A woman’s journey from Holocaust survivor to Playboy bunny
BY PAT KROCHMAL Sun-Times Media email@example.com September 15, 2011 6:20PM
Sala Lewis was modeling lingerie when she was asked to have the prototype of Playboy's bunny outfit designed around her dimensions. | Photo courtesy of Sala Lewis
Updated: September 16, 2011 5:25PM
After suffering almost indescribable horrors in the Holocaust, Sala Lewis was handed a chance at the fame she craved.
It could have fulfilled her dream of becoming a celebrity, a dream that helped keep her alive as she was marched from concentration camp to concentration camp.
She was on the cusp of fame after serving as the prototype for the legendary Playboy bunny outfit, but then the current Deerfield resident turned down an offer to pose in Playboy magazine in its heyday, a choice she said she’s never regretted.
Lewis’ dreams of fame began in her early childhood as one of eight children born to Eve, a homemaker, and Simon Mendlowicz, a butcher, in Sosnowicz, Poland.
“Mother always had encouraged us to develop our natural talents, and every night after dinner my brothers and sisters would sing and dance,” Lewis said.
“I couldn’t wait for the day when I could perform on the stage and be a big Hollywood star,” she added.
Then one day when she was about 10 years old, she returned to their small apartment after playing with friends to find the rest of her family gone and the door sealed.
She lived on the streets alone until the Gestapo rounded her up with others, separating them into ages and abilities to be sent to the Auschwitz and Treblinka concentration camps.
The elders, as well as the young, were not much use, according to Adolph Hitler’s plans, so a woman with greying hair who knew what was happening gave Lewis her bra to make her look older.
“I saw babies pulled from the arms of their mothers, tossed into the air and shot,” Lewis said. “If I didn’t look old enough to work that would have been my fate, too.”
She was sent to the camp where Dora, a sister about 10 years older, already had been living. And when things looked especially bad, Dora would reassure Lewis that soon she would be in Hollywood performing and that her costumes would be beautiful.
Dora also promoted her sister as a child star who cold “sing like a bird and dance like an angel,” Lewis said.
So the Gestapo women would force her to entertain them. They gave her a little extra food, which she shared with the other women in the camp.
Lewis remembers being part of a group of 300 who were marched 600 miles through Czechoslovakia in freezing temperatures without coats or boots to the Flossenburg concentration camp. The only food they were allowed was what they could beg from farmers.
When they arrived, the women were told to take their clothes off and walk single-file into another room where they were ordered to take a group shower.
Then, their foreheads were branded with numbers ranging from 1 to 3, with both Lewis and her sister rating a “1,” though they didn’t know what that meant. Dora soon learned that those marked with “1” were to become the soldiers’ playthings, and they did their best to remove the marks and move into another group.
“So we were then herded like cattle into railroad cars to be taken to Bergen Belsen, where a sign over the gate said ‘Here you are to be finished,” Lewis said.
Dora came down with typhus, but pretended to be well so she wouldn’t be taken away like the others who showed signs of illness. The sisters did everything they could to stay together.
Then, without warning, the Gestapo left in the middle of the day, and soon British troops arrived to liberate the camp.
The sisters were eventually reunited with brothers Phillip and David, the only members of their family who survived, and they left Poland as soon as they could.
Lewis, whose first marriage was ill-fated, brought daughter, Evelyn, into the world before coming down with tuberculosis.
After successful treatment, Lewis began a modeling career, first in Detroit, then in Chicago.
“I was meeting buyers, having dinners, going to parties — everything was better than I had ever imagined,” she said. “My career was skyrocketing. Life was wonderful and I was having one terrific time.”
On July 17, 1956, she married Gersone Lewis, a model and graduate of John Marshall Law School who was a land developer in St. Louis.
She was happier than she ever thought she could be when she was told to report to a factory for a fitting of the Playboy bunny costume.
“I didn’t know what Playboy was ... I barely spoke English!” Lewis said. “But they gave me a costume that I’ve kept all these years. It’s red with pink ears.”
Then, Lewis was offered a chance to pose for Playboy magazine, which could have been the chance of a lifetime to fulfill her dreams.
Her husband “asked ‘How could you even consider posing for Playboy? You have a daughter. What do you think that would do to her?’” she said. “I hadn’t thought about anyone else except myself.
“It was such a compliment to be asked, that I only saw the popularity and notoriety I would receive. Everyone would finally know who I was.”
Lewis did sing on the “Dave Romane Show at the International Cafe,” and added son Cort to the family.
In 1993, she began telling the story of her survival after Cort asked her to address his class, which was discussing “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
That began a new career of speaking engagements.
Lewis never regretted her decision about walking away from Playboy.
“I could have given myself to the world or to my children so they would have the mother I never had,” Lewis said. “I’ve never been sorry.”