MANYA BARMAN AUSTER FELDMAN
(1923/Dombrovitsa, Poland − 2015/West Bloomfield, Michigan)
Elegantly attired, with her thick, impeccably styled strawberry-blonde hair providing a chic frame for her youthful face, Manya Feldman sat gracefully on the shaded veranda of the Fleischman Retirement Home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. From her appearance, the last thing anyone would have imagined or believed is that 74 years ago, this lovely woman was a tough teenage partisan, fighting Germans in the dense Polish forests.
Ever alert, she quickly spotted my car entering the parking lot. I caught her eye and waved, and realized, even before I met her, that she still exhibited many of the qualities that had served her so well during her time as a young Polish-Jewish partisan during World War II. Seemingly calm and cool despite the 95 degrees and 95% humidity of a Michigan July, she was ready to talk with a total stranger about deeply personal, and searingly painful experiences.
Greeting me with a warm hug, she was immediately concerned about my needs: Did I have any trouble finding her residence? Was I thirsty? Too hot? Too cold in the air-conditioning? At 89-years of age, she was the perfect hostess − treating me as if I were the important person instead of it being the other way around. She was charming. She was competent. She was confident. And she was in charge. And if we had been surrounded by Germans in a frigid Polish forest, in the middle of the night, she definitely was the one I’d want to follow.
In fact, I was already following her. Briskly pushing her walker and its small attached oxygen tank, she led me through the bustling lobby en route to a private meeting room. With her eyes constantly scanning our surroundings, she never missed a detail, stopping every few feet to make an introduction or to indicate a point of interest − a lovely piece of art, a lively bird habitat, a notice for an upcoming art exhibit.
Finally seated, and assured that I was comfortable, and just as if we were having a routine conversation, she began her story. Within a few sentences, the clean, well-equipped, modern building in which we comfortably sat − as well as almost three-quarters of a century − evaporated. In its place was a dark, cold room in a primitive, and brutally overcrowded ghetto. And I was listening to the voice of a terrified and confused Jewish teenager whose life was about to change forever.
“I only survived because of my youth and plain good luck”
The next three years would take Manya through horrors that still defy the imagination, as she learned to live, to fight, and to survive along with the Soviet partisans in the dense and swampy forests of Poland. And as her story continued, I began to hear the strong voice of a heroic young woman who made heart-rending decisions on a moment’s notice, faced death on a daily basis, and overcame overwhelming dangers − eventually surviving events that for far too many others, had been unsurvivable.
Excerpted from Joanne Gilbert’s Award-Winning book,
WOMEN OF VALOR: Polish Resisters to the Third Reich.