A Witness of History

With Holocaust Remembrance Day approaching in May, the school community heard the firsthand account of Janet Singer Applefield, a child survivor of the Holocaust, who spoke at Middlesex on April 19, 2024. Through recounting her personal story to as many audiences as possible, Ms. Applefield hopes to “provide an understanding of the dangers of hatred and discrimination,” she said, adding, “I hope we will stand up against it.”

Born Gustawa Singer in Krakow, Poland, Ms. Applefield was only four years old when her idyllic childhood ended abruptly on September 1, 1939, the day that Germany invaded Poland, igniting World War II. For the next three years, her family struggled to stay alive together, fleeing to Russia until it was announced that they must become citizens there or leave. Her parents decided to return to Poland, where they were forced to live in a ghetto.

After two unsuccessful escape attempts, “My parents realized they had run out of options,” Ms. Applefield recalled. “They made an agonizing decision: They decided to give me away.” Initially placed with her cousins’ nanny, Ms. Applefield endured several changes in name, location, and guardian during the next few years, ending up in a refugee camp at the war’s end. Unbeknownst to her at the time, her mother and other relatives had been murdered at Belzec Concentration Camp, while her father had persevered as a slave laborer in three different camps.

Eventually reunited with her father – who “looked like a skeleton” – she moved with him back to Krakow, but the strong anti-Semitism there led them to immigrate to America in 1947. On settling in New Jersey, she attended school for the very first time and adopted the name “Janet.” Although “everything was new – my clothes, my friends, the language,” Ms. Applefield was a good student who went on to graduate from college, earn a master’s degree, and build a career as a clinical social worker.

She continues to share her story widely, both as a speaker and through her new memoir, Becoming Janet: Finding Myself in the Holocaust. “I’m a witness of history,” Ms. Applefield said, “and now that you’ve heard me, you are witnesses, too.” Grateful to all the people whose choices, both large and small, proved enormously consequential in saving her life, she encouraged students to think about the decisions that they make every day. “We all have to speak out against discrimination, not tolerate it,” she reiterated.