These were the childhood memories of Charlene Schiff of Alexandria, who was born Shulamit Perlmutter to a Jewish family in Poland and became an autobiographical storyteller for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:
When she was 10, her home town, Horochow, was invaded by the Soviet Union.
When she was 12, the Germans came.
Almost immediately, her family was herded into a ghetto.
“In the first days, the Germans burned all our synagogues, Torahs and prayer books,” she told the Holocaust Museum’s Memory Project. “They took my father, along with other Jewish leaders, never to be heard from again. . . . When the ghetto was liquidated . . . my difficult task of survival started. Somehow I cheated death, which was always one step behind me.”
Her parents and her sister died in the Holocaust, as did all but a handful of Horochow’s 5,000 Jews. Mrs. Schiff died of a brain tumor Jan. 19 at the Fountains at Washington House, a nursing facility in Alexandria. Her son, Stephen F. Schiff, confirmed the death. She was 83.
During World War II, as Shulamit Perlmutter, Mrs. Schiff hid in forests, barns, haylofts, haystacks and abandoned houses. She ate bugs and tree bark and whatever else she could beg for, find or steal.
After the war, she lived in a displaced-persons camp in Europe before immigrating in the late 1940s to the United States. She settled with an aunt in Columbus, Ohio, and attended Ohio State University before marrying Erwin H. Schiff, an Army officer, in 1951.
Mrs. Schiff and her husband traveled together on assignments to Germany and Japan and since 1966 had lived in Alexandria. She described herself as a “dutiful Army wife,” and her husband retired at the rank of brigadier general.
In the early years of her life in America, Mrs. Schiff rarely talked about the Holocaust. But in the 1980s, her rabbi at Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria convinced her that she should. For more than 20 years, through the Holocaust Museum, she told her story to children and adults at synagogues, churches, schools, clubs, and military and veterans organizations in the Washington area and elsewhere.
“We sent her around the country . . . to Alaska, Arkansas, Tennessee. We wanted to bring her story to as broad an audience as possible,” said Diane Saltzman, director of the Holocaust Museum’s Office of Survivor Affairs.
“She was passionate about telling her story,” said Bill Benson, a host of the museum’s First Person program, in which survivors are interviewed about their Holocaust experiences before live audiences. “She could take an experience that for most of us would be graphically unimaginable and tell it in such a way that you could almost feel it. But it wasn’t sensationalized.”
Mrs. Schiff told of her flight from the Horochow ghetto in 1942, after hearing rumors of its impending destruction.
“We had just hidden in the underbrush at the river’s edge when we heard shots,” she recounted. “We hid, submerged in the water, all night as machine guns blazed in the ghetto. By morning, others were hiding in the brush, and I heard a Ukrainian guard scream, ‘I see you, Jews! Come out!’ Most obeyed, but we hid in the water for several more days as the gunfire continued. Sometimes we would doze. Once I awoke to find Mother had vanished.”
Mrs. Schiff never saw her mother again. A few days later, she encountered a farmer wearing a pocket watch that had once belonged to her father — the watch her mother had taken with her when they fled the ghetto.
Mrs. Schiff told of being spotted with six other Jews in a hayfield around the autumn harvest of 1942. The Germans were offering cash rewards to those who turned in Jews.
“The haystacks were as big as barns,” she said. “We all ran and hid in one of them.”
Her haystack was soon surrounded by men wielding pitchforks. They “attacked it with great enthusiasm,” she said. “They used pitchforks and were stabbing the haystack again and again. . . . I heard cries around me, but I concentrated on just trying to breathe.”
Eventually the cries ceased, and the men with the pitchforks left. “Slowly I made my way out of the demolished haystack,” she said. “I stood dazed looking at the bloody, mutilated bodies of my six companions, whom I had met earlier that afternoon.”
As she dodged entrapment in the Nazi net of Jewish extermination, Mrs. Schiff saw friends executed for trying to help her. She was betrayed by people she thought were on her side. “Fear and suspicion saved me,” she said. “I learned a hard lesson. Do not trust anyone.”
Decades later, as Charlene Schiff, she was no more the ragged waif of the dark nights and cold winters of Eastern Europe. She was a well-dressed woman, her hair elegantly coiffed, who knew how to engage an audience, how to command the attention of young and old. She was a “touchy-feely” type who hugged a lot, said her son, Stephen, a doctor in Barrington, R.I. He and his two sons are Mrs. Schiff’s only survivors. Her husband died in 2008.
Almost 68 years after the end of World War II, the number of Holocaust survivors is fast diminishing. Some will share their memories, some will not, said the Holocaust Museum’s Saltzman.
For Mrs. Schiff, remembering “was cathartic,” her son said. “It was her reason for living.”