Warsaw Ghetto survivor recalls hunger, fear and grief

Nelly Cesana was 4 years old when she went to live in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939. But even as a child, she was aware of her perilous existence.

"I remember the fear, of never feeling safe. You had to hide constantly. And the hunger — I would sit in our apartment and look out the window, and I would see the Polish children across the street bringing milk back home," said Cesana, her blond curls trembling and her face flushed with emotion after speaking about her experience to an audience for the first time. "It was like watching people in a storybook — we had no food, no milk."

Cesana, who lives in the East Bay, spoke about life in the largest Jewish ghetto to a capacity crowd of 300 at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She was the featured speaker at the community Yom HaShoah service on Monday, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

"German soldiers were everywhere. All the Jews had to live behind high walls and barbed wire," began Cesana, in her heavy Polish accent. She related the facts of her story simply, in a voice choked with grief, for about 20 minutes.

In her three years in the ghetto, Cesana, who was born Nelly Zygler, survived typhus and malnutrition. She also narrowly missed being deported a few times. Once, she and her mother were caught by German police and sent to the train station. On the advice of a neighbor, they took very small steps in order to drift to the back of the group, in the hopes that the train to the camps would fill up first, which was what happened.

Finally, Cesana's mother was able to send a note to her son, who was on the outside disguised as a Catholic. Mietek Zygler, a freedom fighter, smuggled his mother and sister out. Two weeks later, the uprising took place, which resulted in the obliteration of the ghetto.

Cesana and her mother lived outside of Berlin under false identities, working as farm laborers, until they were liberated in 1945. "No one else in my family survived," she said.

Cesana is the only remaining survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto in the Bay Area, according to Anne Grenn Saldinger, director of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project.

"While [Cesana] was speaking, I was thinking, how many years will we still be able to hear these stories?" said Barbara Nevins, of Belmont, who was visibly moved by the account. "It's wonderful to be able to hear the story first-hand — there's nothing so powerful. And to hear how chance and cleverness helped her survive."

Cesana was one of several Holocaust survivors who participated in the service, which brought together four Peninsula congregations. Toward the beginning of the evening, survivors from the community came up to the front to light candles, as their stories were read aloud by children from Temple Beth Jacob of Redwood City.

Later in the service, grandchildren of survivors read blessings over memorial stones. The stones will become part of a planned Holocaust memorial at Gan Hazikaron, the cemetery operated by Peninsula Temple Beth El.

"In memory of helpless infants, children and teenagers who were cut down like young trees before their time, before they had a chance to experience life. You are not forgotten," recited Laura Safdie, the young granddaughter of Yehudit Nivilkovski, who lost her husband and 2-year-old son to the gas chambers.