Trager (Schlomper), Naomi (Nechama)
Vladimirets (Poland), Staraya Rafalovka, Farmhouses, Poland; Cremona, Italy
Naomi (Nechama) Schlomper was born May 10, 1925 in Vladimirets, Poland to Yitzhak (Isaac) and Rachel Tilchin Schlomper. She was the eighth sibling in the family, following Zelig, Hershel (Harry), Razel (Rose), Sarah, Chaika (Ida), Dwossel, and Shoshana. “They called me a leftover because I was a puny little girl, very light complexion, skinny, and just the last one. So, all the sisters were picking on me all the time, but, I didn’t give in. I did everything back to them for what they were doing to me.” Naomi was mostly raised by her oldest sister, Chaika, because her mother suffered from crippling arthritis in her hands.
There was a Jewish community in Vladimirets, as well as non-Jewish people. “We lived a very happy life together.” Yitzhak was a butcher, “So, we had enough meat and potatoes. We didn’t have any luxuries, but in our home the only thing I can remember is that family was very close and very loving and caring about each other.” Zelig was married with three sons and lived in another house built in their backyard, with a little grocery store facing the main street and where all of the siblings helped out.
They were Orthodox and Naomi remembers how “My father used to grab my hand and take me to the synagogue almost every Friday and Saturday.” Naomi went to public school from seven-year-old until 14-years-old, when the war started. She also went to Jewish school to learn Yiddish, and still writes and reads in Yiddish.
During the 1940’s, Vladimirets was under Ukrainian Nationalist occupation, which was allied with the Nazis. “Personally, I was affected when they made all the Jewish people live in a ghetto, with two or three families together in one home. We had to leave our two houses because maybe the Germans thought they liked it better. Our whole family went to live with my father’s cousins, the Friedmans. There wasn’t a fence around the ghetto, but we were wearing yellow Jewish stars and the main street was off-limits for the Jews.” Her father’s and brother’s shops were closed up; there was no more school, no more synagogue.
“Soon they started to take young people to work, digging graves for the rest of the people. My father decided I was too young and too puny or too little, so he took me with a horse and buggy to my sister’s in Staraya Rafalovka, only about 18 or 19 kilometers away. He signed me out from the Vladimirets ghetto, but my sisters didn’t put my name on the list for the Rafalovka ghetto.”
Chaika was married to David Treger and they had two children, Yankel and Naomi. Another sister Razel and her husband lived with them in the Rafalovka ghetto. “It was the same thing. The front door was locked. If you want to go out, the back entrance.”
“When they started to call the people from the ghetto to be counted, I always stayed home by myself because I wasn’t registered. The Germans counted and, if nobody was missing, they let everybody go home…. Then the young people were taken to work, digging very long graves. This was two days before everybody was killed and two weeks before Rosh Hashana, 1942. My older sister called me to the front door and, all of a sudden, she tells me to take off my shoes. I said, ‘What’s wrong with my sister? Why is she telling me to take off my shoes? I want to wear my shoes.’ Very quickly, she unlocked the front door, and pushed me out. The only thing that I heard was, ‘You are too young and I don’t want to see your blood.’
“I’m on the main street. Can’t go back. The door is locked. I don’t know anybody. I’m a young girl and I see a German. He’s coming not for me, he’s walking in the main street with a Polak. The German came closer to me and he asked me, ‘Girl, where are you going?’ I pretended like I didn’t understand. The Polish man says, ‘He is asking you where are you going?’ There was a horse and buggy on the street nearby, a couple going someplace from a farm or home. I said, ‘Well those are my parents.’ So, they let me go through.”
“I’m walking the main street, barefooted, nothing on except one little dress, nothing else. I came to the first farmer, walked into the farm, and said, ‘Look, I’m Jewish. You want to have something nice? This is the address. Go and bring my two sisters and two nieces and nephew.’ The husband says, ‘No, I’m not going to go. It’s dangerous.’ The wife, yes and no. So, they gave me something to drink and I thought they don’t want to do it. After maybe 20 minutes, the farmer man comes out and says, ‘You know what? I am going to take a chance. I am going to go in that address to see if I can bring your sisters.’ Then he went. He brought my sister Razel. My other sister didn’t want to leave the house. And then Razel found her husband and we were together from two weeks before Rosh Hashana until Passover.
“The farmer and his wife were afraid and I don’t blame them, because after the incidents, the Nazis came in and if they found a Jew in a farmhouse, they killed the whole entire family and also, they burned the farm. I had my sister and her husband, we were three, and my sister found a second cousin with his wife and his son, who escaped also from ghetto…. We were going from farm to farm, begging for food and sleeping outside because it was still not cold. We used to cuddle up and sleep anyplace. I still only had one dress. One schmatte. The dress started to get holes. Then we started to beg the farmers to get us something else. One farm lady gave me her husband’s shirt, a cotton shirt.
“Then we bumped into a few single young men. Because winter is coming and we know in Poland winter is very bad, snow on top of snow, they decided we have to do something. For some reason, they started to think that we have to build a cave in the mountains someplace with a very tall hill. So, they found the hill and built a cave where there was place for nine people to sleep. Our food was one potato a day for the whole winter; the young men took the potatoes the farmers had buried in the caves. And this is how we survived…. In the meantime, my sister became very, very sick; very high temperature, so the rest of the people decided to leave because they didn’t want to catch whatever she had. My brother-in-law, Razel, and I remained in the cave. I used to go outside, bring a handful of snow, put it on her face to cool her off a little bit….
“One day I said to my brother-in-law, ‘Look, why don’t you go to the city, beg for something to eat except only the potato.’ He did and he came home with a loaf of bread, some cheese, and other things…. All of a sudden, my sister’s fever disappeared. I said to my brother-in-law, ‘You better go back to the farm and come back with a horse and buggy. We have to take her away from the cave to a farmer’s house.’ He listened to me – a little girl again telling a married man what to do. We came to the farm where he borrowed the horse and buggy. It was a very nice farmer. So, we were there for a while, sleeping on the top level of the barns.
“The second day of Passover, the Nazis came and once more, as a little girl, I said to my sister, ‘We are not going to run.’ She was weak, still not recuperated, but she grabbed my hand and started to run. I said, ‘We are not doing the right thing. Let’s sit down or dig something, let’s do something. If we are going to start running, we are going to get killed.’ Well, here’s a little girl telling a married sister what to do. She didn’t listen. She was holding my hand so tight because I was still the baby to her. And then we came to a bush and she was holding my hand and I went one way and she went the other way and a bullet killed her immediately in her head. And I’m still alive looking at her and she’s just waving with a hand that I should run.
“So, I started running in the woods, flying like crazy. I stopped at a farm and one farmer was inside the barn and he saw me standing next to the barn. He liked me very much. He always used to give me food when I was begging. And he says, ‘I don’t want to see your blood near my barn…. Start running.’ So, I did…. The second farmer chased me away again from his farm because he didn’t want me to be killed next to his farm. For some reason those farmers liked me. I don’t know why but they liked me…. Then the third time, I’m waiting for them and they were maybe 80 feet from me, with an automatic gun. And I looked at him and he looks at me and he wants to kill me already. The gun is not working. I say, ‘You’re not going to take me alive, uh-uh.’ There was a pond next to me and I don’t know how to swim because I was drowning when I was a little girl and at the time I was afraid to go in the water. But this time, I said better to drown than to be killed from a Nazi. The water was up to my neck. I was on the other side. They were screaming and yelling for other people they should come and give them a canoe. Yes, after maybe after a half an hour I was running away and I was on the other side…. When the farmers heard the Nazis were coming, they would take out their belongings and put them outside the house, because the Germans, the Nazis used to take their things too. I found the biggest pile with some clothes or whatever and I made my way inside. I heard them walking around looking for me, but they didn’t see me.
“After two or three hours, the farmer found me and helped me to come out from that pile of clothes. He stood me up and was looking around me, to see if a bullet hit me. He said, ‘No, you’re okay. Now it’s still the middle of the day, you had better sit here and wait. I’m going to come at night when it is going to be dark and I’m going to take you to my house.’ I thought, ‘You are going to go and tell the Germans where I am.’ No, he didn’t. He came when it was dark already. He picked me up. He took me to his home. He gave me a glass of milk; he gave me a slice of bread; and he gave me a blanket to sleep in the barn.’ I stayed there maybe a month or two. When the neighbors started to question him, he always said that I was my sister’s daughter, because I looked like a shiksa. The Polish girls are very light complected and I fit in. Also, my Polish was fluent and not like you are a Jew.
“Some of the farmers were wonderful and they kept me from 1942 to 1944. At the end of the war, I was still at the farmers’ houses because I didn’t know and the farmers I suppose didn’t know either or maybe they did and they wanted me to stay, especially with one farmer. I was doing everything, helping with their children, going with them to the beaches, washing their clothes with the wives. I was doing everything, whatever they told me to do.”
In 1944, Naomi came back to Vladimirets by herself. She bumped into two sisters, survivors, and found a cousin, Mordechai Radslin. They lived in the half of a big house that was not destroyed by bombs. A man showed her how to make alcohol, vodka, and she started exchanging it for food from the Russian soldiers. She did this “because first of all I didn’t have any money; second of all I didn’t know what else to do.” She recalls how naïve and trusting she was one time, when three Russian soldiers were passing by her porch where she was nursing a swollen jaw. “They talked to me in Russian. I talked Russian too. And they said, ‘Girl, why are you crying?’ I said, ‘With a face like that, should I laugh?’ So, he says, ‘Well we have a dentist. We have help. We are going to take you something.’ That stupid Naomi believed people, especially three soldiers. I went with them to the barracks and they put me in a chair like this and I see one is in the back, one on each side and one is looking at my face. I say, ‘Why are they over there in the back of me, why?’ So, the dentist came with a plier and told me to open up my mouth and he pulled my bad tooth. So, there was all the pus and everything, I made everybody dirty.”
Meanwhile, Naomi’s sister Chaika’s husband, David Treger, was drafted in the Polish army when the war started. “Because he was a tailor, they sent him back to Russia to be the manager in a big factory where they were making Russian uniforms. When he came back, we found each other, and because I was barefooted and didn’t have any shoes on my feet, he started with a pair of boots. Then, because he’s a tailor, he started to make a dress for me and this is where we started to get to know each other…. We were married in 1945. There were no rabbis, but there was an old Jew, an old man, a survivor, like my father, who could marry off people and knew what to say.
“We decided to look for a different place than to live in Poland. We smuggled over the border into Czechoslovakia. We took in a few Hungarian girls who survived from the concentration camps. We fattened them up a little bit and put clothes on them. Then we sent them first in case the Polish people were going to be stopped at borders and because they spoke the language. I was there with about 20 Polish people, and we smuggled across the borders. We walked the whole way. We went first to Czechoslovakia. From Czechoslovakia we went to Hungary and then Romania. And after Romania we came to Italy, where we lived in Cremona, a camp with 1500 Jewish people.
“On the trip, I was really sick. I fell off a cliff and I tore something inside. So, in Italy, I had surgery and they corrected it. After surgery, the Italian doctor says to me, no bambino. Three months later, I go back to him and say, bambino. He says, no bambino. Well anyway, I had a bambino. I had my daughter (Rochelle) in the camp, and three sons later.
“We were four couples, living in one bedroom. Every couple had a string and they put a blanket over where you had to get dressed or undressed…. The Joint Distribution Committee supplied everything…. They cooked food for 1500 people. I could never eat the food, even though I came from hell. Because my husband came from Russia with money, he used to go into the city and get a little food for me.… There was no place to work, so, everybody was home…. Everybody was looking to emigrate to another country. Because I had a sister in Israel, Shoshana Josefsberg, I was pushing with my husband to sign up for Israel. So, we did sign up. Then you have to go to a doctor. They check my husband and he’s fine. They check me, they said no, we need healthy people. And that’s why they said I could not go to Israel because I’m not healthy enough. I was strong like a horse during the wartime, but after the war was over, I was kind of sick.
“One day my husband says, ‘Well, I think I have an uncle in America. His name is Morris Trager. He’s in Detroit, America.’ I took a pencil and paper, wrote about his nephew, and I wrote Morris Trager, Detroit, Amerika, put a stamp on; naturally, I wrote it in Yiddish because I didn’t know how to write English and Polish and I’m 100% sure they don’t know how to read Polish. In three weeks I received an answer from them. And then they started to write to each other and Morris’s son, Frank Trager, sent us tickets.”
Naomi, David, and Rochelle came to Detroit in 1948 and, after moving around for a few years, Naomi was able to buy a four-family house with her share of an inheritance from her aunt, her father’s sister, who had immigrated to the US in the twenties and lived in California. The rent from the other three families supported them. Their first son, Erwin, was born there. Naomi saved up enough to purchase a two-family house in 1952 and her second son, Aaron, was born there. Again, she saved enough money and, in 1955, bought a single home in Oak Park, where her youngest child, Harvey, was born.
David worked as a tailor, then became a partner in a dry-cleaning business, and finally bought a store in Ferndale, Shifman’s Menswear.
In addition to Naomi and her sister Shoshana in Israel, Naomi’s brother Harry survived because he was drafted into the military. After the war, he also was in a camp in Italy and then he and his wife Rose moved to Detroit.
Naomi does not know where she got her unbelievable inner strength. “I really don’t know because I was so young. It’s just common sense. Sometimes at night I’m thinking, ‘Naomi, you didn’t see anything different at your parents’ house. Nobody told you anything.’ It’s just my mind worked like that. I didn’t have any family for example. I was all by myself.”
Naomi has four children, seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren and would like them to “Think that Bubbe is nice and caring and loving. And she did everything that she could for everybody and they should always think that I tried my best.”
Date of Interview: September 11, 2017
Length of Interview: 74 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus