Sarah: Everything is always changing.
Jen: Do you think there’s anything that stays the same?
Sarah: Oh, yes. Family.
If you don’t have time to read this very long post about my experience at the 2015 Downingtown High School holocaust survivor symposium, I’ve already given you the takeaway gem: the only thing that doesn’t change in life across decades and generations is how important family is.
This is the second time I’ve volunteered as a driver for this event. I had a really magical time with Manya in 2012 (read more here). The event is set up like this: Philadelphia-area survivors are invited to speak to the sophomore class as part of the kids’ education about the holocaust, and several students are competitively selected to be one-on-one chaperones of the survivors for the day. The drivers’ (i.e. my) job is to get the survivors to and from the school. This time I was much less nervous and more excited. My charge for the day was Sarah Danon Meller, and when I googled ahead of time I discovered she is from Split, Croatia (formerly Yugoslavia). Yes! I was just in Croatia! I couldn’t wait to talk to her. I was also excited to go back to the school, which used to be a junior high school – MY junior high school – and became a high school when the school district split the high school into two. I hadn’t been inside since 1995.
I waited a few minutes outside Sarah’s house and then out came a very sprightly little lady in a lovely black pinstripe suit. And because I’m 5’2″ when I say she’s little you know that she’s TINY! She must have been 4’10”. She needed no help from me to get in and out of the car and we chatted like old friends from the time we got on the road to our arrival at the school. I made a point of not asking her to tell her war stories since I knew she’d be telling the whole story later that morning. We talked about Croatia and how beautiful the Dalmatian islands are, and the places that I visited. She was still disappointed that I hadn’t been to Split, even though I’d seen a good number of other places in Croatia (Dubrovnik, Korcula, Orebic, Cara).
I asked her all about how she met her husband and what she liked to do growing up in the states (she was not even a teenager by the time she got to NY). She said she loved going dancing, and told me that her husband asked her to go steady on their first date in January 1952, then he asked her to marry him 3 months later, and they got married on July 5, 3 months after that. I said, your anniversary is my birthday! And then she told me that her husband had died almost 3 years ago on July 6 – the day after their 60th wedding anniversary. He had waited for their anniversary and told everyone he saw in the hospital all day long that it was their anniversary. How beautiful and sad is that? She had a wonderful marriage, and has 4 children and 7 grandchildren. She told me that no amount of time she had with her husband would have ever been enough.
When we got to the school I passed Sarah off to her student chaperone and wandered the school a little, trying to get my bearings. The entrance to the school had been moved, which was disorienting. There were some vestiges of the old building, though, and that was fun to see.
There was a general assembly where 4 of the survivors told their stories to the entire sophomore class. One told of being in Vienna during Krystalnacht. Another woman was a child during the war and was sent away from her family on a train to England in the kindertransport. And Peter, whose father was a mechanic and conscripted by the German army to work on their vehicles. That man attributed his survival to his father, because even though eventually his father died in Buchenwald, because of his skill the Nazis had kept the whole family in a civil prison for a time before eventually sending them to concentration camps. Peter calls April 14 1945, the day he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, his second birthday. And then Manya, who I drove three years ago, told her story, too.
Manya closed with, “I hope I will be an example to others. We have only one life to live.”
After the assembly were break-out sessions, and I followed Sarah to her room to hear her story, which was incredible. She was 9 years old when Italy occupied the coast of Yugoslavia. It was a fairly benign occupation, aside from the burning and looting of the synagogue and beating of the congregation. But when Italy surrendered to the Allies, the Nazis came in to take over, and the neighbors warned the Danon family in the middle of the night. Sarah’s father and brother (his Holocaust Museum oral history here) took their backpacks and escaped to the mountains, joining the partisans in sabotaging the Germans (they assumed that women and children were safe). Sarah eventually knew she and her mother and little sister had to get out of Split but could not convince her demoralized mother to leave. Nine-year-old Sarah practiced jumping out of her 2nd story window so she could escape if the Nazis came to the door. Sarah remembered that the woman who used to bring their milk had always told her to come visit her farm. Sarah told her mother they needed to go there and ask her to hide them. Her mother said no – that woman wasn’t serious; she won’t help us. Sarah packed a blanket and a sweater, took her little sister and started walking. A few minutes later her mother called to them: “Sarah! I’m coming!”
“I wouldn’t have left without my mother, but she needed convincing,” Sarah said. Sarah became the family hero.
The woman at the farm DID hide them, in a little room, with a single mattress on the floor. They had to be completely silent during the day, for months. When the farm owner became too afraid to hide them anymore, they hiked into the mountains and joined the partisans like Sarah’s father and brother, although they still didn’t know where they were. They hid behind rocks during the day and walked at night. They begged for food. The partisans continued to fight against the Nazis. The group, which had collected many Jewish refugees, got word of a British destroyer that had agreed to rescue the refugees, and in the middle of the night Sarah, her mother, and her sister got in a rowboat and, under Nazi fire, rowed to the British ship and made it to Italy where they miraculously found her father and brother. If they’d arrived 2 weeks later, her father and brother would have already left for New York without them, but they were able to all go together. Sarah moved with her family to Philadelphia and she started her new life. She told us that all of the other Jews from Split who didn’t escape to the mountains were killed. She also told us she was sure she was alive because of God. The kids were all very respectful, but there wasn’t enough time for questions or interactions.
During the event and the luncheon I recognized a few teachers I had known. For a moment I felt like an honored historical relic myself when the student escorting Sarah said he had some “old photos of the school” on his phone and asked, “Do you remember it looking like this?” I realized that he wasn’t even born when I went there. Just another reminder of how special the opportunity is for those kids to meet the survivors. This opportunity won’t be available much longer.
I drove Sarah home and gave her a big hug when I dropped her off. I hope I see her next year.
Here’s a full list of the survivors who participated in the symposium this year: Larry Buchsbaum, Lilly Drukker, Dorothy Finger, Anne Fox, Ralph Franklin, Marius Gherovici, Gertrude Klein Gompers, Ernest Gross, Michael Herskovitz, Joseph Hirt, Joseph Kahn, Manya Perel, John Spitzer, Peter Stern, Erica Herz Van Adelsberg, Sarah Meller, Seymour Levin, Joel Fabian.