Pola Goldsher was not quite 17 in the fall of 1939 when the Nazis came through her village in southern Poland. Yet, she seldom spoke of the Holocaust, the mother and three younger siblings she lost to the gas chamber, her work sewing German military uniforms in a prison labor camp or the harrowing trip she made after the war across the Alps and on to Palestine.
She belonged to a generation that didn’t delve too deeply into the traumas of the past. Besides, said her daughter, JoAnn Lafond, she was busy building a new life, first in Israel and later in Connecticut, with her husband, Michael Goldsher.
Pola Goldsher was part of a dwindling circle of Jewish survivors who bore witness to the worst horrors of the 20th century. At 97, she was also squarely within the demographic hardest hit by the current pandemic and, on April 12, she died of complications related to COVID-19.
Near the end of her long life, Pola Goldsher was afflicted with dementia. Her husband died in 2017, at the age of 99, but, with the help of caregivers and the close attention of her son, Allen Goldsher, she was able to remain in the West Hartford home they had shared for decades.
“My parents were both remarkable,” Lafond said Monday, which is designated as Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah in Hebrew. “They had very, very hard lives but they always tried to make our lives easier.”
She was born Pola Bornstein on Dec. 24, 1922, the middle child of seven. Her father was a shopkeeper, but because his Polish customers routinely refused to pay for their purchases, the business struggled. At 14, Pola began working as an apprentice in a department store to help support the family.
“She only had an eighth-grade education,” Lafond said. “In Poland, if you were Jewish, you weren’t allowed to go to high school, unless you had money to pay bribes.”
Pola’s father died just as the war was getting underway, and soon, she and the rest of the family was scattered. Her two oldest brothers were taken to concentration camps; both ultimately survived. Her mother and three youngest siblings also went to a concentration camp, likely Majdanek, Lafond said. They did not survive.
Pola and her sister wound up in a work camp, where they spent much of the war sewing for Nazi soldiers.
After the war, Pola met her future husband, a fellow survivor, in a displaced person’s camp and they set out for Palestine. Their journey was initially thwarted by the British, who were trying to limit the flow of Jewish refugees, but the couple ultimately made it, settling in newly independent Israel.
A neighbor who lost her own family took Pola, by then a new mother, under her wing, Lafond said. However, life in the young nation wasn’t easy and the family was soon on the move again, taking an ocean liner across the Atlantic to the U.S. in July 1959. They arrived in New York before settling in Connecticut, where Michael Goldsher’s two brothers had established poultry farms in the eastern part of the state.
Pola and Michael Goldsher lived in West Hartford, which was already home to a number of Jewish refugees from Europe. Michael got his driver’s license and worked as a meat cutter at Crown Supermarket; Pola took a job at a hot dog factory on Albany Avenue.
They wanted to become U.S. citizens but the test was only given in English, so they enrolled in night school and learned the language.
The days were long, but eventually, their circumstances improved. When the hot dog factory closed, Pola found work as a cashier in the dining room at Travelers in Hartford, and quickly became a key part of a community of women, many of whom were also refugees from Poland.
“My mother had a very friendly, outgoing personality,” Lafond said.
Despite the tremendous hardship she endured, Goldsher retained her sunny optimism, Lafond said. She was a practical jokester, an amateur poet and a lover of Broadway show tunes. She enjoyed singing old Yiddish folks songs, playing cards and reading romance novels.
Neither of her parents ever revealed much about their early life in Europe. “They didn’t talk much about the Holocaust,” Lafond said. Instead, they focused their energy on building better lives for their children, both of whom graduated from college.
In her obituary, Pola Goldsher is described as “the quintessential stubborn ‘my way or the highway’ Holocaust survivor-mother … an immigrants’ immigrant: work, cook dinner, wash, iron, clean, then do it again, again …”
She was buried on April 17.
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