It’s hard to imagine surviving a tragedy so great as loss of family. An interview with Holocaust survivor Maria Segal offered a perspective on such hardships, when she revealed the story she kept to herself for 50 years.
I met Segal at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara’s monthly free tour of its Holocaust museum. It is there so that the everyday person can read and hear the stories of survivors of extraordinary circumstances.
In the latest tour of the small museum on July 15, I was led to a conference room equipped with refreshments and a large television, on which we viewed an introductory film of the exhibit. Afterward, we entered the museum — a small, neatly lit room with black and white photographs lining the walls. Each photograph included a story of the subject’s Holocaust experience. The stories themselves spoke not only of suffering but also of triumph. Many of the survivors have become successful; one became an author, another, a physician.
The Holocaust is taught in schools and remembered as likely the most gruesome genocide ever, and to learn about it firsthand from a survivor is powerful. With just that in mind, Segal visits schools and tells children and teens her story. Segal even recounted a time that she felt helpful and influential to a group of at-risk Latino teens. She said, “[There are] parallels between these boys and us; we had this feeling of connection.” She was speaking about the racial discrimination that both Jews and Latinos endure.
Segal was born in Okuniew, Poland, the sixth child of seven. She remembers her childhood in the small village as being “happy.” The village, 10 miles from Warsaw, had no running water or electricity. When Segal was four years old, World War II began. Segal remembers Hitler’s “final solution,” the extermination of the Jews, which he started by driving Jews into ghettos.
Luckily for Segal, a Catholic woman by the name of Wanda came into the ghetto where her family was pushed shortly after the move. When Wanda took the little girl as her own daughter, Segal moved out of the ghetto and into the home of Wanda and her husband, where she did farm duties such as taking care of a cow. Upon leaving the ghetto, Segal said, “I had no idea I wasn’t going back.” She never saw her immediate family members again. A while after Wanda rescued Segal, she was visited by friends who told her that they had seen her parents being shipped to a concentration camp, where they would imminently meet their premature deaths.
Segal is not bitter; she is sweet and intelligent. She tells me that there are “a lot of good people that helped and that’s why I’m alive.” Anyone who housed a Jew during World War II was killed, along with their family, and Segal had a few close calls. One occurred when she was staying with Wanda. Somebody had reported that a child was staying with Wanda, which was followed by the Germans coming. Segal climbed out of the window and into the cornfield by the house in which she was staying.
She was then left to wander the woods during the day, but at least she was alive. Wanda had saved her once more by telling the German soldiers that the little girl had already left prior to their visit. Segal credits Danish people in particular for being humane. She spoke of Danish people who hid Jews in their homes and worked with Norwegian and Swedish residents to ferry Jews to Sweden, which was neutral during the war.
During her stay with Wanda, Segal converted to Catholicism — a choice she made to avoid danger and because she wanted to keep going to church. At one point, Wanda and Segal were no longer safe at the farmhouse, so they began a life of homelessness, sleeping in churches and staying at strangers’ homes to avoid being captured. At the time, Wanda’s husband was serving in the Polish army, so the two were left to fend for themselves. But once, after spending the night in a church, where Jewish women were being raped, Wanda and Segal were having trouble hiding from the police. They ran to some Polish doctors, who painted the two yellow and said to the police that Wanda and her “daughter” were contagious and that they were escorting them for treatment.
After years of living in fear on a daily basis, Segal began attending school in 1945. She went to Polish school for a time before being selected to go to Denmark, where she was to be educated and “fattened up.” After some time in Denmark, Segal went to stay with an uncle in Paris, who was a survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp, before immigrating to Canada when she was 15. There, she converted back to Judaism and married in 1958. Segal taught and was a social worker for 23 years before retiring in 2000. She has three children and six grandchildren.
Throughout our time together, Segal remained an eloquent storyteller and a wise adversary of discrimination. When I asked her how she has coped, she first told me that she had “hard times accepting the fact that I didn’t have my family anymore.” She told me that she had to “adapt and accept.”
Segal mentioned distraction as a way of coping; she filled her time by raising her children and working. But some sentiment rose within her when she abruptly said, “Sometimes I see children aged seven — would they be capable of doing that?” She was referring to surviving the conditions of growing up in German-invaded Poland, sans family. “It’s a matter of survival,” she explained. “The hardest part is missing my family.”
More tours are scheduled for the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara’s “Portraits of Survival” exhibit on August 12 and September 9, 12:15-1:30 p.m. You can also tour the exhibit yourself Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and on Friday, 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. For group tours, email Corin Koren at firstname.lastname@example.org. See jewishsantabarbara.org for more info.