St. Louisan lost entire family in Holocaust

St. Louisan lost entire family in Holocaust

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Three pictures hold a place of honor on the wall in the entryway of Rachel Miller’s home. They are painted portraits of her mother, her father and her sister Sabine. They were painted on potato sack canvases by J. Lehmann, a German prisoner of war in 1946 in Langres, France. The original frames made from orange crates have been replaced. The existence of the painted portraits are due to Miller’s foresight and her survival of the Holocaust.

Miller was born in France, the youngest of four children. Her parents and siblings had moved from Poland in 1932 because of anti-Semitism and fears of being conscripted into the Polish army. The family left behind a large house and servants in Warsaw and went to live in a two-room apartment without running water. Also, her mother’s discovery that she was having Miller came as a “surprise.”

Every Saturday night both sides of the family got together for dessert and cards. Her mother was from a family of 13 and her family was from a family of eight. There had already been family members living in Paris. There were lots of cousins, family and friends and lots of singing recalled Miller.

“I was very happy,” Miller said. “We didn’t have cars or phones because we were too poor. But I didn’t know I was poor. It was just wonderful, just great.”

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Things began to change in 1939. Miller remembers her father sitting by a window and saying “it’s the beginning of doom.” She also recalls her excitement as a child hearing about a parade coming to town. She wiggled through the crowds to get a closer look.

“I saw the uniforms, the soldiers on horses, the tanks and became terrified,” Miller said. “I told my family I was scared. Basically France had told the Germans they were welcome and to come on into the country.”

Things continued to look the same for a while including the Saturday evening gatherings. In August 1941 the family heard a lot of commotion outside. A neighbor in another part of their apartment complex came to warn them the SS and French Police were there to pick up the Jews. He offered to hide and protect them at his apartment. When Miller’s father was crossing the courtyard another neighbor saw him and denounced him to the Germans. He was picked up immediately.

Meanwhile the French Police had started looking in the apartments. Miller’s mother had her sons hide under the bed behind the bathtub which was stored there. Miller is sure they were seen.

“We are sure when the inspector looked under the bed, he saw my brothers, but chose not to ‘see’ them,” Miller said.

All the men were taken that day, said Miller, including her father, his brother Leon, his brother-in-law Salomon and her mother’s brothers Jules and Avrom. In the beginning the family was able to receive letters from the men and send them packages. Then Leon and Avrom were deported to Auschwitz. Miller’s father and uncle became very ill and both were taken to Tenon Hospital, where they had major surgery and did very well. Their families could see them three times a week and everyone took turns, Miller said.

The German occupiers had issued many decrees that were bad for all Jews, but worse for non-French Jews. One of the new decrees said only French Jews could remain in the hospital. Miller’s father was taken in an open wagon in the bitter cold to another hospital.

“Then on Dec. 30, 1941, my father told my mother he had been injected with something at 10 a.m.,” Miller said. “He died at 2 p.m. in my mother’s arms. On that same day, at the hospital where my uncle was, he told my aunt he had been injected with something at 10 a.m. and he died that day. It was not unusual for the Germans to experiment on people.”

A burial was provided by the Jewish Forward since the family did not have any money. Miller’s mother did not allow the children to go to the funeral. Of course life was never the same, said Miller. She was never sure how her mother managed after that tragedy. She does not ever remember being hungry or without clothes.

There was a lot of sadness at home and they weren’t singing anymore. One day Miller’s mother told her she was sending her to the country for the summer. She told Miller her best friend Cecile and sister Sabine would be going with her. Miller didn’t think anything unusual about it since it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence to send city children to the country for the summer.

“The night before I left, my mother gave me another name, Christine, and told me not to tell anyone I am Jewish,” Miller said. “I didn’t question my mother, though she had taught me not to lie.”

Miller went to a farm in Montgeron, 100 kilometers outside of Paris. Her sister Sabine had stayed behind because her Aunt Rose had promised to give her a handbag. It worked out since Miller had forgotten to bring her doll, so Sabine could bring it with her.

“I went to the bus to meet Sabine,” Miller said. “I was looking forward to seeing her and she was bringing my doll. Then Cecile’s mom came off the bus and told me Sabine had gone shopping. I was 9 years old at the time, and I became very belligerent. I demanded to know where my sister was and where my doll was and what happened. She finally told me on July 16 there had been a big raid in Paris and my mother, my two brothers and my sister had been taken away.”

Later that summer, the Germans issued another decree asking anyone who had Jewish children in their homes to let them know and they would receive 300 francs to help care for them. The woman at the farm had written to Miller’s aunt to ask for permission to get the money.

“My aunt sent her the 300 francs and asked her not to reveal I was Jewish,” Miller said. “She saved my life.”

At the end of summer Miller went back to Paris. She asked to go back to see her apartment. The soldiers were looting it that day. Cecile’s mother spoke German and persuaded the soldiers to let the little girl retrieve some things.

“It is amazing to me that as a 9-year-old I had the presence of mind to take the photograph of my family instead of my doll,” Miller said. “Very few children were able to save pictures of their family. It’s a treasure. It also turned out some family jewelry was hidden in the frame.”

During war it was one decree after another. Miller hid in a convent for year and a half. She remembers the Germans always trying to dehumanize the Jews. There was an 8 p.m. curfew and Jews could only shop between the hours of 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.

“We were always changing our identities,” Miller said. “We kept thinking our family would return. We lived in the kitchen for the warmth of the stove. Things were getting bad. Germans kept picking up Jews until the last minute of the war.”

The Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (work of help to the children) rescued many children after the war and brought them to orphanages. Miller’s aunt worked in the kitchen of one of the orphanages. An American soldier discovered it one day and brought back other soldiers along with nurses, chocolate and toiletries.

In the end, Miller lost 93 people in the Holocaust. Her aunt decided it might be better for her to go to the United States. The American Joint Distribution Committee brought Miller to the U.S. when she was 13 years old where she lived in a series of foster homes.

It was love at first sight said Miller when she met her husband Milton at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. She said she fell into a wonderful family. The couple lived in California where she was a buyer for a department store and he worked for Sears. They were married for 47 years when Milton died in December 1997. They had two sons, Neil and Mark. Mark passed away in 1992. Neil lives in St. Louis.

Miller calls St. Louis home now. She says she absolutely adores the city and has made many lovely friends. She also has a passion for traveling, loves the arts, symphony, theater and plays bridge and mah jongg. She is active in the J Associates, AMC Cancer Research, the child survivor group, the effort for AIDS and she volunteers at the Art Museum. She frequently shares her story with groups visiting the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. Miller is also a breast cancer survivor and is active in the St. Louis Breast Cancer coalition. After a visit to Israel a couple of years ago she founded Shaving Israel.

It took many years for Miller to be able to tell her story.

“I kept wondering and feeling guilty for surviving,” Miller said. “Why, why, why me? I was angry at my mother for sending me away that summer. I don’t know why did she did that, but she saved my life. I have an obligation to tell my history. I will keep telling my history as long as I can.”

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