Wilmington resident who survived Holocaust spreads message of love to Ursuline students


Dialog reporter
WILMINGTON — Ann Jaffe is more than 70 years and 4,000 miles from her childhood in eastern Poland, but time and distance hasn’t dulled the memories she has of living in destitute conditions and in constant fear of death as a young girl. The Wilmington resident, a survivor of the Nazi-created ghettos from World War II, visited Ursuline Academy in mid-December to tell her story to a rapt audience.
Jaffe, now 85, and her family spent three years in detention or in hiding, surviving by will and sheer luck. Her hometown had a population of 1,200, of whom 350 were Jewish; of those, 32 survived the war.
Her brother was just 20 days old when the Nazis arrived in 1941. The Germans forced the residents to give up anything of value, so Jaffe’s parents surrendered their wedding bands.
“People gave away everything they had” to prevent others from being killed, she said. Still, that was not enough to save most of the residents.
“If they had taken everything we had and let us live, we would have been very, very grateful,” she continued.

Holocaust survivor Ann Jaffe speaks to students at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington in mid-December. Jaffe’s family lived under Nazi oppression, followed by 20 months in a forest. The Dialog/Mike Lang
Holocaust survivor Ann Jaffe speaks to students at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington in mid-December. Jaffe’s family lived under Nazi oppression, followed by 20 months in a forest.
The Dialog/Mike Lang

Some neighbors, trying to stay alive, turned on each other and volunteered to become executioners. That was painful, Jaffe said. She couldn’t understand the Nazis’ thinking.
“Where does such hatred come from?” she asked. “Babies, when they are born, they don’t know of hatred.”
The residents, prisoners in their own town, wondered which group of Jews would be selected to die each month. Rabbis were forced to set the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew bible – on fire, and if they refused, they were killed. From her home, Jaffe could see these acts occur. She recalled one day on which 54 Jews were executed. If anyone tried to escape, 10 others were killed. Few attempted this route.
“When you live in a small place like this, it is your family,” she explained.
Eventually, Jaffe’s family was taken from their homes, and they “realized we were waiting for our execution.” They were told where they would be buried. At one point, Jaffe, who was 10 years old at the time, decided she would rather run and be shot than walk to a ditch where she would be buried.
The family received its first reprieve when the Nazis deemed Jaffe’s mother useful because she was a seamstress. Her father went to work in a warehouse, and when her mother’s work making dresses was done, he was able to remain at the warehouse, further sparing the family.
At one point, the family was traveling on a truck with other Jewish families, and only theirs survived.
“You also had to be extremely lucky” to survive, said Jaffe, who married a chemist and moved to Wilmington when he went to work for DuPont.
Her family was living in a home in a ghetto when they decided to try and escape, and they made their way into a forest with other Jewish people on Nov. 1, 1942. They ran through a swamp and into one forest, walking all night to reach another forest, where they would spend the next 20 months.
There, they survived by begging, and they fought against the bitter cold. She remembered one boy who sat under a tree a few yards from a fire one night, and the next morning he had frozen to death.
“We didn’t even have a piece of rag to cover our heads from the cold,” Jaffe said. “I will never forget those days.”
She asked her father if this is how she would die and sometimes thought that would be better than living like she was. They were malnourished, infested with lice, and many suffered from typhoid fever. Finally, they were liberated on July 4, 1944. Jaffe said she had a lot of hate in her heart, but her father set her straight.
“They have no idea that you hate them,” he said of the Nazis. “You are destroying yourself.”
Instead, he counseled, spread a message of love, which she does when she speaks to students.
“We are all different from one another, and yet, we are all the children of God,” she said.