In September of 1939, twenty-two year old Lily (“Laja”) Zaks was the age of many college seniors who study the Holocaust today. But her peaceful, happy life would end overnight when Nazi troops marched into her town of Bendin (Będzin) days after declaring war on Poland. Life would grow darker and more horrific until Lily was eventually deported to Auschwitz, where her mother and sister had already been murdered. Along with her great strength and her will to live, the solidarity and support she found among other young women from Bendin helped Lily to survive against the greatest of odds and in conditions beyond human endurance.
Born Laja Glicksman in 1917, she grew up with three siblings to a single mother, Rachel, who had early been widowed. With its sister town of Sosnowice, Bendin, close to the German border, was typical of many pre-war Polish towns, with the Jewish population nearly half of the 40,000 residents. While Jewish life thrived in the city, Laja also had many close Christian friends. Along with many of her Jewish companions, Laja belonged to Gordonia, a Zionist Youth Organization. In later years, the training and teachings of Zionist groups would serve Jewish resisters and rescuers well.
On September 4, 1939 the populace of Bendin was taken by surprise; none of them believed the threats of war would actually materialize, or understood the particular dangers that the National Socialists posed for the Jewish inhabitants of the city renamed by the Germans"Bendsburg.” They would learn immediately. When the first Friday night arrived the Nazis set the town’s beautiful synagogue on fire, burning it down with sixty Shabbat worshippers inside. Some were able to escape and flee to a nearby church where the local priest, Father Mieczysław Zawadzki helped them to escape. The next day forty prominent members of the community were shot. Laja’s family, along with the other Jewish families, were evicted from their homes and forced into squalid apartments, and then into the decaying, miserable slums and shacks that formed the Bendin ghetto. Hunger, filth and disease ran rampant in the streets.
Even amidst the sufferings of the ghetto, life continued. In 1941 Laja married a young man from Bendin, Shaya (Sy) Zaks. Deported to a labor camp, Sy was able to return to Bendin through a hefty bribe. After experiencing the beatings, hunger and cruelty of the labor camp, Sy pledged to his wife that he would never return to another camp.Located only twenty five miles from Auschwitz, deportations began from the Bendin ghetto in the late spring of 1942; 30,000 people from the city had been sent there by August. Laja and Sy were able to avoid deportations by working in the military uniform factory of Alfred Rossner, who would be arrested in 1944 and later recognized as a righteous gentile for saving as many Jews as possible in this way. But Laja’s mother, her sister Ita, and brother Chaim were deported to Auschwitz in 1943. The women were murdered on arrival; her brother was forced into the Sonderkommando and later perished. During the August 1943 deportations in Bendin, the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB), connected to the Warsaw ghetto resistance, rose up in revolt, led by the 29 year old Frumka Płotnicka. Nearly all of the resisters perished.
On January 18, 1944 the Nazis came to deport the remaining Jews of Bendin to concentration and death camps. Arriving at Auschwitz, Laja and her friends from Bendin did their best to stay together. Heads shaved, arms tattooed, wearing the filthy striped uniforms of the prisoner, the girls looked at each other, bewildered. Some morbidly joked that they could no longer recognize each other. Placed in the same barracks, Laja and many of the girls were sent to labor in the Weichsell Metal Union Werke (the Auschwitz Munitions Factory). They would sometimes save tiny bits of the gunpowder they worked with to rub on their skin and cover up bruises or wounds, or to make their cheeks appear pinker by contrast; any sign of ill health could mean selection for death. But that was not the only reason the Bendin girls stole gunpowder.
Helped by other young women at the factory, many of the girls--we know of at least 10, but there may have been more--begin to transport and smuggle tiny bits of gunpowder back into camp. Under the leadership of Roza Robota, the tiny packages were passed to the Sonderkommando--two of whom, Jeshajahu Ehrlick and Moshe Wygnaanski hailed from Bendin-- who used it to create makeshift explosives out of shoe polish tins. On October 7, 1944 they carried out a prisoner uprising, using the explosives to blow up crematorium IV and kill some 70 SS and capos. The gestapo arrested four women for the crime--the leader Roza Robota, Estucia Wajcblum and two women from Bendin, Ala Gertner and Regina Safirsztajn. On Jan 6, 1945, Laja, along with all of the prisoners assembled for roll call, was forced to witness the public hanging of her friends, who had been tortured nearly beyond recognition. She was there to hear the dying words which Rosa shouted to the inmates, "Chazak V'amatz" (Be Strong and Have Courage!) .”In that place,” Allen Zaks, Laja’s son, says, “where death was all around, this broke my mother’s heart.”
Somehow Laja continued to live. With the allies closing in, on Jan 18, 1945--exactly one year to the date of her arrival--the commanders of Auschwitz began rounding up the prisoners to be sent on their death march. Once again, Laja’s connection with Bendin was vital to her survival. A male friend from the town traded several rations of food to obtain a pair of leather shoes on the black market, which he gave to Laja. She believed it was those shoes, which protected her feet from the snow and frost, that allowed her to stay alive on the endless march. In the middle of the bitter winter the surviving prisoners were liberated by the Russian army. By then Laja had befriended two teenage girls from Bendin, whom she took under her wing to care for. Worried they would be raped by Russian soldiers, she kept the girls hidden from their sight.
Laja somehow boarded a train and found her way back to Bendin, where surviving members of her husband’s family waited to take care of her. Through courage, luck and the ability to think on his feet, Sy had avoided the concentration camps, as he pledged he would. His family and friends set out to find him in Germany--where he was living under false papers as a Christian named Jan Byczek--and bring him back to Bendin. Reunited, the couple went to Stuttgart, where Laja’s brother, Abraham, also came after surviving labor camps. While in Germany Laja gave birth to their first child, Jerry. In 1948, they moved to Omaha, where Laja became Lily, and then to the Bronx, where their son Allen was born. They settled, finally, in Patterson, New Jersey.
The Wagner College Holocaust Center honors the bravery of Lily Zaks, Sy Zaks and all the remarkable girls of Bendin, who helped each other survive through their courage, care and friendship.
Our sincerest thanks to Allen Zaks for sharing the story of his parents with us.
Written by Laura Morowitz
Photos: Allen Zaks
Chai Board Member Emmanuel Saks is the son of survivors from Bendin and Sosnowice. He spoke at the Wagner College Holocaust Center about returning to Poland and about life as a second generation survivor on January 27 2021.
Oral testimony, Allen Zaks, March 31, 2021. Wagner College Holocaust Center