Is it possible that a child of seven living in Poland can survive Hitler's maniacal determination to kill every Jew in her country? Maria Segal's survival is nothing less than a miracle. Her memoir Maria's Story: Childhood Memories of the Holocaust is a testimony to the power of the will, the power of religious faith, the power of undaunted hope...and the strength that came from Segal's profound love of her family.
Segal was born into a Jewish Orthodox family, the second youngest of five girls and two boys, in the town of Okuniew, a small farming community not far from Warsaw. She was five when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and his Final Solution for all of Europe began with swift and ferocious savagery. Tragically Segal is the only survivor of her beautiful family.
The horror began with the invasion of the Germans into her tiny village. Jews were herded into small wooden wagons (men and women in separate wagons) by barbarous Nazis and wildly barking German Shepherds. Gunshots could be heard in the distance. Segal was seven years old and petrified, having no idea what was happening, crammed inside the wagon, separated from her family. They were taken to the walled-off area that became the Warsaw Ghetto, shoved into communal showers (men, women and children) where the young Maria found her family. Tragically, it was not long before she would be separated from them again.
How did this young girl, all alone, survive the war? Segal writes her story simply and without embellishments. Her tone remains neutral and journalistic without self-pity though her fear and loneliness are clearly in evidence. Her language and style is that of someone who learned English later in life.
A sample: "A week went by and the police did not return to the Polanskys' house for me. We decided that I could stay in the fields during the day and sleep in the attic at night. I did not like the attic at all; it was dark and spooky. I was frightened at the noises and creaks, nevertheless, I had to remain in hiding if I valued my life. More news came of a teenage boy executed when he was found out. Now, although a young child, I had to start planning where to go for safety."
"Two weeks went by since the Gestapo and Polish police came to look for me. The Germans killed the other Jews in town; why would they spare me? While living in Okuniew since my time in the Ghetto, I had made the acquaintance of a young woman and her family. Wanda was in her twenties with dark long hair and a beautiful face." Wanda invited Segal to live with her and thereby saved this plucky young girl's life.
Recently Segal was invited by the Israeli Embassy to return to Poland (the city of Bydgoszcz) to participate in a ceremony honoring Wanda's humanitarian efforts during the War. Though costly and not an easy trip (from California to Poland) Segal, now in her seventies, chose to be present for the woman who saved her life. Interestingly, Segal became a Catholic while living with Wanda (a non-Jew) and her husband.
"I had a very strong need to belong to a church and pray to God. The religion was extremely important to me. It gave me strength to go on and hope that one day I might find my family of birth." "It was amazing," she continues on, " how much better I felt after praying. I found the Catholic religion to be a very comforting faith; if one truly believes in the doctrine, it can be very soothing and life is less stressful."
Segal has returned to her religion of birth but I admire that she embraced her belief in God in Catholicism as well.
This beautiful memoir is filled with the extraordinary personality that is Maria Segal plus the twists and turns of fate. Segal's harrowing existence took her to Denmark, Paris, Montreal and Quebec. She believes that "...any person can overcome obstacles in life with determination, a strong will and a willingness to work hard." While she will mourn the loss of her family till the end of her days, Segal is alive today, living a rich and fulfilling life in the beautiful city of Santa Barbara, inspiring proof that her philosophy can and did beat almost insurmountable odds.
Maria Segal was a child when she survived in the Warsaw Ghetto. She was born in Okuniew, Poland. She has three children and six grandchildren and volunteers at the Jewish Federation for Greater Santa Barbara as a docent for the Portraits of Survival Exhibit. She speaks about her experiences to groups ranging from high school students to law enforcement agencies.
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