She was supposed to die.
Emily Kessler was the mouse. The Nazis were the cats. The chase went on for two years. The mouse was scared and starving. The cat was agile and ferocious. But the cat didn’t know there were other players in the game. This is their story.
When the sun blinked through the winter skies of Khmelnik, Ukraine on Jan. 9, 1942, Emily Kessler didn’t know it would be the last day she would ever be home. The war had taken her husband the year before and she was living with her parents and her brother Sasha, along with her two-year-old son.
The town was swarming with SS death squads and Wehrmacht combat units whose mission was the liquidation of Jews, day after day, without restraint or compromise, with the help of local collaborators. Since the Nazis had marched in, Jews were all made to wear the yellow Star of David, first on their sleeves, then on their chests and on backs. The Jews were all assigned backbreaking and humiliating work, which was the least bad thing they had to do. They were not allowed on the sidewalks of their hometown. They were not allowed to buy food. They were not allowed to see a doctor. They were beaten or killed on the whims of the Nazis.
At 6:00 a.m. on that frigid January morning, several Nazis burst in into Kessler’s home and started beating her. One of them pointed his gun at Kessler’s brother Sasha. During Stalin’s homegrown famine in the 1930s, Sasha had fainted on the road from hunger, was hit by a bus and had lost both his legs in the accident.
Nazis were not known for their kindness to the physically challenged.
Kessler stood between the gun and her brother but the soldier pushed her away and killed Sasha in front of her eyes. Too numb to process what she had just seen, she forgot to put clothes on her two-year-old son, Valeriy, when she was pushed and prodded out on the cold street. There were more Jews lined outside and Nazis on horses herding them towards the nearby forest. When they entered the forest Kessler saw a large pit.
Quickly enough, Nazi horsemen started screaming at people to strip naked and then shot and pushed them into the pit. Kessler saw them throwing down babies in the pit over their dead parents. She saw them breaking the babies into two on their knees. She saw a friend walking towards the pit with dead eyes and no will to fight.
Kessler wanted to live for three reasons. She didn’t want to die young, she didn’t want her son to die and she wanted to bear witness to what she had seen. She started darting from one line of captives to another on the frosty forest floor in her summer dress, undeterred by the guards who were beating her.
When her turn at the edge of the pit came, a strange thing happened. A German officer looked at her and decided she was not a Jew. He told her to run away. She ran but was caught and brought back to the pit by the local policemen. Again, the German officer looked at her and told her to run away.
Kessler later heard that thousands of Jews – men, women and children – were killed in the mass shooting that she had escaped. Those alive, like Kessler, were rounded up and marched to the prison where they were kept for four days without food or water.
She fed her hungry baby boy the snow frozen on the windowsill of her cell. Kessler saw her parents through the prison window once and they saw her. Only once in those four days, a local policeman tore off a piece of bread and threw it at the prisoners. A hundred fifty pairs of hands rushed to catch the bread. Kessler caught a tiny piece.
The Jews were soon ordered to move into a ghetto where 200 of them were crammed together on cold floors. A week after she saw her brother’s death, Kessler witnessed rows and rows of Jews sentenced to death. Among them were her parents, embracing each other, dawdling to their death. Some of the Jews, unhinged or truly happy, were dancing while they moved to the grave.
In the ghetto, those “fit” were made to work. Like many, Kessler washed the lavatories used by Nazis with bare hands, carried bricks for construction and ploughed the snow from the roads. Her hands, tiny and delicate, that once strummed the mandolin were always busy scraping and scrubbing dirt. She grew weaker and weaker and knew she wouldn’t pass the medical test that sent the unfit Jews to the graves. It was forbidden to treat sick Jews or even those dying of starvation. The labor camp was a factory for making people sick and then dead. Then she heard whispers in the camp that all the children were to be killed the next night. She did the unthinkable. She slipped out of the ghetto in the dark of night.
Kessler roamed the town for days, looking for places to spend the nights. She hid in abandoned buildings and cellars while avoiding the soldiers and their search dogs. One night, she knocked on the door of a woman named Vera Shchupova. She was the sister one of a Ukrainian policemen in the ghetto. She was also Kessler’s classmate when they were children.
It was a rainy night when Vera Shchupova opened her doors and found Emily Kessler with Valeriy at her step, barefoot and drenched. Her brother’s position meant Shchupova had the freedom to go inside the fenced area without restrictions. Her brother didn’t know that she had been going to the ghetto to slip food to Kessler and few others. She told Kessler that, as she feared, the Nazis had carried off the children’s Aktion — mass killings of sick, disabled and children “unworthy of life” started by Hitler in 1939. She let Kessler in and hid her in the basement for a month. During the time Kessler was hiding in Shchupova’s basement, her brother often visited her sister’s home with his fellow officers.
American cartoonist Art Spiegelman once asked his psychiatrist Pavel, a Czech Jew and survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz, how it felt to be in the camp, to live under the shadows of Nazis and SS officers.
“What Auschwitz felt like?” Pavel said, “How can I explain?”
“BOO!” He startled Spiegelman with the loud sound.
“It felt a little like THAT,” Pavel said. “But ALWAYS. From the moment you got to the gate until the very end.”
Kessler lived in Shchupova’s basement hearing the Nazi collaborators and policemen coming and going. Frightened of her own baby’s cries, she finally asked Shchupova if there was a way she could leave the town. Shchupova thought of Yekaterina (Katya) Surovova.
Yekaterina (Katya) Surovova was a Gentile woman who had been widowed at a young age, much like Emily Kessler. She was raising a daughter and a son on her own with her job in a coat factory in Khmelnik. She saw the Nazis march into her town, where most of the non-Jewish population was very pro-German. It was no surprise that they had found so many collaborators so quickly. In these times, there was a thin line between collaborators and bystanders. Surovova fell in neither of these comfortable categories. When her friend Shchupova sought Surovova and asked her if she would give her passport to help Kessler flee, she thought of Kessler and her baby boy. She thought of her own children. The passport had her face, her name, her address on it. Kessler’s arrest would have meant death, not just for her but for her children too. All she had to do was lower her head and carry on with her life like many around her were doing. Why risk her life, the life of her children for a Jew with SS guards on her heels? She had all the reasons not to help Kessler. She decided to help her.
With her new passport, Kessler was now Katya Surovova. She left town with her son and another Aktion survivor, 13-year-old Fira Milkis whom Kessler had found hiding in a cellar. They walked through the day, and slept in the shade of haystacks when the night fell. After days of walking and they came upon the border zone, patrolled by frontier-guards who killed anyone trying to cross the line. Kessler waded through a river that was running up to her neck, carrying her son over her head and Milkis in tow. Somehow the frontier-guards missed them. She eventually came to the town of Zhmerinka in Central Ukraine, which was under Romanian control. But she was still was not safe, not if anyone took too close a look at her passport. So she kept running and running until the country was liberated in March of 1944.
While Kessler was still in the labor camp, the local policemen had allowed a few people to bring bedding from their now abandoned houses. When Kessler had made her way back to her home, she had found all the windows and doors broken. The house stood silent and plundered, covered with blood and feathers. And in the middle lay the frozen corpse of her brother. Kessler had just stood there, staring at her brother. She couldn’t cry, for fear her cries might be heard. In the end, she couldn’t bring herself to take anything from the house, not even her baby’s clothes.
Instead of returning home to Ukraine after the war, Kessler decided instead to go to Moscow and that was where she remained for another 30 years. Every October, however, she returned to Khmelnik for the memorial service of those perished in Holocaust. She also visited her saviors, Shchupova and Surovova. Finally, in 1977, she and her grown son left the Soviet Union for America. But life in New York was difficult for Kessler. She knew no one and spoke little English.
It wasn’t until 1985 that she caught a glimpse of home. She was walking past a music shop window in Manhattan when she spotted a mandolin, an instrument whose song was the song of home. She had somehow forgotten in the midst of all the noisy, bloody memories that she knew how to play mandolin. The lyrics of all the Ukrainian songs she had once sung came rushing back to her.
Now, Emily Kessler has a map of wrinkles on her face and eyes that still twinkle with intelligence. She won’t talk without clasping her pearl necklace around her neck. She most probably will comment about the lack of grey in her chestnut hair. And she is always translating English to Russian and Russian to English with the help of an old withering dictionary. She has battled depression and memories her whole life.
But she’s home when she plays her mandolin.
Through Emily Kessler’s story I wanted to know the answer to one question – why do people show remarkable courage in extremely difficult times when they have a choice to look the other way?
I knew the story was all about memories – reliving them, corroborating them and looking at one remembrance from different vantage points. When I went to meet 98-year-old Emily Kessler in her Upper West Side apartment, she had forgotten that we had an appointment but then she scrubbed her face clean, creamed it, clasped her pearl necklace around her neck and sat down on her sofa to talk to me. She told me as much as she could. We spoke about her life after the liberation, her days in the camp, her rescuers and their family. She told me she still sends three hundred dollars, every three months, to Kolya Surovova – the grandson of her rescuer Katya Surovova. She told me how she had even helped and was in touch with another inmate of the same labor camp Sophia Karpovich, now living in New York.
So, I contacted Sophia Karpovich, now 77-years-old, to know her side of the story. Her memories (including what she had heard from her elder brother, also an inmate in the camp) matched Kessler’s.
The next step was to contact the Surovovas in Ukraine. They were pleased to corroborate Kessler’s story. Kolya said something to the effect that their grandmother’s one good deed was now rescuing his family with the money Kessler sends them. The economic conditions of Ukraine are at their worst and the only earning member in Kolya’s family of four is his wife Tatiana.
Then I asked him – why did she do it? Why did Katya help Kessler?
She was a mother too, Kolya said. They must have connected, she saw the baby. But the answer really was this – she just did.
I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact someone could risk her own life and that of their family to save someone she hardly knew. I myself have witnessed how easy it is to do otherwise, and it had been to a question that has been haunting me since childhood. I had witnessed sectarian riots in my native India. I had seen my own neighbors turn into bystanders; I had seen people who were kind to those utterly helpless and at the mercy of the mob. I had always wanted to know the difference between those who acted well, and those who did not.
So I contacted Kristen Renwick Monroe, Director of University of California Irvine’s Ethics Center. She has written three books analyzing altruism and ethics in the age of terror. She gave me the psychological answers to my question based on her extensive research and years of interviews with people who fell in three categories: rescuers, silent bystanders and the tormentors.
She told me that altruists see the world as one and believe they have no choice but to save other people. Bystanders, by contrast, see themselves as weak and unable to change the fate of anyone, so they remain uninvolved – looking the other way. Tormentors (in Kessler’s case, the Nazis) believe they are under attack, and so have a rationale for inflicting pain.
Her research suggested a thin line between those who rescued Jews and those who didn’t. It is clear from the quotes of those Monroe interviewed and included in her book “Ethics in the Age of Terror:”
“But what else could I do? They were human beings like you and me.” ~ Rescuers of Jews during Holocaust
“But what could I do? I was one person, alone against the Nazis.” ~ Bystanders, World War II.
I then contacted Yad Vashem – an organization that was established in 1953 as the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. They sent me links to the records and accounts of these two women – Vera and Katya – who had saved Kessler and Valeriy’s life. Yad Vashem also honors those non-Jews who had aided Jews during World War II. Since 1960s, the title of “Righteous Amongst the Nations” has been awarded to 24,355 people from over 47 countries. Vera and Katya are among them.
I went on the website of Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. to find any references of Kessler and got a hit. Apparently in 1993, with the help of someone in New York Public Library, Kessler had written a memoir of her ordeals in Khmelnik under German occupation. That is how I came to find Kessler’s memoir.
Now, I had the pieces of Kessler’s story, from many sources including her own words, written when she was young.
During the interview Kessler said something that made me think about the masks we all wear over our scars everyday.
“I smile,” Kessler. “People know me only smiling. People find me beautiful. How can I be beautiful after what I have seen?”