home > archive > 2004 > this article
Hiding in Plain Sight
Surviving the most dangerous game
By Steven Martinovich
During his trial in 1961 Adolph Eichmann famously declared that Nazi Germany was a state that had legalized crime. That reality was only fully known by its victims, the millions of people who perished in the death camps that dotted the Third Reich. Their very existence was a crime and the full resources of the state and the willing compliance of their fellow citizens were employed against them.
And yet some managed to survive that hell thanks to their determination to live. Betty Lauer was one of those fortunate few, a compelling story she relates in Hiding in Plain Sight: The Incredible True Story of a German-Jewish Teenager's Struggle to Survive in Nazi-Occupied Poland. For several years Lauer's life was a daily struggle to survive, one filled with the fear of discovery and the inevitable trip to a concentration camp.
Lauer's story begins in October 1938. Her father is in the United States attempting to arrange the family's passage out of a Germany increasingly targeting its Jews. Before he is able to do so, Lauer, her mother and her sister are expelled to Poland where they believe themselves safe from the Nazis. Unfortunately less than a year later the Germans invade Poland and their campaign against the Jews once again directly touches Lauer's life.
Unable to escape Poland and wishing to avoid the Jewish Ghettos, the family decides to pass themselves off as Christians. Lauer changes her name to Krystyna Zolkos and dies her hair blonde. For the next six years her life consists of struggles to obtain documentation – false or otherwise – and avoid identification as a Jew by the German occupiers or Poles motivated by a hatred of Jews or seeking financial gain. All around her ghettos are being liquidated with Jews sent off to what most believe are work camps further east.
Ultimately Lauer's only asylum is provided by Poles and Germans who don't know she's Jewish, including a man she marries, or by fellow Jews who have also adopted Christian identities. At every turn lies potential discovery of her true identity which prompts her to move around Poland, eventually making her way to Warsaw in 1943. There she participates in the doomed uprising the following year against the Germans where at its end she is sent to an internment camp. Bribing her way out of the camp, Lauer and her husband are sent east on a work detail until their liberation by Russian forces.
Of course, the end of the war only brings about new challenges. Lauer and her mother had been separated while Lauer's sister is believed to have been captured by the Nazis a few years earlier. Lauer and her husband walk to Auschwitz in a futile quest to locate her before finally stowing away on a ship bound for Sweden towards the ultimate goal of reuniting the family in New York where her father desperately waits. Lauer leaves Europe with dozens of her family gone forever, disappeared in the efficient Nazi murder camps that claimed millions.
It is perhaps impossible for anyone to know what Lauer went through during those six years. In 1938 she was a 12 year old girl but by 1945 she must have felt as if she had lived two lifetimes already. Instead of a carefree youth, her years were spent in a desperate quest for mere survival. As Anne Frank stated in her diary, "Am I only just a silly school girl? Am I really so inexperienced in everything? I have more experience than most; I've experienced something almost no one my age ever has."
That feeling is echoed by Lauer herself. At one point after she comes across her former nanny she comments, "How could she know what it meant to be haunted and hunted? They were descriptive words for something she had heard, perhaps read." As talented as a writer as Lauer is, there are likely no words capable of communicating her experiences, knowing that an entire society has been transformed into a mechanism for your destruction. Yet, Hiding in Plain Sight reminds us that there is good as well as evil in the world and that the human spirit is capable of unimagined strength.
Hiding in Plain Sight is both a celebration and a lament. Joy that some did survive the genocidal crucible of the Nazis' deliberate drive to exterminate a people but tempered with the knowledge that so many didn't. For many years we've been told to never forget but thanks to this latest personal history we can once again take the more active role of remembering.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
Buy Hiding in Plain Sight: The Incredible True Story of a German-Jewish Teenager's Struggle to Survive in Nazi-Occupied Poland at Amazon.com for only $27.95
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2018, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.