WILMINGTON — Gertrude ‘Bronia’ Slom Poliwoda Merlin was born Gronetta Poliwoda on May 8, 1920, in Sosnowiecz, Poland, the daughter of Josef and Esther Kimmelman Poliwoda.
She and her three sisters, brother, and parents lived a happy life in Sosnowiecz prior to the invasion of Poland by the Nazis in September 1939. Under occupation, she hid from the Nazis for several months, but was eventually taken from her home in the middle of the night, just as has been portrayed in many movies. She never saw her parents, two of her sisters, or her brother again.
Bronia was sent to work camp Freudenthal, where she survived until late 1941. While there, she received a letter and package from home containing a pair of flannel pants. The letter, written by her mother saying all was fine at home, was basically a lie, because of censorship. Knowing that these pants were made from her father’s warm robe, she deduced that her father had been taken from home and had no need for his robe.
Bronia was moved, once again, this time by cattle car, crowded with no room to sit, for three days in freezing conditions. She ended up in the worst of the extermination camps, Auschwitz/Birkenau, where she was forced to work in an ammunition factory. Being secretly resistant, she attempted to sabotage the Germans by filling shells with incorrect amounts of powder.
During her time in Auschwitz, she survived frequent selections for death in the gas chambers. Once, when motioned to join the line for death, she felt her mother’s voice urging her to speak up to the SS officer and beg for her life. Fortunately, she spoke fluent German, and she was able to tell him that she was a hard worker who never caused problems. Miraculously, the officer motioned for her to join the other line, and she was allowed to live.
She was resourceful and created ways to earn an extra piece of life-saving bread or piece of potato. Once, she was punished for searching the garbage for rotted potatoes; she was beaten and given nothing to eat for a week.
In late 1944, as the Nazis were losing the war, they moved their prisoners closer to Germany. Bronia was transported once again, this time to KZ Ravansbruck, from which she was eventually liberated in the spring of 1945.
Now that she was free, she faced a dilemma – what to do and where she should go. When she returned to her family home in Poland, she found it occupied by a Polish family, and all of her family’s possessions had been seized by others. She had no family or home. With nowhere to go, she eventually ended up in a displaced persons (DP) camp.
After a while, her brother-in-law, Henry Dyzenhaus, who had also survived, found her. After questioning other survivors, they heard that her sister, Faye, Henry’s wife, had been seen alive toward the end of the war. With hope, they searched other DP camps and eventually found Faye. Henry and Faye were her only relatives who survived the war. Also searching for loved ones was Alter ‘Arthur’ Slomnicki, who had known Bronia’s family before the war. Bronia and Arthur married and settled in Feldafing, another displaced persons camp, near Munich. They joyfully had daughter, Reba, there, and waited for a sponsor in America, so they could gain an entry visa.
In 1949, they obtained sponsors and were allowed to enter the U.S. and settled in Jacksonville, Fla. Arthur found a job as a kosher butcher, and two more children, Esther and Samuel, followed. Bronia kept their home, learning English by watching daytime television. While they were not wealthy, both parents were dedicated to seeing that their children had a better life than they had, and theirs was a happy home.
Arthur died in 1967, and Bronia found herself a single parent with three children. She took a job with the Jacksonville Jewish Center and continued to maintain her home and raise her children, instilling in them the values that would make all of them successful in life.
In 1975, Bronia married Theodore Merlin, and they had a loving marriage until his death in 1993, when Bronia moved into independent living near her daughter, Esther, in Atlanta. As Bronia’s life slowed and she had time to think about the war years, she suffered from PTSD, frequently having nightmares and crying out during her sleep. During one of these nightmares, where she was being chased by the Nazis, she tried to run away, causing her to fall out of bed, and resulting in a broken neck. While she survived, she was unable to live by herself any longer, and in 2007, she moved in with her daughter, Reba, and her husband, Jonathan, in Wilmington, who lovingly cared for her for 10 years.
While living in Wilmington, she spoke at UNCW, CFCC, and many schools and churches, telling of her experiences during the Holocaust. Bronia would always show her arm to reveal the tattooed number 67680, which was used to identify and dehumanize the prisoners. In this way, she ensured that others would never forget.
She related well to young people, who were amazed to hear how she was taken in the middle of the night, and of the ‘selections,’ where, with a motion of their thumb, German officers would determine life or death. Her talks made a big impression on them, as evidenced by the many notes that she received. She spoke often, until her health began to deteriorate.
Bronia wanted the world to know what happened to her and others, not only to share her personal story, but to give testimony for those who suffered or perished. She urged all who heard her speak to not be bystanders and to speak up when they witness injustice against others.
Bronia was a loving mother, always putting her children first and sacrificing, so that they could have whatever they needed. She was a wonderful, spirited, feisty woman, who lived a full life after surviving one of the worst episodes in history. She will be dearly missed by her children, grandchildren and many friends. We like to think that she is now at peace and with the loved ones she lost. May she rest in peace, and may her memory be a blessing.
Bronia Merlin is survived by her three children, Reba Alper (Jonathan) of Wilmington, Esther Rosenfeld (Dr. Joseph) of Atlanta and the Honorable Samuel Slom (Joyce) of Miami; and three grandchildren, Wendy Alper of New York, Aaron Rosenfeld of New York and Jeffrey Rosenfeld of Los Angeles.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, March 14, at B’nai Israel Synagoge, Wilmington.