NEWSFLASH: SEATTLE HOLOCUAST CENTER VISITS TREBLINKA AND STYS FAMILY & LOCATION OF TREBLINKA LAUNDRY HAS BEEN FOUND!

Holocaust Center for Humanity participants visit Eugenuisz and Alina Stys 6.28.18

[Photo:  Group on Seattle Holocaust Center for Humanity trip to Poland at the home of Eugeunuisz and Alina Stys (Standing in center back next to Joanna Millick).  In front, lying on ground is Grzegorz Maleshewski)]

Dateline:   June 27, 2018

I was in an outdoor vegetable stand on Beacon Hill buying my produce for Shabbat.  The 90’s music was playing in the overhead speakers and my cart was overflowing with squash, corn, herbs, potatoes and other healthy things that would be turned into a wondering Shabbat meal.  My cell phone was snug in my back pocket.  It rang.  I grabbed it from my pocket and saw the bright face of Joanna Millick. 

“Joanna,” I said into the thin black box, “how are you?  Are you in Poland?”

“Did you just call me?”  She asked.

“No,” I said, “well, maybe I butt called you – sorry.”  

“No, no don’t be sorry,” she said.    “I am in Poland and I have so much to tell you.  I am with the Holocaust Center tour and today we visited Treblinka and then visited with Eugeniusz and Alina Stys.”

This butt call led to so much amazing information that I am still taking it all in.    Here is what Joanna told me:

The group visited Treblinka and met with the director of the Treblinka museum.  Joanna was telling the group Sam’s story, and explaining that soon they would leave Treblinka and follow Sam’s scape route to the forest outside of Stoczek where he met Esther.  Upon hearing this, the Director asked if he could come along with the group.  

“Sure,” Joanna said, “we will meet Eugenuisz and Alina Stys and see the barn and the forest pit where Sam and Esther hid.”

The Director came along and heard more about Sam and Esther.  He heard that Sam was the supervisor of the Treblinka laundry during his imprisonment there.  He then said –

“Oh, we just did some additional excavations at Treblinka and we located where the laundry was.  Do you want to go back to Treblinka?  I’ll show you the location.”

Joanna explained that they could not go back, as they had a full day ahead with the group, but she agreed that after the tour is over and the other Washington State residents fly home, she would come back to Treblinka and he could show her where the laundry was located.  

Wow – that is amazing, right?    When I get them, pictures will be shared.

Ok, there is more.   The group was gathered in the now familiar living room of Eugenuisz and Alina Stys to talk with them about Sam and Esther and how the Stys family risked their lives to help hide these Jews.  You may recall that Eugenuisz’s family did not receive the Yad Vashem Honor of Righteous Among the Nations, only Helena and Aleksander Stys’s family received this honor.  So, the Seattle Holocaust Center decided to award Eugenuisz a  Certificate of Honor for his whole family for helping Sam, Esther and Chaim during the war.  This is such a beautiful gesture and I am so grateful to the Holocaust Center for doing this.   Really.

Ilana Cone Kennedy giving Eugenuisz a Certrificate of Honor from Seattle's Holo Center 6.28.18

[Ilana Cone Kennedy of the Seattle Holocaust Center for Humanity awarding Eugenuisz Stys a Certificate of Honor]

One more tidbit:   One of my dreams for my book is to get it translated to Polish.  Well, thanks to Joanna, I may be one step closer to fulfilling that dream.   Joanna was discussing my book with the Director and told him that it will be published in October.  He seemed genuinely interested in helping get it translated into Polish and published in Poland.   I would so love to get a Polish translation of this book into Eugenuisz hand’s while he is still well enough to read and enjoy it.   

Well, that’s the news that’s fit to print.  

 

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Henry, the Swimmer Visits Auschwitz and Other Such Nice Places

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[Photo:  Auschwitz Prisoner Uniforms at Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.]

 

“These people all speak different languages. But one language is international – a punch in the face.”

Henry Zguda made this statement about his life as a prisoner in Auschwitz, as he spoke to his biographer, Katrina Shawver.  Henry, a non-Jewish resident of Krakow was captured by the Germans in May of 1942.  A tall, lean swimmer, Henry was 24-years-old when he was shipped off to Auschwitz.  He remained in there until March 12, 1943, when he was transferred to Buchenwald.  He was finally liberated at Dachau by the American troops in April of 1945.

It’s not a surprise that in 1942, the prisoners that arrived at Auschwitz’s famous gate, were not Jews.  Auschwitz did not become the place of death for one million Jews until a bit later in the German’s deadly game.  Auschwitz began operation on June 19, 1940 with the arrival of 728 Polish prisoners.  “Most of them,” explains Nikolaus Wachsmann in his monumental study of German concentration camps, “were young men, including students and soldiers, accused of a wide range of anti-German activities.” [KL 202]

Over the first six months at Auschwitz, the prisoner population grew to 7,500 and by the end of January 1943, to 40,031, including 14,070 Jews.  [KL 203, 322-23] By this time, of course, neighboring Birkenau was up and running.  The mix of German and Polish prisoners, Soviet POW and Jews, helps to explains Henry’s statement about the different languages in the camp.

Henry was introduced to life at Auschwitz by Kapo Jakub, a heavyweight boxing champion from Holland, in the dreaded Block 11:

“I asked Jakub, ‘So, how do we get out of here?’

‘Henry, do you know what block this is? This is the dead block.  Outside, they shoot prisoners.  They kill people every morning and afternoon in front that wall down there. They kill ten, five, one, two, or three at a time.’

Kapo Jakub takes me to a window and pointed to the crematorium chimney, smoking like hell.

‘Henry,’ as Jakub points to the chimney, ‘that is the one sure way to get out of here.’” [Henry 90-91]

The combination of extreme hard work and lack of adequate food soon affected Henry.

“[H]unger was terrible,” Henry lamented.  “What did you get to eat?  Nothing.  For breakfast you’d get a one-fifth loaf of bread three fingers square, and a bowl of brown water they called coffee, made out of chestnuts.  Lunch was soup.  It was nothing but water, potatoes, beets, leaves, whatever they decided to throw in that day.

In the evening, you get another cup of coffee, another ladle of soup, bread, and a finger of marmalade or margarine, one-sixteenth of the brick.  Sometimes, you got like a finger-length of sausage.  That was all that you got.  According to the Germans you got 1,500 calories a day.  Bullshit.  After twelve hours of hard labor, you’re exhausted.

I had my metal bowl for soup.  You lose your bowl you die.  Why? Because the main food you get is hot soup – you can’t hold that in your hands. You sleep with the bowl under your head so no one steals it from you.  If it was a really good food, the kapos got to it before it ever reached prisoners.” [Henry 110]

Lady luck shined on Henry when he ran into his friend from Krakow, Kazio, in the camp.  Kazio, had arrived at Auschwitz shortly after it opened in August of 1940.   He rose to be the chief of the storeroom where all the food was located.   This gave Kazio great power and clout.  He could trade food for favors.   He got Henry transferred to the kitchen duty, where he eventually became a cook – a tremendous improvement.

In the first half of 1943, Henry, along with thousands of other non-Jewish prisoners, was transferred to Buchenwald.  The Germans wanted to make more room for the Jews and disrupt the Polish underground activities.  (Henry 162) When Henry arrived at Buchenwald in March of 1943, “only one percent of the prisoners were Jewish, as most Jews were sent directly to their death at camps like Auschwitz.” [Henry 186]

At first Henry was assigned to work in the quarry, a very dangerous job.   But soon, he traded his gold watch for a job as a stone massoner – much better.   Pursuant to the camp regulations, Henry was allowed to receive two letters or postcards per month.  And he could also receive money from the outside.  With this money, the prisoners could buy things.  Buchenwald, like Auschwitz had an orchestra.  But it also had a movie house and a brothel.

That’s right, a brothel!  It is hard to imagine a brothel in a concentration camp where there also happens to be a crematorium to turn the dead into ashes.  But this seem to be the case.  Henry reported that the brothel was visited by the Kapos and other higher-up prisoners, not the regular folk like him.

As the war drew to an end with the allied powers closing in on Berlin, the remaining 5,000 prisoners of Buchenwald were sent by foot, to Dachau.   Henry was so worn down and ill from the death march that he could not eat.

“I gave my soup to someone else,” Henry explained.  “I didn’t go to the hospital because I know from Auschwitz and Buchenwald they kill you in the hospital.” [Henry 233]

It was at Dachau that Henry was liberated by American troops on April 27, 1945.  Eventually he came to America, married and worked as a therapist for people with chronic physical disabilities.   In this moving book, Katrina Shawver, brings Henry and his story to the world.

It is important to hear the stories of non-Jewish prisoners at concentration camps.  Why?  To realize that the imprisonment and torture of humans by the Nazis was not an exclusive Jewish privilege.  Non-Jews of many European nationalities suffered during the war.  Even if they were not in a camp, countless Europeans suffered.  War brought hunger, death and devastation to the continent.

It is, however, equally important to recognize that the Nazi’s plan and execution – to murder each and every Jew – was not equal for all European.

As Elie Wiesel put it:  “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

 

Sources:

Shawver, Katrina, Henry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America, Kohler Books, 2017.

Wachsmann, Nikolaus, kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015.

 

 

 

EAT, DRINK AND SHOOT SOME JEWS

Holocaust memorial

Babi Yar – Thirty-four thousand Jews were shot into a ravine.  The officers and soldiers of the Einsatzgruppen had to eat and drink to keep up their strength and spirits.  George was the one to make sure that happened.  Not far from the ravine where the Jews were killed, George set up a mess tent, with electricity, heat, and a fully equipped kitchen.  For those days of the Babi Yar killings, he prepared food for 400.

George was busy in the kitchen, cutting the bread and sausage and making tea with rum.  All the supplies were delivered by Oscar, who drove his truck on the same road that the Jews marched to their deaths.  His vehicle kicked up the dirt as he drove right by the long column of human beings.  (Desbois, Patrick, In Broad Daylight, 141-142).

These columns of Jews marched ever onward, not sure of what would become of them.  They marched in Babi Yar, they marched in Staraia Ouchista, they marched in Slonim, until . . .

Until they turned the corner and saw it – the ravine, the pit – deep and wide. It was then that the screams and the cries filled the air.  Fiodor Alexandrovitch Zaloga, saw the columns of marching Jews and heard the cries, just outside of Staraia Ouchista:

“When the column turned and saw the ditch, a general outcry resounded, from women and men alike.   No yelling, no insult, no beating or kicking could stop it.  The deep cries of the men and the sharp strident cries of the women mingled with the tears of children who wanted to be held.  The screaming would die down briefly only to start up again even louder.   It lasted for one hundred to two hundred meters, until they arrived at the site of the ditch.” (Id. 237)

Guards and policemen “pushed the naked people toward the ditch where the shooting of the Jews was taking place.  Those who didn’t want to go or were walking too slowly were clubbed by the policeman and by the other Germans of the SD and the police.  During all this, the people condemned to death wept and let out heartbreaking cries.” (Id., 238)

Zaloga continues to describe how the Nazis took each piece of clothing and shook it and inspected it to find any gold or money that was hidden in the folds, “along with lighters, pocketknives, leather pouches, cigars, and wallets, [which] were put in a bag held by an SD man.”  (Id., 241)   Then the Germans would conduct an auction of all the Jews’ belongings that were left in their homes.

Theft on an industrial scale.

At the end of the long day – the exhausted German soldiers would head back to their quarters to regroup and evaluate their progress.   Alfred Metzner, a German Volksdeutsche, testified as to what happened in Slonim – at the end of the day:

“At eight o’clock, everyone came back from where they’d been. There was a meeting with the Gebietskommissar, in which they discussed the entire process for the whole day.  A lot of praise was given out; the weak were reprimanded and told to do better in the future . . .  After that in the meeting, they drank and celebrated.  The total dead for the day was between four and eight thousand Jews, men, women, and children.” (Id., 240)

This is a description of the celebration after murdering Esther’s parents and her five siblings, as well as four or five of Sam’s sibling, their spouses and children, together with thousands of other innocent people.

My stomach is churning and my heart is broken.

Slonim Massacre – Eye Witness Account

Monument and mass gravesite Rumbula Forest Riga Latvia

A nightmare that was real – 10,000 Jews living in Slonim were massacred – shot one by one into a massive pit – in the summer of 1942.  Esther’s entire family and most of Sam’s siblings found their tortured end at the edge of a pit.  A Nazi soldier in a black uniform with a skull on the arm pulled the trigger – over and over again.

An eye-witness account of the massacre in Slonim gives details of what occurred the night before and the day of the massacre.  The account is in the newly published translation of In Broad Daylight: the Secret Procedures Behind Holocaust by Bullets, by Father Patrick Desbois.  While most eye witness reports in the book are from local peasants, this testimony was given in 1947 by Alfred Metzner, a Volksdeutsche, a colonized Germans who lived outside of Germany itself – in this case in Slonim.  He assisted the Nazi with their preparations and even with the shooting, which was unusual – usually the Nazis kept that special job for themselves.

“At this extermination,” Metzner testifies, “about 10,000 Jews were liquidated. The night before the Aktion,[1] the protection and the sealing off of the ghetto had already been ordered.  Protection against the partisans had been ordered by the commander of the town.  At four in the morning, the ghetto was surrounded by the local police.  All the Jews who tried to escape were immediately shot. The Jews had learned ahead of time about the execution and that is why they had tried to dig holes in the ground at various places in order to escape the encirclement.  The ones who did escape were turned in by the local population and shot on the spot.  The extermination of the Jews took place as follows: when the Jews refused to leave their houses, they were either forced out and then shot or shot inside their houses.  During these Aktions, particularly sadistic people threw lit flares at the living Jews; they caused serious injuries.  Men with machine guns were stationed outside the ghetto to counter any attempt to escape the Jews were not led to the graves but shot right on the spot. The night before, women had been raped by the police and then shot. The police bragged about the number of women they and abused in this manner and tried to outdo one another.  Later, when no one was coming out of the ghetto anymore, the troops were formed up to go inside.”  In Broad Daylight, 67-68.

The detail provided in this account sickens me.  Really – they threw lit flares at the Jews for fun.  They knew these Jews would be dead by the end of the next day and yet – they threw lit flares at them. Even Metzner thought that they were “particularly sadistic people.”  The night before they were taken, the Jews had no way to escape – the entire ghetto was sealed with barbed wire; local Police were stationed all around and ordered to shoot anyone who attempted to get out.

I imagine Esther’s family, Bracha, Shlomo Zalman, Yisroel Yosef, Leizer Yitzchak, Shaina and Shimon, huddled together in their small apartment, awake all night, with dread in their souls, knowing that the rising of the sun would not bring the blessing of a new day, but the curse of the end of all of their days.  Then I think of Sam’s siblings, Hersh Meyer, Yankl, and Raizl, all waiting in worry during this longest of nights and then in broad daylight and in view of all the villagers, they were marched to the pit where they were forced to remove their clothing and were shot.

Then there was Moishe, Esther’s boyfriend (later her husband) who hid and escaped the Nazi death net.  Did he hide in one of the holes in the ground that Metzner describes?  No way to know – but he hid and he survived this bullet.

Esther also survived – as has been described in these posts – in the Slonim hospital, where she was recovering from Typhus.  I hope that whatever details Moishe and others told her after the massacre didn’t include all that we read here.  Just hearing that your family was shot into a pit is enough bad news for a lifetime.

In his latest book, Father Desbois, masterfully weaves his personal family experience, as well as his encounters with 4,000 witnesses.  Through the testimonies, Father Desbois paints a vivid picture of the Holocaust by Bullets in the eastern territories.

Stay tuned for additional posts on what I learned from this book.

Shabbat Shalom – may you all have a peaceful and restful Sabbath.

[photo – Monument and Mass Gravesite – Rumbula Forest – Riga, Latvia]

[1] German for “the Action” – the euphemism used to describe what the round up and murder of the Jews.

 

 

 

Marian Styś -Say it isn’t so.

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I screamed.  Yes, I screamed when I saw the name – Marian Styś.

I saw his name in a book – Such a Beautiful Sunny Day:  Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945 – that details the murders and betrayals of Jews during the war.  Marian Styś is the name of Helena Styś’ children.  Helena was Sam and Esther’s “angel” – without whose help they surely would have died in those dark years.  So, when I saw that Marian Styś had molested and murdered a Jewish woman and her five-year-old daughter in March of 1943, just 7 kilometers from Stoczek, I screamed.  Marian Styś was convicted of these murders by a Soviet court in 1953 and went to jail for eight years.

Could the original family legend that one of Helena’s sons was a Jew Catcher be correct?  Had the Styś family lied to our faces when we asked whether anyone in the family was involved in turning in Jews and they answered, “absolutely not.” This had to be investigated and quickly.  My manuscript was getting closer to completion and this would alter how the story is told.

I found an e-mail address for the author of the book – Barbara Engelking – and I wrote her a long e-mail explaining my urgent need to know.  I found a picture of Marian Styś (above) among the letters that were found in Sam’s condo after his death, scanned it and sent it to her.  The letter indicated that Marian was going to come and visit Sam and Esther in the US in 1976, but before he could come, he died of a heart attack.  His wife sent Sam and Esther his passport photo.   Was a Jew killer coming to visit the Goldbergs in Brooklyn?  Oy!

Professor Engelking wrote back that she does not know if this is the same Marian Styś, but I could write to Jan Grabowski who is doing research in the Wengrow area (near Stoczek) and perhaps he could help me.  I knew Jan Grabowski from his book that I recently completed – Hunt for the Jews – all about how the Jew Hunt permeated the Polish countryside between the end of 1942 and 1945.  I e-mailed him immediately, but still have not heard back from him.

I had to know if the murderous Marian Styś was Helena’s son.  I wrote again to Professor Engelking asking if perhaps she could tell me how to access the court records and one of my friends in Warsaw could look up the court file.  Perhaps they could determine if these are one in the same.  Professor Engelking informed me that only academics and government officials have access to these records and my friends would not be able to see the files.

In the meantime, I was obsessed with having to find out if the killer was our Marian Styś.  I lost sleep and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

In the end, as always, Joanna Millick came to my rescue.  I sent her the cryptic information in Polish that Professor Engelking had sent to me from her notes on the case.  Joanna told me that these notes indicate that Marian Styś – the killer – was born in 1912.

“How old was our Marian Styś?” Joanna wanted to know.

“No idea,” I replied.

“I will ask Grzegorz what the age difference is between Marian and Janina,” Joanna said confidently.  “Since we know that Janina was 90 in 2016, we can figure out his date of birth and then we will know.”

“Great idea,” I said.

A message came from Joanna:

“Our Marian Styś was born in 1933!”  

He was not the killer!   I let out a huge sigh of relief.  I would have been so sad to learn that indeed one of Helena’s children spent his time hunting and murdering Jews, while Helena and Wladyslawa and the rest of the family spent their time feeding and protecting them.

I am sleeping much better and working even harder to complete the book.  Stay tuned.

YOM HASHOAH – REFLECTIONS

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Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.  Last year at this time, I was riding on a train from Bialystok to Warsaw –  with a stop at Malkinia – the last station before death in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

For the past two and a half years, I have been engrossed in Holocaust stories, history and literature.  Today, as all citizens of Israel stand and pause, I also wish to pause.

I want to reflect on how it feels to be thinking daily about the Holocaust.  These past years, I have taken a detached, historical or storytelling approach.  But then it hits me – what really happened every day to Sam and Esther – or to hundreds, thousands, oy, millions more, and my detachment falls away and I find myself sitting in front of my computer crying.

And here I sit – in Seattle, Washington – in the safety of my home with plenty of food in my fridge and a comfortable bed upstairs.  Sometimes I feel that I have no right to write about what happened during the Holocaust.  It was before I was born, even before my parents were old enough to vote.  I feel as if I am playing a part in a play that can’t be staged because there are no actors who are qualified to perform the parts.  Who am I, who are we, to even discuss what happened?  How dare we?

Well, we dare, and we must.  We have no choice.  It’s our history – the history of humanity, the history of the Jews, the history of our family.  So, we will study, we will talk, we will read, we will write, we will laugh, and we will surely cry.

I have learned that evil is hard to define, but not so when it comes to the Holocaust.  I recently read a book describing life as a hidden Jew in the Polish countryside.  There was no shortage of evil acts done by Germans or Poles. The author struggled as she journeyed through this path:

“Darkness thickened in the desert of humanity and terror mounted,” Barbara Engelking writes.  “As they searched for rescue, Jews began to experience more and more directly the evil inflicted on them by the Poles. This was not simply an absence of good, but real, substantial, and deep evil incarnate.  It was an evil whose consequence was mostly death, so it was the final, irrevocable evil, which was also linked with cruelty and violence.

To devote so much attention to evil itself, to concentrate on the dark side of human beings, their evil deeds and to describe them – might be regarded as problematic.  However, in my opinion an attempt to understand evil does not in any way indicate forgiveness, or, worse, acquiescence.  Furthermore, telling the story of evil creates a strong context for the good, allowing us to appreciate more fully the course of those who aided and saved.” Engelking, Barbara, Such a Beautiful Sunny Day: Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945, 175.

Let us continue to act in this play and to appreciate the good.

May the souls of the millions murdered in the Holocaust find rest and tranquility.

*****

If you have not seen this fantastic performance by a group of Holocaust survivors and their families, you must see it – get ready for a big smile and a good cry.