A Pocketful of Miracles: A Tale of Two Siblings

About the Film

A Pocketful of Miracles: A Tale of Two Siblings

Hanka (Helen) and Dudek (David) Ciesla grew up in a loving upper-middle-class Jewish family in Sosnowiec, Poland. Their idyllic childhood was abruptly shattered when Germany  invaded Poland in 1939. Separated from her family as a teenager, Hanka capitalized on her blonde hair and green eyes to obtain
false papers as a Polish Catholic. She ended up as a forced laborer in a barrel factory near Stuttgart, Germany. Dudek and his family were deported to Auschwitz where he and his father were
quickly separated from his mother and young sister.

His father Leon helped him survive. After liberation, the tearful reunion of orphans Hanka and Dudek in the American zone of Berlin was
written up by US Army journalist Harold Kempner. The Jewish soldier was so enthralled with Hanka that he married her. This uplifting tale documents how the Ciesla siblings rebuilt their lives
as abstract expressionist Helen Ciesla Covensky and entrepreneur David Chase in their adopted land of America.

After being moved from the Sosnowiec ghetto to the Srodula ghetto, Hanka’s parents Leon and Helena, along with Dudek and their younger sister Cesia, were all taken to Auschwitz. Passing as a Polish Catholic, Hanka obtained false papers to work in a labor camp in Germany. 

Upon arriving at Auschwitz, Dudek and his father were separated from his mother and sister. Dudek and his father were able to stay together throughout their time in Auschwitz. His father, Leon, worked tirelessly to protect him and provided Dudek with extra food. After the camp was evacuated in December 1944, Dudek and his father were sent on a death march to Sauchenhausen, where they were separated. After another death march to Mauthausen, Dudek was liberated by the Americans on May 6, 1945 at 17 years old. He was the only one in his immediate family to survive the concentration camps.

Known as Helen, soldiers transported her to the offices of UNRRA in Berlin where she worked at Schlactensee Displaced Persons camp. She was given a typewriter, and she wrote hundreds of letters seeking information about her family, which she would give to the people passing through the camp. One courier handed the note to Dudek at the Feldafing Displaced Camp which would lead to their heartwarming reunion.

Kempner’s father, Harold Kempner, became an Army captain working as the Public Relations Officer of the Office of the Military Government for Germany. As the features editor of The Grooper, he was shocked by the annihilation of Eastern European Jewry, and focused on the miraculous stories of Holocaust survivors celebrating Jewish holidays and reunions. His newspaper photos and articles provided invaluable eyewitness documentation of the rebuilding of Jewish life in the DP Camps in Berlin and Munich.

Harold would meet Hanka when he covered her reunion with Dudek. Harold wrote “after being separated by the Nazis for three years, the reunion marked one of the brightest moments of camp life.” 

The romance between Helen and Harold unfolded among the rubble of the Third Reich in 1945 like a Hollywood love story. Their relationship blossomed and they quickly married. Photos of their wedding day showed that Helen married in an elegant wedding dress made from an army parachute with Dudek in attendance. Harold was dressed in his uniform as were most of the guests.

The couple arranged for Dudek to immigrate to the States, because they were worried he would “get in trouble” in Berlin. He settled in Hartford, Connecticut as David Chase. Ten months after the wedding, their first child, Aviva, was born and declared the “first Jewish-American in Berlin,” contributing to the high rate of Jewish births.

A Pocketful of Miracles follows the Kempner family to the United States, where Helen and Harold would settle in Detroit, Michigan and where the family added another member, Jonathan. But by 1958, the marriage had ended. A dissolution of this war marriage was unusual and showed Helen’s streak of independence.

Helen and David remained close. Both chose never to tell their children, spouses, nor the third generation about their wartime experiences. Only now in A Pocketful of Miracles will their stories be revealed and the silence be broken. 

Who They Are

Helen Ciesla Covensky

Helen was born as Hanka Ciesla in 1924 in Kielce, Poland. Being blonde and fair skinned, with green eyes and no Yiddish accent, she was able to pass as a Polish Catholic on false papers during the war. After being separated from her family, she worked at a labor camp near Stuttgart, Germany. 

After the war, Helen briefly worked as an interpreter for the American military in Berlin. Helen’s mother was a linguist, so she taught Helen Polish, German, and English. She then worked as an UNRRA employee at the Schlachtensee Displaced Persons camp in the American sector of Berlin. She married military journalist Harold Kempner in February 1946, and gave birth to their daughter Aviva in December, 1946.

Helen, Harold and Aviva immigrated to Detroit, Michigan in 1950, and in 1951 she gave birth to Jonathan. In 1959, Harold and Helen divorced.

After the divorce she attended Wayne State University, where she studied abstract art. 

Helen met and married her favorite, brilliant history professor, Dr. Milton Covensky in 1961. She found solace in painting. Helen’s abstract expressionist artworks sold well and she had a one-woman exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Signing her paintings, Helen Ciesla Covensky wrote “in my lifetime, I have witnessed a world of extreme change which saw great destruction and rebirth … and a never ending search to portray the reaffirmation of life.”

David Chase

David was born in 1928, in Kielce, Poland. He was deported to Auschwitz with his father, mother, and younger sister. On a death march from Mauthausen, David managed to escape by jumping into a river. He was found emaciated by American soldiers who brought him to an American hospital. In Warsaw, he found an aunt and cousin who survived concentration camps. They went to the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp near Munich in search of other family members. At the camp, someone told him that his sister Helen is alive and so, he travelled across Germany to find Helen. 

After Harold and Helen’s marriage, they arranged for David to go to the United States.

David attended high school in Hartford, and attended Hillyer College as well as the University of Connecticut, where he met his wife Rhoda. He married Rhoda at 21 years old and left school. They had two children, Arnold and Cheryl Chase, who still live in Hartford. 

David became a very successful businessman and philanthropist. He was a founding a contributor to the US Memorial Holocaust Museum. David did not forget his Polish roots and introduced cable television to his birthplace and befriended President Lech Walesa. His children and grandchildren carry out the family business. He was very active in the Hartford Jewish community, and was close friends with the celebrated Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He worked with religious leaders of multiple faiths, and was close with Pope John Paul II, who referred to David as “his Jewish brother.”

Harold Kempner

Harold was born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1908 as one of ten siblings. His father worked for the Cunard shipping line. After his father’s death, he immigrated to America and attended the University of Pittsburgh. In 1942, Harold became a US citizen and joined the military, He worked as a features editor for The Grooper, the US army’s weekly newspaper. After the war ends, Harold travelled to Berlin to document the lives of Holocaust survivors. There, he met Helen, where it was love at first sight, and continued to work as a journalist in the DP camps. Harold also received confirmation that his mother had been murdered by the Nazis in Ponevezh, Lithuania during a Pogrom in the late 1930s. Harold was able to fulfill his dream and made Aliyah to Israel in 1973, where he studied and served in the Israeli police force. He had relationships, but never remarried. He died suddenly of leukemia in 1976.