From the moment that WWII ended, Holocaust survivors had to begin to come to terms with the anguish of their newfound reality. Utterly destroyed by years of abuse, starvation, disease and the constant fear of death, the realization that most of them were all alone was the final blow. Yet, they hung onto every last ounce of hope they could muster and tried to locate loved ones displaced and dispersed to the four corner of Europe – and oftentimes even further. Any sign of life or connection was painstakingly checked. But for the many thousands of Jewish children who spent the wartime years in hiding or were entrusted to non-Jewish families for safekeeping, there was often no one left to look for them.
Yeshayahu Drucker, a chaplain in the Polish Army, took it upon himself to redeem these lost children. He fervently believed that the continuity of the Jewish nation was dependent on locating as many of them as possible, and restoring them to their people.
Drucker was determined to identify, locate and rescue as many children survivors as he could, initially taking them to a children's home in Zabrze, Poland. The children came from monasteries, orphanages and Polish families. Many of them, and their caregivers, were reluctant to accept Drucker's mission. In his testimony years later, Drucker recalled:
"In most cases, child survivors living with Poles didn't want to part from these Polish families. It was extremely rare for a child to agree to leave… Even when they had been badly treated, they didn't want to go."
Nevertheless, from 1945-1948, Drucker located and cared for some 700 Holocaust survivor children, mostly orphans, aided by a dedicated staff of educators, doctors, therapists and counselors.
Many of the children arrived at the home traumatized, either from the shock of being torn away from the only parents they knew, or with no idea of their Jewish heritage, having been forced by their adopted families to assume Christian identities. Smuggled out of the ghettos moments before their parents were deported, and hidden in attics, ditches or farms, a number of them had lived for years in complete silence out of fear of being discovered and sent to their death. They found it very difficult to adjust to their new freedoms, and needed to regain trust in other human beings.
Who was Yeshayahu Drucker?
Yeshayahu Drucker was born in 1914 in a town near Krakow. He grew up in a Zionist home and belonged to the religious Zionist Mizrachi movement. He graduated from the State Seminary for Jewish Religious Teachers in Warsaw. Shortly after the war broke out, Drucker was arrested by the Soviets and sent to a forced labor camp. In 1943, he enlisted in the Polish Kosciusko Division, which fought alongside the Red Army and took part in the Battle for Berlin. Even while serving on the frontlines, Drucker organized prayer services on Jewish holidays, made sure to observe Jewish laws, and tried to offer comfort to fellow Jewish soldiers. Prior to his discharge from military service, he was recommended for a position as a chaplain in the Polish Army with the rank of major, despite having no formal rabbinical certification.
Drucker traveled all over Poland wearing his Polish officer's uniform, which facilitated his negotiations with the Poles in order to free the children from their custody.
Alfred Mazeh: Starting Anew
One of the children Drucker rescued was Alfred-Fredek Mazeh. Born in 1938 in Warsaw, Alfred had very limited memories of his family. His parents Yishai and Helena managed to have him smuggled out of the ghetto in late 1942 or early 1943. He later recalled:
"I heard the Polish woman telling a neighbor that they were burning the Jews. After the neighbor left, I went into the kitchen and asked her if it was true that they were burning the Jews. She told me that it wasn't true, they weren't burning everyone… and that my parents would come to get me… After that, the daughter arrived, and because we were already on good terms, I asked her and she said, 'They are burning all the Jews now, and your parents will not be coming back. They're dead.' I cried for several hours."
Throughout the course of the war, Alfred was hidden by several different Polish families. Shortly after liberation, Drucker located the young boy, and brought him to Zabrze.
"He [Drucker] spoke to the Polish woman. I don't know what they talked about. He visited twice, and I feared that nothing good would come of it. One day he came, and they said: 'You completed fourth grade at the top of your class' – I was very proud of the report card I had brought home – 'and they're going to send you to study in England.' England – that was a dream come true! I was pretty naïve and I swallowed it 'hook, line and sinker,' as they say. They told me, 'This man, Captain Drucker, will take you to England, and you'll come back in a few months' time.'
Alfred immigrated to Israel in 1949, settling in Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. In 1985, he submitted Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of his parents, Helena and Yishai. He passed away in 2000.
The story of Yeshayahu Drucker and Alfred Mazah are just two of the many accounts housed in Yad Vashem's Archives, and included in a new online exhibition "My Lost Childhood," uploaded to Yad Vashem's website to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.