Klisman (Teich), Sophie
Lodz (Poland), Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Salzwedel
Sophie Teich Klisman was born in July 1929 in Lodz, the third largest city in Poland and home to 233,000 Jews prior to World War II, one-third of the city’s population. She was the youngest of four children of Luba (nee Rozrazowska) and Icek-Berek Teich. With her siblings, Felicia, Srulek, and Moniek, “I had a very happy childhood, loved, cared for. We were not very rich, but I don't remember being deprived of anything.”
In 1939, the Second World War broke out. “My whole life turned into chaos. I was 10 years old and I remember the bombing started, sirens, and running to the shelters. It was very traumatic. A short time after Nazi Germany occupied Lodz in 1939, “it was a very frightening experience.” They were forced to move into the ghetto in 1940 with 200,000 Jews from the area. “We were very crowded. We had to share our apartment with other families. Schools were closed and everybody had to go to work.” Those who were not able to work, were taken away. “They took away the young children, older people, and we never knew where they taken them and we never heard from them again.” Sophie was put to work in a knitting shop—with no pay and long hours—and taught how to make beautiful lace tablecloths and bedspreads that were shipped to Germany.
Food became very scarce. In 1942, her mother became so weak and sick and she eventually died. “The worst part was that before she died, she just begged for a piece of bread. She was so hungry and there was none to be given. But I was still grateful that the family was still together. And somehow we went on.” Hundreds of people were dying daily in the ghetto from starvation and disease. “There was no funeral, no burial. They would come with wooden wagons, put the bodies into the wagons, and just take them to a mass grave, we never knew where.”A few months later, her father became sick; and died the same horrible way, “but somehow we went on.” Then Moniek, who was 17 years old at the time, became sick and died the same year.
Sophie, Felicia, and Srulek somehow went on, going to work, being starved. Every few weeks, the Nazis would storm into the apartment looking for men. Somehow they knew ahead of time they were in the building, and Srulek hid in the attic somehow. “It was very frightening and they were asking us if there were any men here; so we said no. So the fear until they left ;and we were able to do it, somehow to survive.”
In 1944, the Lodz ghetto was liquidated and the three of them “were put into boxcars, never knew where we were going, what's happening. We were put in, people, like sardines, no air, no water, nothing.” A short time later, the box car gates were opened, and they arrived in Auschwitz. “My memories are that it was chaos, screams, people crying, Nazi soldiers yelling, dogs. There were a lot of German shepherds, big dogs barking. When I think back I was in a daze; I didn't know where I was, what was going on. They ordered us to leave all the possessions, undress, and go into a room or a barracks. They shaved our heads and gave us just something to wear and we were taken into showers. Luckily the showers were not the gas. The barracks where we slept were just a piece of wood on the floor. They were crowded; there were maybe four or five women laying on the same supposedly bed. I don't know why, but in Auschwitz three times a day we had to stand in a row and they were counting us. Anybody that made any kind of noise or moved or anything was hit over the head just because they moved. They gave us very little food. We had to just clean the barracks and the outside.”
One morning they were told there would be a selection. “We had to undress completely and stay in a line; and there were a doctor or several doctors. I was so scared, we were afraid to look up to see a face. My sister was in front of me and the doctor was just going with his finger. We had no idea which row was to live and which was to die; but I saw my sister going to the right I think, so I wanted to go where she went. Well when it came to me, the doctor yelled out, stop. I was just shaking, shivering, scared. After a while, he asked me how old I was. I just turned 15; somehow, something, I don't know if it was G-d or something, told me to say I was 18 because I knew if you are older you have a chance to work. So I said I'm 18, in German. He asked me what year were you born; and also by miracle or whatever I figured out and I told him I was born in 1926. So he paused and I went to my sister. That was quite an experience; we cried, but at least we were together. We didn't know if we are going to live or die.”
In September 1944, because the war was coming already to an end, and there were just so many people coming that they couldn't kill them fast enough or burn them in the crematorium.” So they were put in a box car, and again didn't know where they were going. “Conditions were just horrible; people were collapsing, people were dying. Somehow again we survived. The doors opened and we arrived in Bergen-Belsen and again the counting. In these barracks, there was no piece of wood on the floor and we slept in the hay or straw on the floor. It was the fall, the rainy season, and it rained just day and night and we were laying there; very little food; just getting out just to be counted again. I became very sick. I couldn't ask for help because we knew if you tell the doctors or whoever was in charge or nurses that you’re sick, right away they get rid of you.” Sophie was so sick; she must have had strep throat and a fever. “I just wanted to die. I just was so hungry, cold. My sister cried and told me, ‘don't leave me alone. You can't die, you're so young, we’re going to fight it, we’re going to survive.’ After a few days, without any medicine, without rest, without food, somehow she got better. There was no work for them in Bergen-Belsen; but it was “just too horrific a life; just misery.”
In November 1944, they were put again in the boxcars and shipped off to Salzwedel concentration camp, and she was put to work in an ammunition factory, sorting bullets by size, from 6:00 in the evening until 6:00 in the morning. They walked a couple of miles to the factory. “It was wintertime. We had no warm clothes, no shoes; but we had the feeling that the war is coming to an end because there was a lot of bombing; we saw bombs were falling not too far away; I think the barracks were close to a railroad station and sometimes we would look out and see bombs explode and fires and things. So we had a little hope just to go on, go on a little longer. Work was, needless to say, very difficult, without sleep, without food.”
One day they were getting ready to go to work; standing and counting. “I was so deprived of sleep and food that I just fell down. I collapsed. My sister tried to pick me up, hold me up so that I could stand and I fell down again. A Nazi women guard came up to me. Somehow she had a heart and she said, ‘okay go back to the barracks, don't go to work’; and I was thrilled just to lie down and sleep. A short time later, another Nazi woman came and started yelling at me, swearing at me, hitting me; ‘you have to go to work.’ She pulled me down and I had to walk to the factory, just her and me, and she kept yelling, ‘I have to make a special trip because of you.’ All the way to the factory, she was swearing at me, hitting me. My face was all bloody, swollen.” Her sister and another couple of women that worked in the factory found a little corner behind a curtain and put her down there and covered her up. “Because I wasn't supposed to be at work that night and no foreman was looking for me, I stayed there until the morning and I slept. The next morning, I felt better and I went back to the barracks with the whole group. I survived; I don't know, G-d was watching over me. Somehow I was meant to survive. That night’s sleep gave me strength that I kept going to work.”
“It was horrible, starving, cold, but I did it until April 14, 1945; as long as I live to be 100, I'll never forget that date. We saw tanks coming in and the signs were America or USA; they liberated us; they opened the gates and they said you're free.” Most of the women ran out to the small German town and looked for food. “I was so exhausted, I just wanted to sleep.” So her sister ran out and got her something to eat.
It took a while for it to sink in that the war is over, that they were free. “Then when we realized it, where do we go, what do we do, do we have any family?” Jewish organizations came into the camps and were extremely helpful. Doctors and nurses took care of them and didn't allow them to eat as much as they wanted after so many years of starvation, first allowing their stomachs to stretch again so they wouldn't get sick. Some people couldn't control themselves and ate until they got sick and there were a number of people that died after the war of typhus.
They were sent to some displaced persons camps, “where we were free, but we're still in the camps; but we had food and clothing and things were better, until we started asking questions. We want to go home; we want to see if anybody survived. Well, it was all chaotic after the war; there were only trains going; and we heard stories that if you go back to Poland, Jews still are not very welcomed and are being killed. So we decided not to; but we tried very hard to find some relatives, especially our brother who we were separated from in Auschwitz.” The Red Cross was very active; and they gave them their brother's name and the names of so many aunts and uncles. “We were looking for anybody. No luck. Nobody survived; just my sister and I were the only two that survived.”
They moved from one DP camp to the other in Germany. Because they were displaced persons, they couldn't go back to Poland; Israel was not a country yet; so they registered to come to the United States and waited. Felicia was 22 and met and married another survivor, Roman Shloss. She convinced Sophie to try to go to school in Germany. “I was ten when they closed the school in Lodz, so I only had five grades. I could speak enough German to get by, but not fluent, just what I picked up because German and Yiddish are very similar.” So she signed up and was put into a class with German children that were in sixth grade. “I think they were 11 years old. I was 15 or 16. My German wasn't good and I felt they were just staring at me. Nobody would talk to me, and they wouldn't be my friends. I felt very out of place, very awkward. After a short time, I said I can't do it, so I quit.” She was then tutored by a German gentleman, who even taught her a little bit of English.
While waiting, Felicia remembered that their father’s younger brother went to Uruguay before the war. With the help of the Red Cross, their names appeared on a list in his city. “He heard that we survived from all the rest of the family; so he got in touch with us and he did come to visit us. He felt very guilty. He said he would try and get us over to South America. But fortunately the papers came through here to the United States.”
In June, 1949, “we came by boat for two weeks; but what stands out in my mind all these years is seeing the Statue of Liberty. I remember it was, I think maybe five or six in the morning and it was a fog and everybody in the ship was running to see the Statue of Liberty. It was such a thrill, hard to describe. We arrived in the United States; that wasn't easy because we didn't know anybody. We didn't have anybody here; no family, no knowledge of the language.” Again, the Jewish organizations met them when they got off the boat and the women volunteers from UNWRA or The Joint Distribution Committee, called their names, spoke Yiddish to them, took them on a cab ride and showed them New York City, and then put them on the train to Detroit.
When they arrived in Detroit, “Again, these wonderful women’s organizations took us; they found us an apartment and a place where to stay and told us ‘we’ll find jobs for you and you’re in America, give yourself time, you’re going to build yourself a life.’” Without having any skills, Sophie’s first job was at a drycleaner, doing laundry. She asked the social workers if she could go to school, but they didn’t have the money to support her, and suggested that she go to school at night and work during the day, which she did.
Sophie went to night school at Central High School and tried to learn English as quickly as possible. “There were a lot of survivors, young people that were in the same boat that I was in, and that's where I met my husband, Bernard Klisman. He was a survivor from Sosnowiec, Poland and had also been in Auschwitz and other camps. Five of his brothers and his sister perished; two older brothers survived the war in Russia and moved to Australia after the war. “Eventually I got a better job, got married, just built a life, and had a family. It was a struggle. It was hard. We didn't have any money. We didn't have any family to help us; but we worked hard and we saved and we started a family.”
Together, she and Bernard had a son Mark, married to Ann; they are the parents of Rachel and Aaron. Their daughter Lori is married to Jeff Ellis and they have two children, Michelle and Josh. “We just built this beautiful family. And it’s a beautiful ending to a beautiful family; I’m grateful to G-d; a lot of wonderful people.”
Sophie reflects back on what helped her to survive. “I'm not that religious; in my heart I’m very Jewish, I'm traditional; but I think it was G-d’s way that I had to survive because I was so young. If I look at the rest of the family, they were already adults and grown-ups and here was this child; that was just a miracle that I survived; it was meant for me to survive. I just hope in conclusion, that nobody, nobody should have to live through such terrors, such horrible conditions at such a young age, or at any age. It was a horrible experience, but I'm glad that I finally was able to tell it.”
Until now, Sophie has not told her story to her children and grandchildren. “I couldn't sit down and talk to them like I was telling it today. I didn't want them to feel the pain. I didn't want them to feel sorry for us. Our wish when we came here was to build a family. They should be happy and normal and healthy and not to have that pain, that horrible thing. But as they became older, they read and they learned, and they know pretty much; but I never sat down and told them face to face how much we suffered. I didn't want to pain them or upset them, and now, they know.”
Sophie was prompted to finally tell her story after her very close girlfriend, also a survivor, recently passed away. She understood that, although it's very difficult to bring up all of these memories, all of these horrible times, the survivors are dwindling, and there isn't that much time, so she shouldn't put it off much longer. “Another thing that prompted me to come tell it is to leave it for the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, whoever wants to listen. I'm so glad and relieved that I did it really.”
Date of Interview: June 24, 2013
Length of Interview: 43 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran