Sabina was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1922 and she tells us that she had a ‘wonderful childhood. We were 4 children – 2 brothers, 2 sisters. It was a loving, beautiful childhood. Our parents played with us every evening.’
Sabina Miller suffered typhus as a teenager in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 and was unconscious for 18 days. When she awoke her parents were gone and she would never see them again. ‘I don’t even know who looked after me. All I know is that when I woke up after 18 days they weren’t there anymore.’
Sabina can recall her childhood in Warsaw through patches of memory. Her father and mother probably died of typhus in the ghetto. ‘I can’t be sure of what happened to my mother because I had typhus too and I blacked out for several weeks. When I came round, my mother was not there. I don’t even know who looked after me then. On the farm, I would tell everyone my mother is not dead. But I didn’t know.’ She recalls being smuggled out of the ghetto by her brother to go and stay with an aunt who lived in the countryside. ‘I remember we didn’t take off our armbands during our escape because we were afraid, but we wore raincoats over the top to hide them.’
Sabina ended up working on a farm run by a Lithuanian man. He used to horsewhip the Jewish women labourers if they didn’t work hard enough. There she met Ruszka, and together they finally ran away, to shelter in the forest. ‘We ran not because of him but because we heard that the ghettoes were being liquidated, and we heard that lorries were coming for [the Jews].’ They spent the winter of 1942-43 sheltered in a hole in the forests of northern Poland. It had been dug earlier by partisans and was the best accommodation the two women could find. ‘We couldn’t go home because we had no home and we felt safer there in the woods than risk being betrayed to the Germans’.
What was it like in that freezing hole? ‘You couldn’t walk into it. You slid inside and then tried to keep as warm as you could. I think we had pinched a blanket from somewhere that kept us warm. But we were frozen and lousy. ‘We lived like animals. Myt hands and feet were frozen. We were unrecognisable as humans. My feet were so swollen I couldn’t wear boots… Later I had to have an operation on my foot. They amputated part of my toe’.
The only thing that Sabina had to remind her of her past life with her family in Warsaw was a little wash-bag containing a few photographs and a postcard from her sister. The postcard, Sabina believes, had been thrown by her sister from a train heading towards a death camp and was picked up by someone who posted it to the farm. ‘I don’t know that for certain. Maybe she jumped from that train. Maybe she’s alive.’ All that seems unlikely, Sabina admits. But, nearly 70 years after the card was, perhaps, thrown from the train, she holds on to that hope.
During the night Sabina and Ruszka would go from farm to farm begging for food, but eventually farmers told them not to beg together – they looked too obvious – so she and Ruszka started going out alone. One night the teenage girl she shared her cave with, her only companion in the world, vanished without trace. ‘Who can say what happened to her?’ Sabina never did find out what happened to her. ‘My enduring feeling was pain, emotional pain. Sometimes I would ask, why am I alive?’
Sabina visited local farms asking after her friend. Nobody had any news, but one farmer’s wife made a proposal. Could Sabina, this 20 year old Jewish woman from Warsaw, stand in for her other non-Jewish daughter who had been called to do forced labour in Germany? Sabina Najfeld (her maiden name) thus became, for a while, a Polish farmer’s daughter called Kazimira Kuc. Because she was in such bad shape, the Germans didn’t want to transport her to Germany for forced labour, but later, under another name, she did end up in Germany. She spent the rest of the war on the run under assumed names.
The years of subterfuge took their toll. ‘When the war ended, I thought I was the last Jew in Europe.’ After liberation, she was taken to a camp for displaced persons. ‘One day, a soldier came up to me and said: “Are you Jewish?” I said “No.”‘ It was force of habit: Sabina had spent so much of the war denying who she was. ‘When I came to England, for the first two or three years I was still apprehensive to tell people I was Jewish. I fell in love with this country because what I got was kindness and acceptance.’ Sabina flourished: she married, raised a family, learned English, made friends, worked in retailing, and became what she hadn’t been in years – herself.
Sixty years on, she still had not given up on the search for a trace of her parents, grandparents or siblings and still cherishes a cardigan given to her by her mother. Five years ago, Sabina decided to go back to her homeland for the first time in more than 60 years to visit Auschwitz. ‘I had to bend my head from respect and pray for the dead’. She, her son and daughter recited the Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer. On the same trip, she also went to Warsaw to try to find out about her family. As with Ruszka, the fates of her siblings and her mother remained uncertain, though their murder by the Nazis is overwhelmingly likely. She regularly phones the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw to find out if, during their restoration work on the graves, they have found her mother, her father or her grandparents.
Sabina, with son Stuart and daughter Sandra, her six grandchildren had since become a great-grandmother. ‘I’m happy I survived and I have achieved a lot’ she says. ‘I have beautiful children and lovely people around me’.
‘It’s not easy but I try to use my voice to speak out against hatred’ Sabina Miller, Holocaust survivor.