“Lucky Doll.” She was the only toy Lila Millen knew during her childhood in Poland during World War II. A gift from her father, the doll helped comfort Lila after the war when she turned 8 and learned she was a Jewish girl and not Catholic. She had to give up Easter baskets, rosary beads and a way of life that was a smokescreen so her family wouldn’t be turned in to the Nazis.

Lucky Doll was a gift from her father, in exchange for giving up rosary beads and Easter baskets.

Born Nov. 15, 1937, in Lodz, Lila doesn’t have too many vivid memories of the Nazis occupying Poland in September 1939. However, one became seared in her brain as a toddler: She saw Germans taking the prayer shawls and prayer books out of the synagogue and piling them up to torch.

With her older sister, Anne, and parents, Mark and Ruth Skorecki, she endured two years of terror and starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto. When their parents went to work, the girls hid in a vegetable bin her father had fashioned out of wood. Covered with rags, onions, carrots and potatoes on top, it was empty in the back and had two little seats and a potty.

The Lost Childhood Years: No Toys, No Noise

“We just sat there the whole day. We didn’t have food, we didn’t have books, we couldn’t talk. We were trained to be very quiet,” recalls Lila, now 82 and a longtime resident of New Orleans, La.

Lila remembers how sometimes the girls would hear the sound of Germans coming up the stairs and talking, but she and Anne were not found. “I think the Almighty was looking out for us.”

The girls also sometimes hid under the floorboards of the shoe factory where their parents worked.

Children were especially vulnerable during the Holocaust. The Nazis killed as many as 1.5 million across Europe, most of them Jewish. Some non-Jews hid Jewish children and their family members as well.

A Polish Army officer helped Lila’s family avoid deportation to a concentration camp by smuggling them out of the ghetto in a garbage truck to the Aryan side of Warsaw. Righteous gentiles awaited them: a woman named Katarzyana Piotrowska and her 27-year-old daughter, Natalia.

The elder woman knew her boarders were Jewish, but shielded her daughter from the secret. The Nazi penalty for knowingly helping Jews was death. Instead, Katarzyana Piotrowska claimed the family were relatives who had come for a visit.

Passing as a Polish Catholic

Lila, with her blond hair and blue eyes, easily passed as a Polish Catholic and went on church outings with the Piotrowskas, while her sister, Anne, couldn’t risk being seen with her dark hair and Semitic looks.

After 1½ years of hiding with the Poles, the war ended in 1945. Lila, her parents and sister were lucky not only to be alive, but also to have their little family intact.

Lila’s father had to cajole her into giving up the vestiges of her life as a Catholic. “He said throw all those out and I’ll buy you a doll,” she relates. “I brought Lucky Doll with me to America. She was saved for all these years. We’ve been here since 1949.”

Adam, Lila and Anne

The family, along with baby Adam, who was born in the displaced persons’ camp where they had waited, made their way to New Orleans. The transition, although a happy one, proved challenging. “I didn’t know the language,” Lila explains. “I didn’t know the customs. I didn’t go to school all that time beforehand, so I had a lot of catching up to do for my age. I had wonderful teachers who helped me a lot. That’s who I credit for my first education.”

Starting Life Over in New Orleans

She attended business school as a young woman and met her husband-to-be, Norman Millen, at a dance at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center. They reared two daughters in the Crescent City. Lila wanted them to have the childhood she and Anne never had, so chose not to burden them with information about the terrible years of the Holocaust.

Sisters Anne Levy, left, and Lila Millen survived the Holocaust as
hidden children in a wooden cabinet their father made.

Expanded family includes six grandchildren and Anne Levy, Lila’s sister and best friend who is known for standing up to neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier David Duke in the Louisiana State Capitol.

Granddaughter Meets Lucky Doll

Lila’s granddaughter Rebecca Brown first met Lucky Doll in 2018. As an 18-year-old senior at the Goldie Margolin School for Girls in Memphis, Rebecca was interviewing her grandmother for “Names, Not Numbers,” a student Holocaust memorial film.

“I learned how significant the doll was. I saw her holding it and get so emotional while she had it in her hands,” Rebecca recalls.

She had always known Lila was a Holocaust survivor but hadn’t understood how young she had been in the war years. “My grandmother’s pretty quiet. That was the first time I’d ever heard her speak about the war.”

Lila’s message to young people is that they should learn a lesson from the Holocaust and never forget that evil stain on history. As she says, “Sometimes it’s not what you do that you get punished for, but who you are. The Holocaust happened because we were Jewish.”