Remembering a hidden past

May 24, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

EMMY A. KOLODNY remembers her aunts leaving their Amsterdam home in 1942, knapsacks on their backs, "without any protest." The Germans had occupied Holland since 1940, but the slaughter had not begun. At first, Dutch Jews went meekly to their deaths. In her mind's eye, "I see these two really healthy women, going off like they were going to summer camp," Kolodny says.

Her aunts never returned. Called up by the Nazis to labor in eastern Holland, they were eventually transferred to an extermination camp and murdered.

Soon after their departure, Kolodny, then 3 1/2 , and severed from her parents, would leave on her own senseless odyssey as a Jewish child hidden from the Nazis. Miraculously, she and her two sisters did return after the war, but with no sense of identity, family or place. Since then, Kolodny, who lives in Columbia, has not been able to reclaim what she lost during those years. It is as if she has never come out of hiding.

"I've always felt like a tolerated but unwelcome guest," she says.

This weekend, Kolodny, 51, will join several hundred others who share her past at the First International Gathering of Children Hidden During World War II in New York City. The conference, sponsored by a group called the Hidden Child -- in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith -- features symposiums with titles like "To Hide No More," "The Psychological Impact of Being Hidden as a Child" and "What Motivated the Rescuers?"

Within the "hierarchy of suffering" among Holocaust survivors, the tragedy of hidden children like Kolodny, has, until recently, been treated lightly, she says. After all, Kolodny was often reminded as a child and as an adult, she was neither deported nor killed. She was "only in hiding." She should "be grateful to be alive."

The war deaths of family, including her 34-year-old father, andecades later, her young husband, have also reinforced a constant sense of rejection, Kolodny says. To protect herself, she has always fought to keep a distance between herself and loved ones, especially her two daughters, Michal and Daniella. "I was always afraid there would be a day when I had to give them up," she says.

Blunt, funny, affectionate and talkative, Kolodny's personality gives lie to her emotional scars. On a day off from her job as an editorial assistant for the B'Nai B'rith International Jewish Monthly magazine -- it is the Jewish holiday Shavuot -- she reviews her life in a rowhouse brimming with books and family photographs. Michal, 22, stays by her side. Clearly, Kolodny's distancing tactics never worked.

Kolodny, born in 1939, was the second of three girls. The Groens lived outside the city walls in a community known as the "Red Village," because of the socialist beliefs of its Jewish inhabitants. "We lived very pleasantly," she recalled.

Even after the Nazis imposed laws against Jews in 1941, life was tolerable for Kolodny's family. But as call-ups to work camps increased, a wave of suicides engulfed Dutch Jews. Her own family considered suicide, Kolodny says. But her mother, feeling a sense of hope, changed her mind.

In early 1943, Kolodny's parents sent their children into hiding, including 3-month old Eva. "Literally, they had to give us away," Kolodny says.

For the next 2 1/2 years, Kolodny was moved from one household to another. En route, she was always returned to a "transit place," where a severe woman in a grim, dark library presided. "She was humongous and nasty and scared me like hell," Kolodny remembers.

She stayed first with an elderly couple, as their "niece from Rotterdam." But when, on a walk, she saw two passersby wearing the telltale stars that identified them as Jews, Kolodny blurted, "My mommy and daddy wear yellow stars, too."

Hearing this, a neighbor and Nazi collaborator reported Kolodny to the police. She was then placed with a family in Rotterdam, and instructed to call every caretaker "mommy" and "daddy." After nearly drowning in a canal, she was moved again. For nearly two years, Kolodny lived with the family of a Calvinist minister. For Kolodny, this was as close as she ever got to having a real family. Soon, she, too, became a devout Christian.

When she was returned to her uncle at the end of the war, "I didn't know who I was and who was who. The security of childhood was completely shot," Kolodny says.

Her mother and one remaining sister came for Kolodny. Her father, missing a curfew, was arrested and eventually transferred to Auschwitz, where he perished in the gas chambers. But it was years before Kolodny and her elder sister Miriam could believe he would never return.

A fraction of Kolodny's extended family survived the war. Her mother, permanently scarred, was never able to support and protect her children. "She didn't know how to do it," Kolodny says.

In her own fragile, unfamiliar family, Kolodny, 6, was angry. "I had had this wonderful family. All of a sudden, they didn't want me, either."

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