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The Interpreter
As the Nazis killed her parents, friends and neighbors, a teenage girl talked circles around the enemy to survive

By Steve Luxenberg
Sunday, March 15, 2009

She was 18. After going over my cousin Anna's account with her multiple times to fill in the gaps and get the chronology straight, I find myself starting with that simple fact:

In October 1942, Anna was just 18 years old when she fled the western Ukrainian town of Radziwillow with only the vaguest idea of where she was going; just 18 years old when she walked into a Nazi occupation headquarters with little more than an improbable tale and a facility for language; just 18 years old when she deceived the Nazis into believing her masquerade as the daughter of a German mother and Ukrainian father.

Within a month of escaping certain death in Radziwillow at the hands of a Nazi-led local killing squad, she had secured herself a job as a translator for the Wehrmacht's military police, a sensitive position, a position of trust, a position reserved for a member of the German Volk, the German people.

As I examine the documents detailing Anna's deception -- including her Arbeitsbuch, the Nazi-mandated workbook that lists the dates and places of her employment -- I marvel at her guile, her cleverness, her charm. What part of the family DNA gave her the ability to pull off this subterfuge -- and to maintain her pretense not for weeks or months, but for nearly three years?

***

At a restaurant in suburban Detroit, I study Anna Oliwek's features, searching for a resemblance, and I'm not sure I see one. She is 82 years old and has lived in the United States since 1949, but she has that Eastern European look that never seems to fade completely from the faces of some older immigrants, no matter how long they live in their adopted homeland or what fashions they embrace. Her broad forehead, her roundish cheeks, the continuous curve of her jaw line, all combine to suggest that she hails from that vast expanse between the Rhine and the Volga, the only geography I can summon to mind as I kiss her remarkably unlined face. Her accented English confirms my first impression.

I've only just become aware of this cousin of mine. A half-century ago, a fight with my mother over a family secret led to a falling out that caused a permanent rift between our families. My mother, Beth, had chosen to hide the existence of a disabled sister, Annie, who spent all of her adult life in a county mental hospital outside Detroit.

It's a complicated, delicate story that came to light without warning or provocation not long after my mom's death, in 1999. Mom had always told us she was an only child, and I've been engaged in a reinterpretation, employing my skills as a journalist (and my empathy as a son) in trying to understand her motivations, my aunt's unknown life and the times in which they lived.

"I've had my hair done for you," Anna says. I tell her I'm flattered and slide into the chair next to her.

Anna's a widow now (her husband died in 1991), but except for occasional problems with diabetes, she seems in good shape: spry and still feisty. She and David, her 55-year-old son, are midway through dinner. I've come for coffee, maybe some dessert, and to hear Anna's view of Mom's secret.

Unlike others I've interviewed from Mom's generation, Anna says she couldn't comprehend my mother's decision to turn her sister into a secret, couldn't accept it, couldn't stomach it, really. "The sister was still her sister," she tells me. "I know she [the sister] was sick, but she couldn't help it... She's still family."

Family. That's the word that Anna kept using. "I am family," she had fumed, when Mom had told her to stop meddling in her family's affairs. To understand Anna's unshakable fury toward Mom, I had to understand Anna's family -- not the one she raised in America, but the one she lost in 1942. I had to understand what had happened in Radziwillow.

***

"There's going to be a killing in the morning," said the German woman who had come with the Nazi occupation of Radziwillow and was employing Anna to do domestic chores. "You're too good a worker to die. I've never seen a Jew work so hard."

Anna, still the interpreter, feels the need to translate for me. "She helped me not because I was a good person, but because I was a good worker. She told me, 'You can't go home; they're gonna kill you. Tomorrow, they're going to take all the Jews from the ghetto.' "

Radziwillow, like other towns in the Ukrainian region then known as Volhynia, was rife with such rumors in the fall of 1942. The killing squad had already executed more than 1,500 from Radziwillow's "expendable" ghetto -- including Anna's mother, her 12-year-old brother, Mendel, and her 9-year-old sister, Esther -- on May 29, 1942. Her father's early death, in 1934, had spared him the fate of dying in an open pit with the rest of her family.

Before the first massacre, Anna says, she would come to her mother's ghetto before work, and they would talk through the fence, no touching allowed. Then, one day, her mother wasn't there. Anna, frantic, went to the Judenrat, the council that the Nazis required the Jews to form in the ghettos that had been established in the occupied territories. She told one of the men in charge, "I usually see my mother before I go to work. She wasn't there today."

What did he say? I ask.

"Tears came to his eyes," she says. "That's how I knew."

***

Most Volhynian Jews did not die in the extermination camps of Poland. Most were taken from their towns, their streets, their homes, killed in daylight and in darkness, within earshot and, sometimes, within eyesight of their neighbors and friends. The first wave of executions came within weeks of Hitler's troops seizing control of the region as part of Operation Barbarossa, the multi-pronged Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union launched on June 22, 1941; on July 2, Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich's eager 37-year-old chief of security, ordered the execution of "Jews in the employment of the party apparatus and the state."

The German Sixth Army had encountered little resistance from the isolated Soviet troops when it flashed through Volhynia on its lightning-quick journey toward the east. Residents of the region, which the Soviets had seized from Poland two years earlier, described the Soviet withdrawal in words approaching the supernatural -- vanished, disappeared or evaporated, rather than retreated or departed.

As described in Shmuel Spector's "The Holocaust of the Volhynian Jews, 1941-1944," members of the Einsatzgruppen -- the Nazis' name for the mobile killing squads organized to carry out executions in Ukraine and elsewhere -- asked local Ukrainians for the names of so-called "Soviet activists," and, with the assistance of Ukrainian "auxiliary" police, scoured the towns' homes and streets, "arresting" hundreds of Jews and others, and marching them to preselected sites where the squads carried out their deadly mission. In Radziwillow on July 15, 1941, just 17 days after the Nazis arrived, 28 Jews were shot as "dangerous communists" or "partisans." Similar roundups went on throughout the region. By late August, a reported 15,000 Jews -- about 6 percent of Volhynia's Jewish population -- were dead.

Why did the mass shootings take place in the towns themselves? The death camps in Poland were not yet constructed, and, besides, the Nazis could not yet transport large numbers of prisoners on the Russian railway lines, which were a different gauge than those in Poland and Germany. The Nazis would have to seize large numbers of Russian rail cars or modify the tracks, both time-consuming undertakings. So, in the months before the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, when Heydrich held formal ministerial discussions of a "Final Solution," the word went out to the Nazi security forces and Einsatzgruppen in Ukraine, Byelorussia and the Baltics: Kill the Jews where they live.

After the winter's thaw made the ground soft enough to dig mass graves again, a second wave of executions commenced in the spring of 1942, first with the herding of Jews into ghettos, followed by systematic "liquidations" through the summer and fall. Radziwillow's turn came on April 9, when its estimated 2,600 Jews were divided into a large ghetto for the "unfit," where Anna's mother and siblings were sent, and a smaller one for those, such as Anna, considered "useful." Six weeks later, 1,500 were murdered outside the town, while about 500 holding "productive worker certificates" earned a reprieve, only to be killed in a second massacre on Oct. 5.

A very few managed to escape. Anna Oliwek -- then Anna Schlajn -- was one of them.

***

She had to see the gravesite. Soon after the May massacre, Anna says, she stealthily made her way before first light to the killing field.

No one was there, she says, no guards, no police to keep away the curious. The executioners had coated the pits with lime -- Anna uses the Ukrainian word, "vapno" -- to speed up decomposition and mask the smell, but there was no way to cover up what had taken place. "There were five big huge long graves," Anna tells me. "You could see the blood. I hate to tell you this, but it was boiling."

"Boiling?" I say.

"Bubbling, still fresh. I saw a child's hand sticking out."

***

Every Jew still alive in the Radziwillow ghetto lived with fear that a second massacre was coming, and that, this time, their status as forced laborers would not save them. Before the first massacre, the executioners had the advantage of uncertainty and deception -- they led the Jews to believe that they were being deported, and that was horrible enough -- but, this time, the targets couldn't be lulled. Still, how much good would their knowledge do them? Most of them had no place to go and few places to hide. Some would flee to the nearby forests, looking for the partisan fighters said to operate there. Some would decide to take their own lives rather than die at the hands of the Nazis; a few would find families, non-Jews, willing to hide them. At most, only 200 survived.

Anna, however, received something more than just a warning. She received an offer of help from the German woman who admired her work ethic.

The Nazis had sent Anna's German employer and her husband to Radziwillow so he could work for the railway transport system serving the Nazi infrastructure on the Eastern Front, the same line that gave Radziwillow its prominence as a border town. The husband would sneak Anna aboard and take her to the end of the line, 450 miles southeast to Dnepropetrovsk, an industrial city not far from where the Nazis had established an Ortskommandantur, a local occupation headquarters.

That left the problem of what to do until the train departed. Anna couldn't go back to the ghetto that night -- if she were there in the morning, there would be no way out. The local police opened the locked gates only to let the workers come and go to their jobs, usually under escort. But for all its similarities to a prison, the ghetto had one huge difference: There was no bed check. The German woman would tell the escort that Anna had already left for the ghetto, and that was plausible enough for now.

The woman's warning about the impending massacre was sudden, but Anna's thoughts about fleeing were not. She had been preparing for the possibility, securing phony papers from a family whose daughter had died at age 8. The girl's father was Ukrainian and her mother was German, which meant that the girl had been a Volksdeutsche, an ethnic German of mixed blood -- not as good as being pure German, but, in Hitler's cosmology, part of the Greater German Empire.

"I had to have a new identity if I was going to leave," she says. "I couldn't be Anna Schlajn any more. I paid that family for hers."

When the Nazi transport pulled away from Radziwillow with its cargo of livestock, clothes and food, Anna sat on the floor of one car, surrounded by Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war being shipped back from German labor camps. Deemed too sick to work, their fates were unclear. Anna had only the clothes she wore, a sliver of bread and her identification documents. If anyone asked, she would tell her story and hand over the papers, which said she was Anna Propokowitsch, age 16, born December 1925, Volksdeutsch.

***

Anna put on the old clothes that the German woman had given her, shedding the ones that bore the Star of David that Jews were supposed to wear at all times. The woman's husband had warned Anna that the transport would be nothing like a passenger train -- no seats, no food service, but also no ticket takers. "He would get me on, but he made clear that I was on my own after that," Anna says.

The presence of the POWs surprised her. She huddled in a corner and waited for the guard to approach. Instead of a barrage of questions, however, he offered her some of the soup that he was feeding to the POWs. She took a cup, gratefully.

The transport crept slowly through the Ukrainian countryside, stopping frequently, an excruciatingly slow ride that gave Anna plenty of time to practice her new identity, to say, "My name is Anna Propokowitsch." The journey took two or three days, maybe four -- Anna doesn't remember how long she stayed on the train, only that it was evening again when the transport ground to a halt in Dnepropetrovsk station.

"This was the night," she tells me now, "when I learned to lie."

***

Several hours ticked by before a railway worker asked her what she was doing there, alone, in the station. She had no plan, but she couldn't tell him that. "I'm waiting for my sister," Anna said -- or maybe she said "uncle" or "parents"; she's no longer sure. He went away, but returned as the station was closing for the night and told her she would have to leave. She replied: "I'm not going to bother nobody. I'll just sit here quietly until my sister shows up."

The next morning, another railway worker asked her why she was still there. She unveiled her concocted story, something about getting separated from her parents; she couldn't find them; she was worried sick. The man took pity on her.

His mother, he said, lived on the outskirts of town. She was old and alone, and she could use the help and the company. He would take Anna as soon as he finished work. Anna, scared and with no place to go, was suspicious. But she didn't know what else to do.

Within a few days, Anna concluded that the kind woman didn't have enough food for herself, let alone this uninvited guest. Anna saw a notice that said the local employment office, a branch of the Nazi occupation authority, had jobs available, including one for a translator.

When the woman at the employment office asked about her skills, Anna told her: I speak four languages; I'm a quick learner. Her bogus papers said she was only 16, but she thought if she could meet someone in authority, maybe she could impress him enough to at least land a job cleaning houses. The woman gave her directions to Ortskommandantur I/837 in nearby Novomoskovsk. She told Anna to see the major there, an officer with the military police, the Feldgendarmerie.

It was a long walk, more than five miles. When Anna arrived, the major wasn't in. The building housed all the Nazi security forces -- the Gestapo, the SS, the security service and the military police. While she waited, she rehearsed her story, trying to make it more specific, more convincing.

She didn't want a lot of questions just yet, questions that might cause her to stumble.

***

The major, whose last name was K├Ânitzer, was a small, stocky man. He listened to Anna's fabricated account and said she reminded him of his daughter back in Germany. He asked her how she had learned to speak so many languages at such a young age, and she told him: "I have a gift, I guess; it comes easily to me." She could have told him she spoke a fifth and sixth language, but now was not the time to brag about speaking Hebrew and Yiddish.

He wanted to hire her; he said he had two interpreters, but both were useless in Ukrainian, something of a liability in occupied Ukraine. There was one problem, the major told her: Regulations required him to hire German citizens for a military job involving matters of security. The military had no authority to issue such identification papers, so she had to obtain them at the civilian commissar, another office of the occupation.

"I was afraid to go, so I told him: 'I don't know anyone there. Could you please write me a letter?' " The major did as she asked. The letter explained that the Soviets had sent her parents away, that her identification card was gone and she needed a new one.

As she walked to the commissar's office, she tried to calm herself, but she underestimated both the power of the major's letter and the lack of curiosity she would encounter. The letter was read and accepted, and the coveted document was issued on the spot.

***

The major looked out for her, she says. He warned her about certain men, telling her, "You're a young girl; stay away from that one." Once, after an officer persisted in his advances, inviting himself to the new quarters that came along with her job, she told the major, and he said, categorically, "Don't let him in."

She looks at me sharply when she tells me this, and she says she knows what I'm thinking. We're sitting in the suburban Chicago home where she now lives. I hadn't planned to ask her about sexual favors, whether any were demanded or given. But she's bringing it up, so I don't cut her off. "Nothing like that happened," she says. "I wouldn't let it, and neither would the major."

We are going over her story once more, trying to resolve some of the inevitable discrepancies that dim memory and buried pain have imposed on her account. She wants to be helpful, tries to be precise, but confesses that, yes, she sometimes finds it hard to remember such horrific times, that she'll never stop feeling guilty about working for the Nazis.

Her counterfeit identity gave her a new life, but it also took its toll, requiring her to nurture the deceit, to learn the art of lying -- not merely how to tell a lie, but how to live a lie, because lying was the route to survival. But, always, she lived with the fear of being discovered. She was a Jew hiding in plain sight, and to make her disguise believable, she had to believe her own deception; she had to make herself appear comfortable among the very enemy that had killed her family.

She had to turn herself into a secret.

***

Fooling the Nazis turned out to be easier than she had feared. They were strangers in occupied territory; they didn't know the language, the people or the terrain. The biggest threat to her secret, she says, came from local people who thought she was Jewish. One time, while Anna was translating for a prisoner, he looked at her and spat in Ukrainian, "You filthy Jew." He continued his outburst, and his baffled German captors finally asked Anna to explain the tirade. Anna told them: "He's calling you filthy Germans." They took the man away.

Another time, a German officer hauled in a Jewish woman he had found hiding in the nearby forest, calling her a "dirty Jew." The terrified woman saw Anna, who had been summoned to translate, and asked in Polish, "Are you Jewish?" Anna, acting quickly, told the woman to be quiet, that she would handle it. She went directly to the major's office and informed him that the officer was mistaken.

"If she's a Jew, then I'm a Jew," she says she told the major.

"The major said, 'Fraulein Anna,' -- that's what he called me -- 'If you say she's not a Jew, then she's not a Jew. Tell the officer to let her go.' "

***

Anna's stint with the O.K.I/837 ended abruptly in midsummer 1943. The Nazi defeat at the battle of Stalingrad in early February had signaled the beginning of the end for Hitler's vision of a conquered Soviet Union; the Red Army was pushing back now, pushing to recapture Ukraine from the German occupiers. Anna's unit would be leaving for combat areas elsewhere, and the major thought it was best if she went to Germany. Anna wanted to stay in Novomoskovsk, but she couldn't do that -- if the Soviets came, she could end up in Siberia, or worse. For now, she was a German; going "home" to Germany was her only option.

She boarded the train again, heading west along the same tracks that had brought her to Dnepropetrovsk nine months earlier. She was on her way to Memmingen, in southern Germany, armed with a letter of recommendation from the major. To her alarm, the train stopped at the border, in Radziwillow of all places, something to do with the military needing the train, so the passengers had to get off and wait for another one.

Suddenly, Anna says, she found herself on the platform, in the town where she grew up. What if someone recognized her? Sure enough, a man spotted her, yelled at her, called her a Jew. She had to act quickly, before someone understood what he was saying.

That man, she told one of the German soldiers, is harassing me just because I'm a girl.

The German soldier didn't hesitate. He confronted the man, told him that he had better stop or he would be shot.

Fraulein Anna had escaped detection once again.

She spent the rest of the war in Memmingen, primarily working as a translator for a construction company that was using Allied POWs from a nearby Stalag as forced labor. Within three weeks of Germany's formal surrender on May 7, 1945, she went to the local office set up by the Allies and emerged with a new ID card and her old identity.

Anna Propokowitsch, having served her purpose, ceased to exist. In her place stood the reborn Anna Schlajn, of Radziwillow.

She was just 21.

***

She saw the major in Germany after the war, she says. He was dying of cancer. She told him she was Jewish. He said he had always suspected. Whether he had or not, they agreed on this: She was more valuable to him alive than dead.

***

Anna's son, David, still lives in the house where he grew up, and, with his mom in Chicago, he is showing me the papers that document her deception. "It's hard to work off memory alone," I say. "Your mom's been really helpful, but she can be vague sometimes."

David hesitates, and then says, "Oh, she knows how to keep a secret."

This doesn't sound like an offhand remark, or a reference to Anna's deceiving the Nazis. "What do you mean?" I ask.

And that's when I learn that Anna, like my mother, was guarding a family secret of her own. But she wasn't hiding a sister. She was hiding a husband.

About 10 years ago, as David was chasing down the family genealogy, Anna asked him if he could find someone she knew from her childhood, a man named Warshawsky. David came up with information that suggested that Warshawsky had survived the war and had settled in the Soviet Union. After 1952, the trail went cold. When David reported back to Anna, she urged him to keep looking.

"I said to her, 'Mom, why are you so interested in this guy?' " David recounts. "And she said, 'Because I was married to him.' " She was 16, maybe 17.

***

A month after my visit to Radziwillow, Anna looks at my photos of the town, but too much is different. As we talk about the dramatic changes that the war brought to her birthplace, it seems like an appropriate moment to ask about the missing piece of her wartime narrative.

"I understand you were married before the Nazis invaded," I say.

"It wasn't much of a marriage," she says.

Warshawsky was 20, and she was 16. They had known each other from Hebrew school, and because he worked in a hardware store where Anna sometimes went to pick up packages for a relative. They spent a lot of time together -- "teenage love," Anna calls it -- but had never discussed marriage. "It was his mother's idea. He got a letter saying he had to go into the Russian army, that he had to leave soon. His mother said, 'You're in love; you should get married. Who knows what's going to happen.' She told me that she was afraid I would meet someone else while he was away, but that if we got married, I would be waiting for him when he got home."

They went to city hall. "It took half an hour. I was so young, so stupid. I didn't know what I was doing." Later that afternoon, he boarded a train to join the Red Army.

After the war, while still in Germany, she tried to learn his fate. She wrote to people back in Radziwillow, and she accumulated bits and pieces of hearsay and information. "I heard he was dead. Then I heard, no, he was wounded, shot in the legs. He had survived, but he had a new wife, a Russian girl. I thought: What's the use of pursuing him? He probably assumes I died along with all the other Jews in Radziwillow. I let it go. I decided to let him live his life, and to move on with mine."

"Why didn't you tell your children? Why keep it secret?"

"It didn't seem important," she says. "All we had was a piece of paper; we had never lived together for one minute."

"Why did you want David to find him after your husband's death?" I ask.

"I don't know," she says. "Curiosity, mostly. I wanted to know what happened to him, whether he was still alive."

She was reflecting on the choices she had made, reinterpreting them for me -- and, perhaps, for herself.

Steve Luxenberg is an associate editor of The Post. His book, "Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret," will be published in early May. He can be reached at luxenbergs@washpost.com.

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