Tobi Komornik was born in the shtetl of Szczerców, where her parents owned and operated a clothing store. She was the middle of five children; she and her oldest brother Monela were the only ones to survive the Holocaust.
Tobi was fourteen years old in September of 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland and bombed Szczerców. The family was forced to flee to nearby Lodz for safety. During their return, they traveled as far as Zelów when they were told not to bother going further─ Szczerców was nothing but ashes. The family stayed in Zelów for about month, living in a room with another family, but food supplies were dwindling, so they moved on to Tobi’s father’s family in Praszka.
The persecution of Jews had already started in Praszka, and by 1940, a ghetto had been established. In the winter of 1941, Tobi, Avram Yoseph, and Chaya were transferred to the nearby Przedmoscie labor camp, where they worked paving roads and in quarries under extremely difficult conditions. Tobi’s parents remained in the ghetto with little Gitla. Monela was married at the time and living in Łask. Tobi used to sneak out of the the labor camp to bring her parents food, and while on one of these escapades, the labor camp was emptied and everyone was taken to Chelmno, including her three siblings.
In the meantime, the Praszka Ghetto inhabitants were transferred to Wieluń in August 1942, and those not able to work were transported directly to the extermination camp at Chelmno. Tobi was saved by claiming to be a seamstress, but her mother, father, and Gitla were not so lucky.
Tobi, now 17, was transferred to the Lodz Ghetto, where she was reunited with her brother, Monela. Tobi was put to work in a factory sorting needles, making her “useful” to the Nazis, and ultimately saving her life.
Beginning on August 9, 1942, deportations from the Lodz ghetto began in earnest. Tobi later wrote, “One day they rounded up all the older men and sent them away. The next day they rounded up the older women. The next day they took the pregnant women.” In September there was a children’s action and Tobi later wrote, “After that they took all the little children and the babies from the mother’s arms, they threw them into trucks like they were little animals. Their crying and screaming was heart breaking, but the mothers could do nothing.”
On August 3, 1944, it was Monela and Tobi who were deported, this time to Auschwitz, where they were again separated. She wrote, “At that time I was separated from my brother. Nobody can imagine our sorrow as we spoke those last words together. My brother said, ‘I will never forget you. I took care of you until now, and I hope I will not lose you. May God be with you, and take care of you, and may we live to see each other again.’”
Tobi remained at Auschwitz only a few weeks. On August 16, 1944, she was part of a group of 500 women sent to the gas chamber. Waiting for their death for over a day, their lives were abruptly spared when they were accidentally sent to work at the Krupp Munitions Factory in Berlin. The women were overseen by two German SS officers: Bruno Kreitich (a.k.a. Commanderführer) and Margarete Trampenau (a.k.a. Mutti). Tobi described them as kind; “They would do whatever they could for us.” They gave the ladies head coverings to wear while their hair grew in and provided them with sanitary pads when they were menstruating While working at the factory, Tobi cut her finger on a machine; she was too afraid to let anyone know. When it became badly infected, she was somehow able to secretly see a doctor who amputated the top half of her finger I return for some pieces of bread she had been able to hide away.
In April 1945, the girls were transferred to Ravensbrück, along with the Commanderführer and Mutti, who served as their “guardian angels.” Within a few days of their arrival, and only days before Soviet forces liberated the camp, a deal was struck between Norbert Masur (a member of the Swedish section of the World Jewish Congress) and SS Chief Heinrich Himmler allowing the Jewish women to be evacuated by Swedish Red Cross buses to freedom in Sweden.
In Sweden, Tobi was taken to a convalescent center where the women continued to steal and hoard food, fearful of being without. Tobi’s daughter, Esther, describes how her mother always made sure there were potatoes in the house─ it made her feel secure that she would not starve.
Tobi knew her mother had two brothers, one in England and the other in America, but she only knew their last name. She asked her new friend who was emigrating to England to try to find her uncle, and she did. Unfortunately, the uncle in England could not afford to take his niece; however, the other uncle in America could, and Tobi left for New York in 1946.
In the meantime, Max Gerson (Moshe Gerszonowicz), who was also from Szczerców and now living in Atlanta, was searching for information about his family. He found out that Tobi Komornik had survived, so he traveled to New York to meet her to learn more. When Tobi’s family had been in Zelów, they shared a room with Max’s parents and younger sister for about a month. They lost touch when her family moved on to Praszka. Max later learned that he lost all his immediate family during the Holocaust.
Max invited Toby to Columbus, Georgia where his uncle lived, to meet his family and marry. They lived in Atlanta and raised three children. After Max died, Tobi moved to Birmingham in 2001 to be near her daughter, Esther.