When the Nazis called her little sister’s name, Anne “Chana” Ptaszek made a choice. She stepped forward.
In that moment, Ptaszek positioned herself between her sister and almost certain death. It was January 1945. As the Germans scrambled to transport Jews — including Ptaszek and her four siblings — from the labor camp in Poland by train, their liberators grew closer.
Lined up in front of their barracks, Ptaszek and her siblings listened as names were called. When their youngest sister, Reva, was called out, Ptaszek pretended to be her.
“They knew they were going to their death,” her sister Reva Kibort recalled. “She was that kind of girl.”
The arrival of the Russians disrupted the German plans, leaving no time to send the batch of men, women and children away, including Ptaszek and several of her other siblings.
More than 70 years after their liberation, Ptaszek’s siblings still credit their older sister for helping them survive. Known by her family for her selfless resolve, Ptaszek died Jan. 24. The Holocaust survivor and admired seamstress was 92.
She was born in Warsaw, Poland, the oldest of seven children, and took on the role of mother from an early age. After her parents died in the war, she cared for her four surviving siblings and helped shepherd them through the Holocaust. The five siblings managed to stay together in the labor camps — a rarity among survivors.
From her sacrifices during the war to her motherly devotion in the decades that followed, Ptaszek exemplified what relatives describe as Eshet Hayil, Hebrew for a woman of valor.
“She was a quiet hero,” said her son, Steve Ptaszek. “She didn’t brag about herself. She just did what she had to do.”
After the war, Ptaszek met and married her husband, Samuel Ptaszek, while in a displaced persons camp. They soon immigrated to the United States and moved to the Twin Cities, joining her siblings. Ptaszek and her husband raised three children here.
Many memories of Ptaszek come embroidered with stories of her sewing. Shortly after the war, she once transformed a military blanket into a smartly styled jacket and pair of pants. The olive-hued outfit was for Reva to wear to the United States — a journey Ptaszek had encouraged her to take.
For her little brother, Mark Mandel, she once sewed a suit from a bedspread, which he wore during their years in the labor camp.
“She took over and was our mother,” Mandel said. “She was an angel.”
Relatives recall her smile and laughter, despite life’s tragedies, including unexpectedly losing her daughter, Rose Lee.
Years later, Ptaszek would treasure the way that her granddaughter, Rachel, reminded her of Rose Lee.
At home, life was filled with the low hum of her sewing machine. The steady purr from her Singer signaled a woman at peace, relatives said. “It was her Zen,” her son Steve said.
Ptaszek kept busy and stayed active, a true “woman on a mission,” said her son Larry. She made many of her own clothes.
From her passion for needlework also came countless baby quilts. She pieced together colored fabric, often cool blues for boys and flushed pinks for girls. These quilts swaddled newborns, a patchwork testament to “Auntie” Chana’s love.
She was never withdrawn about the war, telling her children and then her grandchildren stories about smuggling food and the daily struggle to keep her family together.
Even so, her granddaughter Rachel said she was never bitter. “She always saw the good in every situation.”
On Jan. 17, 2015, nearly 120 relatives gathered to honor the 70th anniversary of Ptaszek and her siblings’ liberation. Their oldest sister came in her wheelchair, looked at her vibrant family and never stopped smiling.
Besides her two sons, brother Mark, sister Reva and granddaughter Rachel, Ptaszek’s survivors include another grandchild, Jason. Services have been held.