First Occupied, Last Killed

Growing up, Esther and Sam lived very close to each other – no more than an hour by car.  They did not, however, meet until that fateful day of August 3, 1943.  In those days, when transportation was a horse and buggy, this is not surprising. 

Even though they did not know each other, both of their families fled when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.  At first, there was shock and horror – Esther’s home in Stoczek was burnt down along with many of her neighbors.  Sam’s family was “asked” to leave their farm so a Gentile family could move in.  So they fled across the imaginary line cutting Poland in half –  to the safety of the Soviet side. 

The imaginary line was the result of negotiations between the Foreign Ministers of Germany and the Soviet Union – Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop.  They signed a non-aggression pact, agreeing to invade Poland and split the country, like a rich dessert at a fine restaurant.  After Warsaw was bombed into submission and surrendered on September 28, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty on borders.  Each controlled half the country.  The imaginary line they drew on the map became very real for the people of Poland.  It was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop line. 

This German-Soviet treaty worked fine for these two countries until June of 1941. Attacking their ally, the German army crossed over the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, unleashing massive ground and air power.

The killing of the Jews, however, did not go in order of German conquest.  The Jews east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line (i.e. in the Soviet controlled areas) were killed before the Jews west of the line (i.e. in the original German controlled areas of Poland).  What exactly happened to create this strange order of killing? 

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In 1939, the German strategy was to move quickly by land and air and take absolute control of its half of Polish territory and to subdue the Polish people.  In 1939, the Germans did not worry so much about killing the Jews, but rather focused on killing and deporting the Polish elite.  Timothy Snyder explains in Bloodlands: “As Hitler put it, ‘only a nation whose upper levels are destroyed can be pushed into the ranks of slavery.’  The ultimate goal of this decapitation project was to ‘destroy Poland’ as a functioning society.’ (Bloodlands at 126)    

It was at this point in 1939 that Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s right hand man, created the Einsatzgruppen.  You may recall this lovely group of Nazi murderers that followed the German army into the areas controlled by the Soviet Union.  In 1941, they shot one million Jews east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line.  (See Blogpost Jan. 7, 2016)   But in these early days, Heydrich created the Einsatzgruppen as a special task force whose job was to kill the educated class in Poland.  (Bloodlands at 126) The elite Poles that were not killed, were sent to concentration camps. (kl at 201)

Originally, there was no plan of mass extermination of the Jews.  Certainly, there was a Final Solution, but it’s form was not yet fully articulated.  At first, Hitler thought that the Jews could just be moved and resettled somewhere – like Madagascar.  As late as July 31, 1941 there was no master plan of genocide.  Goring sent the following order to Heydrich:

“Complementing the task that was assigned to you on January 21, 1939, which was to solve the Jewish problem by emigration and evacuation in the most effective manner in accordance with the conditions of that time, I hereby charge you with making all necessary organization, practical and financial preparations for bringing about the final solution of the Jewish problem in the territories within the German sphere of influence in Europe” (Donat – The Scroll of Treblinka at 11). 

No mention of killing.  Evacuation and resettlement still meant just that.

However, by the end of the summer/early fall of 1941, the mood shifted. Now the Germans were on their way to Moscow and victory over the Soviet Union.  It was at this point that they realized that evacuation of millions of Jews was not feasible.  There was nowhere to send them (Bloodlands at 209).  By the time this realization hit, the German army was way past Stoczek and Warsaw.  They were headed to Kiev, Minsk and Moscow.  Because of the timing of the genocidal decision, the Jews who lived in the Polish lands initially conquered by Germany were spared the first round of killing.  

The first round came as one of Himmler’s great ideas.  Wanting to show Hitler that shooting the Jews was easier than starvation, deportation, and slavery, he suggested using the killing machine – the Einsatzgruppen.  So that is what happened – the Einsatzgruppen followed the German army as it crossed the Molotov-Ribbentrop line in the summer of 1941. As the army conquered city after city, town after town, the Jews were rounded up and shot into huge pits. 

Esther’s family got caught up in this wave of killing.  They had been living east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line since 1939.  In August of 1941 when the Einsatzgruppen reached Slonim where they were living, the Jews were marched to the outskirts of the nearby town of Baranovich and shot into a pit.  Esther escaped death because she was in the hospital recovering from Typhus (and the goodness of the doctor in that hospital). (See blog post Jan. 7, 2016)

After this tragedy, Esther and her then boyfriend Moishe Kwiatek, decided to cross back over the Molotov-Ribbentrop line – back to Stoczek.  What they found there was some destruction, but an open ghetto (no walls) and relative quiet.  Moishe’s family and others who had stayed were still alive. (See Blog Post May 13, 2016)

The Einsatzgruppen shooting program continued east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line.  But in October of 1941, Himmler decided they needed yet another, better way to “take care” of the Jewish problem.  In the areas occupied by the Soviet Union, shooting Jews into pits was a good solution, as they could engage the assistance of local policemen.  It took a lot of manpower to shoot one million people.  In the areas of Poland originally controlled by Germany, however, they could not rely on local manpower.  They began to experiment with more “efficient” methods of killing – gas.

On December 12, 1941, Hitler stated, “the world war is here.   The annihilation of world Jewry must be the necessary consequence.”  After this statement, a full out effort to build the machinery for mass extermination began.  (Bloodlands at 215).  In very short order, the Germans built and operated the following death camps in Poland:

Chelmo (gas vans): operations – December 1941 – July 14, 1944; 150,000 killed.

Belzec: operations – March 17, 1942 – May 1943; 400,000 killed.

Sobibor: operations – April 1942 -October 14, 1943 (uprising); 165,000 killed.

Treblinka: operations – July 23, 1942 – November 7, 1943 (4 months after uprising); 870,00 killed.

Majdanek: October 1, 1941 [transformed to annihilation camp in 1942] – July 22, 1944; 50,000 killed.

Auschwitz/Birkenau: operations – Feb. 1943 -Jan. 27, 1945 (the Red Army reached Auschwitz) (Auschwitz had been built back in the summer of 1940 as part of the concentration camp system, but Birkenau – with gas chambers – was not operational until the spring of 1943. (Bloodlands at 383.); 1,000,000 killed.

By the time the gassing got up to full speed, one million Jews living east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line were buried in huge pits.  After this killing project was successfully completed, the Nazis could turn their attention west to the huge remaining populations of Jews living in Poland and other areas of Europe.  They quickly finished off 1.4 million in the Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Belzec Sobibor and Treblinka).  This was astonishingly done by November 1943.  After that, while Majdanek was still operational, the bulk of the killing in 1943 and 1944 took place at Auschwitz/Birkenau.  So the death factory closest to the German border was the last main one to be operational. 

At the end of the day, the order of the killing may not matter.  Sam and Esther survived, but the rest of their family– along with six million children, brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, gand randparents – did not

SOURCES:

Interviews with Sam Goldberg

Interview with Esther Goldberg

Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY.  Holocaust Library. 1979.

Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.

Wachsmann, Nikolaus. Kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.  New York, NY.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015.

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Time Warp to Poland

I must bring you along with me on my incredible journey through time and space.  The time warp is 73 years and the space is across the Atlantic Ocean  – to Poland.  The warp has been brought to you and made possible by skype and the I-Phone, with an assist from my superhero travel agent Joanna Millick.  We live in a crazy, magical world.

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I am planning my trip Poland.  I will visit Stoczek – Esther’s home town, Bagatelle – Sam’s home town, the forest in which they hid, and Treblinka (all traces of the Death Camp are gone – it is now a large memorial). I really want to find the house and the barn of Halena Olleshkova – Esther’s savior.  I just want to stand there and take a picture. 

I asked my sister-in-law if she has any idea where the house and barn are located.  She said she does not, but she knows that there were two sisters who helped Sam and Esther – Halena and another one, whose name she does not know.  “By the way,” she said, “I have these old letters from Poland I found after my father died.  Maybe they can help.”  But there is one small problem – they are all in Polish.   

“Send them over,” I pleaded.  “That is amazing.”  Well, with the help of superhero Joanna, the letters, ranging from 1971 to 1991, were translated into English. The mythical characters, described by Sam and Esther and the children of these mythical characters, began to take shape before my eyes.  The letters are fascinating on many levels, with the majority of them coming from Elzbieta Maleszewski.  I thought that perhaps she is Halena’s daughter.  But honestly, I could not figure out who was who.  

Joanna, who is from Warsaw and speaks Polish, began to google some of the names.  Again, through a warp of time and space, she found that the town of Lipki (4 km from Stoczek) has a Facebook page.  On that page, she found someone with the last name of Maleszewski – same as Elzbieta.  

The gentleman Joanna found on Facebook is actually the administrator of Lipki (think Mayor of a very small town) and his phone number was listed (very brave of him).  Well, equally brave – Joanna picked up the phone and called him – his full name is Jaroslaw Maleszewski.  And presto, we had a skype call set up for the very next day. 

As I sat in Joanna’s office in front of her large computer screen, she clicked a button and poof, Jaroslaw appeared on the screen in Lipki, Poland.  His 18-year-old son, Damien, set up the skype call for us and was hovering and waving in the background.  We had long talk and it turns out that he is related to Elzbieta’s husband.  He sadly informed us that both Elzbieta and her husband had died years ago, but their son Grzegorz Maleszewski, lives in Wengrow, a nearby town.  Not only that, Elzbieta’s father-in-law is still alive at 101!   He promised to speak to the 101-year-old father-in-law and Elzbieta’s son and get back to us.  To top it all off, he told us that he lives just on the edge of the forest where many Jews were hiding during the war and many of the pits that they dug are still there.  “Would you take us to see them when I come in June?” I asked.   “Certainly,” was the reply.  Wow. Chills went up and down my spine. 

After we said our goodbyes and the large computer screen reverted to Joanna’s home page, I let out a holler and we hugged each other.  This was amazing.

Well, that was nothing compared to what happened next.  A week later, we had an I-phone conversation with Grzegorz Maleszewski, Elzbieta’s son.  This was warp at its best. He stood in the middle of a green field outside of a meditation center he is helping to build for his church in Wengrow.  It was morning in Seattle and evening in Poland.  We talked for about an hour and as we did, the sun set.  We could see the darkness creep up all around.  But his face lit up like the sun as we spoke.  He had heard about Sam and Esther and that his grandparents had hid these Jews, but he did not know much of the story.  But he described how when he was a boy, his mother, Elzbieta, would receive these beautiful letters from America.  He loved the envelopes and especially the stamps.  It was a big deal when one of these letters arrived.  He explained that Elzbieta was not Halena’s daughter, but the daughter of Wladyslawa and Stanislaw Stys.  Further, Wladyslawa is not Halena’s sister, but her sister-in-law.  Stanislaw and Alexander Stysh (Halena’s husband) were brothers. 

All this time I thought Helena’s last name was Olleshkova, but it is not – it is Stysh.  Poles refer to a married woman by reference to her husband.  So, Olleshkova means wife of Alexander.  Who knew! 

OK, stay with me.

Though he did not know much of the Sam and Esther story, Grzegorz knew that his grandfather had been very nervous about hiding Jews – it was indeed very dangerous.  They had neighbors who were found to be hiding Jews and they were killed on the spot or taken to concentration camp.  It was Wladyslawa who insisted that they help.  He told me that both houses – Wladyslawa and Helena’s – are still standing – they are next door to each other and he will take us there.  Grzegorz has two children who we hope to meet – a son who is 16 and a daughter who is 18.  Grzegorz asked me if I would scan and send his mother’s letters.  She died when he was young and it would be very meaningful to have copies of those letters.  I assured him I would do so.  At the end of this hour long conversation, the sky was dark all around him as he stood in the open field.  As he gazed into the camera of the I-phone, he said: “my heart is full and my soul is full of joy.” 

An aside (sort of) that you really won’t believe — On August 19, 1992, The Los Angeles Times ran a front page article profiling a 22 year-old Grzegorz and the town of Lipki.  Here is the link to the article:  

http://articles.latimes.com/1992-08-18/news/mn-5851_1_eastern-europe

Well, my new friend Grzegorz got together with his great Uncle and Aunt, Geniek and Aliye Stysh. to have yet another call.  This one took place, just last Thursday.  I met Geniek and Aliye via I-phone.  Geniek is the son of Stanislaw and Wladyslawa and the brother of Elzbieta (Grzegorz’s mother).  Geniek was a boy of about 8 or 9 at the time of the war.  He described how Sam, Esther and Chayim hid in his barn and that his nervous father made a hiding place for them under the hay pile.  Geniek would take food out to them in the evening and sometimes stay and play cards.  He remembers them all.  “Esther,” he said, “was a stunningly beautiful woman.” He recalls how she would come into their house and use their sewing machine to make clothes. She was a very good seamstress.  He liked Chayim the best because he was closest to his age.  He said that Chayim was with Sam and Esther the whole time.  They lived right next door to his Uncle Alexander and Aunt Halena and both families helped.   He also remembers Esther’s first husband, Moishe Kwiatek.

Grzegorz sent me an amazing letter written by Geniek in 2010.  The letter was addressed to the Polish equivalent of the Veteran’s Administration.  He was requesting an additional pension.  In this letter he describes how in the years 1942-1944, he and his family helped some Jews hiding during the war.  He details that he and his family helped dig a pit (think a cold potato storage pit on a farm) in the forest where they hid during the summer and that they hid in the utility building, the stables and the barn (under the hay stack) in the winter.  As the youngest, it was safest for him to bring them food because it would not look so suspicious.  Some days it was not safe to bring them food as they lived close to a main road that the Germans would frequent.  Also at certain times, German SS would come to the surrounding area to round up Jews in the forest.  On days that it was not safe, he left the food in the dog’s pail.  At night the hidden Jews would come out and take the food from the dog’s pail.  He explained to the Veteran’s board that his family stayed in close connection with Sam and Esther after the Goldbergs moved to America, but that he no longer has any of the letters that they sent to them.  The only thing he still has is a picture of the Goldberg family at their oldest daughter’s wedding, with a note on it to his parents (see picture above – Grzgorz sent it via his I-Phone!  On left – Sam and Esther; center – Fay and her husband Ernie Schraga; right – Shlomo and Ray Molly).

Grzgorz’s 102 year-old Maleszewski grandfather, did not know Esther and Sam, but he remembers the Kwiatek family, who lived in nearby Stoczek.  He did business with them before the war.

It is hard to believe, but from my small hope of being able to see the house and perhaps the barn where Sam, Esther and Chayim hid, I will get to see both houses of these righteous gentiles and the barn and utility building where they hid.  I hope to meet so many of their children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren.  Besides going out to see the pits in the forest with Jaroslaw, I will go with Grzegorz to meet his Stys grandparents and his Maleszewksi grandfather.  With a bit more luck, I will also get to meet some of the other children and grandchildren of these families.

On this journey across space and time, I will not be alone.  Shlomo, my husband, and our four children, Elisheva, Jack, Shoshana and Esther and Shoshana’s fiancé – Micha – will be with me.  So the children and grandchildren of Halena and Wladyslawa’s families will meet the children and grandchildren of Sam and Esther’s family.  My heart skips a beat just thinking about it.   

The Darkness of the Forest – Part II

The day before Shavuot, 1942, the SS surrounded the Shtetl of Stoczek.  They ordered the Judenrat to deliver 135 men to the center of town.  These 135 men were captured and put on trucks to Treblinka — 15 kilometers away.  (One of these captured men was Shmuel Goldberg, whom Esther did not know at the time. See blog post 3/31/16.).  No one knew what would become of these men.  All Esther knew about Treblinka was that it was a small, sleepy village with a railroad station.  Moishe ran and hid, evading capture.  Chayim on the other hand, was disadvantaged, as he had cut his hand on a glass bottle in the factory and had a large bandage on his hand.  He was caught.  But just as he was going to be placed on a truck, the German, who now owned their factory, came and insisted that Chayim be released, asserting that Chayim was an essential worker in his factory.  Chayim was released.

“From that day on,” Esther explained, “there was a terror in the shtetl.  In the first place the women and children suffered because of the men who were taken captives, but the others felt somewhat like they were standing under a tree that had been cut and was about to fall, and was waving in the breeze, and as it rocked, a great misfortune was about to befall everything.”  From this day in June 1942 until just after Yom Kippur in September, the Jews of Stoczek “ran around with no purpose.”  Life was chaotic and the no one knew what the next day would bring.

The “next day” came just after Yom Kippur, when the Nazis returned – with empty boxcars.  Esther describes how “the Germans, together with their Ukrainian helpers, surrounded the entire Shtetl and took all the remaining Jews, altogether about 400 people, including men, women and children, without exception.  Anyone that tried to protest or run away, was shot to death right on the spot.  These 400 Jews were assembled in the market area and they were guarded by specially trained dogs and SS men – “who were worse than the dogs.”  The Nazis went house to house, screaming – rouse, rouse – and chasing everyone out of their homes to the center of town.  Then, it was into the boxcars and off to Treblinka, to the newly minted gas chambers.  The gassing had commenced just over a month  before, on July 23.

Esther, Moishe, their baby, Chaim, and their father, David, hid in the attic of the Kwiatek home.  Esther wrote a note on the front door saying “this house is owned by Germans” and she “closed it up with a good lock.”  Moishe’s mother, Faiga Leah, and sister, Chana, refused to hide.  They wanted to run away.  According to testimony that Chayim gave in Montreal, Canada, they ran to a Polish woman they thought was a friend and asked her to hide them.  The “friend” sent them to Treblinka.

Esther and the others hid in the attic for three days.  But their fear and uncertainty grew and their food ran out. So, on the fourth night, in the darkest part of the night, they climbed out of the window.  Going out the front door was not an option because Esther had securely locked it from the outside.  They ran to the forest to look for food and to hide.  There they found other Stoczek Jews, just as hungry and scared as they.  First, they dug a trench in order to hide, placing branches over the top to hide the pit.  Then a few of them went to nearby farmers to beg for food.  Some farmers gave them a few morsels and others sold them food, while others chased them away with threats that they would turn them over to the Germans.   It was the end of summer, so fruit trees were plentiful.  This helped to sustain them.

They knew that their group was far too large to be safe.  They agreed to split up into small groups and hide in different places, not knowing where the others were, so they could not tell the Germans if they were tortured.  Most of those in the initial collection of Stoczek forest refugees were captured, not by the Germans, but by their Polish neighbors who turned them in for a reward – 1 Kilo of sugar per Jew.  Esther could not believe that their Polish neighbors, who they had known for so many years would do this.  It made the pain of it all, even greater.

Esther, Moishe, their baby, Chayim, David, and a Kwiatek cousin, named Mindle stuck together.  The danger was ever present. The Poles scoured the forest, hunting Jews.  The group hid in barns during the day and only came out at night.  As fall turned to winter, the days got cold and the nights, colder.  With only the clothes on their back for protection, staying in the forest was daunting.  They ventured to a nearby town to seek help and shelter from the cold.  The Poles summarily threw them out of town.  Back to the forest they went – they had nowhere else to go.  According to Esther, it was at this time that David Kwiatek, Moishe and Chayim’s father, left the group and went off on his own.  I do not know why he left, but Chayim’s testimony states that his father went to hide with a friend in Wielga.  Chayim believed that this “friend” had his father killed.

In the dead of winter – January, 1943 – the trees and bushes were bare of fruit and they had nothing to eat.  The forest provided little protection from the elements and the pit they dug was dark and dirty, smelling of moldy earth and urine.  The group of four, plus a baby, decided to try to get help from Poles in another town.  They began to walk through the forest.  Chayim, a teenager, sat down on a stump and said he would go no further.  He wanted to stay in the forest.  The rest walked a bit further, hoping he would get scared and change his mind once he was all alone.  When he did not follow, Moishe asked Esther to go back and talk with him because he might listen to her.  Esther retraced her steps and found Chayim sitting alone.  She sat with him and gently convinced him to rejoin the group.

They walked back to where Esther had left Moishe, Mindle, and the baby.  They were not there!   They searched the whole section of the forest, but could not find them.  They dared not call out their names, for fear of being heard.  They must have been caught by Poles.  Esther could not believe it – her husband and child gone.  She would never find out what happened to them.  She was tormented by these thoughts every day.  Esther and Chayim sat on the forest floor and cried, their grief overwhelming them.

After the tears slowed, Esther resolved to go to the one person she felt would not turn her away – Helena Oleskowa.  One of the two sisters whose farms was just outside of Stoczek to whom she and Moishe sold soda.  When she saw Helena, she began to cry and cry, telling her all that happened.  Helena did not want Esther and Chayim to get caught, but she knew that they could not stay long – they would all be killed if they were found on her property.  She let them into the barn that night, but they could not stay long.

Chaim decided he would leave and find other people to hide with.  “Go ahead, but I am staying here in this barn” Esther said.  Chayim left, but was back within hours.  He had found another group of Jews hiding, but they would not let him hide without paying them.  Chayim had no money, so he returned to Esther in the barn.  Later, Esther learned that this whole group that insisted on money from Chayim, got caught in the woods and were killed.

It was all Esther could do to hold it together.  She thought she would “crack up.”  She went from one village to the next.  Some places threw her out right away, others let her stay overnight.  She moved around from barn to barn until the weather turned.  Food that winter was a huge problem – there was really nothing to eat.  Vegetation did not grow in the forest in the winter and the fruit trees were bare.  Helena left a bit of food in the barn – some potatoes and bread.  Esther begged and scrounged.  Sometimes the two sisters left her food in the dog bowl outside, so no one would know they were feeding her.  Other times, she saw food left for dogs on other farms and stole it.

By late spring and summer, the forest pits once again became the primary “home.”  More food could be found – mostly mushrooms and blueberries.  This new strange existence became “normal.”  There was a gayave – a watchman for the woods who would sometimes send them a piece of meat and other food with a small Gentile child.  Most of the time, she hid all day and only came out at night.

But one day that summer, Esther ventured out of the pit in daylight to look for food.  She went to the next forest over to pick some blueberries.  She looked Polish and spoke it fluently so she felt she could get away with this.  Chayim did not come because he looked too Jewish.  Esther found a blueberry field and got a bucket from a Polish girl.  There were two sides to the blueberry field.  On one side was a bunch of women who clearly knew each other and the other side, just some people picking.  So she went to the side where the people did not seem to know each other.  Hopefully no one would ask her any questions.  She started picking and then a forest policeman with a dog came over and asked to see her license to pick.  She said she did not have one, but that she would get one for next time.  He asked for her name, but she said, “why do you have to know my name?”  He said that he did not have to know, he was just curious.  So she did not tell him her name.  He looked at her pail and saw it nearly full of blueberries and he demanded that she give him all her berries.  She was scared to death, but she did as ordered and moved quickly to a new patch.  She picked a few more berries after that and left.  She returned to their hiding spot and told a worried Chaim what happened.  After that she did not go to the blueberry field any more — too dangerous.  She picked mushrooms instead.

Helena helped when she could and when it felt safe.  She had to do everything secretly.  She could not tell her family that she was helping Jews.  Especially her son – he was a Jew Catcher (see blog post 2/15/16).  One time that summer, Helena told Esther to take as many potatoes as she wanted from their garden.  So she took some and built a stove out of two stones, placing a pot on top.  Making a fire underneath, she cooked potatoes and put them in a sack and then cooked mushrooms and ate them together.  She had a little salt too.  They had white potatoes and red potatoes with mushrooms – this was a feast. It was so delicious; she savored each bite.  She felt good because she did not have to go to Helena to beg for food.

Now it was the end of July and she and Chayim were “surviving” – living in a pit and eating what they found in the forest and on the kindness of the righteous Poles.  It was July 31 when Esther dreamed that fateful dream with the “4” on the door. It was indeed 4 days later that she met and saved Shmuel Goldberg – the Treblinka escapee.

 

Sources:

  • Interview with Esther Goldberg.  April 12, 1993.
  • Testimony given by Chayim Kwiatek.
  • Interview with Fay (Goldberg) Gitnik, April 25, 2016.

The Darkness of the Forest – Part I

A NOTE TO READERS:

Amazing things have been happening in my research and in preparation for my trip to Poland in mid-June.  Thanks to my amazing travel agent, Polish translator and partner in crime, Joanna Millick of MIR Corp. (travel agency in Pioneer Square), I have located people in Poland, who are related to the righteous gentiles that helped Esther, Chayim Kwiatek, and Sam to survive.  Last week, I spoke to someone in Lipki, Poland, a mere 4 kilometers from Stoczek, who is related to the daughter of one of the righteous gentiles and today, I spoke with Grzegory Maleszewski, grandson of one of the saviors, who lives in Wengow, Poland, a town very close to where Sam grew up and not far from Stoczek, where Esther grew up.  I will write more about this later, because it is so amazing.

Something else amazing happened – I located Nina Kwiatek, the wife of Chayim Kwiatek, who lives in Montreal.  Sadly, Chayim passed away three years ago, but I spoke to Nina at length and her daughter sent me the written testimony that Chayim gave to the Holocaust Center in Montreal.  It is brief and does not include many details, but it fills in a few blanks and corroborates parts of Esther’s story.

This is Part I of a two-part series about what happened to Esther between August 20, 1941 and August 3, 1943.

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Two years passed between August 20, 1941, when Esther’s family was killed by the Einzastgruppen outside of Slonim, Poland (see blog post 1/7/16) and the dream of the “4” on July 31, 1943 (see blog post 1/15/16).  In these two years, Esther’s life gyrated from life to death and back again.  

After leaving the Slonim hospital, where she recovered from typhus, Esther’s new reality hit her.  She was the sole survivor of her family.  Together with the other Jews of Slonim, her father, mother and siblings were shot into a pit outside of town.  Grief overwhelmed her and she did not know where to go or to whom to turn.  Then, miraculously, she found her boyfriend, Moishe Kwiatek — alive.  He hid and evaded the roundup.  Moishe, also from Stoczek, came to Slonim to escape the Nazis.  Under the German-Soviet Pact, Slonim was under Soviet control between September of 1939 and June of 1941.

But this area of Poland was no longer safe.  The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and those areas under its control in June of 1941.  Now the Nazis had all of Poland.  Following in the footsteps of the German army, the Einzastgruppen were making their way east, killing entire Jewish communities, just like Slonim.  Within a year, they shot one million Jews, dumping them in unmarked mass graves.  There was nowhere left to run.  Although Esther and Moishe believed that Stoczek was no safer than Slonim, they decided to go home.  If they were going to die, they preferred to die at home.

They stayed in and around Slonim for some months to earn enough money to buy a horse and wagon for the journey.  Finally, around Purim time, approximately six months after the Slonim massacre, they had saved the outrageous sum required to purchase a horse and buggy.  Together with some people who also wanted to travel home to Stoczek or the nearby town of Wengow, they began the journey home. 

The trip took a month and they arrived in Stoczek just before Pesach – April, 1941.  The Shtetl was unrecognizable.  So many burnt homes.  Almost nothing had been rebuilt in the past two years.  Thankfully, Moishe’s home was standing and his parents, David and Faiga Leah, his teenage brother, Chaim, and his sister, Chana, were alive and living in the home.  

Though the details are unclear, sometime between the Slonim massacre in August of 1941 and their return home to Stoczek in April of 1942, Esther and Moishe got married.  

There was still a recognizable Jewish life in Stoczek and commerce continued.  The two synagogues held daily and Sabbath services.  The center of the town was a large circular open area, where on market days, you could still buy produce and wares.  Houses and businesses formed a ring around the open air market.  Many businesses were open, including the lemonade factory run by Moishe’s father, David Kwiatek.  His children helped in the business.   

Then, as a part of a pattern that repeated itself all across Germany and German-controlled lands, a German cman ame and confiscated the Kwiatek’s factory, taking ownership.  No money changed hands; it was simply a wealth grab.  The German “allowed” the Kwiatek family to work for him.  Moishe and Esther helped as well.  Besides the shop in Stoczek, they also delivered bottles of lemonade and soda.  With their horse and buggy, Moishe and Esther delivered soda to farm houses just outside of town.  Among their customers were Helena Olleshkova and her sister, Wladyslewa Stys, whose farms were on the outside of town, just bordering the forest.  They developed a good relationship with them and this proved to be life-saving.  

There was an “open ghetto” in Stoczek.  The Germans felt it was too small to bother setting up walls.  Nonetheless, as they did everywhere, the Germans imposed segregationist and discriminatory laws against the Jews.  A Judenrat – a Jewish council – was created, which in turn, created a Jewish police force.  Don’t be fooled – it had no independent authority — it was beholden and under the control of the SS. 

Life was mostly quiet for the next year.  From Passover of 1941 when Esther and Moishe arrived in Stoczek, until just before the holiday of Shavuot (Tabernacles) in June of 1942, life went on.  Moishe and Esther had a baby boy and they continued to help in the factory and make deliveries outside of town.  Then, in June of 1942, the Nazi SS surrounded their small Shtetl and yet again, everything changed. 

WHAT DO WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST?

SPOILER ALERT:  These are the remarks that I will deliver this coming Saturday at Minyan Ohr Chadash, my synagogue in Seattle, Washington.   If you intend to be there, you may want to skip this post.

 

What do we talk about when we talk about the Holocaust?

Today is Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Memorial Day.  We are only 71 years from the end of World War II and the murder of six million European Jews.  The proximity, the closeness of the event, makes our pain acute, blurs our vision with tears.  We are survivors, children of survivors, grandchildren and great grandchildren of survivors.  Some of us biologically; others of us spiritually.  It is our job to shape how future generations will talk about the Holocaust.

The mantra of “six million” is important, but the human brain cannot comprehend its meaning.  It is too vast, too overwhelming a number and the idea of it all – mind numbing.

I believe that when we talk about the Holocaust, we must tell the stories of real people that survived and those that did not.  It is through the particular stories that we can begin to fathom the tragedy and begin to make sense and find our way forward.

The Torah is guide on this journey.  This week’s Torah Portion – Acharie Mot – begins as follows:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת, שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן–בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי-יְהוָה

וַיָּמֻתוּ.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD, and died.

What is the story we tell after the death of Nadav and Avihu? After this personal and national tragedy?   Fifty percent of the sons of Aharon, who would in that generation and future generations be the Cohanim, the Priests, to serve the nation – wiped out in a blink of an eye.

The message conveyed in this week’s Torah Portion, is one of warning and hope. Warning – not to enter the Kodesh – the holy space – haphazardly – at any time. But when the Cohen, the Priestenters the holy space, he has the opportunity to conduct the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service, bringing atonement and life to the whole nation.

Yom Kippur signifies G-d’s desire and capacity for forgiveness and our capacity for change and hope in the future. Yom Kippur is an affirmation of life, even Acharie Mot – after the death. With each Yom Kippur, we build on the last year and we start anew. With each generation, we build on the last and we start anew.

How did Aharon go on after the death of his sons? At first – Vayidom Aharon – Aharon was silent – he could not comprehend the tragedy and he could not talk about it. But then he moves forward in his life to serve the nation and to teach his disciples to bring peace, love and hope, bringing the people closer to the Torah. We see this in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, which is traditionally read in the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. Mishna 12 of the first chapter states –

“Hillel and Shamai received the tradition from them. Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.”

This is what so many survivors have done.   Some could not talk about it – at first – or ever. But they went on to build lives filled with love and hope teaching their disciples how to move forward.

Acharei Mot – after the deaths, we carry on Yom Kippur to Yom Kippur. We tell the story of Nadav and Avihu year in and year out. We tell the story of Yitziyat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt – year in and year out. WE shape how we tell the story to our children. The Seder is standardized, yet, each family does it their own way.

Bchol Dor Va’dor – in each generation – it is our responsibility to talk about it and tell the story, over and over.

I will close with a quote from a piece written by my daughter, Esther Goldberg (named for my mother-in-law) published today on the Bronfman Fellowship Blog for Yom Hashoah.

“In each generation we have the chance to construct our own narrative of the past, to build the architecture of our memory. Through this we can revitalize our story, not the hazy yesterday of history but the vivid and tangible now.

So that in each generation, each person will herself as if she personally came forth from Poland.”