Local Shoah survivor describes ‘Amazing Journey’ as hidden child

‘Amazing Journey’ by Felicia Graber

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Suppose the “Hidden Annexe” in Amsterdam in which Anne Frank and her family hid during the Nazi occupation of Holland had never been found, and she and her sister Margot had survived the war and went on to successful post-war careers?  Anne’s world -famous “Diary of a Young Girl” might have been a memoir of survival. That alternate reality, which was the subject of a powerful novel, “The Ghost Writer” by Philip Roth, has its parallel in the true-life memoir by Felicia Graber in her book “Amazing Journey:  Metamorphosis of a Hidden Child ($15, paper).

Her story is described as “a tale of parallel odysseys:  one, across continents and cultures, from surviving Nazi occupation, to living a rich, full life in America; the other, a compelling coming-of-age story of a shy Polish child who transforms herself in her sixties into a successful, well-rounded woman.”  The book has also been praised as an example of a “feminist Holocaust memoir.”

Graber, who now volunteers as a docent at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, and whose husband is Rabbi Howard Graber, former Executive Director of the Central Agency for Jewish Education, survived World War II in hiding in her native Poland, and later fled to Western Europe.  She immigrated to the United States with her husband, where she earned two college degrees.  She also raised two children, taught school and became a speaker and writer about the Holocaust, as well as a volunteer and leader in the local  Jewish community.

In her preface, Graber asks an obvious question: “Who needs another Holocaust memoir?  A superficial search on Amazon.com results in thousands of related titles.  So what makes my memoir different?”  She answers her own question:  “I am a ‘baby survivor’ of the Holocaust, born after the Germans occupied my native Poland.  I did not know I was Jewish until I was seven-years-old, nor did I know that the man I called ‘uncle’ was my biological father.  I learned the story of our survival mainly from him.”

She recalls her father as “a unique individual.  He managed to guide my mother, me and himself through the war years with minimal outside help.  The three of us survived only because of his ingenuity and guts.  He always managed to stand on his own two feet.  No displaced persons camps for us.  He pulled himself up by his proverbial boot straps twice within the two years after liberation.”

Graber also has high praise for her mother, “a heroine in her own right.  She managed to blend into a foreign environment along with me–her then two-year-old daughter–and later hide her husband in our one-room apartment.”

Graber’s journey was indeed amazing.  After the war she and her parents moved from Poland to Belgium to Germany. She later moved to England to finish her education.   “I went to school in five different countries and was instructed in four different languages,” she writes.  “I changed schools nine times and graduated from high school at 17.”

Remarkably, Graber spent her post-war teenage years in Germany, “one of two Jewish girls in a German public, girls-only high school with a student body of one thousand.  At home I was swamped with stories of Nazi atrocities; in school I was surrounded by children of those who could have participated in them.”

At the age of 19, Graber met Rabbi Howard Graber, then an Army chaplain.  “At 23, I was already the mother of two, I accompanied my husband back to the United States, home for him but a new culture with different traditions, mores and Weltanschauang – world view – for me.  I was not exactly welcomed with open arms into his large family.  I was the foreigner, the ‘greenhorn.’  I did not belong.  In fact the feeling of not belonging stayed with me for most of my life, no matter where I lived.”

Graber’s feelings of “not belonging” are certainly understandable considering what she and her parents had lived through and the many convulsive changes and culture shocks she had to endure.  “But I made it.  I survived,” she writes.  “After 50 years of marriage, I look back on a life I would not change.”

Graber’s moving and compellingly written memoir attracted the attention and praise of Sir Martin Gilbert, the acclaimed British historian and author of the definitive multi-volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill, the great wartime British Prime Minister who stood up to the Nazis. In his foreword to Graber’s book, Gilbert writes,  “Felicia Graber has written a remarkable memoir that holds the reader’s attention from first to last.  She calls her account ‘Amazing Journey,’ and so it was.  What marks it out from many other accounts is that Felicia was born after the German conquest of Poland.”

Gilbert adds, “Felicia was fortunate, despite being confined in the Tarnow Ghetto, despite life in hiding, despite labor camp, she was never separated from her mother; indeed both her parents survived.  Liberation came two months before her fifth birthday.  She recalls vividly, ‘the roaring of the planes, the loud laughter of the drunken men stumbling down the road, the women crying and laughing.’  The young Felicia was confused and bewildered, but she was free.”

The historian also points out the “fascinating detail” with which Graber describes her life in the United States, including two return trips to Poland.  “Her accounts of both visits are absorbing.  On her first visit to the cemetery in Tarnow she found someone to restore her grandmother’s grave.  On the second visit, it takes her more than half an hour to clear the weeds so that she can come close to the tombstone.”

Detailing the various locations of her complex journey, Graber writes:  “In the beginning, there was Poland:  Tarnow, Iwonicz Zdroj, Milanowek, Warsaw, Lodz, Sopot.  Then, there was Belgium:  Brussels; then, Germany:  Bad Homburg and Frankfurt; then England:  Bentley; then Germany again; then the United States:  Fort Hamilton, Fort Bragg, Ellwood City, Pittsburgh.  Now, there is St. Louis.  At the beginning, it was 1939.  Now it is 2010.  Seventy years have passed, three generations have been born, a world war took millions of lives; and the Holocaust changed the face of humanity…The journey was dangerous, treacherous, and were it not for incomprehensible miracles, it would have all ended in 1942.”

Graber dedicates her important and powerfully written book to: “My husband, children, grandchildren, yet unborn descendants, and to the one-and-a-half million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust. May we always remember them and pass on our precious Jewish heritage.”

Felicia Graber’s story is genuinely gripping and could be the basis for a suspenseful, true-life film. At one point she and her parents have been arrested by the Germans and are being taken by truck for what would have been a deportation to the Auschwitz death camp the next morning. A Jewish man serving on the Jewish Council manages to convice the German ghetto commander that her father is an indispensable member of the puppet council, and the family is allowed to return to the ghetto. Felicia’s father arranges for a forged I.D. for her mother and a baptism certificate for her. Felicia became one of 25,000 or more Jewish children who were raised Catholic during the war in order to escape capture; she did not know she was Jewish until the age of seven.

Graber expresses warm gratitude to her “teacher, mentor and friend,” Bobbi Linkemer, whose own book, “Words to Live By” is reviewed on page 10A, for convincing her to write this powerful memoir. If it were not for Linkemer’s encouragement and guidance this important and vital book would not have been written.

By sharing her compelling and searing journey with her readers, Felicia Graber assures that her portion of those memories and the precious Jewish heritage will indeed be passed on to future generations.