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Hiding in the Open

by Peg Meier - Star Tribune Staff Writer

zimring with minneapolis 8th gradersThanks to the bravery of a Catholic family, a Jewish teenager in Poland obtained false identification papers during World War II. Posting as a Catholic, she worked several years in a posh hotel in Germany – surrounded by Nazi officers.

Dr. Sabina Zimering was surrounded by eighth-graders at Christ the King/St. Thomas the Apostle School in Minnepolis after she told them how she survived the war. Her story is one of two sets of sisters in Poland. The Catholic girls saved the lives of the Jewish girls.

Dr. Sabina Zimering was surrounded by eighth-graders at Christ the King/St. Thomas the Apostle School in Minnepolis after she told them how she survived the war. Her story is one of two sets of sisters in Poland. The Catholic girls saved the lives of the Jewish girls.

The eight-graders at the Minneapolis Catholic school were entranced – not a whisper, hardly a fidget. They had studied the Holocaust, and they found the story they were hearing from St. Louis Park woman as riveting as Anne Frank's or Elie Wiesel's.

Sabina Schwartz Zimering was 16 when she and her family were rounded up by Nazis in 1939 and forced into a ghetto in her hometown in Poland. Worse was coming, and the family knew it.

"We've got to do something," the girl pleaded with her mother after three years in the ghetto. "I'm 19. I don't want to die."

Her mother – once dignified; by then starving, scared and depressed – said nothing could be done. "What will happen to others will happen to us," she said flatly.

But later she suggested that her daughter turn to a Catholic friend for help. Maybe Danka Justnya would give Sabina her identification papers, then pretend she had lost them and ask authorities for a replacement passport.

It was a daring move for Sabina's family, and it put the Catholic family in tremendous jeopardy. Yet the Catholic friends came through for them. They provided false identities – not only for her sister and mother. (Not for the little brother, though. It would be useless. The Nazis routinely checked males for circumcisions. Rarely was a European non-Jew circumcised in that time.)

Before the war, Sabina's family was photographed on a street of their town in Poland. Her father, Bernard Schwartz, and mother, Teofila, were with their two daughters, Helka, left, and Sabina, right. Their little brother had not been born.

Hours before the Gestapo rushed into town to round up the Jews and send them to their deaths, Sabina and her sister escaped. For two years, they posed as Polish Catholics in Germany.

Because of the bravery of that Polish Catholic family, Sabina and her sister made it through the war. So did their brother, who spent years in a slave labor camp in their hometown and was in Buchenwald concentration camp at the end of the war.

Her parents didn't survive. Her mother died in a gas chamber at Treblinka, her father in the Buchenwald concentration camp just two days before it was liberated. All but seven of about 60 other relatives also perished.

For more than 50 years, Dr. Sabina Zimering of St. Louis Park had been unwilling to tell her too-painful story. When she retired as an ophthalmologist in 1996, she was determined to remember and write her story. She couldn't picture herself telling it to an audience. But she agreed when a 14-year-old friend, Martha Hughes, asked her to speak to her class at Christ the King/St. Thomas the Apostle School at 3210 W. 51st St. in Minneapolis.

Her voice was soft, her message forgiving, but the story was hard. She apologized for her tears.

The next day in class, the eight-grader's solemnly reviewed what Zimering had told them. A girl said, "It's so moving to me that she's 78 and still cries about her parents' deaths." Another said, "Her whole story makes me so sad. What kind of world is this?"

Before the war in Poland, religion and state were not separated. Most Poles were Catholic. During Sabina's six years as a pupil in her neighborhood grade school, a priest taught the Catechism.

As a Jew, Sabina had a choice during Catholic lessons: Go home, play in the schoolyard by herself or remain in class. She tried the first two options and was bored, so she stayed in class. Mostly, she listened. Sometimes when the priest asked a question, her hand went up. "I became quite familiar with the Catholic religion," she told the eight-graders.

Her favorite teacher was a woman named Kazimiera Justyna, Sabina and her sister, Helka, became friends with the teacher's daughters, Danka and Mala. The families – one Jewish, one Catholic – were close. That is, until war broke out.

When the Germans occupied Sabina's town of Piotrkow, they forbade the Jews to assemble. Jewish prayers were said only at home. Jewish schools were shut down. After the Germans destroyed the Jewish holy objects, they turned the beautiful synagogue into storage of war supplies.

Sometimes in the dingy, single room where her family of five lived, Sabina would stare out a smudged window, pretending that her parents could still protect the family, that she and her little brother and sister had enough to eat, that there were no arrests, beatings or deportations.

But she couldn't ignore the German night patrols. The sound of their heavy boots spread terror. Streets cleared the minute word got out that a certain officer was approaching in his shiny black boots, with a leather whip and vicious dog.

One afternoon when Sabina was walking a narrow street, she heard shouting. Everybody ran, and so did she. Soon she heard barking and panting. It was the German shepherd, let loose by the officer. She knew that children, unable to run fast enough, often were his victims. The dog was so close behind Sabina that she thought she could feel his hot breath.

Sabina made a smart move. She took a sharp right turn, toward the entrance of a building. The dog was running too fast to change direction and raced after the people in front of him. Sabina remembers, "A painful cry of a child pierced my ears."

The kids couldn't believe that Sabina Zimering is having a tough time finding a publisher for her memoir, titled "Hiding in the Open." Her story should be made into more than a book, they said fervently. They could see it on a movie screen. "Especially the dog scene," a boy said.

A typical teenager in some respects, Sabina had crushes on boys in the Jewish ghetto and yearned for her first kiss. But mostly her life consisted of long bread lines and small rations. She and her family felt the symptoms of severe hunger: throbbing headaches, zig-zagging lines that distorted vision, weakness, apathy. They learned to avoid streets where the dead and dying were left unattended. She saw her father arrested during the night in late 1941 and remembers his hands shaking as he tried to button his sweater before he was taken away.

It was after that when Danka and Mala's family obtained false IDs for Sabina and her sister. "Choose different last names," their mother told her girls. "It would be safer not to be related."

Sabina worried. "Are my looks good enough – Aryan enough – to pass for a Polish girl?" Danka suggested that Sabina dye her hair blond, but Sabina's mother said no: "It would be dangerous if it showed. Anyway, not all [Gentile] Poles are blond."

Sabina hardly dared to look at the little document with stamps and signatures. She wondered, "How can I be a Pole on the outside and a Jew inside? I will never be able to do it. It's not for me. I might as well forget the false papers." Her mother kept saying, "Looks are not everything. You speak an accent-free Polish, and you know German and the Catholic religion. Stop worrying."

Close to midnight on Oct. 14, 1942, German special commandos came to finish off the Jews in the city's ghetto. Forewarned, Sabina put on warm clothes: double underwear, a skirt with two tops, a winter coat. She took off the white armband with the blue Star of David and tossed it aside. Her mother handed the false papers to her and her sister. In the confusion, the girls walked out of the ghetto.

Danka and Mala's mother hid them for about 10 days, without telling her husband the girls were in the attic. Eventually, she had to ask them to leave. Sabina and Helka went on the run, spending time in fields, stairways, attics. Their best day – that is, the least scary – was on All Saints Day, a widely served Catholic holiday. They spent the whole day at a Catholic cemetery, pretending to visit dear ones' neglected graves. They knelt, crossed themselves and pretended to pray. They wore the religious medals that Danka and Mala had given them and carried little Catholic prayer books.

Kazimiera Justyna, center, in black, did more than teach. She helped Sabina Schwartz (directly behind her, with dark hair and no hat) and her sister escape persecution by the Nazis.

Was it wrong to deny her faith and pretend to be Catholic? The eighth- graders struggled with the moral dilemma and decided certainly not. "Dr. Zimering survived," one said. "She lived to tell us her story."

By the end of 1942, the German military success was slowing. Fighting the Russians required more and more soldiers and equipment. The workforce in Germany was badly depleted. Workers, mostly from occupied countries, were brought in. Germany had millions of foreigners. The girls' father, in the forced-labor camp, got word to them that he thought it was safer to be a Jew in Germany than in Poland. He urged them to make their way there.

With one lie after another and one near-miss following closely on the heels of the last, the girls made it by train to Germany. Sabina fretted, "Could I work and live among the Germans, the people who accepted Hitler's plan to kill every one of us?"

In the cold, early spring of 1943, Sabina and Helka arrived in Regensburg, in the beautiful Bavarian area of Germany. They were assigned to work at the huge, elegant Maximilian Hotel, with its Persian rugs and shimmering chandeliers. Sabina became a cleaning girl, her sister a dishwasher.

It took Sabina a while to realize who the hotel guests were – German military men of high rank. They weren't just passing through; they lived there. She remembers, "So Helka and I were living and working in the midst of our most powerful and feared enemies. Since they occupied the whole hotel, it was impossible to avoid them."

The most terrifying encounter came in a few months. Sabina was vacuuming the ballroom after a big party. An officer was reading and smoking a cigarette in one of the comfortable chairs. He motioned to her to stop the noise. With an odd look, he asked where she was from.

He went on, "I have watched you work and noticed the shape of your head, your profile and ears. I am an anthropologist with a special interest in the Jewish facial structure. Are there any Jews in your family?"

Trying to keep panic out of her voice, she replied loudly, "Jews in my family? Never, we never had any. What non-sense?" Without looking at him. She flicked the vacuum cleaner back on and continued to work. He was still in his chair when she left the ballroom.

Later that day she ran to her room and analyzed her face in the mirror. She could make one easy adjustment: Cover the ears that she thought were too large. She pulled out the hairpins and let her hair fall freely. Never again has she worn her hair up.

Her sister feared they'd have to run away again. They would wait there for the war to end.

She told the eighth-graders she had pitied a sobbing German woman who had just learned that her son had been killed in the war. Her heart went out to the woman and then she chastised herself. "What's the matter with me?" she wondered. "I feel terrible for her, and she's a German, the enemy. I know exactly what they are planning for us."

When she told her story to the eighth-graders, she skipped most of the aftermath – being liberated by the Allies on April 27, 1945, when she was 22, then returning home to Poland, learning of her parents' deaths, being accepted in medical school in Munich, falling in love with Ruben Zimering (who had lost his entire family in the Holocaust), moving to Minnesota with him raising their three children and practicing medicine in private practice and at the University of Minnesota's health service.

Both her sister (now named Helen Bigos) and brother (Nathan Schwartz) had settled in the Twin Cities before her. Minnesota came to feel more and more like home, she wrote in her memoir, but she didn't entirely blend in. "I didn't believe in frivolities and excesses."

She did tell the Catholic young people one more piece: After not seeing Danka and Mala for 35 years, the Polish sisters came to visit in Minnesota. It turns out that they had risked their lives for many Jews. They and their mother had been part of the anti-Nazi Polish underground during the war. (Not their father; "not everyone can be a hero," one of his daughters said.)

Sabina's rabbi honored the Polish sisters in Adath Jeshurun synagogue. He called the women heroines. Danka expressed gratitude for the honor, but said that what they and their mother did was not heroism. They only had helped friends in danger.

- Peg Meier is at pmeier@startribune.com

Sabrina Zimering

Star Tribune photo by Stormi Greener

Dear Sabrina Zimering,
Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to share your incredible story of bravery, love, trust and horror. Your story really touched us. It gave us a better understanding of the Holocaust. Thank you.

Sincerely,
Jessica Friedlander and Heather Magers Keefe, eighth-graders at Christ the King / St. Thomas the Apostle School, Minneapolis

Original article appeared in Star Tribune, April 29, 2001.