In January 1945, five siblings were freed from a Nazi labor camp, not knowing how many Jews were left in the world or where their life journeys would take them.
With both parents dead, they had survived the pain and humiliation of slave labor camps, the constant fear of death, and a gnawing hunger never sated by their watery soup with worms.
Fast forward to now, when the three surviving siblings sat down to a savory meal of chicken and pasta at a Twin Cities country club. They were surrounded by nearly 120 children and grandchildren who had traveled across the country to attend a remarkable reunion honoring the 70th anniversary of their liberation.
“I personally feel it’s a miracle,” said Reva Kibort, of Golden Valley, the youngest of the five. “We were very lucky,” she told the family gathering.
They were also very rare. Usually families were ripped apart in the Holocaust, marched away to war camps, killed outright or worked to death.
“I’ve not heard of a group of siblings who survived together in labor camps,” said Diane Saltzman, director of Survivor Affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where she has worked 19 years. The survival of five “is an exceptional experience,” she said.
All the siblings eventually made their way to the Twin Cities, where Kibort had been sent to a Jewish foster home in 1947. Staying together was paramount.
“We lost a lot of people in our family, at least 50 cousins,” said Mark Mandel, Kibort’s brother and a Minnetonka businessman. “So we’ve always stressed how important family is.”
War and peace
The family tree propped on an easel at the dinner last weekend showed the names of the five Polish children who beat the odds: Anne Ptaszek, Mindall Gutman (deceased), Eda Strauss (deceased), Mark Mandel, Reva Kibort.
The carefree world of their descendants, the youngest playing on the banquet hall floor, was in stark contrast to their grandparents’ lives in Poland during World War II. Family patriarch Chaim Libisch Mandelbaum, a shoemaker, was killed in the 1939 bombings of Warsaw. Their mother, Pearl, and a their sister were last seen in the Warsaw Ghetto two years later, as Germans forced Jews to the Treblinka death camp in Poland.
Their story, like those of other Holocaust survivors, is a quest for survival. But these children had several advantages. Fair-haired and fluent in Polish, they could often pass as non-Jews. And perhaps because of their youth, they were street smart and took enormous risks.
For example, when the Nazis forced the family from their home in Warsaw to the city’s Jewish ghetto in 1940, food was scarce. Mandel and his sisters regularly risked their lives to sneak into the city’s Christian section, smuggled out food, coal and other provisions, and then resold them to support their mother and siblings.
When Mandel found himself caught up in a group of Hungarian Jews being marched to the railroad station and near-certain death, he thought quickly.
“I said in perfect Polish, ‘I’m not Jewish,’ ” recalled Mandel. And he walked out of the group, acting as if it were some great mistake.
Faking it became a way of life.
As the Germans began a massive deportation of the ghetto Jews to death camps in 1942, the children escaped by taking a train to their parents’ hometown of Deblin, pretending to be ordinary Polish kids. With Nazi guards and their German shepherds pacing the train, the older children told little Reva to pretend to be a deaf mute so she didn’t accidentally utter a word of Yiddish.
Arriving in Deblin, they discovered it was Judenfrei — free of Jews — except for a labor camp near the railroad. Learning their uncle and a cousin were in the camp, they smuggled themselves in during the night.
“People ask why did you do that?” said Kibort, who was about 9 years old at the time. “At that point, we thought we’d be safer with the Jews than the outside world.”
Their uncle and cousin, however, were forced out that same night.
“We thought we were the only Jews left in the world,’’ said Mandel.
The children’s final destination was another labor camp in Czestochowa, Poland, where they were forcibly moved in 1944. The arriving Jews were divided into groups of men, women and children. Kibort was with the children’s group, and the guard, for reasons she still doesn’t understand, told her to run. She did, and the guard shot all the rest.
It still haunts her.
So at the age of 11, Kibort joined her siblings at the camp munitions factory producing bullets that would eventually kill her people and their allies. They worked there until the Russians liberated the camp on Jan. 17, 1945.
Kibort acknowledges she “never would have survived” without her siblings. Mandel acknowledges the same. He believes his survival instincts were fueled by feelings of protection for his siblings.
“My sisters and I talked a lot back then,” said Kibort. It was, ‘We’re going to make it.’ And we did.”
Candles in memory
At the family reunion, the children held a ceremony to honor the liberation. Everyone stood and sang “God Bless America.” Then the descendants of each of the five survivors walked to the front of the room, spoke a few words, and lit a candle in their honor.
“This day is important and solemn,” said Joni Corwin, daughter of Mindall Gutman. “We are all here by the grace of God. And perseverance and sheer luck. From five who survived to almost 120!”
Becca Gillett shared her “haunting’’ experience of traveling to Poland with her grandmother Kibort last year, wandering the streets of Warsaw and walking along the train tracks that carried Jews to death. Said Gillett: “I was emotionally unprepared for the depth of respect and reverence I came to feel for my grandma and her siblings.’’
As the program continued, some of the children in the room started getting antsy.
“Don’t worry about the children’s voices,” Philip Kibort told the group. “They imply nothing but victory.”