Background: The Long Journey After World War II


The Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed on August 23, 1939.  Among other provisions, it allowed Germany to invade and occupy western Poland without Soviet interference.  The Soviet Union would also be allowed to invade and occupy eastern Poland without interference from Germany.

Helen Solanum was born on August 31, 1939, outside of Warsaw, Poland.  The very next day, the Nazis invaded and occupied the part of Poland where she and her family lived.  Because they were Jews, her grandmother and others were killed by the Nazis, but her father was able to escape with his family to eastern Poland, near Bialystok, which was occupied by the Soviets after their invasion from the East on September 17.  The Soviets gave many of the Jews the choice of becoming Soviet citizens.  Helen’s father was worried about becoming a Soviet citizen after the war, and refused.  They were immediately sent to the labor camps in Siberia near the city of Arkhangelsk along with hundreds of thousands of other Poles.

On June 22, 1941, Germany conducted a surprise attack on the invasion of the Soviet Union.  The Non-Aggression Pact was no longer in place.  The Soviets were now on the Allies’ side of the war.  Helen’s father was conscripted into a Polish regiment in the Soviet army to fight the Germans.  Helen and her mother (her sister had died in Archangelsk) made their way from Siberia with other Poles to labor camps in Kazakhstan.  While living in Kazakhstan, the conditions that she witnessed were horrible, particularly the starvation.  Her father was able to visit them once during that period, resulting in a brother for Helen.  During the day her mother was in forced labor while all the children were cared for in large Russian-speaking child care centers.  Helen learned Russian.

Finally, the war was over. Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.  Helen, her mother, and brother left Kazakhstan and attempted to return to Poland.  Helen’s parents told her to forget Russian just like the Soviets warned her family that they were forbidden to speak Yiddish.  They lived in assigned towns (in Helen’s case in an area that had been a part of Germany until Germany’s borders were redrawn after the war).  As a Jew, Helen was living in a country where ninety percent of her fellow Jews were killed.  Her family faced prejudice in this new area of Poland.  Therefore, the family moved into occupied Germany.  Ironically, her family felt safer in Germany than in the new territories that were assigned to Poland because of the anti-Semitism of the Poles.

In Germany they lived in displaced person’s (DP) camps, trying to emigrate to Palestine where there were family members, but the British who were in charge of much of the Middle East closed Palestine to the Jews after the war.  So the family tried to obtain a visa to the U.S.  To get the visa, they had to go to the American Embassy in Paris, France.  The U.S., however would not allow them to emigrate because Helen’s lungs were scarred from Tuberculosis.  For seven years they lived in France in very poor conditions until Helen’s lungs healed.  France became Helen’s first real home, and she started school there.  Ten years later, she finally was able to move to the United States with the sponsorship of a relative in Philadelphia.

The following interview was conducted on Sunday, September 30, 2012, in Menlo Park, California.  The audio file transcribed appears below.  The interview was difficult to secure, as Helen initially refused to talk to me.  She did not want to re-live those childhood years, as the memories were still painful to her.  Eventually, she agreed to talk to me.  We sat outside, at a small table

I started with my first question and asked, “When you were born?”  

“I was born in Poland, August 31, 1939, and that was one day before Hitler marched into Poland,” she replied.

I continued, “What did your parents do for a living?”

She answered, “My father was a tailor and he owned his own business.  He did some designing and living in a small town outside of Warsaw.”

“How was your family affected when the Nazis invaded Poland?”

“Well, it was a horrific situation because when they marched into our town the old people were immediately shot, including a grandmother of mine.  There was an effort to concentrate us in one area.  I was just a few days old and so the impact was horrendous.“

I wondered, “What happened after the Soviet Union invaded?”

“The Soviet Union did not invade.  This was the Nazi invasion.  It was a really complicated, long story.  Historically it is going to be difficult because what happened when the Nazis came in is that shortly after that there was a pact between Stalin and Hitler.  The Soviet Union invaded the Eastern end of Poland, and Germany invaded the West of Poland.  So many of the Jews, and nobody could possibly imagine that it was going to be such a horrible thing for the Jews so most of them stayed where they were in Poland waiting to see what happens.  My parents along with many others felt that the thing to do was to try and get into the Soviet Occupied sector of Poland.  So after a long trek many places, finally my parents managed to get into the soviet occupied area,” she responded.

This led me to ask, “Did your parents talk about life in Siberia?”

“We were in the middle of the Soviet occupation.  We were given the choice of getting Soviet Citizen papers and passports because the strategy was the more Polish nationals you had with Soviet passports, the more territory you can settle on later, so some Jews did take a passport and stayed in on the border when the Nazis advanced on the Soviet Union and all of them were immediately executed.  Our family with no particular advance knowledge made the decision; my father made the decision that he was not to take any Soviet passport because he was afraid that when the war was over, he would not be able to get back to Poland.  So we were deported to labor camps, forced hard labor camps in the northern part of the Soviet Union in an area called the Arkangelsk (labor camp) and we were there for two years; my sister died there when she was only five and not only was able to withstand the physical but the mental trauma.  I was born into it; I did not know anything about it; what ever happened was normal.  Whereas my sister was completely traumatized by all of this.  For we were there for two years and when the Soviet  Hitler pact dissolved and the Soviet Union formed with the Polish and my father was taken into the army and were then sent to Kazakhstan which was still political prisoners but it was not the harsh conditions that we faced in the northern part.  We stayed there until 1946,” Helen said.

I went a little further by saying, “Could you go in a little more detail in Kazakhstan?”

She said, “Well, my mother was in labor; in forced labor the children were supervised by Russians; I think that in some cases they were supervised by the Soviets.  The difficulty was that they were not deaths camps in Germany but you had to withstand the elements, the lack of food.  My biggest and most vivid memories were terrible hunger in Poland (Kazakhstan?) and almost anxiety because my father was not there and my mother was in labor at the time.  I got little education there.  There was a language issue in that my mother spoke Yiddish to me but the people who took care of me spoke Russian.  So I would say that Russian was the language I knew the best.”

So then I asked, “What do you remember after returning to Poland after the war?”

“Well, there were more traumas because it was a difficult return because my mother had not heard anything from my father during those years.  She did not know if he was dead or alive.  She had heard of the devastation of what happened to the Jews in Poland, and she did not know whether to go back or not and finally made a decision to go back to Poland.  The Polish Nationals were giving us permission in 1946.  She would have left earlier, but she did not hear anything.  So in 1946, we were put on supply trains, and we traveled on those for almost three months from where we were to the border of Poland and the Soviet Union.  There were some bizarre circumstances, like my father was waiting in the border because this is where people were coming from the Soviet Union.  Every day he was going to come with us in the next trains, and we were reunited again together and then we were all a family again.  On my father’s side there were also eight children, and three of them survived Auschwitz because they were taken there very late because there were no ghettos before.”

It led me to ask, “What was your father’s story?”

“He was with the second army, and he actually marched into Berlin with the Polish.  So my entire family went to southeastern area in Poland called Walbrzyck.  So my father did try to go back to the town where I was born where he had his business, but at that point in the town no one knew him at all; they said there were no Jews there ever, his business was not his business, and there was a denial that there were a Jewish presence there.  There were many of the refugees in the displaced camps trying to figure out what to do.  In 1946 there were several pogroms.  A pogrom is an attack from a local population target, specifically in this case against Jews.  In the turmoil against Europe, Poland had an entire history of anti-Semitism.  There were pogroms, but I do not want to get in detail, but the family had to make a decision quickly to get out.  They were able to make a Jewish relief organization that first smuggled us into Austria.  There were many DP camps, Displaced Person’s camps (near Munich).  Some of them were restricted for Jews; they had to separate the Jews from the rest of the refugees because again there was a high concentration.  So we were there with the intent.  I had tuberculosis and I had treatment there, and they were trying to send us somewhere else.  We were assigned to go to Palestine, but the British closed the gate in 1949 into Palestine by Jews, and so we were not able to go there.”

Then I asked, “What happened next?”

Helen answered, “This family from the United States would let refugees in only if they had a member from someone in the United States.  We went to Paris in the U.S. embassy to examine who was going to the United States because if you had certain diseases you could not go in.  And the biggest one was tuberculosis, and since I had scar tissue in my lungs, we could not go in until my scar tissue reached a certain stage.  So we were in France for seven years waiting for my lungs to heal enough for us.  For the meantime, we had papers that allowed us to stay in France.  My father did some tailoring, but he was not officially recognized that he was working.  Finally in 1957, we were allowed to immigrate to the U.S.  I had a history of languages because the mix up was tremendous from one language to another to another.”

I asked, “What year did you arrive in the United States, and what were your thoughts?”

“Well, I arrived in 1957. I was very unhappy coming here. I had this education in France; I had friends there,” she said.

I concluded, “Is there anything else I need to know?”

She finished off by saying, “In terms that I had already told you, think about it and if you cannot think of a question you are welcome to email me.  Well, I really appreciate it.  Thank you very much.”

I thought this was a profound, dark story.  This truly demonstrates how strong the will to survive is.  It was amazing that she and her family, except her sister, survived the Holocaust and the years following World War II.  Their survival was based on a few important decisions.  For example, her father rejected Soviet citizenship.  All the Jews that did accept Soviet citizenship were killed at the border when the Nazis invaded.  Another important decision was made after they returned to Poland.  Helen’s grandmother was killed here.  Then they left Poland quickly.  I learned that she had so much courage during the crisis.  She was physically and mentally strong to survive during when she was displaced without a home.