A World After This Lola & Mechel's Wedding Day
Click on the titles below to view chapter excerpts.


The Second World War is known by a variety of terms. Often it is referred to only as WWII. In Russia today it continues to be called, as it was during the Soviet period, the Great Patriotic War. After the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, World War II also involved the Pacific region.  However, for Jews from Europe, and indeed for Jews throughout the world, the period is known primarily as the Holocaust.

Holocaust is a word derived from Greek, which means quite literally “completely burnt” but which has its origins in the concept of a burnt offering or sacrifice to a higher being. Therefore in more recent times many Jews have preferred to call it the Shoah, which is the Hebrew word for calamity or catastrophe. In Yiddish the word is churben, destruction (pronounced: khur-ben, based on the Hebrew chur-ban).  In English, when capitalized the word Holocaust refers specifically to the mass genocide of Jews and others perpetrated by the Nazis during and preceding World War II.

Hitler and his forces eventually would term their murderous actions “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Their goal was to eliminate all Jews in continental Europe and to move beyond that into the British Isles. Indeed, we now know they had prepared a list of prominent English Jews they intended to have arrested first. The Allied victory came not a minute too soon.
Approximately six million Jews were killed during the period of the Shoah. But it is impossible to arrive at a reliable number for those who died shortly after liberation from the suffering they endured during the war years. When one adds the non-Jews who were also killed, it is estimated that the Reich extinguished between ten and eleven million lives. The others murdered included: Christians – both Protestants and Roman Catholics – lay and clergy who worked against Hitler; non-Jews who hid Jews; male homosexuals; the Roma people, or “gypsies”; the mentally ill; the disabled; political dissidents of all kinds; intellectuals, communists, Slavic ethnics, Freemasons, political activists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the underground resistance movements throughout Europe.

The elimination of Jewish life in Europe was carefully planned, efficiently orchestrated and devastatingly successful. Its demonic architect, Adolf Hitler, had assistance from other brilliant devils and demons such as Adolf Eichmann. The period began on January 30, 1933 with Hitler’s rise to power and ended on May 8, 1945. It is in reality a very short period of time in which to have murdered so many people.

Persecution of Jews was not a new concept. Many of Hitler’s devices and strategies were in fact borrowed from earlier times, such as the wearing of Jewish armbands with the Star of David imprinted on them, which dates back to the time of the Inquisition and even before. In Venice, Italy, Jews were required to wear yellow hats when leaving the ghetto. The “Spanish” Inquisition, which was carried out in Catholic countries in Europe and the Americas, began in 1478 and did not end until 1834. The main motivation of the Inquisition appeared, on the surface, to be the conversion of Jews. However, the inquisitors engaged in widespread torture, imprisonment, death by hanging, and the infamous auto da fé spectacles particularly popular in Portugal. These featured the burning of Jews at the stake and were held in the public square after a “religious ceremony” of sorts. During this period, Jews were on the run throughout the Iberian Peninsula; many settled in Holland, which was a relatively tolerant country. Others fled to precolonial North America, particularly Charleston, South Carolina; Newport, Rhode Island; and New York (New Amsterdam). Many converted but returned to Judaism eventually; thousands and thousands were lost to the faith forever.

Nothing, however, compares to the magnitude of the death toll during the Shoah and its resultant devastation of Jewish life. Of the six million Jews who were lost, one and a half million were children. This is an important statistic when you calculate that with their deaths, many future generations died along with them.

Hitler’s plan was ruthless and systematic. That anyone survived at all is a miracle, manifested by both spiritual and worldly intervention. On the spiritual level, some of the narrow escapes of many survivors have no rational explanation. On the mundane level, many non-Jews risked their lives to hide and protect Jews, to forge documents for Jews, to help them escape, and to engage in many other heroic activities on their behalf, and many of them indeed lost their lives. Those who reached beyond fear into extreme and saintly bravery are known by Jews as Righteous Gentiles and are so honored in Israel.

Just the numbers of those lost demands our attention and our reflection. How could it be otherwise? Poland lost three million Jews, or 90 percent of its Jewish population. Another million or more Jews from other European countries would meet their deaths in Poland in the extermination camps, gas chambers, and on the Death Marches. Approximately 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished.

Poland was first a home to Jews as early as the tenth century. Its first Jewish residents were merchants or traders from other regions. This is not uncommon in Jewish history. The first Jew to be buried in the ancient Hebrew cemetery on the Lido in Venice was a German-Jewish merchant, not an Italian Jew. Poland was the home of a vibrant Jewish life and culture. In Yiddish Poland is called Polin, which translates into “here shall you lodge.” Poland was, before the Shoah, the largest Jewish community in all of Europe. It was the birthplace of a form of mystical Judaism based on the Kabbalah, which is now known as Chassidism. It was the home of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism. And even those Jews who are not followers of this tradition know about him and recite his words as recorded in Jewish prayer books (even in Reform texts).

The destruction of Jewish life in Poland literally ripped the heart out of the communal body of an entire people. In his excellent and sorrowful book of photographs and text, Jeffrey Gusky refers to these bygone sites of Jewish population as the “Silent Places.”

The horror of what happened resides in the numbers, of course, but these numbers can also numb us to the inner truths of the tragedy and take us further from understanding the reality of what happened. In the enormous numbers are millions and millions of individual tragedies. For each death, there is a name, a face, a smile, a laugh, a cry, a life’s story, an identity, a song, a poem, a lost voice, a vision, a dream, a hope, a word, a whisper, a painting.

If we as human beings are to grasp the true meaning of the Holocaust – the Shoah – we must turn to the individual stories that survivors tell us. As the great Holocaust documentalist, anti-Nazi activist, Nazi hunter, and lawyer, Serge Klarsfeld, has often stated: the story of the Shoah is not only in the story of the millions; it is in the story of the one.

What you are about to read is the story of one woman, Lola Lieber, a Hungarian-Polish Jewess who survived and has chosen during her lifetime to tell the story of the ordeals of her survival and the strength of her faith and courage against all odds. It is also the memoir of a marriage that was a true working partnership as well as a marital bond of extraordinary depth. With her husband, Mechel, beside her, Lola defied authority, confronted the devil Eichmann in person, never giving up her faith in God and her belief that she and Mechel would be together at the end. The title of this book comes from a comment Mechel made at a bittersweet time in their lives. His words: “There will be a world after this,” thankfully, would turn out to be true.

You are about to embark on a journey that begins in Hungary, in the town of Munkach, goes forward into Krynica and on into Krakow, Niepolomice, the Bochnia Ghetto, Kosice, Budapest, Debrecen, Bucharest and finally Munich. It is an adventure of harrowing events and many close calls. It is, in the end, the story of the survival of a woman who will go on in her life to help repair the lost tapestry of Jewish life and to become a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and a fine painter. Unlike Anne Frank and Charlotte Salomon, women of her time, Lola Lieber has lived to tell her tale to all of us. It is important for us as readers to understand that the telling itself is an act of a different kind of bravery.

In the willingness of survivors to relive their experiences by recording their stories, horrific as they are, we are ennobled. It is only by reading the stories of survival that the years of the Great Darkness are fully revealed to us. In some ways Lola’s story is similar to other survivors’ stories, but in many other aspects it is unique. I am grateful that she was willing to trust me with her heart’s memories. May they serve as a blessing to all of us who are privileged to read this book.

I think it is appropriate to end this preface with a fragment of a poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. In his last book of poems, Open/Closed/Open, which he wrote when he knew he was dying, he speaks of the Shoah, and he concludes his volume with a long poem. Its title haunted me throughout my work and friendship with Lola. It is called “Who Will Remember the Rememberers?"

This is the reason that Lola’s story matters and must find its place within the literature of Holocaust memoir and history. It must be shared and read again and again, because we are the guardians of her memories. Who will remember the rememberers? We will, and we shall. Her story and all the survival stories are the rhythm of our prayers and a call to each of us to reach inside our own souls to find our most meaningful acts of grace and humanity toward others. Lola’s past is a glimpse into the world of the now “silent places.”

Alida Brill
New York, New York
July 6, 2008

[Author’s Note: This is a work of nonfiction, based on events that transpired during the period of time known as the Holocaust or the Shoah. It is the personal story of Lola Lieber’s life experiences during that period. However, in order to protect the privacy of certain individuals and their surviving family members, some names have been changed.]

Through the Garden Gate

I was born on March 15, 1923. I was named Esther Leah Leser, but in those days everyone called me “Leiku” Leser. The Esther part is important because I was born on the Jewish fast day that precedes the holiday of Purim, called the Fast of Esther. I wasn’t the only youngster on the map of the region in that moment of history. The country then called Czechoslovakia was also only a toddler. It was created from the remains of what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War. Even though I was born a Czech citizen, my family retained its attachment to our Hungarian roots. Because my grandparents were Hungarians of Polish origin and had a long history in Munkach, I still think of the region as Hungarian. I have attachment to my heritage for nostalgic reasons and for very pragmatic ones. The Hungarian language was so much a part of the rhythm of our lives that I called my mother always and only by the endearment, “mammiko.” I would also call family members by their Yiddish/Hungarian appellation, such as bubbe/babbiko (grandmother), zeide (grandfather), tattiko (daddy), and the like.

The garden had many secrets and there was much bustle and activity every single day. There was a statue of a big dog at the entrance to the house, as if to stand watch and protect us all. Grandfather also had his own large, black pet dog with a soft and shiny coat. He was a friendly and dear dog, and I was terribly fond of him. The dog lived in harmony with a circus of cats that roamed the house and the garden freely. The cats didn’t get in the way of Grandfather’s dog, nor did he bother them. Perhaps the animals understood that they were, in a manner of speaking, all relatives too. There was much to observe and many things to participate in at my grandparents’ home. Harmony in all things – between the animals, the family, and the outside non-Jewish world – was a hallmark of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Mammiko and Tattiko and my siblings came from Krakow to visit often. This meant my beloved older sister Goldie might be allowed to stay with us after the others returned. I loved Goldie deeply and felt sad and lonely when she returned to Krakow with the rest of the family. There were differences between my Krakow and Hungarian families, but they did not seem significant to me at that point in my life. Religious practices were observed differently in Krakow and the foods were quite different, and some of the customs were not all that similar. However as a young girl I just thought we were all one extended and connected European Jewish family that lived both in Krakow and in Munkach.

a bittersweet wedding

Ever resourceful and refusing to be swept away by the tidal waves of fear flooding other Jewish families in Niepolomice, Mechel was pragmatic but also oddly optimistic. Against this backdrop, Mechel asked me to be his bride. Not just to be his wife, but to be his bride. What unthinkable language it seemed to me then. We were like little mice scuttling around looking for food, for bread, or for the mere crumbs, eating scraps not fit for livestock. We Jews were in hiding for our survival, or scurrying from place to place, families separated, all of us just trying to outthink, or maybe even outwit the ever smarter and increasingly efficient and powerful Nazi machinery. A wedding? We could not even gather together a minyan (quorum of ten Jewish men) in order to hold a proper Jewish wedding ceremony. What could he be thinking of with talk about a wedding?.....>>

>>.............The mayor of Niepolomice was a good man. He rented us, now a married couple, a room in his home. There at least we felt safe. I wept that night after the wedding. I said that I had been married without a minyan, outside of a shul, had not worn a real wedding dress, and that our wedding feast was nasty and sour, and that his own mother would not loan me a tablecloth. When I had calmed down, Mechel put things into the perspective that was required for me to start down the road leading to me becoming the woman I would eventually become. He soothed me and was not at all cross with me for the rash way I had been complaining. This is what he said: “We will survive this era. It is temporary. There will be a world after this. And, if we don’t survive, Hashem forbid it, but if we do not, at least, Lola, at least we have been married.”


Farber explained exactly where to go and what the signal was that would permit our entry. The Farber family owned a tannery on a brook. As in all tannery operations, it had a large round metal tank outside. We were to climb the ladder on the outside of the tank and then knock in a special sequence that was the same beat used by soccer fans of a particular team. His sister was already in the tank with her small daughter and a baby. We waited a bit longer than was prudent because I was hoping to get another invitation. If the concierge knew where Faber’s family was hiding and there were babies who cried, it seemed like a lost cause. However, as sunset approached we knew time was running out, and so we went to the tank.

Our knock was recognized and we were admitted. We lowered ourselves into the tank. We were crushed next to Farber’s sister and the child. Water was up to our knees. On the bottom of the tank we felt water rats scurrying past our feet and legs. However disagreeable rat bites might be, the rodents were the least of our problems. Farber’s sister was very intelligent in survival skills. She had breast-fed the baby and given him sleeping drops so he would not cry. However, she was having trouble holding both children at once. The little girl would have drowned if her mother had lost her grip on her. Mechel immediately grabbed the little girl and held her tightly. I could see the child cling to him with relief and with perfect faith in Mechel. Now we waited silently. I felt the rats nibble at me. I shook my legs, one at a time. It was happening to all three of us. We did not speak. We just waited and waited.


Everything was gray and frozen. The odor of death hung in the air, stinging our nostrils. As we turned the corner toward the chicken coop we saw at once it had been pushed over, exposing the hole. We ran across the frozen ground, sliding and almost falling. Mechel held tightly to the handles of the cart, as if that alone would keep him upright. We looked into the bunker pit and saw Mechel’s mother, Baila, Marilka and seven-year-old Itche. Each of them had a single bullet hole in the head. Their bodies were frozen in death and by the winter’s cold.

What I remember most vividly is that their last and final living expressions were also frozen in place. Each face bore testimony to the eternal silent scream of all the millions of Holocaust victims. Marilka was clutching the tiny doll. Even as she died, the doll had stayed with her. I dropped to the ground, put my hands over my eyes, and began to scream. Mechel grabbed me, stood me upright and whispered. “Silence! Do not utter a word or we will be next.”

Kiddush Hashem

Nobody slept that night. Before 9 a.m. two Jewish policemen picked me up to deliver me to Schomburg’s temporary place of residence outside the ghetto. Mechel was told to stay behind. We all assumed that this meant that they were aware of how the situation would shape up – I would be “requested” to become a friend or companion to this high-ranking Nazi. What other reason was there for him to want to see me? Father ran after me and putting his hand on my shoulders whispered something that froze my blood, even though in my mind I was already prepared. He put his hands on my shoulders and said to me, “Remember Leiku, Kiddush Hashem! – “It is better to die for the sake of Hashem than to allow the Nazis to molest you.”


As we set out, the people of the ghetto came over and wished me well. They were praying for me. Word spread overnight that I had been summoned to Schomburg’s residence. He was occupying a confiscated house. We knocked on the door and the young Gestapo man from the day before escorted us inside. Schomburg appeared in the parlor. In elegant and refined German he asked me to sit down. His voice was gentle and soothing. This made me even more suspicious. I looked directly at him and saw he had a paternal expression on his face. He did not look at all like a predator.

“Tell me, were you really born in Czechoslovakia?” I said yes, and I mentioned Munkach again. He asked if I spoke Hungarian…I nodded…and Czech…I nodded. He kept looking at my yellow armband with the Star of David. I spoke to him in Hungarian and then in Czech. He complimented my language skills and also said that I spoke a particularly fine German. Mammiko had been right, after all, about learning German. For all the wrong reasons, my ease with his language was paying off for me. I knew it was the language of Goethe and Schiller, but German had also become the language of these killers. Schomburg knew many things about Hungary and Hungarian customs. Because of Mammiko’s background I was fortunate in my knowledge of Hungarian. He was well acquainted with the Hungary of Mammiko’s youth and not the Czechoslovakia of my childhood. It didn’t matter. He asked if I liked Hungarian goulash, and certain Hungarian pastries. I knew all of these things, of course, and we chatted about them. He was completely at ease with me and I began to relax, although I never took my eyes off the swastikas on his uniform. He was acting in a kind and fatherly manner toward me but still, he was my mortal enemy. He asked me if I knew a certain Hungarian song and I did.

He pointed to the Star of David with contempt. “You should not wear this.” His eyes suggested that he might actually be a decent man, although that sounds strange. Was he a righteous gentile? It is a claim I can’t substantiate, but he was very gentle with me and I could see his intentions were honorable. Schomburg came a bit closer to me, and he tore the Star of David off my clothing and threw it away in disgust.

a modern-day queen esther

The Jewish policemen and I approached the gate of the ghetto and saw people clustered around it awaiting my return. Mechel and my family reached my side first and we embraced and wept. Many had been praying and hoping for my safe return. One of the policemen made a statement to the crowd, which had grown rather sizable. He explained that I had not been harmed, that because of my birth, I was a Jewish foreigner and entitled to official certification as such. The Bobover Rebbe walked home with us. He stayed at my side and said to me, “The Ribboino shel Oilam [Ruler of the World] has chosen you to be a modern-day Queen Esther." Mechel told him my Hebrew name was Esther. It would turn out to be more prophetic than Mammiko and Tattiko could have known when I was born.

I didn’t understand the reason for such joy on the Bobover Rebbe’s face. I was not Esther. She had saved her entire nation. If we were lucky the next day, I would save my immediate family. However, later in the day, the Rebbe came back with his brother-in-law, who was the Limanover Rebbe. Again, they said, “You have been selected by Hashem to become a modern-day Queen Esther.” I told them I appreciated their compliment but I was hardly on the level of Queen Esther. They explained why I was wrong. The Bobover Rebbe did most of the talking. One of his Chassidim was a young man who could carve letters into small rubber balls and make rubber stamps to use on inkpads to make false papers. With my new status, we would have a model to use to make counterfeit documents that the Nazis would believe were authentic. Without my knowing it, my conversation with Schomburg had opened the doors to liberation for many others.

appointment with the devil

Without Eichmann Hitler might not have achieved his horrific feats to such an extent. He was more than Hitler’s loyal comrade in arms – he was a part of Hitler’s very brain. With great difficulty, I was able to find out exactly where Eichmann was staying and headed there. I had gentile papers and could speak a superb German.

I would seek and obtain an appointment with one of the major devils of the Reich. Dressed beautifully, I arrived at Eichmann’s headquarters in Buda and gave my name and said without hesitation that I already had an appointment. Was I afraid? I do not think I knew any longer what fear felt like. I was always afraid, so this sense of being in peril or danger had become a part of me. The main thing was that I was not paralyzed and that is what counted.

While everyone else was trying to stay as far away from Eichmann as possible, I marched into his path. The soldier on guard took me at my word and escorted me upstairs. I heard the soldier say to Eichmann’s assistant, “A Miss Nowakowska is here and says she has an appointment.”

I waited only a few minutes when the soldier returned and said; “Please come this way,” and he took me into Eichmann’s private office. A surreal, calm confidence came over me. My heart was not racing; I was totally at peace with my decision to speak to Eichmann himself. Eichmann was standing on the terrace outside his villa office. He was smoking a cigarette and motioned to me, as if I might well have had an appointment with him. I looked at him and nodded. Eichmann was elegant, tall and handsome, dressed in a formal SS uniform. He gave no outward sign that he was responsible for the mass murder of an entire population and culture of Europe. In a civilian suit, he would have been mistaken for an upper class European gentleman of fine breeding.

passover in freedom

14 Nissan 5705.

This was the most unforgettable Seder of my life, unsurpassed until today. When we began to recite the Haggadah, we all wept. We did not need to add extra discussion linking us to the Israelites’ departure from Egypt and the miracles they experienced. We were a remnant, a mere fragment of a vibrant and huge population of Jews. We represented all that was lost as much as we represented the reality of survival. We were not telling the story of the ancient deliverance that night but were living the contemporary recital of our own survival and the continuation of our people. It was a Seder of joy and tears. The wine we spilled from the glasses to signify the Ten Plagues could also represent the losses we had only recently suffered. The Bobover Rebbe did not know what had happened to his family any more than I knew about mine, yet we both knew. His face and mine were mirror images of one another. Our nightmares and fears were as yet not specific in detail but were nonetheless present in our hearts that night.

We knew there had been nothing random about Bochnia or Krakow or Niepolomice or any of the other emptied out cities and villages of Europe. It had all been a part of a systematic plan to arrest, torture, murder, assassinate, bludgeon, gas, and burn millions of Jews. Seated around that Seder table in Bucharest, we understood without articulating it that our parents, grandparents, and their children were undoubtedly lost forever, yet the Jewish hope for continuity and belief in our ancient covenant with Hashem was alive that night. Maybe, just maybe some members of our families and those dear to us had escaped and survived. We did talk about how it could have happened. We had no answers. There are still no answers, none that really work at any rate. There are explanations for the Shoah, but those are not answers.

The Rebbe began to sing a song, but I heard it as a prayer. I always will.

Di Mamme hot gehaissen, nisselach fun boim oopraissen
Oy, vi niderik zenen di kinderlach
Zei konnen nisht dergreichin
Mother told us to pick nuts from the tree
Oh! How high the branches are!
Oh! How low the children are!
They can’t reach them.

We cried and sang and ate, but mostly we cried. It was a Seder of longing and grief, but together we made it through to the end of the Haggadah, and it established a lasting bond between us.

winter 1944 - 1945

Elegant Budapest was coming apart at its architectural seams and so were its human inhabitants. Buildings crashed, turning into powdered stacks of rubble within moments of the bomb strikes. We were on alert for the unmistakable wails of the air raid sirens that signaled another air offensive. Everyone scampered like lemmings, not to the sea, but to the closest basement or shelter. We waited under buildings and in tunnels to get the all-clear siren. Leaving the shelters we never knew what we would find on the ground. Sometimes there was no damage in our area; other times there was total destruction. The Germans were no longer transporting Jews, but we were moments from a tragic ending of a different kind.

I had not been outside for days. Budapest was at the end of its civilization by then. The streets were craters filled with corpses and body parts, a head here, an arm there, torso after torso piled up on each other, and horses were also strewn around, many of them decapitated. I lost my nerve and thought that I couldn’t bear to see any more. Knowing there would be even worse ahead, I turned back to go into the cellar. I would vomit up what was left of my stomach if I saw any more of the abomination on the streets. I picked my way over the corpses and the rest of the grotesque remains of what had been life, human and animal, and stopped. Somehow I had to go to Andraszy Utca if Mechel and I were to survive. Even Mechel was not a camel. He would die of starvation and thirst; it was only a matter of time.

Bravery took over and I turned around again and continued on my way. I jumped over the corpses as whistling bombs landed and exploded before my eyes. I saw buildings topple and windows shatter. I realized just in time that the buildings were the targets, not the streets, so I ran down the middle of the road. I was an unstoppable force. I was a child of the winds. The worst Nazis or Arrow Cross thugs would not have been able to catch me. At the very moment I turned onto the street with my aunt and uncle’s home, a bomb struck it. I stood just feet away and waited for the house to fall, but it did not. The rocket or cannon shell had hit the building at an angle, causing only a portion of the house to crumble. The basement side had been untouched. I rushed into the basement calling out the names of my aunt and uncle and their family.