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. Continued...