In her moving memoir, author and artist Paula Burger shares the harrowing experience of a child’s survival during the Holocaust.
The first child of Wolf and Sarah Koladicki, Paula Burger was born in 1934 in the town of Novogrudok, which had a vibrant Jewish community numbering around six thousand – half of the town’s population. Her father was a savvy businessman who owned a small grocery store and restaurant; he also traded in cattle and lumber, and managed the family’s ranch. Paula fondly remembers her pre-war childhood: her parents working together at the store, the ice cream from her aunt’s shop, and in 1939, the arrival of her baby brother Isaac.
But life as she knew it ended on July 3, 1941, when the German army occupied Novogrudok. Two weeks later, they executed the community’s professionals – fifty-two men in all, including rabbis, doctors, and lawyers – in the town’s main marketplace.
In the middle of a bitter cold night, several months later in December, the Nazis snuck in and rounded up the remainder of Novogrudok’s Jews. Paula’s father was not home at the time, but her mother Sarah, with young Isaac in her arms and Paula by her side, succeeded in escaping. During that raid, later called “Black Monday,” some four thousand Jews died at the hands of the occupiers. Afterwards, the remaining Jews were divided between two camps.
The Koladicki family managed to avoid incarceration in the ghettos for over four months. Once inside though, Wolf was permitted to leave as needed to attend to his various enterprises, all the while formulating a plan to escape with his family. A Polish neighbor, desirous of the Koladicki land, deceitfully informed the Nazis of Wolf’s involvement with the resistance movement. The Nazis searched for him, but soon grew tired of the unsuccessful hunt, and decided to arrest Sarah with the intent of extracting her husband’s whereabouts through interrogation and torture. Since she had no idea where Wolf was, the torture brought no results. The Nazis kept her in holding for six weeks, forcing her to serve as a German translator. Then, on Yom Kippur of 1942, they shot her.
By this time, Paula’s father did in fact become a member of the resistance by joining the Bielski Otriad in the Naliboki Forest. Wolf arranged to smuggle Paula and Isaac out of the ghetto with the help of a Polish farmer. The farmer’s job was to deliver water to the ghetto, so he smuggled young Paula and Isaac out of the ghetto in a dank, empty water barrel. They had to hide in total silence inside the cramped confines of the barrel for many hours. Paula knew that any sound they made could mean certain death, and she held Isaac tight to keep him absolutely still and calm.
After a night hidden in a barn, and another day of concealed travel, the siblings rejoined their father at the Bielski partisan camp. They remained with the group throughout the war, traveling with them when they could, and hiding in forest shelters when harsh winter conditions prevented them from doing so. Though she was only seven years old when they joined with the Bielskis, Paula actively contributed to armed resistance against the enemy, using her small fingers to pack explosives into yellow bricks, which were later used to blow up and derail Nazi supply trains.
Instead of returning to Novogrudok after the war’s end, Paula’s father led his family to Lida, and then across the border to Czechoslovakia. Aided only by their wits and the kindness of strangers, the family made their way to the American Zone in West Germany. They spent several years in the DP camp, where young Paula became fluent in English. Then in 1949, they voyaged to the US and joined their relatives in Chicago. There, in high school, Paula began to hone her natural talent as an artist.
As a child, Paula’s most prized possession was a box of colored pencils with which she would draw for hours on end. Although she did not begin painting professionally until she retired, Paula was always painting pictures in her mind, and maintained an overwhelming desire to act on this passion. In a journal she kept as a young woman, Paula wrote, “I hope I don’t die before I get to paint.”
The zeal for creative expression coursed through the veins of both siblings. Though successful in business, they continually pursued their artistic passions. While Paula painted colorful landscapes, still lifes, and Judaic-themed images, Isaac applied his beautiful singing voice to chazanut, and has now served as a professional cantor for over fifty years.
Paula’s art has shown in galleries throughout Colorado, and her works are included in numerous public, private and corporate collections throughout the world. After a childhood filled with dark images of horror and loss, Paula’s goal is to capture the beauty in life through her art with the bold use of color and imagery. You can view her catalogue at paulaburger.com.
Paula Burger has been speaking to students’ civic groups for over twenty years. Her 2013 autobiography, Paula’s Window: Papa, the Bielski Partisans, and A Life Unexpected, vividly recalls her childhood experience of survival in the forests during World War II.