Becoming Janet: Finding Myself in the Holocaust

Image of Becoming Janet: Finding Myself in the Holocaust
Release Date: 
May 7, 2024
Cypress House
Reviewed by: 

“When we first arrived in the United States, my father made me dictate everything I could remember about the years while we were apart.” These valuable notes form the basis for Janet Singer Applefield’s touching memoir, Becoming Janet.

“These talks, and the impact they have, are my legacy,” says Applefield in the beginning. Now in her late eighties, she has lectured about the Holocaust to middle schools, high schools, and universities for decades.

Born in Nowy Targ, Poland in the mid-1930s, she felt much love. Photos that reveal Applefield’s colorful memories fill the pages. But by 1939 there were antisemitic signs throughout her community. Her father “heard the horrifying news that would plunge all of us into a new world of darkness: Hitler’s army had invaded Poland.”

Her mom, Mamusia, younger sister, and other relatives escaped on wagon through the woods, while her father, whom she called “Tatus” separated, on a mission. Her baby sister dies from diphtheria. Her uncles are slaughtered. After returning home, they are forced to live in a ghetto where people are randomly shot in the streets.

Constantly on the run from Nazis, an ethnic-German family nanny hides Janet (born “Gustawa”) from harm, and she sees her emaciated father briefly during their travels; then the nanny hands Janet over to a “Cousin Lala.” “I had begun to learn to go where I was pulled” should not be something any child should endure.

Little Janet soon becomes Krystyna Antoszkiewicz, holding papers of a deceased Polish child, and her physically abusive, sadistic (Jewish cousin Lala) became (Polish) “Halina.” A kind neighbor, Janina, occasionally looks in on “Krysia” during her isolation. Krysia misses her mother but senses doom. “Sometimes you just know things.”

Later left in a church by the cruel cousin, a kind woman, Pani Golab rescues Krysia, and hides her on a farm with Ciocia (aunt) Genia from 1943–1945. Krysia learns farm chores and loves them; it is her chance at being a kid, even with the frequent bomb scares. In May 1945, the war is over, but she is reluctantly handed over to her cousin, “The Rat.” He forces her (Catholic) communion in 1945 “for papers.”

“The Rat” turns Krysia over to the Jewish Committee Center, with 68 starving, diseased children, mostly girls. Many (circumcised) boys had been killed; others disguised themselves as girls. And local Poles turn on them, so they are transported to the mountains.

There Gustawa Singer is nursed to health, though the compound is constantly attacked by angry Poles. Their supervisor, kindly Matka, warns them, “Children, we need to be vigilant and be prepared.”

Then, Gustawa’s father looks for her. “Three years, eight moves and seven caretakers . . .” she is frightened and incredulous. Tatus is emaciated but present! Three concentration camps had held him for so long. Gradually, he would bring memories to Gustawa, and though she is reluctant to leave her friends at the compound, they leave together for barren, lifeless Nowy Targ.

Local Poles still resent those Jews who return. Tatus obtains a gun and screams in his sleep. “Tatus said we would be safer in Krakow . . .” But post-war Poland is not safe for Jews. Tatus says they’d be going to stay with relatives in America, “. . . Because money grows on trees. . .”

They first depart for Paris for visas, which only grant them access to America for three months in 1947, then possibly on to Venezuela. Best part of the transatlantic voyage for 11-year-old Gustawa is the red Jell-O. “I’d never seen food that jiggled.” Then, “The Statue of Liberty was like a dream.”

Gustawa enjoys her first meal in New York with Tatus, Uncle Jack and Aunt Rose at Horn & Hardart’s automat, en route to Rahway, New Jersey.

Aunt Rose takes Janet to Macy’s in NYC where she is allowed to choose a new wardrobe. “This was the America I had dreamed of.” Soon she is learning English in elementary school and given the name Janet. “The “J” wasn’t an easy sound for my tongue . . .”

The loophole in the three-month USA-stay law would be for Tatus to marry an American. “I didn’t want a new Mamusia.” Sadie Ulman is an American citizen. Janet doesn’t like her but understands her father’s needs. “She needed us, and we needed her.” Tatus marries Sadie the day after now-American Janet turns 12.

Cut to present day, to the end of Janet’s PowerPoint presentation before an assembly of middle schoolers. In 2012, a Polish graduate student helped Janet discover that Mamusia was gassed in Belzec in 1942. After one recent presentation, a student waited for Janet, and said, with damp eyes, “I’m Jewish. Thank you for becoming Janet.”

“The millions who lost their lives no longer have a voice, so I am committed to speaking for them.”

Brief, skit-like chapters show the author’s desperation as if needing to cut each horrific memory into distant, long-past, nightmarish pieces. Poetic language in the face of adversity of a lost childhood: “The sky, studded with brilliant stars, was crisp and clear” define the author’s unwavering optimism. A Study Guide at the end provides 13 provocative questions for readers young and old.