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Yad Vashem honors Passaic woman for saving ‘an entire world’

Luba and Mina: The backstory

 
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Above, Luba Saj-Cholhan, center, visits Mina Shulster Berkowitz, her daughter Ann, and Ann’s four children, in Israel in 1994.

In the dining room of her comfortable Passaic home, Luba Saj-Cholhan shuffles family photographs that chronicle 60 years of history. But the family members in the pictures are named neither Saj nor Cholhan — not even Hirniak, Luba’s maiden name. They are photos of herself with her childhood friend, Mina Shulster Berkowitz, and Mina’s daughters and grandchildren — the family that would not have existed but for Luba’s selfless actions as a young single mother in Ternopol, Ukraine, during the Holocaust.

From the age of 4, Luba Hirniak and Mina Shulster were — literally and figuratively — as close as sisters. Their families occupied two separate apartments on the second floor of a four-family house in Ternopol. But the girls — only six months apart in age — slept in adjacent bedrooms, and “the doors between our apartments were never closed,” Saj-Cholhan remembers, adding wistfully, “I never had any better friend or cousin than Mina.”

Mina’s father owned a successful textile store. She had four sisters (a brother immigrated to the United States when Mina and Luba were 8) and “their father was an angel,” Saj-Cholhan says. “Many times I was in their home for Shabbos. I remember when we were 4, I came uninvited to Shabbos and there was no room at the table for me. Her father sat me on his lap. He got another fork and we ate together from one dish.”

In fact, in Luba’s memory, the girls were “always together. When Mina ate at my house, her mother would remind me, ‘Don’t give her any ham or kielbasa!’

“‘Don’t worry,’ my mother told her. ‘She will have pirogies and borscht!’ ”

When Mina would kiss the mezuzah on the door, “I would, too — just for good luck!” Luba adds. And Mina often accompanied Luba to the Ukranian girls’ club. By the age of 18, Mina had become “a very talented dressmaker,” Saj-Cholhan recalls, “so her father sent her to Lviv [Lvov, Poland] where she was placed to learn, then to come back and have her own business. She made beautiful dresses.”

Meanwhile, after the young Luba finished her schooling, she married Dr. Thaddeus Saj, the father of her only son, George. When the Russians — who had come to the Ukraine in 1939 — left in 1941, they took with them “all the educated people because they didn’t want to leave them behind for the Germans.” Among them was Dr. Thaddeus Saj, although he was “not political,” “and I never saw him again,” she says. At a little more than 22, with a 1-year-old son, she found herself a “widow.” Luba had moved from the house the Hirniaks shared with the Shulsters, and her own parents had fled to Krakow. Because of her pregnancy, Luba had been unable to join them.

That same year, the Germans enclosed the Jews of Ternopol in a makeshift ghetto. Among them were Mina Shulster — who had returned from Lviv — her widowed mother, two sisters, and a nephew. One brother left for America; a younger son went to Israel. One sister married a South American and went to Brazil.

“The Germans put everyone to work; they were horrible to everyone, not just to the Jews,” Saj-Cholhan recalls. Because Mina found work cooking and cleaning for Germans outside of the ghetto, she could stop by Luba’s house on her way back to the ghetto. “The Jewish people couldn’t even buy food in the black market. They weren’t allowed in the stores,” says Saj-Cholhan. “I was helping her with food and clothes; she was coming to me very often after work. Once I asked Mrs. Shulster if she would allow me to save Mina’s life. She said, ‘Do it, my child.’”

One day in June of 1943, a school acquaintance came to Mina where she was working and warned her that that night was going to be very bad. She slept at Luba’s.

“The next morning when we got up it was very quiet, peaceful. I went to the store where I worked,” Saj-Cholhan relates, “but I told the young girl who was taking care of my baby not to let Mina go out. But when I got home, the girl told me she had gone out and was taken away.”

Fortunately, one of Mina’s employers convinced a very reluctant building superintendent to hide her in the attic and to give her food. But Luba believed her friend was gone. What a relief when, “four days later, she came to my house,” says Saj-Cholhan. “She was sitting at the table and, I remember so clearly, she said: ‘Now I have nobody but you.’” For the next two to three weeks, the women stayed together, even sleeping in Luba’s bed. “I did not let her go out,” Saj-Cholhan remembers. “The Germans were taking [the Jews] from each village and putting them on trains to do forced labor in the east — train after train from town after town.”

While the women plotted a way for Mina to escape, a misfortune provided them with a lucky — if illegal — break. Luba’s mother-in-law, Helena Saj, died, and that gave Luba an opportunity to use the documents for her friend. After substituting Mina’s picture and changing the date of birth on the identity card, she went to City Hall. The Nazis were allowing Ukrainian women from Ternopol to work in Austria.

“I put Mina in a peasant dress from my housekeeper, put a babushka over her head, and in a handkerchief, I wrapped bread and apples and a big piece of bacon! We went to the train and I told the conductor that she had run away from another car and they should put her in their car and watch her.” Hiding her friend and forging her papers would be considered capital offenses by the Nazis. But the plan worked. Mina arrived in Linz (near Vienna) where she was able to find work as a streetcar conductor.

A few months later, Luba received a desperate letter. Mina had become frightened that someone had recognized her, and said she was ready to give herself up. “I wrote her not to do anything until I saw her. I’d never been farther from my home than Lvov, but all of a sudden, I packed my bag and went to Linsk! I was supposed to stay with Mina for four days in the [poorer] section where she was living because she was scared to be recognized as an educated woman. But on the second night, I heard news that the Russians were coming to Ternopol so I had to pack and run back to my baby.” It turned out later that no one had reported Mina. In fact, the man she thought had recognized her disappeared. Later, the friends met again in Linsk where Luba stayed with her father and brothers. When Germany fell, however, they found themselves in separate zones. Mina was lucky enough to be in the British zone, but fearing exile by Soviet authorities, Luba fled to the Swiss border in a rented car with her son and other family members.

With the help of her brother Jack (who had left Ternopol many years earlier) Mina immigrated to America. Luba and George Saj followed in 1949 after Mina arranged for her brother to provide an affidavit saying he would give Luba a job in his garment district factory.

“Jack organized the whole thing,” Saj-Cholhan recalls. “He had a friend in a Catholic organization that arranged for us to travel. After half a year I sent for my parents and brother.”

After six months, Mina — now married to Morris Berkowitz — helped her childhood friend find another job. But Saj-Cholhan was finding New York City too dangerous and a couple of years later, moved to Passaic where she worked in Botany Mills, then at another factory, and later as a hairdresser and eventually a bookkeeper. She remarried in 1967. Her last employment came as a fluke when she substituted for her son’s office manager and stayed on until he retired. Luba and Mina, who lived in Forest Hills with her husband and daughters, sustained their friendship over the years. Eventually, Mina joined her daughters Barbara and Ann in Israel. For many years, they tried to overcome Luba’s reluctance to be nominated as a Righteous Among the Nations. Finally, she allowed them to send the story to Yad Vashem.

Mina’s mother once asked Luba: “Weren’t you scared that the Germans would find out you were helping Mina, and you would be punished?”

“I reminded her,” Saj-Cholhan said, “‘You once taught me, if you can help anyone, you should do it.’”

 

More on: Yad Vashem honors Passaic woman for saving ‘an entire world’

 
 
 

The chosen few

 

In a moving ceremony at the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic on Monday, the consul general of Israel in New York bestowed the Righteous Among the Nations medal on a petite, soft-spoken, 91-year-old great-grandmother from Passaic. Luba Saj-Cholhan, a native of Ukraine who immigrated to the United States in 1949 and was naturalized five years later, thus became one of a handful of American citizens to receive the highest honor awarded to non-Jews by the State of Israel through Yad Vashem.

In 1943, Saj-Cholhan put her life and that of her 4-year-old son George at risk by hiding her longtime Jewish friend Mina Shulster from the Nazis and then forging documents that enabled her to escape their native Ternopol disguised as a Ukrainian peasant.

 
 
 
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