Dance teacher survives Nazis, tells students her dramatic story

When Yanina Cywinska was 10 and living in Warsaw, her father decided to take the family underground to aid the Jews trapped behind ghetto walls and barbed wire.

Along with her parents, siblings and other family members, she made her way around the city through its sewer system, smuggling weapons, food, medicines and other supplies to the Jews in the ghetto.

"We got caught going through the sewers with food for the Jews," she said. "When we came out one day, the Nazis were standing there."

Raised Roman Catholic, Cywinska was one of a number of non-Jews who wound up in Hitler's death camps. A former ballet dancer, she is now 71 and living in Suisun City, where she directs Yanina Cywinska's Ballet Academy and runs the Solano Civic Ballet Company

In addition, she is a sought-after speaker on the subject of her harrowing Holocaust experiences. Recently, she spoke to students in Fairfield.

The day she was caught smuggling, the Nazis questioned family members and then released them. But during dinner that night, the doors flew open and 10 Nazis burst in, yelling "Raus!" which means "Get out!"

"I said, 'You can't do that — my father will get you!'" Cywinska said.

"But one of the Nazis hit my father with a gun in the face, and he went down, bleeding.

"I cried and hid behind my mother. They herded us into a wagon."

The Nazis emptied the house of valuables. "My mother was crying for her pictures and mementos, while they called us filthy Jew-lovers," she said. "Then they poured gasoline around the house and threw a grenade at it and burned it down."

Thus begins the harrowing story Cywinska has been retelling for the past 15 years at high schools and colleges.

A story that took her through a nightmare at Auschwitz and then to Dachau, where she was eventually liberated by American soldiers.

No one else from her family survived. Cywinska considered suicide after immigrating to the United States, having suffered from "terrible guilt and depression." But she decided against it because that would give the Nazis a victory.

Today she tells her story to whoever will listen because "I have to tell the world what happened to the Jews and to me and to others like me," she said. "People are constantly calling me to speak and even though it is difficult to tell about it — it brings it all back every time — I'm happy to do it."

Young people, she said, frequently write to her about how they have turned their lives around, about how grateful they are to still have their families.

"And that," she says, "gives me great satisfaction."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."