Sonia Diamond, a Holocaust survivor and matriarch who helped establish a family grocery chain, died of respiratory failure Jan. 2 at her Pikesville home. She was 92.
Born Sonia Beitch in Horochov, Poland, near the Russian border in what is modern-day Ukraine, she vividly recalled her life as a young woman, when she was forced into the Senkevychivka ghetto by invading German officers during World War II.
"After the Nazis invaded, they made all the Jews in that area move into a ghetto," said her granddaughter, Lara Diamond of Pikesville, who worked on a lengthy autobiography of her grandmother.
Her father, Avraham, and a sister, Molly, died in the Holocaust. Her father was shot and buried in a mass grave. Her sister was taken away while hiding in a barn. Mrs. Diamond was also in that barn but eluded capture while huddling under hay. A German soldier pierced the haystack with his bayonet. She recalled feeling the blade in her hair.
Mrs. Diamond escaped capture because, in part, she spoke Russian, German, Polish, Czech and Yiddish. Her future husband, Paul Diamond, got her a set of fake identity papers, and she passed herself off as a Ukrainian gentile.
In 1945 she married Mr. Diamond, who also lived nearby. Family members who lived in Baltimore sponsored their move. They sailed to England and were put on a cargo ship, the Ernie Pyle. With the help of a family loan, they bought a grocery store on West Cross Street between Leadenhall and Eutaw. They arrived with $10 in their pockets.
They initially lived with relatives on Eutaw Place and on Linden Avenue. In 1948, after the purchase of the South Baltimore grocery store, Mrs. Diamond worked alongside her husband. If she was upstairs and he needed her help, he tapped on the ceiling with a long pole.
"She didn't know English, but she picked up quickly what her customers wanted," said Ms. Diamond, a genealogist who participated in the family history project. "She was someone who saw family and community as extremely important. I don't think she ever got over the losses in Poland but it somehow made her a stronger person."
Jeremy Diamond, a grandson, said his grandmother welcomed everyone into her small neighborhood store.
"She and her husband worked seven days a week," he said. "They were thankful."
In 2001 she returned to the place of her birth with numerous family members. The local mayor received them and she recalled buildings, including her school.
"She remembered everything," said her grandson, Jeremy.
Paul and Sonia Diamond later had a grocery at Mount Street and Harlem Avenue. They joined relatives and by the 1970s, their Diamond and Schuster families had a 48-store chain called Food-A-Rama. They acquired one-time competitors, including former Food Fair-Pantry Pride locations in the Baltimore-Washington retail market. They later sold the grocery operation and worked in real estate.
Once the family business became established, Mrs. Diamond became the president of the Suburban Orthodox Congregation's sisterhood and played an influential role in it. She and her husband raised funds for a new Torah for their congregation.
She and her husband assisted new immigrants who arrived in Baltimore. She was a contributor to the Jewish National Fund and served on the boards of the Jewish Fund's Sapphire Society and Israel Bonds.
She also donated an ambulance to Mage David Adam in Israel. She was active with Hadassah.
Mrs. Diamond contributed to the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Schools, the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore and the Bais Yaakov School for Girls. She attended numerous luncheons and board meetings.
"She and her husband came from nothing and they used what they made in their philanthropy. They assisted Jewish educational institutions and Israel," said Rabbi Shlomo Porter, dean of the Etz Chaim Center in Northwest Baltimore. "She was a sweet, strong woman and she was a determined woman. She was the matriarch of her family and her synagogue and of anything in which she was involved."
In addition to her grandson and granddaughter, survivors include two sons, Marvin Diamond of Baltimore and Sidney Diamond of Rockville; a daughter, Susan Weiss Ben-David of Israel; 13 other grandchildren; and 20 great-grandchildren. Her husband of 48 years died in 1993. A son, Abraham "Abe" Diamond, died in 1985.
Services were held Jan. 4 at Sol Levinson & Brothers.