HENRICO, Va. -- 72 years ago, Halina Zimm’s wish came true.
“I was born in Poland. Lodz, Poland,” said Halina. “Everybody wanted to come to America. That was something everyone dreamed of.”
To reach the U.S., the immigrant living in Henrico endured a road less traveled -- and far more dangerous than most.
“I used to watch movies of Shirley Temple all of the time,” said Halina.
But unlike Hollywood, the 93-year-old’s remarkable tale is true.
When she was just 11, Halina, her parents, and two sisters made a life-or-death decision and fled their home.
“In 1939, when the Germans marched into Poland, things changed completely,” explained Halina.
As a Jewish family, they were being hunted.
“Rumors were going around that the Germans were killing Jews and killing people. People didn’t believe it. Nobody believes it,” said Halina.
The family lived in a one-room house for two years.
“A day was like a month because it was so long,” said Halina. “Very Scary. Very Scary.”
But eventually, the Nazis caught up. Halina knew she had to flee, and she bid farewell to her parents.
“That was the worst experience saying goodbye to them. Because I would never see them again, I knew that,” said Halina.
With the help of a mother in the village, Halina assumed the identity of her daughter.
“She was a wonderful, wonderful Christian woman. If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t be here,” Halina said.
Using an official birth certificate and identification papers, Halina Zimm became Wanda Kazuzick.
For two years, the teen worked as a servant for a wealthy Polish couple in Warsaw, where some were skeptical of Halina.
“I’ll never forget his words. ‘Get up, and you’re a Jew. And you know what we do to Jewish People,” said Halina. “You’re going to be shot.”
War was raging around them.
“You could hear the fighting and machine guns and all of that. Then everything suddenly stops,” said Halina.
Eventually, Halina escaped again she was 15.
“I learned very quickly how to survive,” said Halina.
By the war’s end, Halina walked for weeks back home. She yearned to see her family -- a reunion with her sisters three years in the making.
Her parents were gone. They perished in the concentration camp at Treblinka.
“It was a very dark time in history. Very difficult time in history,” Halina said.
In 1949, Halina and her husband immigrated to the United States, settling in Richmond.
"It’s been such a long time,” said Halina, holding old photographs. “Things come back to you when you look at those things.”
Halina said her story is too important not to share.
“A lot of people who came to this country didn’t want to talk about it because it was too painful to talk about it. MMm Mmm. Not me,” she said.
She accepts to speak at high schools and service groups.
“As long as they ask me. As long as they ask me. I could never say ‘no,’” said Halina.
Crowds are exposed to an extraordinary history lesson.
“They listen. They can relate because I’m trying to be honest with them,” said Halina.
As a child, Halina Zimm chose a road less traveled to survive.
“I was young. I was always going places,” said Halina.
In her golden years, this senior is taking you on a journey to remember.
“I’ve seen so much hate in my life,” said Halina. “Hate is wrong. It can destroy you. You can never be happy if you have hate in your heart.”
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Greg McQuade at WTVR first reported this story.