On the night of Oct. 27, 1938, 11-year-old Nettie Stub, her two brothers, sister and parents were rousted out of bed in their apartment in Hannover, Germany by Nazi SS agents ferociously banging on the door. Still in their pajamas, they were herded, along with 10,000 other Jewish deportees, onto trains that deposited them at a detention center in Zbaszyn, Poland. They lived mainly on rations of bread and water, when there was enough to go around. Then one day a man named Grabowsky lined up three rows of children. Pointing to a boy of 13, he said, “You go. And,” he added, swinging his finger to Nettie, “you go.” Days later they arrived in Stockholm, cardboard signs around their necks bearing the names of their foster families.
In Sweden, she was told she would “go home soon, but the soon never came.” In 1940 Nettie’s foster family moved to America, and she was left behind in an orphanage. The conditions there were Dickensian; labor was long and hard, and the girls often fought over who would get to wear the few untattered dresses. That was her concentration camp. Nettie never saw her parents, sister or second oldest brother again. (Her oldest brother, Leo, lives in Middletown, N.Y.)
Nettie married Siegfried Katz, a survivor of Buchenwald, and in their Bronx apartment over the years she would often put down her crocheting and suddenly ask him, “How come that they picked me?” After 46 years of uncertainty, she now has an answer.
At 8:30 one recent Sunday morning, Nettie received a call from her first cousin, Frances Sanes, in Miami. Frances’ husband, Bill, had been leafing through A Vanished World, photographer Roman Vishniac’s stunning hidden-camera record of life in the Jewish ghettos before the Nazi Holocaust. Five pages from the end Bill had recognized 11-year-old Nettie, peering from her bunk in the Zbaszyn camp.
A meeting between Nettie, now a 56-year-old school cafeteria worker, and the 86-year-old photographer was arranged. Seeing Nettie, “I recognized her at once,” says Vishniac—the first time such a thing has happened to him. “To find her and to kiss her after 46 years—it is very exciting.”
Vishniac had gone to Zbaszyn after 68 people had died of pneumonia there. After two days of photographing, he leaped from a second-floor barracks in the dark and crawled to safety. Delivered to the League of Nations in Geneva, his film “proved,” he says, “that the horrible conditions were not a so-called Jewish fabrication.”
Vishniac also sent pictures of a few children at Zbaszyn, Nettie included, to Jewish agencies in Stockholm. That, combined with the reaction at Geneva, might have accounted for why Nettie was freed. Nettie, who has a son and two grandchildren, is convinced. “It’s in me now that he saved my life,” she says. “I feel like he’s my second father.”