The Next Chapter 2015: Denise K.

Denise’s Story

By Samantha A.
Gunn High School

Samantha and Denise


Recently I read a quote by Winston Churchill. It said, we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. Denise K. received kindness and help from those around her; they protected, they ensured her survival and the facilitated her migration to a several new lives. They’re kindness though is not what defined her life it is what allowed her to live, what made her life was her initiative to seek more from her life. This is what struck me the most about Denise the first time I heard her story, her initiative and independence. What I later understood was the value that she places in her family and with the people who have been constants in her life.

In 1939 Hitler invaded Prague and Czechs was made a protectorate of Germany while Slovakia became independent. This was called the Partition of Czechoslovakia.[1] Everyone flourished for exactly 20 years from 1921 until 1941,[2] Joseph Tiso, a Roman Catholic, ruled the other half of the country. There were no Germans in Slovakia, it was all a local Nazi Party which enforced anti semitic laws created a lot of anti semitism. Millions of new laws and restrictions placed on Jews. Local Nazi Party raids houses to collect valuables and Jews could not travel more than six miles without permission. Then the local Nazi party and the president Joseph Tiso told the Germans that they would give 500 Deutschmarks for every Jew deported from Slovak soil. Jews were gradually deported between 1940-1944, during 1941 they deported young women between the ages of 15 and 25. 1942 it was only young families then towards the end it was older people. The only exceptions were people the state needed including Denise’s Grandfather who owned the only general store in the town.

In 1942 Denise’s parents were called to report to a train station in a neighboring city, they would be taken to Germany to “help build the Major German Empire” and they were under the impression that they would be coming back. The Nazi made it look exciting and like a celebration, The Gypsy Music Band played and friends and family were told to wish the group of educated german-speaking jews off. Denise, who at the time was only nine months old was supposed to accompany her parents but at the train station her mom. Alice saw her good friend Maria, who had come to see off the jews as the townspeople had been told to do. As Alice was about to board the train she asked Maria to take Denise and care for her, Maria agreed and wrapped baby Denise in a fur. As she was leaving she told a near by Nazi officer that she’d collected the fur from a Jew, the officer responded by telling her she was a very smart lady.

Immediately Maria’s uncle, the Lutheran minister, baptized Denise and made her a new birth certificate in order to protect her. Denise live with Maria and her two year old daughter for sometime but Denises grandparents, her father’s parents, lived in town and wanted Denise. They could not adopt her, however, because they were Jewish and Jews could not adopt a non jew and vice versa according to new laws. In order to adopt her Denise’s Grandmother converted. Soon after a family friend sent a letter that detailed their experience seeing Alice and Hugo at the train station, they then spoke about the growing anti semitism and the danger they expected was coming. They suggested that Denise’s grandmother give her up for adoption, telling me this brings Denise to tears. Despite this advice Denise’s grandmother decided to keep her, keeping what remained of their family together. Things then began to get even worse in their town. New laws were imposed that limited their control in the their own store and forced Denise’s Grandfather to hire Nazi official. In addition to that they could only assume that Denise’s parents and uncle had perished in Sobibor. Denise’s Grandfathers store was taken over and 6 weeks after that he died of a heart attack.

In 1944, Germans had entered Slovakia, called in by the Slovak Nazi government to suppress partisan uprising, for the first time and most Jews went into hiding or were disguised. Denise and her Grandmother, who had been staying in their town by themselves, finally found it was too dangerous to stay. They spent about a year hiding in a mountain cave, local partisans[3] would helped those in hiding get food and other necessities for them to live. At the beginning of the second winter they would be there they received a letter from the woman who had taken over their home when they left. She told them they should come back, they would be under her protection. Then she told the Nazis she was harboring Jews. Denise and her Grandmother were then sent to Terezin.

Terezin was a camp in the North of the Czech part of the country. For awhile it was used as a ghetto and transport camp from there thousands were sent on to Auschwitz.[4] By the time Denise, at age three and a half, got there though the Germans had begun to feel insecure because the Soviets were advancing quickly and trains moving on to death camps from Terezin were stopped. Terezin had originally been the fortress of and Austro-Hungarian Empress,[5] then it had been home to 10,000 people. Those people had been relocated and the ghetto now housed over 100,000 jews. Terezin served as a show piece for the Red Cross, it was said that Hitler gave the Jews a city and that there they had a separate but flourishing life. Fake money and documents were made up too perpetuate this image of normality.

In May of 1945 Terezin was finally liberated. Denise’s grandmother came to get her from Kindercamp and then they embarked on a week long train ride back to Slovakia. When they reached the capital, Bratislava, they were taken to a hospital. There they were given a certificate and 300 crowns (the equivalent of $10) to start their new life. They moved back home but when they arrived they found they were the only part of their family who had made it. The new government in Slovakia was fair, they kicked out all the Nazi Sympathizers who had taken up home in the homes of the Jews so they were able to move into their old home.

In the following years her grandmother got a permit to open a small tobacco store in order to create a modest life for herself and Denise. Denise and her Grandmother were Lutherans by conversions and went to church often to show respect to Maria who had saved her life. Even though things in Slovakia were better than they had been anti semitism was still embedded into the population. When Denise was in first grade she was out sledding. When some teenage boys declared they were going to drown the Jew and threw her into the frozen river. A neighbor came and pulled Denise out but Denise was confused. She didn’t know what a Jew was or why they had called her one but she knew that it wasn’t good.

When Denise got older she went to Czech part of the country to medical school. There was the first time she encountered a Jewish community. She was considered a war orphan and received a special stipend for her grades making a her a “rich” student. During her time there, in 1968, Russians were sent to occupy Czechoslovakia. There was a lot of violence and upheaval and many people died. Through this she decided to move on to finish medical school. This choice was largely made with the support of her grandmother. In 1969, Denise graduated medical school and was able to study abroad. She went to Austria for a six week summer clerkship. Her boyfriend at the time insisted she come home for her birthday and so she took a bus home from Vienna. In the middle of the night she was awoken, there were Soviet tanks in the streets and lots of violence. It was then she decided she needed to leave but she only had a few months left of school so she pushed through.

She married her boyfriend in city hall and they were able to Honeymoon in Bulgaria because it was a communist ally. They took a train that went through Belgrade, they had some time to kill before the train continued on. Denise coaxed her boyfriend to get off the train to get some snack and lemonade. She had made arrangements with some people from the local JCC to meet them so that they could get out of the Soviet block country. They stayed in a hotel across the street from the JCC for three weeks while permits to Italy were arranged.

When things were finally arranged they went to the train station and were told to wait for someone. They sat at all day waiting for it to be 7pm. No one seemed to be showing up and Denise worried that they would be sent back. Finally a man in an elegant summer suit arrived. He was carrying a briefcase he opened it up and showed her the inside. There was a picture of her. He was from an Israeli Agency that worked to help Jew immigrate to Israel. Denise and her husband went with him, they received Italian passports and were smuggled them into to Italy. That night the man and his friend spoke hebrew, this was the first time Denise had ever heard it. Finally the men put Denise and her husband up in a very nice hotel, shook their hands and left. The next day they were taken to the absorption center in Rome, the Israelis had converted a school into a center for immigrants. Later on they were taken to Napoli which allowed the cruise ship, Theodor Herzl, to go from Marseille to Napoli to Cyprus to Haifa. They stayed at the absorption center for six weeks before going on to Haifa.

In Haifa they were given a rent free apartment, food and a stipend to learn Hebrew. After that Denise went on to complete her residency and internship in Anesthesiology. Eventually her marriage to her husband dissolved and he moved to England and she went to the US to visit a remaining relative, her mother’s brother. She had never met him before, he had left Slovakia before she was born. While she was visiting a Czech Jewish man living in St. Paul, Minnesota came to meet her. She returned to Israel and they continued to exchange letters until after awhile she decided to leave Israel and come to the US to be with him.

In Minnesota she had to learn English, her fourth language, and attend University of Minnesota in order to get her medical licence in the US. Then they moved on to San Jose, and Denise took yet another exam for medical licence in California and did her Residency at Kaiser at Stanford. Now she lives in the Bay Area and she shares her story with teens like me in order to preserve her story and the story of the Holocaust. She has shown me file folders full of documents that her grandmother had preserved from the Holocaust: newspaper clippings, postcards, photographs, raid receipts, and so much more. These things are all in perfect or near perfect condition. She said that her grandmother kept careful record for proof of what had happened to them and to the Jewish people, she told me this with what I can only describe as a somehow humble sense of pride.



[1] “Czechoslovakia.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Council, 20 June 2014. Web. 06 Jan. 2015

[2] “Polin: 1000 Year HIstory of Polish Jews.” Warsaw: Museum of the History of Polish Jews. JFCS Holocaust Center and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Antony Polonsky. 2014.

[3] Irregular forces which use guerrilla tactics when operating in enemy-occupied territory. During the Holocaust, partisans operated secretly in their efforts to assist Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis.

[4] “Righteous of the Nations.” Yad Vashem.

[5] “The Holocaust.” Holocaust History. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

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Posted by Admin on July 23, 2015

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