Saving Sarah

Stand for Israel  |  November 18, 2021

British POWS awarded for saving Sarah, who they reunite with in 1972
(Photo: Yad Vashem)

This is the amazing story of a group of British soldiers, themselves prisoners of the Nazis, and their selfless saving of a young Jewish girl, the lone survivor of her family.

A Family on the Move

In the 1920s, the Jewish Matuson family made aliyah (immigrated) to the Holy Land, then still British-mandate Palestine. There, the couple welcomed a daughter, Hannah, in 1925. But because a state of Israel had not yet been founded, life was hard for Jews, and the family moved back to Lithuania, where Sarah was born in 1928.

But life in Europe would be worse than the anti-Semitism the family had yet faced. In 1941, as the Nazis overtook Europe, Sarah’s father was arrested… and never seen again.

A Family Torn Apart

Sarah, Hannah, and their mother were forced into a ghetto, where they “lived” until 1944, when the Nazis liquidated the Jews who had so far survived. With the war nearing its end and the Allies approaching on all sides, the Germans sent Jews like the Matusons on death marches deep into Germany, in hopes of covering up the Holocaust.

As the three struggled along for hundreds of miles, other prisoners dropping dead along the way, Sarah’s mother pleaded with her youngest daughter to try and escape. Sarah refused to leave her mother and sister. But because the three were starving, Sarah snuck away from the line of emaciated prisoners and looked inside a barn for food. Finding no food, the weakened girl collapsed, near death…

A Little Girl Lost

And that is where Sarah was found…

There in Germany, the Nazis forced Allied POWs – Americans, Brits, French, Canadians, and others – to work on German farms. On the farm where Sarah lay, a group of British prisoners – held since 1940 – were doing forced labor. One British soldier, Stan Wells, went into the barn, finding the young girl, barely alive.

A Life Saved

Stan wrapped the girl in his tattered old army coat and brought her to the other prisoners working there. The British soldiers smuggled Sarah into their POW camp – Stalag 20B – where they took turns staying up, caring for her. They fed the girl and tended to her frost bite, saving her life and nursing her back to health.

Throughout, the Brits had to be careful, as the hayloft in the prison camp was also where the Nazis kept their horses. If Sarah was found, they would all surely be killed.

Soon, the Nazis also decided to move non-Jewish prisoners deeper into Germany, meaning the British POWs could no longer care for the girl. Sneaking Sarah back out of the camp, they found a local Christian woman who hid Sarah until the Soviet army arrived and liberated the area.

After liberation, Sarah learned that her mother and sister had died on the march she had escaped. Her mother, her sister, her father, two uncles, four aunts, and six cousins. All dead. Sarah was the sole survivor of her entire family.

Sarah settled in the U.S. after the war, married, and adopted her sister Hannah’s name as her own middle name. For years Sarah Hannah Matuson Rigler tried to find the British soldiers who saved her life. It took over twenty-five years, but at last Sarah found them, reuniting with her saviors in the 1972 snapshot above. And, for their selfless actions in saving Sarah, Yad Vashem added the names of these British Heroes of the Holocaust to the list of Righteous Among the Nations: Stan Wells, George Hammond, Tommy Noble, Alan Edwards, Roger Letchford, Bill Keeble, Bert Hambling, Bill Scruton, Jack Buckley, and Wally Fisher.

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