Townspeople resented the returning Jews. Applefield said notes were regularly left at her door warning “that the work of Hitler will be finished.” Her father saw no choice but to leave the country.
Two of her father’s five brothers had survived the war. One lived in Israel, the other in New Jersey. When her father asked where she wanted to go, she told him America, because she had heard that was where money grew on trees.
In March 1947, father and daughter arrived in the States on a 90-day visa. Relatives arranged for Applefield’s father to marry an American-born Jew so they could remain.
Within six months, Applefield had a new mother, a new nationality, a new language, and even a new name. Her name at birth was Gustawa, but she chose Jeanette, which was shortened to Janet.
Her new mother didn’t want to hear about the atrocities in Europe, and Applefield didn’t want to upset her father by asking him about his experiences.
She distanced herself from her religion, marrying a secular Jew. “Jews are hated. I don’t want to be that,” she recalls thinking. “I wondered if Applefield sounded Jewish. That concerned me.”
Over time, Applefield came to terms with Judaism, realizing that what kept her “grounded during the war . . . were my memories about my family and my traditions,” she says.
In the ’80s, Applefield became involved with Facing History and Ourselves, the Brookline-based organization that combats prejudice by teaching about the Holocaust.
At different times over the years, each of Applefield’s three children has approached the Holocaust in his or her own way.
A conversation with the Polish-born writer Isaac Bashevis Singer led her oldest son, David, then a student at Amherst College, to urge his grandfather to record his memories. By the time of his death in 1978, Lolek Singer had “scribbled about 200 pages of memories and details into a notebook,” David, 56, said in an e-mail from his home in Paris.
David incorporated passages from the memoir in his 2010 novel, “Once Removed.”
By exploring his family’s history, David said, he came to appreciate the enduring impact of the Holocaust. “The fear of abandonment and the terror of separation that traumatized my mother as a child reverberated in the choices she made as an adult and unknowingly transferred to her children,” he said.
Milley, 52, said she didn’t become interested in her heritage until the birth of the first of her two sons, now 15 and 16. “All of a sudden there was a legacy to be passed on,” she said.
She recalled that when her older son was preparing his bar mitzvah talk, “he had a light bulb moment.” Had it not been for a stranger rescuing a crying little girl in 1942, he told his mother, “Baba [Grandmother] wouldn’t be here today, and you wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be here.”
In her talks, Milley said, she tries to convey that lesson, “that it is our collective job to learn about the past and link it to the moral choices that we make today.”
Until last summer, Applefield’s younger son, Jonathan, had avoided the topic of the Holocaust. “I didn’t want to identify with the victim,” the 46-year-old New Yorker said of his conflicted feelings.
But that changed after he set up a website for his mother last summer and an e-mail arrived from Karolina Panz, a non-Jewish Polish graduate student specializing in the Holocaust. Jonathan served as the family’s representative and fielded Panz’s queries.
Scouring the Krakow archives, Panz found Nazi records of Nowy Targ’s Jews.
“Seeing my mother’s name on this bureaucratic form in German really sent a shiver down my spine,” Jonathan said.
In turn, he scanned and e-mailed Panz copies of his grandfather’s manuscript and of Holocaust-era correspondence his family had long left untouched. Panz had the letters translated.
“It’s a refugee’s life,” writes Maria Singer in an early one. “I am all worried thinking about my dear ones.”
For the first time, Jonathan saw his grandmother as a real person. “She’s a 33-year-old woman who for all intents and purposes thinks there’s a life ahead of her,” he said.
The letters tell of increasing deprivation, difficulty finding work and means of escape, deaths by disease and later by execution.
After a three-year gap, the letters pick up in 1945. “No amount of paper would be enough to describe our terrible hardships,” Lolek Singer writes in a letter to his brother in America.
Among the documents that Jonathan provided Panz was one key to discovering his grandmother’s fate. It led Panz to a postwar affidavit by a family friend who recognized Maria Singer’s body when he was burying victims of a mass shooting in August 1943. It occurred at Plaszow, a concentration camp outside Krakow. Even by Nazi standards, the camp’s commandant, Amon Leopold Goeth, was a sadist. In Steven Spielberg’s 1993 “Schindler’s List,” Ralph Fiennes depicts Goeth gunning down inmates for the sport of it.Continued...