Edith Schlesinger, Mother of TBE Member Len Schlesinger, Mother-in-law of TBE Member Phyllis Schlesinger, Grandmother of TBE Member Rebecca Ferat, and Great-Grandmother of Naomi, Eliza, and Sophie Ferat.
Edith Szmukler (of blessed memory) was born in the small town of Stopnitz, Poland, on 6 June, 1928, to Leibel and Sara Blema Kucharsky Szmukler. She was the youngest of six children (Yakob, Chaim, Yisroel, Hana Baida, and Yosef). Stopnitz was a small village, but the family had a long history there. Edith’s grandmother Rivke was a well-trusted midwife. Her father was a jobber, and her mother a housewife. She had a peaceful childhood, and loved school. Edith always said that her older sister Hana was the best student and most talented artist. Edith didn’t like being compared to her. Edith was particularly close to her brother Chaim and her grandmother Chaya Toba.
In 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland, life changed for Edith. She could no longer attend school. Polish children who she had been friends with no longer spoke to her. In 1941 a Ghetto was established by the invading Germans. It was an open Ghetto (no walls), but Jews were not allowed to leave. Food became scarce. Hundreds of Jews from other towns were brought into the Ghetto and conditions worsened. While her brothers worked as forced day laborers, Edith remained home.
In September, 1942, the SS, Polish Police, and Ukrainian units surrounded the Ghetto. Edith and her cousin Dvora were curious and went outside to see what was happening. She was only 14 years old. She and Dvora were swept into trucks and became forced laborers, bound for Skarzysko-Kamienna. In the days that followed, the rest of the Jewish citizens of Stopnitz were taken to Treblinka and massacred. Edith’s entire family was gone.
Skarzysko was not a death camp, but the conditions were terrible, particularly for one as young as Edith. She was an assembly line worker, making bullets for German soldiers. Because she was so small, she was able to line up the elements of the bullets in the machinery well. Her work was valued so she was able to live. She and some other girls helped each other survive. Edith contracted Typhus; the other girls held her up during roll-call and machine duty so the Germans wouldn’t kill her because she was sick. She would sometimes sabotage the bullets, but was terrified of being shot if sabotage was discovered.
Edith was eventually moved to Tschenstochau Labor Camp. She continued working as a forced laborer. In late 1944, early 1945, she and the other prisoners heard loud noises and artillery fire nearby. The Nazis started forcing the prisoners to march and/or be transported into Germany. There, they would either be killed or eventually liberated in April 1945. Edith and some friends hid and therefore were not transported. They knew something was happening nearby, but were terrified that they would meet Russian soldiers because they had a “reputation for harming women and girls. You know what I mean” (according to Edith). Somehow, together they made the 132 Kilometer journey to Kielce, Poland, and stayed together in an apartment at 7 Planty St. in Kielce. One night in January, 1945, there was a knock at the door. “Amchu”, the person said. Amchu meant “I’m Jewish”, so the girls opened the door. There was a man standing there, very cold. Edith gave him a blanket. “We have been together ever since,” she said. She and the man, Joe Schlesinger, were married in November, 1945.
Edith and Joe stayed in Kielce for several months. They searched for family members who might have survived, but to no avail. After the war ended, she wanted to open a Tea House on the main street in Kielce. Several nights before it was set to open, it was firebombed and destroyed. She was terrified. Anti-Semitism was still present in Poland. Edith and Joe decided to leave Kielce in early summer, 1946. That turned out to be a wise decision, because on July 4, 1946, there was a pogrom in Kielce. The attack started in Planty 7, the same building Edith and Joe had just left. More than 40 Jews were killed, many of whom Edith and Joe knew well. The family was able to revisit Kielce in 1996 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the pogrom.
We are not sure how Edith and Joe got to a displaced persons camp in Frankfurt. While there, Joe befriended a Jewish American soldier, who offered to find Edith’s Kucharsky family in the United States. The family was overjoyed that a relative had survived the war, and agreed to sponsor Edith, Joe, and their daughter Sylvia. They gave them a place to stay until they could provide for themselves. The family arrived in New York on December 25, 1947. Edith said she will never forget the lights of NY Harbor that evening.
They settled in Brooklyn, where Joe was an upholsterer and Edith a housewife. Their son Leonard was born in 1952. While Edith was happy to be in the United States, she used to tell me how she would walk around New York looking for familiar faces, the faces of the family she lost, but she never found any. Her cousin Dvora and her cousin Benny were also in New York, but they weren’t her nuclear family.
Survivors in New York met periodically in ‘landsmen’ societies. At one meeting, a woman asked Edith if she had a brother, Yakob. Edith said, “Yes, but he died in the war.” The woman replied, “No. He’s in Israel”. Edith couldn’t believe it. She made contact, and realized it was her brother! Edith and Joe brought Yakob and his family to New York. She was so glad she finally had family. Yakob died in 1970 but they were able to be part of each other’s lives for many years.
Despite her losses and her wartime experiences, Edith had a tremendous optimism about the world. She viewed every day as a gift. She took great pride in her family, in Sylvia (a teacher) and Len (an HBS Professor, business leader, and former President of Babson College). She adored her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. She was a sought-after speaker for Facing History and Ourselves, and spoke to many schools and groups until her memory started to fail in 2014. Once, in a talk, a student asked her if she had been bored by the factory work. Edith smiled, and said, “of course, but doing that work meant I could stay alive, so I did it.” Edith lived her final days at Newbridge on the Charles and came to TBE often. She passed away July 14, 2015. We miss her every day.