onions, Dr. Taler said.
Dr. Taler’s wife, Bronka, whom he met at the end of the war, used fake papers and worked as a maid, all the while hiding her true identity.
Fortunately, she said, she had attended a public school where Catholicism was taught.
“There were 10 Jewish kids,” she said of her childhood. “We were put in the back of the class, but we had to stay (for religious training). We learned a lot about the Catholic religion and Jesus.”
“I had papers during the war that showed me as a Christian,” she said. “They (Nazis) were forever asking me questions about Christianity.”
Then, one day, Mrs. Taler uttered a Yiddish word, and her mistress quickly admonished her to never say that again.
The mistress no doubt knew that Mrs. Taler was a Jew, but chose to look the other way.
Never underestimate the role that luck can play when surviving underground, Dr. Taler advised. While a lot of families were scattered to the four corners of the earth and never reunited, Dr. Taler and his mother ended up in the same town, but she couldn’t acknowledge him as her son. Also by blind luck, Dr. Taler’s father ended up hiding in the same town, and Dr. Taler took him into his room. The father stayed in the son’s 21-foot by 21-foot room day and night for two years, even though there was no toilet or hot water. There was a trap door, where Dr. Taler and his father dug out a place under the floor in case they needed a hiding place.
A strong message
Jews who weren’t fortunate enough to come under the wing of a guardian angle did not fare well. Dr. Taler estimates that as many as 50 of his relatives died at the hands of Nazis.
Bronka Taler said she lost about 20 close family members.
She survived because she was able to escape from a transport train, bound for the Auschwitz extermination camp.
“I had a large family; my mother had eight siblings and I had a lot of cousins,” Mrs. Taler said this week. “Except for my brother and two cousins, nobody survived.”
Mrs. Taler rarely speaks of the Holocaust, and tears ran down her cheek as she talked.
“I have two wonderful children, and for the first 20 years, we didn’t even talk about it,” Mrs. Taler said. “My children didn’t even know; we didn’t want them to know.”