When commercials occasionally appear on television, urging viewers to sponsor a needy child, I am immediately reminded of my mother-in-law, Frieda Shikman, who is now 88 years old. Because of her compassionate and dogged spirit, in 1948 she rescued an orphan named Dina from the ashes of war-torn Europe, bringing her to the United States.
Actually, it was my husband, Sol, who was the first person in his family to meet Dina. Still today, when Dina introduces him to her friends, she will often say, “I’d like you to meet my brother—the Prince Charming who changed my life.”
As an 18-year-old officer of the Merchant Marines in 1946, Sol’s ship was commissioned by UNWRA (United Nations Work Relief Association) to bring horses to Poland. This cargo was necessary, as thousands of farm animals had been slaughtered during World War II. After disembarking from his ship at the port of Danzig, Sol went with some of his shipmates to the Grand Hotel in Sobot, a nearby suburb. In the dining room, he noticed a group of young boys and girls.
“Who are these children?” he asked the waiter.
“Juden [Jews],” replied the waiter in a sneering manner, making an ugly gesture and pointing his finger to his nose. Instantly Sol recalled the malignant anti-Semitism he had experienced growing up in a non-Jewish neighborhood in New York. Words such as “Jew bastard” and “dirty Jew” reverberated in his head. Anger surged in him and he felt like lashing out at the waiter. Instead, he walked to the other side of the room to meet the children.
It was then that Sol met Dina. She was very noticeable as she was exceptionally pretty with small chiseled features and long blond silky hair. She also looked older than the other children in the group. Sol estimated her age at 12 or 13—most of the other children, he thought, looked 8 or 9. Some of the children had numbers tattooed on their forearms. As soon as Dina saw Sol walking towards her group, she left her seat and went over to greet him.
She was very curious about the United States. She spoke mainly in Yiddish, but occasionally used an English word.
“Where did you learn to speak English?” Sol asked.
“I was liberated by the British,” she replied.
At first, Sol was perplexed by her answer, as the British army was never in Poland. “You mean the Russians,” he said. “No,” she answered, “I was in Germany during the war in the town of Schleswig. I worked at a munitions factory which made torpedoes.”
Sol noticed that Dina became upset as she spoke of her wartime experiences, so he did not pursue the matter further.
Soon Lena, the leader of the group, approached their table and said that the children had to leave. [Several years ago a TV movie, entitled “Lena’s 100 Children,” was made about this exceptional woman and this particular group of Polish-Jewish orphans.] Before the children departed, however, Sol wrote his address on two slips of paper and gave one to Dina and the other to a girl who seemed to be Dina’s close friend.
“Write to my mother,” Sol said. “She will send you packages from America.”
That night, Sol couldn’t sleep. He kept seeing the faces of the children, especially those who had numbers on their arms. He realized that if his grandparents hadn’t emigrated from Poland to the United States, he and his sister Renee might have been among those children. If they were lucky—for these orphans were alive, while over a million and a half other Jewish children had been murdered by Nazis.
Sol was annoyed with himself for not giving his address to one of the leaders. “What if Dina or the other girl lost the address?” he worried. If that occurred, since he did not know the location of the orphanage, he would lose complete contact with Dina and her friend.
The following day he went back to the hotel, hoping to meet someone who might know where the orphanage was. Fortunately, the maitre-d’ was able to help.
It turned out that the orphanage was just a few blocks from the hotel. To Sol’s surprise, he observed several crucifixes on the wall—so this was a Catholic, not a Jewish, institution. He gave his address to one of the leaders, chatted some with Dina, and again urged her and her friend to write to his mother.
Shortly thereafter, Sol’s mother Frieda received a letter from Dina. She wrote about meeting Sol and the kindness he had shown towards her and her friend. The following day, Frieda bought a blouse and a sweater and sent them to Dina. She also sent 200 lollipops to distribute to the children. When the package arrived, Dina was thrilled.
When she tried on the new blouse and sweater, she was ecstatic—as all of the clothes that she wore were second hand, donated to the orphanage by different charities.
The next letter that Frieda received from Dina was from France. Because of the dangerous anti-Semitism prevalent in Poland, even after the war, the Jewish children were forced to leave the orphanage. They first traveled to Czechoslovakia, and eventually to France.
Saved, damned, saved
A continuous correspondence ensued between Dina and Frieda over the next two and a half years. (Dina’s friend never wrote to Frieda, and it is not known what happened to her.) In one letter, Dina described her miraculous survival during the war. When the Germans occupied Poland and came to the city of Wroclaw (where Dina lived), they went into various neighborhoods searching for Jews. When they got to Dina’s home, she was in a nearby park with her housekeeper, Jadzea.
As they left the park and approached the street where Dina lived, they saw Dina’s parents and several Jewish neighbors, their arms raised, being led away by German soldiers. Naturally, Dina wanted to run to be with her mother, but Jadzea held her hand firmly, and together they walked toward another street. This was the last time Dina saw her parents. She was seven.
Thereafter, Dina lived with Jadzea and her family. On one occasion, Jadzea gave Dina a crucifix on a necklace and said to her, “Wear this cross and never tell anyone that you are Jewish, as it may be dangerous for you.” I cannot begin to imagine the fear felt by this young girl.
Within a few months, the Germans went to thousands of apartments and ordered each family to surrender one child for the purpose of working in a factory in Germany. When the Nazis came to the home of Jadzea, she pointed to Dina, rather than to one of her own.
Dina was deported to Germany, to the town of Schleswig. In a nearby suburb called Eckenpoerde, she worked as a slave laborer in a torpedo factory. During an aerial bombardment of Germany when thousands of people were killed, Dina and a friend of hers stepped on a mine. The friend was killed, and Dina seriously wounded in the leg. She was taken to a hospital where she was informed by a nurse that her leg would be amputated. Fortunately, within days, another miracle: British soldiers occupied the city, and English doctors treated and saved Dina’s leg. (It has, however, been a significant handicap to Dina throughout her life.)
Since Frieda and her husband Ben were so moved by Dina’s story, they decided to bring her to the United States and adopt her as their daughter. Their friends and relatives advised against this—as Frieda and Ben had extremely limited financial means. They lived in a small railroad flat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Ben ran a small second- hand furniture store on First Avenue.
When a neighbor said to Frieda, “You already have two grown children; besides, you don’t have room in your tiny apartment for another person,” Frieda answered, “I may not have room in the apartment, but I have room in the heart.”
In order to bring Dina to this country, Frieda mulishly persevered through more than two years of red tape and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Finally, with the assistance of HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), she prevailed.
A final miracle
At the end of May, 1948, Dina, already 15 years old, sailed from Caen, France, to the United States. The voyage took 11 days, and, during that time, Dina became severely depressed. She began seriously to doubt that Frieda and Ben intended to love her, and she started to believe that she was heading towards a life as an indentured servant— or worse. One day, feeling alone in the world and without hope, Dina climbed to the highest deck on the ship, intending to jump.
At that moment, the loudspeaker paged her to come to the Radio Room. She had received a cable from Frieda. Dina climbed down from her suicide perch, received the brief cable, but—not knowing English—understood none of the four words except the last. Apparently, that one word was enough. “Welcome home,” it said. “Love, Mother.”
Jean Shikman, 62, once an antiques dealer, is a writer who switched vocations when she became wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis. Her special area of expertise is disability and physical access.