EDGEWATER — Ida Manning lives to tell her parents' story.
It is a tale that defies belief, how the Edgewater resident's mother and father, Morris and Betty Rubinstein, survived the Holocaust.
Miracle after miracle saved and reunited the Rubinsteins, who moved to Chicago in 1951 and raised three daughters. They are now both dead, and Manning, 66, is doing her part to make sure their epic saga is not forgotten.
Justin Breen brings us the incredible story of how a Chicago woman's parents survived the Holocaust:
Sunday is the 69th Annual Holocaust Memorial Service. One of the Midwest's largest gatherings of Holocaust survivors will take place at 1:30 p.m. at Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue, 8825 East Prairie Road, in Skokie.
Manning, as always, will attend — and share her family's incredible journey.
"It was a miracle," she said. "Their whole life ... we're honoring the miracles that came to them."
Their lives 'could be terminated at any time'
The Holocaust claimed the lives of more than 6 million Jews, including 1½ million children.
Somehow, the Rubinsteins avoided that fate.
They both grew up in Kielce, Poland, although Morris was 11 years older. They first met when Betty was a child and Morris was a follower of her father, a leader in the Zionist movement.
They would reconnect several years after World War II began. Morris was enlisted in the Polish army and was on the front lines as German tanks, bombers and troops invaded the country.
Manning said her father was the only person in his troop to survive, and that was only because a horse that was shot landed on him and knocked him unconscious — but prevented the Germans from seeing he was still alive. It was his 25th birthday — Sept. 3, 1939.
He walked back to his hometown, where the remaining Jews had been moved to a ghetto. There, Betty's mother told her and her seven siblings never to look outside her dwelling's windows. The one time she did, Betty said Nazis were lining up rabbis and other religious leaders, who dug graves before being shot. The families of those killed were then forced to shovel the dirt onto the bodies.
Morris recognized Betty when he returned to Kielce — she was the youngest daughter of one of his religious mentors. A year later, they decided to marry because, as Manning said "They didn't know how long they were going to live and decided they needed joy."
"There was no rabbi left to marry them, so they found a son of a rabbi and were married in secret in the dark of night," Manning said. "They traded items of their clothing and jewelry for flour, sugar and eggs so they could make cookies for the celebration."
The Rubinsteins were one of several couples to be wed over a span of few days. When the Germans found out, they did not know who had been married but responded by picking random people off the street and hanging them.
"The Nazis never knew my parents had gotten married," Manning said. "There's no marriage certificate. There's no pictures. There's nothing other than they knew life could be terminated at any time."
After two years, Morris and Betty were sent to a slave labor camp in Pionki, Poland — similar to the camp in the film "Schindler's List." And like many of the Jews in that movie, the Rubinsteins made sure to note they had "essential skills," even if they didn't. Betty became a seamstress, Morris a carpenter.
At Pionki, the only food available was vegetable broth. Morris always gave extra soup to his wife.
Eventually, the Germans would abandon the camp, killing every Jew left. But Morris escaped into the woods; Betty hid in the top of a wooden outhouse for German soldiers for three days without food and water. After the Nazis were gone, Betty went into the forest and found Morris, who had come back for her.
They lived in the woods for several months — eating wild poppy seeds that they'd turn into a paste — before finding an abandoned ammunition factory. But German soldiers found them there and transported them to concentration camps: Morris went to Oranienburg then to Rathenow, and Betty to Ravensbruck.
By then the war was ending, and Morris' camp was liberated by the Russians. Betty's camp was abandoned by the Germans, but not before they took the last few hundred living Jews, crammed them into a cellar and padlocked the door. Three days later, the Swedish Red Cross broke the lock.
Morris was taken to a displaced persons camp outside of Salzburg, Austria. Betty went to live in a Lutheran community in Sweden. Morris never stopped looking for his wife and eventually discovered she was in the Nordic country. He wrote her a telegram to come to Salzburg, and after taking a ferry across the Baltic Sea, Betty walked hundreds of miles the rest of the way there.
"Somehow they made it, and they made it for a reason," Manning said. "They wanted to live ... and they still had hope that someone would rescue them.
"In Salzburg, they felt alive ... invincible."
A story of Chicago success
Manning was born in 1947 in a Lutheran hospital outside of Salzburg.
Four years later, the family came to New York on a freighter, then immediately traveled on a train to Chicago, where they were sponsored by Manning's great aunt, Ida Roth.
The Rubinsteins resided in Garfield Park, where a young Manning learned English by watching television and taught her parents how to speak it.
Morris' first job was as a stock boy in the shoe department at Sears. As he began to understand more English, he worked his way up to a salesman and eventually a sales manager.
After years of saving, he opened B&M Shoe Store (after Betty and Morris) on Roosevelt Road and California Avenue in North Lawndale. He spent the rest of his career in the business until retiring at age 72. He died in 2006 at age 92. Betty died in 2012 on what would have been Morris' 98th birthday.
Manning said they rarely talked about the Holocaust until their later years. Manning and her two younger sisters never spoke loudly at home because their mother would get scared. If someone knocked on the door, Manning said her mom would be reminded of the Germans. Many times, Manning would find Betty crying on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night.
Manning has tried to emulate her parents' values throughout her life. She held leadership positions at Roosevelt High School and earned degrees from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northeastern Illinois University. Various careers included work as an advertising sales manager, teacher and therapist. She also ran the Illinois Institute for Entrepreneurship Education, which gives students tools to write and execute business plans.
"Entrepreneurial thinking is a whole different tool base that helps you survive, and I saw that with my family," Manning said. "My parents used networking and made themselves useful to keep them alive."
'Who will tell their story?'
Manning looks forward to every Holocaust Memorial Day, but each year she's saddened to see fewer and fewer survivors.
The memories Manning's parents passed on to her are part of an overall issue facing the Jewish community.
"Her story is particularly significant because one of the major issues in the Holocaust survivor community is who will tell their story, who will tell the world what happened, once the survivors are gone?" said Joel Schatz of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Manning visits several Chicago schools each year to share her parents' ordeals. And she has been alarmed because she said many city students — and even some teachers — aren't aware the Holocaust even occurred or its significance.
"I once asked a group of students who Hitler was and they didn't know," she said.
Manning said she routinely thinks about how her parents maintained their sanity after coming to Chicago and created a normal existence for their daughters. She was always amazed by their strength and determination.
Manning said she feels she owes it to anyone who will listen to tell this tale so her parents' story will never die.
"They lived an incredible life," she said.