By Felix Thau
Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part story detailing historical accounts and personal history of Nadia Frey.
After moving to Philadelphia at the age of three, Felix Thau’s family became close with a number of fellow Survivor families in the area. One of those was the Frey family. Adolf and Nadia Frey had a son, Perry, who was near Felix’s age.
When the Thau’s moved away from the area, the two friends lost touch, reconnecting decades later after Mr. Frey passed. In the 1990s, when various Holocaust histories projects were being created, Felix thought of Nadia, and encouraged Perry to have her record a similar history.
“I thought it imperative that Mrs. Frey record her story, lest another Holocaust account be lost forever,” Felix says. “I then had no idea of the depth of her tale.”
Though Nadia was hesitant to participate, she eventually agreed following Perry’s encouragement. As there was no alternative interviewer and Felix had observed his own mother’s tell her story in an interview, Felix took it upon himself to conduct the video history of Nadia’s story.
“I think it’s important to memorialize all of these stories,” Felix says. He conducted the interview and was struck by the kindness and courage of Nadia’s story, and the frequent close calls that Mr. Frey lived through.
Part 1 of this story details the historical context leading up to and during the Frey’s ordeal.
During the Ten Days of Awe, we gather in our Shuls in great number. In our liturgy, we beseech the Divine. Through repentance, prayer, and righteousness, we seek to extend our lives.
How the Divine goes about deciding who shall live and who shall die remains a mystery. Still, there seems to be a fundamental, cosmological unfairness on how the cards are dealt. The righteous pass; the unrepentant live on.
Here, the philosophical and theological intersect to pose the question: Is survival a matter of pure happenstance or is Divine Providence at work? The account which follows, replete with all measure of barbarism, kindness and blazingly brilliant bravery, engenders that inquiry.
Galicia sits in a corner of Eastern Europe between the Black and Baltic Seas. Being a region of political and ethnic borders, over centuries, the sword and political prowess prevailed. Galicia was ruled by one Empire or nation after another. Bloodshed and indifference regularly greeted the population.
The original village of Sambor is located in Galicia. In the Middle Ages, the village was invaded from the east. The villagers fled, creating another town about fifteen miles away. The new village was named Sambor. Original Sambor became Stari-Sambor (Old Sambor).
From 1772 until 1918, Austria ruled Galicia. After World War I and brief dominance by the Ukraine, Poland annexed Galicia. Poland’s rule ended when the German army entered Galicia on Rosh Hashanah, September 13, 1939. With predatory precision, it was Nazi policy to initiate anti-Jewish actions on Jewish holidays to magnify the trauma.
After taking Sambor, the Germans selected Jews for labor; they plundered Jewish property, On September 20, 1939, the German army retreated from Sambor; the Soviet army filled the military vacuum. Life in Sambor rapidly changed.
Iron-fisted Soviet philosophy prevailed. Private enterprise suffered. Administrative restrictions were placed on formerly well-to-do Jews and anti-Soviet activists. Some could not find work. By the end of 1940, Jewish refugees who refused to bow to Soviet ideology, and former well-to-do Jews, were transferred to the Soviet interior or Siberia.
Soviet mentality included a mistrust of Poles and Ukrainians greater than any dislike of Jews. As a result, Jews were placed in higher positions of Soviet-controlled local government than Poles or Ukrainians. Already embedded in Polish and Ukrainian thinking, hatred of Jews intensified.
In late June,1941, the Germans entered Sambor a second time. With the free hand of the Nazis, Ukrainians elevated their anger to action. Among other cruelties, Jews of Sambor were subjected to severe beatings, bestial brutality, and murder.
The Nazi occupiers quickly followed with their own anti-Jewish aggression. Jews were forced to place a ribbon containing a Magen David on their right arm. Jews were also commanded to relinquish their valuables lest they be shot. The Nazi regime also enforced an array of other commands and restrictions aimed at Sambor Jews.
The Nazi command gathered Jews in neighboring villages. They were relocated to former Polish stables within Sambor. Some 4,000 Jews were held there in overcrowded conditions.
On August 4 and 5, 1942, with assistance of Poles and Ukrainians, the Gestapo marched every one of those Jews to Sambor’s rail station. They were herded into cattle cars, on their way to their final breath in Belzec.
Belzec was about one hundred miles away from and approximately north of Sambor. The German SS constructed Belzec as an extermination camp. Compared to other factories of murder, little is known about Belzec. Only seven Jews performing slave labor survived. Just one was later identified.
The Belzec death machine operated from March 17, 1942 to June 1943. In that approximate fifteen months, estimates from 430,000 to 600,000 Jews are believed to have been exterminated there, conferring upon Belzec the morbid and shameful rank as the third deadliest extermination camp in the Nazi sphere behind Treblinka and Auschwitz.
By the Fall of 1942, Jews still alive in the countryside near Sambor were ordered to move to the Sambor ghetto by November 30, 1942. During Spring 1943, a large segment of the German army on its way to the Russian front temporarily billeted in Sambor.
Under Gestapo direction, hundreds of those battle-bound troops, fully armed for conflict, surrounded the ghetto. Others entered, their mission to destroy, to murder, to seek out Jews in hiding. Jews discovered in hiding were placed in overcrowded jail cells.
On April 14, 1943 (Passover), German trucks arrived at Sambor’s Jewish cemetery. Jews had to remove clothes from Jewish corpses, victims of Nazi murder. With collaboration from Poles and Ukrainians, the Nazis marched every Jewish child, woman, man then in jail to a mass open grave. At about 1pm, the murderous shooting spree began. It did not end until sunset.
After that massacre, it was not unexpected for tension to elevate among Jews still clinging to life in the ghetto. Anxiety did diminish after Jewish ghetto leaders (Judenrat, meaning Jewish Council) negotiated with the Germans. In exchange for expensive goods yet in Jewish possession, the Germans promised not to harm the remaining ghetto population.
About five weeks after the negotiated promise, from May 22 to May 23, 1943, Gestapo and Ukrainian police raided the ghetto. Jews discovered still in hiding were forcibly relocated to overcrowded jail cells.
At dawn on the first day Shavuot, June 9, 1943, all Jews in the ghetto and its environs were loaded on trucks to travel on their last way. While in transport, Ukrainian militia stood guard on board, rifles at the ready. They were murdered in the woods so that no objective witness could offer testimony.
Sambor was declared “judenrein” (cleansed of Jews). Yet, the hunt for Jews in and about Sambor continued. Discovered Jews were murdered.
The Soviet army pushed the Germans back a second and last time. Liberation of a sort arrived. Surviving Jews and those Poles and Ukrainians who assisted Jews, were denounced and shunned by many Poles and Ukrainians.
With the above historical narrative serving as backdrop, Nadia Frey’s personal history is ready to be retold. While the former speaks of death and tragedy at every turn, now is recorded a tale of love and survival. It seems that no power can fully defeat the drive to survive; no force is completely capable of conquering the impulse to overcome depravity.
Nevertheless, the question whose response continues to evade us still perplexes. Is existence the subject of mathematical chance or destiny?
Read Part 2 of “A Tribute Long Overdue,” detailing the personal history of Nadia Frey, in the next edition of Community Review.