Holocaust survivor tracks down family of Polish woman who saved her from WWII death camp with the help of Facebook
The youngest daughter of what might be the only nuclear family to have survived the Warsaw ghetto and the deportations to Treblinka has miraculously discovered the relatives of the Polish woman who saved her after a desperate last-minute appeal on Facebook.
Aviva Landau was due to visit Poland from Israel this month for the first time since leaving just after the end of the war and was keen to contact the family of her rescuer she remembers as Anna.
But the only information she had was an address on the back of an envelope in the town of Kozienice in eastern Poland and a few personal details.
With just days to go before Aviva boarded the plane to Warsaw, her granddaughter Gal Stern made a last-ditch appeal to people in the town for any leads.
Taking to social media, Gal joined the town’s local Facebook group and posted: “My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor born in Warsaw, is coming back to Poland for the first time after 75 years.
“I am looking for anyone who might have been connected to the Polish woman who saved her life - *Anna Neklaus/Neklasowa*
“Anna was born around 1890-1900 and lived in the outskirts of Warsaw until she passed away around 1980-1990. She hid my grandmother Aviva for approximately two years during the war under the name Zosia.”
Miraculously, within hours local woman Agnieszka Janeczek responded: “She was my great aunt!"
The woman who saved Aviva’s life by taking her into her home in Warsaw and pretending she was her Catholic niece was Anna Neklaws.
Aviva, accompanied by her daughter and other family members, finally met relatives of Anna on Sunday in Kozienice in an emotionally charged encounter.
Aviva told TFN: “There were lots of tears. It was very emotional, especially visiting her grave.”
In 1943, during the second and final wave of deportations of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto, the parents of Aviva and her older sister Hadassah managed to find shelter for them outside the ghetto.
Her parents David and Genya Brachfeld also managed to survive the Holocaust, and the family was reunited after the war.
Gal Stern told TFN: “We have heard from Holocaust researchers in Israel that they were possibly the only nuclear family – two parents and two children – to have survived from the Warsaw Ghetto.”
Before the war, the family had been affluent, even owning a summer house in nearby Józefów.
When Germans forced all the Jews in Warsaw inside the ghetto in October 1940, all that changed.
David sold the family’s property to buy food and medical supplies. He also smuggled food through the sewage underneath the ghetto.
“My father exchanged diamonds for pieces of bread,” Aviva said.
Aviva was just six years old in 1943 when she along with her family were marched to Umschlagplatz to be deported to Treblinka.
The guards sent her mother and sister back to the ghetto to wait for deportation on another day and her father managed to bribe his way out using a gold watch, hoping that he would be able to think of a way to get Aviva out too.
Aviva was left in the line to board the wagons at Umschlagplatz by herself.
She was rescued from certain death as a result of a shocking mix up. Suddenly, a German soldier holding a suitcase came to her, put her inside the suitcase and walked her out of Umschlagplatz.
“It turned that he had been paid a small fortune to save another girl but he mistook my grandmother for the other girl, who was most likely murdered in Treblinka,” Stern said.
“My grandfather heard later in the ghetto that the soldier had been executed for what he did,” she added.
When she got back to the ghetto, Aviva wandered for a few days before friends of the family told them they had seen her and that she had not been sent to Treblinka.
David knew that Aviva and Hadassah would not survive much longer in the ghetto. He contacted two Polish women he had known since before the war and asked them to hide the two girls.
In order to show them that the girls looked Aryan, he sent them a photograph which was taken inside the ghetto.
Aviva and Hadassah were dressed in their best clothes to make them look good and healthy.
“The bow that my grandmother wore in her hair was probably a rag picked up from the floor,” Stern said.
Aviva was placed with Anna Neklaws. According to her grandniece Agnieszka Janeczek, Anna had a strong temperament and indomitable character, which enabled her to survive two world wars and the Russian Revolution.
A family story says that during the revolution, she managed to rescue her sister Maria from communist monster and founder of the dreaded Czeka Feliks Dzierżyński.
“Supposedly, Auntie Hania got to Dzierżińsky himself and got Grandma out of prison by playing on his Polishness,” Janeczek said.
When Aviva arrived at Anna’s home on Francuska street in Warsaw’s Saska Kępa district, David paid Anna to hide her.
Aviva was given a fake birth certificate and given the Polish name Zosia and was passed off as Anna’s niece.
When David ran out of money, Anna did it voluntarily and sold cookies to have enough money to feed Aviva.
Aviva said: “I remember Anna as a beautiful, light-haired woman who lived in a modest house and baked cookies.
“Many years later on Allenby St in Tel Aviv, I smelled the exact same cookies and all my memories from the war came flooding back to me.”
On one occasion, Aviva remembers when German soldiers came into the house to look for weapons.
“Anna told me to go into my room and get into bed. She told the soldiers that I was her niece and that I was sick.
“They didn't touch me but I remember the noise and hearing their footsteps.”
During this time, tragedy struck Anna, when her son Bohdan known in the family as Daneczek, a 14-year-old scout, was caught in a tram stealing a bayonet from a German soldier.
He was imprisoned in the Pawiak prison and Anna moved heaven and earth to get him out.
Janeczek said: “It was 1944 and the German officials could be bribed as they could feel the breath of the Soviets on their backs. Everything was already on the right track when history intervened.”
Franz Kutcher, the head of the SS and the police in the Warsaw district was assassinated by the Home Army and all hopes of getting Daneczek out of prison were dashed.
In retaliation for the assassination of Kutchera, the Germans murdered Pawiak prisoners. They were shot in the ruins of the ghetto on 18 February 1944. Among them was Daneczek.
Anna realized that the Germans were doing more thorough searches, so she sent Aviva to people she knew outside of Warsaw.
Aviva learned Christian prayers and eventually came to believe that she was Christian.
Stern said: “After the war had ended, Genya and David searched for Aviva and Hadassah through the newspapers and through friends and eventually, amazingly, they all found each other.”
Aviva said: “When my parents found me after the war, I couldn't accept that they were my parents. I thought I was a Catholic child. At the beginning I could only call them auntie and uncle.
“It took me a long time to realise that I was Jewish. I said Catholic prayers in Polish and I asked my parents for a picture of the Virgin Mary so that I could pray.”
Aviva and Anna got back in touch 15 years after the war through the help of her older sister who spoke Polish better. Aviva received five letters from Anna between 1968 and 1982.
“The letters were full of love. She always called me ‘my little Zosia’. She always thought of me as her little girl. She said that if I didn’t find my mummy and daddy then she would be my mummy,” said Aviva.
“I found out that Anna was very poor and living in difficult conditions in Poland during communism so we sent money and oranges from Israel,” she added.
After they were reunited, the family moved to France. Aviva stayed in an orphanage while her parents worked.
They travelled to Israel by ship in May 1949 and were placed in a refugee absorption camp.
Aviva says that her family have always remembered what Anna did for her and they talk about her often. Aviva’s great granddaughter is even named Anna in her honour.
The family have tried to get Anna’s actions recognised by Israel’s Holocaust remembrance institution Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.
Gal Stern said: “Several years ago we filled in all the forms but the problem was that we did not have testimony from the Polish side that Anna saved my grandmother.
“Now that we have met Anna's family in Poland, we have that testimony and we can try again to get Anna recognised as Righteous Among the Nations and have a tree planted at Yad Vashem,”