Nestel’s Holocaust memoir

On October 12, 1941, a day of bloody infamy, the Nazis massacred about 12,000 Jews in the Jewish cemetery in the Ukrainian town of Stanislawow, also known as Ivanofrankivsk. But as evening drew nigh, the weary killers halted the carnage, providing an unintended reprieve to another 6,000 Jews, including the author and her infant daughter.

Reminiscent of the biblical Hagar or a modern Jewish madonna and child, Jeanette Nestel and baby subsequently survived many harrowing incidents before reaching the blessed freedom of Canada about 1948. Her memoir, There’s An Apple in My Freezer, published more than half a century later, recounts the perpetual danger, numbing hunger, grueling hardships, impossible hopes and bitter disappointments of those years in which many ordinary people variously became saints or monsters.

“What was it that miraculously enabled me to survive?” Nestel, who became a successful artist in Canada, muses. “Obviously, it was a combination of resourcefulness, perseverance, the good fortune of being with good people at the right time and, most importantly of all, the strength that came from refusing to give up my child.”

Married at 18, Nestel’s husband left for the Russian army; word soon reached her that he had been killed. Establishing a ghetto, the Germans required all single mothers to marry or get a job; in desperation, she begged her cousin, a doctor, for assistance. He put a stethoscope, thermometer and other instruments into a medical bag and gave it to her along with a notarized note that she was an independent registered nurse.

This was the first of her various impersonations, the most useful of which required her to learn to pray as a Catholic. Escaping from the ghetto, she often found herself at the mercy of blackmailers, rogues, suspicious neighbours and others only too willing to finger her to the authorities. Just securing food and shelter for herself and others often meant routine exposure to extreme risks.

Born Zanetta Plesser, Nestel witnessed cruel atrocities; passed miraculously through checkpoints with false papers; bluffed her way out of numerous certain-death situations; stole bread and blankets to survive; and bravely endangered herself to save lives. Every page of her memoir conveys the notion of a world gone crazy, of humanity at an abysmal low. In the midst of one close escape she “vowed that if I got out of this alive I would leave this snake-pit country as soon as I could,” and the reader cries out a hearty “Amen!”

Her tale is filled with irony. In one episode she and several others were confronted by armed Jewish partisans in the woods, one of whom pointed a gun at her. “I was in a terrible predicament,” she writes. “I wanted to tell them that I was Jewish, but I didn’t dare in the presence of Felicia and Mr. Poplinki who surely would report me later.” Conversely, once the war is over, some Jews accused her of being a German or a collaborator because of her rusty Yiddish.

In Nestel’s eyes, Soviet forces and Polish clerks processed the survivors of the Majdanek concentration camp in a highly bureaucratic and uncaring fashion. Ragged partisans and even more ragged former prisoners were lumped together to wait in line for aid. Among the more pitiful episodes that she records is one involving a human “heap of rags and bones” who comes forward for help:

“The clerk laughed a superior sneer that I had heard before, usually coming from individuals in positions of power.

“ ‘And what does a Jew want?’ he asked.

“ ‘A place to live,’ came the answer.

“ ‘Where have you been up to now?’

“ ‘In the wheat.’

“ ‘Ah, in the wheat, eh? Who is stopping you from staying there now?’

“ ‘The wheat has been cut down,’ the man replied.

This tragic figure was met with derision and impatience on all fronts. Upon being told, “Go, go, where you belong,” he meekly shuffled away with a crazy smile on his face.

Nestel records her chance meeting with the husband she thought was dead (he had chosen not to answer her letters) and her encounter with the Russian soldier, Julius Nestel, who would eventually become her husband. She and Julius were planning to go to Palestine but chose to stay behind rather than submit to a requirement that her daughter travel separately with a shipment of war orphans. Israel’s loss was Canada’s gain.

Nestel and her grown daugher later revisited the various scenes of their odyssey, including an orchard where she had earlier collected some sour apples to eat; more apples were waiting for her, thus explaining the title. ♦