By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
August 15, 2012
Dr. Joseph Taler, a retired Glen Burnie family physician who survived the Holocaust in Poland by not wearing his Star of David armband, taking a Christian surname, and hiding in a village, died Sunday of heart failure at his Annapolis home.
He was 89.
The only child of an attorney and a pharmacist, Dr. Taler was born and raised in Rozwadow, Poland, where he attended high school.
Dr. Taler's father, Abraham Taler, who had been a prominent member of the Polish infantry during the 1919-1920 Polish-Bolshevik conflict, had been recalled to active duty in 1939, was later arrested by the Soviets and was on a train bound for Russia when he escaped during a stop.
After a friendly farmer exchanged his uniform for civilian clothes, he was able to make his way to Lvov, Poland (now L'viv, Ukraine), where he was reunited with his wife, son and mother-in-law, who had fled from their home in Rozwadow.
After finishing high school in Lvov, Dr. Taler, who had planned to study medicine, was denied entry to medical school because he refused to join the Communist youth movement.
From 1939 to 1941, Lvov was occupied by the Soviet Union; then it was occupied by the Germans until 1944. During the occupation, the Nazis killed an estimated 4,000 to 10,000 Jews.
The city was finally recaptured in 1944 by the Red Army and the Polish Home Army.
During the early part of the German occupation, Dr. Taler worked for a year in a lumber yard in the Jewish ghetto, while trains loaded many of the inhabitants aboard transports to extermination camps.
In his memoir "In Search of Heroes," Dr. Taler wrote of what life was like in the ghetto and the struggle for food and other necessities.
"Pets vanished from the Jewish sector," he wrote, yet through his work in the yard, he was able to leave at times to deliver lumber.
"Perhaps the fact that I more than anyone else in that place had the chance to see the city out of the Jewish sector had something to do with it. Going out there had risks but at the same time reminded me that there was another world out there," he wrote.
"Out there was vibrancy, the air was cleaner, the streets were cleaner, the buildings were cleaner. It seemed that even the walls, the pavement had a certain vigor out there. And, of course, there were trees and other greenery and a few flowers in the spring and summer," he wrote.
With the assistance of the Polish Christian underground, Dr. Taler was given forged papers and a new name, Joseph Skwarcznski.
As he was escorted by the underground from his parents' apartment to his new life as a non-Jew, he pulled off the white armband with the blue Star of David, and stepped into the Christian sector. His parents eventually were given forged papers as well.
"We suddenly moved from one world to another one. It was like Columbus discovering America," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 1995 article. "I suddenly had become a new person."
He made his way to Rzesow, Poland, where he obtained a railroad job working in a roundhouse unloading cars of coal used to fuel steam locomotives.
The fear of being unmasked never left him, and Dr. Taler's cover was nearly blown when he went into a lunchroom his first day working at the roundhouse by a woman behind a counter serving soup.
"She looked at me and said: 'You talk like Zielinski. You must be the new fellow here. Gosh, you look so sad! If I did not know any better I would think you were a Jew,'" Dr. Taler recounted in his book.
"Looking at this soup makes me sad!" Dr. Taler responded, following it with a hearty laugh.
Eventually, he was able to bring his parents from Lvov, hiding his father in a shack in the courtyard of the apartment building where Dr. Taler lived. "He walked into a room and never left for two years," he told The Sun in a 2006 interview, while his mother lived in a neighboring town until the end of the war under an assumed name.
Even dressed in his railroad worker's uniform, Dr. Taler took further steps to insure his new identity.
"I always had some coal smudge to my face," he said in the interview. "Like being an actor on stage for two years. You must have makeup for the role you play."
After the Nazis left Poland, he attended medical school in eastern Poland, reaching parts of Germany that were occupied by the U.S.
With the end of the war in 1945, he resumed his medical studies at the University of Marburg, from which he graduated in 1950.
In 1948, he married Bronislawa "Bronka" Frenkiel, who had also survived the Holocaust with forged papers, and two years later, they emigrated to America.
Helped by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, they arrived in Baltimore, where they settled into a home near Patterson Park; they later moved to Harundale.
Dr. Taler worked for four years at the old Sinai Hospital at Broadway and Monument Street in East Baltimore, and after receiving his medical license, established his family practice above Gitomer's Pharmacy in Glen Burnie.
After North Arundel General Hospital — now Baltimore-Washington Medical Center — was built in 1965, Dr. Taler moved his practice to Aquahart Road, where he continued working until retiring in 1992.
He lived until his death in a home in Annapolis overlooking the Severn River, where in addition to his book on the Holocaust, he wrote a second memoir, "Polish Indians and Short Stories."
He continued to lecture widely on the Holocaust, including at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Dr. Taler was also a member of the National Katyn Memorial Project that resulted in the Katyn Memorial at Aliceanna and President streets, which commemorates the 15,400 Polish Army officers who were killed by Soviet security forces and whose bodies were found in a mass grave in the Katyn Forest.
"My feeling of gratitude for all those who fought and resisted the Nazis and their allies has always been an integral part of my thinking about the Holocaust," Dr. Taler wrote in "In Search of Heroes."
"This was the story of lives of women, men and children, lives which have been nourished and then turned around in a most cruel way," he wrote.
"The stories of people of great love and courage and of people full of hate. The stories of individuals of fine character, tested in the cataclysm of merciless war. But most of all the stories of survival and the ingenuity in which oftentimes luck played the decisive role," wrote Dr. Taler.
He was a founding member of Temple Beth Shalom, 1461 Baltimore-Annapolis Blvd., Arnold, where services will be held at noon Wednesday.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Taler is survived by a son, Dr. George E. Taler of Guilford; a daughter, Gustava E. "Gusty" Taler of Guilford; two grandsons; and a great-grandson.
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