My grandmother, Mala Dorfman is one of the most inspirational and influential people I know. She is a Holocaust survivor, and I am very fortunate for this opportunity to hear her story and share it with all of you.
Mala was born in Lodz, Poland in 1923. She came from a big family of two brothers and four sisters. One sister, Lola, died at around 11-years-old of an illness, just before the war broke out. Mala had two older sisters, Franka and Rosa, and two younger brothers, Beresh and Menashe, as well as a sister Mindel.
Mala came from a very religious home. Her father, Joel, was a businessman. "We weren't rich, but we had what to eat and what to wear," she tells me. "We went to public school and then religious school. We were a very happy family...until the Nazis came."
In 1939, Hitler and the Nazis invaded Poland. My grandma was only 15-years-old at the time. "I looked outside and saw a football field where orthodox Jews were standing and the Nazis were cutting their beards and then killing them."
The Nazis were also throwing babies from windows. "I was shocked and saddened by what I was seeing."
So, her mother, Esther, decided to take the kids to their grandmother's bakery in Kozienice. Mala was the oldest, as Franka and Rosa stayed in the ghetto with their father. Beresh, Menashe, and Mindel went with Mala. Esther decided once she dropped the kids off, she would head back home.
"When we got to Kozenieche, my grandmother no longer had the bakery. The Nazis had taken it away from her," Mala said. "We were left there with nothing." Two months later, all the Jews were forced into a ghetto.
Mala started working as a nurse in the ghetto. She had no experience in the field, but she learned quickly as she had to support her family. An uncle came to visit and took her brothers and sister. He was a very wealthy man and believed he could save them. "I learned that they were among the first to go to Treblinka and die." Mala continued working as a nurse as long as she could, but she contracted typhus.
After her battle with the illness, she went back to work. The Nazis were taking the Jews to "work," and they never came back. It can only be presumed they were taken to their deaths.
One day, in 1942, Mala got appendicitis, and was rushed to a hospital outside the ghetto. "I was operated on, and a day after my surgery I heard the nurses saying all the Jews in the hospital would be deported to death camps," she told me. "I left the hospital in my nightgown and a coat, and I walked to the right to get out of town." I saw a big barn and laid down because I just couldn't walk anymore." She had no idea where she was, but she heard noises as she woke up in the morning. Mala recognized some people from the town, so she joined them. They were all taken away to a work camp called Gorzyczki. Mala had no clothes besides her hospital gown, so she asked one of the girls in town to give her some clothes. She gave her a skirt and a sweater. "I worked in ditches, throwing out sand and then putting it back in. There was no purpose to it except to aggravate us," Mala told me. Mala and her friends spent seven weeks in Gorzyczki. From there, they were taken to Skaryzko, where Mala met a German woman who would ultimately save her life.
"Without her, I probably wouldn't be alive," Mala said. The woman was actually a kapo, a trustee who carried out the will of the Nazis. At the time, Mala spoke German very well, so she spoke to the woman and she could just tell she hadn't really wanted to help the Nazis, but she didn't have a choice. "I just felt it," Mala explained. So one day, Mala decided to ask the woman if she could bring her something to clean the wound she had from her appendicitis surgery. Puss was coming out, and Mala desperately needed to clean her wound. The woman brought her something, and then started bringing her food. One day she took Mala to her house and let her take a bath in her bathtub. She didn't want Mala to go back to the camp. She wanted her to escape, but Mala figured all the Jews were being killed, so the camp was probably safest for now. She didn't want to be left alone.
Her name was Gertrude Hoffman and my grandma will never forget her.
The two lost touch for a while, but they would reunite after the war when Gertrude and the Lagerfuhrer were put on trial. Mala testified on her behalf, noting how good Gertrude had been to her and how she was forced into being a Nazi. She said the same of the Lagerfuhrer. She knew he had been forced as well. He never wanted to be a Nazi.
Mala and Gertrude stayed in touch for about two years after that before losing contact. Gertrude had a child with the Lagerfuhrer. Mala has a picture of that child.
After her stay in Skarzysko, my grandmother was taken to another camp, Częstochowa. At the time, she and the people she worked with had no idea about places like Auschwitz and Treblinka. They were completely unaware.
Though, the Germans gave out orders of what to do and where to go, Gertrude had traveled with Mala from camp to camp, keeping her safe. Mala felt blessed by how wonderful a person the kapo truly was. "We were very lucky," she said during an interview with Voice/Vision in 2005.
At the camp, Mala worked with ammunition. The bullets had these points and it was absolutely essential they go in the right place. She didn't even want to think of the horror that awaited her should she put the bullets in the wrong place. The ammunition was being made for the HASAG, an ammunitions company.
While working at the camp, Getrtude brought Mala ham and cheese sandwiches. Coming from a religious home, she was grateful, but she refused to eat the sandwiches because they weren't kosher. As hungry as she was, she just couldn't bring herself to eat food that wasn't kosher, so she opted to give the food to her friends.
Since then, my grandma has never had pork of any kind, and she still won't mix meat and milk.
Mala looked out for her friends and they looked out for her. She always shared her food, and was always willing to help a fellow prisoner as they had grown to be friends.
During the interview with Voice/Vision, Mala explained that she's often asked what college she went to. She never went to an actual college, but she said," I went to the best college you could ever go to." She got an amazing education in survival. People just can't believe she survived, but "if you have to survive," you do it." My grandma told me that in an interview we did together in 8th grade. I will never forget those words. "We were lucky. I was lucky. That's all. I was very lucky."
One particular incident Mala will never forget is one day after 20 hours of work, the Nazis wanted her to take a shower, but she said she wasn't going. She couldn't move. She was put in a bunker with rats and had to hold on to the pipes in order to avoid the rats. She held on for 24 hours. When she awoke, she was as pale as a ghost, and the stress of the whole situation had turned her hair completely gray.
After the horrific experience, Mala went back to work right away.
"I worked until the war was over," she told me.
After the war, Mala went back to Lodz to look for her family. "When I got there, I didn't find anyone, so I went to a Jewish Center where they were putting up a list of people who survived, and I saw my sisters', Frank and Rosa, on the list."
It was there that Mala met my grandfather, Henry Dorfman. The two married in Lodz in September, 1945.
In December of that year of that year, Mala left for Germany to find her sisters and they all left for America.
The first place Mala and Henry went was Topeka, Kansas.
Henry got a job right away, but the two couldn't speak English, so it made living there very difficult, especially since they didn't really know anyone.
"We got invited to a cousin's wedding in Detroit, where we would ultimately make our residence. I had family there and they spoke my language."
At first, Henry worked in a car factory and was going to school to learn English. He went to Eastern Market and met someone walking on the street. The man was from Hungary, but he spoke Yiddish, so the two could understand each other. The two opened a meat store. Henry was very well versed in the meat business because his father was in the meat business before the war, and he had learned a lot from him.
Little by little, things would get bigger and bigger for Henry. He was a very successful businessman and his skills would eventually lead to the creation of Thorne Apple Valley.
Mala insisted her sisters and their husbands all move to Detroit, and told Henry the husbands should be a part of Thorne Apple Valley so her family could share in the success and wealth.
My grandfather passed away in 2001 at the age of 79. My grandma is still living and well and is still one of the strongest women I know. I am truly blessed to have her sitting here with me today.