Barbara Mand was born Bronya Szpilman on April 11, 1920, in Lodz, Poland, to David and Lea Miller Szpilman. She had a sister Andzia and a brother Motus. (See also Anna (Angie) Szpilman Suss). They came from a family of klezmer musicians. (Szpilman in German means player.) Her most famous relative was Wladyslaw Szpilman, a concert pianist and composer, whose story was featured in the book and movie The Pianist.
Lodz was a major textile center where her parents had built a successful wholesale and retail outerwear business which they ran from their large apartment.. Religiously observant, the family led a comfortable, assimilated life until WWII began. On September 8, 1939, German troops occupied Lodz and their lives changed dramatically. The family’s business was taken away and the children could no longer attend school.
By May 1940 a ghetto was formed in a run-down section of the city. Families had to share tiny apartments and most Jew became forced laborers: Barbara worked in a textile factory while Angie made boots in a straw shoe factory, Motus had an office job while her father worked in a tailor sweat shop. Their mother Lea remained at home, spending long hours in line to buy the limited groceries they could to buy under the strict ration system. Summers she found ways of supplementing their meagre diet by growing some food crops outside their living quarters. She would recycle clothes no longer wearable. Without a work permit, however, Lea was selected to be shipped away during a week-long gehsperre (curfew) imposed on the ghetto from September 5-12, 1942, and sent to the Chelmno death camp where she was murdered.
Despondent with their loss, Angie’s family struggled to go on as best they could with Angie and Barbara doing their best to take their mother’s place. One day Barbara was lucky enough to be chosen by the Judenrat (Jewish governing council) to have a special meal in the ghetto kitchen. She could eat as much as she wanted, but she was not allowed to remove any food from the kitchen. The salad she was given had a cherry tomato on top. As hungry as she was, Barbara hated tomatoes but her sister Angie loved them. When it was time to leave, Barbara hid the cherry tomato in her mouth and brought it home for Angie.
Life went on until On August 8th, 1944, when Angie’s brother Motus received a letter to be deported; however, that night, the police, announced the immediate and complete liquidation of the ghetto. The whole family had to stand in a crowded cattle car without food or water with hundreds others until they reached Auschwitz. Upon arrival, men and women were separated and a selection took place. Her father was killed immediately, and her brother three days later. Just before they were separated, their father David told his children that if anyone survived the war, they should go to America and reconnect with his family living in New York.
Barbara and her sister Angie, now the only survivors, were sent to the barracks in Birkenau where they remained for ten days after enduring endless roll calls and starvation, only to be put back on cattle cars and shipped to Bergen-Belsen. After six weeks there, they went to Salzwedel, Germany where with 19 other girls they were forced to work for the German war effort, manufacturing bullets. On the train ride there, Barbara injured her ankle and was put in an ambulance for treatment overnight, but Angie overheard a guard saying that all the prisoners sleeping there would be shipped away the next morning. Angie encouraged her sister to leave the wagon and so they could remain on the work detail together, thus saving her life.
As the war was coming to an end, French prisoners, working in a POW camp nearby, overheard that the German guards were given orders to electrocute the girls because the American army was eight miles away. The Nazis did not want to leave any Jews alive as witnesses.
Instead of following these orders, the French factory workers cut the power lines, thereby saving the girls who were liberated on April 12, 1945. Barbara and Angie traveled back to Lodz but found that no family members had survived. Leaving Poland for good, the sisters returned to Germany trying to find a way into the United States. They were placed in a displaced persons’ camps where Barbara met Herman Mand and Angie met Jacob Suss. The sisters were married in a double wedding ceremony on March 24, 1946.
Throughout their marriage Barbara proved to be a loving and supportive wife to Herman. They both were happy to be alive and to have children after what was taken from them. She loved to sing to her children and grandchildren. Her favorite song was You are My Sunshine. Barbara passed away on passed away on March 21, 2015 at the age of 94, three weeks shy of her 95th, peacefully with her loving family at her side.
Adapted from Angie’s Story by Barbara Appelbaum and Peter Marchant