It is seven-eighths of an inch in diameter, scuffed, bent, and made of a discarded piece of chrome that has no monetary or utilitarian value whatsoever.
This ring, with 22-year-old Celia Zelazna’s initials inscribed on it, was given to her in a simple yet profound gesture of friendship in Skarzysko-Kamienna, a German forced labor camp in western Poland, in 1944. Celia Zelazna and her family had already been heckled and then attacked by rock-throwing antisemites in her hometown of Biała Podlaska; then, the Zelazna family was driven out of town to the Mezrich Ghetto.
One night, her two brothers did not return to the ghetto from forced labor, and Celia feared they had been killed. Early the next morning, Shabbat, the first day of Sukkot in 1942, the Nazis banged on the door during a roundup of remaining Jews. Zelazna’s father, sensing that the family would never return, poured a large bottle of ink all over the heirloom dowry linens in the family hope chest, so at least they could not be used by the Nazis. Soon afterward, the Nazis deported the rest of her family to the Mezrich Ghetto, where they remained for a year. Her father was forced to remain in Biała Podlaska with the other men to clean up the ghetto, where he was later killed.
From the Mezrich Ghetto, the remaining Zelazna family was transported to the Majdanek death camp, where, within hours, the Nazis gassed Celia’s mother, brother, and sister. Celia herself was spared—always temporarily—to do dangerous labor. In Skarzysko, where she was transferred from Majdanek, she worked polishing parts for shells and other German munitions for the HASAG ammunition factory there. Zelazna was fortunately not in Skarzysko’s Camp C, where underwater mines were manufactured. For this work, the forced laborers were required to handle dangerous acids. In Camp C, Zelazna’s remaining younger brother was killed. It was no wonder that before the end of the war, 70 percent of the approximately 28,000 Jews brought to Skarzysko died.
In this world of imminent death, what a moment of wonder it must have been for Celia Zelazna when her friend, Meyer Wagshlag, who worked in the factory’s precious-metal workshop, presented her with the ring.
A jeweler by trade, he had fashioned it from a scrap of chrome recovered from the factory floor and polished it to look like silver. Inscribing Zelazna’s initials on it, along with the name of the factory and the year, Wagshlag imbued the ring with a power to do far more than memorialize the moment. For Zelazna, who had been stripped of home and family—every shred of what belonged to her emotionally and physically—the gift of the ring was a restoration of her sense of self and of humanity.
Yet Zelazna’s ordeal was by no means over. As the Soviet army approached, the Nazis assembled the slave laborers for transportation to another camp in Germany. While she waited for the train to arrive, she noticed the SS guards were not about. After a moment of disbelief and bewilderment, it soon became clear that they had fled. After wandering for days and foraging for food, she and a group of other freed women found their way to Lodz, which had become the central gathering place for liberated Jews. Here, her first plan was to make her way back home to Biała Podlaska. She hesitated, however, when she heard that a Jewish woman had been murdered there when she returned to claim what was left of her house and possessions.
With that option no longer available and so many family members dead, Zelazna decided to leave Europe as soon as possible and to make contact with the only family she had in America, an aunt in New York City. To prepare for immigration, Zelazna made her way into the American zone of occupation to various Displaced Persons camps—Salzburg, Foehrewald, and, finally, Landsberg.
Here she met Abram Levinsky, who would eventually become her husband. In the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp, Celia also re-met Meyer Wagshlag, originally from the same Polish town as her new husband. The friends continued to stay in touch in America through the Dzialoszyce landsmansheft, an organization for natives of that small town near Krakow. After 1949, the Levinskys lived in New York and raised two daughters. Celia Zelazna and Abram Levinsky each were the sole surviving members of their families.