History brought Bella Urbach Solnik, from Lodz, Poland, and Howard Margol, from Jacksonville, Fla., to the same Nazi death camp. She was imprisoned there. He was a liberator.
She lost almost everything to a mechanized evil beyond imagination. He helped bring that evil to defeat. Somehow history wasn’t done with them; it took each of them back around the globe and made them neighbors on the same Atlanta street.
In Washington, D.C., this week, they will meet again at the Holocaust Memorial Museum to remember the victims lost to the Third Reich, and honor the soldiers who helped defeat it.
Each has a story to tell, but they hadn’t told it to each other until recently — 65 years after the fact. This is that story.
Loss and liberation
Bella Urbach was 13 when the Nazis invaded Poland, burned the synagogues and herded Jews into tightly controlled ghettos.
In 1941 her father was sent to the death camp at Chelmno. Her brother died. She was sent to a Nazi factory to braid straw. Her mother and five siblings were marched to an unknown location. She never saw them again.
By the time she turned 17, Bella’s waist-length blond braids had been shorn and she was put to work in a munitions factory. From there she was sent to a series of death camps, first Ravensbruck, then Buchenwald, then Dachau.
But Bella refused to die. She slipped away from a forced march at Dachau in March 1945. There was a late snow that year, and the Bavarian woods were cold.
Bella shivered, hiding in a ditch and stifling a cough, until it grew dark and her captors had moved off. The teenager found a barn and fell asleep in a haystack, then woke to a surprise — a farm worker bringing her warm goat’s milk and a potato.
For a starving, sick, 78-pound girl, the breakfast was like a reprieve sent from heaven.
As Bella was hiding in the woods, the U.S. Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division was making its way toward Dachau.
In the field artillery were Howard Margol and his identical twin brother, Hilbert. The 42nd had arrived in France in December 1944. They made their way to Dahn, Germany, where Jewish soldiers celebrated the first day of Passover in what may have been the first openly observed seder since Nazis came to power.
While still a distance from Dachau, they smelled a chemical stench that reminded Margol of a chicken being singed over an open flame.
Outside the camp, they passed boxcars full of the dead. It was April 29, 1945. The boxcars held the corpses of prisoners who had been transferred from Buchenwald. They had been locked inside without food or water for two and half weeks.
As the camp’s gates were forced open, the emaciated prisoners began shouting and crying and kissing the hands and feet of the Americans. Margol estimated 32,000 were crowded into the long, low barracks.
“I went into the camp and saw the ovens,” Margol recalled. “Then we knew where that stench was coming from.”
‘I didn’t see you’
One recent sunny afternoon, thousands of miles and a lifetime away from that nightmare, Howard Margol and Bella Urbach Solnik sat in a cozy Buckhead parlor, nibbling cookies and talking about their near-miss all those years ago.
For 40 years they have lived a few houses apart from each other on an upscale street off of Mt. Paran Road. They belonged to the same synagogue. But while they socialized, they never really talked about the war.
“The only thing Bella ever told me was that she was on a work detail and ran off into the woods,” said Margol. Until they spoke with a reporter, they didn’t realize that they had almost crossed paths in 1945.
Margol, now 86, realized that when he got to Dachau, Bella had gone. “I didn’t see you,” he said.
“You wouldn’t have recognized me,” said Solnik.
Before Margol’s division arrived at Dachau, Bella had managed to make her way to a second farmhouse, where a woman gave her a place to sleep, clean clothes and a bath. She stayed there for weeks and regained her strength.
“That lady was very good to me,” she told Margol. “I called her mama.”
Then the farmer found out Bella was Jewish. The woman had never met a Jew, only read about them in the Third Reich’s propaganda. “She thought, they are devils,” Solnik recalled.
By then, the Allies had arrived. “When the tanks came in, I started kissing the wheels of those tanks,” she said.
A young man named Pinkus Solnik also was at Dachau, though he had been held in a separate area from Bella. He’d survived because of his skills as an electrician. The Nazis needed him to tend to the lights used in their propaganda films.
Pinkus was at a displaced persons camp in Bavaria when the farmers brought Bella in on a wagon. He saw the “blonda ketzelah”— blond kitten — and knew she would be his wife.
While at the camp, they found a rabbi, Bella borrowed a white dress, and the two were married. In 1949, their first daughter was born. A few months later, with little English and no money, they moved to a city they’d never heard of.
“We couldn’t even pronounce Atlanta,” Solnik said.
After they reached their new home, Pinkus worked as an electrician before buying a small grocery store with a loan from a fellow Holocaust survivor.
Working 18-hour days, he saved enough to buy land, then build apartments, then acquire commercial property on Buford Highway. He bought a house in an upscale neighborhood, the same one that Margol had moved into four years before when his family furniture business expanded to Atlanta. Pinkus and Bella sent their daughters, Goldie, Betty and Rosalie, to college, and lived the American dream before Pinkus passed away in 2001.
“My father would sing so loudly, ‘God Bless America,’ ” said his daughter, Goldie Bertone. “You know how everybody’s always complaining because they have jury duty? He thought it was the greatest honor he could be given.”
Today, radiant at 84, his widow — a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother — is a different person from the young woman who first arrived in Atlanta. But the terrified teenager is still inside, a young woman determined to survive, to live long enough to tell the story of the Holocaust.
“She feels compelled to make sure the world knows, yet she can’t deal with it herself,” said her daughter, Betty Sunshine. “When she made the Shoah Foundation tape, it put her into bed for a week.”
Sunshine was referring to video testimonies that her mother and more than 52,000 other Holocaust survivors have made for the Shoah Foundation, an organization created by Steven Spielberg after he made the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List.”
A lasting memorial
This week, during Yom HaShoah, or the National Days of Remembrance, Solnik and thousands of others will silently witness to that history at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Solnik is believed to be the first death camp survivor from Atlanta to serve as a “torchlighter” in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, lighting one of six candles in honor of the six million Jews killed before and during World War II.
Margol, too, will travel to Washington for the event, which will also honor the liberators who freed hundreds of thousands of prisoners from death camps.
“The Holocaust isn’t just a part of our past, but is a watershed event that has a lot of implications for our future,” said Sara Bloomfield, director of the museum. “In the aftermath of the Holocaust you have an upheaval in human thinking and human understanding.”
In the midst of that upheaval, Bella and Pinkus Solnik created a new world in America. And now her longtime neighbor has added a few pieces to the puzzle of her past. She could never understand, for example, why the farm workers she encountered during her escape from Dachau spoke Russian. Margol explained that they had probably been captured in the Ukraine and brought to Germany as slave labor.
Solnik still mourns all the family she lost in the Holocaust. She said she sometimes feels like “a stone” — alone in the world.
She plans to make sure they are not forgotten. In their honor, Solnik plans to leave a bequest to the Holocaust Museum, where a plaque will list the names of her birth family. Her gift also will support the work of historians who are gathering the stories of other survivors and those they lost.
How we got the story
Bella Solnik glows with energy. Howard Margol can outwalk people decades younger. Both are in their 80s, but appear untouched by the years. Each played a part in, and has a story to tell about, one of the most dramatic episodes of the 20th century. But though they are longtime friends and former neighbors, they had never told their stories to each other. It was only when AJC reporter Bo Emerson brought them together to talk recently that the former soldier and the death camp survivor learned that their paths had nearly crossed at one of the most notorious concentration camps of World War II.
The National Days of Remembrance begin Sunday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with a reading of names of Holocaust victims. On Thursday, Gen. David H. Petraeus will give the keynote speech during a “torchlighting” ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. For information: www.ushmm.org.
A memorial ceremony also will take place 10:30 a.m. today in Atlanta at Greenwood Cemetery, 1173 Cascade Ave., Atlanta. The cemetery is one of the oldest Holocaust memorials in the country. For information, call Judy Schancupp at the Breman Museum, 678-222-3707, or Lili Baxter, at 404-870-1872.
Paul Shapiro, director of the Center of Advanced Holocaust Studies at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, will speak during a reception May 6 at the Atlanta home of Yoel and Jackie Levi; a $1,000 donation is suggested. For information: 866-521-9457.
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