Survivor Story

Rita Lurie

Rena Laurie, a Holocaust survivor, has shared her journey of courage and healing in a  multi-genreational memoir co-written with her daughter.  
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At a Glance

Survivor Story

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • The Holocaust

Rita Lurie was a five year old living in Poland when she and 14 other members of her family went into hiding from the Nazis. What they thought would be a week or two in an attic turned into almost two years. Rita’s daughter, Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, examines the impact of history on her own identity and perspectives, and on her daughter Mikaela in a memoir she co-wrote with her mother called Bending Toward the Sun.

Rita’s Story: 

Rita Gamss was five years old when she, her parents Leah and Isaac, her siblings Nachum and Sarah, and 10 other members of her family went into hiding from the Nazis. Surviving on small scraps of food in the cramped attic of a Polish farmer, the family thought they would be there for a week or two. They ended up staying for two years—from the summer of 1942 to mid-1944.

Before the war, Rita enjoyed a happy childhood, surrounded by an extended family. The Gamss lived in a small village in the southeast region of Poland, supported by Isaac’s work as a businessman. Rita enjoyed her mother’s cooking and listening to lively conversations among the adults. Her memories reflect the warmth and beauty of her home.

“Our home was newly built, and another bedroom was still being added for Sarah and me. Until that was completed we shared our parents’ bedroom except on very cold nights, when we slept near a stove in the kitchen. My parents’ bedroom was decorated with a huge gleaming wood armoire, a crib for Nachum, and gorgeous lace curtains hanging from copper rods. A set of exquisite blue ceramic birds sat near a crystal clock upon one of the nightstands.”

At such a young age, Rita was not aware of the mounting hostility and danger that Jews faced throughout Eastern Europe. It was a shock to her when in the summer of 1942 she witnessed German tanks invading the town. Rita watched the adults in the house debate what course of action the family should take. One day, three German soldiers burst into the house and starting throwing things around and then left. A few days later, the family received orders from the Gestapo to report to the train station. Rita’s grandfather, the family patriarch, gathered the family in his kitchen. They all agreed they could not go to the train. Instead the family decided to slip out in the middle of the night and go into hiding. They split into two groups. Rita’s immediate family, and her Aunt Tzivia’s family, which included her husband Libish and four children, would form one of the groups.

Rita’s group hid in the surrounding farms and haystacks for several weeks. A farmer, Stashik Grajolski often brought them news and some food. The adults pleaded with him to hide them in his house, but he resisted because his wife Maria was terrified at the idea. Finally, Stashik had a change of heart, saying his wife was more afraid that he would be caught sneaking around at night.

The attic where the family hid had a ceiling that was only four feet high. The walls and ceiling were wooden planks with cracks in them. Soon after they arrived, four of Isaac Gamss’ brothers joined them in the attic. Rita and the others endured endless hours of silence and freezing cold or unbearable heat, depending on the time of year. They could not move or talk for fear of exposing their hiding place. Rita’s father and uncles snuck out at night to forage for food. Because there was never enough of it, the family sometimes argued over the meager portions they did have. The family had the additional stress of uncertainty, because the farmer’s wife, aware of the great risk her family was taking by hiding Jews, did not want them to stay. She was constantly telling her husband they had to leave.

After a few months, worried about their infant Feigla who was sick and constantly crying, Aunt Tzivia and Uncle Libish decided to leave their daughter on the doorsteps of a church. They hoped a kind person would find her and care for her. They would never see her again. In early 1944, Rita’s little brother Nachum, age five, died. A few months later, Rita clearly remembers a night when her mother lit the Shabbos candles, lay down and died.

The remaining 12 family members survived in the attic until the war ended. One day Stashik Grajolski came up to the attic and announced they were free to go. Weak from malnutrition and lack of exercise the family members stumbled out of the attic, profusely thanked the Grajolskis, and left. They were still somewhat in shock and the children, who had not walked in two years, needed to be carried at first. They found their way home, but did not stay long. Some Poles, called the Armia Krayova, who had helped the Germans during the war, wanted to kill the few remaining Jews who survived. The Gamss were tipped off that if they did not flee their home they would be killed.

The Gamss wandered around Europe, living in displaced persons camps, for the next five years. Eventually, the family was sponsored by a relative living in the U.S. and immigrated, settling first in New York. In this new life, Rita experienced the challenges and opportunities all newcomers face as they start lives in a new place. She married Frank Lurie and had three children, Gwyn, Leslie and David.

Rita described her experiences in a memoir co-written with her daughter, Leslie Gilbert-Lurie. The memoir, Bending Toward the Sun, tells of Rita’s life before, during and after the Holocaust. It also sheds light on the lasting legacies the Holocaust has had on Rita’s children and grandchildren—both in the choices they make, how they see themselves, and how trauma can be transmitted from generation to generation. The memoir also explores Rita’s journey of courage and healing.

Leslie’s Story:

Leslie Gilbert-Lurie grew up in suburban Los Angeles in the 1960s. Although she was raised in a safe and loving environment, she was always aware of a sense of possible danger—a fear she picked up from her mother Rita, who was only five years old when her family went into hiding from the Nazis. But Leslie’s parents also had high hopes for her, and encouraged her to work hard and follow her dreams. And she did, growing up to become an accomplished attorney, network executive, educator and philanthropist.

Over the years, Leslie became increasingly aware that the Holocaust, and her mother’s experience in particular, had left a lasting imprint on her. Leslie grew up knowing some about her mother’s experience—spending two years in a small attic in Poland with eleven other family members who survived, and two who died there, including Rita’s mother. Rita always answered Leslie’s questions about the past honestly, but Rita did not want her children growing up with a sense of hate or fear, so she also avoided the topic.

“My mom was determined to raise us in a positive way. She always wanted us to have things she never had. She wants to get the most out of life. She transmitted that to us, too,” Leslie says.

But Rita also inadvertently transmitted a good deal of her own sadness and fears.

The realization of how trauma can transmit from generations really hit home when Leslie’s daughter Mikaela also displayed that same need to stay close to home and not separate too far from Leslie. Events from the past in part shaped their identities and informed their choices. Leslie explores these legacies in the multi-generational memoir she co-wrote with her mother, called Bending Toward the Sun. Leslie’s story, and that of her mother’s, is also a story of courage and healing and an inspiring reminder of the resilience of the human spirit.

There has been another legacy from the Holocaust that has been a significant influence in Leslie’s life. She is keenly aware that along the way there were upstanders—those who act on behalf of others—whose choices and risks both large and small made it possible for her family to survive. Leslie said in a recent interview with Facing History and Ourselves students,

“We [my siblings and I] were very aware from the beginning that we were born into a fractured world. For us to feel safe and for us to feel like our lives were worth surviving for, we were all very determined to make the world a better place.”

Leslie sees education as a key tool in creating that more humane and safer world. She had been immersed in researching the Holocaust for the book for a number of years when she was asked to teach a class on the Holocaust at Sierra Canyon High School. The superintendent of schools for Los Angeles County introduced her to Facing History and Ourselves, which became an integral part of the popular course she has now taught for three years.

Leslie encourages her students to think about the role of bystanders and upstanders during the Holocaust and in the world today. In her own family’s experience, she describes how there were mostly bystanders all along the way, but everywhere there were also upstanders. One striking example was when the family was told, years after the war, that neighbors in the village knew the family was hiding in the Grajolski family attic, because it was the only house in the winter that did not have snow on the roof.

“I would say it took a whole village of people for my mother’s family to survive. People all along the way chose to be upstanders rather than bystanders. That is a philosophy that was passed down along in my family.”

Leslie tells her students, “You don’t have to be great all the time, and you don’t have to be great at everything to find that moment or two in your life to make a huge difference.”

Read an excerpt from Bending Toward the Sun.

Explore Videos

Hear Rita Lurie and her daughter Leslie Gilbert-Lurie reflect on their experiences in the following videos.

How did you feel about your grandfather's plan to split up the family?

I don't remember having feelings about that. I just trusted that the adults knew what they were doing. But all I remember feeling is fear and just the unknown, not knowing what was going to happen next and that I was going to have to leave my warm bed and go out there into not knowing what was going to happen.

Do you remember anything about your family's relationship with the Grajolski family?

I was told that they were friends because there was a relationship between-- my grandparents were helpful to Mr. Grajolski and his sister when their parents died. And I knew that he was a friend of my uncle. So I knew that there had been a friendship there.

Do you remember how far away the Grajolski family farm was from your house? Or in your mind, how far away did you feel it was?

I felt it was very far because for little feet to walk, it seemed like it was impossible to get there. But, actually, it was just a few miles.

What did your parents do for a living? What did your father do?

My father had-- he was into textiles. He was a businessman, textiles. And we also farmed. But, basically, I know he was a businessman dealing with textiles.

What do you remember about the first night of your journey to the Grajolski family farm?

Well, we didn't go straight to the Grajolski family because we did hide for six weeks. And by the time we were ready to go, by the time he agreed to take us in, we were all exhausted and starving. So I just remember being very tired and just wanting to put my head down someplace safe and comfortable.

Where were you during those six weeks?

We were in the fields, farms just hiding, as I said, in ditches.

Out in the open?

Out in the open.

What time of year was this?

It was the fall.

Can you describe your experiences wandering through the fields on your way to the Grajolski farm?

Experiences was a fear because we had to hide. We knew there were German soldiers, Nazis around hunting for Jews. So there was a lot of fear. And, also, the Polish farmers, we didn't know who to trust at that point and who was going to give us away. But, luckily, we made our way safely to the farm.

Do you remember that if you ever met someone on your way to the Grajolski farm that they might turn you in?

Oh, yes, I remember being afraid. I remember feeling the fear because it was just there. I knew nothing was normal anymore in my life.

Did your family set up camps? Or did you just take in your surroundings?

Well, we didn't have the facilities to set up a camp. But we just hid wherever we could, wherever we thought we could be not seen.

Were there ever any close calls where you had to be very quiet?

Oh, the whole time, we had to be very quiet.

How did you deal with that as a little girl because it's so hard to keep little kids quiet?

Yeah, I had something put over my mouth. So I learned that I couldn't cry. I couldn't make sounds or noises.

But explain how you would see farmers in the fields.

Yeah, there were farmers working all around us. And as I said, we didn't know who was going to tell on us. Some of them would give us some of their produce, fruit, or whatever. And others didn't want anything to do with us.

Thank you.

You're very welcome. Thank you.

When you first arrived at the Grajolski farm, how did you convince him to let you and your family stay in his house during such a difficult time?

Well, the convincing took place before we actually arrived there. It took a while. He came back to the fields several times before he agreed to take us in because his wife didn't want us there.

So the family bribed him and offered him a lot of our belongings and told him that it probably wouldn't take long, anything for him to take us in. I reminded him how my grandparents treated him. It took some talking to him before he agreed reluctantly for a short time to take us in. And I'm sorry. Did I answer your question?

Yeah.

OK.

How can you describe an average day in the attic?

Every day was about the same. It was being very quiet scrounging for a morsel of food. It wasn't always there. And as far as a child being reminded that we have to be quiet and if I cried, I had a pillow covering my mouth.

And it was whispering because there were German soldiers all around. This was a farmhouse. So they would come in and buy dairy products. So we just knew the word was, just be quiet and just do what you're told.

So when your mother and brother died in the attic, [AUDIO OUT]

Life During the War: Rita Lurie

Rita Lurie describes her experiences as a child hiding from the Nazis and Polish farmers.

 

Describe your experiences that led up to your placement in the displaced people's camps.

Well, we-- when we left our home, we went to a--

Why don't you start when you left the attic.

Can you tell me about that first moment that you left the attic?

We walked out of the attic, and I remember that very clearly, the light just hitting my eyes. And I remember the adults trying to stretch and to just take in the outdoors and breathing deeply. And--

How many were left?

There were 12 left. And everybody was, needless to say, very disoriented, like which way do we go? And as they're trying to get their bearings, a soldier was coming towards us. And because we were still hearing gunshots in the distance and noises of war, we realized that the war wasn't quite over and that we were still in danger. And the soldier coming towards us was very scary.

But he quickly announced that he was a Russian soldier, and he was also a Jew. And he was going to help us, to guide us to our home. And that was like a messenger from God, and he helped get us to the house. It was by foot.

So you went back home.

So we went back home, and the house was unrecognizable. It wasn't like our house. It was trashed, and there was no furniture. And my extended family, my aunt and uncle and their children, went to their house which was about a mile away from our house. And we went into the house and didn't know exactly how to settle in an empty house. We slept on the floors, and this was-- went on for-- you remember how--

Couple of months.

A couple of months, and then one night somebody knocked on our door. It was a Polish man warning us that we were going to be killed if we don't leave our house. It was-- that the Poles were going to kill us if we didn't leave our house. So we left, and we went to--

Jaszów.

Jaszów, a place called Jaszów. There was another town, a city, and there we got information. There was a makeshift-- it wasn't really a camp. It was like a building set up for people like us, displaced people. And there was information where people can go and where there were DP camps set up. And there were big army trucks that took us from place to place.

We went through Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and in freezing weather, we didn't really have the clothes, but there was some clothes given to us. And eventually, we made our way from Italy-- from Austria over the Alps into Italy with the help of a guide or two.

When you first arrived at the DP camps, describe your experiences and how they affected you.

Well, it depends where. Some were just makeshift barracks like in Austria, and others were buildings where they set up cots, and there was food provided. I remember having my first hot dog, Jell-O, which I couldn't keep down because I wasn't used to eating food.

What was the first food you had after you left?

The first food was I think soup, potato soup, some kind of potato soup. That was at home and cottage cheese, soft, gentle food. But in Jaszów, as I said, there were hot dogs and Jell-O. That stands out in my mind.

How did you feel when you discovered that you had just survived the most horrible event in human history when so many others did not?

Well, I had different feelings as a child than I do as an adult because you don't let that kind of information in all at once. You become aware of it as time goes by, as your nervous system can handle. Nature had ways of protecting us that way. And it was very traumatic and still is traumatic. And eventually I learned what some of those difficult, painful, emotional feelings were, and there was-- it's survivor's guilt. There's joy about surviving, and then there's the other.

What feelings did you have when your relatives first greeted you upon your arrival in the US?

I really didn't know what to feel. It was excitement but yet everything was so strange. And it was hard to know what to feel. How was I going to adjust? And I don't speak the language and all. It was just too much to take in all at once. So--

Were you with your family at this point?

I was with my family at this point and my uncles who had migrated to America before we did, two years before. My father always made sure that they went first so they got visas. It took us a little longer because I was sick, and you couldn't enter any foreign country unless you're perfectly well. So we had to wait a little longer. That's why it took us almost five years.

But you were with your father, and who else?

And my stepmother. My father married in Italy. He married a survivor.

How did it feel to first attend a public school?

Scary, very scary. I was told that-- I was given a whole battery of tests, psychological tests, and I remember my-- the principal of the school, it was PS 82 in the Bronx. And she was this big woman with wiry gray hair, and she said via translator that they're going to put me in my appropriate grade, seventh grade, even though I had never been to school before. And if I don't keep up, I'll be put back into first grade. And I didn't like hearing that, and so I managed to graduate with my class.

And it was very difficult. It's all like a dream. It's like you just do it. You don't think about it. You just do it, and I was lucky to have friends. And I learned English, and within two months I spoke English. It was sink or swim, and I chose to swim.

Did you get some tutorial help at home?

No. No tutorial help. Sometimes my friends would help me, but no. There was-- we couldn't afford any of that.

And what languages did you speak before this?

I spoke-- I learned some Italian while I was in the hospital in Italy, but at home we spoke Yiddish.

Do you still remember it?

Yiddish? Yeah. And some Hebrew.

Why did your family's business never work out? I was reading about--

Which business? I mean, where was-- in the United States?

Yeah.

When my father really was not-- didn't go into business. My father had been a very resourceful person, and obviously, he survived a lot. And before the war, he was successful with what he did, and after the war in the camps, he was respected and looked up to by everybody.

But once he came to the United States, something happened. He felt lost, and it was a very difficult adjustment for him. Didn't know the language and didn't have any money. Whatever resources we had in Poland went to Mr. Grajolski, and the rest we used to get by along the way.

So he worked in sweatshops.

He worked in sweatshops, and then his brother, who had come to the United States a couple of years earlier, lived in Chicago. Eventually we left New York after two years there. I had to leave my friends again and move to Chicago, and my uncle had told them that they'll go into business.

My uncle was in the grocery business. That didn't work out because my father was religious. He wasn't going to work on Jewish holidays or Shabbat, and so my uncle decided against going and taking my father in the business. And after that, my father just kind of diminished slowly, his health diminished, but he did work in sweatshops.

How did these traumatic experiences affect your life after the Holocaust?

It was sad. It was very sad for me to watch my father kind of fall apart, the father who I had looked up to and was so proud of. And it was-- my heart always ached for him.

What people in your life here in the US have helped you get through this ordeal?

What people in my life in the US helped-- I had to kind of search out help and help myself a lot. It wasn't really anybody who took me by the hand or my family and said, I'm here for you. I'm going to help you deal with this. I just had to do it.

I knew I had to do it myself, and when I graduated from high school in Chicago, I was-- I wasn't even-- I was 17 still when I graduated from high school. And I went into a severe depression which was so foreign. I didn't know what I was feeling. All I knew was that I was very depressed, not even knowing what the depressed meant. I knew that something was wrong.

And I found a therapist, a psychiatrist, in Chicago. I got a job to pay for my therapy and thus began a journey of climbing out of my depression. And I worked, and then I met my husband, and we were married. I wasn't even quite 19 when I got married, and the 50-- we've been married for 52 years, had three children. Now I have seven grandchildren, and things are looking up.

Are there any people in your life who you would call an upstander, someone who saw what was going on, stood up, and did something about it?

Well, my father was really an upstander. I mean, he was instrumental in helping everybody to get to Mr. Grajolski's house, and he dealt with Mr. Grajolski, and he was always very strong. And afterwards in the camps, he provided. He managed to get a job here and there, and he was a strong person.

And then we thought we'd come to the United States and all our problems would be over. My father would flourish again. It didn't happen that way, but his children picked up where he left off. And I have a sister who lives in Thousand Oaks, and she is well and--

Life After the War: Rita Lurie

Rita Lurie, Holocaust survivor, explains what her life after the end of World War II was like.

Well, I think that it affected my mom both for the positive and the negative. I think for the negative, I think she's always-- she was traumatized as a child. And one of the questions was, was it a good age for her? Would there have been a better age for her to be hidden in an attic and experience what she experienced?

And I would say, from what I've read, that because she was such a young child, because her brain was not fully developed, the parts of the brain that experienced trauma were not fully formed. And it made her more susceptible to post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression and all kinds of things that impact adults. So I would say that she is more susceptible to depression that she is more anxious because, of course, the worst thing that anyone could fear happening happened to her as a child. So how do you ever relax and think that couldn't happen again?

But, on the other hand, she's a really strong person. And one of the reasons that she wanted us to write the book we wrote is to show that people could go through the worst experiences imaginable and not only survive but survive well. And I think that whereas some Holocaust survivors never shook off the bitterness and the anger, my mom was determined to raise us in a very positive way. Like she always wanted us to have all the things that she never had.

And so I think there is this real love of life with my mom too. Even today, if I-- and she has various heart things and all kinds of stress-related adult illnesses. But if I said to her today, do you want to get on a plane tonight and go to Africa and go on a Safari? She would say yes.

Like there's almost nothing she wouldn't do. She's very adventurous. And I think she definitely has that sense that she wants to get the most out of life. And she transmitted that to her three children too. We're all impacted by being the child of a Holocaust survivor.

I grew up really afraid to ever be away from my mom. I never wanted to go to sleepaway camp. I never wanted-- I went to UCLA. I didn't want to go away to college. I'm very aware of my mom and her safety and her health, but also-- and my sister and brother have their own issues. They both suffered also from some bouts of depression.

My sister said-- my sister who's also very successful, she's a screenwriter. She was the student body president at UCLA. But yet she would say that when she walks into a room, she would always look at where the exits are and how she could escape quickly from a situation.

But I would also say that we all grew up being strong people. We definitely have an awareness that we don't know what the future's going to bring, so we want to make the most of today. And we also-- I think we're very aware from the beginning that we were born into a fractured world. Like for us to feel safe and for us to feel like our lives were worth surviving for, we were all very determined to make the world a better place I think from the very beginning.

Thank you.

We thank you so much for honoring us with your presence here today. You have given us your words, your heart, and your soul. Your story is now our story. Now it's our turn to do what Jews have done for centuries. It is now up to us to tell our story to our children so that they can keep it alive for generations to come. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to fulfill this amazing mitzvah.

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Blessed are you, Adonai, our god, ruler of the universe, who has made us holy with mitzvah and commanded us to tell our children our story.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.

That was wonderful. That was beautiful. Thank you.

Rita Lurie and Leslie Gilbert-Lurie

Leslie Gilbert-Lurie and Rita Lurie reflect on Rita’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

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Most teachers are willing to tackle the difficult topics, but we need the tools.
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