By Jason Silverman
The New Mexican
As soon as Clara Haras slipped aboard the train she ripped off the Jewish star sewn to her dress and dropped it to the floor. A few years earlier such an act of disrespect for the Star of David, long a proud symbol of Judaism would have been inconceivable. But in 1943 Poland the Jewish star was a fatal disease. The Nazis forced everyone Haras knew to wear one.
For two years after that train ride, Haras lived a terrifying double life. And each of these friends and family members had been or soon would be—killed.
Escaping that fate meant the 19 year old had to leave everything—her hometown of Tarnopol, her ailing father, her Judaism—and become someone else.
And that’s what she did that June day in 1943 during World War II, sneaking away from the Nazi work camp at the Tarnow train station, posing as a gentile in the Third Reich. Employed by the Hermann Goering Clinic, a Nazi hospital in Linz, Haras assumed a false identity bluffing and fast talking her way through dozens of deadly situations.
A month before the Albuquerque woman died of thyroid cancer last Sept 27 at the age of 70, Haras told The New Mexican her story in the only interview she ever granted.
Although her health was failing and her voice was weak, Haras remained animated and full of spirit, her dark eyes flashing with passion as she remembered the harrowing months of being, as she said Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
“For two years, I was afraid every minute of the day,” she said. “I remember everything. My head was a computer. You know Hitler came from Linz, and Adolf Eichmann came from Linz, and I defeated both of them with my mind.”
Haras described her life before the Nazi invasion as filled with happiness, despite great poverty. The oldest of four children, she shared a bedroom with her parents, siblings, grandparents, an aunt and two cousins.
Each weekend she accompanied her father to his fabric shop and each Friday night during the Sabbath dinner the family would take in a stranger poorer than they were.
Haras was 17 years old in 1941 when the Germans occupied Tarnow, and like most Jews she was completely unprepared for what was to happen. First she said members of the intelligentsia including her uncle were taken to the woods outside the city and shot.
Next the Nazis began rounding up Jews moving them from their homes and into a cramped ghetto. Haras was hiding behind a door the day her grandparents were pulled from bed and, still in their night clothes, shoved down the stairs and out into the street. The Germans told the elderly couple they were being sent to a nursing home. Haras never saw them again and said she believed they were killed in the local synagogue.
Able bodied Jews were put to work, and Haras was sent to a warehouse, where she worked until catching the eye of a German commandant in late 1942. He assigned her to his office and moved her from the poverty filled ghetto into a nearby barracks, a move that may have saved her life.
“Inside the ghetto was just horrible,” she said. “There was hunger, there was sickness, there was despair, and there was inhumanity. Every day it seemed someone from my family was taken away…I don’t know where they went. I didn’t know where my aunt went, I didn’t know where my uncle went, my sisters and brothers, and my parents.”
By the beginning of 1943, only a few of Haras’ friends and family had survived the disease, starvation and Aktions, or roundups, of the ghetto.
Life in the work camps was hardly better. She recalled a time when she and two other women were called to the second lieutenants quarters. They called him the butcher of the region,” Haras said. “He determined who would go to the concentration camps.”
The apartment which before the war belonged to a Jew, was luxurious, and Haras was fed and given drinks- which when no one was looking she poured into the house plants –before being sent to a bed room and told to undress.
Lying on top of the bed, still in her clothes, Haras awaited a man responsible for tens of thousands of murders, shuddering when she heard him enter the room. When he approached, she told him “I am sorry, but I just had my period.” “Already, you are the second one who said,” he said, and then left.
Despite her knack for survival, Haras understood her life was in constant jeopardy. Allowed one visit to the ghetto each week, she watched as the Jewish population quickly dwindled.
She found ways to smuggle food to her parents — once even sneaking in a live chicken for her mother, sister and father to kill and eat according to Kosher rules. On her final visit to the ghetto, Haras discovered her father alone. Her mother and sister had been taken to an extermination camp.
Her opportunity for escape arose a few days later, when a train from Russia arrived at the station. Peasant women, en route to Austria to replace the labor force depleted by the Nazi war effort, had streamed out of the cattle cars for fresh air and water.
Before she knew it, Haras had slipped into the crowd and boarded the train. Her brother, also a worker at the camp gave her some bread as the train pulled away. It was the last time she would see him. “It was a decision made at the spur of the moment,” she said of her escape. “Half a minute before, I didn’t know I would do it…I didn’t know where the train would go. I didn’t know what would happen.”
What Haras did know was that she had to get rid of her Jewish identity—and yellow star —and come up with a new name and personal history. Looking out the window of the moving train, she saw a goat—kusira in Polish. Julia Kusira would be her new name. The rest of her story fell into place as the train moved toward the center of the Nazi empire.
“I would tell them my father was a Polish officer and when Russia occupied Poland, we were sent to Russia,” she said. “And when the Germans occupied Russia, they rounded up the Russian women and I happened to be on the street, and they pushed me on the train. I didn’t have any papers, clothes, nothing.”
When the train arrived in Linz a few days later, Haras’ story convinced a Gestapo officer to give her a job assignment. At first she worked in a factory filled with Poles—who she feared would recognize her as a Jew—before talking herself into a job at the hospital, where she was told to clean the corridors and operating rooms.
She managed to stay at the hospital and live in worker housing for nearly two years, until the Allies arrived, but her days were far from placid. Curious looks from strangers terrified her; she was sure others recognized her as a Jew. She spent her nights huddled under her covers to avoid saying anything that might betray her.
“I always had to be ahead of the gentiles—what to say, what to do,” she said. “I couldn’t trust anybody. I was afraid every minute. I walked the streets free, but I was afraid of my shadow.”
At one point, an Austrian friend from the hospital, in an effort to help Haras find housing, told the Gestapo about her lack of identification. The Gestapo then took an interest in Haras, interrogating her repeatedly over the next several months.
Afraid of identifying herself as Polish in a Linz filled with Poles, she told the Gestapo a different story, filled with detail about her childhood as the daughter of Ukrainian nobility. Again she talked her way out of trouble.
When the Gestapo finally issued Haras identification papers, identifying her as a Russian peasant rather than a Ukrainian princess, she burst into tears, joyful the interrogations were over.
The Gestapo asked her why she was crying, and Haras hid her relief with feigned indignation. “How dare you give me a Russian passport,” she said through her tears. “I told you I was Ukrainian and after the war I will prove it to you.” On Christmas Day, 1943, Haras was invited to a party by a roommate, but knowing nothing about the holidays rituals, she decided to beg out by claiming she was going to a different party. Haras spent that night riding city busses, back and forth going nowhere, killing time.
That Christmas served as a metaphor for Haras’ two years in the Third Reich. Her ride to nowhere ended in May 1945 when the Allies overran Linz.
Now, Haras needed to find a place to go. But where? Her Tarnopol—once a home to 80,000 –had been declared or Judenfrei—free of Jews less than two weeks after her June, 1943 escape. Every member of her family and all of her friends had been killed by the Nazis. Haras never returned to Tarnopol. And she never again felt safe, even after marrying Maurice Strahl, a dentist who spent months in Schindler’s Factory, before being deported to Mauthausen Concentration Camp, where he survived against all odds.
Even after the Strahls moved to Massachusetts and started a family, eventually raising two daughters and one son, Haras remained distrustful of strangers.
“Am I still hiding? Maybe,” she said. “I really don’t like people to know much about me. Even my neighbors—they are very nice, but I still wonder: If it came down to the nitty-gritty, would they stick their necks out for me?”
Nearly half a century after the end of the war, Haras’ life remained filled with the same questions she asked herself when the Allies liberated Linz: Why did she escape while so many perished? How could she continue living without her family? What did the denial of her Jewish identity cost her? Would she ever be at peace?
“Had I been captured and killed, no one would have known or cared,” she wrote on New Years Eve 1993, in a poem addressed to God. “Everyone in my family was dead, and I was left alone. Why?”
Similar thoughts had gone through her head in 1945, when she found herself crushed by the weight of suddenly being Clara Haras again, and completely alone in the world.
“When the war ended, everybody was concerned…about their conscience. Some were concerned about what the future would bring. For me, it was the saddest day. It was like life had stopped. I had stopped running. The war was over. I had suddenly awakened from a dream, and everyone was gone.”
A few days before her death, Haras told her daughter about another dream, one she’d had a few weeks before.
In that peaceful vision, Haras’ grandfather, dressed in the clothes of the shtetl, stood behind a gate, beckoning her. Using her Jewish name, Chaya, which means life, he asked her to come through the gate and join him.