Silver pin from the Schlachtensee displaced persons camp, with the Hebrew inscription "Speak Hebrew."
Photograph | Photograph Number: N05787
1947 January 19
- Berlin, [Berlin] Germany
- Variant Locale
- Photo Designation
EXHIBITIONS -- Special Exhibitions and Publications -- Displaced Persons -- Art/Artifacts
- Photo Credit
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Regina Laks Gelb
Silver pin from the Schlachtensee displaced persons camp, with the Hebrew inscription "Speak Hebrew."
- The Laks sisters, Hania (later Anna Wilson), Rozalia (Krysia, later Chris Lerman) and Regina (Renia, later Regina Gelb) are the daughters of Isaac and Pola (Tenenblum) Laks. Hania was born October 16, 1924; Rozalia, on March 5, 1926 and Regina, on December 16, 1929 in Wierzbnik (now part of Starachowice), Poland, where their father was a forestry engineer employed by an international lumber company that supplied timber to companies in Britain and Germany. Another sibling, a boy named Jusef, died of pneumonia as a four-year-old child before Hania was born. The Laks family was not religiously observant, but they kept a kosher home out of respect for Pola's mother (from Ostrowiec) and celebrated the main Jewish holidays. Pola was active in the local Zionist movement. She founded the Wierzbnik chapter of the WIZO women's organization and served as its first president. She also played a central role in the founding of the local, Hebrew-speaking, Tarbut school. The girls attended both Polish public school and the Tarbut school in varying combinations. Rozalia attended the Tarbut school for her first four years of formal education and then went to public school, while Regina attended public school followed by Hebrew school in the afternoons. When Hania turned eleven she was sent to a prestigious Polish gymnasium in Radom. The family spoke Polish at home, though both parents spoke Yiddish. The Laks' lived a comfortable, middle class lifestyle, except for a four-year period between 1933-1937, when the depression limited Isaac's employment opportunities. Pola, who suffered from arthritis, spent six weeks every year taking a cure at the sulfur baths in Busko Zdroj. Shortly after the German occupation of Wierzbnik-Starachowice in September 1939 the persecution of the Jewish population began. The Germans burned down the local synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1939; they began confiscating Jewish valuables; rounding-up Jewish men on the street for cleaning details and other humiliating work; and setting their vicious dogs on Jewish children who were playing outside. In these early months of the occupation Isaac was pushed off the sidewalk into the gutter by a German soldier, and then kicked when he tried to get up. Another time he was sent to sweep the railroad station. This situation led Jewish families to stay indoors as much as possible. When the schools reopened, Jews were no longer permitted to attend. Pola organized a small school in their home. Hania served as the teacher for Regina and several friends; Rozalia both taught the younger children and had classes with her peers. Regina and a friend organized a small lending library, pooling the book collections of several Jewish families. There was never a closed ghetto in Wierzbnik-Starachowice, but the Laks family had to move several times between the fall of 1939 and the fall of 1942 as the Jews were confined to ever-narrower sections of the town, and more and more Jews from outlying areas were concentrated in Starachowice. Soon after the arrival of the Germans in Wierzbnik-Starachowice, the Jews were ordered to set up a Jewish council. Isaac Laks was appointed by the new council to serve as head of the labor office, responsible for the registration, organization and supply of Jewish forced laborers to the Germans. When it became clear that having a place of work was the best guarantee against resettlement, all able-bodied Jews sought work certificates. Hania and Rozalia were employed in the local brick factory. Pola worked in the electrical factory. (She also helped to run a soup kitchen.) Towards the end of this period Regina also went to work in the munitions factory. In August 1942 the Laks' heard for the first time about the existence of the death camps, when a Jewish escapee from Treblinka reached Wierzbnik and came to their home. The liquidation of the Jewish community of Wierzbnik-Starachowice took place on October 27, 1942. Regina and her parents were rounded-up at home and marched to the market square, where amidst much violence they were divided into three groups: Isaac was sent with the men to the Majowka labor camp in Wierzbnik-Starachowice, Regina was sent with a group of women to the same camp, and Pola, who had been assisting an elderly Jewish woman as they walked toward the assembly point, was directed with her friend to the deportation trains bound for Treblinka. Hania and Rozalia, who had been working a double shift at the brick factory during the round-up, were later sent to Majowka, where they found Isaac and Regina. The next day they were separated. Isaac and Rozalia remained in Majowka, while Hania and Regina were sent to a second camp called Strzelnica. Isaac was once again put in charge of the labor office, and Hania performed the same duty in Strzelnica. Rozalia continued to work in the brick family, but also helped out her father in the labor office. Regina was put to work in the laundry. During the spring of 1943 a typhus epidemic broke out in the two camps, and one after another all the Laks took sick. Rozalia, who had nursed her mother through the disease in the ghetto, cared for each of them. With the help of medications secured from the outside, all of them recovered, though some of them only narrowly escaped the selections that took place during the height of their illness. Sometime in 1943 or 1944 the Strzelnica camp was closed and Hania and Regina moved back to Majowka. The Laks family was sustained during their two years in the labor camps by the efforts of a Polish family named Paliszewski, who had been entrusted with some of the Laks' family valuables. The Paliszewskis sold off these items little by little and smuggled the cash into the camp. In July 1944 the inmates of the Majowka labor camp were evacuated to a transit camp near the munitions factory, and a few weeks later they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The last time the Laks girls saw their father was on the arrival ramp in Birkenau. They later learned that he perished in October 1944. The Laks sisters did not face a selection when they arrived in Birkenau. Their entire transport was sent to the prisoner barracks after being showered, shaved and tattooed. After being confined to the quarantine camp for several weeks, the girls were released and sent to work cutting back the marshes along the nearby river. In late October or early November 1944, when the sisters were losing their stamina, Fela Berlant, their barracks' secretary (the person who kept count of the inmates), who felt a kinship to the girls because she had friends who lived in Wierzbnik, took pity on them and selected them for a special work detail in the Effektenkammer, a separate warehouse for the confiscated belongings of non-Jewish political prisoners. The girls remained in this self-contained, indoor environment working under the direction of several Polish female prisoners until the evacuation of Auschwitz in January 1945. Before leaving on the death march to Gleiwitz, the sisters helped themselves to some warm clothing and footwear from the warehouse, which helped them survive the next few weeks on the road. Following the weeklong march through the snow, which Regina survived only because her sisters dragged her much of the way, the prisoners were loaded onto open railcars and transported to Ravensbrueck. When they arrived they discovered a camp overflowing with prisoners of every nationality with no infrastructure to accommodate them. Desperate to get out, the sisters volunteered to join a transport to an unknown destination. Ultimately, they were taken to the Ravensbrueck sub-camp of Retzow in Mecklenburg. For the next two months, Regina worked as the personal maid of an SS overseer, while Hania cleaned offices and Rozalia worked in the kitchen. During the evacuation of Retzow on May 1, the sisters found themselves on a road clogged with thousands of evacuees. With a group of several friends they broke away from their guards and slipped down an embankment. One of the women dressed up in the SS cape Regina was carrying for her overseer and pretended she was guarding the rest of the group until they found refuge on an estate, which had been largely abandoned to the Polish and Russian laborers who worked there. For the next 4-5 days, until the arrival of Soviet liberators, the sisters lived in the lap of luxury. After being warned about the danger of rape by Soviet soldiers, the Laks sisters left abruptly before the Russians could force them into employment. At that point the sisters decided to return to Poland to try to find surviving members of their extended family. They walked to the Polish border and then boarded a train going east. Along the way they were warned not to venture into any small towns in Poland because they risked being attacked by Poles who did not want to return property to surviving Jews. The Laks girls heeded the advice and went to Lodz, where they were reunited with their father's brother, Alexander Laks. A few months later Hania and Rozalia made a trip home to Wierzbnik, where they narrowly escaped attack by a group of local Poles, who came looking for them at the home of the Paliszewski family. During this period Hania reconnected with Adash Wilczek (later Adrian Wilson), a friend from home, whom she soon married; Rozalia met Shmuel (Milek, later Miles) Lerman and they were married in December 1945. Regina attended school in Lodz until she left with Rozalia and Shmuel for Germany in the spring of 1946. They settled in Berlin, where Regina went to high school at the Schlachtensee displaced persons camp. The three of them immigrated to the U.S. in the winter of 1947, arriving in New York on February 11. Regina married an American Jew, Victor Gelb, in New York City on March 8, 1953. Hania and Adash immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto.
[Sources: Gelb, Regina. "Interview with Regina Gelb," February 20, 2001, Holocaust Museum Oral History Project; Lerman, Chris. "Interview with Rosalie (Chris) Lerman," January 13, 1999, Holocaust Museum Oral History Project.]
- Artifact Photographer
- Max Reid
- Photo Source
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumProvenance: Regina Laks GelbSource Record ID: Collections: 1999.10.1
Record last modified: 2004-08-04 00:00:00
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