Mika and Helga: die Schwestern (the sisters)

(reading time approx. 7 minutes)

Mika and Helga Goldman were sisters, age 12 and 11.  Music was their first love. Their mother taught them to play the piano and concertina. The girls played at Plotsky’s sidewalk café in Berlin, for tips.  The time was September 1939.  Hitler was sending Jews to concentration camps. Jews were required to identify themselves by sewing the letter “J” on their clothing, all part of Hitler’s history in World War II.  Since the sisters were Jewish, this almost eliminated any tips at Plotsky’s.

These two beautiful little girls, Mika and Helga, originally came from Poland with their family to live in Berlin. Mika and Helga were removed from their school because they were Jews and the teacher was a Nazi. The girls and their family were forcibly taken from their homes during the Nazi ethnic purge. All of them were sent to concentration camps where most Jews were executed.  Pretty young girls however, were sometimes spared for Nazi officers’ entertainment, as were Mika and Helga.  Dreadfully, they were separated.  The sisters were put in different boxcars and shipped to different concentration camps.

October 1939 was the last time they saw each other. Word spread throughout the camps that all Jewish prisoners in the other groups were dead.  Most were.  The wartime treatment of Jews in the miserable concentration death camps is a story that continues to be told.  It’s part of history.  This is a different story.  Twelve-year-old Mika escaped the gas chambers by singing and playing the piano, to entertain the German troops.  She managed to survive the war.

When the Americans liberated her camp in 1946, Mika was a survivor. At 19 years old she focused on making her way to America alone, not with her family. They were all dead. At least she made it, sad as it was.  Mika headed straight for Philadelphia where she hoped to find friends or relatives.

When Mika and Helga were together, as little girls, they shared dreams of going to America. They often delighted in viewing pictures of a village in America sent by relatives who lived there.  It was a section of Philadelphia called Manayunk.  Houses were built into the hillside in a Polish community there.  It reminded the sisters of their family’s hillside home in Poland.  They promised each other that when they grew up, they would go to Philadelphia to start a new life.  They treasured the post card pictures of Manayunk, and kept them in what they called a dream box. Manayunk’s unusual homes, much like their childhood enclave in Poland, were called trinity houses. The construction layout was a three-floor house with one room on each floor, and an outhouse behind the home.

Now in America, Mika rented a room from a widow, and got a job at the Philco refrigerator factory almost immediately.  That’s where she met Michael Szumicki, a close friend of mine, and a wonderful caring man. Just a few months after meeting in 1948, they got married. They bought a hillside house in Manayunk, on Michael’s G.I. bill.  The little house had been up dated with heat, plumbing, bathroom and running water.  It was a fulfillment of her little girl’s dreams, in her dream box. Mika also played the piano in the Polish Club on weekends.  Things were getting better, but one thing was missing. Helga was not there to share the dream.

It was a mild and warm Christmas Eve in 1953.  After several year of living in Manayunk, Mika and Michael had their own family of two children. The village houses were brightly decorated for Christmas in the mostly Catholic neighborhood.  Folks traditionally gathered and sang Christmas carols in the narrow streets.  Even though Mika was of Jewish heritage, she often played and sang carols for the mainly Catholic neighbors. Michael was a Polish Catholic and their children were, too.  This year, it was an unusually warm December night.  Mika and Michael opened the window and front door to their tiny trinity house. Together they moved the piano right under the window. Mika played Christmas carols, amplified by a portable amplifier.  She used the equipment frequently to entertain in local taverns, the Polish club and restaurants.  It was a joyful gathering. The street was filled with neighbors from nearby streets throughout the community. Caroling neighbors were wall to wall as Mika played. Many held candles to light the night.

Suddenly, between the songs, she could hear a woman’s voice from the rear of the crowd calling in German. “Mika, Mika, ist diese Mika?  Ist diese Mika?“ “Ja”, said Mika, “Wer ist das?” The lady pushed her way from the rear of the crowd to the front steps crying, “Oh mein Gott”, she cried.  “Ist die meine Mika, ist die meine schwester? I am Helga.  I am Helga.  Oh, mein Gott, mein Schwester, mein Schwester!“ (my sister) They leaped into each other’s arms, sobbing with joy. They held each other and couldn’t let go until they tired from tearful exhaustion. This moment needs little more description.  The irony of this reunion is almost unbelievable.  Mika and Helga had been living just two blocks from each other in the same community of Manayunk, the village of their dreams.  It was an unknown promise kept, over 4000 miles from where they were forcibly separated, a dozen years before.  This was the beginning of new lives for Helga and Mika.

Both sisters were now happily married with children.  The joyful reunion was also a happy time for their respective families. There was only one bitter daily reminders of life under the Nazis that would never to be erased. The girls had tattoos on their forearms, just one serial number apart. The sisters found a way to use this to their advantage.  Both became storytellers of their experiences, and musical entertainers, as they were in Plotsky’s Berlin sidewalk café before the war.  They freely displayed their tattoos. They were asked to speak in the community service clubs and churches around the city.  They called themselves the “Goldman Schwestern”.

A few blocks away, they found an empty store building for rent on the main street.  They reasoned that many of the men who did not return from the war, left musical instruments behind.  Selling the instruments could help the families.  Since both sisters were musicians, with little money, they seized the opportunity to open a consignment music shop.  Music was still their first love. They offered lessons on piano, accordion, guitar and most other musical instruments. They named their shop: “Die Schwestern Music Shop”.  It was the only music shop offering lessons in the area. They were almost an instant success.   Und, das war gut, sehr gut, sehr, sehr gut! Ja!