Witness to a time of horror

Annapolis man tells his story of surviving the Holocaust


Joseph Taler, a retired family physician, now spends his days immersed in memory - eager to write and tell others about what it was like to survive as a Jewish youth in Poland during World War II, hiding in plain view from the Nazis.

Earlier this year, Taler published a paperback collection of essays, Polish Indians & Short Stories. One recounts a recent reunion with a blind and frail 95-year-old New Yorker he last saw as a boy in the small town of Rozwadow, Poland. He also composed a longer memoir, In Search of Heroes, about a decade ago.

Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, cracking his world apart, Taler says in his Annapolis home overlooking the Severn River, with the U.S. Naval Academy dome in the distance. The map of Europe from that era is something he easily draws from memory - showing the circuitous path he took during the war.

"We were expelled from home, and it was my responsibility to take my mother, grandmother and dog across the river," Taler says. "My father, an attorney, was away as an [Army] infantry captain. ... I stress the importance of witnessing [about the war] because the witnesses are dying out."

Later in the war, he says, he sheltered his father while he labored as a railroad worker, unloading coal. "He walked into a room and never left for two years," he says. "I saved the life of my father."

Taler, 83, projects a courtly Old World air carried over from 1950, when he and his wife, Bronka - whom he met at a 1945 New Year's Eve party in Poland - emigrated to America.

"I fell in love, that's all," says Bronka Taler of that evening.

Rabbi Ari J. Goldstein of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold says Taler, a congregant, is an "articulate storyteller."

"We're living on borrowed time in hearing [Holocaust] survivors' stories," Goldstein, 36, says.

"When you have a rich and extraordinary experience, it's almost a Jewish responsibility to share those stories because we don't have stories like his anymore," the rabbi says.

"Our lives are so easy compared to 60 years ago, when people were losing family in the Holocaust. We only have a few more years to speak firsthand to those who lived through it, and we're fortunate to have him in our community," Goldstein says.

During the first days in the United States, Taler brought home to his wife a baby carriage for their son George by wheeling it across New York's Brooklyn Bridge.

After completing medical training in Baltimore, Taler ran a family practice in Glen Burnie for 37 years.

The father of two and grandfather of two took up writing late in life, he says, inspired by classes at Anne Arundel Community College and St. John's College.

He currently takes classes in opera and art appreciation. He makes it a point to share his wartime experiences by giving talks in public forums because, he says, "There are few Jewish people like me in Anne Arundel County."

"I'm a local guy, and let's face it," he adds, "I'm the only one who gives speeches on this subject."

Surviving the Holocaust, which took the lives of 6 million Jews, often came down to having a trusted friend or contact among Gentiles, he said.

This was not easy when the price for aiding Jews under Nazi rule could be one's life.

"Unlike many Jews, we were lucky to know Christian Poles," Taler says.

Aided by the Polish underground, he secured false identity papers in Lvov, the city where he attended high school. Like all Jews there, he was living in Lvov's ghetto, the area created by the Germans to concentrate Jews in a small space.

The reason why the community was compressed into one area quickly hit home. "Life in Lvov ghetto was terrible, and then in March 1942, mass transports of Jews were sent to extermination camps," he says.

By June, Taler was gone from the ghetto, armed with a new last name and shorn of signs of being a Jew.

He kept Joseph as his first name, he says, so he could respond easily when it was called.

Sixty-four years later, the scene remains clear in his mind.

"Leaving the ghetto, I threw away my star of David," he says, speaking of the star the Nazi occupation required each Jew to wear on his or her arm.

A job as a railroad worker, uniform and all, became Taler's best protection and ticket to passing as a non-Jew within a brutally anti-Semitic regime.

"I always had some coal to smudge my face," Taler says. "Like being an actor on the stage for two years. You must have makeup for the role you play."

Taler says his parents also survived the war, but his extended family was decimated, as was most of Polish Jewry. "Fifty people or more were killed in my family during the Holocaust," he says. "We were reduced from 60 to five."

The Taler house by the Severn River, framed by a large fig tree, has the pleasant shade of old age. But it is also a place to remember a life journey that he says he could not have imagined, either the dark or the sweet parts.

"No, not from a small town in Poland," he says.

Taler's new paperback is available in local bookstores. The book also may be ordered from him directly for $25. Contact Joseph Taler, P.O. Box 235, Arnold 21012-0235.

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