Irene Miller’s Holocaust Played Out In Poland, Russia
By Ron Stang
Holocaust survivor Irene Miller will never savor the taste of a potato as much as she did when a young girl, at a Siberian work camp, when extreme hunger was rampant among the Jews taken there by Soviet captors.
“No potato will ever taste as good as the one that I had in Siberia,” she told a gathering of the Panel of Concerned Women, a Windsor group that invites speakers on a range of topics, often of social and political interest.
Miller, of West Bloomfield, is the author of the 2012 book, Into No Man’s Land: A Historical Memoir (University of Michigan – Dearborn).
For Miller’s family, she told her audience, they attempted to escape the Nazis in Poland by heading east to the Soviet Union. Only to find anti-Semitism almost as vicious there, where they were put on trains and taken to a work camp in remote Siberia.
But, earlier, hiding in the family apartment in Warsaw, “I could see the reflection of shining (Nazi) boots pounding and pounding the pavement,” a sound she still “reacts emotionally” to. The family hired a guide in the winter 1939-40 to be smuggled out of the country. Only he left them in a no man’s land. She remembers two scenes vividly: a man lying next to her who was dead, and a woman carrying a baby who was also not a live. A guard “just kicked the baby back into the crowd.”
Finally, Miller’s father smuggled himself into the country and bribed an official who allowed him to retrieve his children but not his wife. “We walked the whole night in the forest and for me the pain was excruciating because my feet got frost bitten,” she said. Days later, in a camp for Jews, her mother arrived out of nowhere. “It took me an enormous length of time to trust that mama will not vanish one day — just the way she came she will disappear.” Her father secured some work and they were better fed.
“But the joy did not last for very long,” she said.
The Soviet soldiers rounded up the inhabitants and took them to a waiting train, with cattle cars like how the Nazis transported Jews. They spent weeks in transport before arriving in the work camp in the Siberian taiga, a dense forest. It was so cold at times “breathing felt like swallowing sharp objects.”
Miller was in Siberia two years, where food was scarce and small treats like a loaf of bread or potatoes, were like a banquet. “For me to eat potatoes every day I thought you’d have to be very rich or royalty,” she laughed.
Then they were sent to Uzbekistan. “While we were extremely hungry in Siberia we were starving in Uzbekistan,” she said. Her father walked from farm to farm trying to find work. Malaria set in among the populace including her family.
To escape starvation, she and her sister were sent to a Jewish-run orphanage, where they lived until 1946, well after the war ended. The children had their heads shaved to prevent lice. “We were about 100 bald headed kids laying on boards.”
In the village, her father died of dysentery “buried in a communal grave, my mother didn’t even know which one.”
Despite being hungry and lonely she tried “everything possible to keep myself constructively involved.” She learned to read Polish and Russian. “The only place where I was expressing what I felt and how I felt was in writing poetry.” Re-reading the poetry decades later she was surprised how the writing was “nothing cute, nothing funny” as one might expect of a child, “just expressing longing for normalcy.”
Returning to Poland after the war, “anti-Semitism was still raging,” with killings of Jews taking place this time by Polish people. Of her extended family of 100 “not a single one of them survived.”
Miller, her sister and mother finally emigrated to Israel. Her mother felt staying in Poland “was like living on the graveyard of her brothers and sisters.”
Miller eventually moved to the United States, first to Cincinnati and then Michigan, where she had a successful career as a health services administrator and in retirement travels extensively, is on the board of the American Jewish Committee, and is a docent at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“I don’t want for you to think here is this poor woman who had such a tough life,” she told the audience. “Because I absolutely don’t think of myself that way. Not only my fortune is that I survived I’m fortunate that I survived and that I was able to create a meaningful life.”