What did Central High School social studies teacher Donna Shrum do on her summer vacation?
Knowing she would travel to Poland for a teaching conference, she tacked on an extra week beforehand to visit the Czech Republic, meet with people she only knew through Facebook, and research a former World War II slave labor camp for a novel she’s writing about a real-life Holocaust survivor.
Once finished with the research for her book, she hopes to provide the digital documentation she received in the Czech Republic, also known as Czechia since 2016, to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
“I’m so thankful for the opportunities,” said Shrum, 57, of Edinburg. “It was a humbling and amazing experience.”
The documents were especially important since, before her trip, she hadn’t found proof that the barracks at the labor camp, Mahrisch-Weisswasser, were still there, much less that the factory on that land is still operational.
The factory had been leased to the company Theodor Glammer by Telefunken Radio Communication Systems, a German electronics company, and given the name Friesewerk. A second, underground, factory at the camp produced ammunition.
Telefunken is still a major corporation in Germany, Shrum said, but the factory in Berlin had been bombed, so they opened in Poland and nearby Červená Voda, in northeastern Czechia.
Now run by Intercolor, the factory produces textiles.
Shrum stayed in a rental house owned by Pavel Růčka Jr. and Eva Růčková after meeting Růčka Jr. in a Červená Voda public Facebook group. Shrum had posted in the group, using Facebook’s translator to ask for information about the camp and the factory, and several residents, including Růčka Jr., answered with stories and information they had heard over the years.
Still, she said, most people who live there are unaware of the factory’s past.
Once Shrum arrived there, Růčka Jr. introduced her to his father, Pavel Růčka Sr., the largest shareholder and CEO of Intercolor.
“I just started crying,” Shrum recalled. “God put everything together … and the factory is even still standing.”
Růčka Sr. retrieved digital copies of the documents about the camp from a German archive, “because he’s the only person in the world who they would release it to,” Shrum said.
“I really felt that God was leading me to do the story,” she said. “I thought that it was a story that needed to be told.”
Shrum first learned the story of Penina “Penny” Weisz Bowman while writing a freelance story for Georgia Backroads magazine that ran in 2018 about Bowman’s 1947 wedding dress made from parachute silk that her fiance, a WWII soldier from Chicago, had given her when they got engaged and he had to return to the U.S. The dress is on permanent display at the William Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta.
While writing the story, Shrum met Bowman’s daughter, Leora Wollner, of Atlanta, and learned of a 200-page manuscript that Bowman had written about her experience in the Polish concentration camp Auschwitz, then in the slave labor camp in the Czech village of Bila Voda (now part of the Červená Voda municipality) and her travels across Europe after being liberated by Russian soldiers.
Bowman, who took her husband Harold’s name when they married, lived in the Transylvania region of Hungary (now part of Romania) before she and her family were captured by Nazis in early May of 1944.
They were taken to Auschwitz, where her mother was immediately killed in the gas chambers.
Bowman was 17. Her sisters, Yaffa and Miriam Weisz, were 21 and 15. Their brother, Mordecai Weisz, was 19.
Her father and brother were taken to a work camp. After six months in Auschwitz, the sisters were taken to the camp at Bila Voda, where they spent another six months.
Their father died a week before liberation, but Shrum said all four siblings survived.
When they tried to return to their home in Cluj, they found their house already claimed.
“I found that was pretty common after the war,” Shrum said. “Everything had been confiscated.”
Bowman then traveled across Europe with her younger sister, joining a youth group traveling between camps for displaced people.
In Salzburg, Austria, she met Harold Bowman, who was also Jewish.
“He asked her to dance,” Shrum said.
For a while they relied on a friend to translate for them, Penny Bowman says in her manuscript.
“I was very motivated to learn the language because I wanted to ditch my friend,” said Shrum, quoting from Bowman’s manuscript.
When Harold Bowman, an Army G.I., was reassigned to Chicago, he gave her his Star of David and three yards of parachute silk, telling her to use it for her wedding dress. That’s how she learned she was engaged, her obituary in the Atlanta Jewish Times says.
They had arranged to meet up in Israel, but while she was traveling near Italy on a boat built for 80 but crammed with 800 people, the motor died and the ship drifted two days before the crew surrendered to the British, who took her to a detainee camp in Atlet, Cyprus.
She managed to get word to her fiance while taking a bus to the camp. After writing a note with his address on it, she tossed it out the window to a boy who mailed the letter for her.
Her fiance freed her from the camp, and they were married in Binyamina, Israel, on March 30, 1947, before moving to the U.S. that October.
Shrum visited with Penny Bowman while on spring break in 2018. Though Bowman was in a coma with a brain tumor, Shrum said it felt right to visit her before beginning the process of writing a novel based on Bowman’s manuscript.
She sat there for two hours holding Bowman’s hand, and Bowman died a week later on what would have been her 71st wedding anniversary.
There were many moments along Shrum’s trip, from July 19 to Aug. 5, when she felt divine intervention.
Meeting the son of the Intercolor CEO through Facebook was only one such occasion.
To secure her trip to Poland for the teaching conference, Shrum first attended a weekend Zoom conference and then wrote an essay on how she and her country should be teaching about totalitarianism.
The conference centered on a two-day international congress titled “Doomed to repeat? Challenges of teaching 20th-century history” and took place in Warsaw from Aug. 2 to 3.
Once Shrum secured the conference, she heard a voice urging her to make this a research trip.
“You’re supposed to go to Poland because you’re supposed to go to the Czech Republic,” she remembered hearing.
A travel agent she approached couldn’t help plan her trip, so Shrum turned to Facebook for ideas.
“[Červená Voda] is off the beaten path, so it’s way out there,” Shrum said.
Finding plane and train tickets was easy, but when she looked for accommodations, she found them all booked.
After praying on it, she said she returned to her search for pension lodging and found one that was available in Červená Voda. When she clicked on the listing, she saw it was owned by Pavel Růčka Jr. and Eva Růčková. She messaged him on Facebook to make sure it was his place and that there was a vacancy, and he confirmed.
Her next miraculous moments happened when she arrived in Poland on the way to Czechia.
The conference was going to reimburse her about 1,000 euros for her travel costs, but only if she traveled to Warsaw. So she arranged to fly from Dulles to Amsterdam to Warsaw, but when she arrived for her train to Červená Voda, she found that a construction project had canceled that train.
Before her trip, Shrum had asked her Sunday school class to pray that if she experienced delays on her trip that there would be a reason for it.
That reason, she decided, was the train ride that she switched to. It would take her within about 15 kilometers of her destination in Červená Voda, and when she messaged Růčka Jr. to say she needed a ride, he offered to pick her up.
On the train, she sat beside a 19-year-old college student who asked about her travels, and when Shrum explained about the WWII camp, the woman said her grandfather “used to talk about it all the time” and gave Shrum his contact information.
“Every time I had a delay there was a reason for it,” Shrum said.
Modern tech also played a crucial part in her journey.
“I don’t speak Czech,” Shrum said. And most of the people she encountered didn’t speak much English. So she used a translator app on her phone, “and that’s how we carried on conversations.”
Růčka Jr.’s daughter did some translating for them and they also enlisted an English teacher from the high school, but most conversations found the two of them speaking through their phone apps.
“Weren’t you afraid to come here?” she remembered people asking her.
“I just prayed, and all these things happened. It was ‘God was in control,’” she said. “I knew I was going to be OK.”
As for the Růčkas, “They were just amazing,” she said. “They really became like family.”
One evening they took her to a birthday party, and when her husband FaceTimed her, they gave enthusiastic greetings.
“They really want me to come back and they want me to bring John with me,” she said. “He’s got a fan club now in the town.”
Preparing to return to the classroom at Central High School this week, Shrum said she wants to start a Holocaust class.
“We don’t teach the Holocaust the way we should,” she said. “And antisemitism is on the rise.”
In 2018, after learning Bowman’s story, Shrum started a Holocaust memorial garden in Bowman’s honor at North Fork Middle School where she taught at the time. She was also sparked to action after hearing about protesters at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally repeating words from a Nazi chant in August 2017.
Shrum hopes that by pursuing her novel, she can include information that Bowman couldn’t have known about the Holocaust and didn’t include in her manuscript.
For example, the Hungarian women who were taken late in the war weren’t tattooed, Shrum said, because the Nazis were working too quickly to kill people.
“That’s something that she wouldn’t have known,” Shrum said.
In addition to the digital copies that Shrum received from the German archive, she has WWII documents from Jaromir Dornak, a retired history teacher and historian who she met in Czechia.
Shrum also located Alain Havart, the son of Pierre Havart, a Frenchman who helped sneak food to Bowman in the camp and then helped her and some other women find a safe, abandoned farmhouse after the Russians liberated their camp.
There was an attraction, but he was French and not Jewish, so Bowman wouldn’t pursue a relationship with him. But he gave her his grandmother’s ring, telling her she could sell it for food.
“She wore the ring till the day she died, and now her daughter has it,” Shrum said.
According to a death notice Shrum found online, Pierre Havart died in 2016 at the age of 95.
Planning to tell her world history students a bit about her research trip, Shrum said she hasn’t decided yet how much.
“They’re freshmen,” she said. Sometimes they get glassy-eyed when she talks.
“I’m gonna tell them as much as I can.”
No doubt a very moving experience. Nice job on researching something so important.
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