“Do you know what the Holocaust is?” Yona Kunstler Nadelman recently asked a classroom filled with several dozen seniors at Bert Corona Charter High School in Pacoima. She explained it by sharing some of her tragic and bittersweet childhood memories from Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.
A Holocaust survivor and author of “All The Things I Never Told My Father: Memoir of a Child of War,” Nadelman recounted her life’s experience with the students, and during an interview with the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol.
Nadelman was invited to speak at the school months ago, before war broke out between Israel and Hamas. Although while speaking to the students she didn’t directly address the news headlines or deep controversy between those who support Israel and those who support Palestine, she repeatedly mentioned the importance of being kind in all aspects of our lives, and of embracing the positive elements of being human.
“The only thing that we have is the ability to be kind to other human beings,” she said.
Nadelman’s energetic and conversational manner quieted the room during her entire presentation, as the students listened with rapt attention as she shared her life story.
A Story of Survival
In 1939, Nadelman was a blonde, blue-eyed 5 year old who enjoyed building toys. She was the only child of Philip and Helena Kunstler, and the family was living in Krakow, Poland when WWII began. They immediately fled east by horse-drawn carriage with a few relatives. They were among countless other Jewish families all heading in the same direction, seeking safety.
Her father’s goal was clear: “To go east … as far as we can to get away from Hitler.”
When they were hiding at the home of relatives, their biggest fear became a reality: Russian soldiers showed up to take her parents away to Siberia, she said. To save her from whatever terrible fate might await them, her father pretended she was the daughter of another relative.
“Put that child to bed,” her father sternly commanded her aunt. Then they were gone, recalled Nadelman, as the students looked on in silence, with sad and serious expressions on their faces.
In the immediate aftermath of that profound loss, there were more life-altering changes. To help keep them safe, family members moved Nadelman and her beloved cousin Gaby from one home to another, from one town to another, where they lived with various relatives and family friends. The cousins were separated briefly, but they eventually ended up under the same roof again.
That was exactly how Nadelman preferred it. The last time she saw her uncle Mooniu, Gaby’s father, he tasked her with keeping a watchful eye over her cousin, who was one year younger.
“My uncle told me, ‘You’re responsible for him.’ I knew what that meant – it meant I was responsible to keep him alive,” she recalled, telling the students that it was a responsibility she took very seriously.
Although she desperately missed her parents, Nadelman conditioned herself to rarely cry. She helped with household chores, had homeschooling lessons, and played with Gaby and sometimes neighborhood kids. She experienced some joys, many sorrows – and terror, including witnessing Gestapo men executing some of her neighbors on the street before her very eyes. She couldn’t go to school, and loosely marked the passage of time by taking note of the changing seasons.
To keep people from discovering they were Jewish, her uncle Mooniu spent a great deal of money and effort to obtain forged documents for both of them. Yona Kunstler became Yanina Lesiak, and she had a new faith: Catholic. With fake documents and new identities, the cousins ended up living together on a farm with a foster family who were complete strangers to them.
“My uncle saved my life,” an emotional Nadelman told the classroom, explaining that her uncle was killed in Auschwitz.
The war lasted more than five years – half of her young life. Tragically, most of the adult members of her family were killed in the Holocaust – aunts, uncles and grandparents – but remarkably both her parents survived, and all three were reunited after Poland was liberated.
Nadelman recounted her long-awaited reunion with her father, which happened nearly 80 years ago, when she was 10 years old. She had been outside picking strawberries in a field on the farm where she lived when she looked up and saw a group of people standing by the house.
Puzzled and curious, she made her way over to the group, which included a stranger with white hair who was looking directly at her. Her foster father asked her, “Do you know who this is?”
“All of a sudden I realized that I knew him, and I said, ‘It’s my daddy!’” Nadelman told the students in tears as she described the heartfelt reunion with her father after five long years.
Following the end of WWII, Nadelman and her family left Poland and moved to France, where she was finally able to attend school for the very first time. After living and studying in Paris for years, in the 1950s she moved halfway around the world to Los Angeles, where she became a fashion designer, ended up getting married and raised a blended family with four children.
Telling Her Story
While her children were growing up, they heard a multitude of detailed accounts of Nadelman’s life during WWII. They often asked her to retell some of her stories, and in doing so she would sometimes talk about experiences or add details they had never heard before.
“They said, ‘Mom, why don’t you write it all down?’” Nadelman told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol, recalling how they encouraged her to document everything for historical posterity and as a remembrance for the family.
“So eventually, I sat down and tried to write it,” she said. With some guidance, “All The Things I Never Told My Father” was written and published about 10 years ago. Since then, she has shared highlights from her book with different schools and at the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles.
At this stage in her life, Nadelman, who is 89, said she continues to share her experiences because she believes we should never stop teaching or reminding people about the Holocaust.
“This time in our history should never be forgotten and as long as I can contribute, I will,” she said. “I feel obligated to humanity, really, because I just don’t want it to be forgotten. … Never.”
Nadelman said she believes that learning about the Holocaust directly “from someone who was there and truly understands what antisemitism means” can have an enormous impact, especially for children and young people.
“If you are in person, hearing someone tell a story which was part of their lives, I believe that the impression remains more acutely in their mind than if they read it in a book,” she explained.
“Be Kind to Everybody”
The primary message Nadelman said she hopes to impart to everyone she shares her story with is simple, but profoundly important: “Be kind to everybody.”
The San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol during a previous interview did ask her specifically for her view about the current state of war in Israel. Nadelman repeated that it’s crucial to always practice kindness because she said, “We can’t do anything to stop the war or diminish acts of hatred that continue to happen in the world, but we do have the power to be kind to those we encounter in our daily lives.”
Nadelman said her father taught her to always “be good and to be helpful” to everyone.
In turn, Nadelman said she made every effort to pass along that same life principle to her own children, who not only embraced it, they passed it down to her grandchildren as well. Helping someone who is hungry or who might simply need help crossing the street isn’t about religion, she noted – it should be “normal human behavior,” without expecting anything in return.
“If you are eating and someone else is hungry, you’re supposed to give them a piece of bread,” said Nadelman, stressing to the students that they should strive to “be good – do good things.”
“When you can do something that’s good, take advantage and do it,” she said.
Students Reaction Meeting a “True Survivor”
After Nadelman’s talk, the previously quiet students began raising their hands to ask questions: Did she go back to her original name? Yes. Was she ever reunited with her cousin Gaby? Yes. Because his father had died during the war, her parents adopted him and he became her brother. How many languages do you speak? “Five fluently,” she responded, then launched into perfectly fluent Spanish, as students smiled, laughed and gasped in surprise.
Following a round of applause for Nadelman, the students lined up and patiently waited their turn to meet her and have her autograph a copy of her book. Eloisa Torres described Nadelman as a “true survivor” and said she was shocked to hear about the terrifying things she lived through, especially coming face to face with Nazis (who didn’t know she was Jewish) when they visited the farm where she had been living with her foster family.
“She really went through it, [even] having her parents taken away from her at a very young age; she had to go through a lot to survive,” said Torres.
“What she said [about kindness] is very true; people should be kind to each other,” she continued, adding that she finds it admirable that Nadelman remains “so positive” despite everything she endured.
“She moved on with her life and still wants to have a positive impact,” said Torres.
Aaron Castillo, a tech support technician at Bert Corona High School, said he found Nadelman’s testimony both poignant and powerful, especially because he is part Jewish and had ancestors who perished in the Holocaust. He said he believes it’s important to teach people about everything that happened.
“I would say that the Holocaust is one of the most impactful and important events in human history; it was a terrible calamity and it can happen again,” said Castillo, noting that people should be aware that different groups could be targeted and we should “stand up to hate.”
“Everyone must understand that things [don’t] happen overnight,” said Castillo, emphasizing the importance of paying attention to world events and watching out for one another.
Nadelman also emphasized the importance of caring for our neighbors and for all humanity.
“That is a principle of Judaism – to be kind to everybody,” said Nadelman. “My father taught me that when I was very young. He also taught me that there is no difference between Jews and Catholics and Protestants and Muslims or whatever because we are all human beings. … There is no God that tells anybody to kill other people.”
To report an antisemitic hate crime or incident, go to www.adl.org/report-incident. To report anti-Arab discrimination, contact the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee at www.adc.org/legal-policy/get-assistance.
To report any hate crime or incident (in more than 200 languages), call the California vs Hate hotline at 1-833-8-NO-HATE or go to www.cavshate.org.
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