See Yourself As if You Left Egypt

In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.  Passover Hagadah.

It was at the Passover Seder that Sam Goldberg would tell and retell his tales of slavery and exodus.  He would recount the stories of his family’s flight from their home, his capture by the German after Blitzkrieg, his escape from the German POW camp, the horrors of Treblinka and the revolt, meeting Esther in the woods, hiding in the pit, fleeing the murderous Poles in Ostrow and the arrival on the US Jumper to New York Harbor.  It was not hard to “regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt,” because he had.

In the spirit of helping us imagine ourselves as people who were enslaved, whose lives were embittered, who had no freedom, I share with you some quotes from a powerful book I just finished:  Such a Beautiful Sunny Day: Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945, by Barbara Engleking.  In this book, Professor Engelking attempts to look hard at what happened to those Jews in the Polish countryside who escaped the initial liquidation of towns and ghettoes.  Those, like Esther Goldberg, who hid in an attic and were not caught when the Nazi soldiers came to Stoczek to take the Jews to Treblinka.   Or those very few, like Sam, who escaped a Death Camp – like Treblinka.  She found testimonies – in court records, diaries and other Jewish sources – of  those who hid in the Polish countryside.

Estera Cudzynowska – hiding in area of Dzialoszyce (Pinczow County):

“Together with other castaways I was hiding in burrows, cellars, and pits.  We lived like moles, digging more and more deeply into the ground to avoid the terrible fate that befell our loved ones. [. . . ] I was completely alone, without means and without any possibilities.   I avoided people. I was panic-stricken by my fear of them.  I left my hiding place only at night, like an owl. [. . . ] As a result of this lifestyle, my intuition developed to the point that I could sense danger at a distance.  My sense of smell came to resemble that of a wild animal.  I changed my whereabouts very often because playing children often discovered my tracks. [. . . ] I pulled out succulent blades of grass and ate them.  I quenched my thirst by sucking liquids from roots.  Sometimes someone would pity me and throw me a piece of bread like to a dog.  For me it was nothing less than a feast.” (Engelking, 63)

Jochewed Kantorowicz from Traczyn wandered with her sister:

“Thrown out from everywhere and robbed, ultimately they decided to dig a shelter in the forest: ‘My sister told me: ‘Even rabbits make pits for themselves, why should we be worse than rabbits?’ We started to dig the pit at night.  We worked so strenuously that we dug the whole pit over two nights.   We lined it with moss, and covered the opening with spars.  We lay for two weeks in this pit. [. . . ] One day some peasants discovered us[. . . ] We fled to another forest. [. . . ] We became skilled at digging pits and over several days we dug several of them, but had to leave them because we were seen every time.  We decided to dig a shelter by the river because the underbrush was very thick there.  However, this shelter didn’t come out as we wanted, because it was too close to water and liable to be flooded. [. . . ] We were getting terribly cold; it was already October 9, 1943, and the trees were covered with hoarfrost.  We were going helplessly in circles, barefoot and hungry in the forest. We didn’t know what to do, and decided to go into a larger forest.’” (Engelking, 77-78)

Journal of Aryek Klonicki:

“Heat swallows us during the day, and we suffer from cold during the night.  However, we would be happy if we knew for certain that his was our greatest problem.  Adam, our little son, is with Frania in her house. [. . . ] We decided not to leave the field even during the night so that no one would notice our presence. This is why we cannot see our bubele. [. . . ] Last night, July 8, I didn’t write. There was a pouring rain at seven o’clock and we got wet. We waited until one o’clock in the morning for the rain to stop, as we had been exposed to the downpour for six hours, but it didn’t stop.  We left the field and went to our peasants. He feared to shelter us in the house and put us up in the potato pit, where we spent the whole day. Darkness didn’t let me write. [. . . ] Yesterday I didn’t write anything.  It was fiercely cold. On July 9, in the evening an icy wind began blowing and it lasted for the whole day yesterday.  It’s terribly uncomfortable. Gusts of wind penetrate our bones. . . . Last night we couldn’t sleep and today too we can barely close our eyes.  [. . . ] The sky is overcast.  A cold wind is blowing.  We are waiting for the sun to come out and warm our freezing bodies. [. . . ] The unceasing rains flattened the grains in the field. As a result, we were noticed by a peasant who happened to pass by. [. . . ] It’s been raining all day with short breaks.  I don’t know whether I’ll be able to continue my diary.  For all I know these could be my last words.  I’m ending now because it’s raining.” (Engelking, 96)

 

These accounts help me imagine more intimately the impossible situation in which Sam, Esther and other Jews found themselves, allowing me to appreciate my freedom anew.   As I anticipate gathering with the Goldberg family at our Seders, I will do my best to regard myself as if I left Egypt or more recently, Poland and to experience the Passover Seder with fresh eyes and renewed vigor.

I invite you, the readers of this blog, to take a Sam and Esther story, share it at your Seder and feel as if you too were liberated.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach – wishing you a very happy Passover.

 

 

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Father Figiel Speaks Out.

Group picture Mr. Zaleski

[Photo: Front Row:  Mr. Zaleski.  Back row:  Esther Goldberg; Father Rafal Figiel; Marta Lis; me)

I received this private Facebook message from Father Figiel (if you don’t recall, he is the Catholic Priest who introduced us to our Lis cousins and introduced me to Mr. Zaleski):
Dear Karen, I am sorry that I write only now but only now I read on your webside the speech of Shlomo. I cried. Shlomo so beautifully said all that, what necessary, true and painful. It is the truth that many people were then cruel but thank Goodness, were also such people as the family Stys. The this world was then mean. We must do all so it never would be. To speak to children, to bring up. Thank Shlomo from me for his beautiful words. My heart is with him, I think like he.

Shlomo speach 2

(photo:  Shlomo at Yad Vashem ceremony on Jan. 15 in Warsaw)

I am so moved. This courageous Priest is standing up to the powers in his country who are attempting to create a world of newspeak that never allows mention of the brutal acts of some Polish people during the war.  This is not simple for him to do.
He is standing up – not just in a private note to me. On February 7, he posted this statement on Facebook:
New research – including mine – shows a significant direct participation of poles in murdering Jews not only in 1941, but also in 1942, 1943 and 1944 The whole occupation. The degree of commitment, motivation and effectiveness needs to be determined, but there is no question that the scale of this współsprawstwa was not an isolated or negligible phenomenon. I wonder how the authorities will approach further publications on this subject.” (Jan Grabowski).
Well, now we know how they come.
He quotes Jan Grabowski who is the author of the book I am currently devouring – Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland.  This book should be required reading for every member of the Polish Parliament.  It details the lives of Jews hiding from the Nazis in a rural area of Poland.  It describes the extensive German-Polish collaboration in order to root out the hidden Jews.  True, there were some who participated in rooting out the Jews because they truly feared for their own lives, but many participated with zealous anti-Semitism and greed.

I will write more on what I have learned from this book once I finish it, but in the meantime, I am more grateful than ever to the Stys family for helping Esther, Moishe, Chayim, Velvel and Esther during the darkest hour of the 20th century.

Shlomo and Eugenuisz

(Photo:  Shlomo with Eugenuisz Stys)

 

 

 

Don’t Say It – It’s Against the Law

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[photo:  Home of the President, Warsaw, Poland]

He signed it.

The Polish President, Andrzej Duda, signed legislation making it a crime to say that Poles played an active role in the murder of Jews who died on Polish soil or to say the phrase “Polish Death Camp.”  Much ink has been spilled about this legislation. but alas, I shall spill a bit more.

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I get it – the death camps were built and run by the Germans.  Poles suffered terribly during World War II.  First, they were attacked from two sides, by the Germans and the Soviets.  Bombs fell everywhere, people died, soldiers were taken as prisoners, Polish intelligencia, professionals and clergy were imprisoned and murdered at an alarming rate.  When I met Brother Ludwig on the plane from Italy to Poland, he told me of his Uncle, a priest, that was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where he died.

THE FLYING FATHER

https://soyouwanttowriteaholocaustbook.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/the-flying-father/

Then a mere two years after the initial attack and occupation, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and took control of the other half of Poland.  Germany’s goal was European domination and the Poles were in the middle of the world they wanted to dominate.

The Germans controlled every city and hamlet in Poland, gathering the Jews for death, but while making the lives of the Poles miserable.  In Poland, a whole year after the Warsaw Ghetto was beaten to a pulp and burned like kindling, the rest of Warsaw rebelled against the Nazi occupiers.  They too were crushed by the German war machine.

There is resentment in the Poland of today.  Resentment that blame for the Holocaust gets laid at their feet as they retort – “it wasn’t our fault.”  They are angered by the thousands of High School students and other “Holocaust tourists” who swarm into Poland each year to see the human ashes from which the State of Israel arose (though their tourist industry makes a ton on these tours).   This is not new.  A decade ago, these feelings were expressed by the then President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski[1], when he visited Israel.  Yuli Tamir, Minister of Education in 2008, wrote an article that appeared in yesterday’s Haaretz.  In 2008, she was schooled by President Kaczynski:

I understand the terrible pain and powerful urge not to forget what happened, Kaczynski said, but you forgave the Germans. You forgave because they had money to pay you; they bought their forgiveness with money. We were poor. We were under the Soviet juggernaut, so we couldn’t offer you a thing, and you cynically made a decision to divert your fire to us. You send your high school students to Poland, they march in our streets, waving Israeli flags, exuding hatred and fear; they look at us as though they’re seeing Satan, and then they go to Berlin to have a good time. And they have it good in Berlin, they sit in the cafes next to Gestapo headquarters and feel good. In Germany, they see culture and art; in Poland they see only bodies.

You are rewriting history – he raised his voice and suddenly looked worn out and angry. You are deliberately blurring the difference between the horrific testimonies about Poles who murdered and massacred Jews, and the fact that the Polish people and its government never declared a war of annihilation on the Jews – the annihilation policy was official German policy. I respect and understand the pain of the victims, but we too were victims. Our whole history is a history of defeats: Poland was conquered, divided, united, passed from hand to hand. Now it is independent and will write its history anew, as befits a free nation.

In the past ten years, the chorus of Polish voices on both sides of this debate has risen to a deafening scream.  Some Poles bemoan their victimhood, others focus on the righteous Gentiles who saved Jews, while others research and write about the not-so righteous and the downright evil, laying bare the truth for the world to see.  Jan Gross’s book Neighbors about how the Poles forced the Jews of the town of Jedwabne into a barn and burned them to death.

https://soyouwanttowriteaholocaustbook.wordpress.com/2016/12/04/jedwabne-and-jim-crow-south/

The post-war years (1945-1989) put Poland in a deep freeze under Soviet control. This led to a strange convergence.  One the one hand, under Soviet control, Jews were citizens with full rights, but antisemitism bubbled under the surface of “equality”, leading to an eruption, forcing 20,00 Jews to leave the country in 1968.   Under these difficult Soviet years, there was little reflection about what happened to the Jews in their towns and neighborhoods.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, the Poles have been looking in the mirror and asking what kind of people are we and who do we want to be?  How can we make sense of what happened here?   There are many reactions.  One reaction is anger and a competition of victimhood.   Another reaction is an exploration of the lost culture of the Jews, as they come by the thousands to the Krakow Jewish Festival held in June of each year, volunteer at the Krakow JCC, and restore old Jewish cemeteries.  Then there are those Polish citizens discovering that a parent or a grandparent is or was Jewish and they never knew it, or they knew, but it was a secret.  The Czyzewski family is one example of this struggle and Jewish renewal.  When I visited, I sensed positive energy among both Jews and non-Jews about what the future will bring as they all explore what Judaism is and how it can be, once again, part of the Polish fabric of life.

krakow JCC sign

https://soyouwanttowriteaholocaustbook.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/poland-jewish-is-the-new-cool-part-ii/

Perhaps when we travel to Poland, we should listen more carefully and with sensitivity to the Poles who wish to express their victimhood.  I feel I could do a better job of that.  But the Poles must be sensitive to the truth that the Nazi’s success at implementing the Final Solution couldn’t have occurred without the help, and in some cases, active involvement, of the non-Jewish Poles.

 

[1] Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash on April 10, 2010, when his plane carrying his wife Maria and top pubic and military figures as it flew to Russia to commemorate the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviet secret police organization NKVD carried out a series of mass executions of Polish people in April and May of 1940.

Introducing karentreiger.com

DSC_9705

Check out my new website:

https://karentreiger.com/

On the website, there is a summary of the book, a section about the Yad Vashem ceremony on January 15th, a link to my blog and loads of pictures.  I put the ones from the Yad Vashem ceremony on top.  If you click the pictures you can scroll through and see captions.

All feedback is welcome – this is a work in progress.

 

“Polish Collaborators” – Don’t Say It, You Could Go to Jail.

 Palace of Culture - warsaw from flicker

(Photo: Palace of Culture – Warsaw, Poland) 

The Jewish world is astir.  Old wounds are re-opened.  

The lower house of the Polish Parliament passed a bill criminalizing the mention of the “Polish nation” and especially the hated term “Polish death camp” when discussing crimes committed during the Holocaust.  To add salt to the wound, the legislation passed on Friday – one day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  If this bill is approved by the upper house of Parliament, it will be presented to the President for his signature.  Violators, including non-Polish citizens, will be subject to a fine or imprisonment up to three years.

https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-poland-votes-to-criminalize-any-mention-of-polish-holocaust-crimes-1.576756

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the legislation and people throughout the world are aghast.  I feel, however, that with this legislation, the world is beginning to wake up to the deep-seated feelings of Polish self-pity.   There is no doubt that the Poles suffered terribly during the war, but  their narrative of victimhood is sown deep into the soil of their culture.   I believe that just as the Poles resented the Jew before and during the war, they continue to resent the Jew.  But now the resentment stems from the sympathy and world attention that the murder of six million has wrought.  The Poles don’t get such sympathy about what happened to them during the war.  It isn’t fair.    

This legislative attempt to whitewash the participation and collaboration of Poles during the war is absurd.  There is not enough primer in the world to cover up the murderous and hateful acts of so many Polish people.   Examples – just in Sam and Ether’s story, abound:

·      Except for the Syts family and perhaps one other (Dobosh family), the Poles living in the area around Stoczek refused to help Sam and Esther, even to give them a bit of bread;

·      There was a Polish Jew Catcher who scoured the woods outside of Stoczek, searching for hidden Jews to turn them in to the Nazis for a kilo of sugar;

·      According to Janina, it was a Pole who murdered Moishe Kwiatek, Esther’s first husband, as he gathered food in the Toporski forest; and

·      Even after the war, the Poles of Ostrow were preparing to murder Sam, Esther and baby Fay to take their property.  As they sped out of town, rocks were thrown at the car to try to stop them. 

These few recollections do not recount the hundreds of instances in which Poles pointed out the Jewish homes so that the Nazi’s could round up the Jewish vermin for extermination.  Nor does it describe the glee with which Poles looted the vacated Jewish homes and businesses or how the Poles hiked over to Treblinka, after it closed, and dug through the human ash and bones searching for left over dental gold or coins. 

If I was a Pole, the term “Polish Death Camps” would also make me angry.  The Poles did not build or run the Nazi Death Camps.  But to outlaw all mention of Poles’ involvement in the murder and robbery that took place on Polish soil from 1939 until 1947 is to ignore the truth.  If this legislation is enacted, Shlomo’s speech made at the Yad Vashem ceremony may turn a gentle doctor into a criminal.  After all, his speech mentions Polish collaborators.

If the Polish Holocaust police find this blog, you may all have to come visit both Shlomo and me in Polish prison.  Please send food! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shlomo Goldberg Speaks at Warsaw Palace while Polish Legislators Debate Tightening Restitution Laws

Shlomo speach 2

It’s Poland’s version of Versaille – a beautiful palace in Warsaw’s Old Town.   Shlomo  spoke there during the Yad Vashem ceremony on Monday, January 15th, to a crowd of 300 people, including the Israeli and American Ambassadors to Poland.  The ceremony honored ten families who aided Jewish families during the war, including the Stys family who helped Esther and Sam.   His speech was a shortened version of the Dvar Torah I posted last week.  But many have asked- so here it is:

I came  to Poland for a ceremony recognizing the Stys family, who helped my parents survive their years of hiding from the murderous NAZIs ,as “Righteous Among the Nations” 

What my parents were doing when the Stys family bravely helped them is often called “hiding.” Hiding does not really capture what my parents were doing.  My parents were hunted like noxious, dangerous animals.  They could be killed without penalty. They did not have housing, a reliable food supply, or water for bathing. It was a crime to aid or shelter them.  These righteous Polish people were, according to the NAZIs, committing a capital offense. 

This time of the year, Jewish tradition recalls the Egyptian bondage and Exodus in our weekly readings from the Torah scroll.   The story deals with relationships between peoples of different nations.  Within the first 20 verses of the book of Exodus, the immigrant Hebrews are enslaved; the cruel Pharaoh has ordered that all Hebrew male infants be drowned, but the God-fearing midwives refuse the order to murder the babies.    They are answering to a higher authority. 

Belief in God, when mixed with courage, can contain tyranny. 

Some commentators posit that these righteous midwives were Egyptian, not Hebrew.  This is an appealing interpretation.  Perhaps these midwives were the forerunners of the people that helped my parents, and others, during the holocaust

When the infant Moses is cast into the Nile, the princess daughter of the most evil Pharaoh recognized the contraband Hebrew child. She rescued the child from the water. Here we are certain that an Egyptian, a member of the Royal family, a daughter of the Pharaoh, rescued a persecuted child.  Barbarity is not inherited; it is not an inevitable national character, nor a necessary consequence of social class. There were good Egyptians.

This story contains ideas of subjugation: the enslavement of the descendants of Jacob, an attempt at genocide, the oppression of women (the daughters of Jethro).  It shows that organized societies can go down the path of evil.  It shows that individuals- Shifra, Pua, the daughter of Pharoah, Jethro- may show courage, help the downtrodden, and become heroes in the light of history. 

We should continue to celebrate those that answered to the Highest Authority and bravely supported the oppressed, like the Stys family who helped my parents and allowed my birth. 

 I am very proud of Shlomo for going to Poland alone and speaking at this ceremony.   The American Ambassador spoke with him afterwards and told him that his speech as the most moving of all.  Nice.  Shlomo was interviewed by Polish TV and radio – a new Polish celebrity is born!   

Shlomo being interviewed 2

While righteous Poles are being thanked at the Palace, the Polish parliament is debating how and whether to restrict laws that provide a pathway for restitution of property stolen during the war.   Poland’s Law and Justice Party is advocating  legislation that, if enacted, would practically bring to an end any hopes of restitution.   “Under the proposals, restitution would cease,” explains an article published in today’s on-line version of Tablet Magazine:  

http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/253433/poland-holocaust-restitution-laws?utm_source=tabletmagazinelist&utm_campaign=0526bd907d-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_19&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c308bf8edb-0526bd907d-207464133

The article explains that “compensation would be capped at 20 percent of the property’s prewar value, or 25 percent in Polish government bonds. Only Polish citizens would be eligible for compensation, and applications would be restricted to the spouses or direct descendants of prewar owners making applications from within the country. Anyone who has given up their Polish citizenship or served in a foreign military force would be excluded. Only the heirs of property-owners who were resident at the time of nationalization would be eligible to apply.”  

I think this would rules out Shlomo or his sisters ever claiming restitution of the Goldberg farm in Bagatele or the small home owned by the Wisznia family in Stoczek (burnt down by the Nazis)   – not that they were planning on it, but still . . .

So much loss, so much pain, but we move forward to say thank you to those that helped and build a better world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Limmud and Yad Vashem – Emotional Weekend

Stys medal

Satisfaction and gratitude.

These are some of my feelings on this Martin Luther King Day of 2018.   Two major events occurred during this holiday weekend for which I feel both satisfaction and gratitude.   One was 18 miles away and the other was 5,214 miles away.

*****

Limmud Seattle, a Jewish festival of learning, music, art and food, took place in Shoreline, Washington, a short 30-minute drive from my home.   With over 500 participants from all over greater Seattle (and beyond) and hundreds of volunteers, it was a tour de force.   Happy participants learned, sang, danced and ate their way through 24 hours of Talmud, Midrash, cartooning, Sephardic culture and history, music (lots of music), Carp in a Bathtub, civil discourse and so much more.   I was honored to be on the Steering Committee that helped to plan this Festival and I can assure you that I received much more than I gave.   But I feel a sense of satisfaction that we created this unifying, new and exciting festival for Seattle’s Jewish community.  I am grateful to the co-chairs, Deb Arnold and Robert Hovden, the other members of the Steering Committee, the volunteers, and all the participants that took a leap of faith and came to go on this Jewish journey with us.

http://www.limmudseattle.org/

Limmud - rotated

The second was today at 3 PM in Warsaw, Poland.  Shlomo represented the Goldbergs as the person who nominated the Stys family for the Yad Vashem Honor of Righteous Among the Nations. The ceremony was held in a Palace in Warsaw, which Shlomo said was amazingly beautiful.   Shlomo gave a short speech to those assembled, among whom were  20 members of the Stys family, Idul, Alina and Marta Lis (new-found cousins – see blog post:   ) and our friends the Czyzewsky family.

The ceremony, which bestowed honors to ten families, was conducted by the Israeli Ambassador to Poland.  There were many dignitaries in the audience, one of whom was the American Ambassador to Poland, who came up to Shlomo after the ceremony and told him that his short speech was the most moving one given.   Shlomo was interviewed by the Polish TV and radio stations- so sharpen up on your Polish for those interviews.   Of course, I am broken hearted that I was not at this ceremony, but I feel satisfied that my work helped to bring this honor about.  My gratitude extends to Shlomo for going to Warsaw solo and to the Stys family for being gracious to us and embracing us with a unique and special friendship and for the heroism of their parents and grandparents.

Shlomo taking picture of Idul and Marta Lis[Shlomo taking a picture of Idul and Marta Lis – at the ceremony.]

Today (not kidding – today) I listened to a Radio Lab podcast in which the scientist Robert Sapolsky, the author of the new book on the brain – Behave, the Biology of Humans At Our Best and Worst, explained to the hosts of Radio Lab (and to all of us) why certain people are heroic while others are not.  He stated that it is not because of moral reasoning, nor do heroic acts arise from empathy.  Rather, people who endanger their own lives to help others do it because their brains are trained to have an automatic response – to just help.  These heroes don’t stand by, they don’t reason it out, they just do it – just like the Nike ad.  This makes sense to me because the Stys family members said that their parents did this because it was the right thing to do – that’s it.  They knew that there was a chance that their whole family might be killed by the Germans, but they did it anyway – it was the right thing to do.

I am so grateful (and so satisfied).

Shlomo with Grzgorz, Kamila, Eugenuisz and Aleksander

[Top row:  Shlomo Goldberg and Aleksander Czyzewsky; bottom row: Grzgorz Maleszewski, Kamila Maleszewska and Eugenuisz Stys]