Antisemitism – Some Background


Peter Hays’ new book, Why? Explaining the Holocaust is a worthy read.   In it, he asks a series of questions:

  • Why the Jews?
  • Why the Germans?
  • Why Murder?
  • Why This Swift and Sweeping?
  • Why Didn’t More Jews Fight Back More Often?
  • Why Did Survival Rates Diverge?
  • Why Such Limited Help form Outside?
  • What Legacies, What Lessons?

In 343 pages, he attempts to answer these questions.  In doing so, he puts together many pieces of the Holocaust puzzle in a coherent way.

In the first section – Why the Jews?, he reviews some of the factors that pre-dated antisemitism (please note – no hyphen).

He begins with a problem that arose for the new Christians.  Because the Jews rejected Christ, they had to suffer as a “physical representation of the consequence.”[1]   But at the same time, Jesus was a Jew and was God’s chosen one.  “Indeed,” states Hays, the Jews “had to be allowed to live, albeit in misery, until the wondrous day when they saw the light and converted, for that development would herald the Last Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Hays states that the Jews were the only religious minority who remained legal under Christian rule.  Their “adherents were not automatically and always slaughtered,” he continues, “as the Cathars, Lolards, and other dissenters were.”[2]

The contradictory positions that Jews must suffer, but that no harm should come to them, created an impossible situation and the people couldn’t live in that tension.   In response to a crisis that they could not control, the Christians blamed the Jews.  Mob violence erupted against Jews, culminating in the blood libels.  A Jew or Jews were accused of murdering a Christian to take his blood to make matza needed for Passover.  These charges became opportunities for massacres, at first in England, in the 12th century, and later in other parts of Europe.[3]  Hays points out that the charge of taking a Christian’s blood to make matza was a “projection of a corrupted form of the Catholic belief in transubstantiation – the creed that the communion wafer and wine becomes the real flesh and blood of Christ during the Mass.”[4]  This association between crisis and massacre of Jews can be seen in the massacres that came after the Italian famine of 1315-1317 and the outbreak of the Black Death in the Rhineland in 1347.[5]

The Christians separated themselves from the Jews and forced the Jews to be restricted in their professions.  The Jews were stuck with “despised or dangerous activities, such as moneylending or leather tanning.”[6]   Negative images of Jews became part of the landscape.  For example, at Easter time, people put on Passion Plays, which showed the Jews as the murderers of Christ.

Before the reformation, in the 16th century, the hatred of Jews centered on the idea that Jews were parasites who would  take Christian wealth.  It also rested on the idea that Satan sent the Jews to serve his purpose and to cause problems for pious Christians.[7]

The era of Enlightenment arrived in Europe in the 18th Century and this changed the attitude of many Christians and the lives of many Jews.   The problem of the Jew could now be solved, with “kindness and opportunity” rather than “cruelty and suffering.”[8]  Hays states that Emancipation attempted to make the Jews more like Christians and with the Declaration of Rights of Man on August 26, 1789, all people were considered free and equal.   To this end, in the 1780’s the Austrian Emperor Joseph II abolished residential and occupational restrictions on Jews and opened universities and schools to them. Later, Napoleon Bonaparte did the same in France.[9]

Jews took advantage of their new access to education, moving to the cities in droves.  Industrialization and advancements in transportation created more competition and opened markets.  Hays cites some statistics from 1880-1910 that blew me away:

  • Austria – Jews were 3-4% of population, but 17% of the university students. In Vienna – Jews made up 62% of the lawyers, 50% of the doctors and dentist, 45% of the university medical faculty, and 25% of the total faculty, 55% of the professional journalists, 40% of the directors of publicly traded banks, and 70% of the board members of the Vienna stock exchange.
  • Hungary – Jews were 5% of the population, but 25% of the university students & 43% of those at leading technological universities; Jews accounted for 34% of the lawyers and 48% of the doctors.
  • Prussia (one part of Germany)- Jews were less than 1% of the population, but 5.4% of the university students, and 17% of those at the University of Berlin; in 1912, 20% of the millionaires in Prussia were Jews.
  • Germany as a whole – Jews were 0.95% of the population, but accounted for 31% of the wealthiest families.[10]

Hayes argues that the era of antisemitism, beginning about 1880, was not religious, but rather, a political movement.  It was a reaction to the era of Enlightenment and the visible upward mobility of the Jews and the new competition the Christians had from this newly liberated group.

The science of evolution and biology led to a study of skulls and facial features that indicate intelligence and superiority.  And the idea that Jews were “like” Christians was rejected.  Julius Langbehn, “a widely read German antisemite, put the matter: ‘A Jew can no more become a German than a plum can turn into an apple.’”[11]  Once Jews were identified with undesirable physical characteristics, their extraction was “justified as a form of racial hygiene.”[12]  Antisemitism did not focus on how a Jew behaved, but rather on “what they intrinsically and unchangeable supposedly are. . .. Jews could not be changed, but only contained and then eliminated.”[13]

This new political idea called antisemitism was not the reason the Holocaust happened, but it laid groundwork for Hitler’s rise to power.

Figurines at Randi's house


[1] Why at 9.

[2] Id. at 10.

[3] Id. at 12.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 14.

[9] Id. at 14-15.

[10] Id. at 28-29.

[11] Id. at 16.

[12] Id. at 19.

[13] Id. at 15.




Memorial to the Jews of Europe

What is a semite?

Semite comes from the name of the oldest son of Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Shem.  Since neither Greek nor Latin have the “sh” sound, the name became “Sem.”[1]  “Semite” was used in linguistics to describe a person who is part of an ethnic, cultural or racial group who speak a Semitic language.[2]

In the late 1800’s, there were a lot of “isms,” and “anti-isms.”  For example, there was communism and anti-communism, socialism and anti-socialism.  These are belief systems with which people agree or disagree.  The idea of “anti-ism” was bastardized to describe negative political action against Jews.  Jews were singled out as the only speakers of a Semitic language to be found worthy of the “anti-ism” label.

In 1879, the German journalist Wilhelm Marr wrote a pamphlet called “The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism.”  This pamphlet popularized the newly-coined term “antisemitism” to describe a new form of hostility towards Jews.   Marrs’ followers founded the “League for Antisemitism.”[3]

The German word is Antisemitismus.[4]  Though most English-language writers spell this word: “Anti-Semitism” with a hyphen, the original German word does not include a hyphen.  Placing a hyphen between “anti” and “Semitism” implies that there is something called “Semitism,” which there is not.[5]

After I read about the hyphen controversy in Peter Hays book, Why? Explaining the Holocaust, I decided to drop the hyphen and spell the word: “antisemitism.”   Now this is a challenge because I use word to type and it keeps underlining “antisemitism,” trying to convince me that I am spelling it wrong.  But I will persevere and continue to spell it sans hyphen.

I encourage you to do the same.



[1] Includes Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic.  See My Jewish Learning: Who are the Semites, by Bernard E. Lewis.

[2] Semitic People – Wikipedia.

[3] Id.

[4] Hays, Peter.  Why?  Explaining the Holocaust at 5.

[5] Id.


     To meet a cousin you never dreamed you had, does not happen every day.  For both Shlomo Goldberg and Idul Lis, this is what happened last Sunday.  They spoke by video phone, between Seattle and Marki, Poland.

    When the Nazis arrived in Bagatele in 1939, there was chaos in the small farming village.  The Nazis were burning houses and shooting.  People ran in every direction.  In the chaos, Idul, age six, was separated from his family.  He found himself alone in the forest. 

     He survived by hiding in the forest and in barns of Polish farmers.  Some farmers were kind and some were less kind.  One farmer allowed him to hide in his barn in exchange for watching his animals and an occasional beating.  He was a boy, but he knew he was being hunted.  He never knew which adults were safe and which were enemies.  He hid until 1948 because he did not realize the war was over. 

     Idul felt abandoned by his family.  After the war, he discarded his Judaism, served in the Polish military, married and had three daughters.  One of them, Marta, was with us on the phone call and served as translator.  But Idul never lost his feeling of abandonment. He waited and hoped that someday his family would find him. 

     “Do you remember my grandparents, Zelig and Faiga Goldberg?” Shlomo asked him.

     “No,” he said. “But I remember that when I would walk down the street to my Goldberg grandparents’ house, there were some people who stopped me and gave me hugs on the way.”

     That may well have been Sam Goldberg’s family, as they lived a few houses down from Idul’s family, on the way to his grandparents. 

     “I hope to come and visit you,” Shlomo said at the end of the call.

     “Yes, please,” Idul said.  “Don’t wait so long.”    




Eleven kilometers above earth, flying between Bologna, Italy and Wroclaw, Poland, I had an encounter with a flying Father that I can only say lifted my spirits even higher than the airplane.

Father Ludwik Myeielski is an 82-year-old Benedictine Monk.  He has been serving God in this role for 61 years.  The Order of St. Benedictine is an ancient order of Catholic Monks originating around the year 500 CE.  We sat side by side, in the very back row of the Ryan Air Flight.  If you have ever flown on Ryan air, you know how cramped it is.  I was in the window seat and Father Ludwik was in the middle seat.

I settled into my small space and planned to enjoy the next hour and half reading Why, Explaining the Holocaust, by Peter Hayes (one of the finest books I have read on the Holocaust – I highly recommend it).  I noticed that the man next to me was wearing priestly clothing, but I was not sure what sect.  I noticed that as soon as the plane lifted, he crossed himself and then began soundlessly reading a small, well-worn book with very small print.  Within a few minutes, he noticed the title of my book and told me that many members of his family were murdered in Auschwitz.  Not sure that I wanted to engage in conversation, I simply said:

“I am so sorry to hear that.  The war was a terrible time.” And went back to reading.

He did not give up.

“Do you have relatives in Poland?”  he asked.

“Yes, I do, actually.”  I responded, thinking of Marta and Idul (Yusif) Lis.

Then my extrovert endorphins kicked in and my desire to engage in conversation with this friendly Monk took over.

“What are you reading?”  I asked.

“This is the Gospels,” he replied.  “I read it in ancient Greek.”

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“One hundred kilometers outside of Wroclaw,” he responded.  “In a Benedictine Monastery.”

“My name is Karen.  May I ask your name?”  I said.

He told me his name, but there was no way I could spell it, so I asked him to write it down for me.  He wrote: “Ludwik Mycielski, OSB.”

“What does OSB stand for?” I asked ignorantly.

“Oder of Saint Benedict,” he responded.

“Why were your relatives murdered in Auschwitz?” I asked next.

Father Ludwik explained that when the war began in 1939 he was a young boy of 5.  He may have been young, but he remembers everything. The Germans killed and imprisoned many Poles. Many were sent to Auschwitz where they were imprisoned and later killed. His father had a cousin, named Wlodzimierz Szembek, a priest of the Order of Salezjanin.  He was arrested and held in the special barrack at Auschwitz for Polish clergy.   His mother used to send this cousin packages at Auschwitz – until they heard in 1942 that he had been murdered.  Today, if you go to this clergy barrack at Auschwitz, you can see Father Szemberk’s picture on the wall – it is the first one upon entering the barrack, on the left side.

Then he explained that his father was a wealthy land owner in Poland.  He owned 17,000 Hectares (compare to Zelig of Bagatele who owned 25 Hectares and that was considered a large farm).  Because of his wealth, he was pursued by the Nazis and their family was forced to move from city to city to evade capture.

I remarked that his English is very good and asked how many languages does he know.  He responded, if I recall correctly, five.

“Wow,” I said.  “I only know two – English and Hebrew.”

“I wish I knew Hebrew better,” he lamented.

He then sat up very straight and began to recite the beginning versus of Genesis:

Bereishit Bara Elohim Et Hashamayim V’et Haaretz.  V’Haarets Haita Tohu Vovohu, V’Choshech Al Pnai Tehom.”  (“In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. And the land was Tohu V’avohu and there was darkness on the face of Tehom.”)

I could not resist, I joined in – and together we intoned:

V’ruach Elohim merachefet al pnai hamayim.”  (“And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water.”)

We smiled at each other and nodded.  I did not verbalize it at the time, but I was thinking, “Yes, this we share – our humanity.  We are all created in the image of God and hold a spark of the divine within us.”

The plane landed safely in Wroclaw.  When we exited the plane, I introduced Father Ludwik to my daughter, Esther, who was sitting in a different row.  We parted ways, but agreed to stay in touch.

Friendships born in heaven are sure to last.


Bialystok train sign

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

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

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

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

Bialystok fancy home

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

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

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

Bialystok park

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

Bialystok Zamenhof

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

Bialystok soldiers2

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

Bialystok Tarbut School

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

Bialystok freezing Esther





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

Malkinia station sign

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

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

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

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

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

Tracks at Malkinia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Mr. Zaleski with amputated leg

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

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

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

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

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

Shlomo Talis and Tefillin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May their memories be blessed.

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