The houses in Zakopane and Rabka were almost ready. … When we collected the documentation of the 170 Dluga [Street] children, we realized that in actual fact, these were almost all of the Jewish children who had survived out of the hundreds of thousands of Jews in that area. One hundred children from this incredible treasure trove were entrusted to me.
Lena Küchler née Holzer was born in 1910 in Wieliczka, Poland. She studied psychology and pedagogy at Krakow University, was a teacher at the Jewish high school in Bielsko, and taught at a teachers' training college. When the war broke out, her husband Albert escaped to Lwow, and Lena returned to the town of her birth to stay with her father, who was not strong enough to flee. She eventually joined her husband in Lwow, and they had a daughter, Mira, who died in infancy, after which Lena returned to Wieliczka. In August 1942, when thousands of Jews were deported to Belzec, she escaped and reached Warsaw, where she lived under an assumed identity. Working for the underground, she smuggled babies out of the ghetto and brought them to monasteries and convents. On one such occasion, her Jewish identity was discovered, but she managed to escape, and made her way to the village of Olhobek in eastern Poland. While in the village, she worked as a nanny to two girls, and established a school for the local children. She stayed in Olhobek until the liberation.
In the summer of 1945, Lena travelled to the offices of the Jewish Committee at 38 Dluga Street in Krakow in order to search for information about her relatives. In one of the rooms she saw dozens of Jewish children, some of them very young, in a very poor physical and emotional state, and made up her mind to help them. She organized the establishment of children's homes in Rabka and Zakopane for approximately 120 children, most of them orphans. With the help of the staff she recruited and directed, the children were cared for, and slowly recuperated.
Nahum Bogner (later Dr. Bogner, Holocaust research scholar) was 11 years old when he was liberated. His parents had been murdered in the Holocaust, and he survived alone in the forests. In 1946, 13-year-old Nahum wrote:
When Lwow was liberated, I made my way there, and then a children's home was established in the city. I joined immediately, and in time, more and more children came, including Jews. We bonded with each other. Eventually, we reached the conclusion that there was no future for us here. We traveled to Poland with the help of the Lwow Jewish Committee. In Poland, we went to Lena Küchler's children's home in Zakopane, and from there we joined a group of "Dror" youth movement children in order to achieve our sacred goal: to immigrate to Eretz Israel and work for the country.
Recalling her first meeting with the children on Dluga Street, Lena wrote:
I was left alone with all the children. There were about 50 of them, maybe more. How could they be counted? They ran around the room like madmen, bumping into each other, hitting each other and pulling hair, and after they had inflicted pain, they fled to the corners to hide. … In one corner, some dirty blankets had been laid out, and the children burrowed into these blankets and hid, like they had hidden in the piles of rags before a selection in the camp. … Now the children surrounded me with arms outstretched and hungry eyes, shouting: "Eat! Give soup!" One little girl scratched me on the knee under my dress, scratched and pulled at my dress shouting: "Give me soup!" … I turned to the children and said: "Come to me, children! Lets make a circle and play." But not a single child held my hand. … there was no point in my trying to play with these children. They were hungry.
(Lena Küchler-Silberman, "My Hundred Children")
The children were brought to Rabka and Zakopane. After the home in Rabka was subjected to antisemitic attacks, the children were smuggled out to the home Lena ran in Zakopane, but they were eventually forced to flee from there too.
Joseph Farber, a Jewish soldier who had completed his service in the ranks of the Red Army, was head of Jewish self defense in the children's home in Zakopane. He described the circumstances that forced them to leave:
We stood night and day safeguarding the Jewish orphans. The danger escalated daily. The Poles threw pamphlets at us, in which they threatened to kill us the same way they had killed Jews in nearby Nowy Targ. … "That will be your fate too," they wrote. We had to leave.
Lena realized that it was too dangerous to stay with the children in Zakopane, and that she needed to get them out of Poland. In March 1946, the children left Zakopane at dawn together with Lena and the staff of caregivers. Some of the children, one or both of whose parents had survived, remained in Zakopane. Lena and the children crossed the Polish-Czech border, and reached France via Prague and Germany.
Batya Kermish (Baboker), one of the caregivers at the children's home in Zakopane, recalls their arrival in France:
"Agudat Israel" funded the escape. The children were brought to the town of Barbizon, where the children's routine was overseen by the Yeshiva students. Küchler ran around Paris for days looking for a location more suited to her religious outlook. She was worried that the children would be sent to the US rather than to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine), so she initiated another escape, and on one Friday afternoon when the tables in the dining room were already laid for the Sabbath evening meal, she arrived with two trucks in tow. She said, "Quickly, quickly", and the children boarded the trucks, the staff too, and we were on our way. Our temporary guardians stood like statues, not one of them made a sound. … And from that moment on, we were under the auspices of the OSE. ... A few weeks later we moved to Bellevue. … here organized life began, with studies that included learning French.
Then 8-year-old Dina Gemer-Eitan (Tziper) talks about her stay in Bellevue:
Life began there. … there was a general feeling that we had overcome all the hurdles, that no one could hurt us anymore. … They started talking about Eretz Israel. I also remember them telling us that we couldn't go yet because the British were in Eretz Israel, and they wouldn't let us in. … We started to learn the Aleph Bet (Hebrew alphabet), we really started learning to read Hebrew, but we still only spoke Polish amongst ourselves.
In the course of time, some of the children found relatives and left the group. Some of the older children were passengers on the "Exodus", including Julian Gilad-Goldman, who was in the group of older children who reached Bellevue castle in France from Zakopane with Küchler. He recalls:
I decided to come to Eretz Israel because throughout all those difficult times in Poland, Germany and Europe as a whole, I learned one thing: that those with weapons survived, didn't become victims, didn't have to flee, to hide, or to be afraid. One had to be armed. This thought kept hammering in my head. I wanted to be a fighter. … The only chance of that happening was in Eretz Israel.
In April 1949, Lena Küchler boarded a ship at Marseille bound for Israel, together with approximately 40 of the children. Most of the children who came with her settled in Kvuzat Shiller. Lena herself settled in Tel Aviv. Later, she wrote:
In our apartment on Yarkon Street, close to Tel Aviv's beach. … the doors are wide open. Today, we are holding a reception for my hundred children. For the last ten years, I've been with them, lived their lives. Today, ten years after our initial meeting, they are happy, and approach their lives with confidence. No one would believe that these are the same aggressive, miserable children I found at the Jewish Committee offices on 38 Dluga Street in Krakow. The wondrous completion of this return to life took place here, under the blue skies of Israel, when they experienced the freedom that only a homeland can give to its children – the freedom to spread one's wings.
(Lena Küchler-Silberman, "My Hundred Children")
Having divorced her first husband before leaving Zakopane, Küchler married Mordechai Silberman and they had one daughter, Shira. Her book, "My Hundred Children", was published in 1959, was translated into many languages, and inspired a Hollywood movie of the same name. Lena Küchler passed away in 1987.