Undefeated

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Resident Misia Nudler sitting outside patio smiling

For many of us, the last 18 months have been an unprecedented time of worry, frustration and isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our daily lives, from obligatory masks and testing, to social distancing and teaching our youngsters from home. As vaccination rates rise, so do our hopes for a return to normalcy and better days, days of reunions and shared meals and hugs that last a long, long while.

Despite the challenges we’ve faced, there have been a number of inspiring words added to our lexicon over the last year and a half: resiliency, fortitude, creativity, bravery, hope. Signs still hang from buildings, proudly proclaiming “Heroes Work Here,” and certainly, they do. As we move into the next phase of this unique experience, it’s important to reflect on how far we’ve come, while also acknowledging how far we have to go.

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins this year at sundown on September 6th, and the holiday offers the opportunity for reflection and recommitment to others—a chance to be honest and truly atone for one’s transgressions, and to forgive those made against you. At The Reutlinger Community in Danville, California, the residents and staff at this Jewish senior living community also see Rosh Hashanah as an opportunity to acknowledge new blessings while reflecting on those granted in years past, a way of honoring the hardships of the Jewish people while celebrating the beauty of their lives. In support of that endeavor, Eskaton is proud to introduce you to Misia Nudler, philanthropist, Holocaust Survivor, and resident of The Reutlinger Community.

Undefeated

Misia was born in the fall of 1927 in the small town of Zareby Koscielne (Zaromb), Poland. Her father, a well-known and highly-respected furrier, was a man of deep faith who went to Shul (Synagogue) both morning and night, no matter how busy or tired he may have been. Misia’s mother was a kind, charitable soul who taught her daughters to always give what they could to those who needed it most, often hosting four to five poorer members of the community for the Shabbat meal every week. Misia’s eyes light up as she talks excitedly about these Friday dinners. Freshly baked challah and cakes warm from the oven, handmade noodles, chopped fish for stew. She offers a warm, deep smile when she talks of shopping for ingredients with her mother, a funny pout when she recalls having to take turns with her younger sister. A look of reverence as she describes the beauty of her father singing Zmirot (Jewish hymns) over the meal, his family accompanying him like a choir.  

The fifth of six girls, Misia and her sisters grew up attending both Hebrew and Polish schools, a thorough education for their children being of particular importance to both parents. They learned early to meld into the environment that surrounded their family and the Jewish community, an environment that wasn’t always a friendly one, despite being the only home they’d ever known. Anti-Semitism was prevalent throughout Europe the entirety of Misia’s childhood, as it had been for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Indeed, most European countries did not offer people of the Jewish faith citizenship until the late 1700s and well into the 1800s, despite thriving Jewish populations that had lived there since the first century. At best, Jews were tolerated with barely-concealed disdain by the other members of the community. More frequently, their businesses were targeted for disruption and vandalism, their motives constantly questioned, their children taunted by classmates for their heritage. For most Jewish people, this was simply the way of the world, something their ancestors had faced, something their descendants would likely experience, as well. “It was a part of life, the Jews’ life,” Misia says with a shrug of her shoulders. “We were used to it.” She says many things this way, direct and without embellishment, as if there is no other explanation for this sort of cruelty.

In the final weeks of August 1939, a clandestine meeting held in the USSR produced a non-aggression treaty between Germany and Russia, resulting in the superpowers agreeing to divide Poland between them. On September 1, Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg on Misia’s home and the entire country fell in twenty days. Within two months, Russian soldiers were occupying the village where her family lived, and for two years, they lived under Russian occupation and attended Russian schools. During this time, Misia’s family home was often filled with hungry, desperate Jews who had escaped from German-occupied Polish territory, less than seven miles away.

In late June of 1941, the Germans attacked Russia, and Polish villages—including Misia’s—were ruthlessly bombed until they were abandoned by their former occupiers and left to the Germans. Shortly after, the Jewish members of the community were ordered to the town of Czyzew, where a ghetto was to be formed. At great risk to himself, the Polish mayor of Misia’s town told her father it wasn’t safe for him to take his family there; he’d been told the Jews who went to Czyzew were being killed upon arrival. Terrified, Misia’s father escaped with his wife and daughters to the town of Ciechanowiec, nearly 40 miles away. Sadly, it wasn’t far enough, and the ghetto came to them less than three months later.

Surrounded by barbed wire, multiple families crammed into a single room, no running water, electricity or heat, conditions in the Polish ghettos were nothing short of inhumane. “We were cold, hungry, and scared all the time. It is hard to describe how we lived,” Misia says. When the chance came to escape the terrors of ghetto, but unwilling to leave his family, her father sent Misia and her youngest sister instead. Alone, frightened, terrified of leaving their family, the two young girls were ushered through a gate guarded by a sympathetic Pole and out into a hostile world.

Resident Misia Nudler sitting, showing the book she wroteMisia was just 14 years old.  

For nearly three years, Misia and her sister Sheindel (now Jeanette) traversed the Polish countryside, moving between the farms that dotted the landscape during the night. “Our life in hiding was very hard,” Misia says. “We often remarked on how well the dogs and other creatures had it. They had their freedom.” Never sure of their next meal, uncertain where to find shelter or clothing, these children also faced a kind of hatred foreign to most. Once, a young Polish man found them hiding in a barn and went directly to the police to inform them of his discovery and claim his prize. “If the man goes to the police, tells them where we are hiding, he’s gets five pounds of sugar, you see,” she says. “That is what a Jew’s life was worth. Five pounds of sugar.”

And yet, these painful memories are dwarfed by those Misia has of people who displayed incredible empathy and courage, those who chose to risk their own lives to help save theirs. Farmers who allowed them a few nights’ respite in their attics or the hay lofts of their barns. Their wives, who snuck them crusts of bread or an egg through a quickly-shutting kitchen door. Of these humanitarians, there is one who stands out from the rest, a woman that Misia refers to as a נס (the word for miracle in Hebrew).

“We stopped at a house to trade a tablecloth we’d found for some bread, some food, and a woman is there. We asked her ‘Can we please have some food for this tablecloth,’ and she sees us, sees who we are, and she tells us ‘Come in, sit at the table.’ She gives us bread to eat and milk to drink and told us to come back in a week. For two months, she gives us food. Bread and boiled potatoes and things. She saved our life.” Incredible enough, what is most extraordinary about Misia’s recollection is not the story itself, but the way in which Misia shares it. There is such gratitude and affection and pure love in the retelling, the strength of a woman choosing to remember her blessings more potently than the horrific wrongs heaped upon her. It is a testament to the power of the human spirit to survive, to see the good, to forgive.

In October 1944, Misia and Sheindel were discovered in a corn field by a Russian soldier who told them the Germans were being routed from Poland and they were safe at last. Less than six months later, in May 1945, the allies declared victory and World War II was finally at an end. The sisters returned to Ciechanowiec where’d they’d last seen their parents and siblings. Their mother and father were gone, as were the vast majority of their friends and neighbors, shipped off like cattle to Treblinka were they’d perished from starvation, exposure or a bullet. The discovery was painful, but not unexpected, so the joy at finding two other sisters in the town was overwhelming. Though the war was over, the danger to Misia and the other Survivors was still very present. The anti-Semitism they’d experienced in Poland prior to World War II was more prolific than ever, with the Armia Krajowa (or AK, the Polish Home Army) hunting and killing many Survivors, Misia’s cousin included.

Heartbreakingly, the world didn’t want them, either. Russia refused immigration to all people of the Jewish faith, while Britain and the United States substantially curtailed the number of refugees they were willing to resettle. With a little luck, and some significant help from the Joint Jewish Organization, Misia and her companions were given places at a displaced persons (DP) camp run by the United Nations Rehabilitation Association (UNRA) in Pocking-Walstada, Germany. Forced to flee for their lives yet again, they escaped through the Czechoslovakian mountains on foot under cover of night.

For the next four years, Misia found herself relegated to the barracks of a former military base, her daily life lived in the shadow of a totalitarian power that had attempted to exterminate her and her people. Misia explains, “A DP camp isn’t a lovely place, but it was safe. And life goes on, doesn’t it? You must figure out how to live. And we did.” Despite her bleak surroundings, Misia soon found a way forward, falling in love with a young Jewish man who was driving a Jeep for the American Red Cross. She and Harold were married days after her twentieth birthday; their first child, a boy, was born in those same barracks just over a year later.

That anyone could find joy while living in the purgatory of a DP camp is difficult to understand, yet Misia and her new family did just that. Refusing to give in to despair, the young couple and their infant son waited patiently for a path out of Germany and to a new home. This miracle eventually arrived through Misia’s paternal aunt, who was living in Oakland, California and helped them secure the necessary papers for their immigration to the United States. After a long journey that entailed a steamship, a few trains and a sturdy pair of shoes, Misia finally arrived on American shores in September of 1949, safe, healthy, and eager to start a new life.

A page from Misia Nudler's book of her weddingThough they didn’t speak the language or understand the customs of their adoptive country, Misia and her husband now found themselves part of a large, tightknit Jewish community in the Bay Area of California. Among them were many Survivors of the Holocaust like themselves; others had been living in the region for decades or longer, some of them first-generation Americans who’d never known the anti-Semitism their new neighbors had faced in Europe.

Harold partnered with a new friend to support his bride and child, peddling scrap metal for a few years before establishing a successful plumbing supply company. Misia was also quickly brought into the fold of the Jewish community, learning English and the nuances of American life from the other woman in her circle. Determined to pass on what she viewed as great kindness from those who had helped her and Sheindel during the harrowing years they were in hiding, Misia was soon volunteering her time and talents to organizations like St. Vincent De Paul and Meals on Wheels, helping to feed the starving that populated the streets of San Francisco and Oakland. “My mother taught us to care for others, so that is what I did. I wanted to do it for her,” Misia recalls with a smile.

Like her mother, Misia didn’t care about the faith or background of those she helped, volunteering for both Christian and Jewish organizations alike. She eventually became the President of the Temple Beth Abraham Sisterhood, as well as the President of the Oakland Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization whose mission is quite literally “bringing healing to the world” through education and fundraising for those in need. Misia was also a mainstay at the Home for Jewish Parents in Oakland, where she spent more than 30 years helping to care for her community’s elders. This senior living community would eventually relocate to Danville in the East Bay and was renamed The Reutlinger Community, where Misia herself is a beloved and venerated resident today.

Resident  Misia Nudler's standing outside in front of The Reutlinger CommunityWhen compared to the horrors of the Holocaust, the constant fight for survival, the pain of losing so many loved ones, the challenges we face today seem trivial in comparison. Yet Misia reminds us that the same emotions are present despite the radical differences. “People are angry this {pandemic} has happened,” Misia tells us. “They miss their family, miss sharing a meal or visiting with them. People aren’t meant to be alone. We must help one another.”

For a woman who saw the very worst of humanity, who spent years defending her right to live against an army of hate, her capacity for love and gratitude is astounding. Though her story is heartbreaking in many ways, within it are elements of hope and charity, of the unfailing courage of others that allowed her to survive. “I tell my story because it is important for people to know what happened. They must learn so that it may never happen again,” she says with an expression that brooks no argument. When asked what she message she would share with the younger generations, her words are as straight-forward and honest as the woman herself. “Don’t be selfish. Give of yourself to others. Help people. This is the only true way to live.”

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