Halina Drexler (later Zimm)
Halina Drexler (later Zimm) grew up in Lodz, Poland, with her parents and two sisters, Helen and Nana. In Poland life was pleasant until Nazis invaded the country in 1939. The invasion closed schools and Jews were forced to wear the Yellow Star. Recognizing the eminent danger to his family, Halina’s father Solomon Drexler and his family evacuated Lodz and made their way to Zarnow. En route Nazis stopped the Drexler family, stealing almost everything that they had with them.
In Zarnow, rumors circulated about the existence of concentration camps. Few people believed the stories; however Halina’s father did. He obtained two forged birth certificates for Halina and Helen. In November, 1940, Halina said goodbye to her parents, fearing then she would never see them again. Two weeks later, the Nazis arrived and deported the Jews of Zarnow.
Halina escaped to Warsaw where, in a train station, searched for someone to help her. Halina met a woman who took her in but neighbors began asking questions, so Halina knew she needed to leave. Eventually, Halina found employment as a housekeeper for a young couple who lived directly across the street from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Halina lived many terrifying moments. On one visit to a market, she saw a woman she had known in Lodz. That woman denounced her to the police. Shortly thereafter, two Nazis arrived at the apartment and accused Halina of being a Jew. Halina also is able to recall the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Standing outside, she could hear people weeping and crying as the Nazis dynamited buildings where Jews were hiding.
Eventually liberated by the Russians, she met her future husband Alan Zimm in 1945. With marriage came immigration to the United States where Halina and Alan established new lives, raised a family and became active members in the community. Halina often speaks to groups of students and teachers inspiring all who hear her.
Holocaust Survivors Oral History Project
Each spring, St. Michael’s Episcopal School seventh graders engage in an inquiry-based humanities project. Student groups create podcast episodes exploring a theme from Holocaust literature within the historical context of World War Two. In 2020, the nature of that project shifted to accommodate virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than working in groups to explore thematic connections between literature and history, students created original texts of their own that memorialize the experiences of Virginia Holocaust survivors.
Using the Virginia Holocaust Museum’s extensive collection of survivor testimonies, each student chose a survivor, watched and listened to their story, and took copious notes on what they heard. Then, students synthesized the survivor’s experience, putting it in their own words, adding in historical context when necessary, and recorded themselves retelling their survivor’s story as a podcast episode for the podcast, Use Your Words. Without ever stepping foot in the classroom, seventh graders created oral histories that honor the stories of Virginia Holocaust survivors and are now accessible to anyone around the world through iTunes or Spotify. And, just as importantly, St. Michael’s seventh graders said that the project made them feel bonded to their survivor and gave them a deeper, emotional and historical understanding of the Holocaust.
Before Halina Zimm was separated from her family in the midst of the Holocaust, her father told her to never ever tell anyone she was Jewish. From that moment on Halina became Wanda Kazusek. Though Halina’s new identity helped protect her from being murdered by the Nazis, Halina knew she would never see her family again. During the war, Magovern tells us Halina used her fake identity to work as a maid for various German families, including officers in the German military.
Halina, age 9
Rachel and Zaylik Wadovska, Halina’s Grandparents
Mr. and Mrs. Jandzewska, Halina’s employers in Warsaw
Halina & Alan’s wedding day
Halina & Alan
Halina & Alan