Holocaust survivor Vicki Hartman shared her unforgettable experience as a young Jewish girl during World War II with R. Roger Rowe School eighth-graders at a special assembly on Nov. 4. The students heard from a living part of history whose story was, at times, terrifying and horrible — but it is a necessary lesson to learn and remember.
Rancho Santa Fe School Board President Todd Frank and his wife, Lynn, arranged for the special visit, because the eighth-graders are studying World War II and the Holocaust and reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“These opportunities are very special, to connect with and learn about someone who was actually living in that time,” said R. Roger Rowe Middle School Principal Garrett Corduan. “This is one of those moments in their life that they will always remember.”
After her talk for the entire eighth-grade class, Hartman shared lunch, further discussion and family photographs with five students who had gone above and beyond in class, reading advanced and numerous texts on World War II: Caneel Young, Lila Bobertz, Taber Bell, Riley Clotfelter and Hannah Lolly.
“Prejudice is a very hurtful thing,” Hartman told the students, sitting in a semicircle around her in the Performing Arts Center. “I was just an innocent child who experienced prejudice in a horrible way.”
Hartman was born in Lodz, Poland, and was almost 5 when the war broke out; she remembers lots of noise, sirens and confusion. As her Jewish family was too well-known in their town, they were advised to go to the larger city of Warsaw, where they might have a better chance at keeping a low profile.
Hartman’s mother, an attorney, and her father, a successful businessman, left their home and moved to Warsaw with 22 members of their family. After about eight months, the Germans mandated that all Jewish people had to register or face punishment, so the family complied.
As Jews, the whole family was forced to relocate into the Warsaw Ghetto to live and work under German control. They had to wear armbands for identification, and three to four families were crammed into one-bedroom apartments in a very dilapidated neighborhood.
“We weren’t used to it, because we had a very nice life before that,” Hartman said. “We couldn’t really leave the ghetto, there was a big fence with barbed wire and broken glass at the top … I remember getting together with my cousins at a little school. I remember dancing in a paper dress my mother made me.”
Hartman’s father noticed that many people were being sent out of the ghetto on trains, and stories trickled down that they were being sent to labor or gas camps. He made plans with the members of the Polish resistance, the partisans, to get false passports and get his family out of the ghetto. Their 22 other relatives were hesitant about leaving the ghetto and decided to stay behind.
Hartman was driven out of the ghetto in a car, hiding under a bunch of supplies, with the plan to meet up with her parents at a safe house, a mortuary. Her parents were miraculously able to slip away from a work detail in the city and meet up with her.
“A lot of things that happened to me I attribute to luck, because it was almost impossible,” Hartman said. “How could they have escaped? It was like a movie.”
At the mortuary, she had to sleep in a casket to keep from being discovered.
“I was really scared, but I trusted my mom and went to sleep,” said Hartman. “It was one of my most horrifying experiences in the war.”
The family paid to hide in one room of an apartment owned by a Polish couple. During the day while the couple were at work, they were allowed to cook in the kitchen and be in the living room with the shades down, but once the couple returned they had to stay in the bedroom and keep the door closed. When the couple had visitors, they had to hide in a 4-foot-wide crawl space between the walls.
“I was usually quiet and obedient, because they told me if I made a noise we could all die,” Hartman said, recalling one scary moment when she sneezed and the couple had to tell their guests it was the cat. “I was really frightened by that.”
For two years, she never got to go outside. Her parents gave her reading and arithmetic lessons every day to keep her occupied. Sometimes, at night, her father would allow her to lift the shade a tiny bit just so she could look at the street. It was always empty.
One day in 1943, the sky turned bright red, and they read in the paper that the Germans had burned the ghetto. They had no way of knowing what happened to their relatives.
After a visit from the police to the apartment, the family decided it was no longer safe there and they had to leave. The partisans made arrangements for them to stay with another couple.
The new arrangements were quite comfortable, but they didn’t last long, as relentless bombing of the city destroyed their safe house and they were forced to live on the street.
“So many people had been bombed out that nobody knew where anybody belonged,” Hartman said.
The family lived on the street, living only on bread, onions and occasionally horsemeat. Some nuns in a Catholic church nearby had taken to giving hot cocoa to the children, so one afternoon Hartman went to stand in line with the others.
A couple of older boys started to tease her, calling her “Jew girl!” and catching the attention of a German soldier nearby. The soldier yelled at her and Hartman ran away.
“I was running really fast, but I started to feel funny because my leg was really warm,” Hartman said. “I looked down and saw my leg was all bloody and that he had shot me.”
Running on adrenaline, only 8 years old, Hartman found her way into a storeroom and hid under a pile of straw. She passed out from the pain until a friend of her father’s found her.
The next day, the Germans started sending everyone out of the city. Her mother was sent to another part of the country with the nurses. As Hartman could not walk, her father carried her. They were forced to walk out of the city for nearly eight hours.
The people were split up and because of Hartman’s injury, her father was able to go with her to the group of people who were sent to the hospital. By this time, her leg was infected and with the threat of losing her leg, her father was able to find a surgeon to treat her.
Hartman and her father were able to stay in the hospital safely until the war’s end, her father finding work at the facility and her attorney mother passing as a nurse in the hospital in the other city. The nurses were suspicious of Hartman’s “dark Jewish eyes,” but she had learned Catholic prayers to say with them and remain undetected.
After the war ended, the family was able to return to Lodz, where their home, incredibly, was still intact. As it was one of the nicer homes in the city, a German officer had taken it to live in.
“It was surreal because an unbelievable thing happened to us — we were away for three years and everything was still there,” Hartman said.
Her father had buried some of their most treasured belongings and they were able to recover them. One item, a family ring more than 100 years old, was hidden behind a brick in the stove. Hartman still wears it sometimes.
Some of Hartman’s uncles had come to the United States before the war. The family waited three years in Sweden before getting their visas to come to America. Of the 25 family members in Poland at the start of the war, Hartman and her parents were the only survivors. To this day, she does not know what happened to them or how they perished, whether it was in the ghetto or in one of the camps.
Hartman is grateful to have survived and to be able to live in this country.
“You are very lucky to be an American,” she told the students. “We are very, very free and this is the best country in the world — don’t ever forget it. We should be proud.”