The Way We Were: Hannah Himmelfarb Gavronsky

Gavronsky family around 1960; front: Aaron, Helen, Miriam; back: Hannah, Mike, Ben

Gavronsky family around 1960; front: Aaron, Helen, Miriam; back: Hannah, Mike, Ben

In January Hannah Gavronsky celebrated her 98th birthday surrounded by her children, and several of her 13 grand- and 12 great-grandchildren.

Turning 98 may not seem particularly remarkable at a time when the fastest-growing segment of the population are those 80 and older, however, Hannah’s life might well have ended in 1939 when her family was herded onto a train bound for a Nazi extermination camp from their home in Lask, Poland. Of the 3,800 Jews living in Lask, all but 750 were killed on the spot or sent to the death camps. 

Hannah’s daughter, Miriam Alexander, remarked that her mother is probably the only living survivor from the city of Lask during the Holocaust. Helen Mock, Hannah’s younger daughter, explained that when her family was forced onto the train, Channa (as she was called) was pulled aside by a German soldier and directed to the Lodz Ghetto work camp. She was found wandering, lost and disoriented, by Szaja ber Gawronski who took care of her and later became her husband and the father of Jake, Michael, Miriam, Helen and Aaron.

“My father’s family were expert horsemen. His job in the ghetto was to drive a horse and wagon. He worked at the sugar mill hauling 200-pound bags onto the wagon,” said Helen. “My parents were slaves for the Germans. My mother had to sort through the clothes of people killed by the Germans. Her father had been a Kohen, the holiest man in the Jewish religion, and her brothers were tanners and shoe makers.”

When the ghetto was officially established in 1940, a fence went up around the city and the 230,000 Jews were packed into the confines on the average of three or more people to a room. The Jews had to pay for their own food, security, sewage removal and anything else involved with their incarceration.

Cut off from the outside world, life was brutal. There was forced labor, random beatings and killings on the streets. One of Channa’s brothers, his wife and children were shot and killed.

While working in the camp Szaja ber Gawronski had to wear wooden shoes while working 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week, and Channa had to sew on buttons and cuffs for soldiers’ pants as well as make straw shoes for the Germans.

Overcrowding, hunger, illness and isolation left the residents completely at the mercy of the Nazis. Deportations of the old, sick and children continued as the Gestapo entered the ghetto and removed the Jews to be sent for extermination. In 1944 Heinrich Himmler ordered the extermination of the Lodz ghetto.

“My dad was a wheeler dealer. He smuggled food for the Jews and helped people hide. He took out the plumbing in the wall and they hid in there and in the sewer,” said Helen.

The couple hid for eight days. Many people ended up getting sent to Chelmno or to Auschwitz. According to an article by Jennifer Rosenberg from the Jewish Virtual Library, only 877 Jews remained from the more than 245,000 interned there since its opening in 1939. The Soviets liberated the ghetto on January 19, 1945. Channa and Ben Gawronski were two of the survivors five days after her 25th birthday.

After being sent to a refugee camp in Munich, Germany, the Gawronskis applied to go to Jerusalem but ended up at Ellis Island around 1950 with their two sons, Jake and Mike. It was at Ellis Island that Szaja ber Gawronski became Ben Gavronsky, or Shorty as he was later nicknamed since he was only 4’11” tall, and five-foot-tall Channa became Hannah.

Neither spoke nor wrote English. Neither had any family or close friends in their new country. Aided by Congregation Ahavath Chesed “The Temple,” which was in in Riverside at the time, the Gavronskys managed to assimilate into their new home in Jacksonville.

Jake had a bar mitzvah, but Helen explained, “My father didn’t want us raised Jewish nor Christian. He just wanted us to be Americans, to speak English.” Miriam related that even in school at Central Riverside Elementary, John Gorrie Jr. High and Robert E. Lee High, they did not refer to themselves as Jewish.

Hannah Gavronsky with her son, Jake

Hannah Gavronsky with her son, Jake

Hannah and Ben arrived in their new country with unfamiliar customs, no language or job skills. (There wasn’t much demand for a wagon driver in Riverside in 1950). It was only natural for the family to be hesitant and fearful about revealing their heritage. Most refugees of the Holocaust were traumatized, depressed, distrustful and apprehensive of authorities.

Part of that distrust had to do with money. Ben and Hannah’s children tell amusing stories of their parents hiding money in their shoes.

“My Mom couldn’t do bank accounts or anything like that,” said Helen, who noted that when she was a teenager she took her mother to the bank and they deposited $16,000, which had been hidden all over the house – mainly in shoes. “We found $800 way back in the closet in a pair of my dad’s shoes. My dad lived out of his wallet.”

Ben never learned to read or write English and Hannah’s education was limited, but that didn’t stop Ben from becoming a successful businessman. “He worked construction. He saved up some money, borrowed some, then bought two houses which he converted into apartments,” recounted Helen. “Then he opened Wesconnett New and Used Furniture Company in 1960. He just did everything. He bought and traded land or a diamond; it was like a pawn shop.”

An acquaintance recalls how fun it was to see the diminutive “Mr. G” driving around in his big white Cadillac. With five children to care for at their Dellwood Avenue home in Riverside, Hannah stayed busy. Her children were everything to her. She sang to them, “My Yiddish Mama,” and told Holocaust stories like other mothers read nursery rhymes. Her favorite movies? “Dr. Zhivago” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Hannah and Helen have traveled to Israel and to the Scandinavian countries, and Miriam said her mother’s favorite pastime before becoming infirm was shopping at the mall.

“I think she has lived so long to tell her story,” said Helen. Now she has glaucoma, diabetes and dementia but copes with her situation in her sweet, gentle manner.  Her room at the River Garden Hebrew Home is decorated with beautiful crewel work that she did in past years.

Unfortunately, there are no photographs from their wedding on June 6, 1947 and certainly none from their childhoods in Poland. There are very few of her children. Channa Himmelfarb Gavronsky had no way of knowing that generations of Gavronskys would be dependent on her surviving the horrors of the Nazi camp. She and Ben are examples of the benefits of hard work and dedication to living the American Dream. They did not spend their lives in bitterness nor recrimination but focused on caring for their family and moving forward.

Ben Gavronsky passed on in 1972 but his legacy is the development of Wesconnett Furniture into Furniture Mart by his son, Michael, who passed away in 2003. Almost all of Ben’s children and some of the grandchildren have worked in the store at one time or another and it continues to be run by his son Aaron, and Mike’s widow, Chris Gavronsky Green, who said she is trying “to get the next generation to step up.”

Ben and Hannah’s daughter Miriam, married to Terry Alexander, is founder and owner of the Miriam’s Jewelers in San Marco. Jake is a pharmacist and Helen, married to Powell Mock, is recently retired from Furniture Mart.  “Mema,” as Hannah is called by her grandchildren, is remembered by her grandson Joseph as always wanting to take care of everyone and cooking wonderful chicken soup with homemade potato dumplings.

After 70-plus years of appeals and denials by The Republic of Bavaria, which stated that the “plaintiff did not prove convincingly” that they were at the Work Detachment-Lodz, that they had no witnesses to their habitation, (even while stating that there almost no survivors from the ArbeitsKommando), Hannah Gavronsky, with assistance from Jewish friends and the intervention of lawyers in Israel, was finally issued reparations in 2017 for “deprivation of liberty and wearing the Jewish star.”

Hannah’s maiden name, Himmelfarb, translates as “color of heaven.” At age 98, after all that she has survived, Hannah Himmelfarb Gavronsky gets closer to seeing the color of heaven each day and she will approach it with the same sense of serenity, sweet smile and gentle spirit that has carried her though more trials and tribulations than most people can ever imagine. She has told her story and the generations of her descendants will continue to tell it.

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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