A Moving Testimony: History Through the Eyes of a Holocaust Survivor

Rina Pearl Zakay was just a ten year-old girl when the Second World War broke out and life as she knew it ended abruptly. After the war, she immigrated to Israel all by herself and decided to fight for the independence of the State of Israel. She went on to build a family, and 70 years after the Holocaust, she is the proud grandmother of three grandchildren who all served in the IDF (Zahal). In honor of Holocaust Memorial day, she tells her moving tale of bravery and survival.

A Moving Testimony: History Through the Eyes of a Holocaust Survivor

Rina with her parents, Asher and Bronia Fisch.

My name is Rina Pearl Zakay. I am 86 years old. I was born on August 5th, 1929, in Lvov, which then was a part of Poland and today is territorially part of the Ukraine. I was born to young parents and was an only child. My father, Asher Fisch, was a furrier as was his entire family, and he ran the two largest fur stores in Poland. He was partners with his older brother and the two of them had international trade relations. My mother, Bronia, had me when she was 21 and dedicated her life to me. Women of her class were in the habit of hiring nannies to raise their children, but my mother, who doted on me, wouldn’t let anyone else take care of me. Both of my parents were intelligent, intellectual people and very musical too. My father played the violin and my mother played the piano. We lived in a two-story building with my uncle- my father’s brother, his wife and their children, my cousins, who were close to my age. I have pleasant memories of playing with them, learning how to ride a bike with them. I was constantly surrounded by my family. I went to a very well-known school in Poland, the Hebrew Gymnasium, which provided education for children from kindergarten to high school. This school was for Jewish children only, so most of the friends I had were Jewish. There, I learned Hebrew, celebrated Jewish holidays and sang Jewish songs.

My parents were very Zionist and instilled that value in me. The country was still a long way from establishment, but we longed and planned to leave Poland one day and join the Jewish settlement in Palestine.

I was not exposed to a lot of anti semitism because I lived a very sheltered, privileged life. My family was integrated very well into Polish society. My father did a lot of business with the Polish aristocracy and we were financially secure, so the rumors of the German invasion didn’t concern us. We had no plans to leave Poland or to escape- we felt secure and had a strong sense of belonging.

The Outbreak of the Second World War

When the war broke out on September 1st, 1939, I was only ten years old. The war to me was initially just a fight between the Russians and the Germans. Then, the Russians conquered Lvov, and that is how my life as I knew it ended. They threw us out of our house and took over everything we had: my father’s two stores, all of our property. We moved to a smaller apartment close to my mother’s family. Later, the Russians arrested my grandfather and he was sent to prison.

In my Jewish school, speaking Hebrew was forbidden by then. Throughout the first months of the war, I continued to go to school regularly but then the Germans took Lvov from the Russians and my school was closed. My parents and I started to look for a hiding place. Anti semitic laws suddenly appeared everywhere, and anti semitism could no longer be overlooked.

We started moving from one hiding place to another, and lived this way for several months. When the Germans started to plan the building of a ghetto in Lvov, my father managed to find a place for us to stay in one of the apartments there. My parents, my grandfather and myself were all crammed into a single room in a small apartment, which we had to share with other families. My grandfather and I seldom went out. My father was taken during the daytime to work in a factory where items for the German army were manufactured. The Germans would often conduct searches in an attempt to find old people in hiding and kill them. I remember this one time when my grandfather and myself were alone in the apartment, the Germans came in and I dragged my grandfather into the closet and blocked it with my own body. I saved his life that time, but not for long. Eventually the Germans beat him to death on the street.

After that happened, my father took me out of that apartment and gave me away to a couple of Poles who were his acquaintances. They were a childless couple, and my cover story was that the woman was my aunt. My father made me a fake certificate under the name of an existing girl who did not live there, and no one knew except for my father, the couple and myself.

My father also arranged an escape for my mother. The Germans took Poles and sent them to work in forced labor and my father forged a Polish certificate for my mother (the two of us had a very Polish appearance- blond hair, green eyes). She came to the apartment where I was staying with that couple in order to say goodbye. As we separated, she wouldn’t even let me call her ‘mom’ because she was so panicked and terrified. That was the last time I said ‘mom’.

While my mother escaped, my father joined a gathering of a few Jews in the factory where he was working and they, too, planned an escape. I went to his workplace to say goodbye, because he couldn’t walk around freely for fear of being recognized and detained. That was the last time I saw him. A few sentences he told me as he parted are always etched into my heart: “You’re a princess. Your tiara is placed tightly on your head, and even if you have to clean stairwells and bathrooms, the tiara will not fall off your head, you will always stay my princess. In the morning, when you stand in front of the mirror and brush your teeth, if you have no qualms about the person you see in the reflection, then you’re fine. That’s how you ought to live, with the values that were instilled in you at home, that you suckled from your mother’s breast.” The group he joined fled and crossed over to the Russian side.

The Extradition and Imprisonment

When we separated I returned to my so-called “uncle and aunt” and as I was walking down the street, the housekeeper’s daughter, a Ukrainian girl, recognized me. I always had some sort of jewelry on me- a ring, a necklace, and I told her: “I’ll give you everything I have, just let me go.” She laughed and said she was going to call her brother, who was in the Ukrainian Militia. He came and extradited me to the militia. I was investigated all night. I told my investigator that the identification papers were not my own. I claimed that I lived with that couple and that the woman was my aunt, and that she is not Jewish but I am. I said that I found the papers inside a suitcase I had stolen on a train. I did not give that couple away. He called the woman and investigated her too. He asked her if she was my aunt. She lied and said that she didn’t know me. I didn’t betray her lie. From that moment onwards, I made sure to maintain my integrity, even in the face of horror. I never lost my humanity. The investigator told me: “ You just saved her life. She was supposed to get a death sentence on the spot for hiding a Jew, but I don’t want her blood on my hands.” To her he said: “You are free to go. This Jew just saved your life.”

From there I was taken to the Gestapo. As I was walking there, I suddenly remembered the Cyanide my father had given me to swallow in case something devastating were to happen and I couldn’t cope anymore.  When I realized that I was being taken to the Gestapo I decided that no matter what, I was going to survive. I told myself: “My parents are somewhere out there, and they’re alive. They escaped in order to survive and they will. I can’t commit suicide and leave them alone, no matter what I might go through.”

I was taken to the Gestapo’s offices in Lvov and had to provide my personal details- my name, my parents names, where I lived. I didn’t state my real last name because I knew that it was famous because of my father’s business, so I identified myself with a different surname. I was taken to the basement where the Jews were held and placed in a group of a hundred women. I was the youngest. I slept on a cement floor, got a dish of soup per day. Since I was defined as a criminal, having told the Ukrainian Militia that I stole my papers, I was constantly taken to investigations in which I was severely beaten. During one of those investigations, I fell down and was kicked straight to the jaw, which was then dislocated. I was dragged back to the basement and then, a miracle occurred. A German SS Officer, who was probably a trained doctor, saw me lying on the floor and walked in. I was sure he was going to kill me, because whoever lay on the floor was immediately shot. But he walked in, held my face between his hands and returned my jaw to its place. I remember the tremendous pain of it to this day. He actually saved my life, because if anyone would have seen me with such a grave injury, I would have instantly been killed. That’s how I lived for months: we were sitting there all day and waiting to be killed.

The Janowska Concentration Camp

Jewish prisoners in the Gestapo were often sent on a transport to a place called ‘The Mountain of Sand.’ This place was a pit that served the same purpose as other slaughter pits, with one distinct difference. Instead of shooting people who would then fall into pits, the Germans pushed Jews down into the ‘The Mountain of Sand’ and then they would fill it with whitewash and cover the pit, leaving the people inside to choke to death. We knew that they were going to take us there. We were transferred by a cargo truck, and among us there were a lot of young girls who were willing to save themselves at any price. We decided to jump off the truck. There were rumors that in order to get to the ‘Mountain of Sand’, the truck would have to make a sharp turn to the right. At the last moment, I saw that the truck was not going to turn right, and I decided not to jump. That was the only time in history that such a transport didn’t reach its intended destination. We turned left instead, and arrived at the Janowska concentration camp.

The camp was divided into two- one side was a labor camp, where I knew my aunt Gusta and her husband were staying. The other side was where they held the criminals, and no one ever came out alive from that side of the camp. That’s where they took me. Prisoners lived in wooden barracks and we were approximately one hundred people inside one barrack. Every day we were taken out to a roll-call and from there to work. My job was to dig canals which helped preserve potatoes and other crops for the Polish farmers in the area during the winter. The officer who ran the roll-call would pass between us, the workers, and if he didn’t like one of us, he would shoot that person dead. That was his game. In my barrack there was a small, grated window and people would push their way to the window in order to call out to the other side of the camp, make contact with people and gather information. I pushed my way to the window and called out my aunt’s name again and again and said: “ Tell her I’m here.” It reached my aunt and she sent her husband to get me. One day he took me in the middle of the roll-call and claimed that I was needed for work on the other side of the camp. He took me to the field and put me inside a pit, where I had to hide and wait for him for 24 hours without water, food, light and hardly any air. After 24 hours had passed, he came to get me.

I spent some time with him and my aunt. After a short period during which they and the rest of their workers’ group hid me, they realized that I posed a threat to their lives because the Germans might figure out that they were hiding me there. My luck was that in Janowska, people were not tattooed with serial numbers, and that’s how no one ever found out I was there.

The Escape from Janowska

The Janowska concentration camp was situated in the middle of the town and there were houses that connected the camp to the outside world. My aunt knew a Polish man who was in the resistance. He lived in one of those houses, right outside of Janowska. He agreed to take me in for a night. In the morning he took me to the train station and provided me with a new certificate under the same fake name my father had forged for me. I was wearing make up and looked much older than my 12 years, and that’s how I took on a whole new identity.

I got off at the station he told me to and walked to the forest, where I found the woodkeeper’s house. The woodkeeper was a Volksdeutsche and his wife was Polish. I told them that I was a Polish girl whose parents fled Poland when the war broke out and that I was now orphaned and had no place to stay, and that’s why they agreed to take me in. I lived in their house in the woods and when I walked around I found a nearby nunnery. The nuns there were also nurses who took care of the sick, and I started going there daily and helping the nuns with their work. It was there that I realized for the first time that I wanted to become a nurse. I was dressed as a nun, with a big wooden cross on a chain, and I learned how to emulate their every action: I prayed, went to church, went to confession and through them, I learned how to be a nurse’s aid. That’s how I lived for seven months. At the woodkeeper’s, I was also taught how to ride horses, do the housework and churn butter. I lived the life of a villager and of a nun.

After a while, the woodkeeper started suspecting that I was an impostor of some sort and that I had a connection to the Polish resistance, and I understood that I had to make an escape yet again. One morning, I left their house like every other morning and instead of going to the nunnery, I stripped off my nun’s costume and wore my old clothes. I walked from the forest to the train station, and with the last of my money, bought a train ticket to Warsaw.

Life in the Warsaw Ghetto

My other aunt, my mother’s sister, lived in the Warsaw Ghetto. I knew her address and walked all the way there. When I got to the place where she had been staying, I was already famished and exhausted. Eventually I found her. She told me that all of our family died and that my grandfather had been sent to Auschwitz. Then she said: “We have got to survive, at least in order to bear witness.” She still didn’t know about my parents’ deaths.

After several months of living there, I made a connection with the Polish resistance. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had broken out by then, and I decided to join the fight. I was taught how to use a weapon and participated in training. It was catastrophic: fighting on the streets, houses burning down. When the Germans came to put an end to the uprising, I happened to be on my way to visit a few injured people who were in a makeshift hospital. Just as I left, the Germans captured the barricade I was fighting in, and that’s how I narrowly escaped yet another certain death. The Germans also captured the hospital. I continued to stay at that hospital and worked there as a nurse. The Germans fought with the Poles, and the Russians were waiting to enter the battle. The Warsaw Uprising was terminated, and the Germans obliterated the ghetto. After that, the hospital I was working in was moved to Krakow.

Life on the Street

In Krakow the hospital was relocated into a labor camp, and I continued working in the clinic as a nurse. I was 13, but claimed that I was 20. The war raged on, everyone around me was Polish and was under the impression that I, too, was Polish. We stayed there until Krakow was conquered, the Germans and the Poles escaped and I had to live on the street.

I slept in entrances to houses and ate whatever I could find in the trash until I found a sort of orphanage for children and adolescents. I slept there on the floor and all I had were the clothes on my back, but I had a place to stay and I forged close bonds with the other children.

The Escape from Poland

Toward the end of the war, it was chaotic and terrifying to live on the streets: left and right, people were murdered, beaten or raped. I went into hiding, and at the same time started to look for Jews. Since I had spent the majority of my time in the hospital inside the labor camp, I didn’t know Krakow well, but I started looking and ran into a couple of partisans who fought in the woods with the Russians. They gave me an address and told me that there was a gathering of Jews who planned to escape from Poland.

I got to the meeting place and there were so many people there. They were all in pairs and threes, but I was all alone. They planned to get to Israel. I looked around me and understood that I had finally arrived at the right place. Two days later, we all met at the train station before the sun rose and snuck into an animal cargo truck, and that’s how we left Poland. When we left Polish territory, we finally opened the windows and looked outside. At last, we were safe. We drove through Romania and Hungary and finally, we reached Italy. When we got to Italy, I turned 15. There, we got to a refugee camp, but after a while the Italians took apart the camp and told everyone to go their own way, to their countries of origin. I was exhausted and couldn’t take it anymore. I told myself: “That’s it, I’m through with running away. I’m not going back to Poland.”  I weighed 40 kg, I was gravely sick, I had lice and was in very bad shape. Before the camp was finally dispersed, a strange man came there and openly sought out people from Lvov, Poland. Apparently, he was sent by a man who did business with my father. I was evacuated from the camp via ambulance to some lady’s house and was taken care of. I started living. I spent one year in Italy.

A Moving Testimony: History Through the Eyes of a Holocaust Survivor

Portrait of Rina in Italy

 The Aliyah and the Beginning of Life in Israel

In Italy, I managed to contact my aunt who lived in Israel and we started writing letters to one another, and I began to plan how to get to Israel. I got to know the commander of a British company of drivers who were in the area. He was a Polish Jew who had already immigrated to Israel and he suggested that we marry fictitiously so that I could immigrate to Israel as the wife of a soldier who is returning back home from the war.

We got married and in 1947, I came to Israel on a boat with all of the wives of soldiers who were released from the war. We got on a boat to Ismailia, Egypt and from there I got on a train to Jerusalem that passed through Rehovot, where my aunt lived. I had written my aunt a letter and told her that I was coming to Israel. At last, we were reunited at the train station in Rehovot and she took me home. At first, I stayed with her and then I travelled to Jerusalem to meet my uncle, my father’s brother, who had also survived. It was so strange to walk down the streets and be surrounded by Jews. A month after I came to Israel, I turned sixteen. I acclimated and learned Hebrew, but then I couldn’t go to school- I had to support myself. I lived in the Pioneers House in Jerusalem and worked in the Pediatric Ward treating premature babies. After a while I decided to move to Tel Aviv, where I had all sorts of odd jobs.

Enlisting in the Palmach, Participating in the War of Independence and Finding Love

In 1947, the War of Independence broke out and I wanted to participate in the fight for my country. I had to be accepted into an underground organization, because the IDF (Zahal) didn’t exist yet. I went to the recruitment office and enlisted in the “Haganah”. I was sent to train in northern Israel, in Degania. I learned the military crawl, I learned how to use weapons- a lot of what soldiers in the IDF (Zahal) do in basic training. While I was in training I was injured, and they decided to release me from the “Haganah”. I did not agree to be released from the army. I tore the release form and attempted to draft again. I heard about recruitments to the “Palmach” and tried to get accepted. I was asked what my profession was and said that I was a nurse. I became a combat nurse and went to the Negev (the south of Israel). I knew that I was going to survive- I had already been through everything. We got to Nir-Am, where the Palmach headquarters had been stationed. I did everything there: I cooked for the soldiers, cleaned, set up tents and took care of the injured. I wasn’t afraid of anything, I was so thrilled to be among Jews- I felt like everyone was my brother and sister.

A Moving Testimony: History Through the Eyes of a Holocaust Survivor

Rina holding a weapon during her time in the Palmach.

The war progressed, and I became the combat nurse for the commanding ranks of the Negev Brigade. I went to the field with all of the combat soldiers and took care of them. In the evening they would return from the field and come to the hospital to sit with me, drink coffee and rest. I quickly became friends with all of them. One day, a soldier came up to me and said: “You have to join all of us and come to this bonfire we’re having.” That soldier was a Hummer driver in the Ninth Battalion. I agreed to go with him and we were all sitting by the bonfire when a guy who was sitting next to me reached a hand into my plate and took some of my food. I lightly flicked his wrist and began to reprimand him. I said: “What kind of behavior is this? Where are your manners from?” and he answered: “From Tel Aviv, that’s where I was born and raised.” Eventually, this guy who stole food from my plate became my husband. He courted me, and even though he was older than me we got along just fine. He would come to the clinic and visit me constantly. Palmach soldiers were unshowered and unkempt, but Akiva was always clean, closely shaved, showered and smelled fresh, he was such an impressive man. After I met him, I couldn’t look at anyone else. I loved him so much. I still do, to this day.

Throughout the War of Independence, the Negev Brigade was hit badly in numerous operations. In one such operation, we were on our way to Beer Sheva and had to pass by a place called Iraq Suwaydan. The place was under the siege of the Iraq Suwaydan police and there were eight different attempts to conquer it. From there we went to what would later become Kibbutz Ruchama.

I knew that the 9th Battalion was there, out in the field, and I hitchhiked to the field in order to see Akiva. When I got there I didn’t recognize him- he was sooty and dirty from the fighting. I hugged him, put my arms around him and made sure that he had all of his limbs intact. After that, he returned to his unit and I stayed at the Palmach headquarters. Beer Sheva was taken by our forces in a long operation and in the meantime, I contracted pneumonia and Akiva came to visit me. He looked very upset. I asked him: “Why are you in such a sour mood?” and he told me: “I’m like this because you’re sick and distracted and your mind is occupied with other things, but we have to get married!” That’s how he proposed to me. The guys from the Negev Brigade built us a small house made of mud without electricity or water but we had a tiny yard and I made curtains from gauze and that was our first home as newlyweds. After we got married, my husband went to the Officer’s Course and I continued working as a nurse for the Negev Brigade Headquarters. I got sick again and he decided that we couldn’t carry on that way. When I got well, I was released from the army. He continued to serve and was in reserve duty all of his life. He participated in every one of Israel’s wars until his death.

A Moving Testimony: History Through the Eyes of a Holocaust Survivor

Rina with Akiva.

Life in Israel and Building a Family

After we married, we had two daughters- Orly and Tali. I was 21 when my elder daughter, Orly z”l, was born, and it was then that I started to try and find out what happened to my parents. Eventually I met a man who was with my father in that group of people who escaped to the Russian side. They were captured by the Germans and put in prison. They dug a tunnel in the ground and escaped the prison. As they were running away, someone chased after them and yelled: “Jude!” (Jew in German) and my father turned around. He was shot dead on the spot, in the middle of the street in Kiev. He was 41 when he died. My mother was killed in a labor camp somewhere in Germany. She was 32 when she was murdered. Their presence, loving faces and values never leave me. I raised my two daughters with my husband, until he passed away from cancer. Both of my daughters served in the army, married and had kids. I have three grandchildren, two of which served in the army and the third who is currently serving, and four great grandchildren.

A Moving Testimony: History Through the Eyes of a Holocaust Survivor

Rina with her daughters.

When I came to this country, there was a great dream here- the Zionist dream. When we were in the army there were no ranks, no uniforms, no shoes, no food- but we had love for the country and for one another. Our generation had a dream that came true, because this is the land of milk and honey. I think that every IDF (Zahal) soldier is a child of mine in a way, and every time a soldier dies, I grieve deeply. These are my people. The youth here is incredible: they are our future. They learn, they work, they have such strong values and they behave like human beings, to their friends as well as to their strangers and enemies.

A Moving Testimony: History Through the Eyes of a Holocaust Survivor

Rina with her granddaughter.