Holocaust survivor, everyones mother at shul, dies

She "would just crawl in here and entertain people," said Jim Stockton, a co-owner. "She had her stories and her way about her."

The Nabolom Bakery is erecting a shrine to honor the elderly Holocaust survivor, who died April 26 in Berkeley. She was 89.

One of nine children, Leah Russ was born in the farming village of Warta, near Lodz, Poland. She was one of the older children in a very Orthodox family. Her family was close, and she helped take care of her younger siblings. Her father was a shoemaker, and taught her how to sew.

Her mother's family owned a brewery in Lodz, and therefore had a good income. Her grandparents were very generous with the children, and gave all the girls their own diamond earrings.

In 1942, after the Nazis invaded Poland, Russ was forced into the Lodz ghetto. In 1944, when the Lodz ghetto was liquidated, she was transported to the Stutthof labor camp and then a few months later to Auschwitz.

When Auschwitz was liberated, she was sent on a death march. In her weakened state, she could not keep up, and the Germans left her for dead, kicking her and leaving her in the snow. She woke up in a Russian hospital.

Two of her siblings almost survived the war; one brother, in his excitement at being liberated, stuck his head outside the gate and was immediately shot; and one sister tried to escape as they were liberated, but she slipped into a pond and drowned. Russ was the only one in her entire family to survive.

After she was liberated, she returned to her hometown. There, she met Michael Laskowski, whom she had known before the war. They married and immediately left Poland for Germany, where a cousin lived.

In Munich, they had a daughter, Miriam, and Michael opened a convenience store — which probably served as a front for his dealings on the black market, his daughter now believes. But the couple did not feel safe there, and decided to immigrate to the United States in 1950.

Although a cousin supposedly had agreed to sponsor them, when they arrived "we sat on a train waiting for relatives to claim us and nobody came," said the daughter, Miriam Wilson. Since Michael had employment status as a farmer, the family was sent to settle in Sheboygan, Wis., a predominantly Catholic town with a few Jewish immigrant families.

Michael died in 1962. Meanwhile, Leah had scarring on her lungs, perhaps from a case of tuberculosis acquired during the war. Doctors were afraid she was contagious and sent her to a sanitarium.

Around this time, Wilson was a teenager and decided she would like to attend U.C. Berkeley. While Laskowski was in the sanitarium, she met a woman who belonged to the Mormon church, and had never before met a Jew. She was incredibly moved by Laskowski's story.

When Laskowski confided that her daughter wanted to go to Berkeley, the woman said, "you're not alone, you're part of our family." The woman had twin sisters in Berkeley, and mother and daughter moved there in 1963.

They immediately joined Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, where Laskowski became a fixture, always helping families who had upcoming bar mitzvahs or weddings.

"She was everyone's mother or grandmother and everyone was her favorite," said Wilson, adding that she never had any animosity towards the Germans. She felt the Poles were more culpable, though, for collaborating so easily.

She worked in food preparation at the faculty club of U.C. Berkeley, and became well-known to many faculty members.

She also was recognized around Berkeley, because she didn't drive and would often walk miles to get to a destination. When she needed to go to the bank, she endeared herself so much to one teller that the teller would often drive her home, or even call her husband to come pick her up.

"She was a survivor, period, and forged forward," said Wilson. "But if she couldn't do it all on her own, she knew how to get help."

It was at the bakery, though, where she truly made her mark.

Stockton recalled how she would take the bakery's lemon bars, send them off to her grandsons in college passing them off as her own. "She scammed off those lemon bars," he said.

For a time, Laskowski would load up on goods at the bakery and deliver them to people who were homebound. But she also stocked her own freezer.

When Elsie Lee joined the collective, she remembers Laskowski coming in and always leaving with a big bag of food. Another co-owner told Lee that she was a Holocaust survivor, and should get special treatment.

When the Russell Street collective began losing money and the co-owners decided they, too, would have to pay for their baked goods, rather than taking them home for free, no one could break the news to Laskowski. Finally someone did, and while giving her a ride home, he didn't hear the end of it.

Lee remembers that a meeting was called to discuss, "What do we do about Leah?"

"We decided that she's our P.R. person, she brings in a lot of customers, and that she does not have to pay, and the meeting notes say that she doesn't have to pay." After all, she added, Laskowski could always be counted on to say whether the honey cake was just right, or whether there were too many blue sprinkles on the Chanukah cookies.

Said co-owner Stockton, "We always felt totally beholden to her for consulting with us, so we'd never charge her."

Laskowski was a good judge of character, as well. When a new worker came on board, Laskowski would tell Lee her impression of that person — good or bad — and she always turned out to be right.

"She was this very strong spiritual presence," said Stockton. "She really had this amazing spirit, and she showed it off here."

In addition to her daughter, Miriam Wilson, Laskowski is survived by two grandsons.

Donations can be sent to the Wooden Synagogue Project, c/o Congregation Beth Israel, 1630 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA, 94703 or the Living Legacy Project, c/o Evvy Eisen, P.O. Box 460, Pt. Reyes Station, CA, 94956.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."