September, 1939. Esther Wisznia, a young woman of 19, stood with her family, looking at the charred remains of their home. Gone, their house was gone. With the Nazis in control of her beloved Stoczek and so much of the town destroyed, she knew they had to leave. But where to go?
For a few days Esther and her family stayed with a neighbor. But this could not go on long as most of the town was destroyed and the neighbor’s home was in terrible shape. They decided to go to the nearby town of Prostyn – only eighteen kilometers away. They had relatives there. They needed to “put themselves back in order.”
Esther bundled up the few articles of clothing she managed to grab from her burning house and walked with her parents and her four siblings out of town. As they left, they met many others on the road. They too were leaving. There were no smiles or the usual greetings or small talk. In their place, there were tears and a few words of comfort, but otherwise they walked in silence. Some were headed to the border to cross into Soviet territory in hopes of finding a safer place to live. Others like the Wisznias were searching for shelter closer to home.
Arriving at Prostyn, Esther was relieved to see that her relative’s home was still standing. The Germans had not gotten to it yet. The door opened and the warmth of the home flooded her senses. It was hard to believe that normal life could still be happening. They came in and told their tale of horror. “You are welcome here,” their relatives said, “stay as long as you need.”
Poland was now sliced in two, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Line dividing German-controlled Poland from Soviet-controlled Poland. The border was a mere seven kilometers from Prostyn. So close. Esther’s brothers, Israel Yosef, now a man of 21 and Leizer Yitzchak, 17, said, “we are crossing the border. We will write to you from Bialystok.”
Bialystok, approximately 100 kilometers away, was a well-known center of Jewish life. Before the war, it had a population of 100,000, about half of whom were Jews. They had heard that many Jews were crossing the border and making their way to Bialystok. So, Esther hugged her two brothers and said goodbye, not knowing when she might see them again.
But in Prostyn there was nothing to do. So, a few days later Esther and her father Shloime Zalman decided to travel to Bialystok to find her brothers and see if the rest of the family should relocate. Her mother, Bracha, would stay in Prostyn with the younger children, Sheina and Shimon.
It was a Friday. Esther and her father packed up some clothes and a bit of bread for the journey. They set out early, as they wanted to be sure to arrive in Bialystok before Shabbes. Crossing a bridge over the Bug River, they quickly reached Malkinia, where there was a border crossing. Nazi officers were stationed there, harassing all those that passed by.
It was finally Esther and her father’s turn. They approached. Esther passed through, but her father was pulled out of line. “Jid, you want to cross? Well, you have to work for us before we will let you cross.” Esther watched as everything he had, including his bread, was snatched from him. “They were so mean,” Esther thought, “for no reason.”
Esther hid and watched as the Nazis forced Shloime Zalman to work. He and other Jews were forced to lay train tracks to the Malkinia station. Esther ran to the nearby town of Zaremvy Koscielna. There she waited for her father. To ensure that she would not miss his arrival, she watched the road that led into town. As the sun set and Shabbes began, she was crazy with worry. Where was her father? Why had he not yet arrived. It was well into the evening when she finally saw him. They hugged and he told her how the Nazis made him work building the railroad tracks all day and how there was a constant stream of barbs, hits and name calling throughout – “Jewish pig, vermin.” In Zaremvy Koscielna, Esther met a few other Jews from Stoczek who were also stuck there for Shabbes. So, they spent the time together. There were only a few beds for the many travelers, but Esther insisted that her father be provided one of them.
Over Shabbes they learned that the Soviets would allow people to travel to Bialystok, but not back to the German side. Esther and her father decided that on Sunday, he would continue to Bialystok by train and find her brothers, while Esther would make her way back to Prostyn. She would explain all that happened to her mother and would convince her that she and her younger siblings must leave Prostyn and travel to Bialystok. There the family can be together and safe.
This is only the beginning of what happened to Esther’s family. More has and will be told. But in this Post I must report about the pit that developed in my stomach.
I used google maps to locate the towns in this story. I wanted a better sense of Esther’s family’s path as they fled their home. From Stoczek they traveled some eighteen kilometers to Prostyn where their relatives lived. From Prostyn, they crossed into the Soviet controlled area and traveled to Bialystok.
This line was drawn just eight days before the start of the War, on August 23, 1939. Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop signed a pact of friendship between their two countries. The Soviet Union and Germany agreed to attack Poland and take control of the halves of the country. The men drew a line on a map of Poland indicating the split. The line became known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Line (“The Line”). The split can be seen in the map from Wikipedia at the top of this Post. Bialystok is labeled – it is on the East side of the Line (Soviet territory).
Stoczek is not on this map – it is too small. But it is 90 kilometers northeast of Warsaw, just on the western (German) side of The Line. The closest border crossing was at Malkinia.
Malkinia – I know that town. That was the place where, three years later, all the trains bound for Treblinka arrived. The trains, packed with their human cargo, would pull into the Malkinia train station. A few cattle cars would be unhinged and pulled 4.7 kilometers to the Death Camp. The rest of the cars sat at the Malkinia train station until the earlier batch of Jews was “liquidated.” You see, there was not room in Treblinka for more than a few cattle cars at a time. So, the Jews had to wait their turn to be gassed.
At the beginning of the war, Treblinka was not even a twinkle in Hitler’s eye. Hitler wanted Germany and German territories to be Judenrein – “Clean of Jews.” At first, his plan was to send the Jews somewhere else. So, over the border to the Soviet Union was fine. But to get there, the Wisznia family had to cross the Molotov-Ribbentrop line at Malkinia, just kilometers away from the future site of the Death Camp Treblinka.
This google map shows the path from Stoczek (bottom of map) to Prostyn (three quarters of way up). It also shows how close Prostyn is to Treblinka. Malkinia is at the top, just on the other side of the Bug River.
I was stunned to see that Prostyn, the place of first refuge for Esther, was spitting distance from Treblinka, the Death Camp where her future husband would be enslaved and tortured for thirteen long months.
I may have been stunned by this, but my stomach pit had not yet developed. That came next.
The pit developed as I reread Esther’s account in the Stoczek Yizkor Book. She describes how her father was forced by the Nazis to work on that Friday – to lay the railroad tracks at Malkinia. I realized that these were the tracks, that three years later, brought the Jews to Treblinka! Oy, Shloime Zalman Wisznia, Esther’s father, a pious Jew, who taught Jewish children the alef-beis, was forced to build the railroad tracks to Treblinka – where his future son-in-law (who he did not live to meet) would be taken in June of 1942 and forced to build the death camp itself.
I wonder if Esther ever put this all together. I hope not.
Interview with Esther Wisznia Goldberg.
Yizkor Book of community of Stoczek (Stok).
Map above – Wikipedia. (By mzopw, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2818887)
 Bialystok is the name of a town in Poland. Bialystok was used by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan as the last name of one of the characters in 1968 movie – The Producers.