The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Betty Rich

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Born
June 10, 1923 Zduńska Wola, Poland

Map of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia

Immigrated
1949 Toronto, Ontario

When the Nazis invaded her small town of Zduńska Wola, Poland, in 1939, sixteen-year-old Basia Kohn (later Betty Rich) escaped into Soviet-occupied Poland. Over the next five years, her journey took her thousands of kilometres from a forced labour camp in the far north of the USSR to the subtropical Soviet Georgian region and back to Poland. After the war, Betty and her husband fled from the Polish Communist regime and eventually immigrated to Toronto. Rich’s poetic memoir, Little Girl Lost, is “a montage of graphic snapshots and moments in motion… both testimony and a meditation on what it meant to her sense of self to endure and survive as a young woman growing into adulthood in exile.”

About Betty

Betty Rich was born Basia Kohn in Zduńska Wola, Poland, on June 10, 1923, the second youngest in a family of seven children. She spent the war years in the Soviet Union and after the war lived in Lodz, Poland, where she married her husband, David Recht. They fled the Polish Communist regime in January 1949 and arrived in Toronto later that year. Betty and David have two children and four grandchildren. David became a real estate developer and after his untimely death in August 1971, Betty took over management of one of his buildings and continued to work in mortgages and investments until her retirement. Betty passed away in 2017.

Photos and Artifacts

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    Betty Rich, then Basia Kohn, with her father, mother and younger brother before World War II. Left to right: Betty’s father, Chaim Moshe; Betty at age twelve; her younger brother, Rafael; and her mother, Cyrla. Zduńska Wola, 1935.

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    Betty’s future husband, David Recht, before the war (left) with his older sister and his younger brother, Isaac. Lodz, 1936.

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    The mother of Betty’s future husband, David, and David's older brother, Jack. Lodz, circa 1936.

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    The father of Betty’s future husband, David (seated), with David's brother Jack. Lodz, circa 1936.

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    Betty’s sister, Fela, and their older brother Jacob. Zduńska Wola, 1937.

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    Betty and her friends in the labour camp in northern USSR. Left to right (in front): Feiga from Wilno; Betty; Bluma; Lola from Warsaw; left to right (behind): Hela; Adela; Ala; and Lola, Hela’s sister, from Kalisz, Poland. Arkhangelsk, USSR, 1940.

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    Betty (left), and friends Hela (centre) and Feiga (right) in the labour camp. Arkhangelsk, USSR, 1941.

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    David Recht, second from the left, in the same labour camp in Arkhangelsk, USSR, 1941.

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    Betty with the group of Polish refugees in Staliniri, South Ossetia, circa 1942. Left to right (in front): Feiga, Henry Sztainhorn, Betty and Srulek Lipman; (behind): Abraham Sztainhorn, Lola from Kalisz, Poland, her sister Hela and Aaron Liebowicz.

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    Betty in Kutaisi, Georgia, circa 1944.

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    Betty looking fashionable after the war. Lodz, 1946.

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    Betty (centre) with her friends Rose Sztainhorn (left) and Yanka. Lodz, 1946.

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    A seaside holiday with friends after the war. Hela is standing second from the left; Joseph Tenenbaum in the centre; Betty third from the right; and Feiga on the far right. 1946.

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    Betty. Lodz, 1946.

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    Betty's fiancé, David. Lodz, 1946.

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    Betty and David on their wedding day. Lodz, March 31, 1947.

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    Betty and David’s wedding dinner party. Left to right (seated in front): Betty’s landlady, Cesia, and her husband; another couple who shared her apartment with Betty's friend Yanka; Betty; David’s landlady, Helen Kruk, and her husband; and Betty’s friend Ruth and her husband; (standing behind) Betty’s housekeeper; Henry Sztainhorn and his wife, Bronka; David; Yanka; Abraham Sztainhorn; and Rose.

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    Betty and David on their honeymoon in Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland. April 1947.

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    Betty in front of the hotel where they stayed during their honeymoon. Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland, April 1947.

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    Betty (left), her husband, David (centre), and Manya (right), who helped them during their escape from Poland. Szczecin, 1949.

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    The exterior of Betty and David’s temporary travel document issued when they finally arrived in the American-occupied zone of Berlin. March 1949.

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    The interior of Betty and David’s temporary travel document issued when they finally arrived in the American-occupied zone of Berlin. March 1949.

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    Betty (left) with her sister, Fela, in Marburg, Germany, 1949.

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    Betty and husband, David, with Betty’s sister and brother-in-law in Germany. Left to right: Betty, David, Fela and Fela’s husband, Jacob. Marburg, Germany, 1949.

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    Betty, standing third from the right, outside the immigration camp in Germany. Bremerhaven, 1949.

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    Betty (far left) with her luggage, preparing to leave the immigration camp. Bremerhaven, Germany, 1949

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    Betty, far left, on the deck of the USAT General Omar Bundy on her way to Canada. September 1949.

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    Betty, seated on the far left, getting her first glimpses of Canada on the train from Halifax to Toronto. October 1949.

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    Betty (far left) and her husband, David (centre), with friends in Niagara Falls. 1950.

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    Betty, her son, Chuck, and her husband, David. Toronto, 1955.

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    Betty’s son, Chuck, at about one year, 1952.

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    Betty’s daughter, Susan, at one year, 1956.

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    Betty's son, Chuck, and daughter, Susan, circa 1958.

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    Betty in Australia in 1986.

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    Betty celebrating her 80th birthday. Toronto, 2003.

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    Chuck, Betty's son; Betty (centre); and Betty's daughter, Susan, at Betty’s 80th birthday party.

The Book

Cover of Little Girl Lost

Little Girl Lost

The more we felt the Germans’ heavy boots in our lives, the more I knew that I had to leave… but I was scared. Where was I going to go? What would I live on?

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Little Girl Lost

Encountering The Truth

I packed a knapsack, as I had on my journey out of Poland, but now I was on my way back. This time, though, my knapsack was larger and nicer. I also took a suitcase small enough to drag along with me since I had some nice clothes that were precious cargo. I was lucky to be travelling with Joseph – in times of hardship, it is nice to have a good companion and he was good to me.

By this time it was late March 1945 and spring was approaching. The trip wasn’t as bad as we had anticipated; maybe it was because I was getting used to all kinds of adventures. This time we at least had enough money to buy food, no matter how expensive it was. This hadn’t been the case when I was travelling south to Georgia from Arkhangelsk. Now, although we slept on railway station benches, we had some blankets with us to make them a little softer, and to our great surprise we were always able to find seats on the trains. We even managed to stop a few times in small towns and find a local public bathhouse to wash up. The only terrible encounters we had were with groups of men who had left labour camps and were also trying to get back to Poland. They were like walking ghosts, human skeletons. Big, staring eyes, tautly drawn skin, faces full of fear. We tried to talk to them and they barely answered; they only mumbled in Polish or Yiddish.

At first, I couldn’t understand why those people hadn’t been taken care of, as my group had been. We asked them where they had been and eventually pieced together the information that they had been sent to extremely hard labour camps, where very few had survived. I had been lucky to be in Arkhangelsk. We also saw some Soviet citizens who had survived labour camps, but we couldn’t understand them very well. They all seemed too dazed and bewildered to communicate; we couldn’t figure out why they had been freed or where they were going. The sight of them remained engraved in my memory for a long time.

After six weeks or so of travelling we reached the city of Lvov…

We came across some Jewish people and started hearing rumours about what had happened to the Jews during the war, but I wasn’t yet prepared to listen to what they were saying. I closed my mind. I tried to postpone the encounter as long as possible. For the rest of the trip, the few days it took to reach Lodz, the two of us were very quiet, each buried under the weight of our inner fears, almost embarrassed to face each other so as not to show the agony we felt. My thoughts were so mixed up, jumping from one member of my family to the next. The years I had spent away had been completely erased. All I could think was, what if? Suddenly, I didn’t want to go home. If only I could use some magic trick and disappear, or become somebody else. I was torturing myself to the point that Joseph later told me that he thought I had lost my mind.

When we finally arrived in Lodz, I was so mentally exhausted that I really was afraid that I was having a breakdown. “I can’t do it now, but I went through so much, how can I give in now? I must stop this; I must go on.” I kept talking to myself and poor Joseph didn’t know what to do with me. Somehow I got a hold of myself – after all, I was a survivor.

Lodz had been liberated some time ago – it had taken the Red Army a few months to march from there to Berlin – so we did encounter some Jewish survivors in the streets, a group of young people who looked so normal compared to those we had seen on the train. We couldn’t figure them out at all. We told them we had come back from the Soviet Union and asked if they would tell us where to go, what to do. They gave us all the necessary directions as to where to go first – to the Jewish Committee, where we could get assistance in various social services. We walked into a room in a building located on a main street of Lodz, which was buzzing with people and had lists posted on the walls. There was a whole army of people to help us, speaking almost every language, but I looked around and felt like a trapped animal. This was it. This was the end of the road. I understood that the fate of my family was posted on the long lists that covered all the walls. The Jewish Committee had made the task of searching easier by listing only the names of survivors.

At this point, we still didn’t know anything. I walked away from Joseph. I didn’t want him to be near me when I learned about my family. I needed to pull together all the inner strength I had and force myself to walk toward the lists, to look under the letter K. I was shaking. I didn’t see anybody around me. I was all alone, alone with my pain. My eyes moved down the list of Ks. I stopped at the end, closed my eyes for a minute and started all over again. Maybe I had missed our name…. The letters became very hazy. My head was spinning. Neither of my parents nor any of my brothers’ names were there – could it be that they didn’t have all the survivors’ names yet? It’s only the beginning, I told myself. They might still show up. Somebody had to have survived. My two parents. My four brothers. In my great shock, I forgot that my sister’s name wasn’t Kohn – her husband’s name was Laziczak. I quickly looked under L. There she was! She was alive! I was overjoyed to see that she had survived, but what about the rest? Was she the only survivor? I looked at Joseph, pale and shaken. He leaned against the wall and announced in a faint voice, “No one from my people is on the wall.”