Rochelle Schleif was born on July 15, 1924, and grew up in Stolpce, Poland. Her father was a very successful businessman. As a child, Rochelle experienced antisemitism in her school and around the city of Stolpce. She first crossed paths with Jack Sutin when the two were living in Stolpce. Jack asked Rochelle out on a date, but Rochelle declined because her father forbade her from spending time with young men.
When the Germans invaded Russian occupied Eastern Poland in 1941, life changed dramatically for Rochelle. She and her family fled to one of her father’s many workshops, not knowing whether their home would be standing later in the day due to the bombing and destruction. Her father was taken first, as he was very successful. Rochelle ultimately found out he was stoned to death. She was imprisoned in the ghetto with her mother and two sisters. Rochelle decided she would go to work instead of staying in the ghetto. Her mother and sisters didn’t have the energy or will to do that, despite her telling them that it may save their lives.
One day, when Rochelle was working outside the ghetto, a former schoolmate told her he had seen her mother and two sisters outside waiting to be sent to their deaths. Rochelle’s mother gave him a message to give to Rochelle: Take revenge!
Upon hearing that her mother and sisters had been killed, Rochelle went into shock for a few days but she was protected by some of her Jewish co-workers who hid her. They covered her up with straw until her grief subsided and she was able to return to work.
Eventually, Rochelle escaped from her work detail, together with her friend, Tanya. They ran to the river and swam across to the woods, all while being shot at by the Germans. They did not expect to survive but they no longer were willing to be prisoners.
Rochelle and Tanya made it to the Naliboki forest and wandered frozen, scared, and hungry.
Eventually, Russian partisans found Rochelle. She and her friend Tanya were expected to work for the Russians, and if they refused, they were physically, sexually, and emotionally abused. They ran away and were thinking of giving up and returning to the ghetto.
Rochelle and Tanya headed back to the ghetto, but the Germans approached so instead they ran into the forest to hide. Fortunately, they ran into a group of Jewish partisans – the very group in which Jack Sutin had been saving a place for Rochelle. She recalled later, “I was dead inside, exhausted. It was a relief to see Jews who actually looked like human beings, who had food to eat and clothing to wear. It was great to see that the Jews carried weapons to fight the Nazis.“
Fania, an old friend of Rochelle’s, found them and told them about Jack (Izik) Sutin and how he had been saving a space in a bunker for Rochelle. In the memoir of their wartime experiences, Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance, Rochelle says, “I thought either she was crazy, or I was crazy. I didn’t even remember what Izik looked like.”
Rochelle struggled to deal with the living conditions in the underground bunker and the constant whispering and teasing she experienced being the subject of Jack’s long ago and well-publicized dream. People regarded her as another mouth to feed and suspected that she was pregnant with Jack’s child, although the two had not really known each other. Overwhelmed, Rochelle decided to leave the bunker, sending Jack into a depression.
Jack was persistent and came to her new bunker to speak with her and to convince her of his honest intentions. She eventually realized that he was a genuinely good man but was still not convinced that she should be with him. As the New Year of 1943 dawned, Jack finally convinced Rochelle to stay with him. While it might have taken more effort than initially expected, Jack and Rochelle ended up together – their love grew even in the most terrible conditions.
The two stayed together throughout the war, fighting with the resistance and supporting the cause.
After liberation, they lived in the Neu Freimann Displaced Persons camp near Munich, Germany. They were married and Rochelle gave birth to their daughter, Cecilia, in the camp. In 1949 they immigrated to the United States and made a home in Minnesota.
In the beginning, life in the United States was difficult, but they worked hard and eventually formed a very successful business importing gifts from around the world. They called it Rochelle’s Gifts. In 1951 they had another child, Larry. Both children were well-educated thanks to the great help from their parents. The family increased during the years and eventually Jack and Rochelle were blessed with three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They were extremely loving parents and grandparents and were able to share their story with their family.
For Jack and Rochelle, theirs was the story of their love. Later in life, they may have realized how amazing and special their love was, but in the moment, they both were just experiencing life as it came at them, not normal and not perfect.
Rochelle passed away on December 19, 2010, and Jack passed away on January 24, 2017. Fate put them together in that forest in Poland, and it bound them together for almost 70 years.