High Holidays

Annique Dveirin

Annique Dveirin lights a candle with her granddaughter, Haley Dveirin, at the Tucson Jewish community Yom HaShoah commemoration in 2017. (Keith Dveirin)

Never Again, Annique Dveirin. A signature. A statement. And all because she wants hate to cease to exist in this world. Even though she was only 4 years old when she was hidden with a Christian family in Poland, Dveirin was made painfully aware of the terrors of the Holocaust. She speaks with pride and a sense of the miraculous of being a survivor; and more than that, an achiever. These days this retired English and French teacher speaks to school children and adults about the Holocaust.

Hania Beer was my birth name. I was born on Aug. 28, 1936, in Brzuchowice, Poland. My parents, Abram and Ruzia, owned a farm and a three-room house. We lived there with my sister Jackie, and my father’s brother and sister.

My aunt was always sewing and Uncle Feivish was very tall. We had challah on Friday nights and I was given a small piece of dough to make my own little challah.

Shortly before the Germans occupied Poland, people of the village began attacking the Jews. One night, when I was 4 years old, a pounding woke me, and people were yelling for us to open the door. We were afraid the villagers were coming to kill us. While my 2-month-old sister was kept quiet, my aunt and I escaped through a back window.

First, we stopped at a Russian Orthodox minister’s house. Then there was a knocking at that door, and we had to escape, again out a back window. We headed back toward our house, and we needed to cross a bridge. However, there were young men milling on the bridge. We crossed the river so they wouldn’t see us. In the distance, we could see a large bonfire in front of our house. There were shadows of people throwing things into the fire. We kept away. By the time we returned, our home had been looted and looked much larger in its emptiness.

Children who were my friends started calling me “dirty Jew” and “stinking Jew.” They threw rocks, and my father would chase them away. One time the police came for my father. He was allowed to return home but was swollen from a severe beating. Our lives had changed forever.

The adults became very tense, always whispering. They were afraid we would not survive. Late one night there was another knocking at the door. But this time it was not a threatening mob. It was Nikolai Kuzhmakh, who helped on the farm, offering to hide me at his mother’s house in another village — a one-dirt-road, one-church village.

I remember it was winter and it was very cold. We went through the woods and I was afraid a big, bad wolf would come after us.

Nikolai’s family also were farmers. His mother and two brothers lived there. Nikolai’s mother, Mariya, was in charge of me — a blue-eyed, blond, Jewish child.  They passed me off Mariya’s daughter’s illegitimate child of a German soldier. I was taken to a church, baptized, and given a new identity as Hanka Kuzhmakh. I had no formal education, but Mariya taught me to say Christian prayers. I lived with them for four years.

I had chores to do. I learned to wash clothing in the river, cut wheat, take the cattle to pasture, and ride a horse. One time a horse kicked me in the back and I was in bed for a week. Mariya’s sons resented my presence. One son, Fedko, often hit me, and threatened to turn me in to the Germans, but Mariya stopped him, saying that the Germans would punish them for taking me in.

I think Mariya was saving me so that God would forgive her husband and son for being killers.  Mariya’s husband and oldest son, Mechanko, worked for the Germans, and I believe it was a death camp because Mariya would make me kneel and pray for their souls.

My aunt was hiding inside a wall in Mariya’s barn, and one night Mechanko and his friends dragged my aunt from the barn. She was screaming as they murdered her. For a long time, I heard those screams in nightmares.  I knew the exact moment of the murder — the sounds of that night will always be with me.

Eight months after the war ended, I no longer had to pose as Hanka Kuzhmakh and was reunited with my father and sister, who also had been hidden with non-Jews, including a convent, where the nuns had baptized her. It also was the first time I learned that my father, mother and other relatives were among a group of people who had hidden in an underground bunker in the woods. My father and two cousins went in search of another place the group could hide, but when they returned, they found the horror of more than 60 people murdered and mutilated. My mother was among those murdered.

My father never fully recovered after the war, and would never talk about my mother and other family members who were murdered. I have never wanted to return to where I grew up.

My father was back in my life, but he couldn’t immediately care for us. My sister had a lung condition and was sent for treatment, but I was placed in an orphanage.

Many children at the orphanage had been tattooed with numbers, and one day when I was playing tag with another child and we were laughing, the tattooed children were startled — they had never heard anyone laugh since the war.

Eventually, we made our way to France, where my sister and I spent time in three different orphanages. This time we received schooling, including learning French, English, and Hebrew. These orphanages were run by Jews who taught the children Hebrew intending for them to go to Israel. But my sister and father and I emigrated to America.

I was 14 when I arrived in New York in May of 1951. Food was one of the first things I found amazing about America — it was 100 percent better than anything I had eaten before, particularly white bread with peanut butter and jelly.

I go by Annique, but legally I became a United States citizen as Ann. We only stayed in New York for three days and then went to Denver, where I and Jackie were placed in the National Jewish Home for Asthmatic Children, even though we did not have asthma. My father obtained work in a furniture factory, and eventually bought a house where we could live with him. I began my college education while in Colorado.

I was always determined to get a good education because I saw that people who had a good education did better in life. I got scholarships, always worked very hard in school, and also had jobs while going to college.

Shortly after I got married, my husband graduated from medical school and we moved to San Francisco for his internship. We were married more than nine years before divorcing. I had to continue my education while working to support my three children.

I was devastated when my son Kevin was diagnosed with leukemia. I existed in fog — going to class, walking the wrong way, not knowing what to do. Kevin died at age 13, but I was determined to succeed and finished my
master’s degree.

I taught high school English and French for 24 years, and after retirement moved to Tucson. I am very proud of my sons, Keith who is a pediatrician in Tucson, and Brant who is a lawyer in Los Angeles, and their families.

My sister lives in Las Vegas. She started out in ballet but became a coordinator for shows that travel to other countries.

Today Judaism is part of my life. I go with Keith to Or Chadash to celebrate the High Holidays and observe yahrzeits. I joined the Holocaust Survivor’s group sponsored by Jewish Family & Children’s Services, and through this organization, I give talks about the Holocaust to school children and adults. People usually have a positive response to my talks. I had only one student who proclaimed that the Holocaust never happened.

I’m against all hate. I don’t want a world where one group is against another group. I have experienced enough of this and I don’t want any more.

— As told to Korene Charnofsky Cohen, AJP contributing writer.