Anna & Her Sister

Anna Stein took her first breath on a makeshift bed in a crowded Warsaw Ghetto apartment in 1940. At the time, not even a year had passed since the Nazis took over Poland and mandated all Warsaw Jewish people to live within a small neighborhood confined by ten-foot walls. The Warsaw Ghetto, as it would come to be known. A space slightly more than a square mile that nearly half a million Jewish people called home.

Anna’s mother came into the ghetto pregnant. It had been an accident, though a welcome one in her eyes. Another child is always a blessing was her perspective. Some people, however, encouraged her to have an abortion. “Absolutely not,” she would curtly reply, glaring at anyone with the gall to offer such advice. But she worried when alone; ghetto pregnancy realities atop her mind as she watched people dying from disease and hunger and wondered if this was the world to bring a child into.

Her mother did go through with the pregnancy, and Anna became the eighth person in the small two-bedroom apartment. The others took her in with some trepidation and hesitant joy. Worries were not in shortage in ghetto life.

But Anna’s mother had a plan. Unbeknownst to all except her husband, Anna’s mother worked in the resistance. With life becoming increasingly challenging and rumors beginning of deportations to concentration camps, she looked at her baby and decided that since young children were easiest to smuggle out of the ghetto, she would do just that. She worked with fellow resistance collaborators to put a plan in place.

Shortly after Anna turned four weeks old, a gentle-looking nurse with snow-white hair and many wrinkles took Anna from her mother’s arms. That would be the last time mother and daughter saw each other.

The gentle-looking nurse carried Anna out of the ghetto in a large purse and brought her to the home of a young couple. Anna Stein became Maria Sendler.

It was 1959 when Anna learned about her roots. “We have something to talk to you about, Maria,” said Anna’s father after the family of three finished dinner on a quiet Sunday evening. To Anna, she heard the words as blurry, bubbled thoughts. “We’re not your birth parents…you were born to a Jewish family in the Warsaw Ghetto…your birth name was Anna, family name Stein…most of your family died in the Holocaust…but you have an older sister who people say survived…we think her name is Inna, but we don’t know where she is…people say that she’s likely in Israel.”

“We know how difficult hearing this must be for you,” her mother continued. We’ll secure all the necessary visas and arrange travel for us all to Israel. We want to try finding your sister together.”

Anna knew nothing of Israel and didn’t care of it in the moment. Her entire identity had just been washed away.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” she practically shouted.

“We didn’t know how to. Or even if it was best to.”

“How did I even get here?”

“We were part of the resistance, helping Jewish people and fighting the Nazis. Your mother wanted to save you, and at the time, you were the child with the best chance of being smuggled out of the ghetto to safety during the Holocaust.”

Anna had wondered why she had brown eyes and curly brown hair while her parents were both blue-eyed and blond. She hadn’t thought much of it, something to laugh about, as they sometimes did. Now, it made sense.

“I want to be alone,” Anna said and went to her room, where she sat on her bed looking out the window at what had once been the Warsaw ghetto. How ironic, she thought. She also thought about her birth mom and father, their bravery, and all the horrors. She thought about her adoptive parents, the sacrifices they had made, and their enduring love for her.

She didn’t sleep that night and refused to go to school the next day. Her parents obliged. As the conversation ended, she looked at her parents and said, “I love you. Thank you for what you did.”

A few months later, the family took a bus, then a train, and two plane rides later, they arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel. Anna felt an unexpected sensation as they deplaned into fresh Israeli sunshine and warm air: this is home.

A gregarious, jovial man with a bald head and a thick grey beard served as their taxi driver from the airport. He had come to Israel after the Holocaust. “The Nazis killed my whole family. Nothing was left for me in Europe,” he told them. “Now, this is home. So many Jewish people came here after the war, starved and broken. Now we have a home that’s ours and a purpose,” he continued. “I fought in the Independence War, fought again in the war in ’56. Life is difficult here, but I also get to start my day with a swim in the Mediterranean.”

The family listened to his stories some but couldn’t help their distraction, thinking of how to find Anna’s sister or if they would even be able to. Anna felt certain: “She must be here,” she kept saying.

For weeks, they searched for Anna’s sister without success. There was no record of an Inna Stein, and all the people the family spoke with didn’t know of her. As they approached the end of their time in Israel, they went to dinner at a new friend’s home, someone a friend from Poland introduced them to. They brought a bottle of wine for the dinner.

As they sat down to eat, the new friend said, “I’m sorry, I don’t drink wine. I don’t have a wine bottle opener. But go knock on a neighbor’s door. Someone should have one.”

“That won’t be odd?” replied Anna.

“Not at all, dear. We borrow from each other all the time. Come with me, we’ll do it together.”

No one answered at the first door. At the second door, a woman in her late twenties opened. “Shalom.” Anna nearly fainted as she looked at the woman standing before her. They had the same curly black hair, soft face, and even similar mannerisms; Anna saw it in how the woman smiled. It was like looking in a mirror. She knew immediately that this was her sister. The woman in the doorway now had a curious look in her eyes as well.

“Are you Inna Stein?” Anna blurted out.

“It cannot be,” the woman replied, her eyes swelling. “I’m not anymore. But I used to be.”

Notes: 

“Anna & Her Sister” is a historical fiction short story. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.

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This story was updated on June 10, 2024.