“I ALWAYS KNEW I had a story to tell,” said Hava Ben-Zvi, reclining on the couch in the living room of her home in San Marino on a recent Thursday afternoon. A Holocaust survivor and author of four books, Ben-Zvi has told many stories in her nearly 90 years of life, but none is more fascinating than her own. Ben-Zvi’s story, and that of her late husband Ephraim, form the heart and soul of a new book titled “We Who Live: Two Teenagers in World War II Poland,” a gripping account of survival, loss and ultimate redemption.
Hava Ben-Zvi was born Eva Bromberg in Warsaw, Poland in 1929. Her family were, as she calls them, assimilated Jews – Polish in both mind and choice of language. “There were a lot of Polish Jews that were very assimilated into the culture, especially in a big city like Warsaw,” Ben-Zvi explained. “We spoke Polish at home, my parents spoke a good Polish. They spoke Yiddish when they wanted us not to understand.”
Ben-Zvi’s parents split up when she was young and gave the children a choice of which parent they wanted to stay with. Ben-Zvi chose her father, and her older brother Michael chose their mother, Dinah. Other than the divorce, young Hava’s life was much like any other Polish child’s. She still saw her mother and brother regularly. She enjoyed her days exploring the neighborhood with her family’s Catholic maid.
In 1937, things changed. Ben-Zvi’s mother, an ardent Zionist, decided to emigrate to Palestine with son, Ben-Zvi’s brother. She still remembers the day they went to the train station to bid them goodbye. “I remember my father had tears in his eyes. I didn’t know that a father could cry. He had a premonition that he’d never see Michael again.”
As Dinah and Michael set off for Palestine, things began to darken in Poland. A menacing voice on the radio from nearby Germany struck fear into Ben-Zvi. The voice belonged to Adolph Hitler, and he would soon change her life.
The Germans attacked Poland in 1939, seizing Warsaw. Ben-Zvi’s father fled with her in the middle of the night, and they made a daring escape to Eastern Poland, which had been invaded by the Soviets. While the Soviets weren’t exactly inviting, they were a far better alternative to the Nazis who had taken over Warsaw’s streets.
Even though she was just a 10-year-old child at the time, Ben-Zvi knew what the invasion meant. “I knew that if we are caught… we may be killed,” said Ben-Zvi. “If you saw a German soldier, you knew that this could be the death of you.”
From then on, Ben-Zvi was constantly on the run. The false safety of life in Eastern Poland, which Ben-Zvi quickly settled into, was shattered by the Nazi betrayal of the Soviets in June of 1941. German troops roared into East Poland, and Ben-Zvi’s father was rounded up and taken away, leaving her alone.
“In my heart, I knew that my father wasn’t alive, but I knew that I had to believe that he’d made an escape because it would help me live,” said Ben-Zvi. She never saw her father again, and to this day doesn’t know where or how he died. “Human life was cheap. A German soldier can shoot you very easy.”
In Ben-Zvi’s book, readers will learn how she survived as an orphan, constantly on the move and hiding her Jewish identity. Her blonde hair and blue eyes were like a shield or a cloak of invisibility, helping her to blend in. But she could never rest, never stay in one place for too long lest she be exposed.
At the end of the war, Ben-Zvi traveled to Palestine, where she reunited with her mother and brother. “In ten minutes, it was as if we never parted,” said Ben-Zvi of the experience. She also met her future husband, Ephraim, another Polish Jew, who’d joined the British army to fight against the Nazis. They would marry, have kids and move to California, where Ben-Zvi has lived for over half a century.
Ben-Zvi served for nearly 30 years as the director of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles. She has always had a love for books, dating back to the war, when she read to escape the brutal reality of her surroundings. When she retired from the library, she knew she needed something else in her life, so she decided to write.
Ben-Zvi felt that she had an obligation to tell her own story for future generations. “We don’t know what’s going to survive, we don’t know what’s going to get lost – so write it down,” said Ben-Zvi.
“We Who Live” is Ben-Zvi’s fourth book, and her last, according to her. While her mind is still sharp, her stamina isn’t what it used to be. “I have the enthusiasm, but I don’t have the strength.” She hopes that her story, and the story of her husband will inspire people to think more deeply about the Holocaust, and to see that there is no cookie-cutter survivor story.
She knows that she’s among the last of her generation able to tell her tale, and she fears a day when people won’t know the truth of what she went through. “We are still alive… There are still eyewitnesses living, and some are telling us that it didn’t happen, that it was an exaggeration,” said Ben-Zvi. “Let them find out what it was to be ‘lucky.’ I was never in German hands.”
Hava hopes that those who read her book will learn that the 6 million killed during the Holocaust were real people, with real stories. “Each one of them died individually and alone,” said Ben-Zvi, of the victims of the Shoah. “The fact that there were 6 million dead doesn’t mean a thing to you. You are dying alone. This is something that you do alone. Each one of them was a person like me.”
Jonathan Maseng is a contributing writer for Jlife magazine. His work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine, LA Weekly, The Press Enterprise, and The Jewish Journal. He also writes regularly about the New York Mets for SB Nation’s Amazin’ Avenue.