Paula Popowski grew up in Kaluszyn, Poland, where her grandfather operated the town's only flour mill. The Germans occupied the town on September 11, 1939, just ten days after the beginning of the war. By 1940, the mill was confiscated and a ghetto was established for the Jews. In 1942, as the Germans were getting ready to deport 3,000 ghetto inmates to Treblinka, the family prepared to escape. Paula's parents sewed buttons made from gold coins onto her dress, and she and her sister Hannah went voluntarily to a German labor camp. Paula rarely took off the dress, knowing well that it would be the key to her survival.
In November 1942, the sisters left the labor camp and went to Warsaw. Paula and Hannah survived the Holocaust by using the gold buttons to acquire fake identities and paying ten times normal boarding costs to keep a roof over their heads. They were on the move in hiding from Warsaw to Czestochowa, where they were lucky enough to get jobs in a glass factory and find shelter in a convent. They pretended to be Catholic until the end of the war.
The rest of Paula's family, however, was not so fortunate. After Paula and Hannah fled to the labor camp, their parents hid in a house near the mill for seven days, until the Germans found them. They were kept overnight in jail, then taken to the cemetery and murdered. Her entire family was killed, grandparents, uncles, aunts—the only relatives that survived had left the country before the war.