The Pianist – Maybe I Shouldn’t Have . . .

I tried not to cry too loudly.  The person sitting next to me on the plane was asleep.  I was flying home – to Seattle.   After three weeks that felt like a year, my emotions were raw.  I was watching the Pianist, Roman Polanski’s 2002 movie about the Warsaw ghetto.  After watching Schindler’s List, the night before, I thought this was a good idea.  Maybe not. . .

I had been at the Umschlagplatz, walked the streets of the ghetto, touched the remaining piece of the wall, and saw the place where the tram cut across the ghetto – where the infamous bridge over the track was built.

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Polanski knew what it was to live in a ghetto.  I saw the apartment he lived in- in the Krakow ghetto.  He was there until he escaped at age 7.  He knew the scenes all too well:

  • the dead and dying littering the street; people stepping over and around them;
  • the Nazis coming to take away a whole family.  Getting the grandfather in the wheelchair down the stairs and out the door seemed like too much trouble – so the Nazis dump him over the side of the building;
  • the “rich” Jews eat, drink and smoke in a restaurant where the protagonist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, plays piano, while the poor and the hungry beg on the street just outside the door.  They all wear armbands with a Star of David;
  • Jews wait for hours to cross over the tram tracks – to the other side of the ghetto.  Then the bridge is built and the Jews silently walk over the busy street below – two worlds crossing;
  • Jews arriving at the Umschlagplatz.  The previously wealthy Szpilman family buy a tiny piece of candy from a child with their last 20 zlotys.  The father carefully cuts it up into 6 pieces – one for each.  They eat their last bit of sweetness slowly and in silence;
  • after some 265,000 Jews were taken to Treblinka in the fall of 1942, part of the ghetto wall is taken down and rebuilt elsewhere, reducing the size of the ghetto; only 60,000 Jews remain;
  • Szpilman watches from his hideout across the street as the ghetto is destroyed: the bombs, the fires, the death, the courage;
  • after the uprising – the ghetto looks like a bad post-nuclear war scene – rubble everywhere, no life anywhere;
  • Szpilman lives alone and is saved by Righteous Gentiles over the course of a year and then, as the Red Army approaches and the Germans flee, he is fed by a Nazi officer – Captain Wilm Hosenfeld.

For a synopsis of the movie see Wikipedia article:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pianist_(2002_film)

My Jewish tourist experience in Warsaw was confusing.  I walked through the beautifully reconstructed “Old Town.”  On the way out of the Old Town, I stopped at a tourist shop.  What did I see – of course –  the small carved wooden Jewish good luck charms.  But there were also pictures of Jews counting their money (all very good luck for your finances!).

I visited the Umschlagplatz.  I was uninspired by the memorial there.  But then I stepped out of the memorial, just to the other side.  There was an open field with trees and grass.  I closed my eyes and imagined the Jews waiting to board the trains to Treblinka.  The movie scene I saw two weeks later on the plane provided a more vivid image than I conjured that day.

I visited the old Jewish cemetery and sang and danced with my family at I.L. Peretz’s grave (designed by someone from Stoczek!).

We did all this with Aleksander Czyzewksi, who was born and raised in Poland.  He went to High School with my son Jack at Seattle’s Northwest Yeshiva High School.  He explained that as a student in Warsaw’s Jewish middle school, he came to this cemetery each week to clean the debris and wipe the dirt and the grime from the tombstones.  We had dinner that evening with Aleksander’s parents.  Neither of them knew they were Jewish growing up, but now live Jewish lives.

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I prayed in the Nozyk synagogue, the only Warsaw synagogue to survive the war.  The acoustics were astounding.   As we sang the prayers to welcome the Sabbath – Kabbalat Shabbat – the sound bounced off each vaulted section of the ceiling and back to my ears, filling the room with music and filling my soul with joy.  Sitting in the Nozyk synagogue that Friday night made me think of Yurik.

In Warsaw, I got up early each day – 5 AM – to write.  The first morning in Warsaw I realized that the breakfast room did not open until 7.  I waited patiently for the coffee I desperately needed.  At 7, I charged the breakfast room, first in line for the fancy espresso machine.  I pressed the button – double shot of espresso with steamed milk.  Ahhh.  I found a place to sit, hoping my family members would join me soon.  After a few reviving sips of coffee, I glanced at the table next to me.  I knew in an instant that this was a Holocaust survivor visiting Poland with his family.  I could hear it in his voice and see it in his face.

Well, I slid closer to their table and introduced myself.  There I met Yurik (his Polish name) Sears (Americanized last name), his Israeli-born wife and their daughter – Tamara – a professor of art history.  He quickly told me his story.  He was a child in the Warsaw ghetto.  His mother was murdered early on when she went to the Pawiak prison to try to free her brother.  Now a single parent, his father would take him, each day, under his coat, as he walked to the shoe factory where he worked.  After a year of this cloistering, his father made arrangements to have Yurik smuggled out of the ghetto and hidden with a family who lived on a farm outside of town.  The delivery was made and Yurik hid for a year in the attic of the farmhouse.  After a year he was allowed to live in the main part of the home – as a member of the family.

His father survived the war and they were reunited.  Now, in June of 2016, Yurik was back for the wedding of one of the grandchildren of the family that saved him.  He told me that his parents were married in the Nozyk Synagogue and that he had visited it the day before we met.  He admired its beauty and imagined his parents there under the Chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy)!  I imagined this as well.

Yurik survived the Warsaw ghetto and lived to marry, move to America, have a daughter, and return to Poland to celebrate with his “Polish family.”  Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Pianist, also survived the Warsaw ghetto, but he remained in Poland.   He played the piano and shared his talents with the world.  Szpilman married and had two sons.  He died in 1988 and is buried in Poland.  More about his life can be found at:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W%C5%82adys%C5%82aw_Szpilman

Under the rubble of it all, lies hope.  Hope for a new life, for beautiful music, for art, for joy, for love.

 

CORRECTION:  In the previous blog post about Schindler’s List I mentioned a wealthy family that had to share small quarters in the ghetto and I quote the father.  This scene took place in the Pianist, not Schindler’s List.  I was confused.

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Schindler’s List – Revisited

Of course I have seen Schindler’s List, the 1993 Holocaust movie directed by Steven Spielberg.  Who hasn’t?   Well, my 18-year-old daughter, Esther.  So, we huddled on the bed in our tiny hotel room in Amsterdam, next to one of the many canals, and watched it on our laptop computer.  After being in Krakow, watching this movie was a whole different experience.

Schindler’s List was filmed in and around Kazimierz and tells the story of the Jews of Krakow during WWII.  The specific story is of an ethnic German business man, Oskar Schindler, who became fabulously wealthy off the labor of the Jews, but how he saved approximately 1,100 Jews by placing them on his “List” of employees.  When the Plashow Labor Camp was to be liquidated and all remaining Jews were to be sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Schindler “bought” his Jews and saved their lives.  He used his great wealth for a great purpose.

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At the start of the war, Krakow was home to 56,000 Jews.  The Germans made Krakow their capital of Poland (the General Government) and Hans Frank took over the magnificent Wawel Palace at the top of the hill.  Those Kings knew how to build ‘em.  Wawel Palace was built over the course of 6oo years, but saw its most stunning changes during the reign of King Casimir the Great (1333-1370).  It is a work of art.  When the Germans arrived some 550 years later, they declared the city off limits to bombing and thus, Krakow retains its ancient city charm.

The Jews were not among the charmed of the city, however.  At least not between 1939 and 1945.  Thousands of Jews were kicked out of the city during the first two years of the war.  Then in early March 1941, Hans Frank ordered the remaining 15,000 Jews to move to a ghetto about 5-7 miles from Kazimierz.[1]  I suppose Frank thought Kazimierz was just too close to the Palace. I walked the path from Kazimierz to the Palace a number of times while in Krakow – it took about 20 minutes.

Before expulsion, Kazimierz was the bustling, thriving home of the Jewish community.  It was bursting with huge Synagogues, Yeshivot (Jewish schools), Mikvaot (ritual baths) and Jews – some wealthy, some not – some assimilated, some not.  We visited the Synagogue of the great Rabbi Yisroel Yoseph Isserles – the Rama – one of the greatest scholars of Ashkenazik Jewry who lived in Kazimierz in the first half of the 1500’s.  We prayed on Shabbat at the Old Izaac’s Synagogue – built in 1644.  There is a stunning, gold-adorned – Temple Synagogue – built in 1862 -that was the seat of the Reform community.

Kazimierz suffered terribly during the war.  The Nazis did not bomb it, but they destroyed it pretty well. When Schindler filmed his movie, Kazimierz remained as it had been after the war – a decrepit, dilapidated, mess.  The buildings were peeling and cracked.  The population was poor. We stood in the narrow alley where this scene was shot:

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Because of the interest generated by Schindler’s List, Kazimierz was gentrified and is now a hip place with restaurants (some Jewish themed – see blog post – June 28, 2016), cafes, outdoor food trucks and concerts.  It looks and feels nothing like the movie.  This is the same street – I was there just three weeks ago.

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As I watched Spielberg’s depiction of the expulsion, my heart broke all over again.  I felt the stones beneath their feet.  I had walked on those stones.  I felt each sad and painful step they took, carrying their few belongings and their precious children.  When the Jews moved into the ghetto – 15,000 of them – they were forced to live in a space that had previously housed 300.  It was now surrounded by barbed wire and a tombstone-shaped cement wall (Nazis have a sense of humor too).

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The only open space in the ghetto was a square piece of pavement, next to the tram line. I stood in this square which is now a memorial – called Ghetto Hero’s Square.  The memorial, erected in 2005 consists of a series of 33 large chairs facing all directions.   These chairs are intended to symbolize the household items the Jews were forced to leave behind.  There are also 37 smaller chairs set up on the edge, near the tram stops.  These are designed to show that anyone can be a victim.  The emptiness of the chairs aims to allow reflection on how Krakow was emptied of its Jews.

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Spielberg’s scene in this square is brilliant.  The Germans come to this small patch of pavement and neatly and orderly set up their chairs and tables in order to “register” each and every Jew before they are sent to Plashow, the forced Labor Camp.  As the Germans sit comfortably behind their tables, the Jews packing the square have nowhere to sit.  Watching this scene just days after I had been standing in the square, I tried my best to imagine what it might have felt like to stand in the packed square – nowhere to sit and forced to watch the neat and tidy German officers sitting in their chairs behind their little desks.

Just at the corner of the plaza stands another important landmark that is briefly shown in the movie – Tadeusz Pankiewitz’s Pharmacy.  Though it was illegal, this Gentile pharmacist provided life-saving medication to Jews in the ghetto.  One such Jew was my friend Steve Baral’s father, Martin Baral.  He was a boy of ten living in the ghetto.  He was very ill.   He went to Pankiewitz and asked for help.  The pharmacist gave him antibiotics at no charge, saving his life.

My friend Steve’s story brings us back to Oskar Schindler.  Steve’s grandfather – Samuel Baral – worked in Schindler’s factory and was number 41 on the “list.”  And there he was – Samuel Baral – his picture on the wall at the Schindler’s Museum and his name on the top line of the list.  I stared at his face trying to see my friend in him.

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Most Jews of the ghetto were sent to Belzec Death Camp, Auschwitz/Birkenau or shot within the ghetto walls.  In the movie we get a glimpse of life in Birkenau. The Schindler women are taken there by error.  Spielberg had a cinematic problem – the Polish government would not allow him to film inside Birkenau.  So when you see the train coming into the camp through the iconic Birkenau front building and all the passengers get off the train – this is not actually inside Birkenau.  Spielberg filmed the train coming out of the camp – through the main gate and filmed the people getting out of the train in the area of the parking lot.  Very clever.  Now you have to watch the movie again, right?

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The movie depicts Oskar Schindler’s transformation from a callous, greedy, businessman, happy to exploit the wealth (moves into a Jew’s apartment) and labor of the Jews (it was cheaper) to a man who was on a mission to save his  Jews from their certain death.  The final scene in which the actual Schindler Jews stand together with their descendants, tells an uplifting, but depressing tale.  Look what one man did – by saving some 1,100 Jews, he created families and generations into the future.  But, what if there had been 10,000 Oskar Schindlers?  What if there had been a million Stys families?  What would the world look like then?

SOURCES:

Schindler’s List – the movie.

University of Minnesota – Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies:

http://chgs.umn.edu/museum/memorials/krakow/

Wikipedia article – Krakow Ghetto:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krak%C3%B3w_Ghetto

Article – Wawel Royal Castle:

\ http://www.wawel.krakow.pl/en/index.php?op=3

[1] This was not the first time Jews were forced out.  Jews were expelled from Krakow in 1495 by the Polish King.  He expelled them to Kazimierz, which at that time was outside the Krakow city limits   There was a small Jewish community in Kazimierz, but apparently the King wanted all his Jews on the other side of the river.

 

STOCZEK – THE DEAD DON’T LIE

We visited the dead in Stoczek.  The dead don’t lie.

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Stoczek is the Shtetl where Esther was born and the place from which Sam was taken to the Death Camp Treblinka.  There are enough ghosts here to compete with Hogwarts.

Grzegorz Maleszewski took us to Stoczek.  Our first stop was the vacant lot that once was the Kwiatek soda factory (see post – June 10, 2016).  Just to the right of the empty lot stood a pre-war home.  This, we were told, was a typical house.  I imagine 74 years ago it looked better, but still. . .

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Then we visited the Christian dead.  At the cemetery we paid our respects to Helena and Aleksander Stys, Wladyslawa and Stanislaw Stys, Edward Stys, Elzbieta and Waclaw Maleszewski (Grzegorz’s parents) and others who knew Esther and Sam and were involved in their lives and survival.  I was humbled.  Would I have had the courage to help when so many others did not.  I hope so, but I am blessed to never have been put to this test.

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The Stoczek Christian cemetery is beautifully kept and well-manicured.  Colorful flowers adorn the graves.  The tombstones are clean and the writing clear.  The small red brick chapel in the center stands cheery and solid, with a steeple reaching up to the heaven. The
Christian dead told us that they were honored and respected and have been well cared for.  Their ghosts are at peace.

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Then we visited the Jewish dead.  This was an altogether different experience.  The Stoczek Jewish cemetery is no more.  No tombstones, no flowers, no chapel.  It is overgrown with weeds and littered with garbage.  Under the earth – in this place – are the Jews of Stoczek who died before September, 1939, who had the zechus (merit) to be properly buried.

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During and after the war, Poles took Jewish tombstones for building material – to build walls or streets.  A number of years ago, the town finally gathered the small number of broken and faded tombstones that remained and placed them next to the cemetery where they had erected a memorial to the murdered Jews.

Jan Stys, a man full of life at 87, an eyewitness, told us how he was an 11-year old school boy, sitting in his classroom looking out the window.  The window looked out over the Jewish cemetery.  Jan watched that August day of 1942, as the Nazis shot and killed his Jewish neighbors.  He understood that this war was not nice.

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Who knows why some were murdered here and others taken to Treblinka.  Perhaps it was the old and disabled who would have had trouble making the trek to the gas chambers. Perhaps it was Nazi sport.  No way to know.

The Jewish dead told us that they have been dishonored and abused.  Their ghosts are not at peace. They are eternally crying for themselves and for their murdered children and grandchildren.

תנצב”ה -May their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life.

 

STOCZEK – FIEVEL GOES EAST

The center of town – a large open circular area – was packed on market days.  Jews and Poles came, three times a week.  They set up tables and sold their produce and wares – flea-market style.  All around the center, there was permanence – a large Synagogue, homes and shops.  All kinds of shops – grocery stores, clothing stores and butcher shops.  Then there was Feivel Goldfarb’s favorite – the bakery.  Chana the baker, Feivel recalls, “had a shop in the first house on the left side of the street.”  The bakery was at the intersection of the circle road that outlined the town center and one of many streets that emanated out of the center, like spokes on a bicycle wheel. This bicycle wheel structure created the town of Stoczeck (Stok).

Once you were at the bakery, it was an easy walk down to Shlomo Zalman Wisnia’s home.  It was just down the street – 7 or 8 houses– on the left side – right where the street ended.  Feivel remembers it well.  He was a boy of 8 years old when he attended cheder (Jewish elementary school) in this home – learning alef-beis (to read Hebrew) and how to pray – from Esther’s father – Shlomo Zalman, the melamed (teacher).

The Wisnia home was a small wooden structure – only two rooms.   The front door opened to the larger room, which served as the school.  Tables were pushed against the wall; benches awaited the students.  Each day as Feivel walked to cheder, he passed Chana’s bakery and the smell of baking rolls and cakes floated to his nostrils.

But Feivel was from a poor family and he could not afford to buy what Chana sold.  He was friends with Chana’s son – Moishele – he called him Moynik.  One day, they were together and Moynik was eating a roll with butter.  Feivel looked longingly at the roll – he had never in his life had a roll with butter.  Moynik had his fill of the roll and offered the rest to Feivel.  Feivel’s father taught him never to take charity.  So he turned down the offer.  Moynik threw the remainder of the roll over the fence.  Quickly, Feivel said he had to go home. They parted and Feivel ran to the other side of the fence to retrieve the precious roll.  It was gone – most likely eaten by a dog.  “I will never forget that roll,” Feivel lamented 77 years later, as he sat in his home in Marboro, New Jersey.

Feivel lived on the other side of the town center – 4 houses down from the Church.  Even though Stoczeck was 90% Jewish, there were Non-Jews and they had a big church.  The Church and Feivel’s house were both close – one and half blocks – to the Kwiatek soda factory.  His mother sent him there to buy soda.  Some Stoczeck homes combined living and business quarters, such as Neiman’s grocery store.  “The grocery was in the basement of the house,” Feivel said.  “My mother also sent me to Neiman’s.  It was a couple houses away from the soda factory.”

The Kwiateks were not one of these families.  Their soda factory was separate from their home.  The factory was a warehouse and a store.  It was very well known in the town and the surrounding areas.  It was through the Kwiatek soda factory that Esther first came to know the righteous Stys family. “As children, we used to visit the Kwiatek soda factory every Sunday after Church,” recalled Jan and Eugeniusz – children of Wadislawa and Stanislaw Stys – and Janina – the daughter of Helena and Aleksander Stys. “It was a special thing for us to do.”  During the war, Esther and her first husband Moishe Kwiatek took their horse and buggy that they bought in Slonim (see blog post – The Darkness of the Forest Part I – May 13, 2016) and made soda deliveries to the outlying farms, including the two Stys families.

The Kwiateks were so well known that even Grzgorz’s grandfather, on the Maleszewski side– who is 101 years old and lives a life like the grandparents in Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory – never getting out of bed – remembers them.  Though he never met Esther or Sam, he did business with the Kwiateks before the war.  We had the honor of meeting him (and his wife) on our way to the family reunion (see blog post Family Reunion – June 23, 2016).

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The next day, we visited Stoczeck and as we stood in the empty, grass-covered lot that was the Kwiatek soda factory, I imagined coming there on a hot summer day, just like the one we were experiencing – a good 89 degrees – buying a cold soda.  That sounded really nice.

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But the permanence that was found in the homes, the shops, the factories, and the Synagogues, was deceptive.  The Germans arrived in September of 1939 ordering all the Jews they could find to stand in the open market area.  Fieval was with his Uncle, holding his hand, as he stood with about 1,500 other Stoczeck Jews.  The Nazis screamed at them as they began burning down shops and homes.  Then, the Nazi screamed “rouse” – “get out.”  Everyone began running at once.  As they ran, the Nazis began to shoot.  “Half of them were shot dead,” Feivel said.  “I saw one man I knew on the ground and I shook him and said ‘get up, they are shooting people.’ But then I saw that his eyes were turned up in his head.  He couldn’t get up.  I ran back home and found my parents.”

Like Esther’s family home, Feivel’s house was burnt to the ground.  And like Esther’s family, they crossed over the border to the Russian-controlled area – to Bialystok.  From there the Goldfarbs had a different experience that the Wisnia family -the Soviets sent them East – to Siberia.  It was a horrible existence, but their family survived the war.

I looked around Stoczeck – the soda factory is gone, Esther and Fievel’s houses are gone, the Jewish shops and Synagogues are gone, the open market area is gone, but the Church remains, standing where it was in 1939 – 4 houses from where Fievel lived and a block and a half from the empty lot that once housed the famous Kwiatek soda factory.

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Stay tuned for more about Stoczeck in my next blog.

SOURCES:

Interviews with Fievel Goldfarb – May 2016 & July 11, 2016.

Interview with Esther Wisnia Goldberg – April 12, 1993.

Bagatelle – Scam or No Scam

NOTE TO READER:

I left Poland nine days ago. While I was there, I wrote posts capturing some of what I was seeing, experiencing and feeling. But so much more happened that I was unable to write about – just not enough time. Over the next weeks, I will write about these yet undocumented places and experiences. I will also modify the Sam and Esther story as told in these posts with the new information learned. This post describes our trip to Bagatele.

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Do you wonder whether the Holocaust tourist industry in Poland (yes, that’s a thing) hires old people to pretend to have known your parents, grandparents, Uncles and Aunts before the war? Because I was worried that our tour guide employed these particular services when we arrived in Bagatele, Poland.

Bagatele sign with Shlomo use this one

Out of the window of my tourist van, I watched as we turned off the main road and saw a sign – Bagatele – it consisted of one long, winding road, lined farm land and scattered with houses. At the beginning, the houses were nothing fancy, but respectable. As we progressed, the road narrowed and the houses got smaller and older. After driving maybe three or four minutes, I switched my gaze from the side window to the front.   The houses and farms did not go much farther – we were nearly to the end of this not-even town – Bagatele.

Then, standing at the side of the road, in front of a very old looking house with an expanse of farm land surrounding it, I saw a short, very old woman with a kerchief tied on her head. Marcin, our tour guide, suggested we stop the van and talk to her. My husband Shlomo and I looked at each other skeptically.

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Bagatele – Sam’s birth place and the place he lived with his parents and siblings for some 20 years. Even before the war, it was tiny -not even a town – think houses and farms. The closest town was, and still is, Wengrow – where Gzrgorz Maleszewski lives. The Goldberg farm was a busy place. With non-Jewish workers, the farm’s produce was sold in the market places of nearby Wengrow. The family owed cows and chickens and ran some kind of butcher shop where they sold meat.

The Goldberg farm was large – 25 hectres. Their farmland stretched out behind their home – as far as the eye could see. The visual expanse of the farmland was only broken by a road in the far off distance. On the opposite side of the road lay a row of trees hinting to the forest beyond. The Goldbergs owned a horse and buggy – a big deal in small town Poland. Zelig was well regarded in the area of Ostrow Mazowiecka – people knew and respected Zelig of Bagatele. This Shem Tov – good name – helped to save Sam after his escape from the German POW camp in 1941 (see blog post Sam – Prisoner of War – 1941).

When the Germans attacked Poland in September of 1939, the Goldberg family found themselves on the German side of the Molotov Ribbentrop Line – putting them under Nazi control. One day some Poles came with Nazi soldiers and threw them out of their house and off their farm.   They left with one cow, their horse and buggy and whatever belongings they could gather and fit in the buggy. They did what so many other Jews did – crossed the Line to Soviet-controlled territory. They were one of the “lucky” ones – they crossed the line before the border was sealed and they had relatives to move in with – Sam’s mother had a sister living in Yashnitz.

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So, here we were – June 21, 2016, in Bagatele. We see this old kerchief-covered Polish woman on the side of the road – right where we stopped. If she knew the Goldberg family, it would have been too tidy, too contrived to believe.

So, five Goldbergs, one Treiger, one Hacohen, Marcin, and Gawel (our videographer) file out of the van.   We were happy to get out – we had been driving for an hour and a half. Marcin translated our questions to this old woman, who stood alone on this empty street: “Hi, do you live here?   Did you ever know a family named Goldberg? We are looking for the place they lived.” She looked at us – a large group of Americans, Israelis and Poles (one with an intimidating video camera) huddled around her as if for warmth. I was waiting for her to say – “yes, I have lived here my whole life– and yes, of course I remember the Goldberg family. They lived just over here – such a tragedy.” I was ready to believe that with the help of a few zlotes, this old woman was here to create a “Polish roots experience” for our family.

Well, she spoke in a quiet, crackly old voice: “No, I don’t live here and I don’t remember any Goldberg family.   My son lives here now and I am visiting him.” So much for the staged old woman theory.

Then, a man who appeared to be about 50 with a generous paunch, emerged from the house. Warily approaching our group, he addressed his mother and asked who we are. We introduced ourselves as the Goldberg family from Seattle, Washington. We were visiting to try to find the house and farm that used to belong to Zelig Goldberg. “Oh, my grandfather told me stories of the Goldberg family,” he responded. “They used to live just over here – next door.”

Your kidding – was this to be believed? The old woman was not a plant, but was the farmer’s grandson with the beer belly and jeans the zlotes recipient meant to create the authentic “roots experience?” No, if they were going to hire someone convincing, it would have been the old woman. She could have pretended to know the Goldbergs and tell us how when she was a girl she saw them forced to leave their home and farm. This may just be authentic…

We continued to listen as the farmer told us what he knew from his grandfather. The Goldbergs lived here before the war. Their farm was just here, as he waives his right hand showing the expanse just next to his farm. And the house was over there – near that tree. We walked over to the indicated property.

Another man showed up to find out who we were. At first, his body language read hostility. He was the current owner of the Goldberg property and wanted to know what we were doing on his land. We explained we were tourists, not land-claimers, and he softened.   He showed us where you could see part of the old foundation of the home on the now empty lot, covered with grass and weeds. They both explained that the farm extended all the way to the road – far in the distance – bordered on the other side by trees. It was huge. We all marveled at the estate that was the Goldberg farm. I imagined the house filled with the smell of roasting chicken and fresh baked challah on Friday afternoon. I pictured Sam, walking this small road with his fathers and brothers, on those same Friday afternoons –down the street to the Mikve – the Jewish ritual bath – where they would bathe and immerse their bodies to physically and spiritually prepare for the coming Sabbath.

I began to believe that this really was the place of the Goldberg farm and home. What a way to start our day of exploring the lives of Sam and Esther both before and during the war.

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We took some pictures of Shlomo – Zelig Goldberg’s grandson – with the farmer and the old women. We said our goodbyes and piled back into the van.

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We drove a bit farther down the road reaching the sign that showed we were leaving Bagatelle – Bagatelle with a red line across it. This was a fitting sign – Zelig of Bagatelle and his family farm was no more. Bagatelle is not the place it was before the war – the Nazis and the Poles made sure of it.

Bagatele

 

From Track to Track – from Generation to Generation

It was nine days, but it felt like a lifetime. So much happened in Minsk and Poland. The person I was before I left Seattle is not the same person that sat in the van climbing the hills to Jerusalem last Monday morning. Raisa, Gzrgorz, Jan, Eugenyik, Jania, Marcian, Aleksander, Petra, Rabbi Schudrich, Jonathan, Aleksander, Magda, Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Bug River, Stare Lipki, Wengow, Stoczek, Bagatelle, Krakow, Warsaw – so many people, so many places, so much to absorb.

In Poland I was haunted by the railroad tracks. When I saw tracks—whether in the cities or in the countryside – I felt a moment of dread.   When we got on a modern train to travel from Warsaw to Krakow, I felt guilty traveling on such a nice train, in comfort and with no fear.Israel train me

 

Here in Israel, I have again seen and traveled on railroad tracks. Thursday I traveled from Jerusalem to Yaffo – by train. My daughter, Elisheva invited me to attend a conference on “Israel and American Jews: Renegotiating the Relationship.” She was chairing one of the sessions and I was thrilled to attend.

Israel Elisheva conference

To take the train in Israel is to travel slowly, contemplatively. No traffic jams, no horns blasting, no accidents, just the squeak of the wheels on the tracks and the rumble beneath your feet. I thought of the trains in Poland and how I felt seeing them and riding on them. Here winding our way down the hills of Jerusalem onto the flat farmlands that morph into industrial and then residential areas, I felt joy and even serenity.

Then Friday morning, I took an early (6 AM) walk down the path that was the old rail track, built in 1892. It connected Jerusalem and Yaffo – the exact path I traveled on Thursday. In 2013 it was turned into a walking and cycling trail with wonderful old pictures of what it looked like then. The sounds of birds signing and roosters’ cock-a-doodle-doo (there were so many of them!) filled the rosemary scented air.  Marveling at what Jerusalem and Israel have become since this track was completed 124 years ago, I walk the path in wonder.

If only – if only there had been a State of Israel in 1939. The Israel Defense Force would not have been silent in the face of a Hitler. Israel may not fulfill all of Herzl’s Zionist dreams, but it is still a dream come true.

Sam and Esther are buried here. Keeping with the Jewish tradition of placing rocks on a grave, I placed two rocks on each of their graves – one from Treblinka and one from Stoczek – the place of the old Jewish cemetery. I brought a bit of Poland to them. If they could speak, they may say – “no, don’t do that – we never want to see any part of Poland again.” But after our journey through their lives and meeting the Stys family, I hope they would be happy to know we stood in the barns and in the forest pit and that together with Stys family – and cried there.

Though Sam and Esther are here in Israel only in death, two of their granddaughters live here and together with the other 8 grandchildren, and a brand new (born July 1) great-grandson, in America, they live on.

[Top picture – from Wikipedia article on Jerusalem’s historic First Station.]

The AlteNeu (Old and New) Jew

krakow JCC sign

The Germans did not bomb Krakow – it was the seat of Hans Frank’s General Government. Because of this,  the buildings are old and beautiful – three stories, colorful with intricate facades. Some have been kept up well, others are peeling and cracking – showing their age – just like the hand full of Holocaust survivors who live here.

I met a few of these survivors at the Krakow Jewish Community Center (JCC). They have a group called Children of the Holocaust. Many of them also participate in the JCC senior’s club. Most of them were hidden children during the war – hidden in convents or by Righteous Gentiles. After the war, they remained in Poland, but many kept their Jewishness secret. For some – even from their own children.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Poland changed. Democracy became the norm and society thawed. The Krakow Jewish Community Center, founded in 2008, creates a safe and inviting space for these survivors. Their secrets can see sunlight.

Kristina never told her children or grandchildren that she was Jewish, but with the opening of the JCC, she secretly began attending senior events and reclaiming her Judaism. One day, her granddaughter, Magda, overheard her telling a friend on the phone that she was going to the JCC. Inquiring why she was going there, Kristina confessed – “I am a Jew.”   Magda, wondering what this meant, explored her Jewish identity at the JCC. Magda is now also an active member of the Krakow Jewish Community.

Zosia is another child survivor who came to the JCC and found a warm and welcoming place. She gives the Dvar Torah (short thought about the weekly Torah portion) at the JCC’s weekly Friday night dinner and sings in the JCC choir.  (she is the woman on the far left)

Krakow JCC choir

This third, post-Holocaust generation – dubbed by Katka Reszke as “the unexpected generation” – continue to discover their Jewish roots and to celebrate them.  Katka is one of the unexpected generation.  At age 15,she woke up and had an inexplicable feeling that she was a Jew.   She asked her parents if there were any Jews in the family and they assured her – -there were not. Well, after much study and personal reflection, she began to lead and still leads a Jewish life. It was only after death-bed confessions of two grandparents, that her mystical hunch was confirmed. She indeed has Jewish roots on both her father and mother’s side.

In just nine days in Poland, I met many young people. They all told some version of the same story. They found out they were Jewish as teenagers or in their early 20’s, or knew they were Jewish but were never allowed to talk about it, let alone practice.

OK, Poland is no Jerusalem, but after spending two Shabbatot there, I felt the vibrancy, excitement and potential of the Warsaw and Krakow Jewish communities. In Warsaw, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, has worked for the past 25 years to create safe and meaningful Jewish spaces for both the survivors and the unexpected generation. On Saturday night in Warsaw, I attended a silent dance party at the JCC. It was amazing. Putting on head phones and tuning in to channel 1 – the one with the Israeli and Hebrew songs – I began to dance together with Shoshana, Esther, Micha and some of the Warsaw Jews. I connected to them through movement and smiles – we danced in a circle, a line or solo.

There was a break in the dancing and we all gathered outside while Rabbi Schudrich made Havdalah- the ceremony with wine, candle and sweet smelling spices that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week.   We continued to danced inside and outside the small JCC. I saw a young man standing in the corner, watching. I went over and introduced myself. I asked if he wanted to dance with us. He said no thanks.   I asked why he was there. He told me he is not Jewish, but he comes from a small town outside of Warsaw and he never saw a Jew before. So he was in Warsaw and wanted to come to the JCC to see some Jews. I was not sure if I should laugh or cry, but I shook his hand and said “super” (this is actually a Polish word).

Warsaw JCC Rabbi Schudrich Havdala

I was in Krakow the following Shabbat. It was just hours before the opening of the 26th annual Jewish Festival.  So world class Chazanim (cantors) and the choir from the Jerusalem Great Synagogue filled the Old Izaak’s shul with music that gave me chills. I sat in the shul and wondered who sat in this seat before me – before the war.

I ate Friday night dinner at the JCC. It was festive and the room was packed. There were approximately 150 people. About half were tourists like us, but the other half were “regulars” – Jews of Krakow – old and young – who come each week to celebrate Shabbat together.

Saturday morning, I again prayed at the Old Izaak’s synagogue. As Hebrew letters faded from the walls, the harmonies bounced off the vaulted ceiling. I ate lunch at the JCC where I had the opportunity to study the Torah portion of the week with Rabbi Avi Baumol and some of the young Krakow Jews. I met a young woman from the Ukraine who came to Krakow to study in the University. She knew her father was Jewish, but it was a family secret. There was nothing positive associated with being Jewish. One day she wandered into the JCC and sat down in an intro to Judaism class. At the end the Rabbi said if you have one grandparent who is Jewish, you can be a member of our Jewish Community. She told me that this was the first time she ever had anything positive associated with being Jewish. She signed up.

One of the last things I did in Krakow on Sunday afternoon was attend a JCC choir concert.  It was held in the small, but beautiful courtyard between the JCC and the Temple Synagogue. I grabbed a glass of Israeli wine at the bar and sat on a stool – the only space left to sit among the crowd of people. I listened to this group of old and young Krakow Jews sing Sabbath songs, Jewish prayers and Yiddish melodies.   The voices were beautiful and the harmonies delightful. The encore song was Mizmor L’David – the 23rd Psalm – the same melody that we sing at our Shabbat table each week. I sang along, mesmerized by the sound. At the end, I clapped. Turning to Esther I said – “Right now, my soul is filled with joy.”

I left Poland wanting more. I can’t wait to finish my book and come back. I got my first invitation for a book party – from the Krakow JCC.