Bialystok train sign

Esther Wisznia lived in Bialystok between September of 1939 and September of 1940.  She had “the time of her life.”

Young people filled the street and theaters.  Yiddish and Jewish culture were everywhere.  The Yiddish theater – Habimah – was just down the street from the center of town and just a few doors from the beautiful home of the wife of the Nobleman – Jan Klemens Branicki (yes, she had her own home – sometimes you just need to get away from the Palace).

In 1939 Bialystok had over 100 Synagogues, a Jewish Hospital, a Yiddish library, Yiddish newspapers, and many Zionist organizations who held events, including speeches and classes.  Coming from the small town of Stoczek to the big city of Bialystok for the 19-year-old Esther was exciting.

Her family lived together, at first, in an apartment building that was inhabited by refugees from Stoczek.  The city was crowded with refugees from the German-controlled side of Poland.  Bialystok had electricity and many buildings had running water as well.  Esther got a job at first knitting hats and then later working for one of Bialystok’s wealthy families.  We saw some pre-war homes that are still standing and they are beautiful.  Here is an example.

Bialystok fancy home

As we exited the train station on a cold April morning, I looked at the long building and knew that this is where Esther arrived in September of 1939.  As we went from the train station towards the center of town, I imagined Esther walking this path.  The pre-war buildings, with their stunning adornments and intricate wrought iron balconies are impressive.  This was a wealthy city.

On one side of town near the train station, there is a broad white church with a tall steeple, topped with gold.  The main street leads to the center of town where there is an even larger church made of red brick with double steeples and three grand doorways in the front.  It looks like the Stoczek church on steroids.  Just before you reach the red church, the white clock tower draws your eye.  It is not as tall as the red church, but it is topped with a round cast iron dome.  A crown-like appendage sits above the dome like a cherry on top of an ice cream cone.  Just to one side of the clock tower is an open square with a fountain in the center.  After visiting Rome, this fountain is modest, but for Esther, coming from Stoczek, I am sure it seemed quite grand.

In 1939 Esther would have found dirt streets that were filled with people walking, riding horses (some pulling buggies, some not) and cars.   There was a “bus station” where jeep-like cars were lined up to take people to other cities.  There is a picture from the early 1930’s in which you can see cars lined up on a dirt road with signs: “Bialystok – Grodek” or “Bialystok – Lomza.”  In this picture, most of the men are dressed in suits and the women in dresses and coast.  It gives a sense of a cosmopolitan city where things were happening and people were enjoying themselves.  A few trees dot the main road, but if you head down past the red church, you arrive at the Branicki Palace.  Modeled after Versailles, it is a monumental building with an impressive courtyard in the front and a beautiful, manicured garden with naked and semi-naked roman style, sculptures in the back.  While the Soviets used this palace as administrative offices, the gardens were open to residents to enjoy.  Just next to the garden, there is a long park that stretches for a couple of kilometers. The walking path in the park is tree-lined and very green, even on a cold April day (which it was – freezing – it snowed, hailed and rained during our visit!)  I imagined Esther and her family or friends taking a spatzir (walk) on Shabbes afternoon here in this beautiful setting.

Bialystok park

Though he did not live there when Esther did, Bialystok was the home of Ludwig Zamenhof, the inventor of the language – Esperanto.  His hope was to make a language that would be used all peoples and would unite the world.  He moved to Warsaw before the war and died there.  He is buried in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery.  We visited the site of his home.   On the outside wall of the building where his home used to be, there is a mural that depicts him, as well as two others who were supporters of Esperanto.

Bialystok Zamenhof

As we walked down the main street, just next the big red church, I glanced across the street and could not believe my eyes.  Through the snow flakes, there stood, what looked like, German soldiers from World War II.  They were standing in a group, talking, with one especially scary looking soldier, smoking a small cigar.  I thought – either we are on a movie set – or no one told Bialystok that the war is over.  With some trepidation, I crossed the street to take a picture and find out who they were.   It turns out that they were participating in a World War II reenactment.  We left them to their cigars and guns.

Bialystok soldiers2

There were many choices in Bialystok as to where to send your Jewish child to school.   We saw the building – rather plain, but sturdy, with a grey concrete exterior – that served as the Jewish gymnasium.  Then we walked over to see the Tarbut School – this was a Zionist school where all classes were taught in Hebrew.  It is a beautiful old building that was used as a Polish school after the war, but now stands empty.  The exterior used to be adorned with Jewish stars.  But these were taken off the building after the war, under Soviet control.

Bialystok Tarbut School

Getting back on the train for our return trip to Warsaw was a relief.   We had been walking around outside for three hours and we were frozen.  I never thought I would be so happy to get on a train heading towards Malkinia.

Bialystok freezing Esther






If you listen closely, you can hear the train tracks from Warsaw to Bialystok crying.  I heard it on Sunday, April 23, the day before the world memorialized Yom Hashoah, the day of remembrance for the Holocaust.  I was traveling these tracks to visit Bialystok, the city where Esther Goldberg lived for a year – September 1939 until September 1940.

Malkinia station sign

When I bought the train ticket, it listed Malkinia as one of the cities the train would pass through – it is approximately half way between Warsaw and Bialystok.  I caught my breath.  Malkinia is the last train stop before death.  The “transports” to the Treblinka Death Camp made their way to Malkinia – whether from Warsaw or from Bialystok – so in either direction of these tracks.

All trains bound for Treblinka stopped at the Malkinia station.  A few of the cattle cars were unhinged and taken on a separate rail spur to Treblinka; the reception area could not accommodate the whole train.  Once these cars were emptied of people and then filled with the clothing and valuables of the murdered Jews, the car moved out and made room for the next group of cattle cars.  In this manner 870,000 Jews were brought to Treblinka and murdered between July 23, 1942 and November of 1943.

I looked out the window and watched the scenery pass by.  Though I was not here in 1939, I cannot imagine that this stretch of land has changed much.  We passed lots of trees – birch (white trunks) and pines, low bushes, and lots of farm land – some grassy and some dirt rows of planted crops, stretching out beyond where I could see.   As the train neared a stop – there were some farm houses and barns. Closer to the larger towns, there were some industrial buildings and even some kind of plant that terrified me because it had a tall round chimney structure billowing white smoke.

Most people in the cattle cars on their way to Malkinia, on their way to death, would not have seen this scenery.  There was usually only one small window in the cattle car and it was high up and covered with bars.  The scenery was not what was on their mind.

When my train reached the Malkinia station, I looked out and tried to take it in.  Next to our track, there were at least 5 parallel tracks with a line of train cars just waiting.  I wondered which of those tracks sent the cattle cars onto Treblinka.   I feel that it should be marked somehow so we can know which track is crying the loudest.

Tracks at Malkinia

To top it off, as I traveled on this track of death, I was catching up on my pod casts.   I listened to Radio Lab from April 7, 2017.  It was about the potential use of a nuclear weapon.  It told the story of 81-year-old Harold Herring, who was a pilot in the United States Air Force and then was a trainee for the job of being one of the officers who holds the key needed to launch a nuclear weapon.   He was learning all about the weapons and the science of it as well as the critical checks and balances in place, on the officer level, that must be satisfied before the key is turned to launch the missile.

One day he was wondering, “what are the checks and balances that a President must go through before ordering me and my fellow officers to launch a nuclear missile?”  He wanted to rest assured that a President could not order a launch on a whim or because he had a bad day.  He asked the instructor this question and was told to put his question in writing.  He did and months of hearings and appeals ensued, at the end of which he got no answer to his question and was forced to retire from the military.

The reporter on this American Life obtained a copy of part of the report related to the decision to force Herman’s retirement.   It read that although Herman stated repeatedly that if he received an order to launch, he would follow the order, but the report continued – his assurances were followed by personal subjective qualifications such as “if he thought the order was legal or if he thought the circumstances required the launching.”

When the reporter read this statement to Herman he was outraged.  He said that it was false.  He never made any such qualifying statements.   Herman went on to say:

“I assumed that there had to be some sort of check and balance so that one man could not just on a whim order the launch of nuclear weapons . . . and that we should not put anybody [a military officer in this case] in a position where they are just following orders and throwing their conscious to the four winds.  I think it is an affront to play the game that we don’t have a need to know for someone who is doing the most serious, grave jobs in the armed forces.”

The echo of Adolf Eichmann’s defense – “just following orders” – rang in my ear.  If you want to know the answer to Herman’s question, listen to the podcast.

While these tracks were the tracks of death for so many, they played a different role in the lives of Esther’s family.   When the war broke out in September of 1939 and Esther’s home was burned to the ground, her family left Stoczek.  After staying with some relatives for a bit, they moved to Bialystok.  Esther’s two brothers went first and got jobs.  Making an exploratory visit, Esther and her father, Shlomo Zalman, crossed the German/Soviet border at Malkinia, intending to take a train from there to Bialystok.  Shlomo Zalman was forced by the Nazis to work for a day on building the tracks to connect the Malkinia station with the rest of the German lines.  I still cannot believe it – Shlomo Zalman, the Melamed of Stoczek, was forced to help build the railroad tracks that, three years later, brought trains to Treblinka.  (See blog post November 16, 2016).

But in September of 1939, Treblinka had not yet been thought up.  These train tracks led the Wisznia family to safety.  Jews could live and work in the Soviet-controlled territories.  Bialystok did not become a place of death for Jews until 1941 when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union.

On this train ride, I felt the exhaustion and the hope of the Wisznia family in 1939.  But I also felt the fear, the hunger, the thirst, that people felt on these tracks in 1942 and 1943.  I looked around at the Polish people sharing my train ride.  They were just getting from one place to another.  Do they even know about the trains to Treblinka?  We had two cabin mates on the train from Warsaw to Bialystok – one slept and one worked on a crossword puzzle.  On the return trip, our train car was full of people heading to Warsaw – young, old, people on computers, on phones, just living life.  I wanted to get up and make speech as we reached the Malkinia station. I wanted to tell them that tonight was the beginning of Yom Hashoah and they should all remember what happened on these train tracks.

For the sake of my daughter and my lack of Polish, I held back.  I said the speech to myself – that will have to do for now.




Mr. Zaleski with amputated leg

We turned left onto a dirt road and saw the now familiar sign – Bagatele.  The car, driven by our new-found cousin, Marta Lis, did not travel much farther – a mere half block.   We turned into a gravel drive-way of sorts and parked.  Marta pointed, to lot next door, and said: “that is where my great-grandfather, Mottl Goldberg lived.”

We traveled to meet Mr. Mieczyslaw Zaleski, a 94-year old man – the oldest living person in Bagatele.   Here to make the introduction was the shadchan himself – Father Rafal Figiel.  As we opened the car door, there was Father Figiel waiting to greet us.  He wore blue jeans and a blue button down checkered shirt – not what I expected.  We greeted each other as long lost friends.  Our smiles and hugs made up for the lack of a shared language. I used my best Polish, made strong eye contact and said – Dziekuje Ci – thank you (pronounced Jenkuya).  It was the best I could do to attempt to express my deep thanks to him.

Father Figiel in Zaleski's home  (Father Rafal Figiel)

We entered the house and met Mr. Zaleski, his daughter and some of his grandchildren – all of whom live in the home.  Mr. Zaleski had one of his legs amputated a year ago and sits in a wheelchair.  His grey pants were pinned up on his amputated leg, so that it would not flap around.  He looked old, but very smart in a blue shirt buttoned up to the top, with a grey sweater.  Marta served as translator and did an outstanding job considering that Mr. Zaleski jumped from topic to topic and did not stop talking to give Marta a chance to breath or translate all that he was saying.  Esther took notes, so I hope to piece it all together.

Mr. Zaleski had a lot to say.  Father Figiel, on Mr. Zaleski’s instruction, drew a map of the homes of the families who lived in Bagatele before the war.   Mottl Goldberg lived next door to the Zaleskis, just next to where we were sitting.  Mottl, who had a small farm and traded animals, was tall, stout and not wealthy.  Zelig Goldberg *(Sam’s father), his cousin, lived at the other end of town.  Zelig was a short, energetic man with a strong build.  He had short hair and sported Peyes (sidelocks).  On weekdays he wore work clothes, but on Shabbes, he wore a long black Kapote.  Mr. Zaleski did not remember Zelig wearing a hat, but he recalled that he wore a Kippa (skull cap) on the top, back of his head.  He described how the Jews would pray with the leather straps on their arm and head.  He was describing Tefillin (phylacteries) worn when praying on weekdays, but not on Shabbes.  My daughter, Esther had a picture of Shlomo wearing a Talis (prayer shawl) and Tefilling.  She pulled it up on her phone and showed it to Mr. Zaleski.  He exclaimed: “tac, tac, tac (yes, yes, yes).”

Shlomo Talis and Tefillin

This seems to be a memory that sticks.   Idul (Yusif) Lis, with whom we visited later that day, said as a boy of 6 when the war started, he did not have many memories of home.  But a few memories stayed with him:  gefilta fish; cholent, his grandparents; and men wearing Tefilin.   Esther showed Idul the same photo of Shlomo that she had shown to Mr. Zaleski just a few hours earlier.  He said the same thing: “tac, tac, tac,” shaking his head yes, as the memory of a man wearing Talis and Tefilin flooded his mind.

In contrast to Mottl, Zelig was a wealthy man.   He had a large farm and traded in animals (mostly cows).  He mentioned that Zelig worked with the Polish army.  The army had a large presence in the Ostrow area. Zelig provided them cows for meat.  Recently, my husband, Shlomo told me that whenever Sam would speak of his father’s wealth, his mother, Esther, would chime in and say – “oh yes, Rockafella from Bagatella.”

Though the Jews and Non-Jews of Bagatele stayed mostly separate, socially, Mr. Zaleski remembers Zelig and Faiga well. Faiga was a short, beautiful woman.  She was quiet and took care of the chickens and the ducks.  He also remembers the Goldberg children.  He recalled that Hersh Meyer was married and had five children.  They lived in a house across the dirt road from Zelig and Faiga.  He confirmed that Hersh’s family shared the building with the Goldberg cows and worked on the farm and in trade with his father. Hersh was also a Shoichet (ritual slaughterer).  Itche was married as well, and lived just a few houses down from his parents in a home they rented from the Kazimierczyu family.  Itche was also a trader.  Five houses down from where Itche lived, Idul (Yusef) Lis’s family had a home.  Mr. Zaleski remembered Shmulik (Sam) well and said he lived with his parents.  He spoke of one of Sam’s sisters as Bubke, but I could not confirm whether this was Raizel or Anya.  But he mentioned that Bubke got married and moved to Russia.  The name Lis was mentioned – it could be that Bubke married another member of the Lis family (perhaps a relative of Idul Lis).   Mr. Zaleski recalls that after they got married, they went to Russia.

Father Figiel mentioned that the earliest census of Bagatele is from 1850 and it shows that the village had 15 families and farms.  The 1850 list of families did not include any Goldbergs.  So, the Goldbergs must have arrived in Bagatele sometime after 1850.  But the date of their arrival is unknown.

Mr. Zaleski described the school systems.  Polish public school went until 7th grade.  For the first four years of school, the children went to Jasienica and the last three years were educated in Wonsewo (2 kilometers away).  The school house in Wonsewo was just a home that was used as a school.   Father Figiel explained that this house currently still stands. It is next to the Church and he lives in the top part of the house and uses the classrooms to teach Catholic students religious studies.  We visited the “school house” and stood in the room that Sam likely sat in from grades five through seven.

Mr. Zaleski also described that the Mikve (Jewish ritual bath) was in Wonsewo.  He explained that the men would go on Friday to bathe in the Mikve.  Father Figiel showed me where it had been located.  The Mikve building was made of wood and is no longer there.  Idul Lis described his memory of the Mikve, where he would go with his father.  His vague memory is of a small house.  When you enter, you had to go down steps to the pool of water.  The Mikve was lined with stones and the water was warm.  Sam described how he and his father and brothers would stop work at 2 PM on Friday and all go to the Mikve together.  I visualized Sam, his father and his brothers, walking down the road towards Wonsewo to bathe in the Mikve.  I am pretty sure this road does not look terribly different than it did in the 1930’s.

The beginning of the war is etched in Mr. Zaleski’s memory.  He retold the events with passion.  I felt that he was talking about events that happened last week, not 78 years ago.

The Germans entered Bagatele on September 17, 1939, just 16 days after the start of the war.  They stormed into town, after killing 500 Jews in the nearby city of Ostrow.   The Germans chased the Jews of Wonsewo, just 2 kilometers away, into Bagatele.  They came running in a panic with the Germans following them with their guns blazing.  They created chaos forcing residents of the town to run this way and then that way.  Mr. Zaleski, who was 16 at the time, was shot in the jaw by a Nazi.  He was badly injured.  The Germans allowed his mother to take him to a nearby hospital, but as he described – “only so long as I kept my hands up in the air.”  He showed us where the bullet entered his face. He still suffers from this injury.  In a now familiar tactic, the Germans burned down some homes – including Mr. Zaleski’s.  The Nazis told the Jews of Bagatele to leave – they should go to the Soviet-controlled area of Poland.

This advice was heeded by many of the Jews of Bagatele.  But the majority of Zelig Goldberg’s children had already left.  Mr. Zaleski’s father was the Mayor of Bagatele before the war.  Sam described that when the war began on September 1, 1939, Mr. Zaleski Sr. (the Mayor) told Zelig that the Germans were coming and would take his sons into the army and kill the Jews. Zelig did not want to leave, but he helped some his children, including Hersh Meyer pack up and head east, across the Molotov Ribbentrop line.  They settled in Slonim.

Sam and his parents stayed put and invited the Zaleski family, now homeless, to move into their home.   Zelig was glad to reciprocate with the favor.  Sometime in the early 1930’s Zelig’s home had burned down and the Zaleski’s hosted the Goldberg family for a year and a half. Mr. Zaleski explained that it took that long to sort out the insurance payments and have a pre-made house moved to Bagatele and settled on their property.

After the initial German attack, Bagatele was quiet – for a bit.  The Zaleski’s were living with the Goldbergs and they tried to go about their business.  Zelig and Faiga had heard about the Nazi murders in Ostrow and other cities and towns.  About a month after the initial attack in Bagatele, Zelig and Faiga made the decision that they would leave and cross to the Soviet side of the border.  However, in contrast to the initial open border and easy passage for Jews to the Soviet side, the border was now harder to cross.  Jews were routinely robbed, harassed or even killed on the way.

Zelig and Faiga decided to sell their belongings that they could not take with them.  They began to pack up boxes of the things that they wanted to take.  They did not sell their home or their farm, as they certainly hoped to return.  The boxes were in the house, ready to go.   They were waiting for Shmulik (Sam) to come back from the Soviet side [he likely had gone to bring provisions to his siblings in Slonim].  As soon as Shmulik would come home, they would leave.  Since they had sold their horse and buggy, the plan was to pack their boxes onto the Zaleski’s buggy and Mrs. Zaleski – whose first name was Stanislawa – would ride the buggy with Faiga and Shmulik and Zelig would walk at a distance so as not to attract attention from the Germans or Polish neighbors who might try to rob them.

One day, two Nazi officers showed up on Zelig’s farm and demanded that they give them a pig.   Faiga saw the Nazis and moved some of the packed boxes into the rooms occupied by the Zaleskis – so that they can say they belong to them.  She was fearful that the Nazis would steal their belongings.  Meanwhile, Zelig explained to the Germans that he has no pigs. He is a Jew.  Upon hearing this, the Nazis began to beat him and took out a knife and cut his arm.  Mrs. Zaleski stepped in and said: “I have a pig, take one of mine.”

The Nazis stopped beating Zelig and entered the house and saw all the boxes.  Zelig explained that they were leaving.   Mrs. Zaleski stepped in and explained that many of the boxes belonged to her as they were temporarily staying with Goldbergs. The Nazis were satisfied to hear that the Goldbergs were leaving and left.

Mr. Zaleski explained that Shmulik came home that evening and they prepared to leave as soon as possible.   [Note – Sam describes that the Nazi officers came to his home and told them to leave.   So, in contrast to Mr. Zaleski’s recollection, I believe that Sam was home at this time.]

They packed their boxes in the Zaleski buggy and covered them with hay.   They did not want to look conspicuous traveling on the road.  So, Shmulik went a bit ahead of the buggy and Zelig took a rake and carried it over his shoulder – appearing as if he was simply heading out to the farm to do some work.   Mrs. Zaleski rode in the buggy with Faiga and the 16 year-old Mr. Zaleski, just back from the hospital and with a bandaged head, led the horse out of town.  They went through the forest and then a large field.  They continued in this fashion until they reached Jelonki – very close to the border.  They unpacked all their boxes into someone’s barn [I presume it was a friend of Zelig’s].  Their plan was to cross the border and then come back for the packages once they had a place to stay.

The Zaleskis helped them unload the wagon and said their goodbyes.   They went back to the Goldberg home and remained there.  He describes that the Germans appointed Mr. Zaremba as the head of their territory.   Under German control, non-Jews, whose homes were burnt down, were allowed to “purchase” the property of the Jews who had fled.   The Zaleskis “purchased” the Goldberg home.  Mr. Crispin (not sure of spelling here) “purchased” the farm.   The Zaleskis continued to live in the Goldberg home for two winters until their home was rebuilt.

Thus ends the information shared by Mr. Zaleski on Friday afternoon.  I could not believe that I had just spoken to perhaps the only possible person I could have talked to who was an eye witness to what happened in Bagatele when the war started and specifically, someone living in Goldberg home during those first chaotic weeks of the war!

As I prepare to post this – I am sitting in the Warsaw airport about to board my plane.  Today is Yom Hashoah and I use this day to yet again remember the pain and suffering of all those in the Holocaust.  Those that survived and the millions that did not.

May their memories be blessed.

Group picture Mr. Zaleski    Picture from left to right:  Esther, Father Figiel, Marta Lis, Karen Treiger, Mr. Zaleski.



[Photo (from left to right):  Marta Lis, Esther Goldberg, Yusif (Idul) Lis, Karen Treiger]

“We are all your Family.”

My daughter, Esther spoke these words to Yusef Lis on Friday as she showed him a picture of the extended Goldberg family.  We visited Yusef in his home in Marki, just outside of Warsaw.   We were on our way back from his place of birth – Bagatele.   He lived two houses down from his cousin, Sam Goldberg.

Yusif spent the past 72 years believing that no one from his family or any Jew from Bagatele survived the war.

He kissed Esther and he kissed me – on both cheeks and our heads.  I think he was trying to make sure we were real.  Standing before him were real live relatives.

“What took you so long?”   He asked.

It broke my heart to hear a bit of his story.  He was separated from his family as they ran from the Nazis.  Alone at the age of 6, he survived the war with his instincts, brains and help from some Polish families.  One Polish family allowed him to stay in their barn, but in exchange he had to watch their animals in the field.  Though the two young daughters (even younger than he) were kind to him, the father beat him.

After the war, he stayed in Poland and put his Judaism behind him.  Being a Jew was not safe.  He did not go back to Bagatele after the war. He was afraid that his Polish neighbors would kill him.  Later, he married and had three daughters.  I have met two of his daughters, Ewa (in Boston), Marta (in Warsaw), as well as his grandson, Victor (Warsaw). The third daughter lives in Germany.  Marta was our guide and translator on our visit to Bagatele.  Marta described how when she was growing up, others would call her Jid –  Jew.  When she asked her father what that meant, he said, “it’s nothing, don’t pay any attention.”  It was as an adult that she leaned that her father was born Jewish.  Her exploration as to what this means for her is an ongoing process.

We found each other by an unlikely shadchin (matchmaker).  Father Rafal Figiel of Wonsewo, Poland.  I had the honor to meet Father Figiel on Friday in Bagatele (more on our visit to Bagatele later).  Back in August, Father Figiel found my blog and reached out to me to let me know of his work on the Jewish communities of Wonsewo and Bagatele before the war and that there is another Goldberg family member who survived. (See blog post September 7, 2016).

Yusif was not the name his parents bestowed on him at his Bris, it is a common Polish name that he took to blend in with the post-war Judenrein population.  I am not sure what his Hebrew name was, but his family called him Idul (pronounced Edo).   [If anyone knows what Hebrew name this is nickname goes with, please let me know.]  His mother’s maiden name was Raiza Goldberg.  She was the daughter of Mottle Goldberg of Bagatele.  Mottle lived on the other side of the Bagatele, closer to Wonsewo.

As I reflect on our meeting and the emotions that I felt and the tears I watched fall from Idul and Marta’s eyes, I feel that history was changed for one man and one family – the Goldberg family of Bagatele.   Sam never knew that he had a surviving cousin, but Idul now knows that Sam survived and that he has family in the United States and Israel.   As we were preparing to take our leave, Marta wrapped her arms around her father and held him close as they cried.

Edo Lis and Marta hug



The candle was the perfect gift.  Esther and I gave it to Alina and Eugenuisz Stys at the end of a two hour visit in their small living room.  Just a few hours earlier, we had visited Jan’s freshly dug grave, covered with beautiful flowers.   As we stood before Jan’s grave, Grzegorz Maleszewski popped open a special cylindrical container and lit a large, white candle.  He put the metal top back on the cylinder and placed it next to the grave.  At that moment, I knew that our “yartzheit” candle was the perfect gift.  As I explained the Jewish tradition of lighting a candle to burn for the seven days of Shiva, Eugenuisz and Alina nodded, understanding the significance of the candle as a symbol.

This made me think about why religious traditions related to death include candles.  Candles are a unique devise.  They can bring light to the darkness. They can light multiple other candles while not diminishing their own light and beauty.  They can be extinguished with a simple puff of air.  They can be used to start a fire – which can be beneficial – like cooking or heat – or they can be destructive – burning down a house, a forest, or even a whole town.  I believe that it is a reminder of the fragility of life and the power we hold as humans.  Our lives can be extinguished in a moment.  But during our lives we can choose how to use our flame – we can pass the beauty and benefit of our flame to others or we can use our flame as a destructive force in the world.

Yesterday we visited the graves of both Jan Stys and Janina Golebiewski.  But we also visited their children.  We stopped at Jan’s house and visited with his son, daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Then, after visiting Janina’s grave in the Stoczek cemetery, we stopped at her home and visited with two of her children and son-in-law.  Jan and Janina passed their flames of beauty and kindness to their children.

Now Eugenuisz is the last living Stys family member who knew Sam and Esther.   Hard to believe that just last June we met three Stys children and now, ten months later, there is only one.  I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to meet all three and thank them personally for all they and their families did.

The Nazis knew about candles too.  But they used them to burn homes, towns and people.  I stood in the rectangular patch of grass and trees that was the heart of the Shtetl we know as Stok or Stoczek.  Many of the buildings surrounding the small “town square” were burned down in September of 1939 when the Nazis first occupied Poland.  Esther’s home, which was down a side street, was burned to the ground during that initial, terrifying attack.

Stoczek town square

This is the “town square.”  We did not have time to visit here on our last trip.  This was the place where the Stoczek market was held each Monday and Thursday.  It is neither large nor impressive.  I tried to imagine Esther Wisznia sitting here with a small table selling the shirts and blouses she made at home.   I tried to imagine the Stys family coming to this spot and selling wheat and potatoes grown just four kilometers away.   I tried to imagine Fievel Goldfarb’s father selling shoes.  I tried to imagine the Stys children skipping down the street on Sunday morning for their post-Church treat at the Kwaitek soda factory.  I tried to imagine Chana’s bakery on one of the street corners.  Where was it?  I could not tell.  I had trouble conjuring the smell of fresh bread and lekach (honey cake) that surely emanated from her shop.  It made me hungry!

Our guide through it all was of course – Grzegorz Maleszewski.  Our first stop on yesterday’s journey was in Wengrow to visit with Grzegorz, his wife Grazynka and their daughter, Camilla.  We sat around their table like old friends, sipping tea and noshing on fruit.  We caught up with each other’s lives and of course discussed how my book is coming along.

“But when will it be done?”  They wanted to know.

“I don’t have a time table,” I responded, “but I am currently working on the chapter about the four years Sam and Esther lived in Germany in the Displaced Persons’ Camps.”

Grzegorz hopped in his car and we followed:  Jan’s grave; Jan’s home to visit his children; Stoczek; the memorial to the Jews of Stoczek; Janina’s home to visit her children; and finally Eugenuisz and Alina’s home to visit with them and give the gift of the candle.  In giving this candle, it hit me that I too am sharing a flame – the story of Sam and Esther Goldberg and the Stys families.  I hope through my research, this blog and my book, this story will teach us that even though life is not always pretty, we can choose to live in a meaningful and beautiful way.

[A special thank you to Aleksander Czyzewski, our Warsaw friend, who borrowed a car for me to drive and served as our teacher and translator for the day.  We could not have done this without you.  – Thanks]



Tears ran down his cheek as Jan told of an event that happened when he was eleven years old.  He sat in his seat in the Stoczek school house, looking out of the window.  It was the fall of 1942.  He watched as Nazi soldiers, armed with guns and clubs forced a group of Jews to dig a large pit in the middle of the Jewish cemetery.  Then the Jews were lined up along the pit’s edge and with their face looking down into the pit and their back to the Nazi killers, they were shot, one by one, in the back of the head.  The force of the shot, made their bodies topple over, down into the pit.

When Jan finished speaking, his face glistened with sweat from the exertion and the room was still – we all felt his intense emotion.  Soon after these killings occurred, Esther, Moishe and Chaim Kwiatek entered Jan’s life in a dangerous and everlasting way.    Jan’s mother, Wladyslawa, his Uncle, Edward, and his next-door neighbor and Aunt, Helena, agreed to help Esther, Moishe and Chaim – to assist in their hiding and provide them with food – as they could.

Jan, and the other children, were a part of the drama.   Jan would visit the hiding Jews – in their barn or out in the forest where they hid in the spring and summer.  When the hunted Hebrews were hiding in the barn, Jan’s mother would put a headband around his head with the words “TYPHUS” and send him out into the yard to play.  If any Nazis would come snooping, they would see the forehead message and run the other way.

Jan knew that hiding these Jews was dangerous and if they were discovered by the Nazis or a fellow Pole who informed on them, they would all be killed.   But they did it anyway. And they all kept this family secret.  Esther hid in and around the Stys farms for two years.  Sam joined her after his escape from the Death Camp Treblinka.  He was there for one year.

I had the honor of meeting Jan Stys last June, together with my husband Shlomo and our children.  He is pictured above in a blue shirt and suspenders, surrounded by his children and nieces.

I heard the news of his death when I woke up yesterday morning, my last day of a wonderful Passover in Milano Maritima – on the Adriatic Sea.  I awoke at 5 AM to say goodbye to Shlomo, who was traveling back to Seattle on an early flight.   I would be leaving later – on a different flight.  I would be flying to Poland with my daughter Esther — to see Jan and the rest of the Stys clan.

I checked my phone, as we all do in the morning and I saw that I had a Facebook message from my superhero friend -Joanna Millick.  I pressed the little circle with Joanna’s picture on it.

“Hi Karen, I just got a message from Grzegorz.  His Uncle, Jan Stys, passed away.  His funeral is tomorrow [Wednesday] at 2 PM.  Grzgorz asked me to let you know.”

I had to sit down. I was shocked.  Here I was looking forward to my trip and knowing that just tomorrow [Thursday], I would see Jan.  But this is not to be.   I missed his funeral by hours – our plane arrived in Warsaw at 5:30 PM yesterday (Wednesday).  The sadness I felt and still feel is not just for the loss of Jan Stys – which is enough – but it is for a generation that is leaving us.

Today, Esther and I will drive out to the Stoczek area.  I will see Grzgorz and I hope to see Eugenuisz and Alina Stys. Eugenuisz is Jan’s younger brother.

In the airport, I found a beautiful candle shop.  I bought this candle to give to Eugenuisz and Alina.  I know candles are important in the Catholic religion, but I do not know the details of their meaning.  But I do know that in the Jewish tradition when a person dies, the close family members light a large Yartzheit candle that burns for the seven days of Shiva – the time when close family members sit at home and grieve, while visitors come and attempt to comfort the mourners.


I hope this candle and our visit will be a comfort to the entire Stys family.


Italy is beautiful.  It is full of historic sites, has a lush, green countryside, good food and good wine.  I am here, with my family, celebrating Passover in Milano Maritima, a resort town in northern Italy, on the Adriatic Sea.  The sea is wide and blue, the sand is soft and white and the lilacs are in bloom with a scent that hits like an exquisite smell bomb.

Milano Maritima - lilacs.jpg

The Nazi officers of Aktion Reinhard, who worked so hard for so long to murder 1.3 million Jews in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, deserved an Italian vacation – don’t you think?

By the fall of 1943, Belzec had already ceased to function as a killing center, Sobibor closed up shop after the October 14, 1943 prisoner uprising, and Treblinka, finally shut down in November of 1943, almost four months after a prisoner uprising there.  The hard-working Nazi officers were transferred to Italy – to the coastal town of Trieste, only a 250-mile drive from where I sit in Milano Maritima.

After the heavy lifting needed to murder the Jews of Poland and Western Europe, Italy was a plumb position.  Odilo Globocnik, who had been the man in charge of Aktion Reinhard, was sent to Trieste, his hometown, in September of 1943.  Compared to the recently completed task of murdering 1.3 million Jews in a year and a half, tackling the partisans and Jews of northern Italy[1], seemed like a piece of cake.  But, Globocnik thought:

“Why not invite my buddies to join me?”

The first to be awarded his Italian vacation was Christian Wirth.  You may recall that Dr. Wirth was one of the doctors at the T-4 Euthanasia Program in Germany. This was the first German experiment using gas to murder.  The gas was turned on as physically and mentally disabled people were asphyxiated.  (see blog post December 21, 2015).  In 1942, Wirth was appointed as the Commandant of Belzec.

The Treblinka uprising on August 2, 1943, put Commandant Franz Stangl out of a job.  He lost his post as Commandant of Treblinka.   His second in command, Kurt Franz (the “Lalka”), was appointed as the third Commandant.   But no worries, there was a soft bed and a glass of wine waiting for Stangl in Trieste as he joined Globocnik and Wirth.

Erwin Lambert, the architect of T4-Euthanasia Program and Aktion Reinhard, was the one who supervised the building of the improved gas chambers at Treblinka and Sobibor. He too was invited to Trieste.

The Lalka – Kurt Franz – got stuck with the job of continuing the killing operations of Treblinka after the uprising and then destroying the camp in November of 1943.  After Treblinka was turned into a serene country farm, the Lalka took his leave and hopped a train to Trieste.

These experienced murderers took over an abandoned rice warehouse, La Risiera di San Sabba, originally built in 1913.  It was first used as a prison and Globocnik appointed Wirth as the Commandant.  But Wirth’s Italian vacation did not turn out exactly as he had hoped.   On May 26, 1944, he was murdered by a partisan.

At first, San Sabba was used as a prison for captured partisan fighters, but in October 1943, it became a detention camp, from which prisoners and Jews were sent on to Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen.   In short order, however, murder was added to the mix.  They could not resist – it was perfect.  San Sabba had three high buildings, with cells, storage rooms and living quarters for the SS and local police.  It had a tall old chimney, attached to an old oven.   There was a lovely courtyard where Erwin Lambert built a small gas chamber.

San Sabba functioned from October 1943 until early 1945.  It was mainly a detention center – a place to gather and hold prisoners and Jews until they could be transported to Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen.   But with such a great set up, they fired up the crematorium, testing it on April 4, 1944.  After a few tweaks, the oven served to turn human beings into ash until the place was shut down.  Approximately 25,000 partisans and Jews were interrogated and tortured at San Sabba.  Between 3,000 to 5,000 were murdered by shooting, beating or asphyxiation in the gas chamber and their bodies turned to dust.

Just last week, as I was one of the thousands of tourists making my way through the crowded streets of Rome and Florence.  I visited the sites where the Jewish ghettos had been.  There is no longer any trace of the ghettos in either city, but our guides pointed to the place that the ghettos once stood.  They were raided and emptied of Jews in October and November of 1943.  Those captured were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In contrast, yesterday I visited Bologna.  There the Jewish ghetto still stands, though the tall gates that closed off the ghetto have been removed.  The narrow, cobblestone streets of old, remain, but it is now full of trendy, renovated apartments and cafes.  We saw the place of the Synagogue and the Via De’Guidei (according to our tour guide – Guidei is a bad name for Jew in Italian).  A few thousand Jews lived here before the war – mostly Jews who some generations earlier fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition.  Today, Bologna’s Jewish community consists of a mere 200 families.

Jews from other parts of Italy were also shipped off.   It was on February 22, 1944 that Primo Levi was shipped off from Tripoli to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Over five hundred people on Levi’s transport were taken directly to the gas chamber.  Overall, in Italy, it is estimated that 10,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps, mostly Auschwitz-Birkenau, between September 1943 and March 1945.

As we eat our Matzah and remember the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, we pause to remember the exodus of so many from their homes during the Holocaust.  Most who were forced from their homes by the Nazis were brutally murdered and did not live to tell their story.  It is through the stories of those that survived, that we can begin to relate to the larger loss.  The Torah instructs that we must tell the story of the Exodus as if we ourselves left Egypt.  We must feel the story in our bones.

It is through the retelling of the stories of the Holocaust, especially Sam and Esther Goldberg’s story, that I hope to feel the tragedy of the Holocaust in my bones. I hope I am helping you feel it too.

Next week, I will be in Poland and will report.

Happy Passover.

[1][1] Jewish population of Italy before the war was approximately 40,000.



Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team: THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWS OF ITALY

US Holocaust Memorial Museum – Holocaust Encyclopedia: The Holocaust in Italy.