Felicia Braun Bryn, born in 1937
Warsaw, Poland, 1942 – My earliest memory is of my mother, running her delicate fingers through my light blond hair. She told me I looked like Shirley Temple. But my mother stopped playing with my hair. She grew ill and didn’t even recognize my face any longer.
This story was received by the Association of the Children of the Holocaust, in English, after the Polish book had already been published and, therefore, appears here for the first time.
My father, who was living undercover on the Aryan side, was away during the time my mother lay in her bed emaciated and shivering. As I watched her, a thunderous pounding pain took over my stomach, a pounding that never went away. I was hungry, so very hungry. When Dr. Kwiecień came to tend my mother, he would bring our family morsels of bread and potatoes and an egg or two. But with the war under way, he soon needed to save the food for his own starving family.
My mother, my three-year-old brother, Jurek, and I lived in one room with two chairs, a table, a bed, and a stove. Even though I was only five years old, I wasn’t a child. No one in the ghetto was a child. My only goal was to live. I would even beg for food, anything to stay alive. I had a passion to live that nothing would quench.
One freezing day, my aunt, my mother’s sister, bundled me up and took me for a walk through a barren park. It was the Jewish cemetery. German police were patrolling the park with vicious dogs. In the middle of the park stood a gray building. We entered it to find what looked to my eyes like hundreds of dead bodies lying on shelves. My eyes fell on the body of my mother. I began to scream.
A few months later, policemen began pulling people out of their homes. One day, I heard screaming and crying in the streets. My aunt grabbed my little brother and shoved him into a coal box, and then pushed me in after him. The coals jabbed my skin as my aunt closed the lid of the box over me. I tried to push the lid off, but she had put a bucket filled with water on top. The lid would not budge.
It was dark. My brother was screaming, and I couldn’t breathe for all the air he was sucking out of our coffin. I could hear footsteps crashing through the hallway, doors slamming, doors being kicked in. Only one thought raced through my mind: I want to live. The pounding footsteps grew closer. I shoved my fist into my brother’s mouth to silence him. He grew quiet. He fell asleep, exhausted from fear and crying.
I could hear the police and their dogs tearing through the apartment. I wanted to breathe. I wanted to live. They were searching for us. Eventually, there was silence. I sat in the darkness of the coal box with my brother’s head on my lap. I dreamed about my father. I dreamed that I was telling him to give my brother a pretzel because he was such a good boy and didn’t betray our hiding spot.
When my aunt returned that evening, hysterical and confused, she tore through the apartment looking for us, certain that we had been killed. I could hear her sobbing, crying that we were dead. From inside the coal box, I called out, “Peek-a-boo!”
One day, months later, in the summer, my aunt dressed me up in a fancy dress. I had never worn such a dress before. She told me that she was taking me to my grandmother’s house. We walked out of the apartment block toward the walls of the ghetto. All the while, my aunt was repeating out loud the address of my “grandmother.” When we reached the gates, she bent down and whispered to me, “Felicia, you are as smart as Shirley Temple. From now on, you will have to be a little actress in order to stay alive. From now on, your last name will be Garbarczyk.”
She pointed out a bench outside the walls where she said I would find a man who would take me to my “grandmother.” She told me that the guard at the wall would turn away when I walked by. I was five years old. I repeated my instructions dutifully. I kissed my aunt good-bye. I wanted to live. I skipped through the gates and saw the man. He rose to get on a bus. I followed him. He did not speak to me. I followed him when he got off the bus. He motioned me toward a building. We went inside and climbed the stairs to an apartment. Inside, he told me, “Lie down on that bed and don’t move.” I did as I was told, lying motionless in the severe heat, barely breathing so no one could hear me.
That night, my father appeared. I had no idea where he had been or how long he would stay. I wanted him to stay with me forever. He bathed me and fed me and led me out to another apartment building. He settled me onto a sofa where I fell into a deep sleep, drained from fear and exhaustion. This was the first of the many places I was moved to. In each of them, I was taught Catholic prayers. It seemed to me that everywhere I was sent, German soldiers followed.
Months later, I was taken by the same stranger onto a train. I had been told that I was going to live in the country. I was told I would be safe. I was told not to ask questions. The train was crowded. Soldiers boarded. Their dogs were straining at their leashes, snarling, snapping, biting at whomever the soldiers pointed them toward. They were sniffing out Jews, and when they found them, the soldiers unleashed the dogs to tear the Jew apart. I was so desperate to live that I laughed at the hideous scene, laughed at the Jews being mauled, pretending, as if I were Shirley Temple.
I was brought to a farmhouse far out in the country and introduced to a middle-aged couple whose names were Leokadia (called Losia) and Kazimierz Sroka. They were to be my new parents. Concerned for my safety, they, too, moved from one part of the country to another.
We were staying in a Ukrainian village called Deniska near Rawa Ruska that first winter when the Srokas told me that we were going to be visited by an “Uncle Zygmunt” at Christmas. He appeared on Christmas
Eve carrying gifts for all of us and stayed for three days. The night before he left, he took me into his arms and covered my face with kisses. The next day, while Uncle Kazimierz and Aunt Losia were outside doing their chores, “Uncle Zygmunt” took me on his knees and, holding me tightly, sang to me the song “Ta Ostatnia Niedziela.” It begins, “This is the last Sunday. Today we part forever.”
“Uncle Zygmunt” was my father. His real name was David Braun. Watching from the window as he walked away through the snow, I knew I would have to be brave like him. I knew I could never let anyone know that I was Felicia Braun, that I was a Jew.
I was able to deceive everyone, even the German soldiers who visited the Srokas regularly. They would sit me on their knees and tell me how I looked just like their own daughters, like a good German girl.
At the end of the war, the Srokas returned to their prewar home, a farm in Gowarzewo, near Poznań. I entered school and began attending church with them. I was an enthusiastic student. I became president of Krucjata, a Catholic youth organization. Like Shirley Temple, I had high aspirations. I had begun going to confession regularly. I assured the priest I was conducting myself like a good Christian. He asked if I ever lied. I told him yes. He told me that I needed never to lie. “You must repent this sin and ask forgiveness for your lies,” he said. “You must not commit this sin again.” I told him that I would not lie again, but the voice that came from my mouth was not the voice of my heart. In my head, I heard the voice of my heart screaming its terrible truth, “Yes, you will lie again, you will always lie. Your life is a lie.”
I studied catechism in preparation for my First Communion. As I walked the three miles from our farmhouse into the village every week to study with Father Kaczmarek, I recited the lessons in my mind over and over until every word of the Latin, every step of the service stood polished in my mind like gold. I learned with such precision not simply because I loved catechism, but because I knew that I had to know it better than any other child. “Know it perfectly so they cannot question you,” said the voice in my head.
On the day of my First Communion, I was tortured with apprehen- sion. “What if today someone doubts me?” I thought. “What if someone asks, ‘Are you sure that child is Catholic? Are you sure she is one of us?’ “ I could not get my face to wear the right expression. No matter how hard I tried to put on my very best Shirley Temple smile, my eyes showed only terror. I was as frightened as I had been in any of the last few years of my life, frightened as I was in the coal box, frightened that I would be found hiding – this time, in my Catholic disguise. I was terrified that I would be wrenched from the prison of my carefully crafted lies and thrown into a new prison where I would be tortured to death with the truth.
The photographer who was taking pictures of all the children who were about to receive their First Communion tried to cheer me up. He told me how beautiful I looked in my Communion dress. He took a photograph, but the expression on my face was so miserable, that he had to take another one. “Come, you want to be bright for your Communion picture. You will keep it all your life to remember this happy day,” he said. I was nearly sobbing. His second picture looked even worse. In disgust, he told Aunt Losia that he would waste no more pictures on me, that she would have to bring me back another time when I had some control of myself. I already knew how angry “Uncle” Sroka would be.
I was shoved into the procession of children and felt my feet moving toward the altar. As I knelt, I heard the voice of Father Kaczmarek as he leaned toward me with the wafer. I looked up into the kindest face that had ever gazed at me, at a face whose eyes I could look into forever. They were eyes that accepted my lies and loved me despite them. What I saw was the face of my real father. I thanked God that it was him and that none of the people in this church had discovered Felicia’s lie.
My teenage life had its own rhythm. Outwardly, I was a happy, friendly, sociable young girl, president of my high school class. Inwardly, I was living a rhythm left colorless by the Srokas emotional remoteness and punctuated by my “uncle” routinely abusing me. Leokadia Sroka, though kind and devoted to me, was cold in personality and unable to communicate her warm feelings. On the other hand, Kazimierz Sroka was fond and demonstrative toward me from the beginning. However, as time progressed, he grew brutal, monstrous, and possessive.
I was restlessly looking for a way out – out of their house, out of Poland, out of the life I was living. To my great surprise – and horror – that way out came through an Israeli diplomat named Yacov Balmor. It was 1957, and I had been traced by my cousin, Yehoshua Eibeschitz, the son of my mother’s oldest sister. He had found me through my mother’s brother, who knew that I had been placed with the Srokas. When Mr. Balmor came to our house to inform me of my “true” identity and my rights, I dissolved into a rage. How dare he tell me that I was a Jew! How dare he expose my lie!
However, seeing that his offer to send me to Israel was my only way out, I agreed to emigrate. Yet, I was even more unhappy there than I had been in Poland. I was an outsider, a Catholic in a Jewish state. I felt no connection even with my relatives there who tried to be supportive. I belonged nowhere, and the stage on which I had learned so well to act was now obsolete. In Israel, I did not even have my actress’s mask. There was no place for Shirley Temple. Eventually, I slid into an emotional condition so precarious that I even contemplated suicide. At one point, I was hospitalized for my severe depression.
During the depths of my despair, I met an American tourist named Nathan Bryn who was also a Holocaust survivor. He had been born in Katowice, Poland, and spent his adolescence in a concentration camp in Stalowa Wola. His attention and kindness slowly brought me back from the depression that had left me at the brink of death. It was hard for me to drop the defenses on which my survival had so long depended.
Nathan and I married in Israel in 1959, and I moved to the United States in 1960. Even in America, with a caring husband, my growth and learning were slow. Nathan was patient, even though he knew I did not love him. How could I? I didn’t know how to love.
I learned love when our children were born – Usher, David, and Helen. Nathan went on to become a rabbi. We raised our family in an Orthodox home where the children felt warmth and love and pride in being Jewish. They remain religious, and today Nathan and I have five grandchildren.
In Poland, I had earned a degree in drug technology at the University of Poznań. In the States, I received an M. A. in computer science from Barry University and in computer science and mathematics from Florida International University in Miami. I taught these subjects, as well as religious studies in Hebrew schools. Even though I have received other diplomas in my life, it was the ones I received in America with my real name on them – Felicia Braun Bryn – that meant the most to me.
When my son, David, became a rabbi, I thought how not even a Hitler was able to break the Jewish spirit. I had watched my mother die. I had never seen my brother again, even though I looked for him continual- ly on every trip I took to Poland. I had learned that my father, my aunt, and my whole family of more than seventy relatives had been exterminated.
The more I learned of my background, the greater pride I felt. I learned that my grandfather, my mother’s father, Feivel Glicksman, was a Ger Hasid on whose 20,000-acre farm in Grześka, Poland, the first Israeli kibbutzniks were trained.
I have visited Poland many times over the last few decades and maintained contact with the Sroka family and my friends. I had maintained contact with them throughout the years. Some of them came to visit me in the States, and their children treated me as “Aunt Ela.” But not until 1994, on my last visit to a Jewish summer camp in Rychwald, Poland, a visit sponsored by the Ronald Lauder Foundation, did I feel something entirely different about being there. I could look openly into the eyes of the others around me in search of my lost brother. For the first time, also, I was reunited with other women who had had experiences similar to mine. I felt love. I felt they were my sisters.
As I revealed to them the story of my life, I felt relieved and gratified to add to the tapestry of the human drama of hidden children. Only then did I realize the blessing that God had bestowed upon me – that I no longer had to walk the tightrope between friends and relatives, that I could eliminate the line between the truth and the lie, that I have been able to live a full Jewish life. At long last, I was finally able to say good-bye to the little lost girl who had played her role so valiantly. At last, she and Shirley Temple could part.
Miami, Florida, 1996