Paula Marks nee Rajchman was born in 1926 in Ozarkow, Poland. She came from a loving family that included her father, Israel Rajchman, her mother Sarah and three older brothers: Moishe, Schmeral and Simon. She also had a paternal grandmother and a maternal grandfather. Her father worked from home, designing and weaving textiles that he sold to a coat and suit factory. Her mother had been a schoolteacher, but since married women didn’t work at that time, she tended the house, cooking and baking wondrous delicacies.
The town had a large Jewish population and one very big synagogue, but lots of little Shtieblach, or small synagogues, where fifty or sixty people gathered for Friday night services. Before shul, the Rajchmans Sabbath table was covered in white linen and they enjoyed a meal of soup, fish and freshly baked challah. Paula watched her mother making the bread and noodles and was given the responsibility of preparing mini challahs.
Paula’s family was not religious but they were observant Jews who didn’t cook on Shabbos. Her father didn’t dress like a religious Jew and because they were assimilated, he wore a business suit and was clean shaven. The family was comfortable with their gentile neighbors and Sarah always made baked goods that she shared with them on Passover.
Paula’s brothers went to public high school, but not to college. After graduation her older brother Moishe married, had two children and lived close by. Also, Schmeral married Chava before the war and they lived in Lodz, which was twenty four kilometers away, a streetcar visit that the family made very often.
Paula went to public school with Jews and Gentiles. There were a few anti-Semitic outbreaks that she recalls: once a friend said “you Jew . . . go to Palestine!”
The family was not aware of what was to come. They did know about Hitler, but didn’t believe that horrors would befall them. In 1939, when the Germans marched into Ozarkow, Paula was a mere thirteen years old. She remembers the Jewish people being grabbed and beaten on the streets. Her youngest brother, just two years older than she, was caught and took a severe beating but managed to escape, running home to announce to the family “We’re in big trouble.”
When the town was occupied, the Germans attacked the population methodically, finding all the Jews. Hundreds of men were trucked away to Posen concentration camp. When Simon and Moishe were taken, Paula became uncontrollable as they were “marched to the slaughter.”
During this time, Jews had to wear armbands and were not allowed to walk on the sidewalks. She worked in a factory and when she heard that her street was next to be attacked, she ran home, using back roads or alleyways to warn everyone. At this time, her father was ill and was bedridden when the Gestapo arrived. They screamed “araus!” (raus) and hit her father with their rifles to hurry him along. Her mother was wearing a housedress and there was a cake baking in the oven. Sarah quickly threw her “good coat,” a black seal fur, over the housedress and marched out, carrying nothing but a small picture of herself, which she later gave to Paula.
Together with the other inhabitants of the apartment dwelling, they were locked into a school room with about sixty other people. One of her mother’s gentile friends was the guard, which gave her mother hope and she pleaded with him to let her child go . . . he replied by hitting Sarah in the chest with a large club. Shortly thereafter, Paula was removed from that room and put into another with only children, all crying for parents they would never see again.
The children were taken into the Ozarkow ghetto where there were hundreds, all praying for their mothers and fathers. Adults there took these children under their care and moved about a dozen of them into each house. A group of young boys took off their Stars of David and tried to escape. They were caught and rounded up by the Gestapo and hanged in the town square – all the Jews were required to attend and forced to watch, all the while singing Hatikvah during the hanging. She remained in that ghetto about three months.
In 1940, three hundred people were taken to the Lodz ghetto. Paula had only the clothes on her back and, in her hand, she clutched the photograph of her mother. There were Jewish doctors and nurses and one, by the name of Ann Bruckman, who knew her uncle, a successful accountant in Lodz. Ann took Paula home with her to stay with her husband David and her two year old child. They lived in one room with a single bed and a crib, which is where Paula slept with the baby.
They received rations once per week. On a good day, she got a small piece of meat, a handful of sugar and they made latkes from potatoes, peels and coffee grounds. She worked in the ghetto making braids from straw that they lined in barrels for the Germans. Her second job was making trenchcoats in a factory and then she was moved to shoe distribution. There were no schools and people became undernourished. The factories fed them soup and one slice of bread per day.
Ann’s sister, Ruta took Paula under her wing. David was a fireman who moved them from street to street, trying to avoid the Germans, who eventually came and packed them into cattle train cars with no sanitation and no food. They traveled four days and nights to Auschwitz screaming and crying in those cars, packed in like animals. Meeting them at the camp was Dr. Mengele, himself, wearing white and only saying two words, either “Left” or “Right.” Hundreds of them went to the gas chambers and the two hundred that she was with were marched to the showers to be cleansed, sanitized and shaven. Everyone was given a striped dress, and, because Paula was tall, the dress barely covered her otherwise naked body. She saw dozens of dying women and described what she called “a crazy state.” They encountered Gypsies who, if you had shoes, would steal them. During Paula’s three short days there, everyone was frantic, not given any directions of what to do and her dear Ruta was torn from her embrace and taken. Because Paula’s time there was so short, she was not tattooed.
Her next stop was Ravensbruck, where, once again, she was taken by cattle car with about two hundred fifty other women and girls. They were cold and thirsty and, together with other prisoners, were counted repeatedly. The women were all covered with lice and, again, no sanitation, which forced them to use ditches. Their food consisted of a small amount of soup and one slice of bread. She was there two weeks.
Paula’s next camp was Muhlhausen, which was a new clean facility in Thüringen, Germany. The guards were both men and women who gave them a blanket, showers, soup and bread. She worked in an ammunition factory along with five hundred other girls. Her job was to measure bullets, which she sabotaged by throwing away some good ones. If she had been caught, she would have been killed. Paula remembers a nice “grandfatherly” German man who liked her and, knowing she was starving, would bring her an occasional crab apple, a piece of bread and rags to put around her feet to keep her from freezing.
No religion was ever observed in these camps, but she was an optimist and believed that one day she would be reunited with her family.
She remained there about eight months, during which time the prisoners bonded as if they were family and kept hearing rumors that the Russians were coming to rescue them. As their time drew to an end, the German guards rounded up the women and marched them, mostly shoeless, for two days to Bergen-Belsen. On the way, Paula saw masses of people, mostly men, walking, some, weakened and sick, fell to their death. The women, she said, were in much better condition than the men on that march. Bergen-Belsen was a “crazy house,” where there were no toilets and mounds of dead bodies. She observed cannibalism because of the extreme starvation.
When finally assigned to a barrack, Paula said it was filthy and filled with sick and dying women. Forty girls, including her, were sent to “heaven,” a men’s kitchen nearby, where she peeled potatoes. She ate them raw, eating the peels as well. Malnutrition made her ill and she hid under the bunk beds, knowing that if she was found, she would be killed.
When the British arrived, the German guards quickly disappeared. There were rumors that the Germans had poisoned the bread to kill everyone, but there was no time to carry out their plans. The soldiers were devastated by what they saw, thousands of dead and dying people. Although language was a barrier, they communicated with the prisoners by gestures and gave them food, clothes and took the sick to the hospital. Paula was then seventeen and had typhus. She recovered at a mini-clinic where she stayed for two weeks. They returned to Bergen-Belsen as the high holy days were coming and they wanted to observe the holidays for the first time in many years.
Paula then journeyed from city to city, looking for her family. On Yom Kippur, she met a young man, Martin Marks, who was wearing a blue shirt and playing the harmonica. He was a survivor as well. They fell in love and married eight months later. During that period, she found a distant cousin, Moishe, who was with her brother in Posen, where her younger brother perished. He told Paula that her parents died in Treblinka and her oldest brother was killed when he became ill. Simon was sick with typhus and died in Posen concentration camp shortly before liberation.
Her middle brother Schmeral, left for Russia when the war broke out and existed in a work camp in Siberia. After the war, he went to Israel. Over thirty years later, Paula was reunited with him and brought him to Detroit to visit two times before he died in January of 1997.
When Paula and Martin married, they were eighteen and nineteen. They lived Hannover with other survivors in a large building in a communal environment. She went to ORT’s School of Design and Martin became a policeman. They were married by a rabbi and the entire community came to the wedding. Her first child, a son, died when he was three months old.
They were brought to the U.S. in 1949 by her relatives, Jane Meisner and Alan Zeiger and the American Joint Distribution Committee (ADJC). The quota had prevented them from coming to America any sooner. They became citizens in 1954 and Martin worked at different sales jobs for Budman Home Improvement and for Belvedere Construction and she worked at a beautiful boutique, Nat Green’s on Livernois’ “Avenue of Fashion” in Detroit, where they first settled and raised two daughters, Shelley and Noreen.
Paula shares her stories about the Holocaust with her family, friends and the Holocaust Memorial Center and does speaking engagements for Shalom Ministry.