Today: The incredible story of Holocaust Survivor Dr. Felix Zandman.
This story is almost unbelievable yet it is true. Felix, who died at 83 in June, 2011, co-founded Malvern, Penn., global giant, Vishay in 1962, which today has 22,000 employees and generates $2.75 billion in annual sales. He was a great businessman and scientist whose inventions are found in computers, cell phones, televisions, etc. But today’s story is not about business but how he survived the Holocaust, a story of hope against all odds.
Felix was born in 1927 in Grodno, Poland. His father was a Ph.D. chemist and his mother came from a rich Jewish industrialist family, the Freydoviczs, who employed Felix’s father and provided his family with a nice living. But unknown to Felix as a child, an event took place that would later save his life.
A Polish couple, Jan and Janova Puchalski were caretakers of the Freydoviczs’ summer home and rental housing. The Puchalskis were a close knit family with five daughters. But one night in a drunken rage, Jan beat Janova, who at the time was pregnant with their 2nd child and threw her out of the house. Desperate, battered and broke, she had no place to go and begged Felix’s grandmother Tema for help. Tema took Janova in to live with the family. She made arrangements for Janova, a Catholic, to have her baby in the Jewish Hospital and then paid all the bills.
This became crucial years later when in 1939, Germany and Russia agreed to seize and divide up Poland between them. Within weeks, World War ll began and the Nazis swept into Poland including Grodno, where Felix and his family lived and 12-year-old Felix soon saw Jews being beaten and shot to death.
But it got worse. Late in 1941, the Nazis forced all Grodno Jews into ghettos, where families were forced to live practically elbow to elbow and food was scarce and sickness rampant. Many Jews died in these inhumane conditions. Then for Jews came the ultimate nightmare. On February 12th 1943, the Nazis began shipping them for mass execution as part of their “Final Solution.” But 15-year-old Felix was a slave laborer who worked outside the ghetto, which saved his life.
He fled but had no place to go other than to the home of Jan and Janova Puchalski and begged Janova to hide him for a night. Janova knew to hide Felix from the Germans, endangered her entire family, for if the Nazis found out, they would all be lined up in front of the home and shot to death, as an example to anyone else who would hide Jews.
But recalling Felix’s grandmother Tema’s many kindnesses, particularly in her time of desperate need, Janova told Felix, “Stay here with us. I don’t want you going anywhere. God sent you to me as a gift. We’ll take care of you.” She added, “I will not let you perish, Felix. If you perish, we will all perish together.”
Meanwhile, heavily armed German troops and their attack dogs sought any escaped Jews. Soon after Felix joined the Puchalskis, his Uncle Sender fled there together with a Jewish couple and they too begged for help from Janova, who welcomed them in as well. Knowing the Nazis would be looking for them, Sender, an engineer and Felix and the couple that had fled with him dug a dirt pit under the house to hide. So that it wouldn’t be discovered, the pit was just five feet wide by five feet long and four feet deep, about the size of a small grave
For 17 months, all four people squeezed into that grave, living in the dark wet earth with lice and rodents. Each night, Janova would lift the hidden floor board and hand them food and water and empty their poop bucket and occasionally wash their clothes.
In a war ravaged country where food was scarce and rationed, for the Puchalskis to feed their own family and the four Jews, Janova had to shop in several places so as not to draw suspicion from those who’d tell the Germans. And because money was tight, the Jews gave her the gold pieces they had. The Puchalskis rationed their food among themselves and the four people they hid, as everyone grew very thin, including the Puchalski children. And because the Germans and their dogs could suddenly arrive, Janova hid the pit’s scent by scattering black pepper around it.
But in 1944, events grew worse. The Russian military had the Germans in full retreat, when the German orders came to make a last stand against the Russians on a wide front that included the Puchalski home. The fighting was brutal and the Germans forced the Puchalskis to leave.
Now the four Jews were left to fend for themselves, with no food and water and no clean poop bucket. But it got worse. German soldiers moved into the house. In desperation, the four Jews slipped out from under the floor board and climbed through a window, while a German soldier slept in the room. Nearby was a forest, which they hoped to reach and then eat whatever they could find.
But 20 yards from the house, they suddenly heard “Halt,” screamed at them. A German soldier came to them, weapon at his hand, demanding to know who they were and where they came from. As they stood before him, rail thin and in their tattered filthy clothing, they said they were fleeing a nearby village from the Russian invasion. After looking them over, he let them go. With their hearts racing, they made it to the forest. They had come within a heartbeat of being shot to death right on the spot after 17 months of Hell, hiding in that filthy lice infested dirt pit.
But in that 17 months, something fortunate had also happened, which would greatly uplift Felix’s life. To occupy their time in that dark pit, Sender taught Felix physics and math which would later make him enormously successful.
But in 1945, as the war ended, Felix’s spirit was broken. Nearly all of his family had been killed in the Holocaust and in the chaos after the war, even getting enough to eat was difficult. There were few Jews left in Poland and they were not welcome in a Catholic nation battered severely by war and struggling to reconstruct itself and feed its people.
But using the math and physics education he got in the dirt pit, Felix was able to enroll at Ecole Polytechnicum in Poland, being supported by his Uncle Sender who made money operating in the black market for food, guns and other valuable commodities.
And then the situation got even better. Recognizing the desperate plight of Polish Jews, French Jews arranged 60 Visas for Jewish students to attend a supposed Paris conference. Felix and other Jewish students signed those Visas for themselves and their families with Felix taking his Uncle Sender. No-one had any intention of returning to Poland.
Despite not having attended school in the latter years of the war, Felix earned a Ph.D. in physics from the prestigious Sorbonne and became a professor and one of France’s top scientists. Soon he would be headed to America and to greater scientific fame and with the founding of Vishay, he would make a fortune, much of which he would largely donate anonymously to help mankind.
The primary source for today’s story is: “Never The Last Journey,” a 1995 book by Dr. Felix Zandman with David Chanoff that I would strongly recommend to you if you would like to know more about Felix’s incredible story. Thank you to Mary Scavello, Felix’s former assistant, who was so helpful and for her putting me in touch by email with Felix’s widow Ruta.
In the next KazanToday:
A man who achieved his lifelong dream at the age of 96.