|Israel (Erving) Haber:||Born in Sassov, Poland September 26, 1909
Deceased in Milwaukee, Wisconsin February 1, 2002
|Henia (Helen) Haber:||Born in Sassov, Poland August 26, 1912
Deceased in Milwaukee, Wisconsin July 5, 1985
|Gitel Scheps:||Born in Sassov, Poland 1890
Deceased in Milwaukee, Wisconsin April 24, 1973
Children: Julia (Julie) Haber (January 16, 1938 – July 3, 2006), Sheldon
Grandchildren: Amy, Jay, Michael
LIFE IN EUROPE: My father, Israel Haber, was born into a relatively well-to-do family, the youngest of eight brothers and sisters. Yoel Haber, my grandfather, was a learned Talmudist, a follower of the descendants of the Sassover Rebbe, and was given an honored resting place four or five grave sites from the Rebbe’s when he passed away. (Interestingly, perhaps, according to my father, the Rebbe’s headstone was protected by the Polish townspeople, and was the only grave left undesecrated by the end of the war. Thus, my father could approximate the location of his father’s resting place.)
Sassov was a center of the manufacture of a certain type of atarah, the neckband sewn to the top of a tallis (www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Shpanyer_Arbet), and we were the largest of three manufacturers, employing between 30 and 60 families. The business became very difficult between the world wars when Poland forbade the importation of German silver, which was used in the creation of a necessary, metallic corded thread. Use of a smuggler and betrayal by an informant led to legal difficulties, false accusations and scandal, which probably hastened the death of my grandfather several years before the war.
My father’s mother was named Raisel (nee Halperin), a person my father venerated all his life (and confirmed by my mother) as someone who could not utter an unpleasant word about anyone or anything, no matter the circumstances she endured. Ultimately, although not killed outright, she did succumb to the suffering she witnessed, and her death was hastened by sorrow prior to the Nazi extermination of the community.
Life in that region had already been tumultuous and dangerous. It was a border region, claimed at various times by Austro-Hungary, Ukraine, Poland and Russia. In addition to Hebrew and Yiddish, fluency in the three or four other languages of the various rulers was the norm. My father’s earliest memories were of being a refugee with most of his family, first fleeing from the fighting of World War I, and soon after, the Russian Civil War.
My father had a tradtional Jewish education, as well as gymnasia (high school), and graduated from a teaching seminary at age 16. He taught for a time, but at some point thereafter he took to adventuring around Poland, possibly apprenticing as a carpenter, before finally settling down to pursue a career as a dentist. By then all his siblings had left Sassov; the oldest, much his senior, lived in Vienna, his oldest sister in America, and at least some of the others settled in Lvov (Lemberg, Lviv), the largest city nearby and cultural capital of the region. He was left with the responsibility of taking over the family business.
In 1937 he married my mom, Henia Scheps, whom he had known since childhood. She was originally from a nearby small rural village, the name of which is unknown to me (her birthplace is listed incorrectly on her passport as Sassow), and was the older sister of two younger brothers. Her father, Shalom Scheps, was a storekeeper, by all accounts a very sweet and decent man, but who became impoverished when the landowner evicted Jews from his properties. Her mother, Gitel (nee Mandel), whom I knew because she survived the war, was a sturdy and cheerful individual; remarkable, given her terrible losses. I know very little else of the details of my mother’s life in Poland prior to the War. The horrors she would subsequently endure made her very reluctant to discuss the past.
I will discuss the war years only in outline form, in part because that is all I may know, and also because some details I was told of are too disturbing to record here. Very briefly, at the outbreak of World War II, eastern Poland was occupied by the Soviet Army. My father was conscripted into that force as a Pole, and as an officer because he was a dentist, in which capacity he served for the duration of the war. It’s almost certainly what saved his life.
After the arrival of the Nazis, my mother, her mother, and my sister Julia, who was born in 1938, all survived the Zloczow (Zolochev) Ghetto and labor camps by hiding in the fields and forests. Shalom Scheps nearly survived to the end, but was betrayed by a townsperson and lost to the Germans before liberation.
In the years of hiding, there were a couple of occasions where my family was aided by generous Poles, in particular by a Mrs. Maria Zurawska and her daughters. These were saints who took them in and hid them for perhaps several months, this even after Mrs. Zurawska’s husband had been executed by the Germans for hiding Jews.
By the end of the war my sister could no longer speak because she had been forced to remain absolutely silent for so many years, and had to relearn how. She was almost certainly the only Jewish child to have survived in that area.
My father went AWOL from the Russian army after the Nazis had retreated to find his family, and was reunited with his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law. Except for a niece in France (“Dottie”, Juliet Friedman), everyone else who had remained in Europe, including his four brothers and two sisters, was gone. In addition to her father, my mom lost her two younger brothers. A cousin (Zlote Susser), had survived.
DEPARTURE FROM EUROPE: In 1946 the family headed west to France; it was there that my dad re-discovered his niece. Desperate to get out of Europe, he made the rounds of embassies and consulates and somehow stumbled upon that of the Dominican Republic, a country he had never heard of before. The details are a little murky, but they seem to involve a relative of Trujillo being present and expediting the granting of a visa and entrance permit.
In October of 1946 the family set sail, and, after one last brief encounter with anti-Semitism in Martinique, arrived in Puerto Plata October 29th, 1946. Here they were met by a representative of the DORSA, and my dad was invited to be the dentist in Sosua.
LIFE IN SOSUA: I know very little of the details of the years spent in Sosua. Regrettably, my sister – who certainly had vivid memories of an incomparably happier childhood here than in her previous existence – passed away before the creation of this website, and I was just an infant before we emigrated to the U.S.
In addition to being the town’s dentist, my dad was also a teacher at the Escuela Cristobal Colon, and his best friend in the community was the principal, Dezider Scheer. In fact, Mr. Scheer is my godfather. I don’t know if my dad taught subjects other than Hebrew.
In time we obtained a finca (farm) where we raised a dairy herd. It was essentially my mom’s and grandmother’s experience in rural Poland that made it a successful enterprise. I know that we employed a good man named Felly, as well.
I was born near the end of our time in Sosua, and I rode (as an infant?) a horse named Sonia. Our immigration quota number to the U.S. came up in 1951. We departed for a new beginning on May 10th of that year.
LIFE AFTER SOSUA: My grandma had a sister (Annie Fink) who had immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, so our first stop was her home in Coney Island in New York City. My dad loved New York, though my mom did not, and there was also a severe housing shortage at the time. It so happened that my dad’s surviving sister (Sarah Lerner) and his mother’s brother (Jacob Halperin), also early immigrants, had settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Therefore, after about six months on the Atlantic coast, we headed to the Midwest.
My dad was unable to practice his profession without taking more courses to gain accreditation, which was a financial impossibility with a family to support, but the city was prospering and factory work at good wages was easy to come by. He held several such jobs, and also employed his skills in dental labs. My mom worked as a grocery clerk, and my sister attended the good public schools of the period. Both my parents attended night school to learn English. We rented the lower flat of a very nice duplex home in a lovely, safe and significantly Jewish neighborhood. In not too many years, saving every penny we could, my dad was able to buy a small grocery store in a more distant, decidedly non-Jewish part of town. We lived in the small attached home behind the store. My sister, an excellent student, graduated high school and began to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 1957 we moved once again, closer to our previous neighborhood, where we bought a modest but handsome brick home. Here my parents lived for the next nearly thirty years.
My grandmother remarried, this time to a fine, observant elderly widower named Michael Katz, whom I knew as my grandpa. She passed away in 1973, and he some years earlier. Her passing was, as one can imagine, very difficult for my mother.
My sister Julia (Julie) graduated from the university in 1960, and that same year married a high school sweetheart, Lowell Lakritz, who was finishing his studies at Marquette Dental School.
In Madison, Wisconsin, he set up a very successful dental practice, my sister taught Spanish to middle school students, and they raised three wonderful children (who, in turn, have been blessed with a combined total of 11 children of their own).
I graduated from the UW-Madison, made a brief stab at architecture, and settled in New York City as a clerk at a children’s hospital for 25 years. When both my sister and father became seriously ill toward the end of 1999, I returned to Madison, where I have remained.
All was not perfection in Milwaukee. After a few good years the little grocery store began to suffer from competition when a large supermarket opened nearby. My dad eventually had to sell it and return to teaching Hebrew as well as to dental lab work. My mom took a job in a neighborhood bakery, for which she is still fondly remembered by many old customers.
Sadly, she developed pancreatic cancer and, after much suffering, passed away in 1985. She too, in spite of the terrible pain and losses she endured throughout so much of her life, would never speak a harsh or unkind word about anyone or anything at any time. Her memory is always for a blessing.
My father left Milwaukee in 1987. By then the neighborhood was no longer safe, the synagogues and their members were leaving for a more secure side of town, and he was alone.
The family owned some property in Madison, near my sister’s home, so my dad moved into an apartment in one of our buildings. After returning from daily minyan, he would often walk to his daughter’s home, usually smoking a pipe, or simply patrol around the neighborhood, making sure all was well. His last several years were spent fighting illness, to which he finally succumbed in early 2002 at the Jewish Home in Milwaukee.
My sister also had to battle recurring illness. The first was a cancer which appeared in 1999, but was successfully treated and went into complete remission. However, a cancer of the gallbladder occurred about five years later and, despite a long and heroic battle, finally overcame her in July of 2006.
Although never abusive in any form to his family or others, my dad was never one to hold back from shouting when he thought the occasion demanded it, or cursing those who had so heartlessly, brutally, monstrously murdered a whole civilization. He was not usually an angry man, and, in fact, had a wonderful, subtle, intelligent sense of humor. Nevertheless, praise for the doings of humankind was not in his repertoire.
There was one exception – for the people of the Dominican Republic, who had taken in our family, who had accepted Jews wholeheartedly, and from whom he never heard once, not even once, any expression of anti-Semitism whatsoever. The only place, before or since our blessed stay there, where that had happened. If there can be life after a kind of death, if hope and goodwill and commitment to goodness can exist after the opposite of anything good, Sosua, Republica Dominicana, is a guidepost of what that should be.