Yiddish flies around the kitchen as the three older women grapple with the temperature in the Northeast Philadelphia house in which they've gathered. These white-haired widows in their 80s have been friends for more than 30 years. Paula Spigler, Serena Zelmanovitch and Hannah Andrusier talk on the phone daily, attend Ohev Shalom synagogue in Richboro on Saturdays and squabble like sisters.
They share a unique link. They are Holocaust survivors.
Three weeks before Yom Hashoah, which falls this year on Sunday, April 11, the women gathered in Spigler's home to share stories that they don't like telling.
"The Nazis came to Poland in 1939," Spigler, now 86, begins. She was a 15-year-old girl from an Orthodox Jewish home when she was herded into the Lodz ghetto.
"I worked in a corset factory," says Spigler. "We made underwear and bras for German women. I was lucky to work. I had it easy."
She did not, in actuality.
Yad Vashem says that of the 240,000 Jews forced into the Lodz ghetto, only 800 survived.
In telling her story, Spigler jumps over large patches of time, omitting the darkest of her experiences. One of them has to do with her mother.
"She died in my arms of starvation" is all Spigler will say. It was 1941.
That same year, Hannah Andrusier's father was murdered thousands of miles away in Romania, as the Nazis invaded the village in which her family lived.
"They put a bullet into my father's head, right in front of me," says the 85-year-old. "Just like that, he was dead."
She was 16. Her mother, siblings and 20,000 other Romanian Jews were marched hundreds of miles to Transnistria, a labor camp in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.
The Andrusiers were held there for three years. Andrusier has little to say about the experience.
"We worked." She shrugs. "We ate beets."
On March 6, 1944, Andrusier was liberated as the Soviets pushed the Nazis out of Russia.
As the Soviets advanced, the Nazis tightened their grip on Jewish Europe.
In 1944, the Nazis liquidated the Lodz ghetto, where Spigler had survived for five years. Spigler was loaded onto a train that — after two days without food or water — arrived in Hasag, a labor camp in the Polish city of Czestochowa.
"I worked in an ammunitions factory," she says.
Meanwhile, in Czechoslovakia, life as she knew it was ending for 14-year-old Serena Zelmanovitch. Her father was a wealthy farmer; the family was Orthodox. In 1944, Zelmanovitch, her parents and siblings were loaded onto cattle cars. After three days without food or water, they arrived in Auschwitz.
Her father and brothers were herded off in one direction. That's the last time that she saw them, she recalls.
Zelmanovitch was put into a line with other children.
"My sister and mother were in the other line, and I started to scream," says the 82-year-old. "I ran to my momma. The Nazi said: 'If she stays in this line, you go in that line.' And she went into the line for the gas chamber. So that I could live, she died."
Somehow, Zelmanovitch's older sister, Malka, understood that if they could work, they wouldn't be killed. Zelmanovitch says that Malka found bricks for her sister to stand on to look taller and pinched her cheeks to look healthier. "Malka told the guards: 'We are strong. Send us to work.' "
The sisters were put into a labor unit and sent to camps that included Stutoff, Kaiserwald and others. During a forced march, they took refuge in a barn somewhere in the Polish countryside. Zelmanovitch says that she, her sister and other women in their labor unit were sleeping when someone ran into the barn and shouted: " 'The Russians are here. We are free!' "
But free did not mean safe. Zelmanovitch says that upon liberation, the Russians also raped many of them.
"They were skin and bones," she recalls. "Unwashed. Body lice. And still, the Russians raped them."
Within days of Zelmanovitch's freedom — on Jan. 17, 1945 — Spigler was liberated by the Soviets from Dvarta camp in Poland, where she had been taken after the liquidation of Hasag.
Over the next weeks and months, the women made their way back to their hometowns in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania. Each woman got married — to a Holocaust survivor.
Not until they came to Philadelphia did their lives intersect. Leon and Paula Spigler emigrated first, in 1949. Hesh and Hannah Andrusier arrived in 1960. Solomon and Serena Zelmanovitch came in 1977.
The three couples started out in different areas of the city, but all eventually bought homes in the Northeast and joined Adath Tikvah synagogue, which later merged with Ohev Shalom.
Spigler, Andrusier and Zelmanovitch became fast friends. They still refer to themselves as "the girls."
They have shared 30 years of their lives, the mitzvahs of children and grandchildren, and the shivahs for their husbands.
And they also share Yom Hashoah, which to them is a yahrzeit for their murdered parents, siblings, cousins and friends.
They attend a Yom Hashoah memorial ceremony at Ohev Shalom, where they are honored as survivors. They also make it a point to go to the annual memorial service at the Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs at 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
'We Are Dying Off'
In January, at a event held by the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation that took place in the office of Mayor Michael Nutter, the three spoke about the memorial service on the Parkway.
"It used to be a lot of people would come," says Zelmanovitch.
"Not anymore," adds Andrusier. "The survivors, we are not a big group anymore. We are dying off. And then, the other people, they don't come."
"They forget," says Spigler. "They think the Holocaust is ancient history."
"But genocide, it happens all over the world, still today," chimes in Andrusier.
"That's why we have to speak," says Zelmanovitch. "To say that the Holocaust happened. It happened to me."