Part of an ongoing series on Holocaust survivors and partisans in Northern California
For historians, Sept. 1, 1939, marks the start of World War II, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. For 93-year-old Polish-born Misia Olszak Nudler, it’s also the day that her life turned upside down.
The youngest of six sisters, Nudler was born in 1927 in Zaręby Kościelne, a Polish village about 60 miles from Warsaw that at one time had two Jewish cemeteries and four synagogues.
Nudler, a resident of the Reutlinger senior-living community in Danville, said her upbringing was comfortable. Her father, Gitman, was a fur salesman. Her mother, Edes, was very involved in her children’s education. Nudler remembers attending school from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. and then heading to a Yiddish school for two hours.
“I dreamed of becoming a teacher,” the longtime member of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland wrote in “My Life,” her 2012 autobiography. “It was a good life for us.”
But that would change in an instant.
After Germany invaded Poland and the country was split up, Nudler and her family found themselves on the Russian side by seven miles, suddenly hosting Jews who were fleeing the German side.
“We had a full house with people,” wrote Nudler, who was 12 when the war started. “Mother was very busy cooking for all — we helped mother to take food to the shelter at the shuls in our town.”
For two years, Nudler said in an interview with J., she and her family were under Russian occupation. But Germany would break its secret pact with Russia, invading Nudler’s side of Poland and Russia on June 22, 1941.
Early that morning, a bomb fell on Nudler’s house. Her pregnant sister Enia was injured, and Enia’s husband died two days later.
“I envy him because he had a funeral,” Nudler’s mother told her. “God knows if you’ll have a funeral.”
After three more months under German rule, Nudler’s family and other Jews were ordered to a ghetto in Czyżew. Luckily, Nudler’s father was alerted ahead of time that it was a trick, and that all of the Jews would be killed.
So the family instead went to Ciechanowiec, which had a Jewish population of about 6,000. Eventually, however, they were forced into a ghetto there. “It’s just hard to describe,” Nudler said. “We were hungry. We were cold. We were nine people in one room.”
Nudler’s father had a connection with a farmer in town who had given him some work; in an effort to protect his family, he sent Misia and one of her sisters, Sheindel, to the farmer for safekeeping.
It would be the last time Nudler ever saw her parents and some of her siblings.
The farmer let Nudler and her sister stay at his home, until he got word that his workers were planning to kill them and alerted the girls. “We ran away,” Nudler wrote.
Soon after, in November 1942, the ghetto where her family was staying was liquidated by the Germans. Her parents and two of her siblings were sent to Treblinka, where they were exterminated along with nearly 1 million other Jews.
“If we would have known that our parents were going to get killed, we would have never [left] them,” Nudler said.
Meanwhile, Nudler and her sister were on the run, sometimes hiding in farmhouses and other times in wheat fields where they could lie down and not be seen.
During those 18 months, a period Nudler titled “Running and Hiding” in her autobiography, she and her sister encountered a Polish woman who gave them bread and milk every week for two months.
To this day, recalling that woman’s kindness brings tears to Nudler’s eyes. “Who would do a thing like that? How many Poles would do a thing like that?”
In October 1944, Nudler and her sister were hiding in a field when a Russian soldier found them. He told them “not to worry, because the Russians are defeating the Nazis.”
As the war came to a close in 1945, Nudler and her sister traveled back to Ciechanowiec, where they had last been with their family. There they miraculously were reunited with two of their sisters, Ruchel and Mindel, who had escaped before the ghetto was liquidated. Nudler found out that they had been hiding just 20 miles apart.
“It is hard to describe the happiness,” Nudler wrote of the unexpected reunion.
But the four sisters would have to escape one last threat. In a period of postwar history unknown to many, Jews in Poland faced outbursts of violence lasting until 1946. In fact, that’s how a cousin of Nudler’s and a family friend ended up getting killed, she wrote.
Nudler and her sisters had heard from the woman who had provided bread and milk that Jews were being targeted, so they crossed the mountains into Czechoslovakia under dark of night, then made it to Germany and a displaced persons camp run by the United Nations.
There, Nudler met her husband, Harold, who was working with the American Red Cross, and they had a son together, Harry, who was born in the DP camp on New Year’s Day 1949.
That same year, Lea Lampart, an aunt living in Oakland, sponsored Nudler and her husband to come to the U.S., and the couple arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 3, 1949 — 10 years and two days after the war started.
“I remember there was a band,” Nudler said. “Everyone [was] crying like babies. We felt free.”
After traveling to Oakland by train, Nudler and her husband lived in a cottage with her sister Sheindel. A year later, the couple had a second child, Judy. Money was tight and times were tough, Nudler recalled, but things started to fall into place. Her husband opened a plumbing business and the family joined Temple Beth Abraham, where Nudler remains a member to this day. She became president of a Hadassah chapter, volunteered at her children’s schools and worked on Sundays to help feed people in need, among many other volunteer experiences.
Harold died 30 years ago from leukemia, and her son, Harry, passed away in 2017. Her daughter Judy still lives in Oakland and calls her every night.
In 2012, Nudler put together her autobiography, which features her story, pictures of her family and six recipes — including one for kreplach that calls for two chickens and three turkey necks. There is only one physical copy of the 38-page book.
Though she spends time reading, doing puzzles and using her iPad, Nudler said her mind is devoted mainly to raising awareness about Righteous Gentiles, an honorific title for those who risked their own safety to help Jews escape the Holocaust. She’s a regular contributor to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which provides monetary support to rescuers, like the woman who helped feed Nudler and her sister bread and milk.
“A lot of people don’t know about it,” said Nudler. “They took a chance.”