Christian Nanny hid Jewish Family from Nazis

Aug 27, 2003 11:59 AM EDT

Pola Arbiser spent three years hiding in silence under her nanny's bed, afraid the Nazis would find her if she made the slightest noise.

"We had no toys or newspapers," said the 69-year-old Decatur resident, who was 8 years old when she went into hiding in Drohobycz, Poland, during the Holocaust. "We were scared all the time that we would be killed any minute."

But Arbiser survived -- along with her mother and sister, who hid there with her -- and she has made a mission out of telling as many people as possible about Franciszka Sobkowa, the nanny who saved them.

"Frania came and asked my mother to give her the children only," Arbiser recalls in her book "Give Me the Children: How a Christian Woman Saved a Jewish Family During the Holocaust," which hit shelves in local bookstores earlier this year. "This was a very dangerous thing to do because if the Germans had caught her in the ghetto, they would have shot her and us on the spot."

Arbiser, one of 30 Holocaust survivors who speaks regularly to student groups and other visitors at Atlanta's William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, said the book is primarily a gift of history for her family.

But it is also a tribute to the "righteous gentile" they called Frania, who risked everything to protect them.

"I want people to know what one person can do for another without any material rewards," Arbiser said. "She risked her life for us."

As Arbiser tells Frania's tale, she tells her own as well.

She includes excerpts from poems she wrote while in hiding, describing the world as "covered with heavy clouds" and "a train of serious torments."

On one occasion, Arbiser writes, Frania invited a visitor to the house to deliberately dispel suspicions. Arbiser hid in a trunk with her sister, while her mother hid in a wardrobe.

"We were all worried that we would sneeze or make a noise, but the visit went off fine and the woman left unaware that there were three other people in the apartment with Frania," she writes.

With no toys or newspapers, they sat silently in the house all day while Frania worked as a cook for a Gestapo officer.

Her father, a heavy smoker, could not go into hiding with them because of his cough. When the war ended, they assumed he had died in a concentration camp like so many family members.

Arbiser, her sister, her mother and Frania left Drohobycz on a freight train, prepared to start a new life. A knock on the train door revealed an unexpected surprise: her father. After leaving Flossenburg, Germany, where he had been in a concentration camp, he ran into a man from Drohobycz who gave him the number of their recently departed train.

"We had thought that he was dead, but here he stood with a smile on his face," Arbiser recalls in her book.

Reunited, the family continued west to Legnica, Poland, where they got an apartment for themselves and another one in the same building for Frania.

When the family decided to immigrate to Israel, Frania chose to stay in Poland. The family left her their apartment and furnishings.

"It was very hard to say goodbye to Frania. . . . Our lives had been so entangled together," Arbiser wrote. "We all cried as we said goodbye."

They soon immigrated to Israel, where Arbiser studied microbiology and biochemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and met her husband, Sam.

"I consider it the best part of my life, being in Israel and being again a human being," she said.

A job offer for her husband from a company in Chicago brought their decade in Israel to a close, and they arrived in New York on the S.S. United States in December 1960. From there, Arbiser moved with some of her husband's relatives to Atlanta. Impressed by the Southern hospitality, she decided to stay, and persuaded her husband to join her.

'This is all because of Frania'

Now, Arbiser points proudly at the pictures of her two children and seven grandchildren. The photos line the walls of the Decatur home where she has lived for more than 40 years.

"This is all because of Frania," she said.

Arbiser stayed in touch with Frania, who once came to Atlanta for a six-week visit with her and her family. Now, Arbiser regularly tells Frania's story to groups of students and other visitors to the Breman.

"Her story is very compelling, and she really reaches the children, because she was about their age when she went into hiding," Judi Ayal, director of visitor services at the museum, said of Arbiser. "The students are well aware that they are the last generation that will be hearing survivors tell their stories firsthand, and they are appreciative."

Arbiser is aware of that as well.

"We are witnesses to what happened," Arbiser said. "I am just one of the stories."

Arbiser said she hopes hers will be a happy story among the many sad ones, citing the recent suicide bombings in Jerusalem as an example.

The violence in the place where she first found freedom troubles her.

"I am very disturbed because I have friends still living there. But I don't believe there ever can be peace in Israel," she said, "even though everyone would benefit from it."

Individuals hoping to promote peace and make a difference there, she said, have to contend with leaders more concerned with defending their power.

Readers respond positively

But her tale of one woman's courage has made it to the Holocaust Museum in Washington and even across the Atlantic to a bookstore in Sweden.

Readers have responded positively, at times phoning Arbiser or writing her letters. At a May book signing at the Chapter 11 bookstore near Emory University, one woman purchased 20 copies to give to her friends.

The Breman's Arbiser Theater is dedicated to Frania. A medal from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Remembrance Authority in Israel, honoring her as a "Righteous Gentile" is displayed on the wall outside the theater.

The medal bears a simple inscription, written in French: "Whoever saves a life saves the entire universe."

Though Frania died shortly after her only visit to Atlanta 25 years ago, "because of the book, she will live forever," Arbiser said. Arbiser's family still helps to financially support Sobkowa's niece, who lives in Poland.

"We are two families, so far apart, but so close," Arbiser said.