Between the time she was born in 1923 and the day in 1939 the Nazis occupied her Ukrainian village of Tluste, Ulke Sommer’s family “was living a normal life,” she said.
Normal for Jews living in pre-war Poland, that is.
“We were second-rate citizens,” she said. “We were not equal with the Poles but we got education. We had two Jewish senators, and we had Jewish judges, lawyers, doctors. We lived a normal life, on good terms with our Christian neighbors. There were some hooligans who would beat up a Jew, and there were some Jewish hooligans, too. It was a normal life — until the war started,” she recalled.
Seated next to her husband, Julius, in a meeting room on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, she shared her dark wartime memories at a Feb. 9 Lunch and Learn session sponsored by the Holocaust Council of MetroWest.
After Hitler signed the brief nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1939, the area of Ukraine where Sommer’s family lived was occupied by Soviet troops. They imposed a socialist dictate by confiscating her wealthy parents’ large house. “I was already homeless. I didn’t have where to stay,” she said.
With her family already struggling for shelter, the situation worsened immeasurably two years later, when the Germans overran Tluste.
“If I live to 200 I will never forget,” Sommer told the approximately two dozen people gathered to hear her story. “There were 32 villages around our little town. The few Jews who lived in those villages were killed, and they were going to kill us, but our town had a priest who was a tzadik. When he heard what was going on, he gathered the intelligentsia and they took the strongest Ukrainian boys and put them around town, not to let in the murderers.
“I could have been killed that night. But this priest made sure the local people did not touch us.”
The Nazis, said Sommer, were also “chasing the Jews out, taking them to the cemetery, and having them dig their own graves. The Germans told my violin teacher to play while the Jews were killed.
“Before the war we had 1,800 Jewish people in our town. In two days, 3,000 Jews were killed. Ten days later, 2,000 more. In 10 days they killed 5,000 Jews.”
Along with local inhabitants, the casualties included Jews who had fled from parts of Poland, Hungary, and Romania to what they had hoped would be a safe haven.
Sommer and her family were able to hide in the attic of an old house near a railroad station the Soviets had bombed as they retreated. The rubble camouflaged the rooftop of the hiding place for her family and some 30 other people.
Sommer recalled that among them was a mother who confronted an impossible problem — how to keep everyone safe and her hungry infant quiet. “The woman had no milk anymore to nurse the baby, and if the baby started crying we were all in danger of being found,” said Sommer. “The poor woman chose to give her child away.”
The people in hiding were mindful of another mother a few blocks away who had “choked her own baby to save her husband and her boys.”
That woman, said Sommer, later “died in an insane asylum in Israel.”
‘Nobody came back’
“When the Germans took somebody, nobody came back,” Sommer said. “But one day they took about 10 or 20 Jewish people from our town and put them in jail. After two weeks the people came back. You know what they did? They infected them with typhoid and sent them back to our town. The typhoid spread. I had typhoid. Julius had typhoid. My mother had asthma, and she had typhoid.
“One day the Germans told us, ‘Run, run,’ and my mother started begging me, ‘Run, run, child.’ I just couldn’t do it. The bullets were flying right over us. If I would have left my mother, she would have been killed. She died two weeks later of natural causes.”
After losing 83 people from their combined families, Sommer and her longtime boyfriend Julius married after the war in 1945.
They moved to New York, then New Jersey, and now live at the Lester Senior Housing Community in Whippany. They are the parents of twin daughters (one of whom died five years ago) and have three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
In 1989 Sommer paid a return visit to her hometown. “I was treated like a queen by people I went to school with. When we came to the cemetery with the mass graves, I saw a cow defecating on those 5,000 victims. I stared crying.”
Sommer arranged to have a monument erected at the cemetery. “I was given the idea by the non-Jewish people there. They were very happy to see me. Another village, another town, a Jew comes and is not welcome. But they welcomed me” in Tluste.
Sommer said she believes fervently in survivors’ passing their memories to their children, children’s children, and even the little ones she calls “GGs”— great-grandchildren.
“I was 33 months under the German occupation, and in order for me to tell you how I survived I would have to sit for 33 months, day and night, to tell you.
“Each and every second of that time I could have been killed for no reason at all.”