Survivor, former Hitler Youth link up for chat in Piedmont

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What do a Holocaust survivor and a former Hitler Youth member have in common? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Maria Segal (the survivor) and Ursula Mahlendorf (the Hitler Youth) showcased their similarities Feb. 20 at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.

About 150 people came to hear them at a program called “Opening the Heart: Healing the Wounds of World War II and the Holocaust,” which was presented by the congregation’s Middle East Peace Committee.

Facilitator-mediator Rachel Eryn Kalish, whose mother lost many family members in the Holocaust, said she expected the event “would be a heart-opening experience,” but she was more deeply moved than anticipated.

Holocaust survivor Maria Segal (left) and former Hitler Youth member Ursula Mahlendorf read one another’s memoirs in a Santa Barbara library. photo/ross payson/jewish federation of greater santa barbara

“The level of empathy between the two women was truly astounding, showing once again that healing is possible when the kavanah, the intention, is there,” Kalish said. “When will we ever learn that everyone loses when others suffer?”

Segal and Mahlendorf met a while back through a program called Portraits of Survival, run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara.

They grew up only 200 miles apart in Central Europe, but had completely different experiences. Segal lost much of her immediate family in the Holocaust, while Mahlendorf became a member of the Hitler Youth at age 10.

Now they both live in Santa Barbara, and they have taken to speaking jointly about their experiences, stressing their commonality of having survived the war and the healing they have found in writing and speaking. Segal is the author of “Maria’s Story: Childhood Memories of the Holocaust,” and Mahlendorf wrote “The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood.”

Mahlendorf participated in the Kehilla event via Web link due to a back injury. Segal was in attendance with members of her family.

“We met through the [Santa Barbara] federation’s program, and read each other’s books,” said Segal. “We had no problems — it was like we’d known each other.”

“The most important thing in a human relationship is that you respect the other person, and respect their feelings and opinions,” Mahlendorf added. “I think Maria has the same view.”

Segal was born in 1935 in Poland, where she lived with her family outside of Warsaw. Her family was deported to the Warsaw G­hetto in 1939, but Maria was smuggled out and hidden by a Catholic family during the war.

At Kehilla, she spoke about hiding out in a cornfield and finding solace in her rescuer family’s religion. The rest of her family died in the camps.

After making her way to North America, Segal rediscovered her Judaism and became a clinical social worker.  She retired in Santa Barbara and worked with troubled youth.

In 2008, the woman who took her in as a 7-year-old, Wanda Hadrysiak, received the honor of Righteous Among the Nations, and Segal was present at the ceremony in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

Mahlendorf was born in 1929 in Silesia, a region of Europe now mostly in Poland. Her father joined the Nazi Party and became a member of the SS. During World War II, Mahlendorf worked in a hospital caring for babies; she believes the children were part of the Nazis’ eugenics experiments.

After the war, while fleeing Russian troops, she encountered a small group of Hitler Youth who said they were planning to commit suicide. At that point, Mahlendorf decided she wanted to live — and try to heal from her wartime experiences.

She received a Ph.D. in German literature in 1958 and began teaching at U.C. Santa Barbara. Now, she is hoping her public talks with Segal not only further her healing process, but also enlighten others.