Fragments of Memories

Olga Sher's Decisive Moment
by Karin Doerr

Photo: K. Doerr

Judenstern. Jewish star. A stigmatic emblem originating in the Middle Ages, an identification badge that the Jews were forced to wear in order to distinguish them from non-Jews. It consisted of a yellow six-pointed star on which two opposite-facing black triangles were printed, along with the word Jude in black. From November 1939, all Jews residing in German-occupied Poland from 16-year-old and older had to wear a star. In 1941 a police decree ordered Jews in the Reich and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to wear a star. In 1942 the order was extended to all of German-occupied Europe. During World War II, the Nazis used various signs, including an armband stamped with a blue six-pointed Star of David in eastern European ghettos and a yellow six-pointed star with the letter J in western Europe. In many concentration camps Jews were marked with a red triangle (political opponent) overlapped by a yellow triangle (Jew) to form a Judenstern.1

Olga Sher confirms with other Holocaust survivors that German language memories continue to be very strong. It is the genocidal vocabulary that stands for the terror they endured. One frequently cited memory word is Aktion, which translates generally into "operation" or "action" in the sense of a "measure" or "step." But during the Second World War, it signified the brutal round ups of Jews, accompanied with verbal insults, physical injury, and often murder.

Some survivors connect specific objects to events of the past. This is also the case for Olga Sher. Her German Armbinde (armband) is still in her possession today. This memento reminds her vividly of her precarious state and vulnerable status as a Jew in German-occupied Poland. In 1942, she was twenty-two and still working in a German labor camp for Jews when she and her family were warned about imminent round-ups of Jews (Aktionen) for deportation. These were the feared transports (Transporte) to death camps.

Since all Jews in occupied Poland had had to wear the armband from 1939 on to openly identify themselves as Jewish, she and her father decided to take the risk of concealing their visible marking during a particular round-up. Concealing her Jewish identity in a crucial moment was only possible because her most recent armband was homemade, constructed of paper and cellophane, with elastic straps to hold it in place and the Star of David drawn on with blue crayon. This violated the stipulations of a more durable band with exact measurements, white fabric, a stitched blue Star of David.

As they walked through that night fraught with Gestapo danger, her father chose the appropriate moment to tell her to turn the armband and bend her elbow so that even the elastic would be invisible. In an instant Olga Sher became a non-Jew in the street, due to the ability to conceal the makeshift identification band by quickly moving it around. Among the happenings they witnessed, she recalls German soldiers kicking open the door of the Jewish orphanage and then herding the children onto a waiting truck. She and her father escaped the deadly transport that night and subsequently slipped into hiding.2

As the photo shows, she still cherishes this life-saving remnant from the past and wishes to keep it for her grandchildren as a silent witness to this nightmare moment that decided her fate. To her, the German Armbinde, in Nazi German sometimes referred to as Judenbinde (Jew band), will always contain the memory of that German word and the event associated with it, something, she says, is very difficult to convey.3

1. Entry in Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi German: An English Lexicon Of The Language Of The Third Reich, Robert Michael and Karin Doerr (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002) 227.

2. Her account is available as "Olga's Story" in the section Memoirs of Holocaust Survivors in Canada of The Montreal Institute of Genocide Studies (MIGS) at ><

3. A version of this episode first published by Karin Doerr in "Etched In Memory: Holocaust Survivors and the Language of Genocide," in The Bulletin of the Center For Holocaust Studies, The University of Vermont, vol. 7, no. 2. (Spring 2003) 5-7.