GOLD DIGGERS

“Listen to me, Goldberg, run away today, not tomorrow” the lawyer told Sam in the fall of 1945, “because if you don’t run away today, you won’t be here tomorrow.  They are going to kill you.”

After six years of expulsion, war, murder, death camp, and hiding, Sam’s Polish neighbors wanted to kill him.  They wanted his farm and his new business.  The war was over and now this.

Sam wasted no time. He went straight to his Gentile business partner, Joseph.  It was not just his life at stake.  Now he and Esther were married and they had an infant – Fay – born there in Ostrow, Poland.

A year before, Sam, Esther and Chayim were liberated as the Red Army swept through their patch of Polish woods.  They were finally free!  One night as Sam slept, his mother appeared to him in a dream – clear as day.  She instructed him – “marry Esther – she’s the one.  Don’t wait.”   Sam listened and the next morning asked Esther if she would marry him.  She agreed and they were soon married.

It was a small affair – in Stoczeck. About a dozen survivors gathered in someone’s home.  They sang and danced and drank a Le’chayim (a toast, but literally means – “to life”.  No Rabbi was in attendance – there were none in Stoczeck after the war.  It was Shmuel Rajzman, the leader of Sam’s Treblinka uprising cell, who served as the Mesader Kedushin – the one to conduct the wedding ceremony.

After the wedding, Sam and Esther went to Ostrow, a town near Bagatelle.  Regaining control of his father’s estate, Sam, partnered with a pig farmer named Joseph whom he knew from before the war.  Together they operated the yatzke – a butcher shop, which before the War was owned and operated by Sam’s father, Zelig.  Zelig slaughtered and sold meat at the yatzke.  Sam and Esther settled into a house they rented in Ostrow.  After a year of hard work, they were doing well.  “The business,” Sam said, “made so much money, without limit.”

Now, Sam was knocking on Joseph’s door, having to yet again plead for his life.  Sam recounted to the pig farmer what his lawyer told him.  Sam knew that Joseph had a car – a Polish car called a semahot.  “You can have my half of the business,” Sam said.  “Just drive me, my wife and baby to Lodz, tonight.”  “No, I am afraid.  I won’t take you anywhere,” Joseph replied.  “If they kill you, they’ll kill me too.”  Joseph’s wife, a devout Christian, said, “Joseph, take them out!”

Sam ran home and he and Esther quickly packed a few belongings.  At 10 o’clock on that Friday night, Joseph drove his Semahot to their house and quickly ushered them into the car.   With his three Jewish passengers seated in the back, Joseph drove through the streets of Ostrow.  The neighbors saw what was happening – “the Jews, they are leaving.”  They shot, “without limit” at the car, Sam said, “trying their best to kill us.”  Joseph drove so fast that they escaped.  Joseph drove over 200 kilometers, successfully dropping Sam, Esther and Fay in Lodz.

*****

I have heard this story many times; each time it sickens me.   Sam and Esther lived through so much and then after surviving, Sam returned “home” to rebuild his life.  Sam and Esther reclaimed the Goldberg estate and a year later, Sam and Esther had a baby and a successful business.  But the Poles would not let them live in peace.  They thought they would get it all, but now Sam Goldberg returned to claim his family’s property.  “Let’s just finish off what Hitler did not manage,” they probably thought.  “Then we’ll have all of his property, including his new successful business.”

This story is one drop in a very large bucket of stories about profiting from the death and sorrow of the Jews.

Jan Gross’s, Golden Harvest, describes the great theft of Jewish property by average citizens.  It begins by describing a photo.  The photo shows a group of 40 or so peasant farmers standing on a small mound of light colored dirt with patches of grass cropping up.  The peasants line up in two rows – one row stands behind and the second row crouches in front.   Perhaps they just finished their harvest and they are taking a celebratory picture.  Some hold shovels, others pitchforks.  The photo is hazy, but just in front of the rows of people, objects are lined up.  Looking closely, one can see that they are human skulls and bones.

These are Polish peasants who, after the war, dug up human remains at Treblinka.  They stood on top of a heap of human ash.  They were searching for gold – jewelry perhaps overlooked by the Germans and Ukrainians or gold-filled teeth of the skeletal remains.  After all, there were so many Jews killed here – 870,000 – some things must have been overlooked.

Golden Harvest’s 124 pages go on to describe how throughout Nazi-controlled lands, Gentiles profited over and over.  The vast quantity of wealth and belongings that was up for grabs was overwhelming.  Imagine the amount of clothing that belonged to over six million humans.

Franciszek Zabecki, a train dispatcher at Treblinka station made notations about the goods that were leaving Treblinka in the trains:

“Into freight-cars separately male coats tied in bundles were loaded, separately, men’s suits, jackets, trousers; again separately, children’s clothing and women’s wardrobe – dresses, blouses, sweaters, old and new, caps, hats; separately, men’s tall boots, and male, female and children’s shoes.  Men’s, women’s, and children’s underwear, separately, used and new items, swaddle cloths, pillows, cushions . . . suitcases filled with pencils, fountain pens, and glasses, umbrellas and canes tied in separate bundles.” (Gross at 6).  And this is only some of it.  Zabecki continues to describe, train cars filled with pots and pans, leather goods, hair and on and on.

Gross quotes Father Patrick Debois, author of Holocaust by the Bullets (see Blog Post dated October 6, 2016) as hearing the following from one witness of the mass killings: “One day we woke up in the village and we were all wearing Jews’ clothes.” (72)

Then there are the boots.   Gross quotes two encounters between Jews and their Polish neighbors about boots:

boots

“To a Jewish man trying to find a hiding place with a peasant acquaintance near Wengrow, the latter’s son-in-law said matter-of-factly, ‘Since you are going to die anyway, why should someone else get your boots?  Why not give them to me so I will remember you?’” (74-75)

After the war, Miriam Rosenkranz was living in Kielce.  On July 4, 1946, Polish soldiers, police officers and civilians started a pogrom that resulted in the death of 42 Jews and the wounding of 40 others.  Miriam retold of an exchange she had with a Polish woman during the Pogrom: “’Really, you could leave me your boots, Missy.’ ‘But, Mrs. Joseph, I am still alive.’ ‘Well, I wasn’t saying anything, only that those are nice boots.’” (75)

Gross also quotes a story told by a small-town schoolteacher.  The exchange took place in November of 1942.  The teacher was traveling through the village of Siedliska: “‘I went into a cooperative store,’ he wrote.  ‘Peasants were buying scythes.  The saleswoman says ‘you’ll need them for today’s round-up.’  What round-up, I ask.  ‘Of Jews.” ‘And how much do you get for a caught Jew,’ I asked.  Embarrassed silence.  So I went on, ‘for Jesus Christ 30 silver coins were paid, you should request as much.’ Nobody answered anything. In actuality, as a reward for helping to catch hiding Jews, peasants might get a few pounds of sugar, some vodka, or, most often, their victim’s clothes.” (84-85)

Whole towns got in on the deal.  Gross quotes a proclamation signed jointly by the Mayor of Corfu, the Prefect and the chief of police, issued June 9, 1944:

“As is also the case in the remainder of Greece, the Jews have been rounded up in the island of Corfu, and are waiting to be shipped off to the labor camps. This measure is bound to be greeted with approval by the law-abiding native population of Corfu, and will also be of great benefit to our dear, beloved island.

Fellow Countrymen, Citizen of Corfu!

Now commerce is in our hands!

Now we will be the ones to reap the fruits of our labor!

Now food supplies and the economic situation will prove to be to our advantage, and ours alone!

Jewish property as a whole rightfully belongs to the Greek State and, as a result, to each and every one of us.  It will be taken over and managed by the Prefecture.’” (78-79)

corfu-greece-meteora-monasteries

[Picture:  Corfu, Greece – Meteora Monasteries]

There were of course, good, righteous Gentiles that helped Jews and did not ask for their boots.  Sam and Esther were saved by the Stys families during the war and then by Joseph, the pig farmer and his wife, after the war.  But Franz Stangl, the Commandant, first of Sobibor and then of Treblinka, summed it all up in his response to one of Gitta Sereny’s questions during her prison interview (see Blog Post April 6, 2016).  “Why were the Jews exterminated?” Ms. Sereny asked.  “’They want their money,’ he immediately replied.  ‘have you any idea of the fantastic sums that were involved?’” (Gross at 4)

Fantastic indeed.  So fantastic that the Polish Gentiles of Ostrow and Bagatelle were willing to murder Sam, Esther and baby Fay to keep the Goldbergs’ wealth.  That was the final straw for Sam and Esther.  After yet another near miss with death they fled to Lodz and then on to Displaced Persons’ Camps in Germany.  There they waited for four years until they were granted permission to emigrate to America, ironically referred to as the “goldene medina” – the golden country.

SOURCES:

Gross, Jan, Tomasz & Gross, Irena, Grudzinska.  Golden Harvest.  New York, NY.  Oxford University Press.  2012.

Wikipedia article:  Kielce Pogrom: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kielce_pogrom

 

 

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“The Earth Moved for Three Days”

Yitgadal veyitkadach Cheme raba

Bealma di vera khrioute.[1]

With these words, tears broke through and fell silently onto my cheeks.  I was not surprised at the tears, just at how long it took before they arrived.   I read 178 pages of Father Patrick Desbois’s book – The Holocaust By Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, and I had not yet cried.  These words – the haunting, powerful words of the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – unlocked my emotions.

Father Desbois, a French Roman Catholic Priest (pictured above), worked for years to locate and identify hundreds, maybe thousands, of mass graves of Jews murdered by the Nazis.  He went from town to town with a translator, a camera crew, and a metal detector (to detect spent cartridges) searching for the mass graves.  In each town, he asked to speak to the oldest person.  Perhaps they had witnessed the murders.

With much patience and kindness, he interviewed many witnesses.  He discovered much more than the location of the mass graves.  He uncovered the depth of involvement by the local population during the killings.  Townsfolk were “requisitioned” —  forced to participate in the murder frenzy.  Most requisitioned civilians were forced by threat of death to dig the pits and to fill them in after the killings were done for the day.  However, others were requisitioned to tie up clothes into bundles, prepare food for the murderous Nazis, extract the gold teeth from the mouths of the Jews (before they were killed), to store spades in their homes at night, and to guard Jews to prevent them from escaping.  (97)

Many so requisitioned were children.  One such child was Petrivna.  Now an old woman, she described how she was forced to go down into the pits between rounds of shooting and stomp on the bodies and cover them with sand.

“’You see, it’s not easy to walk on bodies,’ trying to express that the ground was moving.  In a flash, I realized that she was trying to convey her unspeakable experience, her suffering.  Very calmly I asked her: ‘You had to walk on the bodies of the people who were shot?’ She replied: ‘Yes, I had to pack them down,’ making the same gesture with the arms.  I thought I understood: ‘You had to do that at the end of the shootings, in the evening, or between each volley of shots?’ Seeing that I was beginning to understand, she told the rest of her story. ‘After every volley of shots.  We were three Ukrainian girls who, in our bare feet, had to pack down the bodies of the Jews and throw a fine layer of sand on top of them so that other Jews could lay down.’

‘Barefoot?’ I asked.  She replied ‘You know, we were very poor, we didn’t have shoes.  The Germans had seen me in the fields in the morning.  I was tending a cow. They said to me: ‘Go to your mother’s house and get a spade and come back.’ When I got to the house, my mother said to me: ‘Go, if you don’t they will kill you!’  The other requisitioned girls were also looking after their cows.  We were all poor.’

‘Did you have time to sit down between two shootings?’ I asked.  She answered ‘The shootings were so quick that we didn’t even have time to catch our breath between shootings!  It lasted from 10 o’clock in the morning to 4 in the afternoon.  The Germans took turns to go and eat but not us.’  I asked ‘And the Jewish children?’ She answered ‘They tore them from their mothers’ arms and put them in horse-drawn carts.  They were killed at the end of the main execution, after the adults.  They threw them in the air.   They threw them any old way.'” (84-85)

Many of the interviewees described how the earth “moved” or “breathed” for three days after the killings.  Over and over Father Desbois heard this until he finally understood that the movement of the earth was not the deterioration of flesh, but from those still alive, moving under the earth.  It took three days for them to die. (65)

It seems that there were two main methods of killing by bullets.  One was to have the Jews undress, stand or kneel at the edge of the pit and shoot them in the base of the neck.  The force of the bullet would at once kill them and push them over into the pit.  After enough bodies piled up, dirt was shoveled into the pit to fill it in and cover the bodies.  The other technique was to force the naked Jews to walk down a plank into the pit and lay down on top of those previously murdered.  Then, laying down, the Germans would shoot them.  This was the technique that Petrivna was forced to help with by stomping on the bodies, like we do with our garbage, compacting the space for the next round.

Another interview by Father Desbois revealed how the Nazis enjoyed their work.  They spoke with a woman who cleaned the homes of the Germans: “Her testimony is the most complete because she remembered all the execution, with their dates and circumstances.” Father Desbois states.  “She recounted in particular that the Germans came back every evening, very proud of what they had done, boasting about it.” (174)

Father Desbois does not mention visiting Slonim, where Esther’s family members were shot or Chalopenitz, where my relatives, who remained in Samke, were murdered.  The map that Father Desbois has on his website – Yahad In Unum – http://www.yahadinunum.org/ 

has so many dots depicting mass graves, it’s hard to believe that he missed these two.  Nonetheless, the map filled with dots hints at the magnitude of what it means to murder 1.5 million people with machine guns.

The Kaddish, quoted above that unlocked my tears, was uttered in Busk, Ukraine.  It was in Busk that Father Desbois worked with an archeologist to locate 17 mass graves.  They opened up the graves and took land and aerial photographs to document the horror.  Because the graves were opened, Father Desbois, requested that an Orthodox Rabbi, who came from Israel, be present to ensure that Jewish law related to honoring a dead body was observed.   Once the measurements and photographs were complete, the graves were covered.  It was at this point, when all 17 mass graves were closed once again, that the “great rabi of the yeshiva of Belz, Rabbi Bohl, arrived from Lviv in a grey car, accompanied by 10 young members of his religious community to recite the kaddish.” (178)  Here is where I broke down.

After my tears dried up, I pulled myself together and continued reading.  I discovered that Father Desbois and I shared the moment.  He put my feelings into words:

“The unchanging words seemed to resonate and take us back to a time when, long ago, the kaddish must have been recited often.  Despite the constant difficulties, I had astonishingly felt nothing during the whole excavation.  But when the kaddish resounded through the Jewish cemetery, before the communal graves that had been forgotten and denied since 1943, my emotions spilled over.  For the first time in a very long time, I had the feeling that the boat was coming into harbor.  Finally, a Jewish prayer was being pronounced for these young mothers and these little Jewish children who had been killed and buried like animals beside the river.”

Oshe Shalom Bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom aleinu, v’all kol amo Yisroel.  V’Imru Amen.[2]

Source: 

Desbois, Patrick, Father.  The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews. New York, NY.  Palgrave Macmillan, St. Martin’s Press.  2008.

If you want to learn more about Father Desbois and his project, check out his website:

http://www.yahadinunum.org/

[1] These are the first two lines of the Kaddish cited on page 178 of Dubois’s Holocaust By the Bullets.  Translation from the Koren Prayer Book:

“Magnified and Sanctified May His Great Name Be, In the world He created by his will”

[2] The last line of the Kaddish.  Translation from the Koren Prayer Book:

“May He who makes peace in His high places, In His compassion make peace for us and all Israel – And say:  Amen.”