For nearly 60 years, Binyamin Shilon believed his sister was among the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Now he holds her in his arms and cries with joy.
Shilon, 78, and Shoshana November, 73, were separated from each other and their two brothers in their native Poland during the 1930s. After World War II broke out, Shilon ended up joining the Soviet Red Army. His sister was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland.
They survived and emigrated separately to Israel, each believing all the rest of their family had been wiped out by the Nazis.
Then on Friday, an American cousin brought November to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial authority in Jerusalem, to check the records left by other survivors. The simple check revealed that Shilon was alive, and just a 90-minute drive from her own house.
That night, she spoke to her brother for the first time since 1938.
“Today, even, I don’t believe it,” November said.
Shilon and November are worn by their years, but were still Bronik and Ruja Szlamowicz, their Polish childhood selves, hugging and nuzzling each other.
Their story has ignited a media frenzy in Israel, and November’s tiny Bnei Brak living room has been filled with visitors for the past two days. The siblings have barely had time to embark on the monumental task of catching up on two remarkable lifetimes.
November was a child when her family broke apart, and she spent many of her earliest years in the orphanage of Dr. Janusz Korczak, who would became famous for sacrificing his life rather than abandoning the children under his care in the Warsaw Ghetto.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the siblings’ father was shot dead in his home by the Gestapo, and soon she found herself in the Jewish ghetto in Krakow in the care of a stepmother. The little girl escaped the death camps for a time, first by charming a Nazi policeman and then by hiding in the filth of a latrine while the ghetto was liquidated, relatives said.
November nearly died in 1943, when she was sent to Auschwitz and selected to be gassed. She was saved when a stranger pushed her into the line of those allowed to live.
Some 3 million Polish Jews, 90 percent of the country’s prewar Jewish population, were killed in the Holocaust.
Stepmother worked for Mengele
November soon found herself back in the care of her stepmother, who she said had become “a bad woman” serving as a nurse in the hospital of the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, known for his medical experiments on young Jewish twins. She survived the war in work camps.
Shilon, meanwhile, spent the first years of the war stoking the engines of a river ship in the Soviet-occupied sector of eastern Poland. Sent to the city of Minsk in 1941 after the Germans bombed his ship, Shilon was treated for his wounds, then walked through three cities on foot and hopped a train to Siberia.
“I wanted to get away from the fighting,” Shilon told The Associated Press.
But over a long winter working as a blacksmith, the 17-year-old realized he couldn’t walk away from a war that threatened to consume his family. Posing as a Russian, he joined Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s army and headed west. In 1943, as a sergeant, he was sent to the Ukrainian front.
Shilon’s battalion spent two years pushing through the Ukraine and Romania. In early 1945, he returned to Poland with new orders: Liberate Auschwitz.
There was no chance of an immediate postwar reunion. November survived the end of the slaughter in the Ravensbruck camp in Germany. Shilon accepted the fact he would never see his mother, sister or two brothers again.
Different reasons for emmigration
The siblings came to Israel for different reasons. November spent three years in Germany after the war, a period memorialized in a photo of her with Oskar Schindler, who saved Jews by employing them in his factory in Poland. She moved to Palestine on the eve of Israel’s 1948 independence to avoid following her stepmother to Canada, settling in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak.
Shilon immigrated in 1957 to Tivon, near Haifa, to escape a revival of anti-Semitism in Poland.
The two resumed their lives, married and raised children. November filed her testimony as a Holocaust survivor at Yad Vashem in the 1950s. It took Shilon until 1999, when he finally filled out forms for his mother and all the siblings he believed had been killed by the Nazis, including his little sister Ruja.
On Friday, the first night of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, November’s grandson Nir Silberberg, 24, called to ask Shilon three questions: “Does the name ’Szlamowicz’ mean anything to you?” “Did you have a sister named ’Ruja?”’
And finally: “Would you like to talk to her?”
The siblings spoke twice that night, and on Saturday saw each other for the first time since 1938. They traded stories and lit Hanukkah candles. November learned she was two years older than she thought.
“It’s hard to explain that feeling we have ... It’s hard to measure in terms of gain. It’s all inside,” Shilon said. “You cannot explain it.”