‘It’s The Beginning Of Doom’
HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR RECOUNTS TALE OF SURVIVAL AT MCHS
Rachel Miller survived the Holocaust. Ninety-three members of her family did not.
Miller, an 83-year-old resident of St. Louis, spoke to students at McDonald County High School on Tuesday, before a community presentation that night.
The remarkably resilient, diminutive octogenarian emotionally painted a brutal picture of the horrors of being Jewish during the reign of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.
“The Germans killed 23 million people,” Miller said. “Six million were Jews. Of the Jews, one and a half million were children. They killed people with mental disabilities. They killed handicapped people. They killed Jehovah Witnesses. They killed Gypsies. They killed three million Russians. They killed gays. They killed and they killed and they killed — 23 million people. How can an intelligent people like the Germans do such a thing? Nobody knew what was going on. They didn’t want to know because they had a wonderful, wonderful life while Hitler was in power.”
Of the six million Jews killed, 93 were Miller’s family members, including her dad, mom, two brothers and sister. Only five of her family members survived.
Miller opens her story from the beginning of the rise of Nazi power in Europe. She was born in Paris in 1933 to parents who fled Poland in order to escape the rise of antiSemitism
“I heard my father say to my mother, ‘It’s the beginning of doom,’” Miller said. “I was 6 years old and it registered with me. I can’t believe it registered, and I still remember him saying that. That was the day Germany invaded Poland.”
Miller said life remained about the same for the family in the short term.
“We used to get together with my aunt, my uncle and my cousins every Saturday night,” Miller said. “We would have candy and ice cream. We used to sing in three different languages. We sang in French and Yiddish, and they sang in Polish. It was such a happy time. I just loved it.”
Miller said the good times were soon over. She said on June 23, 1940, less than a year after invading Poland, the German forces were “welcomed” into Paris.
“Marshal Petain made a deal with Hitler that if he did not bomb us, he could come in and the French would welcome him with open arms,” Miller said. “And that is exactly what the French did.”
Miller said that when she saw a parade of the Germans marching down her street, it hit her on what was happening.
“When I saw them and their horses and their cars and their motorcycles, I became petrified,” Miller said. “I ran upstairs and started to cry. All I could say is, ‘I’m afraid. I’m afraid. I’m afraid.’ I had good reason to be afraid.”
Over the next few years, Miller’s instincts about the Germans were proved to be correct.
On Aug. 20, 1941, the French police and German SS came to the Miller’s house and picked up Rachel’s father and her two uncles. They were taken to various camps before being transferred to a camp just outside Paris. The family was allowed to visit for one hour, three times a week.
Rachel visited her father on
Dec. 28, 1941.
“I was so excited,” she said. “My father was coming home on New Year’s Day. As far as I was concerned, everything would be the same. We would have the parties, the singing, everything would be great. My mother went back to see him Dec. 30. He told her at 10 o’clock in the morning he had been injected with something that made him very, very sick. He died in her arms Tuesday, Dec. 30, 1941, at 2 p.m.”
The same fate, on the same timeline, happened to her uncle at a different camp near Paris.
“We finally found out they were murdered,” Miller said. “They were the first Jews to be experimented on under the German occupation. They were injected with gas.”
The following summer, Miller’s mother sent her out of Paris to a farm in the country. She was told her name was now “Christine,” and she was not allowed to say she was Jewish.
“It was exactly what I wanted it to be,” she said. “Kids were playing. They were singing. They were dancing. I was happy for a day and a half. A day and a half later some kids came up and started to talk about this big raid they were going to have to pick up all the Jews. I became very frightened.”
Miller said her sister, Sabine, was supposed to go with her to the country. Sabine’s birthday was July 15 and their aunt promised Sabine a handbag, but she had to go to Paris to receive it. Instead, Miller went with her best friend Cecile, who was not Jewish.
On July 18, Miller went to the bus to meet Sabine, who was supposed to come and bring Miller’s doll, but it was Cecile’s mother who came off the bus. Sabine was nowhere to be seen.
After not being told where Sabine was, Miller threatened to run away to Paris to find her. Cecile’s mom told her on July 16 the Germans picked up her mother, her two brothers and her sister.
“I was very angry at my mother,” Miller said. “Why didn’t she keep me with her? She didn’t love me. She sent me away. It took me a long time to realize that my mother loved me very, very much. It must have been a very difficult thing for her to do to send her child away, not knowing if she was ever going to see her again or not.”
Miller eventually found out the fate of those taken that day. When the war was over, she was hoping for them to come home, but they never did. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall when the International Red Cross obtained German records from the Auschwitz concentration camp that she learned the horrible truth.
Upon arrival at the camp, those fit were forced into labor. Those not able to work were gassed and cremated. Her mother and sister were gassed upon arrival. Her brothers were forced into labor, but after surviving on only 180 calories a day while working from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., both died a short time later.
While Miller was in hiding at the farm, the Germans issued an edict that anyone harboring a Jew would get paid 300 Francs if they would turn the Jew in. The farmer wrote Miller’s aunt and asked what to do. Her aunt sent the farmer the 300 Francs.
“As a result, I was saved twice,” Miller said. “Once by my mother and once by this farmer whose name I don’t remember, but bless her soul.”
Miller’s aunt eventually said it was safe for Miller to come back to Paris. But times were hard. Miller had to wear the star that said “Jew.” Food was scarce. They had horse meat twice or three times a week, with black potatoes and black bread.
“Everything was black,” Miller said. “Anything you imagine was black. I don’t know how they manufactured it or grew it, but everything was black. The good thing was it was food. I am not really complaining; some people did not have any. I am just telling you what it was like.”
After suffering through the duration of the war, at times in rat-infested cellars hiding from Nazis, at a convent and, finally, at an orphanage, Miller’s perilous journey to the United States began.
While at the orphanage, three American soldiers saw her and wanted to bring her to the United States. The one she chose molested her when she was 11 ½ years old. Once in the United States, she was again molested by the soldier, but the wife found out and Miller was kicked out of the house.
She was then placed in five different foster homes before she met her future husband and got married.
The couple was married for 37½ years before he died in 1997. They had three children, one who died of AIDS on Dec. 23, 1992. All three of the children became lawyers.
“December is a very bad month for me,” Miller said. “My father died Dec. 30. My husband died the same day my father died, and my son died on Dec. 23.”
Miller’s appearance was arranged by Logan Grab, an English teacher at MCHS. Grab said she had been looking for a Holocaust survivor to speak for several years.
“Ninth-grade English classes at McDonald County High School read a book called ‘Night’ by Ellie Wiesel, who is a Holocaust survivor,” Grab said. “That was where I drew my inspiration. One of my former classmates at Missouri Southern told me Rachel would be speaking on Wednesday night in Purdy back in March. I told my husband we had to go and we did. After hearing Rachel speak, I knew she was the perfect person for our students. Our students needed to hear her story.”
The event was sponsored by the McDonald County Schools Foundation.
During her hour-long talk, Miller was joined by a doll sitting quietly in a chair on the stage. She never referenced it until a question from a student after she had finished.
Miller said she was on a trip to Paris with a woman who wrote a play about her life and her son.
“We went to see where I lived and to the park where I played,” Miller said. “At the end of the day, we went to the flea market and I bought myself a doll. This is the doll I bought. She was in a box. A friend of mine was having a party and said for me to bring the doll. When she looked at it, she said, ‘What a pretty doll.’ I took her out of the box and she looked at the tag. The doll’s name was Christine Cecile.”
Rachel Miller holds her doll, Christine Cecile, while speaking Tuesday at McDonald County High School on her experiences as a Holocaust survivor.
Holocaust survivor Rachel Miller answers questions from students at McDonald County High School following her presentation regarding her experiences during the Nazi occupation of France.