Dorothy Greenstein — then Devorah Kirszenbaum — was upstairs in her family’s apartment in Otwock, Poland, preparing for her first day of third grade and coaxing her 2-year-old nephew to eat when suddenly the whole house shook. Bombs were falling. Dorothy grabbed the toddler and ran outside to backyard trenches the family had dug earlier and supplied with food, water and blankets. They stayed there the entire day and the following day, returning to their apartment only to sleep. “We were praying and scared,” Dorothy said. On the third day, the Germans marched into the city. It was Sept. 3, 1939. Dorothy was 8 years old.
Born on Dec. 10, 1930, in Otwock, Poland, just outside Warsaw, to parents Yehoshua and Golda Kirszenbaum, Dorothy was the youngest of 10 children. She attended public school and was also tutored in Hebrew and prayers.
Dorothy’s father, Yehoshua, was a shochet and veterinarian, according to Dorothy, as well as a rabbi, cantor and judge. The family lived in a building with three apartments and a store that Yehoshua had constructed on an acre plot.
After the Germans occupied Otwock, life changed. Dorothy was forbidden to attend school, and soon Yehoshua could no longer work.
Several months later, Otwock’s Jews were moved into a ghetto. Dorothy’s family found a room with a kitchen where Dorothy, her parents, two brothers and three sisters lived. Their furniture consisted of straw mattresses and a picnic table with two benches in the kitchen.
Food was scarce.
“You’re the only one who can save the family,” Dorothy’s father told her one day. He gave her some money and asked her to sneak out of the ghetto during daylight hours and buy dark bread, potatoes and salt for the family. Dorothy continued to do this for more than two years. With her light hair, blue eyes and perfect Polish, no one suspected she was Jewish.
On Aug. 18, 1942, Dorothy’s father again spoke to her. “We heard that the Nazis are coming tomorrow to resettle us, and resettling means to kill us,” he said. He told Dorothy that she, her older sister Rachel and their teenage twin sisters must escape to their Polish friends. “Save yourselves the best way you can,” he said.
Dorothy fled to the house of a court reporter. But early the next morning, seeing no Germans outside, he instructed her to go home.
Dorothy passed truckloads of German soldiers as she returned to the ghetto, where she found her parents. “What are you doing here?” they shouted. “Run to Rachel.” That was the last time Dorothy saw them.
She joined Rachel, who was hiding under a bed in a Polish sergeant’s apartment. At night, the sergeant’s wife, hearing Nazis outside searching for escaped Jews, asked them to leave. They hid in an outhouse, with Dorothy on Rachel’s lap until daybreak, listening to shouting, barking dogs and gunfire. “We were shaking. We were scared to cry,” Dorothy said.
In the morning, they traveled to the Parysów ghetto but left in late September, when they were warned the Nazis were resettling the Jews the next day.
A farmer hid the sisters in his barn, giving them no food. After two days and two nights, he requested they depart.
They traveled to a labor camp near Karczew, Poland, where Dorothy’s brother, Yitzchak, sister Tamara and brother-in-law Marek were working. Dorothy slept with her brother on a third-tier bunk, hiding under a blanket during the day. Two weeks later, two Nazis came to check the empty barrack. Their German shepherd stood on the second tier of Dorothy’s bunk, but he didn’t bark, and the soldiers left.
Dorothy departed the next day. Rachel decided they should separate.
For the next two weeks, Dorothy found refuge on a different farm every night. At the last farm, the elderly farmer’s wife hid her in an attic. But in the middle of the night, hearing Nazis in the forest, she ordered Dorothy out, telling her to hide in the corn patch.
The next day, Dorothy was discovered by a Polish forest ranger. He threatened to take her to the Nazis, when the farmer’s wife appeared and said, “You call yourself a good Christian? I see you in church every Sunday. Leave the child alone.”
Dorothy escaped into the forest, not knowing where to go. She prayed to her father and believes an angel guided her to Otwock, where she came upon the hut of the family’s former maid. She stayed there for two weeks.
Dorothy then made her way to Karczew, where a farmer was hiding her sister, brother and brother-in-law from the labor camp in a double cellar. But they had no food and her sister suggested she get a false birth certificate and work as a mother’s helper in Warsaw. She gave her two and a half zloty.
In a cemetery in Pruszków, near Warsaw, Dorothy found the gravestone of a baby girl named Zofia Lesczinska and obtained the deceased baby’s birth certificate at a nearby church.
In Warsaw, Dorothy found a job as a mother’s helper, offering to work without pay for a month because she was only 11. “I didn’t know how to do anything, even how to make a bed,” she recalled. But she learned to darn, wash, iron and perform other household chores.
After two weeks, however, when the mother suspected she was Jewish, Dorothy left, finding another job with a woman doctor and her family. They lived in an eighth-floor walkup apartment.
She stayed there for two years, wearing the same dress and working seven days a week for no pay, with only Sunday mornings off. “They were nice people,” Dorothy said.
On Aug. 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began, as the Polish Home Army tried to rout the Germans from the city. After 63 days, however, the Poles capitulated, and Polish civilians were expelled from the city.
Dorothy left with the woman doctor and her family, ending up in Krakow, where they split up, and where Dorothy took yet another job as a mother’s helper.
In January 1945, the Russian army liberated Krakow. But lacking safe transportation home, Dorothy stayed. Meanwhile she sent a letter to her family’s former building in Otwock, stating she was living as Zofia Lesczinska in Krakow. Her sister Tamara came for her six months later.
In August 1945, Dorothy returned to Otwock, but never visited her old building as her parents and one brother had been killed and two sisters never returned. She lived with Tamara, began taking piano lessons — a lifelong dream — and attended public school. But after six weeks, when a boy called her a “scabby Jew” and she broke his nose, she refused to go to school.
Dorothy eventually traveled to the Zeilsheim displaced persons camp, near Frankfurt, where she graduated high school. Later, in fall 1948, she took a transport to Canada, where she was placed as a maid with a Jewish family in Toronto.
One Sunday, she met Allen Greenstein, whom she knew from Zeilsheim. “Why are you crying, Dorothy?” he asked. “Don’t worry. When you turn 18, we are going to get married.”
Allen and Dorothy married on March 20, 1949. Their daughter, Gloria, was born in June 1953 and their son, Joseph, in April 1957.
In summer 1963, the Greensteins moved to Los Angeles for the climate.
Today, Dorothy, 82, gives piano lessons and tutors in six languages. She speaks at the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and also participates in UCLA Hillel’s “Bearing Witness” program. She has six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“If I hadn’t had faith and hope and prayers to my father, I wouldn’t have survived,” Dorothy said.