Warsaw (Poland), Siberia, Uzbekistan
Irene Sobel is the younger of two daughters of Israel and Bella Miller (nee Feldhandler) of Warsaw, Poland . Her father was a bookkeeper by training, but worked as a furniture maker. Her sister was five-years older. The family was Jewish, but her parents were not religious and did not celebrate the Jewish holidays. However, they could be considered cultural Jews since they attended the Yiddish theater and read Yiddish books. Her father had become politically active with the then illegal Communist Party, sharing his views with many other working class Jews. Although their economic level was quite moderate, Mrs. Sobel does not recall ever having shortages of foods or basic comforts. She has very positive childhood memories and can not recall any anti-Semitic experiences against her. Prior to the war she attended kindergarten and the first grade of public school.
The residential area where Mrs. Sobel’s family lived was heavily bombed at the start of the war. She recalls one time when the entire family had to jump from a second floor window since all other exits were destroyed. The fall caused injury to her from the broken glass and, at the medical station, she saw many injured and dead people.
Believing to be especially vulnerable because of his political activities, her father made arrangements for the entire family to be taken into the Soviet-occupied zone of Poland. However, they were betrayed by their Polish smuggler who not only stole their valuables, but left them in a no-man’s-land between the German and the Russian-occupied zones in an open, snow-covered field near Bialystok where many other would-be escapees were also dumped. The Russians would not let any of them enter. Mrs. Sobel witnessed many die from freezing and/or starvation.
Eventually her father escaped into the Russian zone where he was able to contact a young cousin and was then able to obtain papers authorizing him and his two daughters to legally enter the Russian zone. They found refuge with other refugees in a number of cottages which had previously housed workers of an estate. Her mother was not included in the papers and had to stay in the no-man’s-land. After an unsuccessful attempt, her father returned to the no-man’s-land in an effort to rescue his wife only to find the area had been evacuated. The Germans had rounded up everyone and were shipping them away. Mrs. Sobel’s mother and another woman managed to escape and to enter the Russian zone where she was eventually re-united with her family. The others from the no-man’s-land area were killed by the Germans.
After a few months, the refugees were rounded up by Russian soldiers and shipped in cattle cars to a labor camp in Siberia which had a brick factory and was also involved in lumbering. There her parents and her sister, who was13 years-old by that time, were required to do manual labor, while Mrs. Sobel did the cooking in their home, a two-story wooden structure shared with several other families. Those who worked received some pay, all had ration cards, and food had to be bought from a single store on site. Although a school was available, the severe cold and other weather conditions of the Siberian winter, as well as sparse clothing, prevented Mrs. Sobel from attending it much of the time.
After about two and one-half years in the labor camp Polish Jews were allowed to leave due to arrangements made between the Polish government in exile and the Soviets. Mrs. Sobel’s families moved south to Uzbekistan to be in a warmer climate and were assigned to live in a small village about 30 miles from Tashent. Since no work was available, the family suffered considerably and was near starvation. When the opportunity arose for Mrs. Sobel’s father to place his two daughters into an orphanage, he did so in the hope of providing a better life for them. It proved to be only slightly advantageous.
Mrs. Sobel’s father became ill with infectious dysentery and while her mother was in another village attempting to find medication for him, he died and the body was disposed of. It is not known whether he was buried or cremated. After his death, Mrs. Sobel’s mother was able to get a job in the orphanage.
After the war the entire orphanage, including Mrs. Sobel, then 13 years old, and her mother along with her newly married sister and her husband, was relocated to Cracow , Poland . Irene continued to stay in the orphanage since her mother was unable to support her independently. There she was able to enhance her education and learned not only to be self-sufficient, but also how to manage others. She became interested in the stage and in drama and had a very fulfilling experience in getting to play a small part when a touring Yiddish theater group from New York, featuring the famous Ida Kaminski, needed a Yiddish-speaking girl for their performances in Cracow.
While in the orphanage, Mrs. Sobel attended a high school for Jewish children, and then, after leaving the orphanage at age 17, she attended for a short time, a public high school. She considers her stay at the orphanage as a very positive experience.
In order not to be separated from her mother and sister, she reluctantly agreed to go to Israel with them in 1950. There they were placed in a camp for immigrants. After some difficulties and various day jobs she found work as a physical therapist, a skill she had learned while in high school, and lived in a home for immigrant girls.
At age 19, Mrs. Sobel married an American engineer from Detroit , a Mr. Saferstein, who was working in Israel . She was accepted at a teacher’s training school there, finished the course, and got a job teaching. They lived in a converted quonset, but under very primitive conditions. In order to obtain sufficient money for a down payment on an apartment, they moved to the United States . After a year and a half, they moved back to Israel .
In Israel , Mrs. Sobel had her first child, a son. She wanted to study psychology and also her husband became unhappy in his work so they returned to the United States in 1956. She went to evening school and took correspondence courses and eventually received a degree. She had her second child, also a boy. When it was suggested to her that her skills would be best utilized in a hospital, she continued her studies and received a Master of Business Administration degree with a major in Hospital Management while pregnant with her third child, a girl. She worked part-time in the office of Economic Development in Cincinnati , Ohio , but after her husband lost his job there, they moved to Detroit , his home town.
In Detroit she was an assistant administrator at Sinai Hospital for five years, and then after some other positions became the Director of Mental Health for Livingston County . She was divorced from her first husband, but is now married to a physician. Her daughter was killed in a motorcycle accident in Jamaica .
Mrs. Sobel had no survivors, except for her mother and sister, from her original family. All were killed or died during the Holocaust or from its aftermath. Details of their deaths are unknown.
Mrs. Sobel believes that as a result of her experiences during the Holocaust, she raised her children to be very self-sufficient, and also developed a certain fear of being poor or of suffering a loss of dignity. It also may be the cause of her need to belong to a community and her need for affection. She has great difficulty in seeing films or reading books about the Holocaust, or in visiting Holocaust museums.
She has returned to Poland twice. On her second trip it was possible for her to visit the sites of her childhood and she came away with mixed feelings.