The Wisdom Project at Moment: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate enough to live long lives.
This week’s conversation is with Ann Jaffe, 91, a retired Judaic studies teacher from Wilmington, Delaware.
Ann Jaffe was born in 1931 in the village of Kobylnik, then in Poland, now Belarus. When she was 10, the Nazis invaded Russia. They stormed her village, ultimately sending most of the town’s 350 Jews to almost certain death. Ann was one of only 32 survivors from her town.
The Nazi officer looked at her and said, “Are you the seamstress here in town?” My mother said yes. And he said, “I guess I’m gonna let you live a little bit longer.”
She and her family survived by hiding in the woods for almost two years. They defied freezing temperatures, constant hunger and the ever-present fear they’d be found and executed. After finally sneaking over the border to Czechoslovakia, Austria and then Germany, they spent five years in the Feldafing displaced persons (DP) camp in West Germany. Of Ann’s five siblings, four survived the war along with their parents before the family emigrated first to Canada and then to the United States.
Ann met her husband Edward in a DP camp, though their families knew each other before the war. His work as a chemist for DuPont took them to Wilmington in 1975. They lived there for the next four decades, raising a family that includes three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Edward died in 2018.
Ann has been a tireless Holocaust educator. The Tolerance and Holocaust Education Ann Jaffe Fund, which is affiliated with the Jewish Federation of Delaware, sponsors speakers on tolerance, antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust education.
In 2020, Ann inspired and advocated for a Delaware state law to make the Holocaust part of the state’s education curriculum. Starting in 2021, House Bill 318 requires all school districts and charters to teach students in grades 6-12 about the Holocaust. Ann’s testimony is widely credited for the bill’s passage. She has also been honored by the Anti-Defamation League at the Kennedy Center and Hadassah.
For her many talks about her Holocaust experience with students and civic organizations and her contributions to Delaware life, Ann was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women in 2021. Her memoir, The Burden and Blessing of Memory, was published last year. Moment recently visited with Ann Jaffe.
How did you survive the Holocaust?
My parents’ wisdom saved us from being killed. They saw things happening and used their skills proactively. I’ll give you an example: My mother was a seamstress. When the killing started in our very small town, my mother thought it would be beneficial to be in the good graces of the mayor’s wife. She knew the mayor would be very influential as to who would be killed in the first group of people. So my mother proposed to his wife that she would need new dresses now that she would be consulting with very important people, meaning the German officers. My mother said, “How about I make you some very pretty dresses so that you will look dignified and nice?”
The mayor’s wife readily agreed to it. My mother began making the dresses. When the next roundup came and they were taking us to the marketplace, my mother noticed her and called out to her, “Don’t forget that I still have one of your dresses in my house that is not finished. Go and fetch it, otherwise somebody will take it away.” At the end of the day, the Germans started calling out names of people they called “useful Jews.” When they called out the head of a family, they let the rest of the family go, too.
At the very end, they called out my mother’s name. The Nazi officer looked at her and said, “Are you the seamstress here in town?” My mother said yes. And he said, “I guess I’m gonna let you live a little bit longer.” Thanks to my mother’s proactive wisdom, we were spared and taken away to a ghetto in a neighboring town. But we knew that after my mother finished sewing the dresses, we would not be useful anymore and they would probably take us away.
Then my father used his wisdom. He would go every single day to do whatever they told him to do. One day, on his way home, he noticed a warehouse with rotting plants. He found the man in charge, a Polish gentleman, and said, “Look what’s happening—the plants can’t be useful when they’re rotting away.” The man said, “I don’t treat them properly, I have no idea how to do it.” So my father, also proactively, said, “Why don’t you go to the Nazi officers and tell them that you need me in your warehouse, and I will teach you how to conserve those plants so they will be useful for medicinal purposes.”
My father was teaching me the essence of the Jewish religion. Don’t hate others, because you don’t want to be hated yourself.
The man got permission for my father to work there. But when they took those jobs away, those Jews weren’t useful anymore. So again we were on the next list to go, and we knew they’d either throw us in a bigger ghetto or take us out of town and kill us. My father was the last one to jump in the truck, and when in the crowd he saw the man from the warehouse, he shouted, “Look, they’re taking us away! Why don’t you run to the officer who gave you permission for me to work for you and tell him that you still need me!” And the man did. Before the trucks could leave, he came with permission for our family to be taken off. We learned after the war that none of the people who were taken away that day survived.
How did you escape the new ghetto?
Russian partisans decided to destroy the German garrison. One of them broke the ghetto gate and told the Jews to run into the forest before the Germans could kill everyone. Most had already run. Ours was the very last house. Because we had a baby—my brother was a year and a half old—and two more young kids, nobody had told us they were escaping. Of course the Germans charged in after the gate was broken. When the shooting stopped, my father looked out through the crevice in the window and noticed a familiar face. He knocked at the window. The Jewish partisan said, “What are you doing here? Everybody already left.” He helped my father break out the window and we jumped out and ran to the forest, where everyone else was. We fled without anything. We didn’t have time to grab even a warm coat. We were totally unprepared. We hid in the forest for 20 months.
How did you survive in the woods?
It was miraculous that we did survive. The first winter, in 1942, I was 11 years old and wished I was dead rather than suffer this terrible cold. The partisans helped us make a bonfire. And they guarded it because as soon as you’d move away from the fire, you’d freeze to death. The snow was falling and we had to cuddle around the bonfire and you know young kids, you fall asleep. Later on, some young people helped my father make an underground bunker and we were able to get a little stove in there. Things became a little bit easier. At least we were not freezing.
We were liberated on July 4th, 1944.
How did that experience affect you over your lifetime?
The first few years when I was still young and raising a family, all I wanted was to concentrate on becoming like everybody else—to have a normal life. I didn’t talk about it. I hardly ever mentioned it to my children. I was hoping that I could get away without bringing up old wounds. I was a child, 10 years old, when the Germans marched in. I was 13 when I was liberated. And I felt that the adults, who understood this situation better than the child, should be the ones sharing it with the world.
When I was older, I saw that all of them found it difficult to find the words to explain what happened, but I continued not to speak about it. Then my husband was transferred to Wilmington, Delaware. Because I speak with an accent, people, friends, questioned me. “Where were you during the war?” I said, “Oh, you don’t want to know.”
One friend said, “Yes, we do want to know. We have a Holocaust Remembrance Day and we are looking for people to share their stories.” And I told her, “I cannot do that. I have never spoken of it in public, because I’ll start crying and just embarrass myself.”
She told me not to worry, I wouldn’t cry if I kept looking at her instead of at the audience. And she was right. The first time I shared my story, in the audience was a Christian teacher. She approached me and asked me to speak to her students at church. I went. And once I got started, and I saw the demand for knowledge—because the students had nothing in their curriculum to learn about what happened to the Jewish people, how the six million died in that war—I just kept going. I’ve given 450 presentations over the years.
I saw the effect my talks had by the letters that I got from students about how my presentation affected them. When COVID started, I couldn’t be in a classroom full of kids, but I helped some of the students who were writing papers. I told them to come to my house with their questions, and I’d try to answer them. Now, when I am approaching my 92nd birthday next month, I feel that my mission has been accomplished.
What wisdom have you acquired from this?
My wisdom came from my parents. I was lucky to be born to two extraordinarily kind and good people. For instance, when I, as a teenager, expressed my rage and said that I hated the whole free world for not helping us survive, my father overheard me. He took me aside. He said, “I heard what you said about you hating the whole free world. We were victims of hatred. Did you like it?” I told him, of course not. He said, “Why would you then do to others what was hateful to you?”
At the time, I did not understand that my father was teaching me the essence of the Jewish religion. Don’t hate others, because you don’t want to be hated yourself. Hatred is a learned experience. You are not born with it. And so, if we consciously try not to hate other people, remembering that we don’t want to be hated either, it might have an effect.
What do you think of the world today?
I’m horrified. Horrified by how much hatred there is still, not just to Jews, but to others. People hate just because they were born in different circumstances or the color of their skin is different, or their theology is different—no other reason. Unfortunately, here in our country, the atmosphere was poisoned. It was probably poisoned before, but it was Donald Trump who found a following in those hateful people. Those who still discriminate and hate others are the people we need to share our wisdom with.
What advice just about living a life, generally, do you pass along to young people?
I tell them that kindness is just as easy as hatred. You are so much better when you treat others the way you like to be treated.
For kids growing up in today’s America with its political and social vitriol, how do they avoid falling into that same mindset?
Once, after I spoke in a high school, a student came up to me. He was big and looked stronger than the others, and I suspected he may have been held back a grade at some point. He told me he knew about some of the [white supremacist] groups out there. And, he said, “I am so glad that I listened to you speak, because I have just gotten involved with a group of young people that tell me this whole thing is a hoax—it never happened. And all the Jews are no good.” Then he said, “You know what? I’m not going to join them anymore.”
Education, empathy, enlightenment!
It’s giving someone the truth. So when I get, even once in a while, a person telling me that I have changed his way of thinking and his life, that is extremely gratifying.
Who has inspired you in your life?
My parents. My mother was a very observant Jew and no matter where she lived, all the Christian neighbors loved her because she was so generous to everyone. She had very little herself, but there wasn’t a holiday that she wouldn’t bake cakes to bring to her Christian neighbors. And if somebody was in need—and she herself was not well-to-do—she would share what she had and even give them money so they could buy, say, a coat or shoes for their kids. It didn’t matter to her whether the person was Jewish or not. If somebody needed help, she was there to help them.
How can we as a country get back to being kind to each other?
If I knew the answer, I would be a genius. We cannot influence a whole country, but we can influence the people around us. When you encounter somebody, you can spread kindness by being kind and compassionate to them. There are so many people who are suffering. To help is a big mitzvah.
I try to influence at least a corner of the world I inhabit to be as good as possible.