Sophie was born Selma
How can life change so terribly?
Sophie Turner-Zaretsky was born Selma Schwarzwald in Lvov (Lwow, L'viv), Poland, on September 2, 1937. Her father, Daniel, was a successful businessman who exported timber and her mother, Laura, had studied economics.
On June 30, 1941 everything began to change for Sophie's family—the Germans entered Lvov and the repression and killing of Jews began immediately. Daniel had a job as a guard and his work permit gave the family temporary safety, but in November the Germans started to move all Jews into a ghetto.
Sophie's entire family was forced into the ghetto: her grandparents Josef and Mina Litwak, her aunts Adela and Fryda, and her uncle Emanuel. The family watched as thousands of Jews were murdered or sent for forced labor to the nearby Janowska camp and, later, in 1942, were deported from the ghetto to the Belzec killing center. Every day the family grew more and more scared. In August 1942 Sophie's grandparents were rounded up and deported to Belzec where they later died.
Hiding and Escape
How do you stay alive and escape?
Daniel tried to buy false documents for Laura and Sophie. The SS were getting close and roundups of Jews for deportation were happening frequently so Laura and Sophie went into hiding for a few days. The hiding place was a platform under the roof of an adjacent house. Laura had to throw Sophie across an airshaft to someone who would catch her on the other side and then Laura would jump across from one window to the next.
Daniel finally managed to get false papers for his wife and daughter and insisted they make plans to leave. On September 1, 1942, he went to the Jewish Council for help in finding a new place to live but that same day the council was blamed for the death of a German soldier. Daniel tried to escape as the Germans surrounded the building but he was shot and killed. To this day Sophie remembers the night her father didn't come home. Five days after Daniel was killed Laura and Sophie escaped from the ghetto on a train and made it to Krakow.
Sophie and her Mother Make a New Life
What is it like to become a different person?
Sophie was five years old when she and her mother made a new life for themselves in the autumn of 1942. Sophie's mother constantly changed their address in the city, afraid the SS would catch up with them. When she looked for work, Laura had to leave Sophie with an old woman who made Sophie pick up cigarette stubs in the street.
Laura decided to act on the advice of her old Christian landlady in Lvov to find a job in a resort town where it would be easier to assume new identities and where the local population was used to seeing strangers. Laura had a Christian bible and prayer book the landlady gave her. Laura placed an ad for a job outside Krakow (Cracow) and in a strange twist of fate an officer in the SS answered her ad and helped save Sophie and her mother. They moved again and Laura became a translator and housekeeper for the officer in the town of Busko Zdroj.
Sophie—now Zofia Tymejko—was confused about what to tell people. Her mother drilled it in to her that her father was taken by the Russians. Sophie had blonde hair and light eyes so few suspected she might be Jewish.
Joined by Adela, Laura's sister (Sophie's maternal aunt) in December 1944, the family remained together until their liberation in the spring of 1945. While in hiding and immediately following liberation, Sophie gradually forgot that she was Jewish and adopted the Catholic faith and celebrated her first communion shortly after liberation in 1945.
The Teddy Bear
Who will comfort you?
At some point after the war, Sophie received a small stuffed bear as a birthday or Christmas present from her mother. The bear had moving arms and legs and was about three inches high. Sophie's aunt Adela crocheted a coat for the bear. Sophie thought the honey brown bear with eyes that were askew looked “a little down and out.” She later named it “Refugee,” just like she and her mother were refugees of the war. The little bear would be by her side for decades.
Sophie Learns her Real Identity
How do you start over again?
In 1946 Laura contacted her aunt in London and her uncle in New York who then helped Laura and Sophie leave Poland. When they arrived in London in 1948, Laura told Sophie she was Jewish. Sophie could not believe it and suffered a breakdown. For years she had learned to hate Jews.
Despite the shock, Sophie learned to listen, observe, and fit in. She didn't know the local customs or the language but she applied herself academically, even in Hebrew school. Sophie's mother changed their last name to Turner and Sophie attended college and later medical school. In 1963 she went to stay with relatives in the United States and complete her medical residency. Sophie slowly became more comfortable with being Jewish.
Sophie wanted to marry an American Jew and in 1970 she married David Zaretsky. They had two sons. Sophie Turner-Zaretsky is still a practicing radiation oncologist in New York.
Saving the Bear
How do you remember?
For over 50 years Sophie held on to the bear that she had received as a little girl. It was with her when she was Zofia, a Catholic in Poland; it was with her when she grew up in England; and it was with her when she moved to the United States to begin a new life yet again. The bear was a silent witness to the miracle of Sophie's rescue, rebirth, and success.
On the Space Shuttle Discovery
A timely reminder of history’s relevance
In December 2006, Space Shuttle Discovery Commander Mark Polansky took a replica of "Refugee" with him on the shuttle's mission. Each astronaut is invited to take a few items into space. Polansky took the replica of "Refugee" and an image of a Darfurian child in a refugee camp in Chad taken by Museum staff member Jerry Fowler.
Commander Mark Polansky visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on February 27, 2007, to meet Sophie Turner-Zaretsky. He presented the replica of the bear and the photo—along with NASA space travel certificates—to Museum chief of staff Bill Parsons, who said the Museum wanted to provide something that would be a timely reminder of history’s relevance.
Critical Thinking Questions
- Why were children particularly vulnerable during the Holocaust?
- Consider the numerous challenges hidden children faced. Did they require adult help to face them, or were they forced to handle them individually?
- Learn more about how objects can help us learn history and memorialize important events.