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.]

Advertisements

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.

KRAKOW – JEWRASIC PARK

I walked the narrow, curved, cobblestone streets of Kazimierz, the old Jewish part of Krakow, and my emotions gyrate. I see ancient synagogues – lots of them – including the synagogue of the Rama – Rabbi Moshe Isserlis- one of the greatest and most important Rabbis of all Ashkenazik Jewry. The Rama’s grave is just behind the shul – a master at rest.

Turning the corner, I reached Sheroka street –previously the central road of the tightly packed Kazimierz – now a Jewish Disneyland. Some Jews who live in Krakow call it- Jewrasic Park – in honor of Steven Spielberg, director of Jurasic Park. Another of Spielberg’s movies – Schindler’s List – was filmed here. In those days, Kazimierz was filled with destroyed and deteriorating buildings. The interest created by Schindler’s List, led to gentrification and to Kazimierz’s current hip and happening vibe.

Krakow Micha and Shlomo Klezmer Hoise

Our first stop on Szeroka street was the Klezmer Hoise (Klezmer House). We just had to go in. It has three separate dining rooms and the whole house is decorated as a pre-war Jewish home. Klezmer musicians play in each dining room to audiences of non-Jewish Poles who watch curiously, not knowing what to make of it.   The four of us stand in the back signing along and dancing with our hands up high –Chasidic-style.  The patrons of the restaurant stare.

Just a stone’s throw from Klezmer Hoise is a row of restaurants with Jewish themes and Klezmer music playing inside and outside.   It was a warm night and the tables lining the streets were filled. There was a café called Ariel. A Klezmer trio played songs from Fiddler on the Roof.  I really could not believe that I got to see this – it was all that I had read about in Katke Reszke’s book, Return of the Jew, and more. I was excited and disturbed at the same time. Then at the end of the row was a restaurant called Ester – wow. I had to take a picture of my daughter, Esther, under that sign.   Perhaps she should change the spelling of her name and drop the “h.”   At the very end of the street sits “the Old Synagogue” – the oldest shul in Poland, built in 1407.  It is now a museum – a tourist attraction.

Krakow - Esther in front of Ester

It’s not just on Szeroka Street – all through Kazimierz, I saw Jewish style tea shops, gift shops, book shops, kitchens, Jewish-related murals and graffiti. This non-Jewish portrayal of Jewish Fiddler on the Roof culture reaches a crescendo for one week of June – with the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival. For a week there is an outpouring of Jewishness. I was thrilled to realize that we would still be in Krakow for the opening festivities on Saturday night and Sunday.

The 26th annual Krakow Jewish Festival kicked off with a Melave Malka – a traditional Saturday night get together, whose traditional purpose is to hold onto some of the holiness of the Sabbath, even though the sun has set. They held this event in the Temple Synagogue – originally built in the 1860’s as a Reform Temple. It was built in the style of the Leopoldstadter Temple in Vienna. Its gold ornate decorations and high vaulted ceilings create a surreal setting for orthodox Cantors and choirs – mostly from Jerusalem – some in the long black coats of Chasidim and others in slacks and white shirts of modern orthodox Jews.   For over an hour, traditional Jewish melodies and prayers – mostly in Hebrew, a few in Yiddish – were sung – all to great applause. This free event was just a teaser – the main Cantorial concert was to be the following night – Monday at 7 PM.   Our plane back to Warsaw and then on to Israel was Monday night, but as I was heading out of Kazimirez towards my hotel to grab my suitcase, I saw a huge line of people waiting to enter the Temple Synagogue to listen to the Jewish Cantorial music, tickets in hand.

Krakow Festival Mela V'Malka shul

These are just two events at the Festival – there is an entire booklet filled with performances of music, dance, theater, lectures, art exhibits, and more.

On Sunday I attended a beautiful ceremony at the Galicia Jewish Museum honoring ten Polish non-Jews who are involved in preserving Jewish culture and heritage. For example, Krzysztof Ostrowski received an award for his work in the Jewish cemetery in Pultusk. It was destroyed during WWII and was abandoned until 2012. Mr. Ostrowski worked to gather the tombstones and make them into a memorial. Another was Krzysztof Godlewski, who received an honor for organizing a ceremony in memory of the progrom (carried out by Poles not Germans) that occurred in Jedwabne during WWII. I left with the impression that non-Jewish Poles are trying to make sense of what happened during the war and the fact that a huge piece of their country’s life and culture – the Jewish communities of Poland – was erased in six short years.

The interest in things Jewish is not restricted to the Kazimriez district, it extends to other parts of Krakow. The old town of Krakow which is filled with beautiful old buildings, very old Churches, and at the highest point of the town, a palace truly fit for a King. Esther and I walked around with the thousands of other tourists from all over the world. We then went down, deep below the current city and walked through the underground museum, just below the Market Square. Here we saw the oldest streets of Krakow and learned of its early development as a city and capital of Poland.   Just above the Underground Museum lies a long covered lane with tourist shops lining the path. Many sell identical wares – Polish pottery, purses, hats, jewelry, small crystal glassware.   But every other shop carries the Jewish figurines that I first learned about in Katke’s book.   They come in various sizes and they hold different objects – a violin, an accordion, a staff, – but my favorite is the one holding a coin and a money bag. I asked many shop keepers what these are. Each of them had roughly the same answer – “These are Jews. You see, Jews used to live here in Krakow and there was much Jewish culture here. These Jewish figurines are good luck charms. If you buy one and keep it in your home, you will have good luck, especially with money.” They really have no clue that this may be offensive. No clue.

Krakow jewish figurines

Here are the three that I  bought – they will go home with me and bring me good luck.

Figurines at Randi's house

While the non-Jews of Krakow and other parts of Poland keep a figurines or picture of a Jew in their home for good luck and wonder about the Jewish presence that flourished here for hundreds of years, there is a real Jewish community – a growing one — here in Krakow and in Warsaw as well. In my next post I will write of the Jews who have emerged from the shadows of death. Stay tuned.

Treblinka-the Return of the Ring

June 22, 2016. I stand here in this place of horror and pain and feel nothing. All traces of what happened here for those 17 months is gone. It feels empty, antiseptic. Bees are everywhere, buzzing with the sound of death. It’s in the air. It’s in the earth.

Then I glance at my left hand and see the ring – the Treblinka ring. So much has happened to this ring.  Nothing could protect the owner of this ring from her fate at Treblinka. But her ring lives on – on my finger. Maybe she was a mother, maybe a grandmother, maybe an Aunt, maybe she went to her death in the gas chamber holding her baby. I will never know. But this precious treasure was found here by Sam working in the laundry. He buried in the dirt by a tree, until that day – August 2, 1943 – the day of the revolt.

Sam dug up his buried treasures and escaped through a hole in the barbed wire fence. Out to the forest, to the Bug River, to Esther, to life. After liberation in the summer of 1944, Sam and Esther were married by Shmuel Rajzman – Sam’s cell leader in the Treblinka uprising. Was this the ring he placed on Esther’s finger that day? I do not know. But I know that Esther wore this ring during her life. After her death, it flew across the continent to Seattle in my husband Shlomo’s pocket – as it had been in his father’s pocket before him. Since that day, almost 19 years ago, I have worn and treasured this ring. When I look at it, I mostly remember Esther, but it also connects me to the story of the Jewish people and to this place I stand today – Treblinka.

Treblinka Elisheva reading

As we stood about the ominously buzzing bees, Elisheva read parts of Sam’s story. The story of his initial arrival here – when there was no more than a shack, the story of his hitting the Kapo and the laundry women saving his life, the story of the Lalka and how Sam was his Pet Jew, the story of the revolt and escape. As she read, she paused, allowing our guide and translator to share the story in Polish for Grzgorz and his two children (16 and 18) and his daughter’s friend. How amazing that Grzgorz wanted to come with us and that he brought his children here to this place – so close to where they live – so they too can know. This was powerful.

When Sam escaped and ran to the woods, he quickly came to the Bug River. It is close – maybe 2 kilometers. We know that Sam jumped into the River, though he did not know how to swim. He retells that he jumped in the River and then woke up on the shore – apparently, going unconscious for some time. Sam told this story as his personal Kriat Yam Suf – splitting of the Sea – like the ancient Hebrew slaves. As Sam tread once again on dry land, he kept running – about another 20 kilometers- until he ran to the part of the forest where Esther was hiding.

All these years I assumed Sam floated to the opposite shore of the river.  Grzgorz, however,  showed us that Sam most likely was not carried by the tide of the river to the other side. He ended up on the Stoczeck side, which is the same side as Treblinka.

After leaving Treblinka, we knew what we had to do. We parked our van and changed to swimsuits and then jumped into the Bug River. It is not particularly clean, but that did not stop us. We all jumped in and let the current float us down river – just as it had done to Sam that day. We were, however, conscious – conscious in all the meanings of this word. We were wide awake, singing and holding hands. We were conscious of the miracle. In fact, Shlomo and our children said a special blessing for the miracle that happened here. We were conscious of our place in the flow of history and time. We were glad to be alive and together as a family – we are part of Sam and Esther’s legacy. What an honor.

The Reunion

The small room in the home of Eugenuuisz and Alina Stys in Stare Lipki, Poland (4 kilometers from Stoczek) was filled with chairs and a table laden with food and drink.  There was hardly room to get by.  It was filled with two generations of the Goldberg family and four generations of the Stys family.  They were dressed in the Sunday best to meet us. We all settled in our chairs. Shlomo Goldberg, my husband of 31 years, stood and spoke:

“There is no way to thank you for what you did.  What you did was very unusual and we recognize that you and your parents risked your lives. If you had not done that, none of us would be here.  It says in our books that if a person saves one life, he saves a whole world. You and your parents saved many worlds.

My father is buried in Israel and on his tombstone there is a verse – ‘You brought me up from hell, gave me life from the depths of the pit.’  As I was preparing for this trip, I read further in the Psalm and the next verse includes a word that we use to describe people like you and your parents, who go far beyond what most people do  – ‘righteous people.’  I thought that it  is appropriate to sing this to you.  So I wrote music to accompany the verse and we would like to sing it to you.”

So, our children, Elisheva, Jack, Shoshana and Esther and our future son-in-law Micha and I, rose from our chairs and stood together with Shlomo before 12 members of the Stys families. We sang the verse from Psalms to the rapt attention of the group.  With the song done, the room fell silent.  I looked up and saw that almost everyone had tears in their eyes.  So did I.

Stys Jan

Stys  Eugeniusz and Alina

This was really happening.  My original dream of going to Poland and, maybe finding the house where the Stys family lived during the war blossomed into something beyond my dreams.  Here we were: inside the house where Wladyslawa and Stanislaw Stys lived with their children – Jan, Elzbieta and Eugeniusz – during the war.  We talked and talked – it seemed everyone knew the stories of Sam, Esther and Chaim hiding on their property and in the nearby forest – and everyone wanted to talk at once.  Jan and Eugenuisz and a bit later Yanina  (Helena and Alexander Stys’s 90 year old daughter-pictured at the top) told story after story of the two years in which they risked the lives of the entire family to protect and help these Jews.  We heard the story of another Lipki family who was also hiding Jews.   The Nazis found out, and the Jews and all members of the family were killed.  This was not a hypothetical fear.

We walked through the small yard, covered with scraggly brownish grass and entered an old wood barn filled with old machinery.  But on one side, was the space where Stanislaw built a hideout for the Jews.  It was made of hay – hollow in the middle.  Shlomo and I lay down on the hay to see how it felt.  Not too bad – pretty comfortable – but a bit scratchy.  We left the barn and saw just outside, where, in the event that it was too dangerous to deliver food to the hideout, it was left in dog’s pail.

Stys Shlomo Karen in barn

We took a picture with the two families standing together outside the barn.

Stys family outside barn

Next, we walked out of Eugenuisz and Alina’s yard, past the dog barking in its fenced in pen, and took a sharp left turn onto the dirt road in front of their home.  Walking not more than two minutes, we arrived at the small, old house of Helena (Oleskawa) and Alexander Stys.  Here we saw the house where Esther arrived a few days after the terrifying Nazi round up of Jews in Stoczeck in August of 1942.  Esther escaped this round up by hiding in the low, small attic in the house of her first husband – Moishe Kwaitek’s – home.  Here, we entered and saw the small rooms where the family lived.  We saw the room where their son Polikarb (now deceased) made moonshine that he shared with the hidden Jews in the cold winters to warm their souls.  We saw the kitchen where Esther would help Juliana Stys -then a girl of 15 – cook mushroom soup and repair her torn clothing on the Stys’s sewing machine. Here is where she taught Juliana how to sew a brassier.  Outside the home, there was another barn – another place to hide during the dark, cold winter.

It is not  clear, even after talking with the family members for over five hours, where Moishe, Esther and Chayim Kwiatek hid at first – in August of 1942 after the Stoczeck roundup.   But, they were somewhere around, or on, these properties – or in the woods just beyond.  I am still unclear exactly when Stanislaw built the hideout in his barn – was it in 1942 – or sometime later.

No one could tell us exactly how Moishe Kwiatek.was killed  But within a few months of their arrival at the Stys doorstep, he was separated from Esther and Chayim.  They all believe he was captured.  It could have been a Polish man who would scour the forest looking for Jews to turn them in for a reward – the Jew catcher (it was previously reported in this blog that one of Halena’s sons was the Jew catcher.  I now believe this to be false – they all knew about the hidden Jews and they all helped.  This secret was keep by all family members, even the young children.  The Jew catcher seems to have been an unrelated neighbor).

In early August 1943, after Sam escaped from Treblinka, Helena found him wandering the forest.  She introduced him to Esther and then he joined them in hiding.  It was after Sam joined Esther and Chayim that the legendary  pit in the forest was created.  This is where they lived in summer and early fall of 1943 and then again in the spring and early summer of 1944.

Eugeniusz led the way.    His daughter drove him part of the way – until the turn off from the paved road.  The rest of us walked down a path through the forest to meet him.  Our path led to a paved road – no sidewalks.  We turned right on the paved road and walked, maybe ¼ mile.  There was a small dirt path that turned left from the paved road into the forest.  We all followed Eugeniusz, who walked down this path with unexpected speed and confidence, as if he had walked the path just yesterday – not 72 years ago.

Stys forest picture

The stick-like trees of the forest stood sentinel – testifying to what happened here.  The forest is very green, with desiduois and pine trees mixed together.  Leaves carpet the forest floor with small plants and mushrooms scattered about.  Light enters the forest as the canopy of the trees shoot up high and not wide.  The birds sing loudly – trying to tell us something – not sure what.

My kids commented that these trees look just like the forests in all the Holocaust movies.  But we were not in a movie – this is real – we were walking through the forest where Esther, Sam and Chaim hid.  Their real story – came alive.

Stys - walking into forest

I was focused on following that 9-year old boy – now 82.  Suddenly, Eugeniusz stopped.  I had been looking down at the ground, so as not to trip on a branch or tree stump.  I looked up and my mouth dropped open and a gasp exited my throat.  There before me was a hole in the ground filled with leaves, but very distinct and visible.  This was the pit that Esther, Chayim and Sam dug to hide from the Nazis.  While during the cold of winter, they hid in the two barns, during the spring and summer – this was their home.  Eugeniusz explained that it was big enough for all three – quite deep.  They placed wood planks over the top and then covered the planks with leaves and branches for camouflage.  There was a spot at the edge of the pit, where they could remove the planks to get in and out.

Stys Eugenyik wa,king to forest

Shlomo did not hesitate – he went right down into the pit.  He was the only one who dared enter this holy space.  At that moment, I did not know what to feel or what to think – I just stood there looking at Shlomo and watching our children with tears in their eyes.

Stys - pit

There are many heroes of this story – some are no longer in the world of the living, but some are here – Eugenuisz, Jan, Juliana – the righteous children.  But there are other heroes of this story – one man who made this all happen – Grzegorz Malesewska – the son of Elzbieta and the grandson of Wladyslawa and Stanislaw Stys.

After my superhero travel agent – Joanna Millick – helped me find and speak to Grzegorz from Seattle, Grzegorz jumped in to contact all the Stys family members and organized this gathering.  He made us two family trees, Helena’s and Wladyslava’s – with pictures!  We will take them home and cherish them.  He spent the past two days with us – guiding us through this part of Poland – to Stare Lipki where we visited the Stys family and the forest and Wegrow (where he showed us his beautiful home and his contracting business and his store – the” Home Depot” of Poland).  He escorted us to Treblinka, to the Bug River, to Stoczek.  He showed us memorials deep in the forest where nine Jews had been shot in a pit and the memorial to the Jews of Stoczeck – at the place where some of the Stoczeck Jews were shot.  The remnants of the tomb stones from the Jewish cemetery are gathered here.  He took us to the Christian cemetery and showed us the graves of his parents, grandparents, Uncles and Aunts.  He did this all while snapping tons of pictures and videoing us all.

Stys Grzegorz

Just as Shlomo began our visit with this remarkable family by thanking them – I take this opportunity – from the bottom of my heart – to end this blog post by thanking Grzegorz for all he did to make this visit so beautiful and meaningful.  You too are one of the righteous.  Your grandparents would be proud.

 

 

 

 

MAJDANEK

Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Shmei Rabbah – thus begins the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead.  How many times was it said here at Majdanek?  Too many to count. How many tears were shed?  Too many to count.  How many people were murdered?  Too many to count.

But count we must.  Each person, Jew and non-Jew that died here, must count.  They counted during their life – they were important to someone – a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a husband, a wife, a talmid (student), a teacher, a friend.   The pile of human ash mixed with rock and bone sits quietly under the dome of a massive stone monument.  The monument itself does not speak to me – it is cold, grey and impersonal.  But the massive heap of ash and bone below the dome screams so loud that it penetrates my soul.

The crimes committed here were done by humans of flesh and blood.  How am I to begin to understand this?  I walk through the sleeping barracks where grown men and women were crammed into long wooden buildings filled from front to back to with tri-leveled wooden bunk beds with a bit of straw.  How many humans, starved and exhausted, can fit on one small wooden plank to try to find some respite in sleep for a few hours from the hell that the next morning will bring yet again.

Majdanek sleeping barrack

I walk into the men’s disinfection barracks where men removed their clothing and had to immerse in a mikve-like cement tub to become “clean.”  Really, the Nazis pushed them under water to force to open their mouths wide to reveal any hidden jewels or valuables in their mouths.  The disinfection room has shower heads on the ceiling.  Water came out of these heads – not gas.   Scalding hot water, then freezing cold, poured onto their naked bodies, as SS officers watched from the side.  Tens of thousands went straight to the gas chamber, but that was not how it began here at Majdanek.

Majdanek dissinfection room

The order to build the camp was given October 7, 1941, less than four months after the Germans expanded the war by attacking the Soviet Union.  This camp was originally built to imprison Soviet POWs and Polish political prisoners.  It was built on a hill just outside of Lublin.  You can see the city clearly from the camp.  I can imagine prisoners looking down at the city at disbelief – it was so close.

By spring of 1942, Himmler was convinced that it would be impossible to relocate the Jews of Poland.  They would have to be “eliminated.”  Thus began the transformation of Poland from a war zone to a zone of genocidal murder.  Building Chelmo, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka would not be sufficient – Himmler decided to employ Majdanek as well.  On March 25, 1942, the camp held only one hundred prisoners – none of whom were Jewish.  Three months later (June 24, 1942) Majdanek imprisoned 10,600 men, almost – Jews.  Women were added to the mix and thus it became a full blown concentration camp. (KL 319) The numbers grew quickly.  Majdanek was a hybrid camp – Jews and non-Jews, some were selected for labor, starvation and suffering.  Others were selected for immediate death.

There were 7 gas chambers, but two now remain.  I was shocked at how small they are.  One is smaller than my children’s bedrooms at home, the other slightly larger than the first, but not much.   The grey dull walls of the larger gas chamber were streaked with blue – residue left by Zyklon B, which along with carbon monoxide was used to asphyxiate the victims.  I stood before these chambers – motionless – until my body began to convulse with sobs.  I looked into these rooms and saw mothers holding their children, fathers clutching their sons, old people, barley able to stand.  I saw Jews and non-Jews.  I saw people gasping for breath.  I saw them saying Shma Yisroel.

Majdanek smaller gas chamber

Majdanek gas chamber with blue zyklon B marks

The dead bodies were taken by wooden wagons all the way across the camp to the crematorium.  Surprisingly inefficient for the Germans.  This too was smaller than I imagined.   The building is made of brick with a large chimney on top.  The corpses were searched one last time for gold teeth or other hidden valuables, then shoved into the oven, burned and the ash removed for use as fertilizer.

Majdanek crematorium bldg and chimney

Majdanek crematorium oven

After the uprisings at Treblinka (August 1943) and Sobibor (October 1943), Himmler got worried about further Jewish resistance in the camps.  So on one day – November 3, 1943, he issued an order to shoot all Jews at left at Majdanek.  It was called Operation Harvest Festival.  The SS shot 18,000 Jews into pits dug at the edge of the camp – in one day.  I looked down into the killing pits from atop the monument with the ash pile.   It stands for all to see — a silent testimony.

Yitgadal, V’yitkadash Shmei Rabbah.    

Samke (Shamki) – Pork and Eggs

The hugs kept coming.   She called me sister and began to cry.  How in the world was I going to explain to Raisa, the lone-resident of Samke, the birthplace of my grandmother, Rose Steinberg (Shteinbok in Belarus) that I cannot eat the feast she so lovingly prepared – fried pork and eggs, bread with pig schmaltz (fat), baked goat cheese, goat cottage cheese, boiled potatoes, goat milk, moonshine vodka, from potatoes and well water.

I asked my guide/translator to explain to her that for religious reasons I could not eat the food she prepared.   “None of it?”  Well, I explained, pork is forbidden and anything that is cooked in her home is considered non-kosher.

So Esther and I both sipped the fresh goat milk that Masha or Dasha had lovingly provided.  We did not like it.  I was brave enough to try the cottage cheese made from Masha’s goat milk (not a cooked product).  I did not like it.   When it came to the homemade moonshine potato vodka, we both tried it.  50 Proof!   I could do no more than get down a small sip.  But, by the time we were done with our “meal” Raisa and Andrei had both downed 4 shots – not small shots found at a synagogue Kiddush – each was at least double that!

Luckily, Andrei was happy to partake of all the prepared delicacie.  Raisa was happy that someone was eating her feast.  Lucy, our guide, as kind enough to eat a bit of the baked goat cheese.  As we lifted our glasses of vodka, we toasted Samke and long life.   “Do you know the Russian drinking song about Stalin?” I asked.  My mother-in-law, Esther, loved this song and taught to my husband Shlomo who loves to sing it and play it on our piano.  It is a drinking song to the motherland and to Stalin and it was very popular in the 1930’s before WWII.  It starts – “Vipyom zaradinu, vipyom za Stalinu, Vipyom za novadelyon.”  I began to sing and she joined right in.  She knew the song much better than I.  (video posted on facebook) Well, that induced a new round of pouring and apparently, like the Jewish tradition at a Passover Seder – one never pours one’s own drink, she poured for me, Esther and Andrei and Andrei poured for her.  Well, more singing – louder and more exuberant than before.  At the end of a swig, the bottom of the glass must be visible, so I slipped my clear and odorless liquid into my water.  No way was I drinking more of this stuff.  But I sang heartily and laughed, looking around at her sparse and poorly built home.  I took in the scene and the savored the moment.

Raisa’s home is made of flat wood – not the round log cabin type that adorned this shtetl before the war.  It is painted a fashionable yellow and blue, but the paint is dull and fading. Her small yard is gated and covered with grass.  Entering the yard, the first thing you see are the goats – Masha, Dasha, and Yasha.  They are friendly and cute.  Then you notice the chickens running around the yard.  Beautiful chickens really, full of color and wandering free -the eggs produced are definitely “cage free” and not corn fed!   They live in a small wooden coop on the other side of the barn, just next to a huge wall of cut fire wood.   Does Raisa cut her own firewood?   I did not ask.  There is a small dog on a chain hiding in a shed and a cat asleep near the house.

Upon entering her home, there are no doors – a curtain of gold color marks the entrance to the small ante-room.  Raisa quickly brought out a narrow, long table for us to sit around and enjoy our feast.   To enter the living area, you go through another curtain.  The first room is small but crowded with things, including a telephone – the old fashion kind – attached to the wall.  On the wall are three pictures:  her husband who died many years ago; her two children, one of whom lives in Chaloponitch and the other who lives in Minsk; and of herself as a young woman.  Yet another curtain separates the tiny kitchen where the pork and eggs are frying next to a pot of boiled potatoes.  The final room of the house has a television and a large embroidered picture of the Mother Mary holding baby Jesus.  This is where she prays.

Raisa, Masha, Yasha, Dasha, the chickens, the dog and the cat are all that is left of our beloved Shtetl, Samke.  The rest is covered with trees, bushes, flowers and grass.  I cannot imagine how Raisa lives here in the winter when the mercury dips well below zero and snow falls in feet, not inches.  Having met Raisa, though, I know that those who lived and died in this place – both Jew and non-Jew – were warm-hearted, loving people, full of life, good food and good drink.  She represents the harsh, but good life that my family must have had here.  As we drive back down the long, grass-grown road back to Chaloponitch, I think of the stories told and the memories held by my grandmother, great Aunts and great Uncles and I look at my daughter, Esther, in the seat next to me and I say “thank G-d my great-grandmother left this place.”

We head back to Chaloponitch and Andrei gives us a grand tour of the bleak and dull looking Soviet-era town hall.  He proudly shows us the meeting room where townsfolk gather to vote and discuss matters of import.  He shows us his sparsely furnished office, with a picture of President Aleksander Loekasjenko.  Then we take a short walk to the posts office to see the place of the legendary story of  Uncle Sam having to take his hat off before the picture of the Czar.   Andrei informed us that the building itself was replaced after the war, but the location is the same.   It was a small and antiseptic with one clerk sitting safely behind a glass wall.   Not much to see – we snapped a picture and left.

Then Andrei began talking to a woman he met on the street.   The result of the conversation that I did not understand was that we walked down the street a block or so and meet an 80-something year old woman who was born and lived until 1969 in Shamki (that is what they call it).  She was sitting in her small yard, under the shade of a tree.  Her niece explained who I was and asked if she would talk to me about Shamki.  She described the place as a wonderful place to grow up.  They were farmers and had many geese.  After the war, it was not the same – the Jews were all gone.  She described that terrible day in 1941 when the Germans came and told all the Jews that they could pack a 5 kilo suitcase and then marched them out of the Shtetl over to a pit three kilometers from Chaloponitch, and shot them, one by one.   She began to cry at the memory – it was upsetting.  Her father was working in the mill with some of the Jews and at first the Germans thought he too was a Jew and began to beat him.  He showed them the cross around his neck – so let him go home, bloody, but alive.  She moved here in 1969 and has lived in Chaloponitch ever since.  We thanked her for her time, snapped another picture and hopped back in our van for Vlad – our driver – to transport us in space and time back to Minsk.

Minsk itself is a time warp, with its elegant, but small, pre-war buildings mixed in among the newer, stark and large Soviet-style buildings, but it is light years ahead of Shamki and Chaloponitch.

I am so glad that I took the time to visit Minks, Samke and Chaloponitch before heading off to Poland.  It was well worth the effort and now I know that there is no looking back and my great-grandmother, Chaya Tzivia Rossman Shteinbok, whose name I carry, is my hero.

I spent a beautiful Shabbat here in Warsaw and last night went to the Warsaw JCC for a silent dance party.  I will report on this soon.  Today – off to visit Lublin and Majdanik.