Dorothy Greenstein, Holocaust Survivor, Remembers Small Acts Of Kindness That Helped Her Survive

04/19/2013 02:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2013

Dorothy Greenstein's story of surviving the Holocaust as a Jewish child in Poland is filled with so many intervals and names, it's hard to keep track of them all.

There wasn't one safe haven, or one hero, she explained at Cal State Bakersfield earlier this week as the university observed its second annual "Days of Remembrance." The week-long series of educational events followed Yom HaShoah, the Jewish memorial day for those killed in the Holocaust.

It was actually a series of small acts of kindness, interspersed with lucky breaks, that ultimately saved her life.

At one point, Greenstein, now 82 and living in North Hollywood, found herself fleeing through the countryside, alone at the age of 11. She'd knock on farmhouse doors and throw herself at the mercy of strangers.

"Hello. I'm a Jewish child. Please, will you save me?" she'd ask.

Some turned her away, but many gave her shelter for a night or two, or even for a few weeks at a time, before fear for their own safety compelled them to ask her to leave.

Greenstein was born Devorah Kirszenbaum, the daughter of a rabbi in Otwock, just outside Warsaw.

Shortly after the war started, the Jews of the region were forced into a ghetto. Greenstein's parents, six sisters and two brothers were forbidden to leave its confines on pain of death, but Greenstein didn't look stereotypically Jewish and snuck out from time to time to get food for her hungry family.

"Fortunately for me, the Nazis were teaching everyone that there were no Jews with light hair and blue eyes," she said. "These blue eyes saved me. I spoke fluent Polish with no Yiddish accent, and everyone thought I was Polish."

In time, though, Greenstein's father got wind of a plan to "resettle" the Jews in the Otwock ghetto. He ordered her and another sister with similar coloring to go into hiding.

The girls bounced around the homes of family friends and friends of friends for years, each time for short intervals.

Once, Greenstein and her older sister were riding a train, and a passenger asked her sister why she was travelling with "that Jewish girl."

Greenstein's sister told her it would be safer for them to travel separately, and they split up.

Greenstein hid on farms, in a labor camp where she had relatives, in corn fields.

There were so many narrow misses. To this day, she's frightened of German shepherds because Nazis used them to sniff out anyone trying to hide. One dog missed her in an outhouse, where the stench of the waste covered her scent. Another failed to bark or ascend higher after smelling the first and second tier of a three-tiered bunk bed. Greenstein was on the top tier, curled up under a pile of blankets.

But there were good deeds, too. An elderly farm woman who was bringing her food to eat in a cornfield discovered a Nazi trying to drag her off and shouted at the young soldier.

"I know you! We go to church together! You call yourself a Christian. You should be ashamed of yourself. Let that child go," the woman hollered.

The Nazi released her and skulked off, red-faced.

Eventually, a sympathetic Christian told Greenstein how to steal the identity of a deceased Christian child and obtain a birth certificate. She used that to get work as a maid until she was old enough to join the Polish uprising.

In the end, only five members of Greenstein's family survived.

She now spends much of her time speaking at schools and museums, sharing her story. When she does, she's careful to use the word "Nazis" to describe the cruel soldiers she encountered. She never lumps those people in the same category as all Poles or Germans, and she insists on spelling out the full first and last names of everyone who helped her along the way, if she knows it.

The identities of some of her saviors are lost to time, but she will never forget them. And she urges anyone who hears her story to be grateful for good fortune, and never give up.

"People ask me all the time what got me through it," she said. "Hope and faith. They're very important. Whenever I was at my darkest hour, I would pray to God or speak in my head to my father. And every time I prayed, some miracle would save me. It worked wonders." ___

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