In June 1942, an Aktion was perpetrated in the Dębica ghetto, in the course of which Zelma Klausner was murdered. Six months later, her grandson Gideon was found outside the ghetto and was shot to death by the Germans. Her daughter Esther and her granddaughter Chana survived under assumed identities in Krakow.
The names Zelma Klausner and Gideon Tiras are documented in the Book of Names, two of 4,800,000 names of Holocaust victims that were collected by Yad Vashem and commemorated in this monumental installation. This is their story.
Chana Tiras was born in 1927 in Bielsko-Biała, Poland, to Esther-Erna and Joseph. Joseph was a photographer with a famous studio in the city. Chana had an older brother, Gideon (b. 1923). The children went to the local Jewish school, and the family observed Jewish traditions. In 1938, Joseph passed away as a result of illness and Esther continued to run the studio. Gideon started to attend the Polish high school.
When the Germans invaded in September 1939, Esther, her children, her mother Zelma with her second husband, Herman Klausner, escaped from Bielsko-Biała, reaching Krakow, where they lived on the proceeds of the valuables they sold. A few months later, they left Krakow and moved eastward. Herman escaped deep into the Soviet Union, while Esther, her children and Zelma went to Dębica. In January 1940, the Jews were confined to a separate living area in the suburbs of Dębica, and in February, they were ordered to wear a distinctive armband, which was changed to a Yellow Star in September 1941. During this period, the Germans recruited increasing numbers of Jewish men and women for forced labor, and escalated the looting of property and the ransom demands. Gideon was sent to a labor camp. In the winter of 1941-42, a sealed ghetto was established in Dębica. Esther and Chana would work alternately in the vicinity of the ghetto, and they lived in a tiny room in an attic together with Zelma. The food rations were very meagre, and rumors abounded of impending deportations of Jews from the ghetto to an unknown destination. Eventually, Gideon returned from the camp to the ghetto.
In June 1942, an Aktion was perpetrated in the ghetto, in the course of which Zelma was murdered. Esther succeeded in hiding and evading the Aktion. With Gideon's help, Esther and Chana escaped from the ghetto, and made a plan with him to join them later on. The two of them succeeded in reaching Krakow dressed as peasant women, and rented a room in the cellar of a Polish family, where other Jews were also hiding. Esther and Chana slept in the same bed. For a fee, Esther obtained papers in the name of Janina Julya Ułasiewicz, a Catholic single woman from Lwow. She bought an empty birth certificate for Chana, and they filled in the details themselves. Esther and Chana presented themselves as an unmarried mother and her daughter. As Chana recalls:
I had reached that age, I was already 16 or 17, when I could take out a Polish ID card. I went to the municipality with my false birth certificate in order to have an ID card issued, and I trembled uncontrollably at the thought that someone would read it and realize that it was forged… I had a residential permit, and the Polish bureaucrats registered the details… and took fingerprints…. I was scared, and the clerk asked me: "Why are your hands shaking so hard?
A few days later, Chana received a message that the ID card was ready, and went to collect it from the town hall. Esther sought work as a housekeeper so that they would have a place to live, and got a job that included lodgings with a German family with two children. They told them they were refugees from Silesia, which explained how they knew German, and were not suspected. Esther and Chana waited for Gideon to reach Krakow. At first, they would get letters from him, but at some point, communication ceased. After the war, they found out that Gideon had been caught by the Germans in December 1942, and shot to death.
Esther and Chana lived in perpetual fear of being discovered, and avoided connections with Poles for fear of being given away. Esther worried greatly that someone would recognize her. "She changed so much from the beginning of the war", relates Chana. "Her hair turned white, and she was very thin, it was hard to recognize her. There was no basis for her fear." They would listen clandestinely to BBC radio to cheer themselves up. When the Red Army approached Krakow, the German family where Esther was working was evicted and they returned to Germany, leaving Esther and Chana with no employment and no place to live. They found work with other families, and lived in a small apartment. Chana worked as a housekeeper for a Polish family, who suspected her and kept asking her questions about religion that she didn't know how to answer. After a short time, she stopped working there.
The Red Army liberated Krakow in January 1945. Esther and Chana returned to Bielsko-Biała, and Herman returned from the Soviet Union. In 1947, Chana left for Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) under the auspices of the "Bericha". She was caught by the British and rerouted to Cyprus. She immigrated to Israel in 1948, followed by her mother Esther in 1949.
In 1957, Esther submitted Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of her son Gideon, her mother Zelma and other relatives. In 2019, documents and photographs of the Tiras family were donated to Yad Vashem as part of the national project, "Gathering the Fragments", some of which are displayed here.