Dasha Rittenberg, born in 1929 as Hadassah Werdiger in Będzin, was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. The family had been living in Będzin and the surrounding area for over 500 years.
Dasha was one of six children in a middle-class family. As a child, she attended Polish school in the morning to receive a formal education and Jewish school in the afternoons for religious learning.
Dasha remembers that Jews in Będzin were always a little afraid of the anti-Jewish sentiments expressed by Catholic Polish people in town. She did not personally experience much antisemitism, but her father had often been the target of harassment. His six children often followed him around town to ensure his safety. Dasha’s father was present in the evening when the Great Synagogue was burnt down by Germans shortly after they invaded Będzin. Her cousin was among the people burnt alive in the synagogue. Dasha remembers that her cousin’s father died of grief shortly thereafter.
With the German occupation of the town, Dasha’s formal education stopped, as it did that of all other Jews. She continued learning at home with her siblings: math, writing, Polish, and Yiddish. Her education was very important to her parents, as they hoped the war would be over quickly and they could return to their regular lives.
A curfew was soon implemented and Dasha’s family, along with all other Jews, were confined to their homes. The blinds had to be closed by 7pm every evening. At this time, several Jewish families in the area would congregate to one building and continue to study and practice Judaism. Dasha’s family continued to observe the Shabbat and other Jewish holidays to keep their spirits up.
In November 1942, Dasha was deported to the Sudetenland (a region in Czechoslovakia, also occupied by Nazi Germany). She was taken to a German labor camp, where prisoners had a much better chance of survival because Germans still valued their productivity. Dasha was fed black coffee in the mornings and a thin, watery soup at night. She was constantly hungry. She spent her days alternating between working in the fields gathering raw materials for production and working in a factory spinning sewing thread for German uniforms. She and her fellow prisoners were constantly watched by SS women. Occasionally, prisoners were taken away for one infringement or another. Frequently, they killed or hung in front of other prisoners, who were forced to watch.
The labor camp was liberated on May 8, 1945. In 1948, she traveled to Georgia. In 1950, she immigrated to the United States to settle in a largely Polish- Jewish community in New York City. In the 1970s, she traveled back to Będzin for the first time and has since returned three additional times. She is currently retired and lives in New York.
The PBS segment below Dasha Rittenberg’s travel to Poland in the fall of 2014. Dasha visits her grandfather’s grave in Będzin and meets two young Polish people there who are dedicated to preserving the remnants of Jewish life in Bedzin. She also talks about her experience at the opening of the Jewish museum in Warsaw, Poland.