Entwined: Me, Sabah and JDC
Growing up as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor always seemed normal. Just like the slight Polish accent I couldn't detect or the fact that my 100-year-old grandfather exercised every morning, none of it seemed weird, special, or out of the ordinary. As I grew up I learned that my grandfather and his life were not normal or ordinary at all. Everyone didn't have a Holocaust-surviving, money-donating, business-growing, daily-exercising, 17-grandchildren-loving, or book-writing grandfather, or Sabah as I called him.
June 8, 2016
Growing up as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor always seemed normal. Just like the slight Polish accent I couldn’t detect or the fact that my 100-year-old grandfather exercised every morning, none of it seemed weird, special, or out of the ordinary. As I grew up I learned that my grandfather and his life were not normal or ordinary at all. Everyone didn’t have a Holocaust-surviving, money-donating, business-growing, daily-exercising, 17-grandchildren-loving, or book-writing grandfather, or Sabah as I called him.
My Sabah, William Ungar, also known as Wolf, was born 1913 in the small town of Krasne, Poland. He grew up in a big Jewish family and eventually became an engineering instructor at a technical high. In 1939 he was in the Polish army and was injured; after, he was kept on as an engineer instructor during the German occupation. During his time as an engineering instructor, his student Edward Wawer gave him false Aryan identification papers.
In line with history, as millions of Jews were rounded up, Sabah’s entire family – including his wife and baby son among them – were exterminated by the Nazis. Sabah hid in a barn and was then taken to a labor camp, Janowska. With a bit of luck and many coincidences, my Sabah was able to escape the camp by joining in line with a group of prisoners who were exiting the camp, forced to desecrate Jewish cemeteries. While at the cemetery he somehow managed to sneak away and hid under a bush until dark. After his escape from Janowska, Sabah was graciously hidden by a superintendent of a building that would soon be occupied by the Gestapo. Until the war ended, for 10 months straight, Sabah hid in the basement cellar of this building in a coal bin. My Sabah always used to say he survived the Holocaust with a bit of luck, his education, many coincidences, and faith in God. But this is where the real story of William Ungar begins.
In his memoir Destined to Live, he writes ‘Sam [his friend] put me in touch with the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish rescue organization based in America. One day a food package unexpectedly arrived from them, along with a questionnaire asking if I had any relatives in the United States.’ After he survived this unthinkable nightmare, my Sabah was saved by none other than our JDC. Sabah goes on to explain how he made the dangerous journey to get on the first boat carrying survivors out of Europe,
‘A few days later Manya [his niece and sole surviving relative] and I were on our way to Bremenhaven to sail on the SS Marine Flasher. We were among the first boatloads of Holocaust survivors to leave Europe for the United States….Before we boarded I bought a large round loaf of dark bread and hid it under my jacket…It was going to be a long trip, and I was determined to start my new life with body and soul intact. That life started on May 19, 1946.’
This new life that my Sabah speaks of was only made possible by JDC.
I always knew my Sabah was helped by a Jewish assistance organization but it was not until I started working at JDC did the fact that JDC helped him truly hit me – not only that, but I was able to find proof of the life-saving assistance JDC provided.
Just a few months ago, the same week I had accepted my job at JDC, I was helping my mom clean items from my grandparents’ house. Sitting on the floor going through a pile of trash, my mind wandered as I sorted recyclables. My thoughts drifted to my new job: What would it be like? Was it the right fit for me? How would this decision impact the rest of my life? I was mostly thinking of my grandparents and how I wished they could know of the job I had just accepted. Just at that moment, I picked up a booklet, almost throwing it out, and four capital letters on the front page caught my eye: A – J – D – C. As I looked closer I saw they read ‘American Joint Distribution Committee.’ This was the title of this booklet, and underneath it read, ‘Operations in U.S. Zone Germany 1948.’ My jaw dropped as I realized this booklet came from my Nana and Sabah’s house – and of course it did: They were highly involved in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. I felt this was a message: My grandparents had found a way to convey to me their support and connection to my new job at JDC.
After bringing this booklet to the JDC Archives, I realized it was a piece of history JDC wanted but did not yet have. This led to me to search for my Sabah in the JDC Archives. To my shock, Linda Levi, Director of Global Archives at JDC, and I discovered a passenger list from the SS Marine Flasher, my Sabah’s life saver. Bringing in that booklet gave me the biggest present in return: my personal archives. Seeing my Sabah’s name ‘Ungar, Wolf’ on the list truly shook me to my core. To have this piece of my family history, this evidence of the trials and tribulations he had gone through and the interconnectedness of the Jewish people is incredible. It’s not every day you come from work having just found a piece of your personal family history. Until I began working at JDC, I did not realize the critical lifesaving role the organization played in my grandfather’s life and hence in mine.
I am blessed to have connected the dots between the opportunity I currently have here and the opportunities afforded to my Sabah. This newfound family artifact touched my heart and my family’s heart. It brought me closer to my job and, ultimately, to my Sabah.
JDC gave me a piece of my family history – and at the end of the day, it’s the whole reason I’m standing here today.
Naomi Levin is a program specialist in Global Immersive Experiences at JDC Entwine.