Long after making Molotov cocktails in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to fight the Nazis and surviving death camps and the loss of more than 50 members of her family, Barbara Steiner was still fighting back.
When neo-Nazis threatened in the late 1970s to march in Skokie — a postwar haven for her and many other Holocaust survivors — she got a baseball bat and was ready to stand against them.
“We were all prepared to fight,” she told The Wall Street Journal.
Mrs. Steiner, who helped build the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, died Wednesday night at the Park Plaza Retirement Center on the Far North Side at 92, said her daughter Muriel Blumstein. The longtime Skokie resident, who her daughter said had kidney and heart disease, was one of the last surviving founders of the museum.
“In a way, [the neo-Nazis] did us a favor,” she told The Wall Street Journal, pointing to the museum. “Look, this is what we built.”
She was in her teens when Germany invaded Poland. In 1940, her family was given 15 minutes to pack up and move to the Warsaw ghetto.
At one point, her father Moshe Zyskind, an ordained rabbi who used to read the works of Albert Einstein, was caught on the street and beaten so badly that, “When he came home, he never was the same man anymore,” Mrs. Steiner said in a 1983 interview for the Jewish United Fund.
In 1943, “We, the young people in Warsaw ghetto, decided not to allow the Germans to slaughter us anymore,” she said. “Not for survival, because there was no possibility whatsoever to survive, but at least to die with dignity.
“We bought what little ammunition we could from outside of the ghetto, smuggled in from the Aryan side,” she said.
“The first two tanks which got to the entrance….were blown up by our people. They did not expect that we are capable of doing such [a] thing. They turned back.”
Her daughter said, “She would talk about learning to make Molotov cocktails.”
Mrs. Steiner was proud of the nearly monthlong resistance to the Nazis. In many cases, she said in a USC Shoah Foundation interview, “None of the countries was fighting as long as this little Warsaw ghetto.”
“God, if there is a hell, I don’t believe that [it] looks so terrible as Majdanek looked,” she said.
Mrs. Steiner later wound up at two other camps — Skarzysko-Kamienna and Hasag Pelcery.
She met her future husband Arnold in Hasag Pelcery. He looked out for her and bribed officials to keep her safe, their daughter said. “She used to say Hitler was a strange matchmaker,” Muriel Blumstein said.
On the day Russian troops liberated them in 1945, they got married, their daughter said, “basically in the woods by someone who knew the right blessings.” Later, they had a ceremony during a visit to Israel.
Their marriage lasted until his death in 1997.
The Steiners started their new lives in the United States in 1952. They moved to the Chicago area, where her husband had a brother. Arnold Steiner worked as a butcher for Sinai 48. In the late 1970s, they settled in Skokie.
In 2006, Mrs. Steiner published a book, “Courage and Resistance: Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”
She loved the bounty of America and always kept a full refrigerator.
“She would ask how many matzo balls you wanted. If you said one, you got two. If you said two, you got four. More was always better,” her daughter said.
Despite what she went through, her daughter said, “She basically still believed sort of that Anne Frank thing — ‘I still believe people are good.’ ”
“She was a fighter,” said J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic nominee for governor who formerly chaired the Holocaust museum’s board, “. . . and instilled in generations an understanding of the history and lessons of the Holocaust.”
Her father, mother Frajda, brothers Itzhak and Chaim Zyskind and many other relatives died in the Holocaust. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her son Marvin, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services were held Friday at Chicago Jewish Funerals in Skokie.
At a party for the Steiners’ 50th wedding anniversary, Mrs. Steiner told guests: “Hitler did not achieve his goal. He did not completely destroy the Jewish people. Our children and all of your children and grandchildren will carry the torch of Jewishness for generations to come.”