Mina Rawa was born in Dolina, Poland (now Dolyna, Ukraine), in either 1938 or 1939. When the war started in 1939, Mina was an infant, and she and her family lived in relative safety during the Soviet occupation of their town, warned of any danger by their neighbours, many of whom were close friends and customers at her father’s grocery store.
In the summer of 1941, Dolina was occupied by Hungary and then Germany. By the summer of 1942, the danger for Jews was imminent, and Mina and her parents avoided certain death when they were hidden by a neighbour and then for two years by a farmer who had been one of her father’s customers. They were liberated by the Soviet army in the summer of 1944 and returned to Dolina, which was under Soviet occupation; after her father was badly hurt in an attack, they left for Ziębice, Poland. In 1950, Mina and her parents immigrated to Israel, where Mina continued her education. She worked for El Al airline and married her husband, Wladyslaw Rawa (né David Rosenbaum), in 1962. Mina and her husband, David, came to Canada in 1964 and settled in Toronto, where they raised a family. Mina Rawa passed away in 2017.
My parents owned a house on the outskirts of Dolina, from which they ran a grocery store. My father’s parents had left the house and store to my father and his brother when they made aliyah to Palestine in 1936. My father ran the grocery store, and the local people loved him. He had a very good relationship with his customers and would extend credit to them, allowing them to pay when they could.
Although most people in Dolina weren’t Jewish, my parents were well settled and very well loved in the town. It didn’t seem to make any difference to his customers that he was Jewish, and he never experienced bad feelings about being Jewish. In fact, when trouble started, some of his customers, who were farmers in the area, came to warn him about the situation and offered to help in any way they could. It is possible that my parents were well tolerated because they did not blatantly show their Jewish religiosity. They did not wear garments that showed their identity and they practised Jewish rituals privately.
In 1941, the situation started becoming difficult for Jews in Dolina. Two or three of my father’s farmer clients told him that if they heard the Germans approaching they would hide him, my mother and me. In the summer of 1942, my mother heard shots early one morning. She put her housecoat on over her nightshirt, grabbed me and ran to the closest neighbour, who had offered to help. The neighbour hid us inside the house. My father came later that evening, and we stayed there for a few days. Notices were posted on the trees in the area, saying that anyone harbouring Jews would be shot along with the Jews they were protecting. Our neighbour said we would have to find another location. Her home was not secure enough, and she was not willing to take the risk.
Friends of my father found us a different place with another farmer not too far away. The farmer was named Lewicka, and he and his wife had a little girl about the same age as I was. They lived in the house, and we lived in their large wooden barn, which had several levels. I remember a tall ladder and lots of haystacks.
During the first few weeks of hiding, my father would go back to our house in Dolina in the dead of night to remove as many of our belongings as he could. He brought our clothes and as many supplies as he could carry from the store. We were able to wear our warm clothes to keep from freezing. We were so lucky to have gotten our things out of our house before the Germans razed it to the ground. My father even saved some of my mother’s jewellery, which had come from his side of the family.
Mrs. Lewicka stored whatever she could. Among the supplies were luxuries such as sugar, soap and coffee, as well as food, for which she was very grateful. These goods were also an incentive to keep hiding us. But the way the Lewickas looked after us and risked their lives doing so, for so long, was almost unbelievable.
In the barn, I seem to remember at least three levels of hay and one or two animals at the bottom. At night, we slept near the wooden side of the barn and were dressed warmly. During the day, we burrowed deep under the barn where it was dark, not daring to come up to the level where we could see daylight and sky through the cracks in the barn walls. We remained in the dark all day long, being totally quiet for fear of being heard. I understood that I had to be quiet and developed a vivid sense of imagination, silently talking and playing in my mind, living in a world of make believe. One day Mrs. Lewicka’s daughter wandered into the barn. I was on the top level, and she saw me. This was the only time that I ever saw her. Apparently, she ran and told her parents that she had seen a girl in the barn, but they managed to assure her that no one was in fact in the barn.
Our main activity during the day was sitting in the dark barn killing lice. Yes, I spent the day picking lice off my mother and my father and killing them, and they would do the same for me. I can remember the blood of the lice on my hands and between my nails. At night, I would go to the top level for a short time but had to be very quiet. Always shush, shush, shush.
Most nights, my father would leave the barn to go into the forest to meet his landsmen (other Jews from the same area). They would listen to the shortwave radio to hear the news. My mother was always terrified that he would not return. She would constantly ask me, “Are we going to live or die?” Although I was only a child, she constantly asked me the same question. Of course, I always answered, “Live, live, live!” She told me that it made her feel better to ask me and hear my answer and that is why she kept asking me the same question. A lot of the Jews in the forest were caught and killed by the Nazis, who had dogs to help sniff people out. Many Jews died that way.
But the way the Lewickas looked after us and risked their lives doing so, for so long, was almost unbelievable.
My father risked his life when he went into the forest every night. When I asked him about it, he said that he had no choice, that it was the only way he could get us extra food. Mrs. Lewicka, who was letting us hide in her barn, did as much as she could to help us, but it was not sufficient. She probably didn’t have enough food for her family either. The Germans would come into her house and take whatever they wanted — they did this wherever they went, ransacked homes and took what they needed. My father was able to supplement our food by going into the forest to find us some produce. My father would return to the barn very early in the morning, just as Mrs. Lewicka arrived at the barn with our food for the day — a pot of water with boiled potatoes, carrots, cabbage and meat from a pig. Yes, they kept pigs on the farm. She had to come before her family woke up, so it was very, very early in the morning, and she would climb a ladder and hand the pot to my father. She also had to see to our bodily functions; we had a bucket where we would relieve ourselves, and she would empty it. Though I don’t remember this, my mother said that every two or three weeks we went at night to have a bath in their house.
When my father went into the forest at night, he would find and steal fruit, like cherries and apples, and eggs wherever he could. When he brought an egg, I was forced to drink it from the shell. We all suffered from scurvy. The lack of fresh food and sunlight caused us to become very thin and to develop skin problems. I had big red blotches on my skin from the lack of vitamins. We stayed in this barn, hidden from everyone, for two years, from 1942 until 1944.
A couple of months into our time in hiding, my mother asked Mr. Lewicka to go to Kałusz (now Kalush, Ukraine), where her family lived, to find her sister’s teenage children and bring them to the barn so they could hide with us and we could all be together. He agreed to do this but when he found them, the children refused to come with him. They said they wanted to stay with their family. My mother was distraught at this news and implored him to go back and ask them again. He was such a good man that off he went with his horse and carriage to try to persuade them to come. When he came back, he told my parents that when he arrived in Kałusz, all the Jews were gone.
My mother asked him, “What do you mean, there are no Jews left there? Where have they gone?” He said that he’d been told that all the Jews in the village had been rounded up and either deported in trains or shot on the outskirts of the city. My mother was a totally broken woman from then on. She never recovered from that news and went into a long-lasting depression. She didn’t want to live and was never really happy after that.
At Christmas, I so badly wanted to be a Christian. I remember Mrs. Lewicka making us the most amazing food I have ever eaten. The Christmases that we were there, she baked cakes and cookies; she cooked and brought us lots of food. I don’t know what it was that she made but it was so delicious. You have no idea how wonderful it tasted. I will never forget it — in my mind, I can still smell it.
One winter, approximately a year and a half after we went into hiding, tragedy struck, and Mr. Lewicka died of a heart attack, leaving Mrs. Lewicka a widow with a young child. He was in his early forties; his body remained in the house for a whole week before the burial. Mrs. Lewicka’s mother and two brothers came to stay with her in the house, and for a whole week she could not get any food to us. None of her family knew that she was hiding Jews. In fact, her family were Nazi sympathizers, and her brothers were co-operating with the Germans. My father had to search for food at night. One night, one of the farmers caught him stealing fruit or eggs and recognized him. He asked him, “Mr. Rattenbach, what are you doing here stealing my stuff?” My father told him that he was living in the forest and needed food. He did not tell him where he was hiding. The farmer told my father to take as much as he needed and said, “God go with you.” Though he was good to my father — he could have gotten money from the Germans for turning him in — my father came back shaking like a leaf from this encounter. He felt so fortunate to have gotten away.
During the week before the funeral of Mr. Lewicka, we relied only on what my father could find in the forest. During this time, one of the brothers decided to come look in the barn. This was really terrifying for us. We were deep inside, under the barn, and we heard footsteps above us. We knew someone was there and kept deadly silent, holding our breath. He walked up and down looking for something until eventually he left.
In the winter of early 1944, my father came back with stories that made it seem we were going to win the war. We weren’t sure if these were just rumours or if they were true, but we started to feel a sense of hope.
Months later, in the summer, we started to hear a lot of noise. We weren’t sure if we were hearing tanks or bullets, but the shooting continued for some time, probably about a week. It was very scary, as we did not know if it was the Germans or someone else. My father did not go out at all during this time for fear of being caught, and neither did Mrs. Lewicka. She did not dare even to bring us food. We prayed that it wasn’t the Germans winning the war.
One day, we heard people talking outside. We were terrified that it may be the Germans, and I remember holding my breath in fear. All of a sudden, we heard them talking in Russian! We slowly emerged from the barn and could not believe our eyes. There were Soviet soldiers in the courtyard, in uniform and speaking Russian, and they had a big open truck to pick up people. The Soviets were astounded when they saw the three of us. I was a cute, skinny kid with big eyes, and they fell in love with me. They said, “Come with us.” Mrs. Lewicka came out and gave the soldiers something to drink, and then we climbed up into the truck and went with them. The soldiers gave us all chocolate, lots of chocolate. That’s all they had to give us, but we were so happy to have it. It tasted so good. We travelled with them, collecting other Jews in the forest and taking them all with us. There was a lot of singing, and I was so happy to be outside with other people.
I hated living in Poland after the war. I felt persecuted in the neighbourhood where we lived because I was taunted, and it was very uncomfortable for me. I was a good-looking child with brown hair and blue eyes who did not look stereotypically Jewish, but everyone knew we were Jewish and I was constantly provoked. I was lonely and very sad. The non-Jewish Polish girls continually upset me by saying, “You have to come with us to church. You killed Jesus, you killed Jesus.” They called me a “dirty Jew” and said I should leave and go to Palestine. I actually went with them to church once. Perhaps I was a little bit curious to see what was going on. By then, I understood about antisemitism and what we had been through during the war, so I was not happy to be with these girls.
When the Germans had evacuated the house we were living in, all the original furniture had been left there, including a piano. My mother decided that she wanted me to learn how to play and arranged for me to have piano lessons. The teacher was German and I hated going to her because of that. She told my parents that I was very talented and my parents forced me to go even though I hated it. She was very strict; she forced me to learn pieces by heart and insisted that I practise, practise, practise. I really didn’t like her, not only because she was strict but because I couldn’t get it out of my head that she was German. She lived quite a distance from us, about forty minutes away, and I walked there. I remember stepping on rats and mice on my way, and in winter the snow was very deep and at times half my body was immersed in it. Although I screamed and tried to revolt against going, my mother refused to listen and I had to go — to school, to piano lessons — and I had to walk everywhere. I hated living there.
I went to a Jewish school, and I did well at school. Our studies were conducted in Yiddish, but I preferred to speak Polish. I hated the Yiddish language. To me Yiddish was a language of the diaspora and sounded like German. I learned to speak Polish in school and spoke it well and also wrote many essays. I had a Hebrew teacher as well, although we did not learn Hebrew.
At this time there were many shlichim, Jewish emissaries, from organizations like Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair, who came to our area to tell us about Israel and entice us to come and settle there. I knew that members of my father’s family had settled in Israel both before and after the war. My father’s family sent us lots of parcels from Israel, I think mainly clothing, as we had no need for food. At the same time, my mother was in touch with Mrs. Lewicka and constantly sent her parcels with whatever she asked for. This continued until Mrs. Lewicka passed away about twenty-five years ago. I’m not sure exactly when she passed away, but I remember my mother crying as she showed me a letter from Mrs. Lewicka’s daughter or neighbour with the news that she had died. Unfortunately, I don’t have the letter anymore.
Between 1945 and 1950 lots of people in our area left to go to Israel. The Youth Aliyah organization took children who were orphaned by the war to Israel, including many of my friends, some of whom had only one parent. Every week one of my friends left for Israel. I desperately wanted to go there, too. We were always aware of families leaving. Our family in Israel implored us to come but my parents really did not want to go. My father’s store was still doing very well financially. He and his partner weren’t encountering much antisemitism, or if they did, I was unaware of it. We had fine clothes and plenty to eat, and my parents had no idea what they would do in Israel at their age. They were very worried about leaving Poland and starting anew.
One of the youth organizations offered me a ticket to Israel; I only had to get parental permission, but my parents would not let me go. I nagged my family to leave and cried day and night. I threatened to leave Poland and leave them to go to Israel to our relatives there. Though my parents really wanted to stay in Poland, finally they relented and went to Warsaw to get their passports, only because of me. We left for Israel in May 1950.
Although my father’s family was really excited to have us there and couldn’t do enough for us, it was extremely hard for my parents. They suffered terribly in Israel. I did not. I was excited and happy. I lived with my father’s sister for one year and loved it. They spoiled me and showed me off, they were so proud of me. “Oh, here is our niece. She went through the Holocaust,” they would say. I loved being there. My father had one brother and many sisters; he stayed with one sister and my mother stayed with another sister. They were absolutely wonderful to us. They were so happy to have us there and they were so good to us. All his siblings got together and bought my father a grocery store so he could make a living. He, of course, started paying them back and giving them food all the time. Relations were very good among the siblings. Every Saturday we would visit all the family, most of whom lived in Ramat Gan. I was so very happy.
My mother was very keen for me to marry. I had started dating and met my future husband, David. We had many things in common. We both spoke Polish but used Hebrew as our common language. He had also been through the Holocaust but was twelve years older than I was, so he had had a very different experience. We had different ideas on certain things, but we were compatible. David and I married in December 1962.
My husband was born in Czechoslovakia. He was in Auschwitz for two and a half years and had lost his entire family, except for one uncle who had survived in Hungary and now lived in Toronto. His parents and four brothers had all been killed, leaving my husband an orphan from the age of fifteen. Antisemitism still existed after the war, so, like many others, my husband changed his name to hide his Jewishness — from David Rosenbaum to Wladyslaw Rawa, a typical Polish name. He graduated as a mechanical engineer and worked for the Polish government. His uncle sponsored him to come to Toronto, but Poland blocked his exit. In 1956, when he was thirty years old, he went to Israel but had a hard time adjusting to life there. He found the weather harsh and the language difficult.
On our honeymoon, we travelled to Toronto to visit his uncle. I didn’t like Toronto at all and said to my husband, “I am never going to live here. I hate it.” Israel was so vibrant, and I was so happy there. I had such a good job, so many good friends. My parents and family were there. Oh no, I was not going to leave. My husband did not say anything at the time, but on our return from our trip, there were papers waiting for him to immigrate to Canada. He told me to go get my papers because I was his wife. Although reluctant, I went to get the papers, thinking that he would go to Canada and then come back to Israel. At that time, I thought I would be able to change his way of thinking, but I was mistaken. I didn’t realize that it would be impossible to change him.
I went to have the medical tests done and then obtained the papers, but I stayed in Israel, hoping he would return. Instead, he rented a two-room apartment, at St. Clair Avenue West and Pinewood Avenue, from a Polish man who lived in the same house. My husband found a very good job in quality control with an elevator company. He still did not speak English very well, but it was not a problem since he did not really need to speak to many people for his work. No one knew he was Jewish, and he continued to hide that fact from everyone. He bought some furniture for the apartment and wrote for me to come, but I still did not want to leave Israel. When we married in Israel, we had bought an apartment, so when I realized that he was going to stay in Toronto, I rented our apartment out and went to live with my parents. Finally, six months later, in April 1964, I got myself together and came to Toronto.
I was unhappy to leave Israel, my parents, my job, my friends. But I had to come to be with my husband. I cried for two years. I chose not to work because I was concentrating on getting pregnant. I really wanted a family desperately and decided that that was my priority. Eventually, in May 1966, my daughter, Dori, was born. She was a beautiful and healthy child, and I stopped crying. Then I suddenly got pregnant again. My son, Leon, was born fourteen months later, in July 1967.
When I was seven months pregnant with my second child, I took my daughter with me to Israel for three weeks. I sold our apartment there and arranged all the documents needed for my parents to come to live with us in Canada. I sponsored them to come to Toronto, and they arrived in 1968. We bought a house on Harrington Crescent, which was a new area, where we lived together for five years. Then my parents bought a condo on Hilda Avenue, where they lived until my father passed away in 1978.
I was very close to my father. He was always supportive, helpful and loving toward me and my children. His unexpected death was difficult for me to cope with, and I missed his presence in my life.
My mother suffered tremendously after the war — losing her parents and her siblings was too much for her to handle, and she never recovered. I did not fully realize the effect the war had had on her until after she passed away. Our relationship suffered as a result, but I know she loved me.
My daughter has wanted to take me back to Ukraine where we were hidden, but I did not want to go back. I will never step on Polish land again even though my daughter has asked me to go. I have too many bad memories.
When I think about it now, as much as I loved living in Israel and as happy as I was there, I think that maybe for my children and grandchildren, being in Canada has been a good thing. It has given them the opportunity to study what they desired. My daughter graduated as a teacher and now works as a Holocaust educator. My son is a pharmacist and has his own independent pharmacy. My children did not have to join the army; they don’t have to worry about the fighting and problems of Israel. I think I may have been happier living in Israel, but I doubt that my children would have had the advantages that they have had here.