Cover of Alecia Jurman's memoir
Cover of Alecia Jurman's memoir

There are many, many stories the world over detailing parts and pieces of WWII. The world ‘round, the name Anne Frank is known for her courage, her kindness and the journal she kept while hiding from the Germans. She documented a challenging piece of history. In another part of Europe, there was another little Jewish girl who not only lived during WWII, but survived the genocide and became stronger for it. Her name was Alicia Jurman. Her story began when she was 9 years old.

In 1939, the Nazis signed a non-aggression treaty with Russia, allowing, among other things, the Soviet annex of eastern Poland. Notwithstanding the fact that the Jews were among the driving force behind the Communist revolution and that they had helped build the Soviet “utopia”, they were also generally hated. Cries of “Jesus killer!” and “Zhid!” were not uncommon. Jews were victims of pogroms and discrimination then as before the revolution.

After the Soviet takeover, youth were invited to study in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg) in prestigious colleges and universities. Alicia’s older brother Moshe was one of them. After he had been a while in Leningrad, his letters came regularly, but they were strange and void of life. Although they worried, they wrote it off as him being busy in his studies. Then one day, Moshe showed up on their doorstep half frozen, half starved and determined not to return to Russia. In the university, they were forced into labor and were beaten if their work or schooling was not adequate. Letters sent home were dictated to them. They were fed little food and a lot of propaganda. When the chance came, he ran. Soon after arriving home, the Russian police showed up “concerned” for his welfare. In reality, they wanted to cover up how bad things were in Russia. So that they could “sort it all out” they took him to a nearby prison where he subsequently died. They would not even allow him to be buried at home in accordance to the Jewish tradition.

The Germans reneged on their pact and attacked the Soviet Union. Ukraine was taken, including the city where Alicia lived. As in places all over the world, the atrocities began with the outlawing of Jewish owned businesses, curfews and the yellow stars. One day, the Nazis proclaimed that all men from 18 to 60 had to come to a certain place and time to register. Around 600 men came and were taken away and executed, their bodies dumped in a mass grave close to the nearby river. Only two tried to escape when the shooting started, Alicia’s father and another man. Alicia’s father was shot trying to escape. She learned of this 5 years later, from the sole survivor. After murdering these Jews, the Nazis collected, as ransom, money and jewelry from their families and wives, who had no idea they were already dead.

Soon after, the ghettoization began. The Jews were forced from their homes with the little they could carry and forced to move into a separate part of the city. Curfews were established. Jews could no longer move about freely or go to the market, which they did anyway to survive. Alicia would buy and resell soap, hoping to make a few cents, or get some bread slices to take home.

One day, Alicia’s brother Bunio was out gathering wood when he was taken by the Germans to a forced labor camp. Twice a week, they were allowed to send him a package. Alicia’s family faithfully sent packages to her brother. Alicia would arrive on time twice a week to deliver her package to the drivers. Then one day they left early, without her being able to send her package. Later, when she questioned them, she was informed that at the camp, a boy had escaped. In retaliation, the Germans had lined the workers up and shot every 10th boy. Her brother Bunio was one of them.

Before Bunio had been murdered, Alicia had a brush with the Germans. In November 1941, she had gone to visit a friend at home. The Germans appeared and rounded up everyone in the house. Despite pleadings of the father of the family to let her go home, they were all led at gunpoint to the train station where they were loaded into box cars and locked in. They were packed so tight that they were forced to stand, except for the children, who could manage to lie down between the feet. Several hours later, someone discovered that one of the bars on the window was loose. The men in the car worked the bar until it came free and could be bent up out of the way. As they neared a mountain incline, they were able to loosen a second bar, making enough space to allow a child to slip through. Alicia was one of three children they pushed through the bars to freedom. She walked through the night, following the tracks home. She had only a sweater to keep her warm.

During another raid, an infant was left hidden in the house. As usual, the house was ransacked, obscenities shouted at the hidden Jews and even a shot was fired. After several hours of hiding, Alicia volunteered to go out and feed the child some more tea. When she found the child, she screamed and fainted. A German officer had found the baby and shot it through the head.

Some Jews began escaping to the country, bribing farmers and villagers to hide them. A man named Zachary had a girlfriend who was offered a hiding place for her and her two sisters. When the girls went out to the farm that was to be the hiding place, the farmer drove them into town and turned them over to the police. Zachary went out to kill the farmer. There was a struggle, and Zachary was wounded in the arm by a pitchfork. Nevertheless, he prevailed against the farmer and was about to kill him, but he could not go through with it.

One day, Alicia heard some people interrupt a conversation about her when she passed them by. She pried information out of them and learned that Zachary had been hung. She made one of his friends take her to where he was still hanging outside a police station. He had been beaten and tortured. As Alicia wept over his body, a Ukrainian police officer approached her, pointed his rifle at her and threatened to kill her. She told him to go ahead. Instead he settled for kicking her several times. Alicia and her brother’s friends returned in the night and secretly buried his body.

One day during the winter, Alicia returned home from getting water. She had not had time to remove her scarf when there was a knock at the door. When she answered it, a Polish police officer asked her if she was . In an act to save her mother, she said that it was she. The scarf covered her face enough that the officer, if he had even cared, would not have noticed that she was a young girl.

She was taken to the police station and shipped off to a prison in another city with many more women. As the prisoners were marching through the yard into the prison, she bent to help another woman who had been hit with a rifle butt. This infuriated a guard who began to beat her with his rifle, kicked her, hit her. Several ribs were fractured, and she lost some teeth, but she was able to stagger inside. The women were put six to a room and were given no food or water for 3 or 4 days. Every once in a while, women were led away and did not return. Alicia could hear the screams of prisoners outside being ripped apart by the German guard dogs.

Finally the women were given buckets of water and told to drink as much as they liked. Soon they became ill. Alicia woke several weeks later in a soft bed. Her savior was a Jewish man who was in charge of the work group that had come to the prison to bury the dead. He had noticed that she was still alive and had smuggled her from the prison. He and his wife had nursed her back to health. She found out that the water the Germans had given them was tainted with typhus. Those who had not died in prison had been released; sent back home to spread death among their own. If the Nazis could not shoot all of them, they would kill them by disease.

Alicia was smuggled home in the bottom of a cart used to haul Jewish bodies to burial. When she arrived, she found her mother and remaining brother both sick with typhus. With the help of her friend Milek, a boy whom she loved deeply, they were nursed back to health.

The Jews who were still alive after the many actions, were moved to another city which had been declared a “Judenrien”. When they arrived, they immediately began work on another bunker.

Unfortunately, they were unable to build it sufficiently large to hide all of them before the first action happened. Alicia was determined to keep her mother and brother safe and volunteered to hide in the attic while the rest hid in the bunker. She was on her way to the attic when she heard a baby cry. There were two infants sharing the house with them. She discovered that one had fallen asleep, but the other had not drunk enough chamomile tea. She had almost finished feeding it when the SS arrived. An officer entered the room where she stood. He shot both babies through the mouth, killing them.

Alicia was rounded up with many other people and taken to a meadow to a long trench. The Germans began to shoot them, killing those in front. Suddenly, she heard shooting near her. Her friend Milek had commandeered a submachine gun and was shooting at the Germans. He screamed for her to run. She made it into the forest and ran until she could run no more.

As part of a backup plan, her family had decided that if they should be separated, they would return to their hometown and wait for each other. She slowly made her way back home, working in fields for a piece of bread and a glass of buttermilk. She passed herself off as a Polish or Ukrainian orphan girl, as she spoke both languages fluently.

As agreed to early on, Alicia made her way back to Buczacz and waited for her mother. It was too dangerous to stay there, so she made her way out into the farmlands and continued to work in the fields for food. Soon her mother found her and she had to try to work hard enough for her mother and herself. It was too dangerous for her mother to be seen. Her youngest brother Herzl had disappeared before her mother had left the ghetto in search of her. They hoped he would make it back to Buczacz. From an old schoolmate, she learned that an acquaintance of her little brother’s had pointed him out to the police. He had been taken to the forest and shot.

Sometime later, Alicia came to the aid of an old man living by himself in the country. He had fits of epilepsy and she happened into him after one of these fits. The local villagers left him alone because they thought he would curse them. When winter fell, he became their savior, providing them with shelter during the bitter cold. Even when Alicia showed up with another Jewish lady and two other children she had saved from discovery by the Polish police, he allowed them all to stay. Alicia would do her best and find work at various farms in the surrounding villages to try to feed them all. Some people knew she was Jewish and gave her work and food. Others would tell her never to return, out of fear.

One day she accidentally stumbled upon another Jew in hiding. He was a furrier, making clothes for food. He told her what had happened to her father. She was now alone with her mother…everyone else had been murdered.

In March of 1944 the Germans withdrew. Freedom had come at last. Alicia and her mother returned to their native Buczacz and found an apartment. They began to survive again. It was short lived, however.

A couple months after their initial freedom, the Germans pushed back and retook Buczacz. In their flight out of the city, Alicia’s mother was wounded by a piece of shrapnel and they were forced to return to the city. After several days of hiding in their apartment, they heard a knock at the door. Their landlady had turned them into the Gestapo. Marched out onto the street, one of the Gestapo raised his pistol and pointed it at Alicia and fired. At the last moment, her mother threw herself in front of Alicia. She took the bullet intended for her daughter. She fulfilled a self-proclaimed prophecy. She had told Alicia that she would not survive the war, but that she knew Alicia would. She made Alicia promise to live. The Gestapo agent, having expended his last bullet, drug her off with the rest of the Jews into the forest to be shot. This time, Alicia bolted when the shooting started and hid herself in the river.

With her mother gone she felt lost. Eventually she found her way into a group of Polish youth voluntarily being shipped to Germany to work. She was shuffled onto a train with them and they were off. She was in a panic, not knowing what to do. Suddenly there were explosions and the train was halted. The door was flung open and the children were instructed to run to a nearby ditch. Russian partisans had attacked the train because it was also carrying Gestapo. Another explosion hit and Alicia was hit twice by shrapnel; once in the shin and once in the buttocks. She was able to dislodge the piece in her shin, and was never bothered by the other piece.

After the battle, the youth were rounded up and locked in the basement of some nearby building “for their own protection.” Alicia, seeing this as a means of escape, convinced another girl to help her slither out of the basement window. As she was about to run off, she noticed through a window, the Russian partisans who had been captured. Risking her own life, she freed several of them. Making good their escape, they would not allow her to remain with them and she was again on her own.

Soon after, she was befriended by a villager and his family. She worked hard for them until she was conscripted by the Germans to clean pots for the soldiers. She would have to climb into huge pots and scrub them clean. She found this advantageous as she was able to get extra food this way while scraping them clean.

One day she overheard the Germans preparing to attack a group of partisans reportedly in a section of forest nearby. She crept away, borrowed the villager’s horse and galloped off into the forest in the pouring rain. Risking her life again, she found and warned the partisans. Upon leaving the forest, she ran right into the group of soldiers sent to kill the partisans. Playing dumb, she began to cry about the horse running off and she was let free.

Sometime later, the Russians retook the area. She was again free. One day she was summoned to the Russian local headquarters. She went somewhat hesitantly, but when she arrived she was treated with honor and respect. She was the guest at a party and then was taken to the commander. It seems that she had thrice saved the live of this same group of partisans. Once when she had covered up for one of them who was raiding a potato field, again when she had rescued them after the train attack, and finally when she had warned them about the German’s sent to find them. The commander and his son (as well as others) were Russian Jews. She was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union and given papers expressing such, giving her an honorary rank of lieutenant, and freedom of movement.

Soon she returned to Buczacz and stayed for a while with some friends she had made during the ghetto days. One day, visiting some pre-war friends in another city, she was arrested with one of them on charges of blackmarketing. She spent 3 months in a Russian prison. She could have left (her papers as a Hero of the Soviet Union were quite the bargaining chip), but her friend would have remained. She opted to stay and save her friend. Eventually the girl’s brother, who was a soldier with the Russian Army, pulled some strings and freed them. She was greeted with open arms by the network of blackmarketers whom she had saved.

Her ordeals were not over however. While helping a Jewish boy stricken with depression at the loss of a leg, she found that her friend Milek had been killed by the same landmine that had wounded the other. It was time for her to move on.

Alicia traveled to Lvov, and then Krakow. She stayed with a Jewish family there who loved her like a daughter. One day she found a couple of girls crying in some bushes. They were survivors from the concentration camps. She took them home. She found more and more of them. She found a deserted house and opened an orphanage for them. She, at 15 years old, took responsibility for 25 children from 10-15 years of age. With the help of some Russian Jewish soldiers they had means to survive, and even prosper, selling old clothing.

Sometime later, she was approached by two of the main buyers of the clothing. They said they were part of the Brecha, a Jewish underground organization that moved Jews out of the Soviet occupied countries. They wanted her help. She had language skills, papers of freedom of movement and a medal as a Hero of the Soviet Union. Reluctantly she agreed. Before she left to start her work there, her adoptive family gave her a money belt with several thousands of dollars in cash and gold. She was told never to take the belt off.

After a couple of training runs with the Brecha involving bribes and threats to local officials to let the Jews out, she was sent on her own run. Two of her group were Jewish soldiers who had deserted from the Russian Army. They were dressed as girls. Someone noticed, however, that they didn’t walk like girls. Alicia was summoned to the local Polish police station. In order to save their lives, Alicia gave the officer her belt and her future. At the end of the run, Alicia fell ill. She had always been weak after the bout with typhus and this nearly killed her.

She decided that her days with the Brecha were over, and stayed in Allied occupied territory. She was relocated to Switzerland into a camp for displaced persons. It was there that she was given an opportunity to go to Israel, being smuggled in a boat. The British were blockading Israel against the wave of Jews trying to come in. There were strict rules on the number allowed to enter.

Eventually she made it, after a failed smuggling attempt and incarceration in a camp on Cyprus. She was finally free.

This is a brief history one person who survived against all odds and still remained a caring, compassionate person. She never let her fear and instincts for survival overrule her love for her fellow being. She risked her life several times for her family, and for complete strangers. She lived. She prospered. Alicia Jurman now lives in California with her husband and has several children.

Update: Alicia Jurman died on April 8, 2017, after a failed surgery to repair a leaking mitral valve. She was surrounded by family and friends as she passed.

Note: This article originally appeared in three parts in 2005. Here they have been combined.