March 28, 2014

Paying tribute to a local survivor

Groups honor Tania Lefman at Newton event

By Susie Davidson

Special to The Advocate

Tania Lefman

Tania Lefman survived the Holocaust by living in the forest with her mother. Her father had worked as an engineer for a Polish Count, and their previous life in the town of Koretz was comfortable, with a family home in the country. But her father died when she was 8 years old, and then 1939 came, and Russian soldiers took over their town, confiscated her mother’s assets, and took away their freedom.

But they were still far better off than they were later on, when the German army arrived in September 1941. “They immediately spread terror,” she recalled. “They evicted us from our homes, and we were left with only a few items on our backs.” Like all Jews, Tania and her mother were forced to wear yellow stars. “They then rounded us up, and sent us to perform hard labor such as washing and cleaning the streets, in return for a piece of bread,” she said. “They were brutal, and beatings were common. On many occasions, we were nearly killed if we did not do what they wanted. Food was inadequate, and conditions inhumane.” She still vividly remembers begging for some bread or watery soup.

Then came the ‘selection,’ when they took the men out to dig graves,” she continued. “The graves were dug outside of the city in a small village. The Germans lined the men up in two rows of six and shot them, each row on top of the other, until all were killed.”

Those and other harrowing accounts did not daunt the survival spirit of Lefman, who now lives in Wellesley. On Sunday, the function hall at Temple Reyim in Newton was packed as Lefman was honored by the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants of Greater Boston (AAJHSGB) and Congregation Or Yisrael of Newton Centre. Cocktails and a light dinner were followed by a tribute to Lefman and a performance by Connecticut-based comedian Linda Belt. “Tania Lefman was a founding member of both Or Yisrael and AAJHSGB, where she has served as treasurer for over 20 years,” said AAJHSGB President Janet Stein, who assumed the position following the retirement of Izzy Arbeiter, founding president, who was in attendance.

She cofounded the ‘New Americans,’ the original name of the AAJHS, over 60 years ago, and more recently, just six years ago, co-founded the synagogue,” added Stein, who said tributes poured in from Jewish organizations inBoston, friends and family, fellow congregants and Holocaust survivors.

Back in wartime Poland, Lefman and her mother shared a small apartment with three other families in the Koretz Ghetto until 1942, when they escaped. “My mother had a Polish friend in the village. She begged him to let me in, and she signed over all of our estate in order to save me, while she went into the adjacent woods to try to survive,” recounted Lefman. The ruse was that the little girl was a cousin who came to live with them. “They made me learn all the Christian prayers, and treated me like one of the family,” she said. “I went to church and prayed with them. I did not attend any school. I worked around the house and also in the fields.” Unfortunately, however, the neighbors suspected that she was Jewish, and knew that if she was found out, the entire village could be destroyed. So she joined her mother in the woods, where they lived from 1943 to 1944, during two brutal winters, without warm clothing or food. “We went out at night to farmers’ fields to try to steal a few potatoes, and anything else edible that we could find,” she recalled. “We lived under constant fear of detection, knowing that if we were caught, we would be sent to the camps, which we knew about, and likely exterminated.” But they somehow survived until they were liberated by partisans, who were members of resistance movements from various countries.

The Ukrainian militia was actively killing the few Jews who remained in Koretz, so they escaped to Lodz in central Poland, where they stayed until mid-1945. With the help of the United Nations Relief Agency, they traveled to Germany by train and settled in the Landsburg displaced-persons’ camp in Bavaria. In 1950, Lefman traveled to the United States to stay with cousins in Mattapan. She earned her high school diploma and worked for the Postal Service, and in 1951, married Henry Lefman, whom she had met in Germany. Her husband, who died several years ago, lost his parents and his two brothers in the Holocaust. He went on to graduate college as an engineer, and the couple had three children and five grandchildren.

In her remarks, Lefman noted that during the war, when she was in hiding with her mother and living in the woods – and begging surrounding farmers for food – she never thought that there would come a day when she would be an American, being honored in the presence of her children, her grandchildren and three great-grandchildren as well.

It was a miracle that she survived when so many more perished,” said Stein, who helped produce a Tribute Book to Lefman for the event. “And it is a miracle that she is still with us and is being honored with four generations. Over 70 years after the Holocaust, she is still going strong, helping other survivors, working out at the JCC, and regularly attending Shabbos services at Congregation Or Yisrael.”