There Is So Much More to Tell.

There is so much more to tell.

Last week, I was handed two thumb drives with the raw video data.  My superhero Joanna Millick carefully tucked them away in her suitcase and brought them across seven time zones to Seattle.  She was visiting family in Warsaw after she led an impressive trip for the Seattle Holocaust Center for Humanity to Prague and Vienna.

I sat glued to my chair for the next two days – watching, reviewing and cataloguing each and every video clip.  It is all that I had hoped it would be.

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June 21, 2016 – our videographer, Gawel Jozefczuk, shadowed us.  First in Bagatelle, then as we visited Grzgorz’s elderly grandparents – the Maleshevki’s – and of course, visiting the Stys family.  This video will create a document for history –  for our family, for the Stys family and for the world.  I intend to send the relevant parts of the video to Yad Vashem as part of my application for the Stys families to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

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Details, details, details – give me all the details.  Well, here are some that were not included in earlier blogs posts – either because of space constraints or because the details became clearer as I watched the video.

DANGERS:

Why did they do it?  So many others stood by, turned Jews in to the Nazis, or killed them on their own.  The Stys family’s answer:  because we knew the Kwiatek family[1] before the war – “we had a relationship with them,” they said.

Although this is true, during this dangerous time, knowing Jews before the war did not lead to mass numbers of people helping, feeding, and hiding them.

The Stys family knew of the danger.  They told us of another family, living in the village, who were found to be hiding Jews.  A neighbor informed the Nazis of the family’s transgression.  The Jews and members of the family that were at home were murdered.  Only two or three survived – because they were elsewhere.  The road near the Stys homes – the one we walked down to reach the path to the pit – was constantly traveled by Germans.  Nazis patrolled the forests too –  including the forest where Esther, Sam and Chayim were hiding.

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The Nazis did not stop at the forest border; they came to the Poles’ homes.  One time, a German soldier came to the home of Stanislaw and Wadyslawa.  Only Jan and his grandmother were home at the time.  They did not speak German.  The soldier wanted something, but neither Jan nor his grandmother could understand.  Exasperated, he drew a picture in the dirt – an egg.  He wanted an egg from them.  Well, they did not have chickens, only geese.  The grandmother tried her best to convey in her broken German that they only had geese eggs, but what came out in German was: “we have cat’s eggs.”  As this family story was retold by Eugenuisz in Polish, raucous laughter erupted from the whole Stys clan.  It was not nearly as funny in translation.

In an attempt to keep the Nazis off of their property and out of their homes and barns, the Stys children wore headbands outside with bold letters – “TYPHUS” – plastered across their foreheads.  This kept the Germans away. Brilliant!

Stanislaw built a fake hay stack in the barn to shelter the hidden Jews during the bitter winter months.  But he also built it to protect his family.  If the Jews were safely hidden, the family was safer.  The structure had a wooden frame – 4 meters by 4 meters.  It was covered with hay – making it look like any old hay stack.  There were ropes attached to move part of it as needed.  Small openings were cut to allow the hidden to peer out.  To access the hiding place was through the main barn door – there was no secret entrance.  Inside the lair, the ground was not covered in scratchy hay, but softer, dry grass.  DSC_0372

Because they were hiding the Jews from both the Nazis and the peering eyes of neighbors, food deliveries had to done without raising suspicions.  When delivery was too dangerous, they left food in the dog pail outside the barn door.  But when personal deliveries were possible, it was still carefully concealed.  Wadyslawa would wear a Polish hooded poncho.  She covered her head and placed food items behind her neck – held there by the hood.  Because the poncho amply covered her body – she also hid food under her arm pits.  Once inside the barn, or deep in the woods, away from prying eyes, the life-saving sustenance was delivered.

MOISHE KWIATEK AND THE BABY.

This one is hard.

The Nazis came to Stoczeck to “liquidate” the Stoczeck ghetto in September of 1943.[2]  Before the round up, when the Nazis closed the soda factory, the Kwiateks brought their equipment to Helena Stys and asked her to store it for them.  She agreed.

The Nazis took some Jews to Treblinka – by foot or car.  Others were shot in a pit they were forced to dig.  This massacre was witnessed by Jan Stys, age 11, as he looked from the school window, which overlooked the Jewish cemetery.  Moishe, Esther, Chayim, and their father, David, avoided the round up by hiding in the tiny attic of their house.  The roof was slanted and there was not much room to move around – especially with five people crammed in.  After a day or two, like Rapunzel’s hair, they let ropes out the window and descended to a new reality – an empty, eerily quiet town.  They ran to the nearby forest.

The Kwiatek’s mother, Chaya Leah and her daughter, Chana, did not want to hide in the attic and ran to some friends. Janina told us that she and Chana were friends from school (she called her Hanka).  Hanka told her that her mother had prepared a hiding place with the Czarnecki family – next to the pond.  They ran from their home to the hiding place.  But “she fell into the devil’s arms.”  Chayim Kwiatek later testified that the “friends” sent them to Treblinka.

Janina heard that David Kwiatek went to Wielga (I am not sure if this is a place or a family), while Chaim, Esther and Moishe ran through the forest to the Stys home.  Janina said: “it was cold.  It was August.” (Esther said it was the day after Yom Kippur – sometime around September 22.)  They hid in the barns and in the forests around the two Stys homes.  While out in the nearby Toporski Forest, Moishe was killed.  When Esther heard of his death, she “cried and cried,” Janina said.  On top of her grief, Esther had no money and Moishe had sewn his valuable watch into the groin of his pants.  Esther thought about going to find his body and retrieve the watch, but she did not. She was scared and wanted to respect his body.  Janina does not know who killed Moishe, but she speculated that it may have been the Polish man in charge of the upkeep of the forest.

When Moishe died, Esther was pregnant with her first child.  She gave birth to the child in Helena and Janina’s home.  The baby died during birth.  Previously we had heard that a child was born before Moishe died and that the child was killed in the forest together with Moishe.  This is not Janina’s recollection.  She was very clear that Esther gave birth to the baby after Moishe died and the baby did not survive the birth.

ESTHER AND CHAYIM – YEAR ONE.

After Moishe’s death, it was just Esther and her teenage brother-in-law Chayim hiding in the forest.  Edward Stys, who was handicapped, lived with his brother Stanislaw and sister-in-law Wadyslawa.  The Nazis paid no heed to him because he was handicapped; they left him alone.  He was free to roam the forest unmolested.  He took walks into the wood pushing a cart and leading a cow on a rope.  He would find Esther and Chayim and give them bread and allow them to milk the cow, provide them with fresh milk.  The Stys children were unanimous in their opinion that Edward was a central character in this story.

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Esther tells of the day she went to pick blueberries (see blog post May 13, 2016).  She was stopped and questioned by the forest man.  This event terrified Esther so much, she must have come and told Janina the whole story.  Without prompting, Janina retold the same story – 74 years later.  “Esther was very hard working,” Janina said at the end of the story.  “G-d gave her help.  Times were hard.”

In the summer, they washed themselves in the nearby river.  In the winter, Janina has no idea what they did.  But in the winter, they hid mostly in the barns of the two Stys families.  Helena, Janina’s mother, would tell them where to hide and how to move around to stay safe. Esther came into their home on days it was safe to do so and helped Janina with house chores and they would cook together.  Esther used the Stys’ sewing machine to repair their torn clothing.  A bigger problem than torn clothing, explained Janina, was old and broken shoes.

SAM ARRIVES – YEAR TWO

Nearly a year had gone by and now it was earl August 1943.  The Stys family believes that Helena found Sam wandering in the forest after his escape from Treblinka and that it was she  who introduced Sam and Esther.  This is not clear from Esther and Sam’s testimony.

Regardless of who introduced Sam and Esther, Helena allowed all three – Sam, Esther and Chayim – to hide in her barn for the three days after the Treblinka uprising.  (see blog post January 15, 2016).  After they survived the German dragnet, they emerged and decided to dig a pit out in the forest.  It was around 2 meters by 1.5 meters, but Eugeniusz explained it was deep.  The hard part, he explained, was not digging the pit, but distributing the dirt around the forest in such a way that no one would notice that there was freshly dug dirt.  That would lead to suspicion of hidden Jews and a search.  Janina referred to the pit as “so clever.”  It was clever because it was camouflaged well.   It had boards on the top and there were some kind of black ropes used to climb in and out and pull the juniper branches on top of the boards. The branches were prickly, adding to the genius.

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In the winter, they sat in the cold, unheated barn, looking at the world through small knife slits – day after day.  They must have had many long talks, played many a card game and had monumental naps.  Remember, at this point, Esther knew that her entire family was dead, including her husband.  Chayim knew his brother was dead, but may not have yet known what happened to his parents or his sister.  Sam, had been in Treblinka for 13 months.  He last left his parents in Kovaluvka.  He likely had no idea what happened to them.  Living in such conditions, unable to escape the weight of the world around them, would have made me mad.

Helena must have liked Sam right away.  First of all, she allowed him to hide with Esther and Chayim.  Second, she told Esther – “Krisha, you should stick with Sam.  You’ll be happier and better.”  Well, soon after liberation in June or July of 1944, Esther and Sam were married in what was left of the burnt out town of Stoczeck.

The three surviving children, Janina, Jan and Eugenuisz, all remember Sam, Esther and Chayim with great affection and deep emotion.  I could feel it when we met them and spoke to them.  I could feel it when they met Esther Goldberg, my daughter, who carries her grandmother’s name.  I think they almost wanted to call her Krisha, but they held back.  I noticed that the hugs for Esther were a little bit longer and a little bit tighter than the rest of us.  [photo on top -Esther and Janina]

[1] Esther’s first husband’s last name was Kwiatek.

[2] Esther said that the round up was just after Yom Kippur, which in 1942 was September 21.

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The Blog – Live – a Talk on Aug. 14th

MARK YOUR CALENDAR – AUGUST 14th (TISHA B’AV) – 5 PM

AT MINYAN OHR CHADASH – 51st and SOUTH BRIGHTON STREET, SEATTLE

I will give a live talk about my  trip to Poland.  The talk will include video and pictures of the trip.  Come to share this with me in person.

I have scheduled this talk on Tisha B’Av – a day where the Jewish people mourn the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, together with other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people.   The Holocaust is our most recent tragedy.  We are so close to it in time that we are just beginning to process what happened and what it means for Jewish history and for the history of humanity.

Come process with me.

Click here and see a flyer for the event with more details:

B’Av Talk

The Pianist – Maybe I Shouldn’t Have . . .

I tried not to cry too loudly.  The person sitting next to me on the plane was asleep.  I was flying home – to Seattle.   After three weeks that felt like a year, my emotions were raw.  I was watching the Pianist, Roman Polanski’s 2002 movie about the Warsaw ghetto.  After watching Schindler’s List, the night before, I thought this was a good idea.  Maybe not. . .

I had been at the Umschlagplatz, walked the streets of the ghetto, touched the remaining piece of the wall, and saw the place where the tram cut across the ghetto – where the infamous bridge over the track was built.

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Polanski knew what it was to live in a ghetto.  I saw the apartment he lived in- in the Krakow ghetto.  He was there until he escaped at age 7.  He knew the scenes all too well:

  • the dead and dying littering the street; people stepping over and around them;
  • the Nazis coming to take away a whole family.  Getting the grandfather in the wheelchair down the stairs and out the door seemed like too much trouble – so the Nazis dump him over the side of the building;
  • the “rich” Jews eat, drink and smoke in a restaurant where the protagonist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, plays piano, while the poor and the hungry beg on the street just outside the door.  They all wear armbands with a Star of David;
  • Jews wait for hours to cross over the tram tracks – to the other side of the ghetto.  Then the bridge is built and the Jews silently walk over the busy street below – two worlds crossing;
  • Jews arriving at the Umschlagplatz.  The previously wealthy Szpilman family buy a tiny piece of candy from a child with their last 20 zlotys.  The father carefully cuts it up into 6 pieces – one for each.  They eat their last bit of sweetness slowly and in silence;
  • after some 265,000 Jews were taken to Treblinka in the fall of 1942, part of the ghetto wall is taken down and rebuilt elsewhere, reducing the size of the ghetto; only 60,000 Jews remain;
  • Szpilman watches from his hideout across the street as the ghetto is destroyed: the bombs, the fires, the death, the courage;
  • after the uprising – the ghetto looks like a bad post-nuclear war scene – rubble everywhere, no life anywhere;
  • Szpilman lives alone and is saved by Righteous Gentiles over the course of a year and then, as the Red Army approaches and the Germans flee, he is fed by a Nazi officer – Captain Wilm Hosenfeld.

For a synopsis of the movie see Wikipedia article:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pianist_(2002_film)

My Jewish tourist experience in Warsaw was confusing.  I walked through the beautifully reconstructed “Old Town.”  On the way out of the Old Town, I stopped at a tourist shop.  What did I see – of course –  the small carved wooden Jewish good luck charms.  But there were also pictures of Jews counting their money (all very good luck for your finances!).

I visited the Umschlagplatz.  I was uninspired by the memorial there.  But then I stepped out of the memorial, just to the other side.  There was an open field with trees and grass.  I closed my eyes and imagined the Jews waiting to board the trains to Treblinka.  The movie scene I saw two weeks later on the plane provided a more vivid image than I conjured that day.

I visited the old Jewish cemetery and sang and danced with my family at I.L. Peretz’s grave (designed by someone from Stoczek!).

We did all this with Aleksander Czyzewksi, who was born and raised in Poland.  He went to High School with my son Jack at Seattle’s Northwest Yeshiva High School.  He explained that as a student in Warsaw’s Jewish middle school, he came to this cemetery each week to clean the debris and wipe the dirt and the grime from the tombstones.  We had dinner that evening with Aleksander’s parents.  Neither of them knew they were Jewish growing up, but now live Jewish lives.

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I prayed in the Nozyk synagogue, the only Warsaw synagogue to survive the war.  The acoustics were astounding.   As we sang the prayers to welcome the Sabbath – Kabbalat Shabbat – the sound bounced off each vaulted section of the ceiling and back to my ears, filling the room with music and filling my soul with joy.  Sitting in the Nozyk synagogue that Friday night made me think of Yurik.

In Warsaw, I got up early each day – 5 AM – to write.  The first morning in Warsaw I realized that the breakfast room did not open until 7.  I waited patiently for the coffee I desperately needed.  At 7, I charged the breakfast room, first in line for the fancy espresso machine.  I pressed the button – double shot of espresso with steamed milk.  Ahhh.  I found a place to sit, hoping my family members would join me soon.  After a few reviving sips of coffee, I glanced at the table next to me.  I knew in an instant that this was a Holocaust survivor visiting Poland with his family.  I could hear it in his voice and see it in his face.

Well, I slid closer to their table and introduced myself.  There I met Yurik (his Polish name) Sears (Americanized last name), his Israeli-born wife and their daughter – Tamara – a professor of art history.  He quickly told me his story.  He was a child in the Warsaw ghetto.  His mother was murdered early on when she went to the Pawiak prison to try to free her brother.  Now a single parent, his father would take him, each day, under his coat, as he walked to the shoe factory where he worked.  After a year of this cloistering, his father made arrangements to have Yurik smuggled out of the ghetto and hidden with a family who lived on a farm outside of town.  The delivery was made and Yurik hid for a year in the attic of the farmhouse.  After a year he was allowed to live in the main part of the home – as a member of the family.

His father survived the war and they were reunited.  Now, in June of 2016, Yurik was back for the wedding of one of the grandchildren of the family that saved him.  He told me that his parents were married in the Nozyk Synagogue and that he had visited it the day before we met.  He admired its beauty and imagined his parents there under the Chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy)!  I imagined this as well.

Yurik survived the Warsaw ghetto and lived to marry, move to America, have a daughter, and return to Poland to celebrate with his “Polish family.”  Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Pianist, also survived the Warsaw ghetto, but he remained in Poland.   He played the piano and shared his talents with the world.  Szpilman married and had two sons.  He died in 1988 and is buried in Poland.  More about his life can be found at:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W%C5%82adys%C5%82aw_Szpilman

Under the rubble of it all, lies hope.  Hope for a new life, for beautiful music, for art, for joy, for love.

 

CORRECTION:  In the previous blog post about Schindler’s List I mentioned a wealthy family that had to share small quarters in the ghetto and I quote the father.  This scene took place in the Pianist, not Schindler’s List.  I was confused.

Schindler’s List – Revisited

Of course I have seen Schindler’s List, the 1993 Holocaust movie directed by Steven Spielberg.  Who hasn’t?   Well, my 18-year-old daughter, Esther.  So, we huddled on the bed in our tiny hotel room in Amsterdam, next to one of the many canals, and watched it on our laptop computer.  After being in Krakow, watching this movie was a whole different experience.

Schindler’s List was filmed in and around Kazimierz and tells the story of the Jews of Krakow during WWII.  The specific story is of an ethnic German business man, Oskar Schindler, who became fabulously wealthy off the labor of the Jews, but how he saved approximately 1,100 Jews by placing them on his “List” of employees.  When the Plashow Labor Camp was to be liquidated and all remaining Jews were to be sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Schindler “bought” his Jews and saved their lives.  He used his great wealth for a great purpose.

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At the start of the war, Krakow was home to 56,000 Jews.  The Germans made Krakow their capital of Poland (the General Government) and Hans Frank took over the magnificent Wawel Palace at the top of the hill.  Those Kings knew how to build ‘em.  Wawel Palace was built over the course of 6oo years, but saw its most stunning changes during the reign of King Casimir the Great (1333-1370).  It is a work of art.  When the Germans arrived some 550 years later, they declared the city off limits to bombing and thus, Krakow retains its ancient city charm.

The Jews were not among the charmed of the city, however.  At least not between 1939 and 1945.  Thousands of Jews were kicked out of the city during the first two years of the war.  Then in early March 1941, Hans Frank ordered the remaining 15,000 Jews to move to a ghetto about 5-7 miles from Kazimierz.[1]  I suppose Frank thought Kazimierz was just too close to the Palace. I walked the path from Kazimierz to the Palace a number of times while in Krakow – it took about 20 minutes.

Before expulsion, Kazimierz was the bustling, thriving home of the Jewish community.  It was bursting with huge Synagogues, Yeshivot (Jewish schools), Mikvaot (ritual baths) and Jews – some wealthy, some not – some assimilated, some not.  We visited the Synagogue of the great Rabbi Yisroel Yoseph Isserles – the Rama – one of the greatest scholars of Ashkenazik Jewry who lived in Kazimierz in the first half of the 1500’s.  We prayed on Shabbat at the Old Izaac’s Synagogue – built in 1644.  There is a stunning, gold-adorned – Temple Synagogue – built in 1862 -that was the seat of the Reform community.

Kazimierz suffered terribly during the war.  The Nazis did not bomb it, but they destroyed it pretty well. When Schindler filmed his movie, Kazimierz remained as it had been after the war – a decrepit, dilapidated, mess.  The buildings were peeling and cracked.  The population was poor. We stood in the narrow alley where this scene was shot:

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Because of the interest generated by Schindler’s List, Kazimierz was gentrified and is now a hip place with restaurants (some Jewish themed – see blog post – June 28, 2016), cafes, outdoor food trucks and concerts.  It looks and feels nothing like the movie.  This is the same street – I was there just three weeks ago.

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As I watched Spielberg’s depiction of the expulsion, my heart broke all over again.  I felt the stones beneath their feet.  I had walked on those stones.  I felt each sad and painful step they took, carrying their few belongings and their precious children.  When the Jews moved into the ghetto – 15,000 of them – they were forced to live in a space that had previously housed 300.  It was now surrounded by barbed wire and a tombstone-shaped cement wall (Nazis have a sense of humor too).

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The only open space in the ghetto was a square piece of pavement, next to the tram line. I stood in this square which is now a memorial – called Ghetto Hero’s Square.  The memorial, erected in 2005 consists of a series of 33 large chairs facing all directions.   These chairs are intended to symbolize the household items the Jews were forced to leave behind.  There are also 37 smaller chairs set up on the edge, near the tram stops.  These are designed to show that anyone can be a victim.  The emptiness of the chairs aims to allow reflection on how Krakow was emptied of its Jews.

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Spielberg’s scene in this square is brilliant.  The Germans come to this small patch of pavement and neatly and orderly set up their chairs and tables in order to “register” each and every Jew before they are sent to Plashow, the forced Labor Camp.  As the Germans sit comfortably behind their tables, the Jews packing the square have nowhere to sit.  Watching this scene just days after I had been standing in the square, I tried my best to imagine what it might have felt like to stand in the packed square – nowhere to sit and forced to watch the neat and tidy German officers sitting in their chairs behind their little desks.

Just at the corner of the plaza stands another important landmark that is briefly shown in the movie – Tadeusz Pankiewitz’s Pharmacy.  Though it was illegal, this Gentile pharmacist provided life-saving medication to Jews in the ghetto.  One such Jew was my friend Steve Baral’s father, Martin Baral.  He was a boy of ten living in the ghetto.  He was very ill.   He went to Pankiewitz and asked for help.  The pharmacist gave him antibiotics at no charge, saving his life.

My friend Steve’s story brings us back to Oskar Schindler.  Steve’s grandfather – Samuel Baral – worked in Schindler’s factory and was number 41 on the “list.”  And there he was – Samuel Baral – his picture on the wall at the Schindler’s Museum and his name on the top line of the list.  I stared at his face trying to see my friend in him.

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Most Jews of the ghetto were sent to Belzec Death Camp, Auschwitz/Birkenau or shot within the ghetto walls.  In the movie we get a glimpse of life in Birkenau. The Schindler women are taken there by error.  Spielberg had a cinematic problem – the Polish government would not allow him to film inside Birkenau.  So when you see the train coming into the camp through the iconic Birkenau front building and all the passengers get off the train – this is not actually inside Birkenau.  Spielberg filmed the train coming out of the camp – through the main gate and filmed the people getting out of the train in the area of the parking lot.  Very clever.  Now you have to watch the movie again, right?

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The movie depicts Oskar Schindler’s transformation from a callous, greedy, businessman, happy to exploit the wealth (moves into a Jew’s apartment) and labor of the Jews (it was cheaper) to a man who was on a mission to save his  Jews from their certain death.  The final scene in which the actual Schindler Jews stand together with their descendants, tells an uplifting, but depressing tale.  Look what one man did – by saving some 1,100 Jews, he created families and generations into the future.  But, what if there had been 10,000 Oskar Schindlers?  What if there had been a million Stys families?  What would the world look like then?

SOURCES:

Schindler’s List – the movie.

University of Minnesota – Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies:

http://chgs.umn.edu/museum/memorials/krakow/

Wikipedia article – Krakow Ghetto:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krak%C3%B3w_Ghetto

Article – Wawel Royal Castle:

\ http://www.wawel.krakow.pl/en/index.php?op=3

[1] This was not the first time Jews were forced out.  Jews were expelled from Krakow in 1495 by the Polish King.  He expelled them to Kazimierz, which at that time was outside the Krakow city limits   There was a small Jewish community in Kazimierz, but apparently the King wanted all his Jews on the other side of the river.

 

STOCZEK – THE DEAD DON’T LIE

We visited the dead in Stoczek.  The dead don’t lie.

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Stoczek is the Shtetl where Esther was born and the place from which Sam was taken to the Death Camp Treblinka.  There are enough ghosts here to compete with Hogwarts.

Grzegorz Maleszewski took us to Stoczek.  Our first stop was the vacant lot that once was the Kwiatek soda factory (see post – June 10, 2016).  Just to the right of the empty lot stood a pre-war home.  This, we were told, was a typical house.  I imagine 74 years ago it looked better, but still. . .

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Then we visited the Christian dead.  At the cemetery we paid our respects to Helena and Aleksander Stys, Wladyslawa and Stanislaw Stys, Edward Stys, Elzbieta and Waclaw Maleszewski (Grzegorz’s parents) and others who knew Esther and Sam and were involved in their lives and survival.  I was humbled.  Would I have had the courage to help when so many others did not.  I hope so, but I am blessed to never have been put to this test.

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The Stoczek Christian cemetery is beautifully kept and well-manicured.  Colorful flowers adorn the graves.  The tombstones are clean and the writing clear.  The small red brick chapel in the center stands cheery and solid, with a steeple reaching up to the heaven. The
Christian dead told us that they were honored and respected and have been well cared for.  Their ghosts are at peace.

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Then we visited the Jewish dead.  This was an altogether different experience.  The Stoczek Jewish cemetery is no more.  No tombstones, no flowers, no chapel.  It is overgrown with weeds and littered with garbage.  Under the earth – in this place – are the Jews of Stoczek who died before September, 1939, who had the zechus (merit) to be properly buried.

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During and after the war, Poles took Jewish tombstones for building material – to build walls or streets.  A number of years ago, the town finally gathered the small number of broken and faded tombstones that remained and placed them next to the cemetery where they had erected a memorial to the murdered Jews.

Jan Stys, a man full of life at 87, an eyewitness, told us how he was an 11-year old school boy, sitting in his classroom looking out the window.  The window looked out over the Jewish cemetery.  Jan watched that August day of 1942, as the Nazis shot and killed his Jewish neighbors.  He understood that this war was not nice.

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Who knows why some were murdered here and others taken to Treblinka.  Perhaps it was the old and disabled who would have had trouble making the trek to the gas chambers. Perhaps it was Nazi sport.  No way to know.

The Jewish dead told us that they have been dishonored and abused.  Their ghosts are not at peace. They are eternally crying for themselves and for their murdered children and grandchildren.

תנצב”ה -May their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life.

 

STOCZEK – FIEVEL GOES EAST

The center of town – a large open circular area – was packed on market days.  Jews and Poles came, three times a week.  They set up tables and sold their produce and wares – flea-market style.  All around the center, there was permanence – a large Synagogue, homes and shops.  All kinds of shops – grocery stores, clothing stores and butcher shops.  Then there was Feivel Goldfarb’s favorite – the bakery.  Chana the baker, Feivel recalls, “had a shop in the first house on the left side of the street.”  The bakery was at the intersection of the circle road that outlined the town center and one of many streets that emanated out of the center, like spokes on a bicycle wheel. This bicycle wheel structure created the town of Stoczeck (Stok).

Once you were at the bakery, it was an easy walk down to Shlomo Zalman Wisnia’s home.  It was just down the street – 7 or 8 houses– on the left side – right where the street ended.  Feivel remembers it well.  He was a boy of 8 years old when he attended cheder (Jewish elementary school) in this home – learning alef-beis (to read Hebrew) and how to pray – from Esther’s father – Shlomo Zalman, the melamed (teacher).

The Wisnia home was a small wooden structure – only two rooms.   The front door opened to the larger room, which served as the school.  Tables were pushed against the wall; benches awaited the students.  Each day as Feivel walked to cheder, he passed Chana’s bakery and the smell of baking rolls and cakes floated to his nostrils.

But Feivel was from a poor family and he could not afford to buy what Chana sold.  He was friends with Chana’s son – Moishele – he called him Moynik.  One day, they were together and Moynik was eating a roll with butter.  Feivel looked longingly at the roll – he had never in his life had a roll with butter.  Moynik had his fill of the roll and offered the rest to Feivel.  Feivel’s father taught him never to take charity.  So he turned down the offer.  Moynik threw the remainder of the roll over the fence.  Quickly, Feivel said he had to go home. They parted and Feivel ran to the other side of the fence to retrieve the precious roll.  It was gone – most likely eaten by a dog.  “I will never forget that roll,” Feivel lamented 77 years later, as he sat in his home in Marboro, New Jersey.

Feivel lived on the other side of the town center – 4 houses down from the Church.  Even though Stoczeck was 90% Jewish, there were Non-Jews and they had a big church.  The Church and Feivel’s house were both close – one and half blocks – to the Kwiatek soda factory.  His mother sent him there to buy soda.  Some Stoczeck homes combined living and business quarters, such as Neiman’s grocery store.  “The grocery was in the basement of the house,” Feivel said.  “My mother also sent me to Neiman’s.  It was a couple houses away from the soda factory.”

The Kwiateks were not one of these families.  Their soda factory was separate from their home.  The factory was a warehouse and a store.  It was very well known in the town and the surrounding areas.  It was through the Kwiatek soda factory that Esther first came to know the righteous Stys family. “As children, we used to visit the Kwiatek soda factory every Sunday after Church,” recalled Jan and Eugeniusz – children of Wadislawa and Stanislaw Stys – and Janina – the daughter of Helena and Aleksander Stys. “It was a special thing for us to do.”  During the war, Esther and her first husband Moishe Kwiatek took their horse and buggy that they bought in Slonim (see blog post – The Darkness of the Forest Part I – May 13, 2016) and made soda deliveries to the outlying farms, including the two Stys families.

The Kwiateks were so well known that even Grzgorz’s grandfather, on the Maleszewski side– who is 101 years old and lives a life like the grandparents in Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory – never getting out of bed – remembers them.  Though he never met Esther or Sam, he did business with the Kwiateks before the war.  We had the honor of meeting him (and his wife) on our way to the family reunion (see blog post Family Reunion – June 23, 2016).

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The next day, we visited Stoczeck and as we stood in the empty, grass-covered lot that was the Kwiatek soda factory, I imagined coming there on a hot summer day, just like the one we were experiencing – a good 89 degrees – buying a cold soda.  That sounded really nice.

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But the permanence that was found in the homes, the shops, the factories, and the Synagogues, was deceptive.  The Germans arrived in September of 1939 ordering all the Jews they could find to stand in the open market area.  Fieval was with his Uncle, holding his hand, as he stood with about 1,500 other Stoczeck Jews.  The Nazis screamed at them as they began burning down shops and homes.  Then, the Nazi screamed “rouse” – “get out.”  Everyone began running at once.  As they ran, the Nazis began to shoot.  “Half of them were shot dead,” Feivel said.  “I saw one man I knew on the ground and I shook him and said ‘get up, they are shooting people.’ But then I saw that his eyes were turned up in his head.  He couldn’t get up.  I ran back home and found my parents.”

Like Esther’s family home, Feivel’s house was burnt to the ground.  And like Esther’s family, they crossed over the border to the Russian-controlled area – to Bialystok.  From there the Goldfarbs had a different experience that the Wisnia family -the Soviets sent them East – to Siberia.  It was a horrible existence, but their family survived the war.

I looked around Stoczeck – the soda factory is gone, Esther and Fievel’s houses are gone, the Jewish shops and Synagogues are gone, the open market area is gone, but the Church remains, standing where it was in 1939 – 4 houses from where Fievel lived and a block and a half from the empty lot that once housed the famous Kwiatek soda factory.

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Stay tuned for more about Stoczeck in my next blog.

SOURCES:

Interviews with Fievel Goldfarb – May 2016 & July 11, 2016.

Interview with Esther Wisnia Goldberg – April 12, 1993.

Bagatelle – Scam or No Scam

NOTE TO READER:

I left Poland nine days ago. While I was there, I wrote posts capturing some of what I was seeing, experiencing and feeling. But so much more happened that I was unable to write about – just not enough time. Over the next weeks, I will write about these yet undocumented places and experiences. I will also modify the Sam and Esther story as told in these posts with the new information learned. This post describes our trip to Bagatele.

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Do you wonder whether the Holocaust tourist industry in Poland (yes, that’s a thing) hires old people to pretend to have known your parents, grandparents, Uncles and Aunts before the war? Because I was worried that our tour guide employed these particular services when we arrived in Bagatele, Poland.

Bagatele sign with Shlomo use this one

Out of the window of my tourist van, I watched as we turned off the main road and saw a sign – Bagatele – it consisted of one long, winding road, lined farm land and scattered with houses. At the beginning, the houses were nothing fancy, but respectable. As we progressed, the road narrowed and the houses got smaller and older. After driving maybe three or four minutes, I switched my gaze from the side window to the front.   The houses and farms did not go much farther – we were nearly to the end of this not-even town – Bagatele.

Then, standing at the side of the road, in front of a very old looking house with an expanse of farm land surrounding it, I saw a short, very old woman with a kerchief tied on her head. Marcin, our tour guide, suggested we stop the van and talk to her. My husband Shlomo and I looked at each other skeptically.

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Bagatele – Sam’s birth place and the place he lived with his parents and siblings for some 20 years. Even before the war, it was tiny -not even a town – think houses and farms. The closest town was, and still is, Wengrow – where Gzrgorz Maleszewski lives. The Goldberg farm was a busy place. With non-Jewish workers, the farm’s produce was sold in the market places of nearby Wengrow. The family owed cows and chickens and ran some kind of butcher shop where they sold meat.

The Goldberg farm was large – 25 hectres. Their farmland stretched out behind their home – as far as the eye could see. The visual expanse of the farmland was only broken by a road in the far off distance. On the opposite side of the road lay a row of trees hinting to the forest beyond. The Goldbergs owned a horse and buggy – a big deal in small town Poland. Zelig was well regarded in the area of Ostrow Mazowiecka – people knew and respected Zelig of Bagatele. This Shem Tov – good name – helped to save Sam after his escape from the German POW camp in 1941 (see blog post Sam – Prisoner of War – 1941).

When the Germans attacked Poland in September of 1939, the Goldberg family found themselves on the German side of the Molotov Ribbentrop Line – putting them under Nazi control. One day some Poles came with Nazi soldiers and threw them out of their house and off their farm.   They left with one cow, their horse and buggy and whatever belongings they could gather and fit in the buggy. They did what so many other Jews did – crossed the Line to Soviet-controlled territory. They were one of the “lucky” ones – they crossed the line before the border was sealed and they had relatives to move in with – Sam’s mother had a sister living in Yashnitz.

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So, here we were – June 21, 2016, in Bagatele. We see this old kerchief-covered Polish woman on the side of the road – right where we stopped. If she knew the Goldberg family, it would have been too tidy, too contrived to believe.

So, five Goldbergs, one Treiger, one Hacohen, Marcin, and Gawel (our videographer) file out of the van.   We were happy to get out – we had been driving for an hour and a half. Marcin translated our questions to this old woman, who stood alone on this empty street: “Hi, do you live here?   Did you ever know a family named Goldberg? We are looking for the place they lived.” She looked at us – a large group of Americans, Israelis and Poles (one with an intimidating video camera) huddled around her as if for warmth. I was waiting for her to say – “yes, I have lived here my whole life– and yes, of course I remember the Goldberg family. They lived just over here – such a tragedy.” I was ready to believe that with the help of a few zlotes, this old woman was here to create a “Polish roots experience” for our family.

Well, she spoke in a quiet, crackly old voice: “No, I don’t live here and I don’t remember any Goldberg family.   My son lives here now and I am visiting him.” So much for the staged old woman theory.

Then, a man who appeared to be about 50 with a generous paunch, emerged from the house. Warily approaching our group, he addressed his mother and asked who we are. We introduced ourselves as the Goldberg family from Seattle, Washington. We were visiting to try to find the house and farm that used to belong to Zelig Goldberg. “Oh, my grandfather told me stories of the Goldberg family,” he responded. “They used to live just over here – next door.”

Your kidding – was this to be believed? The old woman was not a plant, but was the farmer’s grandson with the beer belly and jeans the zlotes recipient meant to create the authentic “roots experience?” No, if they were going to hire someone convincing, it would have been the old woman. She could have pretended to know the Goldbergs and tell us how when she was a girl she saw them forced to leave their home and farm. This may just be authentic…

We continued to listen as the farmer told us what he knew from his grandfather. The Goldbergs lived here before the war. Their farm was just here, as he waives his right hand showing the expanse just next to his farm. And the house was over there – near that tree. We walked over to the indicated property.

Another man showed up to find out who we were. At first, his body language read hostility. He was the current owner of the Goldberg property and wanted to know what we were doing on his land. We explained we were tourists, not land-claimers, and he softened.   He showed us where you could see part of the old foundation of the home on the now empty lot, covered with grass and weeds. They both explained that the farm extended all the way to the road – far in the distance – bordered on the other side by trees. It was huge. We all marveled at the estate that was the Goldberg farm. I imagined the house filled with the smell of roasting chicken and fresh baked challah on Friday afternoon. I pictured Sam, walking this small road with his fathers and brothers, on those same Friday afternoons –down the street to the Mikve – the Jewish ritual bath – where they would bathe and immerse their bodies to physically and spiritually prepare for the coming Sabbath.

I began to believe that this really was the place of the Goldberg farm and home. What a way to start our day of exploring the lives of Sam and Esther both before and during the war.

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We took some pictures of Shlomo – Zelig Goldberg’s grandson – with the farmer and the old women. We said our goodbyes and piled back into the van.

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We drove a bit farther down the road reaching the sign that showed we were leaving Bagatelle – Bagatelle with a red line across it. This was a fitting sign – Zelig of Bagatelle and his family farm was no more. Bagatelle is not the place it was before the war – the Nazis and the Poles made sure of it.

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