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.
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.