Holocaust survivor’s experiences chronicled by national museum

Justina Neufeld of North Newton stands by images of her family with her as a young girl in the foreground. Wendy Nugent/Harvey County Now

By Wendy Nugent, Harvey County Now

NORTH NEWTON—Many American tweens and teens don’t have a lot to be concerned about, nothing that might tear their families apart, besides COVID-19. Their concerns swirl around friends, their parents being what they perceive to be mean, dances, homework and extracurricular activities, like sports and cheerleading.

For North Newton resident Justina Neufeld, 91, those years for her meant fear, loneliness, grief, torture and running—running from the enemy during World War II.

Her family was torn apart with her father being arrested two days after the German army invaded Russia when she was 10. She never saw him again. When she was 13, Neufeld was separated from her mother and her nine siblings and ended up living in France with one of her older brothers and his family. That was the last she saw of her mother. Neufeld later learned her mother and sister had been forced to return to the Soviet Union, ending up in a slave labor camp in Siberia.

Because of the war, Neufeld came to the United States in 1947 with an older brother, Gerhard Neufeld.

Neufeld chronicled her experiences in her book, “A Family Torn Apart,” published in 2003 by Pandora Press.

Recently, Neufeld was interviewed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., about her wartime experiences.

“There are three interviews, which is half of them,” Neufeld said.

The museum keeps oral histories of the Holocaust and Neufeld’s interview was done on Zoom.

The interview came about because Janine Wedel, daughter of the late Professor Arnold Wedel, who taught at Bethel College in North Newton, is a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“She’s a friend of mine,” Neufeld said. “She gave [my] book to Ina, my interviewer. Her parents were immigrants. She got my book and called and asked if I would be interviewed by the museum.”

Neufeld told her she wasn’t Jewish and Ina said that was fine. The museum wants to include people who lived during the Holocaust. Ina works in the museum’s oral history department.

“I wasn’t the first non-Jewish person, but I was the first Mennonite she had interviewed,” Neufeld said.

The interviews took eight to nine hours.

“What they have is three hours,” she said. “I don’t know if they cut some.”

The interviews can be viewed online at https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn724285 and were done in April, May and June of 2021.

“She was very detailed,” Neufeld said about the interviewer. “She asked about my village, my family and went into detail about each member of my family. I had eight brothers and one sister. She was particularly interested in what they were doing during the war.”

Neufeld said it was easy being interviewed by Ena, as her parents were immigrants from one of the Eastern Bloc countries.

“She was very familiar with the Soviet regime,” Neufeld said. “She was so easy to interact with I forgot I was on camera.”

People do research at the museum, where the interview is available.

“It’s the oral history that they want to preserve for posterity,” Neufeld said, adding that if they’ve interviewed a person’s ancestor, they can watch it online.

Neufeld plans to listen to other people’s histories when she has time.

Neufeld’s friend Janine has encouraged her to have her book reprinted by a bigger publisher and that she’s been visiting with the museum librarian about that.

“There are some things I would change,” she said about the book.

That would include adding historical data, like what was happening on the front in relation to where her family was at the time.

The book cover has photos of her family with Neufeld at the front.

Neufeld, her mother, sister and three younger brothers fled their village ahead of the retreating German army in 1943 to escape communism. Her older five brothers were already on their own living away from home. The Neufelds and their whole village traveled west with horses and wagons. Those who could walked, while the old and small children rode on the wagons.

The Neufelds finally ended up in a refugee camp in Poland. There, they learned through the Red Cross that her brother, Gerhard, an engineer, had been evacuated by the German army to work in an ammunition factory in Alsace-Loraine, France. Justina’s mother decided to send Justina to France to recuperate from the long trek out of Russia, because Justina was undernourished and underdeveloped.

“That’s how the separation happened and I was never able to go back,” Neufeld said. “We were separated for life. Many people died on that trip,” she said, adding they buried many along the road, even though the ground was frozen.

When they left their village, Neufeld thought it wouldn’t last.

“We thought it was temporary, but it was forever,” she said. “We scavenged the fields for food, slept under our wagons or the open sky in rain and snow. Many people got sick and died. The winter of 1943 was said to have been the coldest winter since Napoleon was defeated in Russia.”


Future plans

Neufeld has a new book coming out about her experiences for middle school-aged youth. It’s at the publisher now, she said, and is written in free verse.


Where to buy the book

“A Family Torn Apart” can be purchased on Amazon, at Faith & Life Bookstore in Newton, Kauffman Museum in North Newton or from Neufeld.


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