Growing up in wartime | April 30, 2014 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - April 30, 2014

Growing up in wartime

Local authors write of childhoods interrupted by Nazi occupation during World War II

by Barbara Wood

It was early in 1938, and in Vienna, Austria, little Eva Maiden, not yet 3 years old, lived happily with her parents (both physicians), her 8-year-old brother, her nanny, and her favorite aunt in a comfortable large apartment that doubled as doctors' offices.

"My life was very safe and secure," Ms. Maiden said in a recent interview. She attended a Montessori nursery school and was "always surrounded by caring adults."

In Bydgoszcz, Poland, 12-year-old Sophie Stallman, then known as Zosia, lived comfortably as well, with her mother and her older sister in a home suitable to their aristocratic roots, although her father had died when she was an infant.

Sophie was a brave and fearless child who by the age of 13 had learned how to parachute jump from a high building, tried piloting an open-cockpit fighter plane, and shown her expertise with a gun.

Not long after, both their worlds changed. What happened to them when Hitler's troops invaded, first Austria in 1938, and a year later, Poland, is the subject of memoirs the two women have recently published and will speak about at a Menlo Park Library-sponsored event at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 3, in the Menlo Park City Council Chambers, 701 Laurel St.

In March 1938, Nazi troops entering Vienna were welcomed with a parade. Jewish families, such as Eva's, soon suffered. Within days, Eva's father lost his part-time job on the medical staff of the city of Vienna. A patient warned him his name was on a list of Jews to be arrested; he avoided arrest only by hiding in a friend's home until the danger passed.

Eva's nursery school was closed, and her brother's teacher replaced with a loyal, and sadistic, Nazi before Jews were barred from school altogether. Later the 8-year-old brother was arrested, kept for a day in police custody, and beaten for ignoring the "No dogs, no Jews" signs in the park.

The family applied for visas to emigrate. But not until after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November, when Jewish shops were destroyed, synagogues burned and Jewish men arrested, did a relative in Switzerland help them get visas to leave Austria.

As Eva's family left Austria, in Poland the country prepared for an invasion. Sophie's family packed as many of their belongings as they could fit into bundles and suitcases and headed for Warsaw.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germans invaded Poland and began bombing. Ms. Stallman writes in her book that living history was not the same as studying it. "War started and ended on the same page in the book. There was no sitting in the cellar, waiting for where and when the next bomb would fall."

In Switzerland, Eva's family was separated. Her father, unable to see Austrian doctors for his appendicitis, had immediate surgery and spent months recovering. Eva's mother, afraid she could not feed the whole family, put her son in an orphanage while they moved into a single rented room. Later Eva's healed father and brother joined them there.

In America, family members who had already emigrated, including Eva's favorite aunt, worked to get her family visas. In May 1940, Eva and her family took the last ship to leave Italy before that country joined the war, to their new home in New York.

In Poland, the Germans persecuted not only the Jews but the entire population, most of whom were, like Sophie's family, Catholics. Poles were rounded up and sent to labor camps. All academic studies were outlawed, and the sister of one of Sophie's friends was killed along with her fellow students when they were found studying.

At 15, Ms. Stallman wrote, she decided to join the resistance. "Helping our organization fight the Germans was every Pole's duty, and I felt that I was old and smart enough to fulfill my part. ... I just had to wait to meet somebody whom I knew without doubt was in the Polish underground."

Sophie told no one when she joined the resistance, not even her family. "I learned the 'drill,' carrying guns and messages, being in designated places perfectly on time and always blending in with the crowd," she wrote.

Sophie also carried on life as a teenager, attending classes in what was allegedly a vocational seamstress' school, but with a plan to hide all evidence of academic endeavors when warned of a German's visit. She studied dance, voice, and later acting, and was successful at all three. She even fell in love with a fellow acting student, Bogdan.

"World War II was drawing to an end, but not for Poland," Ms. Stallman wrote. "We knew we could not avoid occupation, but we could lessen its effects if we could win control of our capital before the Soviet arrival. A military uprising was the only logical solution."

On Aug. 1, 1944, the uprising began. Sophie, her mother and her sister first helped run their apartment building as a sanctuary for refugees from other parts of Warsaw. Later her mother managed to get out of the city and Sophie and her sister went to the front lines, where Sophie was a courier, running through machine gun fire and bombings to deliver messages.

"On Tuesday, Sept. 5, our company went to the front lines thirty-two strong," she wrote. Four days later only Sophie, her sister, and two others who were wounded, were alive.

"During the uprising Warsaw lost 200,000 persons, many of them intelligent young people like my friends," she wrote. Bogdan was among the dead.

After the Germans agreed to let combatants leave the city alive, Sophie had many more adventures and close calls, including being in a labor camp in Dresden as the Allies bombed the city.

When the war ended, Sophie lived as a refugee for years. She married and had two children, and spent eight years trying to get a visa to go to America. Finally, in 1956, she came to the U.S. with her family and settled in Redwood City.

Both women went on to live full and interesting lives. Eva grew up in New York City, entering college at 17 and eventually becoming a school psychologist and then a psychotherapist. In 1964 she moved to Palo Alto for an internship and lived there until she moved to Menlo Park seven years ago.

Sophie became a PE teacher and then a gymnastics coach in Menlo Park, eventually coaching a team competing nationally. She moved to Ladera in 1975 and has stayed put ever since.

Both say they wrote their books because they felt they had to tell their stories.

Ms. Stallman says for many years she did not tell anyone any serious stories about her five years during the war. When she retired, however, she took a life stories class and began to write. "It was gnawing in me."

Ms. Maiden also began to write when she retired. "I had a very difficult family life and I thought it would help me to write about it and find a better way to hold my memories," she says.

While their lives had many parallels, the two women did not meet until introduced by librarian John Weaver, who set up their joint author talk.

The event

Both authors will speak at the Menlo Park City Council Chambers at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 3, in a program sponsored by the Menlo Park Library. Free van service to the program is available for Menlo Park seniors and people with disabilities. For more information or to schedule transportation, call 330-2512 or contact John Weaver, outreach coordinator, at .

The books

• "My War, My Life," by Ladera resident Sophie Stallman, Mill City Press, August 2013, 393 pages. Available at numerous online booksellers including Kepler's, in paperback. $16.95 list price. The book includes some Polish history as well as the author's experiences as a teenager in occupied Warsaw and as a member of the Polish underground.

• "Decisions in the Dark: A refugee girl's journey," by Menlo Park resident Eva Maiden, Bay Sound Books, August 2013, 158 pages. Available at numerous online booksellers including Kepler's ( in paperback and on Amazon for the Kindle. $14.95 list price; $8.99 Kindle. The book is a memoir of the first 21 years of the author's life, including her family's escape from occupied Austria. It is written for high school age and older.


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