CANTON — Janet Singer Applefield has a hazy memory of the last time she saw her mother: It was in 1941 in Poland. Her parents were on one side of a ghetto fence; she was on the other, the free side.
But only within the last month did she learn where and how her mother died, thanks to a chance Internet encounter with a Polish researcher.
“There was part of me that wanted to know, but another part that really didn’t want to know,” said Applefield, who is 77 and lives in Canton.
Over the last 25 years, she has been speaking to students, community groups, even inmates in prisons about her childhood eluding the Nazis. Her daughter, Deb Milley of Sharon, joins her on occasion and gives talks on her own as well. With her mother in the audience, Milley will speak at a Holocaust remembrance event sponsored by 10 synagogues and hosted by Temple Israel of Sharon on Sunday.
As with the families of other survivors, the Applefields have responded to the Holocaust with a gamut of emotions over the years and through the generations. They’ve gone from burying memories to exploring them, from feeling shame to taking pride.
Applefield was the pampered first grandchild of a large extended family in Nowy Targ, a town nestled amid the Carpathian Mountains south of Krakow. Her father, Lolek Singer, ran a hardware store; her mother, Maria, took care of her and a younger sister.
At age 4, she saw her idyllic life shattered almost overnight with the September 1939 German invasion of Poland. She had no concept of war, but from her parents’ frantic whispering, she knew “something dangerous was going on.”
Her father joined the Polish army, sending his family off to his wife’s parents. Applefield recalls fleeing by horse and wagon to Russia, forced at times to huddle in ditches as German planes strafed the refugees. After the fighting was over, her father managed to find the family, and they scraped out a living. Diphtheria claimed the baby sister.
When the Soviets made taking out citizenship papers a condition for staying, the family returned to Nowy Targ to reunite with the rest of their family and protect their property. The Singers faced mounting persecution in Poland; their home was looted by German soldiers. In the end, they were forced into a ghetto.
Applefield’s parents made the heart-wrenching decision to place her in the care of a woman outside the ghetto. Over the remainder of the war, a succession of people risked their lives to shelter her.
She still recalls the chilling blue eyes of a Nazi soldier who burst into one of her havens, turning the apartment upside down in search of Jews. She stood petrified as he lifted her blond braids and demanded to know who she was. Her protector saved her by saying she was a niece.
Even more terrifying was in May 1943 when a cousin left her waiting on church steps, saying she was meeting her boyfriend. Hours passed. It turned out the cousin had been arrested while attending a Resistance meeting.
Wandering the streets in tears, Applefield was swooped up by a stranger who placed the 7-year-old with Alicia Golab, the matriarch of a Catholic family active in the Resistance. She lived with them for the rest of the war, using the name of a deceased Catholic girl whose birth certificate Applefield’s father had somehow obtained.
Meanwhile, Applefield’s father endured slave labor in a series of camps; the fate of his wife would remain a mystery. Until recently, Applefield had believed that within days of parting from her parents her mother had been shot in a mass execution in a nearby forest.
After the war, Applefield ended up in an orphanage run by Lena Kuchler, whose story was made into the 1987 movie “Lena: My 100 Children.” It contains a scene of a little blond girl being reunited with her father. Applefield says that girl was based on her.
In real life, it was not a storybook reunion. Applefield at first was unnerved by the skeletal figure hugging and kissing her. “He was telling me he was going to take me,” she says. “I had just adjusted to the orphanage. I had friends for the first time. Lena was our mother.”
Her father rented a room nearby, and as he regained his strength he renewed his relationship with her. He told her about being a slave laborer in a factory, where he placed her photo on his machine as inspiration.
The pair returned to Nowy Targ about a month later. They found only a handful of Jews in a town that was once home to 2,000. Only 100 survived the war, many of them finding refuge in the Soviet Union.
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.
Shortly after discovering the affidavit, Panz attended a family party at a cafe that happened to be next to Applefield’s childhood home. “In that moment I realized that Janet’s mother was at my age when she was shot,” Panz wrote in an e-mail to Jonathan. “I started to cry.”
In a few weeks, Jonathan and his mother will travel to Germany with a Salem State University class that is studying the Holocaust. They plan to investigate the roots of Nazi ideology.
Janet Applefield, a clinical social worker, said she was “still trying to figure out how people could do this to other people.”
After visiting Germany, the Applefields will go on to Poland, where they will meet with Panz.
In her e-mail to Jonathan, Panz wrote of how impressed she was by videos that Applefield has posted on her website (www.janetapplefield.com). “She, the victim of that horrible time, testifies that nevertheless evil didn’t win.”