I have a hero. I have a friend. I have a teacher. I have a connection to history. They all just happen to be the same person: Nessa Ben Asher.
While growing up, I was taught to be Jewish before anything else, and Zionist even before that. Israel and the history of Judaism was a focal point for my family, especially pertaining to the Holocaust. Since my mom worked in Holocaust education, I was constantly exposed to the teachings of this horrific time. I often would tag along when she went to work; I quickly became interested in the subject and I have been enthusiastic about it ever since.
When the whopping age of nine rolled around, I was finally ready to delve deeper into the more recent history of my people. I loved hearing every story, watching every movie, and reading every book available. However, meeting the dozens of survivors that have settled in New Jersey was my favorite part— in this way, I met Nessa.
Over time, Nessa and I became very close. She shared parts of her life story that she rarely spoke about, and we connected on levels I did not think we could since I was 13 and she was 93. We grew up with similar ideals of Judaism and family, even though we were raised in completely different times.
When I was turning 13, I pledged to Nessa that I would share her story on the 100th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. I did so, but I believe it is my responsibility to continue to share her incredible story with as many people as possible.
Nessa Ben Asher was born into a very wealthy family in Warsaw, Poland in 1923. She was originally born with the name Sylvia; however, it was changed following the war. She lived in a big, beautiful apartment with her mother, father, younger sister, maid, and cook. At a very young age, she became a famous child actress in Poland but everything changed once her country was invaded on September 1st, 1939 by Nazi Germany. This is the notorious date known to have marked the beginning of World War II. Being 15 years old at the time, Nessa was oblivious to what was really going on and unaware of the severity of the situation. She was actually thrilled for the invasion because it meant she did not have to go to school that day. However, that excitement did not last long.
Not too long after the invasion, Nessa and her family were kicked out of their apartment and were forced to move into the Warsaw Ghetto (a confined area of the city with brick walls and barbed wire fences where 500,000 Jews were imprisoned at times). Nessa often describes the Ghetto as a place of “inhumane horror” where there was limited food, no clean water, and poor medical care. She and her family were crammed into a tiny apartment with many other families.
In August 1942, Nessa’s mother and little sister, Lili, were deported to Treblinka death camp, one of many designed by the Nazis as killing centers for Jewish people. After hearing this news, she had had enough. She decided that she had to do whatever it took to get out of the Ghetto. Nessa escaped miraculously by pretending to be in a slave labor group working to fortify the brick wall that confined everyone inside. She discreetly slipped away from the group and posed as a beggar on the streets, smearing mud on her face to disguise her true identity.
When Nessa escaped, she immediately looked for her former maid, who was Catholic, to seek help. (Her family cook, a Jew, had also been sent to the Ghetto.) She succeeded, and secured fake papers that allowed her to pose as a Christan girl living in Poland. Nessa wore a cross around her neck, went to church, and even sang in the church choir.
Nessa felt guilty every single day, though. She felt ashamed to have saved her own life while her friends, classmates, and her own father lived like animals. Soon after, her overwhelming compassion got the best of her, and Nessa returned to the Ghetto, this time posing as a Christian. Anyone could go in, but it was up to the Nazis who could leave. Nevertheless, she returned.
Nessa, with the help of her former maid, was able to smuggle 17 men out of the Ghetto through the sewers (men were the hardest to disguise during the Holocaust because circumcision was confined to only the Jewish community). The two rented an apartment in Warsaw and built a fake wall two feet away from the original. In this tight crawl space, 17 grown men stood for two years while hiding from the Nazi regime. She was able to help their families escape as well. At just 16 years old, Nessa managed to save almost 100 lives.
During these two years, Nessa would buy one egg, one piece of bread, and one carton of milk at dozens of local markets every day so as not to raise suspicions. Grown men eat a lot, especially ones who had been living in such horrific conditions for so long.
When the war finally ended, Nessa was relieved. She had survived horrific times and saved dozens of others without acknowledging the fact that she was a hero. To this day, she describes this part of her life as just something that she needed to do, not to become famous or for boasting rights, but because she knew it was the right thing to do. In fact, she detests any mention of being a hero at all.
She stayed in Poland after the war and married her first husband, Szymon Zakrzewski, also a survivor. She became a famous actress once again and brought joy and entertainment to millions. She left the country in 1968 after the death of her husband.
Nessa’s second husband, Jerry Ben-Asher, gave her the name Nessa, which means miracle. To him and to many others, she was their miracle. The Talmud (Jewish law) states that “to save one life is to save the world.” Nessa saved many worlds during her life believing “that everyone must do something good for somebody.” She is a true hero— a miracle.
Copyright Mollie Sysler 2019