Leon Weinstein is one of the last living fighters from the Warsaw Ghetto… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)
She was Jewish, but to live she needed a Christian name.
She could not be Natalie Leya Weinstein, not in wartime Warsaw. Her father wrote her new name on a piece of paper.
Her mother, Sima, sobbed.
"The little one must make it," Leon Weinstein told his wife. "We got no chance. But the little one, she is special. She must survive."
Photos: A wartime sacrifice and a father's quest
He fixed a metal crucifix to a necklace and hung it on their daughter. On the paper, he scrawled another fiction: "I am a war widow, and I have no way of taking care of her. I beg of you good people, please take care of her. In the name of Jesus Christ, he will take care of you for this."
A cold wind cut at the skin that December morning, so Leon Weinstein bundled Natalie, 18 months old, in heavy pants and a thick wool sweater. He headed for a nearby apartment, the home of a lawyer and his wife. The couple did not have a child. Weinstein hoped they wanted one.
He lay Natalie on their front step. Tears ran down his cheeks. You will make it, he thought. She had blond locks and blue eyes. They will think you are a Gentile, not one of us.
Walking away, he could hear her whimper, but forced himself not to look back until he crossed the street. Then he turned and saw a man step out of the apartment. The man read Weinstein's note. He puzzled over the baby.
Cradling Natalie in his arms, the man walked half a block to a police station and disappeared inside.
Weinstein was beside himself.
What if the Gestapo took her from the police?
What if they decided that she was a Jew?
Today, at his small Spanish-style home in Mid-City, Weinstein, 101, recalls in agonizing detail what it was like to give up his baby in 1941 amid the Nazi juggernaut. He is frail, but his wit and memory are keen. He remembers well what followed: killing Germans, dodging death, hunting for Natalie.
Holocaust scholars vouch for his account, calling him one of the last living fighters from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, almost certainly the oldest.
For years, Weinstein kept his memories buried.
It is important to tell about Nazi horrors, he now says, so they are never forgotten. It is, he says, important to tell the story of his search for his little girl.
Weinstein was born in the Jewish village of Radzymin, Poland. As a child, he was independent, even stubborn. His family adhered to Orthodox Judaism, but he never fully believed. He defied his elders and grew into something of a tough. Eyes gleaming, he recalls those who called him a "dirty Jew."
"They'd meet my fists," he says. "Then they'd be picking their teeth from the ground."
By 15, he had run away from home and was living in Warsaw, where he worked as a tailor's assistant, then for a clothing company. In his 20s, he married Sima. After Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, they were forced to live in Radzymin with other Jews.
Natalie was born the next year. When she was a year old, Weinstein heard a Nazi guard say that German troops would soon send everyone in Radzymin to a death camp.
He prepared to flee and begged his extended family to leave too. They refused, saying Germans would never do such a thing.
But Weinstein had seen Nazi cruelty first-hand. So he slipped away, with his wife and daughter, into the nearby forest. It was far from a haven: anti-Semitic Polish thugs roamed there.
Using forged papers that identified him as a Christian, Weinstein and his family headed to Warsaw. They hoped that the sprawling capital would be a good hiding place. Sima had no papers; if the Nazis caught her, all three might be killed.
A Polish couple promised to hide Sima, but Weinstein and the baby would draw too much attention. They decided to leave Natalie on the lawyer's doorstep. Weinstein would head for the confines of the Warsaw Ghetto, where fellow Jews would give him shelter.
"This was a place completely unimaginable," Weinstein says. "A place worse even than the hell that Dante described."
The ghetto was surrounded by an 11-foot-high brick wall, barbed wire and guards. More than 400,000 Jews had been forced inside the 3.5-square-mile area. By early 1943, an estimated 300,000 of them had been shipped to Treblinka, a death camp in northeast Poland.
Nazis rationed food for those who remained and many died of starvation. Disease killed thousands more. Weinstein feared constantly for Natalie and Sima and was certain he would die.
He joined the ghetto resistance. "If we were going to die," Weinstein says, "we would do it on our own terms. We would die standing proud, on our feet, making a statement to the world. We would take as many of those bastards as we could kill."
He helped organize and train resistance fighters. On occasion, using his forged papers, he talked his way out of the ghetto and smuggled weapons back inside.