Marian Styś -Say it isn’t so.

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I screamed.  Yes, I screamed when I saw the name – Marian Styś.

I saw his name in a book – Such a Beautiful Sunny Day:  Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945 – that details the murders and betrayals of Jews during the war.  Marian Styś is the name of Helena Styś’ children.  Helena was Sam and Esther’s “angel” – without whose help they surely would have died in those dark years.  So, when I saw that Marian Styś had molested and murdered a Jewish woman and her five-year-old daughter in March of 1943, just 7 kilometers from Stoczek, I screamed.  Marian Styś was convicted of these murders by a Soviet court in 1953 and went to jail for eight years.

Could the original family legend that one of Helena’s sons was a Jew Catcher be correct?  Had the Styś family lied to our faces when we asked whether anyone in the family was involved in turning in Jews and they answered, “absolutely not.” This had to be investigated and quickly.  My manuscript was getting closer to completion and this would alter how the story is told.

I found an e-mail address for the author of the book – Barbara Engelking – and I wrote her a long e-mail explaining my urgent need to know.  I found a picture of Marian Styś (above) among the letters that were found in Sam’s condo after his death, scanned it and sent it to her.  The letter indicated that Marian was going to come and visit Sam and Esther in the US in 1976, but before he could come, he died of a heart attack.  His wife sent Sam and Esther his passport photo.   Was a Jew killer coming to visit the Goldbergs in Brooklyn?  Oy!

Professor Engelking wrote back that she does not know if this is the same Marian Styś, but I could write to Jan Grabowski who is doing research in the Wengrow area (near Stoczek) and perhaps he could help me.  I knew Jan Grabowski from his book that I recently completed – Hunt for the Jews – all about how the Jew Hunt permeated the Polish countryside between the end of 1942 and 1945.  I e-mailed him immediately, but still have not heard back from him.

I had to know if the murderous Marian Styś was Helena’s son.  I wrote again to Professor Engelking asking if perhaps she could tell me how to access the court records and one of my friends in Warsaw could look up the court file.  Perhaps they could determine if these are one in the same.  Professor Engelking informed me that only academics and government officials have access to these records and my friends would not be able to see the files.

In the meantime, I was obsessed with having to find out if the killer was our Marian Styś.  I lost sleep and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

In the end, as always, Joanna Millick came to my rescue.  I sent her the cryptic information in Polish that Professor Engelking had sent to me from her notes on the case.  Joanna told me that these notes indicate that Marian Styś – the killer – was born in 1912.

“How old was our Marian Styś?” Joanna wanted to know.

“No idea,” I replied.

“I will ask Grzegorz what the age difference is between Marian and Janina,” Joanna said confidently.  “Since we know that Janina was 90 in 2016, we can figure out his date of birth and then we will know.”

“Great idea,” I said.

A message came from Joanna:

“Our Marian Styś was born in 1933!”  

He was not the killer!   I let out a huge sigh of relief.  I would have been so sad to learn that indeed one of Helena’s children spent his time hunting and murdering Jews, while Helena and Wladyslawa and the rest of the family spent their time feeding and protecting them.

I am sleeping much better and working even harder to complete the book.  Stay tuned.

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YOM HASHOAH – REFLECTIONS

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Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.  Last year at this time, I was riding on a train from Bialystok to Warsaw –  with a stop at Malkinia – the last station before death in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

For the past two and a half years, I have been engrossed in Holocaust stories, history and literature.  Today, as all citizens of Israel stand and pause, I also wish to pause.

I want to reflect on how it feels to be thinking daily about the Holocaust.  These past years, I have taken a detached, historical or storytelling approach.  But then it hits me – what really happened every day to Sam and Esther – or to hundreds, thousands, oy, millions more, and my detachment falls away and I find myself sitting in front of my computer crying.

And here I sit – in Seattle, Washington – in the safety of my home with plenty of food in my fridge and a comfortable bed upstairs.  Sometimes I feel that I have no right to write about what happened during the Holocaust.  It was before I was born, even before my parents were old enough to vote.  I feel as if I am playing a part in a play that can’t be staged because there are no actors who are qualified to perform the parts.  Who am I, who are we, to even discuss what happened?  How dare we?

Well, we dare, and we must.  We have no choice.  It’s our history – the history of humanity, the history of the Jews, the history of our family.  So, we will study, we will talk, we will read, we will write, we will laugh, and we will surely cry.

I have learned that evil is hard to define, but not so when it comes to the Holocaust.  I recently read a book describing life as a hidden Jew in the Polish countryside.  There was no shortage of evil acts done by Germans or Poles. The author struggled as she journeyed through this path:

“Darkness thickened in the desert of humanity and terror mounted,” Barbara Engelking writes.  “As they searched for rescue, Jews began to experience more and more directly the evil inflicted on them by the Poles. This was not simply an absence of good, but real, substantial, and deep evil incarnate.  It was an evil whose consequence was mostly death, so it was the final, irrevocable evil, which was also linked with cruelty and violence.

To devote so much attention to evil itself, to concentrate on the dark side of human beings, their evil deeds and to describe them – might be regarded as problematic.  However, in my opinion an attempt to understand evil does not in any way indicate forgiveness, or, worse, acquiescence.  Furthermore, telling the story of evil creates a strong context for the good, allowing us to appreciate more fully the course of those who aided and saved.” Engelking, Barbara, Such a Beautiful Sunny Day: Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945, 175.

Let us continue to act in this play and to appreciate the good.

May the souls of the millions murdered in the Holocaust find rest and tranquility.

*****

If you have not seen this fantastic performance by a group of Holocaust survivors and their families, you must see it – get ready for a big smile and a good cry.

Judenjagd – Jew Hunt

Stys forest picture

They came with their guns, whips, dogs, shiny black boots and trucks.  It was September of 1942 when the Nazis “liquidated” the Shtetl of Stoczek.  Screaming rous, rous (get out), shooting and whipping, the Nazis took all – the young, the old, the babies, the Bubbes and the Zeides, forcing them either to the Jewish cemetery where they were shot or onto trucks for the short ride to Treblinka.

Esther, together with her first husband, Moishe, his brother Chaim and their father David hid in the attic, evading capture.  Fleeing to the woods just beyond town, they had yet a new reality – now they were hunted animal – at the mercy of nature and the compassion or brutality of the Poles.

The Nazi knew that after every liquidation, there would be some Jews like Esther, Moishe, Chaim and David, who slipped through their death net.  These Jews were not left alone – no – each one was crucial to the Third Reich.  Orders were sent throughout Poland to search for these escapees.   One order sent on August 28, 1942 (just weeks before Stoczek was “liquidated”) to the elders in village of Janowice, which typifies the message that must have been sent throughout the land:

“Regarding the Regulation issued by the County Authorities on August 14, 1942 and concerning the deportation of the Jews from our areas, I hasten to inform you that the matter is very serious.  You are to make absolutely sure that not even one single Jew, Jewess, or Jewish child is left on the territory of your commune.  You have to immediately order the hostages to search the entire area, back alleys, bushes, and so on, in order to make certain that no [Jews] are left.  Whenever caught, Jews are to be delivered to the nearest station of the Polish Police.  I repeat that the penalty for hiding Jews is death.   Village elders are also responsible for Jews hidden on the territory of their commune, and – in case of negligence – can face the death penalty.  I remind you to make certain that these orders are being followed: you are responsible under the penalty of death – Kosmice Wielkie, August 28, 1942.” (Gabowski, Jan, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, 76-77).

So, with these orders, the Poles jumped to it.   They organized Judenjagd – the Jew Hunt.  These were not just a one-off things done once in a while – these were organized hunts by village “elders, forest rangers, wealthy peasants or simply by anyone who could inspire, threaten, or otherwise mobilize the village collective.” (Gabowski, 82) They would scour the woods, enter barns and search people’s attics to find the hidden Jews and claim their rewards.

Historians estimate that 2.5 million Polish Jews were still alive in the summer of August 1942.  Of these, some 10 percent – or 250,000 – evaded capture during these “liquidations.”  Less than 50,000 of them survived until the end of the war.  Why?  Because those carrying out the Judenjagd strove to unearth each and every hidden Jew.  It seems that “[s]ometime in the spring, or perhaps in the summer of 1942, Jewish life, in the eyes of a large part of Polish society, had lost its value.  If not for the fact that all attempts to save Jews were so deadly dangerous and that helping Jews was considered by many a sin, or even worse a crime, many of the Jewish refugees could have survived until the end of the war.“ (Gabowski, 172)

The danger to Jews who went into hiding after each liquidation was known, even as the war raged on.  Emanuel Ringelblum, the founder of the Oneg Shabbat archive, who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto wrote:

”To clear the surrounding area of Jews, the Germans would employ two tactics: the method of rewards and the method of threats. Financial rewards and rewards in kind were put on the head of every Jew, in addition to which the clothes and belongings of those captured were also assigned to the captors. In western ‘Little Poland,’ in Borek Falecki, Wieliczka, Bocnia, and Swoszowice, for instance 500 zloty and a kilogram of sugar were being offered for every captured Jew.  These tactics resulted in success for the Germans. The local population in great numbers turned Jews over to the Germans, who shot these ‘criminals,’ . . .  Besides rewards, the Germans also utilized a system of punishments for hiding the Jews. Posters threatening capital punishment for this ‘crime’ appeared before every ‘liquidation action’ against the Jews in any given locality.” (Gabowski, 8).

Here is my problem – I cannot get the image of the Judenjagd out of my mind.  I see Esther, Moishe, Chaim, Sam – all of them hiding in the forest – terrified of every move they make.  Then groups of Poles come through the woods with one goal – to find them and either turn them in or simply kill them.  We know that Moishe was murdered by a Pole when he went alone through the forest searching for food.  We don’t know who did it.  After that Esther and Chaim couldn’t have ventured anywhere in the woods without a deep sense of terror and fear.  Each day must have been longer and worse than the one before.

Then in August of 1943, Sam joined these hidden ones, making it a trio.  What kind of a life was it, waiting for the moment when a neighbor would betray them or a Judenjagd would find them in the Stys’s barn or in their forest pit.  Maybe they would have been killed on the spot or maybe they would have been tied up and delivered to the Germans.  Besides this daily horror, they faced ever-present hunger, freezing cold, rain and sleet, boiling days of summer, dirt, and lice.

But miraculously, Sam, Esther and Chaim were not found by those on the “Hunts” nor were they betrayed by neighbors.  Three of the 50,000 Jews who survived in hiding, made it to see a new day and a new life – Esther and Sam in the United States and Chaim in Canada.  I write this blog on an airplane flying away from Boston where I spent the first days of Passover with those who owe their lives to the resilience and unrelenting will to live of Sam and Esther Goldberg.   This ever-growing family shared the simple joy of being together, eating Mazta and drinking wine, telling of the Exodus from Egypt and remembering the Exodus of their parents and grandparents from Nazi-controlled Poland. I hope Sam and Esther were watching from their heavenly perch.

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Descendants of Sam and Esther Goldberg (and spouses) – photo taken on April 1, 2018.