Telling her story again

Telling her story again

Holocaust survivor Hanna Wechsler talks about her extraordinary life again, this time online

ON THE COVER: Hanna Wechsler prepares for her session with StoryFile, which taped 80 hours with her. It provides a screen image that can answer any question posed to it, appropriately and in depth. (Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest)
ON THE COVER: Hanna Wechsler prepares for her session with StoryFile, which taped 80 hours with her. It provides a screen image that can answer any question posed to it, appropriately and in depth. (Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest)

Hanna Wechsler is a physically small woman with a huge presence.

She lives in a beautiful, well-appointed, sparklingly clean house in a lovely gated development in Woodland Park. She’s beautifully dressed and glamorously coiffed. She’s graciously hospitable — her friendly aide not only offers coffee, but brings it in white china, on a tray, with matching white-china milk and sugar servers.

She’s got a computer, whose screen displays what she’s been reading.

She’s written a memoir, “In Spite of It All,” that details her life. It begins, as memoirs do, with her early childhood, making clear that she was a beloved child and had a normal childhood. By page 21 of its 162 pages, the story that shaped the rest of her life is over, and she’s left the Shoah behind. She’s moved on.

By page 21, it’s 1945, and young Hanna Kleiner, as she was then, and her mother have been liberated from Auschwitz.

When she greets a visitor in her home, though, just weeks before Yom HaShoah, it’s to talk about the Holocaust.

Sitting at her dining room table, the steel inside her invisible but palpable, Ms. Wechsler begins to talk.

“I consider myself as a wonder child, because I survived Auschwitz with my mother, and my father also survived,” she said.

She was born in Nowy Korczyn, Poland, to parents who had Yiddish names — Ms. Wechsler reports them in her book — but whose names she now gives as Mordecai and Shoshanna. Those were the names her parents took in Israel, she said, and those Hebrew names are the ones she honors.

“When the Germans invaded, my parents decided to leave Nowy Korczyn and go to my father’s parents in Proszowice,” she said. They said goodbye to her mother’s father, “who told my mother, ‘You look like an Aryan woman. You must save yourself and Hannaleh. And you, Hannaleh, don’t pay attention to anyone else.

“When we came to my grandfather’s house in Proszowice, he said the same thing. He explained that my mother’s duty was to save me, so that at least one of the second generation would survive.

“My father went to find some Polish people who might take us in. He went to four who all said no, but the fifth woman he went to was alone and badly needed money. So she hid us, all of us — my uncle and aunt and mother and father and me — under the stables, in a little hole under the horses. There was hardly any place to move, but we were very happy and hopeful because they let us stay there.

In 2014, speaking on Yom HaShoah at B’nai Israel, Hanna Wechsler holds up a placard showing the number that was tattooed onto her arm in Auschwitz.

“Our hope was that she’d let us stay for a while.

“She made a deal with us. If she would ask us to leave, we’d have to leave. We had to promise that. We stayed there for around three weeks, but one afternoon she came down and said, ‘I’m sorry, but you have to leave.’

“So we left that night. The distance between her house and the center where the Germans picked up the Jews was a no-man’s-land where we could have been beaten, or shot, or had done to us anything your imagination takes you to, but we were lucky. No one got us, and we got there.

“In the morning, we were picked up by a truck and taken to the Krakow ghetto.”

Ms. Wechsler explained why the family went to this place, knowing that the Germans would get them. Basically, they had no choice, she said. “We went there freely because we knew they were collecting the Jews. We didn’t have any choice. We were in hiding, but she threw us out. We had to go to a place where someone would take us. No one else would take us.”

The Germans brought them to the ghetto. “I looked around from the truck and I saw that the fence was made of tombstones,” Ms. Wechsler said. “I asked my mother what it was, and she said that it was a new kind of fence.” Still, in general, “she never hid anything from me. She treated me as a grown-up person.

“My mother and everyone else left to go to work every morning, and I was alone in a tiny, tiny little room,” she continued. My mother told me not to speak to anybody, not to let anybody in, and to be as quiet as a mouse. I was 6. I followed direction.

“I was extremely scared, but my mother told me that I had not to be seen and not to be heard. ‘You have to behave as if you are a wind,’ she told me. And I listened because she really was very strong. And I had heard my grandfather speaking, so I understood what she wanted from me.

“One of my uncles found a connection in the ghetto and told my mother that she should go get some false papers. He wanted to smuggle us out of the ghetto. We were going to run away to Hungary. When he asked, my mother said, ‘I have no choice. I have to save Hanna.’

“She got out of the ghetto, went on a tram, and a German officer looked at her and got up. She was extremely scared. But remember, she looked Aryan, and what would a Jew be doing on a tram? “He got up and gave her a seat, and said, ‘Please sit down.’

“She was a very pretty young woman.

“She had been half dead from fear, but then she relaxed.”

Hanna and Harry Wechsler beam as they are surrounded by family at a Torah dedication at B’nai Israel.

Her mother found the man who had promised to supply her with counterfeit papers. He lived at the end of the tram line, and she had to stay over at his house, and that, too, frightened her. But she had no choice, so she did. When she got back to the ghetto “and I saw her, I felt happiness not to be described,” Ms. Wechsler said. “I screamed, ‘Mama! Mama! I’m so happy that you’re back.’”

Her uncle made arrangements with two guides to take the family from the ghetto to Czechoslovakia. “We walked the back roads of Poland, with no food, no water, no nothing. I was carried on the shoulders of one of the guides.

“And then one night, with no warning, no nothing, we looked around and saw the guide was gone. We were nowhere, in a place we didn’t know. We saw a shepherd with a flock, and we asked him to take us to a safe place. He said okay, we gave him some money, and he took us directly to the German police station and he left us there.

“The German police started interrogating everybody, and beating everybody, and checking everybody from head to toe. They didn’t hit me, but my mother was hit, and my uncles were black and blue.

“It was very scary. They interrogated us for at least a week. But nobody admitted that they were a Jew. Everybody stuck to the same story. I am a Polish person.”

At some point, Ms. Wechsler said, they were trucked to Romania — the Germans had not yet gotten there, so they were relatively free, and her father and her brothers, who were carpenters, were able to find work. But soon that ended. “We were again collected by the Germans, who put us Jews in a prison in Budapest.”

Her mother, Ms. Wechsler repeated, really was very pretty.

“When we got to the prison and the director there saw me and my mother, he ran toward us and said, ‘Don’t worry. I am going to help you, because you look just like my child and her mother in Austria.’

“My mother was scared, because these promises sometimes could be very dangerous, but it turned out that this guy, who was from the Wehrmacht, not the SS, really helped us.”

He had a pile of papers on his desk. Paperwork on recent arrivals at the prison were put at the bottom of the pile; once a person’s documents reached the top, that doomed person was sent to Auschwitz. The prison director kept putting the Kleiners’ paper back on the bottom.

“A few days later, though, we looked around and saw that he wasn’t there anymore,” Ms. Wechsler said. “He was too good to the Jews, so they sent him to the Russian front. He saved our lives.”

Still, “one day our turn finally came, and we were put on a train, one of those famous trains. We were stuffed like sardines. There were maybe 500 people who went into a train, and maybe 300 came out. The others died on the train.

Ms. Wechsler and her daughters, back when everyone was young.

“When we got to Auschwitz, my father and his brother were separated from us. I was separated with my mother, and because I was a little child, my mother did everything that she could so that I wouldn’t be seen. She covered me. She was a magic maker.

“We went from the track to a long house, a barrack. On the left-hand side women were sitting with tattoos. On the right-hand side, it looked like a factory, but the factory product was human beings. I got a number — 88987. My mother’s number was 88986. The women who were doing the tattoos looked like nurses, all in white.”

But although those tattooists looked like they were in charge, they were not, Ms. Wechsler said. “Everyone in Auschwitz did everything they were told to do.

“I had a very high fever from the tattoo, and I almost perished, but my mother was my savior,” she continued. “She tore part of her outfit — gray stripes — and put water on it and bandaged my head. After a few days the fever went away.

“We were put into a barrack. I remember the number because my mother was excited about it. It was number 18. ‘You see, Hannaleh, we are doing to live in 18, and 18 is chai.’

“We were surrounded by very skinny people, skin and bones, and a lot of them were lying outside the barrack, frozen and dead, and no one picked them up.

“My mother left the barrack every morning and she’d always say ‘Hannaleh, I might not come back,’ because people did not always come back.

“But she came back, and each time she did, it was like a miracle.”

Ms. Wechsler was able to survive, she said, because “in Auschwitz, usually nobody helped anybody, but when my mother came they would give her food for me. ‘She is our hope for the future,’ they said. ‘Maybe she will survive.’

“This was an unbelievable deed by people who were sure that they were going to die.

“We stayed in Auschwitz quite a while. My mother went to work every day, and I was left in the barrack all by myself. And when I was alone there, the mice and rats came out, and they were my friends.”

Are you imagining Disney’s “Snow White”? Don’t.

Harry Wechsler stands by as Hanna Wechler speaks at Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s installation at B’nai Israel.

“I was always afraid that they were going to attack me, because they were hungry too, but they ignored me, and I watched them. This was my entertainment. They were my friends. I don’t wish friends like that on anybody, but they kept me busy.”

Ms. Wechsler has three horrifying memories of her time in Auschwitz that she tells as she tries to describe the terror of a small child trapped in a living hell.

“One day, my mother had an infection in her index finger,” she said. “She said, ‘Hannaleh, I had to go to the infirmary. You can’t come with me.’ I said, ‘No, Mama. I can come with you.’ She knew that my no was no, just like her no. I was very strong-minded.

“So we went to the infirmary, she showed the lady her finger, and the woman said to her, ‘I can do only one thing. I can chop it off.’

“And my mother smiled at me, and she said, ‘Hannaleh, go out and wait for me,’ and I said, ‘No. I will hold your hand.’

“And the lady chopped it off. And my mother turned around and smiled at me and said, ‘It didn’t hurt.’

“And we were not allowed to touch the stuff of that finger until the day she died. Then I was able to hold that finger. It was soft. But she was dead.

“Another time was when Mengele, the angel of death, was in the camp. He let us know that he was coming to check to see which people to send to the crematorium, and we should be ready, waiting for him.

“It was rainy, it was cold, and we had to be stark naked. We waited at least three, maybe four hours, and my mother hid me between women’s legs. When he came in, his left thumb up was to go to the crematorium and the other was to stay and continue working. He came close to my mother, I was underneath, and he touched her, and he said, ‘You are going to stay here, and the next time I will send you to the crematorium.’ That’s because when he touched her flesh in the back it was still hard. There was still some life in her.

“And another time was when we were allowed to go around the barrack, and there was a terrible smell. It was the smell of burning flesh, and it was horrible. My mother was trying to protect me, so she said they were burning rubber, and one of the women said, ‘Why are you lying to her? They are burning human beings.’ And my mother said, ‘Hannaleh, I wanted to protect you, but this is the truth.’

“In Auschwitz, surviving for a day was like surviving for a lifetime.”

Eventually, “the Germans started losing the war, and there were rumors that the Russians were coming and freeing people,” Ms. Wechsler said. The Germans started shipping people out; many of them did not survive the death march. “One night we went outside, my mother took me by the hand, and she said, ‘Let’s see if the police are there.’” They weren’t. “My mother said, ‘Look, Hannaleh, no one is there. Let’s run.’ We started running.”

Ms. Wechsler with her daughters, Dana-Lee Wechsler and Orit Kastner, and Orit’s husband, Howard Kastner

They found a bunker that had food in it. They went out to the main road, “and someone, a Polish person, with a horse and wagon stopped for us and said, ‘Where do you want to go?’ And he took us to Krakow.”

In Krakow, Shoshana Kleiner found a woman from Nowy Korczyn, who invited her and Hanna to stay in the room she shared with some other women from that town. She went to the United Nations Refugee and Rehabilitation Association to try to find her family, or at least to learn what happened to them. “When she said who she was looking for, a woman there came out an told her, ‘All your family is dead.’

“When she heard that news, her face became gray, and her eyes were completely sad always.”

In fact, most of the family had been murdered, but Mordecai and two of his brothers were taken from Auschwitz to Dachau and lived because their skills as carpenters were useful. They were more valuable to the Nazis alive than dead.

At first, Mordecai Kleiner stayed in Germany, near where he had been liberated by the Americans, hoping for news of his wife and daughter. “He went to the train station every day, like he was going to work, hoping to hear from us,” his daughter said. “He did that for six weeks, waiting for somebody to come, but nobody came.”

Eventually, though, someone did come, in this case a man from Proszowice, who told Mr. Kleiner that his family was in Krakow. This man had been known as a joker, so at first Mr. Kleiner did not believe him, but eventually he realized that it was true. The man told him that he knew the street they lived on. It was a main street; its name, translated to English, is “the long street.”

“So my father got on the train, got out in Krakow, got to the street, and started at Number 1. There were tall apartment buildings, with seven or eight floors, and he’d ring the bell of every apartment on every floor, asking, ‘Did you see my wife? A blonde woman, with a little child? This took three or four weeks.

“And then he came to the building where we were, and he rang the bell. It was five in the morning, and we thought it must be the milkman. And then my mother heard his voice, and she ran toward him, and when she got to the door, she fainted.

“Everyone was very happy.”

In 1948, the family finally was able to immigrate to Israel. “My parents both lived until they were 94, and my grandchildren knew them,” Ms. Wechsler said.

She tells her story in detail in her memoir, making clear that despite her trauma, her life was filled with love and the kind of everyday drama that leads to happy lives, as hers has been.

“I grew up in Israel, and then when I was 25 we immigrated to America. My husband, Harry Wechsler, was American,” she continued. “We lived in Queens for a short time, and then we moved to Paramus. We had two daughters — Orit, who has two children, Joshua and Liat —and  Dana-Lee, who has a son, Harel.”

When they moved to Paramus, the family joined the JCC of Paramus. “I decided to take a course in teaching Hebrew, and I taught Hebrew in Emerson for 40 years,” Ms. Wechsler said. That was at Congregation B’nai Israel.

In 2007, Ms. Wechsler, a longtime teacher, stands with Jason Weinberg, one of the many students whose lives she touched, at his Hebrew school graduation.

“Emerson,” as she calls B’nai Israel, “gave me the feeling that I am part of the Jewish community in America,” Ms. Wechsler said. “Until then I always had the feeling that I was a stranger, but Emerson took me in their hands and gave me love. Anything that I wanted I was given.

“I taught there for many years, and we all became a family.”

In fact, B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Debra Orenstein says that Ms. Wechsler often is compared to a mezuzah because she’s kissed so often and the children love her. She’s far from the only person to make that comparison.

Hanna and Harry Wechsler, who was a textile engineer, were deeply in love. Mr. Wechsler — whom his wife called “the love of my life, the best husband, father, grandfather, brother, son, son-in-law and friend” in her book — died in 2011. “Then I became a public speaker,” she said. “I am a speaker for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, and I also speak in New Jersey. I’ve spoken to thousands of children and grown-ups about the Holocaust. And about two years ago, they decided to make from me a hologram, so that after I’m not here, people are going to be able to ask me questions and I’ll be able to answer them, even after I am buried.”

It is a bit spooky for her to see herself in that image — not really a hologram, although it’s easy to call it that — which was made by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. “I told my kids that you will not be able to get rid of me,” she joked.

Despite her good life, Ms. Wechsler still is deeply marked by the trauma of her Holocaust experiences.

“I am a strange woman,” she said. “Sometimes my feelings are very numb. I have something inside me that protects me. Something numbing. I don’t know what it is.

Ilyse Shainbrown is the director of Holocaust education for the MetroWest federation.

In September 2022, StoryFile, a technology company, worked with two Holocaust survivors, Ms. Wechsler and Mark Schoenwetter of Livingston. The company recorded 80 hours of conversation with both of them. “Hanna told her story, and she was asked questions,” Ms. Shainbrown said. “It was filmed in a space in Newark that was donated to us.”

The result is “a two-way artificial intelligence conversation, over a computer, between a questioner and a survivor. It’s not Chat GPT; everything comes from the answers the survivors gave.” The technology is highly sophisticated and can match the right answer — which is detailed and thorough — to the question.

It’s aimed at schools, colleges, synagogues, and any institution that would like to expose people to Holocaust survivors.

“We launched it officially in December,” Ms. Shainbrown said. “Right now, it costs $360, and when you get it, you get a training session with me on how to use it, and you get a secure link for two weeks,” Ms. Shainbrown said.

“Hanna always says that she is a miracle,” she continued. “All survivors are miracles. And to have survived Auschwitz at such a young age, and to have both parents survive, to be able to rebuild their lives…

“She lost so much, and she still had the strength and the power to want to give back. She wants badly to share and to continue to tell her story, and to have the next generation know what happened to her, and to know about the miracle of her survival.

“We need to share that story and tell it over and over again.

“And the technology came in the nick of time,” she added. There are increasingly fewer survivors with the will and the stamina to continue to tell their stories, or to be able to talk about their experiences for the 80 or so hours the AI conversation demands. “We’re grateful that there is the technology, and the federation was able to put the resources into it so that in 10, 15, 20 years, when we don’t have survivors, we still will be able to tell their stories.”

To learn more about using the StoryFile technology, email Ms. Shainbrown at

Rabbi Orenstein said that she was in the room when the technology was unveiled, and that it was both powerful and surpassingly odd. “I was sitting next to Hanna, and there was Hanna onscreen, talking,” she said. “It really felt as if there were two Hannas.”

Ellen Michelson of Woodland Park lived in Bergen County for many years; she, her husband, and their family were — and are — members of B’nai Israel.

Ms. Michelson, who has retired as a Manhattan-based international banker, is a former B’nai Israel president, a board member, the newsletter editor, a soon-to-retire trustee, and its interfaith coordinator.

“We first met Mrs. Wechsler when our oldest son started Hebrew school,” she said. “He’s 44 now. He was with her for a number of years, and then, around when our middle son started Hebrew school, she started bringing her own family to shul.

“We met her husband, Harry, who was the quintessential European gentleman — he was Romanian, I believe — and he always tipped his hat.

“I know her whole family, her husband and daughters and grandchildren. We were at their bar and bat mitzvahs. She became Hanna to everyone, but she introduced herself to young children — including to my grandsons — as Hanna Banana. She relates so well to children.”

Ms. Wechsler did not talk about the Holocaust in Hebrew school, Ms. Michelson said. ‘My understanding is that she didn’t speak about it much publicly until about 10 or 15 years ago. Now the Museum of Jewish Heritage arranges speaking engagements for her at inner-city schools, Catholic schools, and, of course, Jewish schools.

“She does a great job of talking about her experiences,” Ms. Michelson continued. “She has shown me some of the letters she has gotten from some of the schools where she’s spoken. They say things like ‘You have saved my life.’ When I think of Hanna, the expression that comes to my mind is ‘To save one life is to save the world.’

“She was a presence at B’nai Israel, not just for the number of years she dedicated to it, but for the ways she related to the kids. And to think of what she’s doing now — it’s like throwing a pebble in the pond and seeing the ripples.

“She has become my surrogate mother. Everybody considers her part of their family.”

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