Ellen Dorman

I believe I was two when this picture was taken. I don’t think I was a very nice child. Like many children, I tried to make my mother’s life miserable. I didn’t get along with her at all. She was very overprotective because I was an only child and I resented that.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

Her Story

I was born on December 28, 1926, in Tarnow, Poland, the only child to an adoring family. In Tarnow, where I grew up, I led a privileged and sheltered life.

This is my mother, Chaia Amsterdam Wiener.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

Before World War II, about 25,000 Jews lived in my town, comprising almost half the population. Moreover, Jews had been living in Tarnow since the mid-fifteenth century. Before the war, I cannot recall any antisemitism, but I was sent to Jewish schools and only had Jewish friends. In fact, until the German invasion, the only non-Jew I knew was my father’s worker.

My community varied from secular Jews to religious Hasidim. My family fell somewhere in between; my father, Pincus, was a religious Zionist, and my mother, Chaia, came from an Orthodox family.

This is a picture of my parents.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

My mother very often took me to visit her family who lived about thirty kilometers from Tarnow, near a town called Mielec. My mother was very close with her family, and that is perhaps why I have such vivid memories of them. They had a farm and most summers we spent a few days with them. They had a beautiful garden with wild flowers. Every time I see flowers, I remember my grandmother’s garden.

My mother loved it there and we visited a lot, especially during the summer. There were no other children there and nothing for me to do, so I hated every minute there. There wasn’t one year that I gave my mother peace in Krynica.

My mother had very light features: blond, reddish hair and blue eyes. She was a pretty woman, but not very happy. I wasn’t close to my mother. She wanted me to be perfect, which of course I was not.

This is the only picture I have of me with my father. It was taken on my grandparents’ farm. I am the baby straddling my father’s shoulders. My mother is standing to the left with her arm on the shoulder of the girl who helped out on the farm. On the right are my Uncle Shulim and his wife, Cerele.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

I looked more like my father; we both had dark complexions, brown hair and brown eyes.

Most of my father’s family did not survive the war. He had three brothers and one sister. My father ran a business with one of his brothers, but then went into business on his own, making leather goods, such as attaché cases, shopping bags and school bags.

My father and I had a very special relationship. I just adored him and always came to him with all my problems. He never raised his hand to me, never screamed at me, and was always very patient. He used to walk me to school and carry my school bags until I was at least in the sixth grade.

Father did not want me to go to public schools due to the antisemitism that Jewish students experienced there. He wanted to shelter me from the world of hate, so I was sent to a private Hebrew school called Safa Berura. I remember the school being expensive. Because my parents could not always pay tuition on time, I remember being called into the principal’s office, and the principal would scold me and tell me that I needed to bring money for school. This used to make me very upset.

Not long after the occupation, harassment of Jews began. The Germans cut off the beard and payis, the side locks, of Orthodox men. Though I knew it existed, this was the first time I had ever personally encountered antisemitism. It was beyond hatred. I’ll never understand how people can treat each other that way.

*USHMM image #06213

Father’s dream was to move to Palestine, which was another reason that he sent me to the Hebrew school. Though I was not a great student, he made me study Hebrew diligently. My mother however, being so close to her family, did not want to leave Poland.

On August 28, 1939, while in Krynica, we heard that the railroad station in Tarnow was bombed. Tarnow was a crossroads between Vienna and Moscow, as well as other major destinations in Europe. I remember everyone talking about the probability of war, because Germany had already annexed Austria and all of Czechoslovakia. It was apparent to many that Poland was next.

As it turned out, we didn’t have long to wait. September 1, 1939, is a date I’ll never forget—the day the war actually broke out. I was twelve and a half years old. I didn’t know much of what was going on except that the Germans had invaded.

Boy selling white armbands with blue Stars of David in Warsaw Ghetto.

Image courtesy of Yad Vashem 1605-801

In November 1939, all Jews in Tarnow were forced to wear a white armband with the Star of David on it. Later, in 1941, we also had to sew a Star of David on the left side of all our outer clothes. The next thing I recall is the burning of all the synagogues. The outer wall of our apartment building was attached to an Orthodox synagogue. We were sure that our building was going to catch on fire too, but thankfully, it didn’t.

The Germans eventually closed our schools. My mother hired a tutor for me and seven other Jewish children. One of the other children in my class, Todek Dorman, was the brother of the man who was to eventually become my husband.

Conditions under German occupation worsened. Germans started arbitrarily picking people off the streets to do manual labor. I was once caught and taken to the home of a Gestapo officer to clean for the day. I quickly learned which streets to avoid.

The Germans took over the largest and most beautiful Jewish homes in Tarnow and forced the Jews to move out. Jews were only allowed to live in certain areas of Tarnow, which became incredibly crowded. My father’s sister Rivka, her husband and two sons came to live with us in our two-room apartment. We didn’t live in the most fancy neighborhood, but the Germans took our valuables. My mother loved to do needlepoint, and the Germans took all of them. Only one needlepoint survived the war. My mother sent it to her brother in the United States before the war. It’s now been promised to one of my sons.

Surviving needlepoint.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

At some point, and I’m not sure when, someone had left a violin in my house. I always wanted to learn how to play. I started teaching reading and arithmetic to a young boy in my building and used the money I earned to pay for my violin lessons.

My violin instructor was a Mr. Eisenbach. That is how I met Frania Eisenbach, a girl who became as close to me as an actual sister.

I always felt my father had somewhat of a sixth sense. He had special boots made that he wanted me to wear all the time. They were so heavy and warm that I resisted wearing them, but he insisted. As a result, those boots became part of my daily attire, even in the summer. Ultimately, they saved my life. He also felt I needed to learn a trade. One of our neighbors had a little tailoring factory in the ghetto. Father gave him money so he could teach me how to become a finisher. I went to work in the morning and returned home before curfew. No Jews were allowed to own businesses, so this was all done behind closed doors.

Slave labor factory.

Image courtesy of Yad Vashem 5015-104

My mother was able to pass as a Polish Christian, using the birth certificate of the deceased sister of my father’s former employee. In this way she was able to avoid living in the Jewish ghetto.

My father and I had little to eat. Knowing she was risking her life, as it was a major violation of German policy, my mother would occasionally sneak into the ghetto and bring food. On one of these visits she was caught and murdered for helping a Jew. I’ve always blamed myself for her fate.

Life became increasingly difficult. By 1941, there were about 45,000-50,000 Jews in Tarnow. The Germans brought in all the Jews from the small towns and villages whom they didn’t kill. You can imagine the poverty. The streets were full of people living there.

In September 1943, my father and I were among the last people deported from Tarnow to Plaszow, a forced labor camp in Krakow.

*Image courtesy of USHMM.

By 1942, we knew something terrible was going to happen. We did not yet know about the death camps, but we did hear about other terrible things. In June 1942 German trucks and tanks surrounded the main streets of Tarnow. They brought dogs and loudspeakers and started pulling people out of their homes. We didn't know what was going on; we tried to stay quiet in our apartment. We then started to hear shooting, a lot of shooting. As a result of the aktion, or round-up of the Jews, about 11,500 Jews were deported to the death camp at Belzec. Hundreds of people were shot. It took the Germans three days to complete the killing. We were told not to look out our windows, but I peeked out and actually saw a river of blood coming down the street. After the killing, the Germans put up the ghetto.

Most of the work for the prisoners was outside in the stone quarry. Luckily, my father, Frania (my violin teacher’s daughter) and I worked inside in the tailoring workshop. Winters were terrible in Poland; the temperatures often fell below zero. Having an inside job meant the difference between life and death.

One evening, I had an attack of appendicitis—I could not move my right leg, the entire right side of my stomach was swollen and I was in terrible pain. As a young girl, I had many painful abdominal attacks, which my mother treated with ice until the swelling went down. She would not allow me to have my appendix removed because someone in our family had died from having their appendix removed.

I was taken to the hospital in Plaszow for the operation. They provided me with a little bit of ether, but not enough to put me straight to sleep. There was a time limit as to how long you could stay at the hospital—at the most, two or three days. A German doctor would come and inspect the patients; if you were there longer than time permitted, they’d take you up to Hujar’s Hill or kill you in bed. I sneezed and coughed, causing my stitches to come undone and also developed a terrible infection. The interns devised a way to allow me to stay until I was able to recover.

I was in Plaszow until August 6, 1944, when I was shipped to Auschwitz, along with my friend Frania. My father was deported to Gross-Rosen and after we said goodbye at Plaszow, I never saw him again.

The fear in the cattle cars taking us to Auschwitz was overwhelming—it was very hot, there was no way of escaping. I remember the selection as to who would live and who would die. Frania and I were sent with the other healthy women, the ones that would live.

After the selection we undressed, showered and had all the hair shaved from our bodies. Our forearms were tattooed—Frania and I have numbers that differ by one digit.

I mentioned the boots my father had made for me—I wore them in the ghetto in Tarnow, the camp at Plaszow; after dressing in the ill-fitting clothes I was given, I went back and found my boots. I suppose the people who took them thought they looked so tattered they weren’t worth mending. I put them on immediately.

Frania and I worked as Schneiderinnen, tailors. We were given new clothing: red dresses and white kerchiefs for our heads. We were to inspect and repair the clothing in Canada, where the clothing taken away from all those who entered Auschwitz was housed. We found all kinds of things hidden in the clothing: jewelry, wedding rings and food. This allowed us to occasionally sneak a piece of food or clothing, and was the second time I was saved because I was assigned to a good work detail.

Auschwitz was like living through hell. We stayed there from July until November; that’s a very long time. I think the heart of Auschwitz was the appels, the roll calls. The SS would look straight at you; if you did not look right they would pull you out and send you to the gas chamber. So you had to look your best. Once we were all made to stand outside for 24 hours because four women helped in an attempt to dynamite one of the crematoria. One of them was hanged; we had to stand and watch her hanging. It was a good thing that I had my shoes so that I could stand up the whole time.

We heard from other prisoners that we should try to get out of Auschwitz--get on a transport to a labor camp because the war was almost over. We took this advice seriously. We tried to get out on the first transport looking for young women. Only Frania was chosen; I was in shock. I later learned that she was sent to a labor camp and eventually ended up in Theresienstadt.

After Frania left, it was very hard for me. It felt like everybody had someone there and I was completely alone. I went with the next available transport for females, which was to Hindenburg, on the Polish-German border south of Auschwitz. The Germans were making tanks there.

After arrival, we had to undress, shower, go through selection, and again, my shoes were there when I went back in search of them. In a way, having these shoes was like having my father with me.

Hindenburg was a different kind of camp. We were given food regularly because we worked. I was taught how to weld. I wasn’t in Hindenburg too long when we began to hear artillery fire and everyone was talking about the war being almost over. It was just a question of days until we were going to be liberated by the Russians.

But then, a few days into January, we were told to take our belongings, which weren’t much, and we just walked. We walked for three or four days and had to walk fast, because if you didn’t keep up, you were shot. Thanks to my father, I was still wearing my shoes, so I could walk well in the snow. All over Germany and Poland, prisoners were forced to move on these death marches in an attempt to escape the approach of the Russians from the east.

We finally arrived at Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp where I searched desperately for my father, but didn’t find him. We then went to the railroad station, waited for two days and then boarded a coal train that eventually stopped at a camp called Nordhausen, where the Germans were manufacturing rockets. We were there one day until we were again deported to our final destination, Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northern Germany, near Hanover. Those of us who survived from Hindenburg were completely black from the soot of the coal car and dangerously undernourished.

Bergen-Belsen did not seem like a concentration camp; it was just like a death camp. There was nothing to do but sit and wait to die. I don’t think I had much of a will to live at that point. I contracted typhus as soon as I arrived.

I don’t know what possessed me—the strength that I had those few days was unbelievable. I fought death at night for those few nights and I lived through it because I fought. So every morning I got up and washed myself with whatever cold water I could; there was no soap there. The lice were all over. I’d sit outside as often as I could, where I could get the sun. I just waited for the liberation. My mind wasn’t working anymore, I weighed about 67 pounds—just bones. And just enough life I guess to still be alive.

Finally, on April 15th, after two and a half months of barely living, the British liberated us. Due to the typhus epidemic in the camp, we had to stay in Bergen-Belsen for a few more weeks. They opened up the German barracks for us and we went to live there. We saw that people were slowly coming back. Families were coming, trains were running, but very poorly.

This was taken in Germany after I moved to Bad Nauheim. I am wearing the blouse I received in Bergen-Belsen.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

Once the quarantine was over, I traded my worn-out shoes with a woman who gave me an almost-new pair of side-buttoned, high-topped shoes. In retrospect, I’m a little sorry I didn’t keep my boots. I was also given a blouse, which I still have.

I wasn’t going to leave Bergen-Belsen until I heard from my father. I waited there from April 15th until September, just before the Jewish holidays. I finally left for a place nearby. There I was living under minimal conditions again. Hungry, never enough food, only one dress.

Then came the realization that there is nobody alive. We only had one thing—to live through the war. Some of the other girls found family members. Unfortunately, I didn’t. There was one girl whom I had met in Hindenburg who had not found family either; her name was Susha.

Together, we traveled to the U.S. Zone, to a town called Bad Nauheim. It was well-known as a place where people would go to take the curative waters to help their heart conditions.

Victor and me.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

When Susha and I reached Bad Nauheim, there were maybe four men there who were Jews, and they all worked in the Army camps for the Americans. We had to register in the town to live or work there. I got a job with the US Army—cleaning tables in the soldiers’ mess hall. I was so pleased to have that job! I finally felt a sense of liberation that I could work and support myself. Susha and I rented a room together in a small villa for refugees.

On the way home from a shopping trip to Frankfurt, we walked to a DP camp called Zalcheim, looking for a place to sleep. It was a huge, well-known DP camp and we were told that they would help us. Refugees from all over Europe lived there. We walked forever until we reached the mess hall, where Jews were allowed to eat for free. It was tremendous hall with hundreds of people. All of a sudden I saw a young man who looked familiar; it was Victor Dorman from my hometown. He was sitting with a good friend of both of ours, Jack Birenhak, and another group of people.

March 10, 1946 our wedding day.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

They found room for us to sleep at their house. The next morning there was a truck leaving for Bad Nauheim. Victor went with us and never returned to Zalcheim. He stayed and got a job with the US Army in Bad Nauheim.

Then I got sick. I had an enlarged heart. I saw a doctor and was told that I should not have any children because of my heart. I was bedridden for quite a while.

When I was feeling better, Victor and I decided to get married.

Victor and I were “adopted” by an American soldier named Smith. When he learned that we were going to the United States, he asked us to visit his parents who lived in Bronxville, New York. My uncle Nathan had gotten visas for us and we finally came to the United States with an immigrant ship that left from Germany in June 1946. We made a point of visiting Smith's parents and thanking them for their son’s kindness.

Me on our wedding day--the little girl on the lower right lived through the war with her mother. I don’t recall their names.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

We lived with my aunt and uncle at first, but eventually moved into our own apartment four blocks from them.

I had problems from the beginning. I cried constantly. We needed love and a psychiatrist. Sometimes Victor was afraid to walk in the street because he forgot his armband. Every time a policeman came by we would have the shivers. Little things that always counted in the ghetto came back to us. It was painful to remember.

When I was in the hospital about to give birth to my first son, Steven, an anesthesiologist came into the delivery room, took one look at my scar from the appendectomy I had at Plaszow and said, “I know you! I was the doctor who did this surgery!” his name was Dr. Schindler, and he told me that the other intern from Plaszow, Dr. Lefkowitz, was also working at the hospital. We had a wonderful reunion!

We never spoke about our Holocaust experiences to others, but Victor and I spoke about it between ourselves. We spoke in Polish, and I never thought that Steven understood us. But one time, when a friend of Victor’s came over, he brought his German bride. Steven was about six at the time and said to the woman, “You’re a German, aren’t you? I hate them. They killed all my family.”

I realized that my child was listening to my hate. We never spoke about it with him which was understandable. But I guess Steven knew more than I thought.

We had another son, Howard. Victor went to work as a tailor and we began to build a new life in America. Victor had an opportunity for a good job in Pittsburgh, Kansas and we moved halfway across the country to begin this new phase of our lives. My favorite pastime was to play bridge and one of my partners was the wife of the Dean of Admissions at Pittsburgh State College. She encouraged me to speak to her husband about going to college. I took the entrance exam and was accepted despite the fact that I had never graduated high school. I spent two and a half years as an English major until we moved back east.

My friend Frania survived. She lives in France and we are in touch regularly. She was eventually liberated from Theresienstadt by the Russians in May 1945.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

I spoke about my experiences during the war for the first time in Pitttsburgh when a friend of mine, an evangelical Christian invited me to speak at her children’s school. I have continued to share my story since that time in 1957.

We moved back to New Jersey, built a network of friends, but still maintained a connection with our marvelous friends from the war years.

Image courtesy of Ellen Wiener Dorman

Though I created a whole new life in the United States, I always kept hope alive that my father would be found. In 1996, I read in a newspaper article that East Germany was releasing documents with the names and dates of concentration camp inmates. The article stated to get in touch with the Red Cross for more information. Documentation about my father’s fate finally arrived; it was very detailed—it listed his birth date, where he was sent throughout the war, his prisoner number and where he died on March 3, 1945. I was terribly upset, but it finally gave me closure. My father was someone that I loved so much, and finally, 52 years later, with the document in my hands, he once again became a person; not just someone who was only in my imagination. One of my most haunting memories was finally laid to rest.

My grandchildren should know what we went through during the war. The people who went through it haven’t forgotten. The Germans, the Nazis, killed six million Jews. Sometimes I get a terrible, terrible anger.

The world should know and they should never forget. I now leave our legacy to you. I hope you pass it on to your children and they pass it on to their children. Please don’t forget. And I just hope that never, in the world, anything like this can happen again.

*The views or opinions expressed in this site, and the context in which the images are used, do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of, nor imply approval or endorsement by, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).

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