UNITED BY TREBLINKA AND MORE

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Israel’s warm afternoon sun shone through the small glass bottles suspended in air. Each glass bottle held delicate flowers adorning the dusty dirt path walked by the bride and the groom to their Chuppah.   The prism created by the glass bottles transformed the sun’s white light into a rainbow of colors.  On that beautiful mid-September day, I saw my daughter, Shoshana Goldberg – the bride – and her groom, Micha Hacohen, in that spectacular transformation of nature.

Shoshana was radiant.  Her face shone with love and life.  Her simple, yet magnificent dress was alive as she moved as one with the cloth.  Micah, the consummate Israeli, donned simple mustard-colored pants and a white button down shirt.  His eyes were afire and his emotions unmasked.   As afternoon turned to evening, the setting Jerusalem sun fired up the sky, turning it pink and red.  The love of bride and groom matched the hues of the heaven.

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When the dancing began, the power and magic of the prism took control.  The guests came from all over Israel and the United States.  They represented a wide group of friends and family, including nearly one hundred unleashed millennials.  The food, the dancing, the laughter, the songs, the video, and the emotions transformed this grape vine and tree-filled outdoor setting into a wonderland.   Here, the white light split apart, creating separate bands of color and space.   Each person was at once separate with their own colorful personality, while at the same time part of the whole – bands of light joined.

With their union, Shoshana and Micha united the Goldberg and the Hacohen families.  There is much that unites us – our Jewish traditions, love of family, friends, and the State of Israel.  But there is also something tragic that unites our families – Treblinka.

Yes, Treblinka.  Sam Goldberg, born in Bagatelle, Poland, is likely the person who survived the longest (13 months) at this place of death and torture. He was captured in June of 1942 and forced by the Nazis to help build the camp.  Lasting 13 months, he participated in and escaped during the prisoner uprising on August 2, 1943.  He survived, but for 870,000 others Treblinka meant death and torture.

Micha’s paternal great grandfather, Shmuel Hacohen, came to Israel well before the second World War from Salonika, Greece.   But other members of the Hacohen family remained on the Mediterranean island.  Some family members moved to nearby Macedonia.  One such family member was Shmuel’s sister, Rebecca Phangi.  With the Nazi takeover of Greece completed in June of 1941, the Jews were doomed.  The Nazis and their Bulgarian allies gathered the Jews of Macedonia and sent them to Treblinka -by boat.  Doda Rebecca was on one such boat to Treblinka.  Micha’s great grandfather, Saba Shmuel, told that Doda Rebecca’s family died when the boat they were on sunk.

While weddings are joyous moments – and this one was indeed joyous – it is a deeply ingrained Jewish tradition to recall the destruction of the two Jewish Temples by stomping on and thus shattering a glass (or glasses) at the end of the ceremony.  Even in our moments of greatest joy, we recall the sadness of our history.

The shattering of the glasses by Micha and Shoshana announced to all that we shall never forget the tragedies of our people.   We shatter the glass to remember the Temples.  We shatter the glass to mourn the death of Doda Rebecca and her family.  We shatter the glass to remember Sam, whose Talis, together with my dad’s (Irwin Treiger), were part of the Chuppah above their heads.

On that unforgettable evening, just nine days ago, the prism of my heart was filled with joy, memories, hope and love.

Glossary:

Chuppah – Wedding Canopy

Doda – Aunt

Saba – Grandfather

Talis – Prayer Shawl

Sources:

Eden Hacohen, September 24 & September 27, 2016

Wikipedia article: Axis Occupation of Greece:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axis_occupation_of_Greece

 

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A PRIEST AND A COUSIN.

Last Thursday I sat down at my computer and found a Priest and a cousin. 

A comment from WordPress was waiting for me.  I love receiving comments on the blog – so I clicked. 

This comment was in broken English (probably google translate).  It was from Father Rafal Figiel.  He wrote that he is the Parish Priest in Wonsewo, Poland, just three kilometers from Bagatele (where Sam was born).   He told me that he is gathering research for a book on the Jews of Bagatele and Wonsewo.  He found my blog and read the piece – Bagatele Scam or No Scam.  What a world we live in!

He explained that he has been in touch with Jozef Lis, who lives in Marki, Poland.  (We actually passed right through it on our way out to Bagatele.  Who knew.)   Jozef’s mother was born Raisa Goldberg.  She was born  and lived in Bagatele until the war.

When I told Shlomo, he just about fell out of his chair.  He said that his father told him that one of his sisters, Henya, married a man named Lis and after the war broke out, they went to Russia.  No one ever knew what happened to them.  Wow, could this be Sam’s sister’s family?  

Well, I called Joanna Millick right away and asked if she was available to translate on a Skype call the next day.  She said – “yes!”  We set up a Skype call with Father Figiel for Friday at 11.  

We spoke to Father Figiel for about an hour.  He told us that Raisa’s father was Mottle Goldberg.  Well, that was strange, because Sam’s father was Zelig, not Mottle.  Hmmm.  Maybe not Aunt Henya’s family.  

Father Figiel gathered his information from Mr. Zeleski, the oldest living person in Bagatele.  Mr. Zeleski told the Father that he also remembers Zelig Goldberg.  One time, his family home caught fire and Zelig came and helped him put the fire out.  Then, Zelig invited the Zeleski family to move into his home until the damage was repaired.  Nice!

In order to clarify and gather additional information, Father Figiel has arranged with Marta, Jozef’s daughter, to pick him up and bring him to Bagatelle on September 12.  There they will meet with Mr. Zeleski in the hopes of sparking memories and stories about the Jews of Bagatele.

Father Figiel also told us about the Jews of the area before the war.  Jews were definitely living in the area by 1800.  In 1850, the Jews of Bagatele and Wonsewo petitioned their “kahal” – the Jewish administration for the region – which was in Wengrow.  They wished to have their own Jewish administration office (‘kahal”) in Wonsewo.  This request was granted and it was recorded that there were 151 Jews in the new “kahal” (meaning Wonsewo and Bagatele area).

Father Figiel gave me Marta Lis’s contact information.  We promised to share research and stay in touch.

On Sunday, I sent a very excited e-mail to Marta Lis.  It bounced.   I contacted Father Figiel (now facebook friends!) to see if he had a different email address. He messaged me back and gave me a different e-mail. It was getting late and I decided to try tomorrow.

I know, I should not look at screens before I go to sleep.  But I admit that I checked my e-mail Sunday evening, just as my eyes were closing.  Well, I woke right up and my eyes fell out of my head.  I had an e-mail from Ewa Lis Winston.  She got my e-mail from her sister, who had gotten it from Father Figiel.  She lives in Boston!  Can we have a skype call?  

Yes!   We set it up for the next day – Monday – Labor Day at 4 PM.  Shlomo was on call, but he should be back by 4 – that way he can join us. 

We spoke to Ewa and her husband Leslie Winston for a good hour.  We were all delighted to meet new cousins.  We clarified that her grandmother Raisa is definitely not Henya.  Her great, grandfather’s name was Mottle Goldberg, not Zelig.  Mottle had seven children and lived in Bagatele.  He was a farmer and an animal trader, just like Zelig.  Mottle and Zelig Goldberg were clearly related.  But were they brothers or cousins?  We are hoping that the meeting between Jozef Lis and Mr. Zeleski can clarify. 

Ewa described how her grandmother – Raisa Goldberg, daughter of Mottle of Bagatele — married a man named Lis who came from another small town about eight kilometers away.  After their marriage, they lived in Bagatele and had children, one of whom is her father, Jozef Lis.  Jozef was six years old when the war broke out.  His parents and siblings were murdered by the Nazis.  But he survived by hiding in the woods and people’s barns.   After the war he chose to stay in Poland.  He was baptized and lived his life as a Christian.

Ewa lives just outside of Boston and is a professor of ethics at Tufts University.  We told her that she lives in a city with the largest concentration of Sam Goldberg descendants.  We told her that she has six blood relatives living within an hour and a half drive.  She was shocked.  She always believed that they had no surviving relatives from Bagatele and now here are cousins right in Boston.  Well, until last Friday, we also believed that no Goldberg relatives survived the war.     

A family reunion is in order.

Picture above:  Goldberg family.  Taken at Jack and Emma Goldberg’s wedding – December 28, 2014 (Seattle, WA)

Forgive Me, I Had to Pee.

I really had to pee.  But, there was no bathroom.  I stood on the sidewalk looking at the Stoczeck Jewish cemetery.  Nothing is left – it is an empty lot, littered with garbage, dead leaves, trees and bushes.  The empty lot has a well-worn dirt path that residents clearly use as a short cut to the next part of town. 

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Adjacent to the old cemetery is a small fenced-in area with a memorial to Stoczeck’s murdered Jews.  It was erected in 1984.  The tombstone-shaped memorial stands on top of a three-tiered granite platform.  The fenced-in area is also home to a few tombstone fragments found in the old cemetery, set up in a soldier-like row.

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I had given some thought to how I might feel at this place. I hoped that the memorial for the murdered Jews of Stoczeck would be a meditative spot to sit and allow my feelings to surface.  I hoped for a good cry.  After all, just one day earlier, Jan Stys told us how, as an eleven-year-old boy, he saw Jews marched to the cemetery and shot into a pit.   I wrote about this (blog post July 13, 2016), but, what I did not tell you is that that I really had to pee.

When you have to pee badly, it is really all you think about.  I looked at my family as we exited the van, and I said, I am really sorry, I have to pee, I’ll be right back.  I walked straight down the dirt path which cut through the middle of the old cemetery. I took a branch of the path that went off to the right – sort of away from the main part of the cemetery.  I thought if I venture off to the right far enough, maybe I won’t pee on a grave.  I had tissues in my pocket – at the ready.  I found a protected, private place to do my business.  I silently asked forgiveness of those buried beneath my feet. 

But what happened to all the other Jewish tombstones?  There were hundreds of them here before the war.  Well, after the war the Polish economy was in the tank.  Recovery was slow and difficult, especially under Soviet control.  The Jews were all dead anyway and the tombstones were good building material.  So the Poles helped themselves and used them for walls and roads.  This was not unique to Stozceck.  It happened all over Poland.      

Much relieved, I rejoined my family at the memorial.  Shlomo was reading the Yiddish inscription on the memorial and my children were looking at the faded Hebrew lettering on the tombstone fragments.   Because I felt so bad about peeing in the Jewish cemetery, I did not achieve even a fraction of the meditative state that I had hoped.  Ok, that’s just how it is – I had to accept it. 

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While I was in my guilt-ridden state, I did not give much thought to the fact that the memorial was clean and the grass surrounding the tombstone fragments was freshly cut.  Someone was taking care of this place. Good.  It’s the least they can do, I thought.  My bladder empty, we piled back onto the van and headed to the home of Eugeniusz and Alina Stys to meet their son, the cheesemaker and for a final goodbye.

                                                          ****** 

A few weeks after returning to Seattle, Joanna Millick, my superhero travel agent and I had a joyous reunion.  We could not stop talking about our experiences in Eastern Europe – me in Samke and Poland, she in Prague, Vienna and Poland. 

But then Joanna told me something that made me go silent.  She told me that during her visit in Poland with Grzegorz Maleszewski, he told her that prior to our visit he went to check out the Stoczeck memorial.  What he encountered was a memorial covered in dirt and tombstone fragments covered in overgrown grass.  He hired some locals to clean up the memorial and to cut the grass. So when I got there and thought – Oh, it’s the least they can do – it was really all Grzegorz.    

Goodness seems to be a genetic trait in the Stys family.  Grzegorz is the grandson of Wadyslawa and Stanislaw Stys, one of the families that was instrumental in Sam, Esther and Chayim’s survival.   Grzegorz organized our entire visit to Lipki, Treblinka, the Bug River, Stoczeck and Wengrow.  He made us two large family trees, encased in glass, with pictures, so that we understand the Stys families.   

When I first met Grzegorz by I-phone, I knew I had met someone special.  He explained that he had just finished spending the day volunteering his time with his Church in building a new meditation center in Wengrow, Poland.  His generous personality was on full display as we spent two days with him and he provided us with strawberries, tee shirts, stories, photos, videos and many laughs. I may have been silent when I heard what Grzegorz had done at the Stoczeck memorial, but I was not surprised. 

After hearing about Grzegorz’s “cleanup,” I felt even worse about peeing in the cemetery.  It’s a good think that Yom Kippur is coming soon. I need some forgiveness.