During last night's Democratic debate, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado said that in Poland during World War II his mother had been separated from her parents. "When I see these kids at the border, I see my mom," the senator said, "I know she sees herself because she was separated from her parents for years during the Holocaust." I see my mom, too.
Suzanne Klejman Bennet was living in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. One evening, some relatives did not return from work, so her parents decided it was time to get their five-year-old daughter out of the ghetto. They arranged for a Polish policeman to take her to safety. The first night she slept in a cellar on the Aryan side. Eventually, she was taken to someone's summer cottage 13 miles outside of Warsaw. "When Warsaw burned a year or two later, we could see the red sky," she said.
In December 1941 my mother was also forced to separate from her parents. The family had fled Kraków two years before and was staying in Lwów. The city had been under the Soviets since September 1939, but the Nazis occupied it in June after the non-aggression pact between them and the Soviets fell apart.
That fall, the Nazis announced the formation of the Lwów ghetto. It became very dangerous for young girls, who were being kidnapped and forced to work in brothels. My mother's parents wanted her to return to Western Poland to live with her aunt, a pediatrician named Dr. Augusta Mandel. A special letter from my great-aunt Gusta said my mother was an essential worker whom she needed as a medical assistant.
My mother, who had just turned 17, did not want to go.
A typhoid epidemic was raging and the Nazis forbade anyone, on pain of death, to leave. Nevertheless, my grandparents hoped that before the holiday the Nazis might patrol the roads lest vigilantly. They insisted that my mother board a truck in the middle of the night just before Christmas eve.
The following morning, my mother arrived safely at her aunt's home in Tarnów. She never saw her parents again. For the rest of her life, my mother was haunted by this wrenching experience. These stories of trauma seep into families' DNA.