David P. Boder Interviews Lena Kuechler; September 8, 1946; Bellevue, France



Sometimes the best way to "pass" was to find refuge in some rural nook and hide behind a mask for the duration of the war. In 1942 Lena Kuechler found that living outside the ghetto in Warsaw with false papers left her open to blackmail and, finally, arrest. How she got to Warsaw is unclear. We know only that the young (born in 1912) woman from Wieliczka, near Kraków, studied at the Jagiellonian University at Kraków and taught school before the war. She and her husband evidently sought to melt into the urban masses of Warsaw during the early phases of the German occupation. They lived apart then, and relations between them must already have been strained. After the war they divorced.

Following an escape from German captors in 1942, Lena found a position as nanny on an aristocratic estate at Orchówek in eastern Poland, not far from Treblinka. Carefully playing the role of a non-Jew, she was able to record the attitudes of her employers; unlike some Polish aristocrats, these were no friends of the Jews. Following liberation by the Russians in 1944, she stayed on and founded a school on the estate, taking particular pleasure in revealing her Jewishness to her former mistress, who was now dependent upon her.

Once Warsaw fell, Lena sought in vain for her sister and then buried her grief in study for an advanced degree in educational psychology. Her life was eased in those months by the high position occupied by her brother in the new Polish government. When she agreed to help rehabilitate child survivors of the Holocaust who were then roaming about in Poland, she expected it to be a summer project. In fact it became the defining moment in her life. The hostility she encountered when she established a Jewish children's home at a hill resort south of Kraków compelled her to lead her charges out toward Zion. This section of the interview is particularly interesting on the subject of Catholic attitudes toward Jewish orphans who had been sheltered in church institutions during the Holocaust. For the priests and the sisters they were souls won for Jesus. For Kuechler they belonged to their people in Palestine. Attempts by church officials to extract payment from Jews for sheltering the orphans during the war must be viewed compassionately in light of the desperate poverty of these institutions at the end of the fighting.

By the time of her interview in Bellevue, a suburb of Paris, in September 1946, Kuechler had brought sixty youngsters between the ages of three and fifteen with her to France where they awaited certificates for emigration to Palestine. In Bellevue she directed a home for displaced Jewish orphans funded by French and American Jewish charities. Two years later Kuechler and her charges would sail for Israel.

From FRESH WOUNDS: EARLY NARRATIVES OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVAL by Donald L. Niewyk. Copyright (c) 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu