Mila’s Story: You Can Never Erase Them
When our team at The Layers Project Magazine decided to feature a Holocaust survivor in a special edition profile, we did so in response to the decision last week by Mishpacha Magazine, the largest circulation Orthodox weekly magazine, to blur out the faces of women in an image of prisoners at a Nazi death camp.
After outraged responses swept social media, the editorial team at Mishpacha put out a statement calling the blurred image “a mistake.” However, in the same statement, the magazine defended its policy not to publish pictures of women.
The magazine also decided to interview and feature a set of twins, a boy, and girl. As children, both were victims of Dr. Joseph Mengele, a German SS officer, and physician at Auschwitz concentration camp known for performing deadly human experiments on prisoners. Today, the sister and brother are among the last survivors of these horrific crimes.
Yet, the magazine decided to only include images of the male twin, now an elderly man, in their spread. His sister’s face was left out completely. If one did not read the accompanying text, and instead only scanned the images, it would appear that only one person survived. One half of a story — one twin — was erased.
Like so many others, our first response to the Mishpacha Magazine’s decision was disgust and rage. When we sat and discussed our feelings as a team, we were left with a raw, gnawing pain.
This pain inspired us to dig deeper. We felt it critical to explore that profound sense of hurt; as Jewish women, and as members of a Jewish peoplehood intimately connected to the generation lost in the Shoah.
It is our responsibility to preserve and remember, not to erase and forget.
Images are evidence of what was done to our people, and by whom. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that photographs remain intact and unaltered.
And so, we respond with images.
We introduce you to Mila’s story. In the following posts, we humbly attempt to do justice to her experience, history, memories, and legacy. In addition to her words, we also present her image in photographs.
When we decided to feature Mila, none of us on The Layer’s Project Magazine team knew the depth of her story. But as we listened, surrounded by her daughter, two granddaughters and great-granddaughter, the experience took us beyond the room itself. The presence of the Divine in that room was palpable. No story but hers could be as designated for this painful, poignant moment.
Mila’s story of survival and values is a gift. We pray our readers internalize the timeless message about the true meaning of modesty and the timeless power of images.
(1/5) “The Pictures Around Her Neck”
Mila grew up in southern Poland, in a town called Chrzanow. Her parents had six children: three boys and three girls — Malka, Chaim, Moshe, Mesia, Nachman, and Mila. The summer of 1939 would be the last the family ever spent together. As the Nazis invaded Poland, their family planned to evacuate to Russia.
This is what Mila shared with me with regard to how she prepared for the evacuation.
“When we evacuated, we got a horse and cart and we put the children in the cart. I was very good with sewing — we took sewing lessons as children in school. I made a small sack out of burlap and sewed a strong rope to it, so I could wear it around my neck. My mother was able to help me sew it together. I always loved the pictures of our family that we kept around the house, and before we left I quickly ran around to all the frames and collected all the small pictures and put them in the sack around my neck. My neck was skinny but it held up that heavy rope with the images of all my beautiful family, whom I loved. I was twelve-years-old.”
Mila’s family traveled in peril for six weeks until they were forced by the German troops to turn around and return to their home in Chrzanow. “We had no food, water — we were starved. We had no choice and we were ready for what they wanted to do with us. We knew that our people were beginning to be killed.” They were sent back to their town and found it changed. Their Polish neighbors had eagerly joined with the German forces, and Jews from other neighboring towns were relocated to Chrzanow. Several families were crammed into one small apartment.
One by one, Mila’s siblings and parents were picked off and rounded up by the Nazis. Her brothers, Chaim and Nachman, were sent to work camps (and eventually killed) and her mother and sisters sent to Auschwitz. Her sister Malka was sent on a cattle car with her baby son Avraham Hirsch after she refused to leave him.
Her mother was collected by the Gestapo and had her sheitel ripped off her head by the end of a German bayonet. The last time Mila saw her beloved mother she was bleeding all down her face from the gash in her scalp. The Nazi who scalped her danced with the wig dangling off his gun. She too was murdered in Auschwitz.
Throughout this time, Mila wore the sack of pictures around her neck, never letting them off her body. She knew the Nazis would come for her soon, and she wanted to make sure that she would always have a part of her family with her, whatever her fate.
(2/5 ) “Slave Labor to Death March”
During this time, Mila was living at home and working at a local factory called Trzebinia. One night, the girls who worked in the factory were rounded up and sent to the local train station. Her two siblings who were left at home clung to her while she was marched to the train and were ripped away from her by SS members. She was fourteen years old, with the pouch of images around her neck and her older sister’s coat hanging from her shoulders.
When she arrived in Sosnoweic, a concentration camp, she was selected for slave labor. She was then transferred to Neusalz, another camp, where she was imprisoned for the next two and a half years, laboring for the Nazis in a German wool factory. There she worked in horrific conditions, tortured by Germans and Jews who were in charge of the laborers. In January 1945, the camp was evacuated because they needed a place to put a hospital for German soldiers.
The young women were sent on a death march for two months. They had nothing to eat but the snow from the ground. They marched from Poland to Germany, traveling hundreds of miles on foot. She had nothing to shield her from the cold but a pair of open-backed clogs two sizes too big, her sister’s old coat, now infested with lice, and the sack of pictures against her heart. They lost women and girls on the march to famine, frostbite and the bullets of German soldiers. Mila shared that the religious girls who she learned alongside in Beis Yaakov said Kaddish for every woman that perished on the journey.
One night during the march Mila, feverish and ill, bent down in to eat some snow. She was alone, and a German soldier approached her and asked if she was hungry. He asked if she would like some bread; she responded that she was indeed hungry. He said, “I will give you this bread if you go with me into this barn.” Mila responded: “Look at me. I am a cursed Jew. Do you see the lice eating me? It is you — the German people — who did this to me. You murdered our families because we were Jews.” Showing him her long fingernails, she added, “Touch me, and you will walk away without a face.”
He threw the bread at her and disappeared.
( 3/5 ) “Will You Need Them?”
The Nazis led the young women on the death march to open-backed trucks meant to transport them to a new camp. Out of the 850 women that had begun the march, half did not survive. As the trucks pulled away, Mila and a friend held hands and jumped off the last truck, meaning to escape.
They ran to a Jewish cemetery that they saw a few miles back, and prayed for death. They felt they had nothing to live for, their families and communities destroyed. On the cold hard earth, they sat and mourned innumerable losses and the stolen chance to bury their loved ones. Ready to die, Mila and her friend decided to track down the Nazis who had taken the remaining women.
They followed smoke they saw rising in the distance and discovered the gates of another camp, Flossenburg. Claiming they had fallen off the trucks, they were allowed to walk back through the gates, as the guards mocked them for their foolishness to return.
Mila shared the following anecdote: “They demanded that we get undressed to nakedness. I refused. I told them, ‘I am a Jewish girl. The only person that can see me in undress is my mama. I cannot do this.’ They forced me to get undressed and I stood in front of the German soldiers naked. They would have killed me on the spot had I not taken off my dress and my sister’s coat.
The SS officer asked me, ‘What do you have around your neck?’ I answered, ‘Those are the pictures of my beloved parents that you slaughtered. You slaughtered my beautiful parents, my Zeide, Bubby, and all my siblings.’ He asked for them. I asked, ‘What do you want them for? These are my parents — you killed them! This is the only thing I have.’ He said, ‘Well, you won’t need them anymore.’ I said, ‘Will you need them? For what? I will need them as long as my eyes are open. I want my pictures with me.’ I screamed and I cried. He beat me up, to unconsciousness. I cried out, ‘What have I done? Why do they do this to us? We are just children, we need our families!’ He began to pull the rope to take the sack of pictures from me, and I resisted, pulling the other side of the rope. I thought he would decapitate me with that rope. Instead, he beat me with the back of his gun and left me on the ground to die. I was bleeding all over, it was internal bleeding too.
It didn’t matter. I thought whatever will be, will be. I was ready to join my mother and family in the next world.”
(4/5) “The End and The Beginning”
“The next morning I woke up naked in the snow, with the pictures still around my neck. People were laying on the ground all around me, soldiers with rifles standing over us. Somehow I was able to stand up and someone brought me a dress from prisoners who had died in other concentration camps.”
Mila was at Flossenburg for two weeks. On March 18, 1945, the prisoners were ordered to gather and were moved to cattle cars. They spent eight days in total darkness, drinking their own urine to stay alive. They only stopped to throw dead bodies out of the cars.
They arrived at Bergen-Belsen, a death camp. There, she could smell the putrid odor of burning bodies. For two and half weeks, Mila was forced to drag the dead bodies to the fires — there were too many bodies for the crematorium and bodies were burned on large pyres of fire.
On April 15, 1945, Mila was liberated from Bergen-Belsen. She spent many months recovering her health as she suffered from malnutrition. At 18-years-old, she weighed 50 pounds. She still carried the pouch of pictures around her thin neck.
Eventually, her older brother Moshe came to Bergen-Belsen and found her. They are the only two survivors of their immediate family. Finding another cousin and friends, they eventually got visas to come to America and stay with an uncle. Five years after she arrived in America, Mila met her husband Max, who grew up in the same town, Chrzanow. After a brief courtship, Max and Mila married and built a life together.
Over their 54 years together, they had three wonderful children, all of whom they sent to yeshiva day schools. Together, they enjoyed many years of nachat from their children and grandchildren.
While I was sitting with Mila for her interview, we were joined by some of her children, grandchildren and the newest family addition: a great-grandchild. Many of them live no more than a few minutes away and are ever present in Mila’s life.
Her apartment and the homes of her children are covered in the images she risked her life to preserve — the photos of her family that she wore in a pouch around her neck. Today, they are enlarged and spread over every wall and surface.
(5/5 ) “I Would Make a Stand”
I asked Mila how it made her feel, today, to have these images of her family, her mother, her sisters — all of whom she lost during the war. I asked her to tell me what it meant to share their faces and stories with the generations that came after, many of whom were with us in that room at that very moment.
“I live with them [the images of her family]. I talk to them all the time. These kids here are my life. They are the reason for my existence.”
Her family chimed in: “It helps us to imagine what life was like back then when you tell us stories about what Shabbos was like, what family life was like.”
“I know the face of the woman that I was named after, Malka, your sister,” said one family member. “I know who she is from the pictures. It’s so important for us to see since we were never able to meet any of the family. The generations and their legacies are connected through these images and our names.”
I told Mila, “The Nazis took your family but you kept them with you in pictures. No one can take that from you. They tried over and over again, and yet they could not take that away from you.”
Finally, I had to ask the question I was dreading — the question I was afraid to put in context. “So this week when they took a picture of a woman. A survivor. And they erased her image. What does that make you think?”
“I would not tolerate it. I would make a stand,” she said.
Looking into her fierce gaze, full of determination, I replied, “You are.”
Shaking her head, Mila added a final, haunting thought. “Shira, I had a friend who has a book, an original from the concentration camps. They have pictures of what the Germans did to women in the camps. They documented everything that they did to us. If the Germans took photographs as evidence of what happened to us, does it make sense that we are going to erase it?”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.