Four Letters to the Witnesses of My Childhood
by Helena Ganor


Syracuse University Press, 2007. ISBN 0-8156-0869-1.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 01/17/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

Helena Ganor, a Polish non-religious Jew, lost her mother and sister to the horror of the Holocaust and was separated from her father, a doctor who worked in a Russian military hospital. Her happy childhood ended when she was seven in 1939, the year Hitler invaded Poland. But the unthinkable happened when she was eleven. On a day when the Gestapo was rounding up Jews, she and her mother were taken to a hospital where her sister, Janka, ten years her senior, worked as a nurse. They believed they would be safe there. They were not. Standing in line, being asked for documents she did not have, her mother pleaded desperately with a woman: "Take my child,...and tell them she is yours." She was murdered only a few seconds later. Her daughter was saved. Janka devoted herself to fighting the Germans, and the eleven-year old Helena was left to fend for herself. Every day for six years she suffered hunger, cold, and the almost unbearable fear of being discovered by the Nazis. Ganor's book, a collection of four letters, is her legacy to those years, a legacy which needs to be read and remembered. Reading her story, we are privy to her intimidate feelings about the four people in her family of origin and to her memories which, she writes, are "etched in my memory and not erasable," memories too painful to confront for more than half a century.

Ganor's first letter is to her mother. In May 1941 her mother sent her to the countryside to live with a distant aunt and uncle. But the Gestapo came there as well, raging and violent, throwing Jews out of their homes. The daughter of this aunt and uncle gave the young Helena money to persuade a hired man to drive her to her mother. She hid in his farm shed overnight. When darkness came the following day, he hid her beneath the straw in his wagon. She cried, feeling as alone and isolated in the world as anyone can be—and then much worse, when her mother was murdered.

The second letter is to Janka, whom Gaynor venerated for her readiness to give her life as a Resistance worker, those fearless rebels who worked secretly against the Germans in the Underground movement. Janka and her comrades were ultimately betrayed and died in the Gestapo dungeons of the Gestapo.

The third letter is addressed to Gaynor's father with whom she was reunited at the age of twelve. She dedicates this letter "...to those few witnesses of my life...who dared to hold a little girl in safety, even if only for a short time." Her fourth letter is to her stepmother, Olga Aleksandrovna Archipova, who lived with her father in the Russian city or Penza and for whom she developed a deep attachment, which was not without its trials. She resented sharing her father's love, and also felt guilty for loving this stranger who had taken the place of her dear mother. I appreciate Ms. Ganor's willingness to write honestly about her feelings without glossing over difficult truths.

After the war Ganor became a doctor. She placed the vellum copy of the Hippocratic Oath beside a statue that included Janka's name among the Ghetto heroes—the sister she will always remember, she writes, "with tenderness and love until memory is no more."

Ganor sees herself as receiving "a chance of life almost like that given to an endangered species." I understand this. I too am German. I too am Jewish. My family escaped Germany at the eleventh hour in 1938. This plays a major role in my respect and admiration for this remarkable person and her remarkable book.


Helena Ganor was born in Lvov. After earning an M.D. in 1957, she practiced internal medicine in Warsaw. In 1969 she emigrated to the United States with her husband and two daughters, settling in southern California where she recently retired from practicing medicine. She was awarded second prize for poetry by the International Society of Poetry.

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