Abandoned in 'no man's land'

Holocaust survivor shares story of endurance with students at youth detention facilities

  EVART – Irene Miller lives her life according to the Jewish principle “repair the world.” As a Holocaust survivor, Miller knows just how broken the world can become. “Each of us has a responsibility, in whatever small way we can, starting with ourselves, to contribute to make the world a little better for everyone,” said the West Bloomfield resident. “How do I do it? First of all, I do it in the way I conduct my personal life, how I relate to people. I reserve the same respect and consideration for every human being. Of course, I don’t approve of destructive and wrong behavior. I am against the behavior, but not the person.” Miller shared her story with students at Muskegon River Youth Home, Eagle Village and Pineview Homes – all adjudicated youth facilities in Hersey and Evart – on Friday. Though decades apart in age, from different sides of the world and with vastly different life experiences, Miller immediately connected with the students, who are court-ordered to the facilities due to behavioral or family issues. “I know that you understand pain,” Miller said to begin her presentation. “I am sure that in each of your lives, there has been a lot of pain. You are not the only ones. Pain exists in many places in the world. I am here to tell you of mine, and though it is not the same, I understand what it is to suffer.” From her painful history, Miller brought a message of optimism and encouragement. For the two hours she spoke, the teens’ attention never wandered as they hung on her every word. “I hope that listening to my story, you will see also that every person has the potential within themselves to create eventually a life of which they will feel good and proud,” she said. “If I can do it, each of you has the power, within yourselves, to do it as well.” MRYH teacher Kathleen Carson arranged Miller’s visit after meeting her at the Holocaust Memorial Center in West Bloomfield and then reading her book, “Into No Man’s Land.” Inspired by Miller’s experience, Carson shared her story with the other teachers at the adjudicated youth facilities. They decided to do a year-long focus on tolerance, an especially valuable concept for the students there, and invite Miller to come speak. About 20 students gathered in one room with Miller and the rest watched from the other facilities via video conferencing. “We have so many different groups of kids from so many backgrounds,” Carson said. “They don’t always understand their fellow students. ... We try to focus on the fact that there is so much they can learn from each other. To live in a world where we all can get along together, they have to learn to be tolerant.” Students from all three facilities collaborated to come up with a universal tolerance statement, which they had engraved on a pen set as a gift to Miller. They also created a plaque with the statement that will be placed on a bench built by the students to remind them of Miller’s visit. On a weekly basis, Miller speaks with children who visit the Holocaust Memorial Center. Her message for the students at MRYH had a slightly different focus. “I wanted to use my background to encourage them to bring out the best in them, the potential,” Miller said. “I don’t want you to leave with the thought, ‘Here is a poor woman who had such a tough life,’ because I don’t think of myself this way. I am the fortunate one, fortunate because I am among the 10 percent (of Jews) that survived. Even more importantly, I could create for myself a life that is meaningful. Education has always been very important. I still feel now that if you want to create for yourself a life that you can feel good about, education is the core.” While raising three children, Miller earned her undergraduate degree in psychology, a master’s in social psychology and a master’s in business administration. Now retired, Miller was the director of treatment centers for drug-addicted women and children as part of the Detroit Medical Center. She served for one year as a consultant in Washington, D.C., on issues related to drug addiction in women and children. She also is a docent at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a mediator in court and on the board of directors for civil rights organization American Jewish Committee. She donates a portion of the proceeds from her book sales to charities that fight hunger. The strength and optimism that became evident as Miller concisely told her life story far exceeded what one would expect from thin woman barely breaking 5-feet tall. She faltered only once in her presentation, pausing to swallow back tears as she talked about how the pain of losing her family had grown with time rather than decreased. “If I were to say something that I miss more than anything in my life, it is to have family – to have that extended family that provides a core,” Miller said. Students had the chance to ask her questions after the presentation. Some of them likely had asked themselves a variation of the same questions – How can you be so strong? What were your emotions when you were separated from your parents? How do you tolerate seeing someone die? “I am considered a strong survivor,” Miller said with a smile, pausing before she posed a question to the students. “What does it mean to you to hear about struggles beyond your own?” One girl replied that she felt more thankful for her life. “I feel like ‘wow, actually my life is not that horrible,’” she said. “There are many people out there who have a hard life and they think it’s not that bad.”  
Into “no man’s land”
Miller was born in Warsaw, Poland, the same year Adolf Hitler took control of Germany. She lived there with her parents and older sister until age 6, when the Germans attacked Poland. For four weeks, Warsaw was under siege, and the bombings forced her family to move out of their upstairs apartment to a safer location in the home of friends. “Even there it wasn’t safe. One night a bomb fell into the apartment, exploded in place and blocked the door,” Miller said. “The only way out was through the window. My father knocked out the window and said we had to jump to follow him. When my turn came, I was standing on the windowsill and looked down. It seemed so far down; I was scared. I just froze in fear and couldn’t move, so my mother pushed me out the window.” With shards of glass in her arms and legs from the fall, Miller and her family escaped to a bomb shelter. They lived in bomb shelters off and on during the siege until Nazis invaded. “I was standing by the window in our apartment on the fifth floor and was watching the soldiers marching eight- and 10-abreast,” Miller recalled her first memory of the Nazis. “I was too far high to see their faces, but I could see their shining boots. There are two sounds to which I still react emotionally; one is low-flying planes, and the other one is any tapping or pounding rhythmically on a hard surface. I assume it is connected to that time in my life.” As Jews and political activists, Miller’s parents realized they would be targets for persecution, so they sold their apartment in 1939 and hired a guide to smuggle their family out of Poland into the Soviet Union. “It was in the middle of the night, we were sitting in a wagon with hay all over us ... and over that was a blanket covering the hay. Should a Nazi see us in the middle of the night, he would not be aware there were people in it,” Miller said of their last night of the journey out of Poland. “At some point, (the guide) stopped in a secluded area surrounded by trees. He said we had crossed the border. ... When we got up in the morning, we saw a field with people laying on the snow in their clothing, huddled up. “The man did not take us across the border. He left us in ‘no man’s land.’” “No man’s land,” which is the title of Miller’s book about her life, was the area between the border of the Soviet Union and the border of Poland. Miller and her family survived outside in the cold for six weeks. Her feet became frost bitten, and she was unable to wear shoes. Their food came from peasant women who entered the area at night to sell overpriced goods, and their source for water was melted snow. “I woke up one night and there was a man next to me under the covers. I tried to push him out, but apparently I fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning, the man was dead. People were dying from diseases, from starvation, from exposure,” Miller said. “Another incident was when I was standing by my mom trying to warm myself by the fire. A young woman approached holding a bundle in her arms, she had a baby wrapped up in a blanket. As she got close, a man looked into her eyes and said, ‘Lady, your baby doesn’t need warming anymore.’ The baby was dead.” The man took the woman’s baby and walked toward the Russian soldiers. He laid the baby in front of one of the guards, and the people started pleading to be let across the border before more died. “That guard didn’t blink an eye, just kicked that baby right back into the crowd,” Miller said.   Across the border Her parents saw they wouldn’t survive there much longer, so one night her father smuggled himself across the border and went to stay with a cousin in the Soviet Union. The cousin helped write a letter and bribe a Soviet official to allow the rest of the family across the border. Lost in translation, the letter didn’t include any mention of Miller’s mother, so she was not allowed across the border. The two girls crossed to safety with their father, who planned to go back for their mother. They lived in a small cabin in a village with other groups of Jews from Poland. Travel in the Soviet Union was forbidden and her father had no money, so he rode on the rooftops of trains to return to no man’s land and search for Miller’s mother. He was caught and jailed a few times, while Miller and her sister were left to fend for themselves. By the time her father returned to no man’s land, the Nazis had cleared the area and sent everyone on trains back to Germany. “When my dad came back telling us that my mom was no longer in no man’s land, it was an awful feeling for a 6-year-old girl to think she would never again see her mother,” Miller said. “Weeks went by. ... Totally, unexpectedly, one day my mother walked in. I couldn’t believe it.” Eventually, Miller found out her mother had been placed on a cargo train by the Germans. The trains would stop in fields for days at a time and let people out once in awhile. One day, her mother escaped and made her way back to Warsaw, where her sister helped pay her way to be smuggled across the border and reconnect with her family.   Labor camp and beyond Soldiers began raiding the immigrant communities. One day there was a rumor that Miller’s village would be next, so her mother took the train to town to warn her father not to come back that night. But her mother missed the return train, leaving Miller and her sister alone. “That night when both of our parents were gone, Soviet soldiers kicked in the door of the cabin. They said we had a few minutes time to scoop up our belongings and stand in front of the door,” Miller said. “They marched us to the train stations. There was a long line of cable cars, and they were shoving as many people as they could in those cable cars. My sister and I screamed and cried that we were not going to go without our parents.” With just a few people left to be loaded into the train, Miller’s parents showed up at the station. The soldiers sent the family in a car together. The cars were crowded and dark when the doors closed, and they rode in that car for six to eight weeks. Soldiers came once a day to bring a cup of soup and maybe some bread for everyone. Twice a day everyone was allowed off the train to relieve themselves. They ended up in a Siberian labor camp, where temperatures hit 55 degrees below zero at night. They lived in wooden cabins without proper clothing for the conditions. Families were given coupons for their rations of food, and it was Miller’s responsibility to pick up the bread. For her birthday that year, Miller told her mother she wanted a piece of bread as large as she could eat. People in the labor camp were given the option to stay or go to Uzbekistan. Her parents opted to leave the Siberian camp, but their circumstances were not much better in Uzbekistan. “I assume my parents felt life would be easier in a warm climate and that food would be more plentiful,” Miller said. “But while we were hungry in Siberia, we were starving in Uzbekistan where we ended up.” They lived in a poor farming village, surviving on grass, leaves and excess onions from a farmer. Then malaria hit the family. Eventually Miller and her sister were taken to an orphanage for Jewish children, where their parents thought they would find better living conditions. The one-room orphanage was crowded, with children sleeping on floorboards that had been pulled up and stacked on piles of bricks. The children had to shave their heads to reduce the risk of lice, although the lice spread anyway. Miller’s father died a few months after she had entered the orphanage. Her mother was away trying to find him medicine when he died, and he was buried in a communal grave by the time she returned. “I never thought of myself ‘poor me.’ I never thought ‘why is it that I am hungry while others have food?’ Those around me were hungry too. I don’t know if that helped, but somehow I never felt bad for myself,” Miller said. “I had all kinds of dreams of what life would be. I always was hungry for education. ... I didn’t complain, but when I did I wrote poetry. In my poetry, I would express my longing for a normal life. My longing for living with parents in your own home and not to be hungry. I never cried, I never complained, but it was all there in writing.” Miller left the orphanage in 1946, after World War II had ended. She moved to another orphanage in Krakow, Poland, spending about eight years total in orphanages.   After the war Most of the Jews in Poland had been killed by the time Miller moved back there. Schools opened specifically for Jewish children to protect them from the anti-Semitism that prevailed in the area. One day Miller’s school took students to an extermination camp where the Nazis had killed so many Jews. “They had piles of shoes – men’s shoes, women’s shoes, little kids’ shoes. Shoes that were left by people who were taken into gas chambers to be killed,” Miler said. “There were piles of reading glasses, combs, a whole bucket of long hair. They would cut the women’s hair and make wigs of them. There were lamps made from human skin. Soap made from human flesh. It took me a very, very long time before I could shower and hold a bar of soap and not think of my cousins.” Miller’s mother and sister had survived the war, but it was difficult for her mother to stay in Poland, living “by her family’s graveside.” In 1950 at the age of 17, Miller followed her mother and sister to Israel. “Israel was a different chapter of my life, different challenges. I had to support myself and be responsible for myself in a place where I didn’t know anyone or the language. But I did OK,” Miller said. She married at 18 and moved to Detroit with her husband at age 21. Miller has returned to Poland twice – the first time was 15 years ago as part of a trip with a medical group for work, and the second time was seven years ago to stay with a woman who was in the orphanage with her. The trip brought back good and bad memories – reconnecting with old friends, but also seeing that her childhood home had been demolished. After saying she would never travel to Germany, Miller did decide to take a trip there three years ago. It was a good experience, she said, to see that today’s Germany is not the Germany she knew. “Every person is responsible for what they do. There is a price to be paid for everything we do. If someone took the role of taking lives, of destroying people, of doing the most brutal things, there is a price they must pay,” Miller said. “But I absolutely do not blame this generation of Germans for what happened.” Instead, Miller focuses on encouraging tolerance in the future, while learning from the horrific parts of history. “The main purpose (of my book) is so the world can know what horrible things can happened, for the world can be on guard to prevent it from happening,” she said. “There are many moral lessons we can learn from the Holocaust. One is that prejudice is a horrible condition. If we don’t look at every woman, every man and judge them for who they are as a person, but have a certain notion that they belong to a group that we like or don’t like – that kind of attitude, that I call a disease, can be spread. ... Every human being has the same value. What’s their religion is their personal matter. Where they came from is not significant. Who they are now is important. That’s what I try to accomplish.”
Statement of tolerance With input from students at Muskegon River Youth Home, this statement of tolerance was developed: “Tolerance is the act of accepting and acknowledging people’s differences. For humanity to be successful, we must embrace diversity and demonstrate patience for all religious, political and social beliefs so that we can live in harmony.” This statement was created to commemorate the visit of Holocaust survivor Irene Miller and to thank her for the lessons she taught the students.