For one of the Democrats running for the White House, the unfolding tragedy of migrant children on the southern border is a heartbreaking echo of his mother’s story of surviving the Holocaust.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said during Thursday’s first Democratic debate of the 2020 election season that he sees his mom in the migrant children being separated from their parents.
“When I see these kids at the border, I see my mom, because I know she sees herself, because she was separated from her parents for years during the Holocaust in Poland,” Bennet said.
Only in the case of Susanne Bennet, it was her parents who handed her over to a network of Polish rescuers who spirited her out of the Warsaw Ghetto and kept her safe from the Germans. Her parents also managed to escape.
“My mom and her parents came to the United States to rebuild their shattered lives in the only country they could,” Bennet said.
Susanne Bennet, 80, told her harrowing tale in a recorded interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2012.
“My mother basically said who survived and who didn’t was simply chance or luck or something,” she said. “No rhyme or reason to who did or who didn’t.”
Born Zuzanna Klejman on Aug. 11, 1938, in Warsaw, Susanne Bennet said she was still in diapers when the Germans occupied the Polish capital and forced the Jews to move into the ghetto. At its height, there were 400,000 Jews crammed into a 1.3-square-mile area.
“I remember brick walls being built,” she said.
Before the invasion, Bennet said her parents, Jan (John) and Halina Klejman, ran a successful art and antiquities gallery. They had a wide network of friends in Poland’s artistic circles and counted foreign diplomats as loyal customers. She said her parents weren’t religious Jews and while her father spoke some Yiddish, he rarely did.
“They considered themselves Poles,” she said.
Susanne Bennet said her father had a Polish friend who had been forced out of his duplex apartment because it was now inside the ghetto, so they swapped homes. And soon they found themselves sharing the flat with nine other relatives.
“They were able to take some money and some things with them, so they had the means of buying food and so forth for a while,” she said. “One of my early memories is of my father’s mother baking crescent cookies. So we were able to get some flour.”
Other memories, Susanne Bennett said, were more jarring, like the sight of starving Jews climbing up the metal stairs of their building and begging for food. She recalled what happened when one beggar her grandmother had helped knocked on the door of their upstairs neighbor.
“The man upstairs from us shoved this poor guy down the stairs,” she said. “There was very little food.”
A few months before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, the Klejmans reached out to Polish Catholic friends and “arranged to have a Polish policeman come in and take me out.” The plan was to deliver her to a former nanny for safekeeping and her family was hoping the little girl’s blond hair and blue eyes would help her pass for a Pole.
“My mother dressed me in a white coat,” she recalled.
Susanne Bennett said she didn’t remember saying goodbye to her parents or being afraid. Had she been identified as a Jew, both she and her rescuer would have been executed. Lending aid to a Jew was a capital offense in Nazi-occupied Poland.
What she remembered was getting the coat dirty because she spent her first night outside the ghetto sleeping in a dirty basement.
The next day, she was taken by tram “to a place where they had a summer cottage,” some 13 miles outside of Warsaw.
“That I do remember because I threw up on the tram and was vastly embarrassed,” she said.
It was an unlikely hiding place for a little Jewish girl, she said, because it was “in the countryside across the street from a castle that belonged to people my parents knew and became the local Gestapo headquarters.”
Susanne Bennet said the nanny pretended to be her mother and she attended a secret school at a nearby Catholic church where the priest and her playmates didn’t know she was Jewish — and didn’t ask.
“We all knew not to talk,” she said.
They also steered clear of the Germans.
“The dogs were more frightening than the Germans,” she said. “We were all terrified of the dogs, who would be sicced on people … I cannot stand being around German Shepherds.”
Halina Klejman escaped the ghetto a few days after her daughter. She had a job in a factory outside on the “Aryan” side “and the Polish woman who was checking people in and out turned out to be a high school classmate of hers.”
“She said to my mother, just don’t come back, keep going and I’ll check you back in,” she said. “She had no way of contacting my father … but they had agreed that if any of them had a chance to escape, just do this.”
Susanne Bennet said her mother found shelter with Polish friends and then “somehow or another ended up working with a group of nuns who were trying to help people a bit.”
“One of them died and (they) gave my mother her habit to wear,” she said. “A few days later, the nuns were rounded up.”
They were taken to a staging area outside of Warsaw from which people were shipped off to concentration camps, she said. And once there, “one of the Germans on the platform told the mother superior that one of the commandants was a Catholic and she should go talk to him.”
“My mother describes literally having her foot on the rung of the train car when the mother superior came running down the station waving this little slip of paper saying they could go,” she said.
Several days later, the nuns — including her mother — showed up at the cottage where she was hiding, Suzanne Bennet said. She said she immediately recognized her mother but didn’t let on in front of the other nuns.
When the nuns left for a convent, Susanne Bennet said her mother stayed behind and they both laid low.
John Klejman escaped through the Warsaw sewers during the Ghetto Uprising and was hidden by some of the same Poles who had helped her mother. For a time, he hid in the basement of the Wedel chocolate factory and one of the owner’s sisters would bring him food and water.
A bomb strike killed her father’s protector and he had to dig his way out of the rubble to escape, she said.
Susanne Bennet said her father rarely spoke about the war, so she’s not sure how he survived the Warsaw Uprising, which erupted in 1944 and ended with the city in ruins and 200,000 civilians killed. She said the family was reunited after the Russians marched into what was left of Warsaw.
When the war was over, Susanne Bennet said her parents tried to reopen the gallery and began searching for any surviving relatives. Almost everybody had been murdered. And with the Soviet-backed communists taking over Poland and anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head again, she said they fled to Sweden and then lived in Mexico for a time before making it to New York City in 1950.
There, they opened the Klejman Gallery where their customers included several Rockefellers, actress Greta Garbo, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The Kennedys, including future president John F. Kennedy, also shopped in their store.
Susanne Bennet said her parents worked six days a week and that what she learned about the war came from her mother.
“Whenever I would ask him questions, he would say, when I retire we’ll talk about all of this,” she said.
But whatever her father intended to tell her went with him to the grave. She said her father came down with Alzheimer’s before he died and afterward his doctor asked her if he had ever been a boxer.
“The autopsy revealed he had brain damage like boxers would have gotten,” she said.
Susanne Bennet married Douglas Bennet, a former State Department official who became president of Wesleyan University. In addition to Sen. Michael Bennet, she has another son named James, who is the editorial page editor for The New York Times.