Miriam Rak Swidler
November 23, 1923 – October 18, 2020
Miriam Swidler, who died October 17 2020 aged 93, survived the Holocaust thanks to a near-miraculous combination of strength, vision, and luck, no moment more so than one early morning in Herstal, German-occupied Belgium, in 1942. She was 16 years old and late to work that day. Two other girlfriends who usually accompanied her had gone ahead into the plant. It was dawn.
Miriam would later recount what happened next: “When I reached the factory, a Belgian worker saw me arriving with my yellow star on my blue sweater. He gestured to me to not pass the gate, and to get away. That man saved my life. I turned around and took off my sweater, which I folded so as to hide the yellow star inside. I walked for a few kilometers and then took a streetcar back to Liège, where we lived.” Miriam soon learned that in a terrifying operation German troops and dogs had rounded up about 100 Jewish women at the factory in the minutes before she had arrived at the gate. One of her girlfriends had escaped by jumping from a window. The other had been sent with the rest to Auschwitz. She wrote: “Two neighbor friends died in Auschwitz. One left a five- year old boy who also perished after the Germans combed our building and picked him up with his father. My brother had left. The Germans put seals on the doors of our apartment and subsequently emptied it. They took all our possessions just as those of all the other Jews. I was never to return to our apartment again.”
Miriam was born November 23 1926 to chocolate-maker Jacob Rak and his wife Cypora Olszer, observant Jews, in Wloclawek, a town just northeast of Warsaw. Her grandfather was a Talmudic scholar and her house was filled with books. But as a girl she never got the schooling she desired, and later felt robbed of higher education because of the war. Miriam emigrated with her family to Belgium at the age of six in 1932, where her father sought to reestablish his chocolate business. Following the Nazi invasion of Belgium she fled with refugees from Liège only to find herself in the way of the German army’s race to trap the British Expeditionary Force in Dunkirk. She survived Stuka machine gun fire by taking cover under a railway car, and made her way back to Liège. For the rest of the war she hid, working in near-slave conditions for a family while pretending to be Christian. She joined thousands in the streets celebrating liberation by American troops in September 1944.
On a visit to America in 1950 she was introduced to Jacques Swidler, who had escaped from France on the last boat out of Marseille before the Nazi takeover. Jacques owned a car and was a newly-minted US Army veteran with business plans. The two married months after meeting, living in Washington Heights, New York before moving to Poughkeepsie with their two children Mark and Claudine (Clo). There, Jacques and Miriam built and ran Plural Fashions, a successful local chain of women’s clothing shops. Miriam also earned a late-in-life degree in French literature—she was a life-long expert in the subject—from Skidmore College. She taught French at Marist College and was known as a brilliant autodidact, whose diverse curiosities were bottomless. She and Jacques retired to Florida, where Jacques died in 2005. Miriam then made her home at Evergreen Woods in North Branford, Connecticut, in close proximity to family.
Miriam is survived by son Mark, of New Haven CT; daughter Clo, of Madison CT; son-in-law Stephen Davis; grandchildren James Griffith and wife Niall Mangan of Chicago, Jacob and Christina Griffith of Lynn, MA; Gabriel Davis of Washington, DC; and great granddaughter Alice Griffith and grandson Jacques Mangan. Miriam’s beloved brother Zalman-Lajbus (Zamek) predeceased her.
Burial will be in a private service in Poughkeepsie, New York.
No public services are scheduled at this time. Receive a notification when services are updated.
Miriam Rak Swidler
October 25, 2020
I never met Miriam Rak Swidler, may her memory be a blessing, but story of her survival and accomplishments gives me courage to work hard in this daunting time to make the world a better and a safer place. I am grateful that Helen Effron shared the story of this inspiring woman who grants us courage and joy even in loss.