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Oral Histories: Wisconsin Survivors of the Holocaust

Chana Comins.
Chana Comins

Name: Chana Bebczuk Comins (1918 – 2003)

Birth Place: Stepan, Poland

Arrived in Wisconsin: 1949, Madison

When I escaped they start shooting, but they never hit me.

— Chana Comins

Map of survivor's journey in Europe.

Biography

Chana Bebczuk Comins was born in Stepan, Poland, on June 5, 1918. Although she attended Polish schools, Chana also received a Jewish education, learning Hebrew in the afternoons. In 1940, she married Melvin Cominetsky (name changed to "Comins" upon their arrival in Madison). Their first daughter was born on the same day the Nazis entered their town in 1941.

The 22-year-old new mother and her baby, only a few hours old, were immediately separated from Melvin and taken to a forced labor camp. There she witnessed the execution of her family and friends. In 1943, Chana made a daring escape from a transport of inmates on their way to a mass execution. She hid in the forest with her baby until the end of the war.

After liberation, Chana worked in Munich until she was miraculously reunited with her husband. They lived at a displaced persons camp in Ulm, Germany, where two more daughters were born. In December 1949, resettlement officials sent them to Madison, Wisconsin, where they were given housing, food, and employment. They also had a son.

Chana worked for more than 25 years as a cook in several Madison restaurants. Melvin was employed at Oscar Mayer & Co. for 23 years until his death in 1971. Chana died in December 2003.

Audio and Transcript Information

Below are the highlights of each tape. They do not list all topics discussed. Recordings of only one tape side are marked: (no Side 2). Documents may be printed or downloaded at no cost. See Rights and Permissions


Listen to Chana's testimony and view transcript

Tape 1, Side 1
  • Chana's childhood
  • Nazis invade Stepan, Poland, 1941
  • Deportation to a forced labor camp with newborn daughter
  • Life in the camp, executions and atrocities
  • Escape and refuge in the forest among partisans
Download Audio (MP3, 27 minutes, 12.5 MB) View Transcript Page (PDF, 261 KB)
Tape 1, Side 2
  • Hiding in the forest with her baby, 1943-1945
  • Generosity of Polish partisans and Gentiles
  • Life in Poland and Germany after the war
  • Miraculous reunion with her husband
Download Audio (MP3, 27 minutes, 12.4 MB) View Transcript Page (PDF, 261 KB)
Tape 2, Side 1
  • Immigrating to the U.S.
  • Unfriendly treatment by the Madison Jewish community
  • Finding work
  • Support of neighbors
Download Audio (MP3, 27 minutes, 12.6 MB) View Transcript Page (PDF, 261 KB)
Tape 2, Side 2
  • Children
  • Family life in Wisconsin
  • Husband's death, 1971
  • Attitudes of American-born Jews toward the Holocaust
Download Audio (MP3, 27 minutes, 12.4 MB) View Transcript Page (PDF, 261 KB)
Tape 3, Side 1
  • Reflections on Americans' ignorance about the Holocaust
  • Travels and social life in Wisconsin
  • Opinions on American politics and society
  • More thoughts on maltreatment by Madison Jews when she first arrived
Download Audio (MP3, 26 minutes, 12.2 MB) View Transcript Page (PDF, 261 KB)
Tape 3, Side 2
  • Friends in Madison and other survivors she knows
  • Reflections on her childhood and her own children's lives
Download Audio (MP3, 6 minutes, 2.95 MB) View Transcript Page (PDF, 261 KB)

About the Interview Process

  • The interview was conducted by archivist Sara Leuchter at the Comins' home on January 28, 1980. It was completed in a single session lasting two hours and 45 minutes.

    This was the first interview conducted for the project. It is somewhat lacking in content compared to later interviews, for which more questions were devised. It is mostly in chronological order and traces the events in Chana's life from her childhood through her Holocaust experiences. It includes relatively little about her life in Madison.

    Chana, who sat in a rocking chair, rocked nervously whenever the discussion became distressing. At first she was ill at ease, especially when she was unable to recall names and dates and became flustered. These details were supplied later, when specific incidents became clearer in her memory.

    Teachers should note that this interview contains descriptions of horrific cruelty in Nazi camps, which may not be suitable for younger students.


Audio and Transcript Details

  • Interview Date: Jan 28, 1980
  • Interview Location: Comins home, Madison, Wisconsin
  • Interviewer: Archivist Sara Leuchter
  • Original Sound Recording Format: 3 qty. 60-minute audio cassette tapes
  • Length of Interview: 1 interview, total approximately 2.75 hours
  • Transcript Length: 60 pages
  • Rights and Permissions: Any document may be printed or downloaded to a computer or portable device at no cost for nonprofit educational use by teachers, students and researchers. Nothing may be reproduced in any format for commercial purposes without prior permission.

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