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.

 

 

 

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Marian Styś -Say it isn’t so.

marian stys cropped

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.

Judenjagd – Jew Hunt

Stys forest picture

They came with their guns, whips, dogs, shiny black boots and trucks.  It was September of 1942 when the Nazis “liquidated” the Shtetl of Stoczek.  Screaming rous, rous (get out), shooting and whipping, the Nazis took all – the young, the old, the babies, the Bubbes and the Zeides, forcing them either to the Jewish cemetery where they were shot or onto trucks for the short ride to Treblinka.

Esther, together with her first husband, Moishe, his brother Chaim and their father David hid in the attic, evading capture.  Fleeing to the woods just beyond town, they had yet a new reality – now they were hunted animal – at the mercy of nature and the compassion or brutality of the Poles.

The Nazi knew that after every liquidation, there would be some Jews like Esther, Moishe, Chaim and David, who slipped through their death net.  These Jews were not left alone – no – each one was crucial to the Third Reich.  Orders were sent throughout Poland to search for these escapees.   One order sent on August 28, 1942 (just weeks before Stoczek was “liquidated”) to the elders in village of Janowice, which typifies the message that must have been sent throughout the land:

“Regarding the Regulation issued by the County Authorities on August 14, 1942 and concerning the deportation of the Jews from our areas, I hasten to inform you that the matter is very serious.  You are to make absolutely sure that not even one single Jew, Jewess, or Jewish child is left on the territory of your commune.  You have to immediately order the hostages to search the entire area, back alleys, bushes, and so on, in order to make certain that no [Jews] are left.  Whenever caught, Jews are to be delivered to the nearest station of the Polish Police.  I repeat that the penalty for hiding Jews is death.   Village elders are also responsible for Jews hidden on the territory of their commune, and – in case of negligence – can face the death penalty.  I remind you to make certain that these orders are being followed: you are responsible under the penalty of death – Kosmice Wielkie, August 28, 1942.” (Gabowski, Jan, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, 76-77).

So, with these orders, the Poles jumped to it.   They organized Judenjagd – the Jew Hunt.  These were not just a one-off things done once in a while – these were organized hunts by village “elders, forest rangers, wealthy peasants or simply by anyone who could inspire, threaten, or otherwise mobilize the village collective.” (Gabowski, 82) They would scour the woods, enter barns and search people’s attics to find the hidden Jews and claim their rewards.

Historians estimate that 2.5 million Polish Jews were still alive in the summer of August 1942.  Of these, some 10 percent – or 250,000 – evaded capture during these “liquidations.”  Less than 50,000 of them survived until the end of the war.  Why?  Because those carrying out the Judenjagd strove to unearth each and every hidden Jew.  It seems that “[s]ometime in the spring, or perhaps in the summer of 1942, Jewish life, in the eyes of a large part of Polish society, had lost its value.  If not for the fact that all attempts to save Jews were so deadly dangerous and that helping Jews was considered by many a sin, or even worse a crime, many of the Jewish refugees could have survived until the end of the war.“ (Gabowski, 172)

The danger to Jews who went into hiding after each liquidation was known, even as the war raged on.  Emanuel Ringelblum, the founder of the Oneg Shabbat archive, who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto wrote:

”To clear the surrounding area of Jews, the Germans would employ two tactics: the method of rewards and the method of threats. Financial rewards and rewards in kind were put on the head of every Jew, in addition to which the clothes and belongings of those captured were also assigned to the captors. In western ‘Little Poland,’ in Borek Falecki, Wieliczka, Bocnia, and Swoszowice, for instance 500 zloty and a kilogram of sugar were being offered for every captured Jew.  These tactics resulted in success for the Germans. The local population in great numbers turned Jews over to the Germans, who shot these ‘criminals,’ . . .  Besides rewards, the Germans also utilized a system of punishments for hiding the Jews. Posters threatening capital punishment for this ‘crime’ appeared before every ‘liquidation action’ against the Jews in any given locality.” (Gabowski, 8).

Here is my problem – I cannot get the image of the Judenjagd out of my mind.  I see Esther, Moishe, Chaim, Sam – all of them hiding in the forest – terrified of every move they make.  Then groups of Poles come through the woods with one goal – to find them and either turn them in or simply kill them.  We know that Moishe was murdered by a Pole when he went alone through the forest searching for food.  We don’t know who did it.  After that Esther and Chaim couldn’t have ventured anywhere in the woods without a deep sense of terror and fear.  Each day must have been longer and worse than the one before.

Then in August of 1943, Sam joined these hidden ones, making it a trio.  What kind of a life was it, waiting for the moment when a neighbor would betray them or a Judenjagd would find them in the Stys’s barn or in their forest pit.  Maybe they would have been killed on the spot or maybe they would have been tied up and delivered to the Germans.  Besides this daily horror, they faced ever-present hunger, freezing cold, rain and sleet, boiling days of summer, dirt, and lice.

But miraculously, Sam, Esther and Chaim were not found by those on the “Hunts” nor were they betrayed by neighbors.  Three of the 50,000 Jews who survived in hiding, made it to see a new day and a new life – Esther and Sam in the United States and Chaim in Canada.  I write this blog on an airplane flying away from Boston where I spent the first days of Passover with those who owe their lives to the resilience and unrelenting will to live of Sam and Esther Goldberg.   This ever-growing family shared the simple joy of being together, eating Mazta and drinking wine, telling of the Exodus from Egypt and remembering the Exodus of their parents and grandparents from Nazi-controlled Poland. I hope Sam and Esther were watching from their heavenly perch.

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Descendants of Sam and Esther Goldberg (and spouses) – photo taken on April 1, 2018.

See Yourself As if You Left Egypt

In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.  Passover Hagadah.

It was at the Passover Seder that Sam Goldberg would tell and retell his tales of slavery and exodus.  He would recount the stories of his family’s flight from their home, his capture by the German after Blitzkrieg, his escape from the German POW camp, the horrors of Treblinka and the revolt, meeting Esther in the woods, hiding in the pit, fleeing the murderous Poles in Ostrow and the arrival on the US Jumper to New York Harbor.  It was not hard to “regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt,” because he had.

In the spirit of helping us imagine ourselves as people who were enslaved, whose lives were embittered, who had no freedom, I share with you some quotes from a powerful book I just finished:  Such a Beautiful Sunny Day: Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945, by Barbara Engleking.  In this book, Professor Engelking attempts to look hard at what happened to those Jews in the Polish countryside who escaped the initial liquidation of towns and ghettoes.  Those, like Esther Goldberg, who hid in an attic and were not caught when the Nazi soldiers came to Stoczek to take the Jews to Treblinka.   Or those very few, like Sam, who escaped a Death Camp – like Treblinka.  She found testimonies – in court records, diaries and other Jewish sources – of  those who hid in the Polish countryside.

Estera Cudzynowska – hiding in area of Dzialoszyce (Pinczow County):

“Together with other castaways I was hiding in burrows, cellars, and pits.  We lived like moles, digging more and more deeply into the ground to avoid the terrible fate that befell our loved ones. [. . . ] I was completely alone, without means and without any possibilities.   I avoided people. I was panic-stricken by my fear of them.  I left my hiding place only at night, like an owl. [. . . ] As a result of this lifestyle, my intuition developed to the point that I could sense danger at a distance.  My sense of smell came to resemble that of a wild animal.  I changed my whereabouts very often because playing children often discovered my tracks. [. . . ] I pulled out succulent blades of grass and ate them.  I quenched my thirst by sucking liquids from roots.  Sometimes someone would pity me and throw me a piece of bread like to a dog.  For me it was nothing less than a feast.” (Engelking, 63)

Jochewed Kantorowicz from Traczyn wandered with her sister:

“Thrown out from everywhere and robbed, ultimately they decided to dig a shelter in the forest: ‘My sister told me: ‘Even rabbits make pits for themselves, why should we be worse than rabbits?’ We started to dig the pit at night.  We worked so strenuously that we dug the whole pit over two nights.   We lined it with moss, and covered the opening with spars.  We lay for two weeks in this pit. [. . . ] One day some peasants discovered us[. . . ] We fled to another forest. [. . . ] We became skilled at digging pits and over several days we dug several of them, but had to leave them because we were seen every time.  We decided to dig a shelter by the river because the underbrush was very thick there.  However, this shelter didn’t come out as we wanted, because it was too close to water and liable to be flooded. [. . . ] We were getting terribly cold; it was already October 9, 1943, and the trees were covered with hoarfrost.  We were going helplessly in circles, barefoot and hungry in the forest. We didn’t know what to do, and decided to go into a larger forest.’” (Engelking, 77-78)

Journal of Aryek Klonicki:

“Heat swallows us during the day, and we suffer from cold during the night.  However, we would be happy if we knew for certain that his was our greatest problem.  Adam, our little son, is with Frania in her house. [. . . ] We decided not to leave the field even during the night so that no one would notice our presence. This is why we cannot see our bubele. [. . . ] Last night, July 8, I didn’t write. There was a pouring rain at seven o’clock and we got wet. We waited until one o’clock in the morning for the rain to stop, as we had been exposed to the downpour for six hours, but it didn’t stop.  We left the field and went to our peasants. He feared to shelter us in the house and put us up in the potato pit, where we spent the whole day. Darkness didn’t let me write. [. . . ] Yesterday I didn’t write anything.  It was fiercely cold. On July 9, in the evening an icy wind began blowing and it lasted for the whole day yesterday.  It’s terribly uncomfortable. Gusts of wind penetrate our bones. . . . Last night we couldn’t sleep and today too we can barely close our eyes.  [. . . ] The sky is overcast.  A cold wind is blowing.  We are waiting for the sun to come out and warm our freezing bodies. [. . . ] The unceasing rains flattened the grains in the field. As a result, we were noticed by a peasant who happened to pass by. [. . . ] It’s been raining all day with short breaks.  I don’t know whether I’ll be able to continue my diary.  For all I know these could be my last words.  I’m ending now because it’s raining.” (Engelking, 96)

 

These accounts help me imagine more intimately the impossible situation in which Sam, Esther and other Jews found themselves, allowing me to appreciate my freedom anew.   As I anticipate gathering with the Goldberg family at our Seders, I will do my best to regard myself as if I left Egypt or more recently, Poland and to experience the Passover Seder with fresh eyes and renewed vigor.

I invite you, the readers of this blog, to take a Sam and Esther story, share it at your Seder and feel as if you too were liberated.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach – wishing you a very happy Passover.

 

 

Father Figiel Speaks Out.

Group picture Mr. Zaleski

[Photo: Front Row:  Mr. Zaleski.  Back row:  Esther Goldberg; Father Rafal Figiel; Marta Lis; me)

I received this private Facebook message from Father Figiel (if you don’t recall, he is the Catholic Priest who introduced us to our Lis cousins and introduced me to Mr. Zaleski):
Dear Karen, I am sorry that I write only now but only now I read on your webside the speech of Shlomo. I cried. Shlomo so beautifully said all that, what necessary, true and painful. It is the truth that many people were then cruel but thank Goodness, were also such people as the family Stys. The this world was then mean. We must do all so it never would be. To speak to children, to bring up. Thank Shlomo from me for his beautiful words. My heart is with him, I think like he.

Shlomo speach 2

(photo:  Shlomo at Yad Vashem ceremony on Jan. 15 in Warsaw)

I am so moved. This courageous Priest is standing up to the powers in his country who are attempting to create a world of newspeak that never allows mention of the brutal acts of some Polish people during the war.  This is not simple for him to do.
He is standing up – not just in a private note to me. On February 7, he posted this statement on Facebook:
New research – including mine – shows a significant direct participation of poles in murdering Jews not only in 1941, but also in 1942, 1943 and 1944 The whole occupation. The degree of commitment, motivation and effectiveness needs to be determined, but there is no question that the scale of this współsprawstwa was not an isolated or negligible phenomenon. I wonder how the authorities will approach further publications on this subject.” (Jan Grabowski).
Well, now we know how they come.
He quotes Jan Grabowski who is the author of the book I am currently devouring – Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland.  This book should be required reading for every member of the Polish Parliament.  It details the lives of Jews hiding from the Nazis in a rural area of Poland.  It describes the extensive German-Polish collaboration in order to root out the hidden Jews.  True, there were some who participated in rooting out the Jews because they truly feared for their own lives, but many participated with zealous anti-Semitism and greed.

I will write more on what I have learned from this book once I finish it, but in the meantime, I am more grateful than ever to the Stys family for helping Esther, Moishe, Chayim, Velvel and Esther during the darkest hour of the 20th century.

Shlomo and Eugenuisz

(Photo:  Shlomo with Eugenuisz Stys)

 

 

 

Don’t Say It – It’s Against the Law

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[photo:  Home of the President, Warsaw, Poland]

He signed it.

The Polish President, Andrzej Duda, signed legislation making it a crime to say that Poles played an active role in the murder of Jews who died on Polish soil or to say the phrase “Polish Death Camp.”  Much ink has been spilled about this legislation. but alas, I shall spill a bit more.

******

I get it – the death camps were built and run by the Germans.  Poles suffered terribly during World War II.  First, they were attacked from two sides, by the Germans and the Soviets.  Bombs fell everywhere, people died, soldiers were taken as prisoners, Polish intelligencia, professionals and clergy were imprisoned and murdered at an alarming rate.  When I met Brother Ludwig on the plane from Italy to Poland, he told me of his Uncle, a priest, that was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where he died.

THE FLYING FATHER

https://soyouwanttowriteaholocaustbook.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/the-flying-father/

Then a mere two years after the initial attack and occupation, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and took control of the other half of Poland.  Germany’s goal was European domination and the Poles were in the middle of the world they wanted to dominate.

The Germans controlled every city and hamlet in Poland, gathering the Jews for death, but while making the lives of the Poles miserable.  In Poland, a whole year after the Warsaw Ghetto was beaten to a pulp and burned like kindling, the rest of Warsaw rebelled against the Nazi occupiers.  They too were crushed by the German war machine.

There is resentment in the Poland of today.  Resentment that blame for the Holocaust gets laid at their feet as they retort – “it wasn’t our fault.”  They are angered by the thousands of High School students and other “Holocaust tourists” who swarm into Poland each year to see the human ashes from which the State of Israel arose (though their tourist industry makes a ton on these tours).   This is not new.  A decade ago, these feelings were expressed by the then President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski[1], when he visited Israel.  Yuli Tamir, Minister of Education in 2008, wrote an article that appeared in yesterday’s Haaretz.  In 2008, she was schooled by President Kaczynski:

I understand the terrible pain and powerful urge not to forget what happened, Kaczynski said, but you forgave the Germans. You forgave because they had money to pay you; they bought their forgiveness with money. We were poor. We were under the Soviet juggernaut, so we couldn’t offer you a thing, and you cynically made a decision to divert your fire to us. You send your high school students to Poland, they march in our streets, waving Israeli flags, exuding hatred and fear; they look at us as though they’re seeing Satan, and then they go to Berlin to have a good time. And they have it good in Berlin, they sit in the cafes next to Gestapo headquarters and feel good. In Germany, they see culture and art; in Poland they see only bodies.

You are rewriting history – he raised his voice and suddenly looked worn out and angry. You are deliberately blurring the difference between the horrific testimonies about Poles who murdered and massacred Jews, and the fact that the Polish people and its government never declared a war of annihilation on the Jews – the annihilation policy was official German policy. I respect and understand the pain of the victims, but we too were victims. Our whole history is a history of defeats: Poland was conquered, divided, united, passed from hand to hand. Now it is independent and will write its history anew, as befits a free nation.

In the past ten years, the chorus of Polish voices on both sides of this debate has risen to a deafening scream.  Some Poles bemoan their victimhood, others focus on the righteous Gentiles who saved Jews, while others research and write about the not-so righteous and the downright evil, laying bare the truth for the world to see.  Jan Gross’s book Neighbors about how the Poles forced the Jews of the town of Jedwabne into a barn and burned them to death.

https://soyouwanttowriteaholocaustbook.wordpress.com/2016/12/04/jedwabne-and-jim-crow-south/

The post-war years (1945-1989) put Poland in a deep freeze under Soviet control. This led to a strange convergence.  One the one hand, under Soviet control, Jews were citizens with full rights, but antisemitism bubbled under the surface of “equality”, leading to an eruption, forcing 20,00 Jews to leave the country in 1968.   Under these difficult Soviet years, there was little reflection about what happened to the Jews in their towns and neighborhoods.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, the Poles have been looking in the mirror and asking what kind of people are we and who do we want to be?  How can we make sense of what happened here?   There are many reactions.  One reaction is anger and a competition of victimhood.   Another reaction is an exploration of the lost culture of the Jews, as they come by the thousands to the Krakow Jewish Festival held in June of each year, volunteer at the Krakow JCC, and restore old Jewish cemeteries.  Then there are those Polish citizens discovering that a parent or a grandparent is or was Jewish and they never knew it, or they knew, but it was a secret.  The Czyzewski family is one example of this struggle and Jewish renewal.  When I visited, I sensed positive energy among both Jews and non-Jews about what the future will bring as they all explore what Judaism is and how it can be, once again, part of the Polish fabric of life.

krakow JCC sign

https://soyouwanttowriteaholocaustbook.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/poland-jewish-is-the-new-cool-part-ii/

Perhaps when we travel to Poland, we should listen more carefully and with sensitivity to the Poles who wish to express their victimhood.  I feel I could do a better job of that.  But the Poles must be sensitive to the truth that the Nazi’s success at implementing the Final Solution couldn’t have occurred without the help, and in some cases, active involvement, of the non-Jewish Poles.

 

[1] Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash on April 10, 2010, when his plane carrying his wife Maria and top pubic and military figures as it flew to Russia to commemorate the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviet secret police organization NKVD carried out a series of mass executions of Polish people in April and May of 1940.