history, Holocaust, Jews, Poland
On Tuesday morning, August 23, a group of about 20 survivors and 2Gs (Second Generation) took a trip out of Warsaw and into the countryside. It was 8 a.m., and Agneishka S. was our guide. We didnâ€™t know what to expect and so we girded our loins for what we knew was going to be a rough go. First stop, Majdanekâ€”a death camp pressed up against the edge of the city of Lublin, which for centuries until the Holocaust, was an incredible center of Jewish life and learning (learn more about Jewish Lublin through the centuries here.
View from the parking lot
Majdanek was opened on October 1, 1941 as a P.O.W. camp, became a death camp and was captured intact by the Red Army on July 22, 1944.
Where we were
During the 34 months of its operation more than 79,000 people were murdered thereâ€”59,000 of them Jews from Lublin and Warsawâ€”and the locals knew it. It was the only camp located near a major city and the Nazis had no time to destroy it before they ran from the Soviets.
You had to be blind.
I sat in the back seat of the bus, behind Isaac and Karen. Charley was upfront with other folks from his hometown, Detroit. He and I had gone to Bergen-Belsen in 1985 together to protest when U. S. President Ronald Reagan went to Bitburg to lay a wreath on the graves of the Waffen S.S.
When we pulled out of Warsaw, only a few of us knew each other, and I huddled near the window, feeling alone. Camera in hand, I was waiting to see what I could see from the window of this time capsule, a rocket shaped bullet of a bus that sped through the countryside. You could glimpse a bit of antisemitic graffiti scrawled on the walls, but not as much as expected. (I saw more in London in 2000 than I saw on the way to Lublin in 2011.)
Once we left Warsaw city limits, it was as if there were no suburbs. We went from city to country in a heartbeat. Little hamlets lined the two-lane road, until we came to little towns, where the road signs at the major intersections pointed to Reszow, Chelm, Bialystok, Wroclaw (Breslov to the Hasidim of Reb NaNaNa Nachman) and back to Warsaw.
Fields and forests on the way to Lublin
A glimpse of the woods where the ghosts live
Between the tiny dorfs with their neat little gardens, were the forests, but the bus was moving too fast, and the windows were too reflective to get good shots of the places where the ghosts of the partisans seemed to hide behind each narrow-trunked tree. The dense greenery I had seen from the plane separated fields and we wondered how so many managed to hide in these small places, worrying about the mushroom gatherers and others who wandered through the woods. Once in a while, a dirt road would disappear into the trees, which were densely packed between fields.
This is not the way to literary Chelm
We arrived in Lublin, a crowded city, and Agnieshka pointed out the castle on the hill. It was the same castle where Eta Wrobel, one of my favorite and feisty survivors, was held by the Nazis and then escaped into the woods. (Eta was a partisan from Lukow, whoâ€™d been betrayed for forging work permits and other papers.)
The Castle/Prison on the hill
Before we could even absorb the city or the castle, we pulled into a parking lot in front of a low-slung building that smelled like a urinal, and they made us watch a movie we didnâ€™t want to see. Beyond the building were the watch towers and the barbed wire fences, as well as a chimney in the far distance. A gray stone wall said Majdanek, and to the right of that wall was a huge monument, a massive, massive block of concrete or stone mounted on pillars that dwarfed everything around it. And when you stood in front of it, off in the distance, about half a mile away, was something that closely resembled a flying saucer.
Gateway to Hell
It looked like we were the only busload of â€œtouristsâ€ in the place. A handful of people, speaking Polish, passed us by. I wandered off by myself. I didnâ€™t like group pictures, and having listened to so many stories, seen so many photos (all in black and white of course), I didnâ€™t think I really needed explanations of how a death camp worked.
I wandered into the disinfection showers, and pulled out a little prayer book I had â€œneglectedâ€ to give back to Isaac, who carried a few copies. I thought this would be as good a place as I could find for the moment, empty but for me, so I could whisper a few psalms for the health of my cousin, Libbie, in Jerusalem. Her dad had asked me to say prayers over the graves of our â€œgreatâ€ ancestorsâ€”the â€œGedolim,â€ the generations of religious leaders of the Jewish people for centuries before the Holocaust. As far as I was concerned, all those who were murdered in this terrifying place were Gedolim.
One Murdering Place of two
Where our people tried to live
Soon Charley (from Detroit), Isaac (from Boston), Karen (from Pine, Colorado) and the others walked in with the guide. We were led from the showers to two gas chambersâ€”one run on diesel fuel and the other on Xyklon B. These were no underground gas chambers. They were right there, near the entrance to the camp. Welcome to Majdanek, welcome to the death factory, we have nothing to hide.
Tears ran free as we recited El Moleh Rachamim and Kaddish. It wouldnâ€™t be the last time, not in that place or in others.
We moved on to the barracksâ€”did I need to know the numbers? These barracks were not shades of gray, they were in trendy â€œearth tones,â€ which gave me a dose of cognitive dissonance. (That was going to happen a lot to all of us on this trip.) How many bodies were squeezed into each bunk? What rained down on you from the pallet above if its inhabitant did not live through the night? The stench would have been unimaginable, and the stove, the only source of heat, looked incredibly inefficient, so that people would freeze in the winters. The ventilation was minimal, so that people would suffocate in the summers. (The day we were there, the temperature was hovering in the 90s. and the sun was brutal.)
The gray gravel crunched underfoot and when we looked back, the massive monument looked smaller and less overbearing.
But we were nearing the crematorium, and the town of Lublin looked down at the camp with its implacable faÃ§ade. I looked at Charley. He looked at me. â€œDo you watch HGTV?â€ I asked. â€œHouse Hunters International,â€ he said. â€œRooms with a view,â€ I said. â€œDo they get a discount? Move to Lublin and get a view of rolling green fields? Beats me.â€
What does it take to live here?
A place to pray
Inhumane Water Heater
The crematorium was ingenious. It was in perfect condition, as if you could go back to business on demand. The ovens were spotlessly clean, not an ash to be seen. The energy generated by them was used to heat water for the camp and officersâ€™ quarters. Some asked what they used for fuel. â€œCoke,â€ said the guide.
â€œThe real thing,â€ I murmured to myself, bitterly. Charley heard me and gave me a poke. â€œLetâ€™s say Kaddish,â€ I responded. And we did.
As we were leaving, Charley and I looked out the back door of this place that was hell, at the blooming flower beds, in the bright sunshine, as the cityâ€™s windows stared back at us blankly, with the castle on the hill behind them.
So tastefully done.
I walked over to the â€œflying saucerâ€ and looked down at tons of ashes and bits of bones. All that was left of those who passed through the gates of this place in my face was this pile of human remains, whose souls we could feel floating around us.
The Ashes of Our Families
We said Kaddish once again, I prayed for Libbie, and we left for the city to look for some hope.
history, Holocaust, Jews, survivors
New York, Wednesday, November 16, 6:30 pm
On November 24, 1942, Rabbi Stephen Wise held a press conference announcing State Department confirmation that the Jews of Europe were being mass murdered. How did American Jews and their leaders respond to the crisis? Not Idly Byâ€”Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, an award-winning new documentary by Pierre Sauvage (56 min.), presents the challenging testimony of Peter Bergson, a Palestinian Jew who led a determined and controversial American effort to fight the Holocaust. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with Sauvage, historians Richard Breitman and Jonathan Karp, and other distinguished scholars, Sponsored by the Center for Jewish History, the American Jewish Historical Society and the Varian Fry Institute.
Not Idly Byâ€”Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaustâ€”click here to view 4 min. excerpt from the documentary
Most Americansâ€”even many American Jewsâ€”believe that we didnâ€™t know. Many assume that we couldnâ€™t have done anything even if we had known. Meet Peter Bergson! A Palestinian Jew who had served with the nationalist Irgun organization in pre-Israel Palestine, Peter Bergson (born Hillel Kook, 1915-2001), had come to the U.S. in 1940. In America, this firebrand led what came to be known as the Bergson Group, whose strenuous efforts from 1941 to 1945 underscore just how much was knownâ€”and how much could have been attempted during those difficult years. Sometimes vilified at the time, Bergson remains a controversial yet relatively obscure figure in the history of America and the Holocaust.
The only documentary to draw on both existing filmed interviews with Peter Bergson, Not Idly By provides the riveting first-hand testimony of the charismatic and eloquent Bergson, who comments on the response to the crisis by non-European Jews and describes the Bergson Group’s determined efforts to fight the Holocaust. This notably included the fiery 1943 production We Will Never Die by Ben Hecht and Kurt Weill (Madison Square Garden, Hollywood Bowl), presented extensively for the first time in the documentary. Yes, this is a one-sided view of those times: Peter Bergsonâ€™s. Isn’t it about time we gave further though to that side?
Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011
Ticket Sales $15 general, $10 CJH, AJHS members, seniors, students
Further information: Not Idly By â€“ Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust
Fresh Headlines From the Crypt: ‘Bomb Auschwitz,’ Says Golda; FDR: No Way, by J. J. Goldberg, Jewish Daily Forward, Sept. 5, 2011
Pierre Sauvage’s response to the attack on the Bergson Group that is at the heart of the article:
Yes, Roosevelt was good for the Jewsâ€”the Jews of America. And yes, bringing a reluctant country into the war was a major Roosevelt accomplishment. And yes, to be sure, American Jews then did not have the power and self-confidence we acquired later.
But let’s start by being candid about the American responseâ€”and the American Jewish responseâ€”to the massacre of the Jews of Europe: we here all have skin in the game. We are talking, after all, about what our families did and didnâ€™t do during that long crisis. The widespread and persistent eagerness to assert that â€œwe didnâ€™t knowâ€ and â€œwe couldnâ€™t have done anything even if we had knownâ€ is one measure of how powerful the taboo continues to be about the unacknowledged American experience of the Holocaust. J. J. Goldberg’s trivializing of the Bergson Group’s amazing determination to get the word out and to do something about it strikes me as merely a new attempt to keep the taboos in place.
As Peter Bergson puts it my documentary Not Idly Byâ€”Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, “We couldn’t have stopped the Holocaust, we could have slowed the Holocaust, we could have made it an inefficient Holocaust. The people who made it efficient were the Allies who didn’t interfere. And the people who didn’t urge them to interfere were the [American] Jews.”
The fact is that we will never never know what might have been accomplished to rescue Jews in Europe since so little was attempted or even considered. For my part, I was born and sheltered in a tiny Christian area of France that defied the Nazis and turned itself into the very haven of refuge that America refused to be. My own life has thus taught me that collective will and action can be startlingly imaginative and dynamic even under the most trying circumstances. Where there’s a will, there is indeed often a way.
What the article also completely misses is that at this point, the discussion should be as much about us as it is about them. So many years later, are we at last willing to probe not only what happened here then, but our many evasions today about that experience? If we do not fully and forthrightlyâ€”and without smugnessâ€”acknowledge and dissect our share in past failures, are we not limiting our ability to act effectively in meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow?
Belatedly Recognizing Heroes of the Holocaust, The New York Times, Sunday, Aug. 7 (on the Bergson Group)
Bergson Group Activists Recognized At Yad Vashem-Wyman Conference, The Jewish Press, July 27, 2011
Historians Debate: Could More Jews Have Been Saved?, Jerusalem Post, July 17, 2011, on the Bergson Group conference at Yad Vashem on July 15 (excerpts from Not Idly By were shown)
Pierre Sauvage also draws on Not Idly By and the work-in-progress And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille in his illustrated lectures Learning Hope From the Holocaust: The Challenge To Us Of Holocaust Rescuers, and Did We Fight the Holocaust? Varian Fry and Peter Bergson.
Upcoming: Syracuse University, NY; York College, PA; Memphis, TN; Denver, CO.
Holocaust, HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS, interfaith relations, Jews, judaism, Poland, social action
When the World Federation announced that this yearâ€™s meeting would be in Poland, many 2Gs (children of survivors), survivors and child survivors were angry. They didnâ€™t want to spend a nickel in the country where their families suffered so brutally, and saw all Poles as collaborators. I, too, had sworn that I would never come to Poland to do what I call â€œLe Tour Macabre,â€ but when I heard that the World Federation was having its annual meeting in Warsaw, I realized I was a hypocrite, realized that Warsaw is not Chicago, Boston or DC. I realized I had to come, if only for three days. It is very hard to teach tolerance to kids and not be tolerant yourself. Why should I be a hypocrite?
My mother was furious. My friendâ€™s mother forbade her to come altogether, and she obeyed her mother. But I was determined to go and my cousin in Jerusalem made it possible.
A few days after my trip was booked, I received a call from the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and after an interview with Mr. Sigmund Rolat in New York, I learned I would be in Poland for 18 daysâ€”to learn about the country and to witness the I.B. Singer Festival in Warsaw while learning about the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which sits atop what used to be the street where my mother and grandmother lived, in the Jewish Quarter that became the Warsaw Ghetto.
The welcome we received on Friday night in what I call the cocoon (the hotel that could be anywhere) was heartwarming. Stefanie Seltzer, the Federation president, opened the conference. The Israeli ambassador, Zvi Rav-Ner and American ambassador Lee Feinstein welcomed us, as did the mayor, really the President of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, along with Rabbi Michael Shudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, who was born in Queens, New York.
Stefanie Seltzer opens the Conference
Ambassador Feinstein was honest. He noted that Jews have a very long history in Poland, one that was complicated at times, in part because of Polandâ€™s location in the so-called “bloodlands,” where great power competition too often brought out the worst in humanity. He described how the Jews found a home in a historically diverse and tolerant Poland, and established what was once the worldâ€™s largest Jewish community. He talked about how the Jewish people made vital and lasting contributions to Polish society and world civilization, including in the arts, science, and commerce. And of course, he explained how the Holocaust changed all that, and yet there were Poles who risked everything to save Jewish lives, giving Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 children, as the classic example of a Righteous Person.
U.S. Ambassdor Lee Feinstein
He said that our conference was helping Poland re-discover its heritage and talked about the growing interest among Poles in exploring this history and embracing Jewish culture, mentioning the annual Jewish festivals in Warsaw and Krakow, noting that the embassy is playing an active role in supporting this renewed cooperation between Poles and Jews. (It is no secret that Poland is a strong ally of Israel at the EU.) He mentioned Holocaust education programs and the renovations and restorations of synagogues and cemeteries. And he described how President Obama came to Warsaw, and paid tribute to the Ghetto Fighters. He also noted that the U.S. President visited the new museum that is â€œrising from the ashes of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw to teach future generations about this rich history.â€ And, he admitted, thereâ€™s a lot of work that still needs to be done.
Part of that work took place in our workshops, where we met our 2G brothers and sisters in Poland, many of us for the first time. I was blown away by the courage of the Polish 2Gs, some of them who never knew their parents were Jewish, and some from mixed marriages, who grew up thinking and feeling they were apart from their society, and yet didnâ€™t know why. Yet in their heart of hearts, they felt they were different, and at these meetings, finally felt as if they had found â€œa home.â€
They told us that Jewish life was being reborn in Poland. For the first time in 73 years, they were able to talk about being Jewish. A.D., a psychologist and leader of the Second Generation movement in Warsaw, explained how after the war, their parentsâ€™ couldnâ€™t understand what happened, and then were hit with the double-whammy of communism. Many hid their Jewishness as a result, and never spoke of it until communism fell in 1989. For the first time since the war, they thought they could tell their children who they really are.
The meetings were welcoming to those who thought they were lost foreverâ€”and that is truly the story of Polish Jewry today. While the community is a tiny fraction of what it had once been, for the first time, these people feel safe when they say they are Jewish. While some are discovering Judaism, others are discovering their Polish-Jewish history. They credit Pope John Paul II with doing more to fight antisemitism in Poland than anyone else, and while there is still antisemitism, as the older generation dies off, and the children become educated, it becomes less virulent, less effective, particularly in a global society. Poles are learning about Jews and Judaism, and are seeing that the Jews were an integral part of their culture and society, perhaps often separated, but part of Polandâ€™s history for almost 1,000 years.
As one Polish 2G said, â€œWe are discovering our Jewish roots, and the Poles are discovering Jewish Polish history. This creates a synergyâ€¦but while we are getting really good at seeing and fighting antisemitism because we have to, we are not so good at finding friends and allies. We need to find common ground.â€
â€œImagine how different the world would have been if we could have taught our children and grandchildren our heritage and legacy. We are like the hidden Jews of New Mexico, and now we have the unprecedented chance to change our future,â€ said another.
Some are discovering pride in their Judaism, while others just want to blend in. Another 2G talked about how he was born to be like everyone else. Now he deals with survivors every day, but says that was a choice that he madeâ€¦and yet had no choice in making it, because he owes it to those who were murdered. On the other hand, he doesnâ€™t want to be swallowed by the Holocaust. He feels like Ulysseys, who couldnâ€™t deal with the souls of those who died. â€œThere are too many stories, and some of them scare me, but I cannot come home. I hate going to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but I must goâ€¦ Only my mother and grandmother survived and I hate to go to them with questions because of the looks on their facesâ€¦and still I try to extend my Jewish experience.â€
A young woman talked about her father, who was in the underground. Her mother and grandmother survived, but avoiding talking altogether. Her fatherâ€™s mother simply lied. But it was much easier for her to identify with her father, because he fought back instead of being trapped in the fear, shame and guilt that came from her mom. It took her a long time to be able to listen to the stories, and now she is discovering who she is.
These 2G/3G workshops also discussed the differences between those whose parents did not speak at all, and those who wanted their children to be their supporters, to use them as a tool for hating. It created complicated feelings when coping with their parents and was an important obstacle in the 2G acceptance and exploration of their Judaism.
A, who was born in 1947, was able to come to grips with her Judaism for the first time when she was 55 years old. She was self-motivated because she needed to find out who she was and accept her identity. It was hard for her to find herself in the shadow of the Holocaust, and she began with the story of her grandfather, who used to sing songs in Yiddishâ€”and tell her he was singing old Army songs. He had a tiny Torah scroll that no one was permitted to touch, and she wanted him to read it to her. He said it did not contain stories for children. â€œIf you hear them, when you are an adult, you will run away,â€ he told her.
Another woman was told as a child to forget Judaism, forget the Holocaust. She felt a pervasive loneliness, and was comforted by our presence. When she found out she was Jewish, she cried, and pleaded not to be told she was a Jew. Those fears and the feeling of being different ran deep, and it was scary. As one American 2G said to her, â€œIt took something good to justify our survival, and if you want the third and fourth generations to be proud, you remind them that they come from a people who have perservered.â€
In Poland, Jewish identity fluctuates. Many were raised in an environment loaded with high doses of antisemitism. As one Polish 2G put it, â€œIt still exists, of course, and it depends where you live. Sometimes, when you tell your lifelong friends the truth, they treat you differentlyâ€¦it can be compared to other traumas, like those of mixed races who live in Zimbabwe.â€
Yet on a personal level, they are finding each other and creating close, emotional bonds–just like the American and Israeli 2Gs did when they came together decades ago.
On Monday morning, the last day of Conference, those who attended the Yad Vashem ceremony to recognize the Righteousâ€”Polish families who had risked their lives and families to save the lives of our parents, brothers and sistersâ€”were reminded that good can triumph over evil, if people make difficult choices. The Israel ambassador, Zvi Rav-Ner spoke movingly and forcefully about those choices, and noted that there is a universal lesson in what these people did.
Israeli Ambassador Zvi Rav-Ner
â€œThey made the right choices even though it was so painful… Today we honor those human beings that we have to respect and honor forever. ..Yet not everyone saved people and not everyone could, but there were those who made the honorable decision. When we ask why not everyone did that, [why] there were collaborators…when we put must also put this question to ourselves…would you have risked your own lives and the lives of your family to risk to save a neighbor or friend or even a stranger? These people have done it, and we are forever in debt to them and their familiesâ€¦ The message for the future is universalâ€”to prevent such situations anywhere, God forbid that we get into such situationsâ€¦ These people give us hope that we can still believe in people.â€
Because I believe it is important to name namesâ€”victims, survivors, rescuersâ€”to put a human face on the tragedies of the past, to bring understanding that these were just folks who found themselves in dire straits and made choiceless choices, I list them here. Survivorsâ€™ children often presented these awards to the children, grandchildren and relative of the rescuers, all of them now resting in peace.
Leo Hoffman presented the award to the son of the late Janina Bereska. Ewa Banaszczyk of Lodz, received the award for her late grandfather, Adolph Brauner. Lilka Rosenbaum-Elbaum presented the award to the granddaughter of the couple who rescued her family, Jadwiga and Adam Chorqzkiewicz. Mira Becker honored two sisters, Maria and Marianna Kazuczyk, and gave the award to their family members. Jozefa and Wilhelm Maj were honored with an award given to their adopted child, a survivor herself, Ida Paluch-Kersz. The daughter of Katarzyna and Stanislaw Swietlikowski, Maria Nadstawek, received the award for them, and a survivorâ€™s daughter, Agnieszka Bater-Shupska, gave the award to the nephew of her parentâ€™s rescuer, Agnieszka Troszka.
Some of the children of survivors recognize the rescuers of their families.
You will probably be able to find all their stories and many more on the Yad Vashem website, along with information on how to honor the righteous who saved your own family members.
And the next morning, a group of us left for Lublin and Krakowâ€¦code words for Majdanek and Auschwitzâ€¦ more to come.
When I went to look for my grandmother’s house and her grave, I looked to one friend, Isaac Kot from Boston, to help me.
Isaac and I have known each other since 2002, when we both attended our first World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust conference. (Yes, I got it wrong in my last blog, because many of the survivors were also hidden children, and after a while, all those acronyms get confusing!)
On Saturday night, Isaac and I pored over maps and realized that while it was on the mapâ€™s index, we couldnâ€™t find it. It was right near the Warsaw Ghetto Fighterâ€™s monument, but it seemed invisible, and we thought we should find a magnifying glass. Anna Doziuk, a new friend, saw what we were doing and came over to help. Anna heads up the brand new 2G group in Warsaw and is president of the Jewish Social Welfare Commission of Poland. She chaired an emotional 2G and 3G workshop that very afternoon, and was happy to assist. In fact, she drove home and came back with a bigger map, but we still couldnâ€™t find it.
The Ghetto Fighters' Monument
Another view of the museum
Spielman at work
Me, Yvonne and Isaac recuperating from the hunt
Then she suggested we try â€œMr. Google,â€ and so we did. But there were only a few tiny photos of number 35, and 8 Gesia, where my babby ran a pension, was nowhere to be found. (I have since received a photo of the house from Agneishka S. who was our guide in Krakow and Lublin.) We discovered, instead, that the Nazis had turned the bottom of the street into a prison camp toward the end. But nothing else could be found. The hotel staff tried to help us with google, too.
Isaac and I, joined by my roommate Yvonne Illich, set off in the morning to see what we could see. As we were leaving, Anna handed us a sheaf of information she had downloaded from the Internet. But I wasnâ€™t hopeful. My mother had come to Warsaw at least a decade earlier in search of her mother’s grave, and didnâ€™t find it. In fact, when I told her I was going to Warsaw, she shot at me in Yiddish, â€œHost eppes dorten farloiren?â€ â€œDid you lose something there?â€
And I shot right back, â€œYoh, mein Babbeh.â€ Yeah, my grandma.
She said, again in Yiddish, â€œI looked, I didnâ€™t find it and neither will you.â€ So of course, I was even more determined find the grave.
Isaac, Yvonne and I walked out of the revolving doors and got into a taxi. Our driverâ€™s name was Mariusz, and it turns out his brother lives in Linden, New Jersey, just a few miles from where I live. We asked him about Gesia Street and he said he knew precisely where it was. He took us straight to Rappaportâ€™s Ghetto Fightersâ€™ Memorial Plaza, where the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews was being built. â€œGesia Street is under the museum,â€ he said.
â€œBetter the fantastic new museum,â€ I thought, â€œthan a parking lot or office building.â€ Just two weeks before I left, I had been asked to write for the North American Council of that very same museum! In fact, I was staying after the conference to learn more about it. I could only look at Isaac and Yvonne and shake my head, pull out my camera and take pictures.
At Rappaportâ€™s monument, I also said a silent Kaddish for my uncle Yaakov, who had escaped from Treblinka, and came back to the ghetto to report what he had seen. He is a footnote in Ringleblumâ€™s Diary and that is where I first found him on November 4, 1979, at the Zachor Conference in New York, a conference put together by Dr. Eva Fogelman, Bella Savrin and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg.
That was 31 years ago, and I remember calling my mother from a pay phone at the conference to ask about the footnote. She said it was her brother and told me that what he saw was recorded in Hillel Seidmanâ€™s Warsaw Ghetto Diary. When I asked her why she never told us about him, she asked me why I cared. How could I not? Then she told me he was killed in the first night of the fighting, with a rifle in his hand, on Seder night. Now I was more determined than ever to find his motherâ€™s grave.
Mariusz drove us to the cemetery gate, and when we walked through, I was asked to hand over moneyâ€¦â€But I am here to find my Babby,â€ I said, and could feel myself getting all farklempt. â€œYou are looking for family?â€ said the toll keeper. â€œYou donâ€™t pay.â€
Isaac, Yvonne and I began looking at the markers, and noticed they were very, very old, and that on our right, almost every grave belonged to a woman. But we couldnâ€™t find it. I was afraid that she was buried among the mass graves, and went to look at them.
There, bigger than life, was a monument to the Eisner family and 1,000,000 children built by New Yorker, Jack Eisner, who died in 2003. He was survivor who appointed me to serve on the Goldberg Commission, which examined the role of American Jews in rescue in 1983. In 1985, He accompanied a group of 2Gs, including me, to Bergen-Belsen, where we protested Ronald Reaganâ€™s visit to Bitburg to lay a wreath on the graves of the Waffen SS. And I had other connections with Jack as well. It was all very strange, all very wheels within wheelsâ€¦and I was growing frustrated and sad. Where was my Babbyâ€™s grave? The cemetery was enormous! I would never find it. My mother was right.
The three of us stood at the mass graves and said Kaddish. Finally I looked at Isaac, stole a line from Yentl, which I, of course, edited, and started to cryâ€”â€œBabby, can you hear me? Babby can you feel me?â€ and sobbed in Isaacâ€™s arms. Suddenly, his cell phone rang. As he reached into his pocket, he said, â€œI shut it off before I came into the cemetery. Let me see who is trying to reach me,â€ and pulled it out. But it was off. The three of us looked at each other, and looked at the sky. Could it be possible my 19th century Babby was sending me a 21st century message? Nah, I thought, thatâ€™s just too weirdâ€¦but all three of us got the chills, just the same.
When we climbed back into the cab, Mariusz gave us a grand tour of old Warsaw and told us about his adventures with American and Israeli VIPS. We were playing Jewography and there were one degree of separation. But it didnâ€™t help me find my Babby.
On Monday morning, another new friend, Miriam G., who is Orthodox and works with the Jewish Community, heard our story and told me to see Israel Spielman, the director of the cemetery. So Isaac and I had another adventure, met an Israeli couple and entered the cemetery just as a group of Israeli female teens were heading out of it.
Mr. Spielman was sitting at his computer, had payos like the Gerer mashgiach at the Marriott, and when I asked told me he was a Bobover Hasid. I told him our story, and he said stranger things have happened, and we canâ€™t always explain them.
When I told him who I was looking for, the Parczever Rebbitzen, Ita Rabinowicz, he said we were related and that every time heâ€™s in Boro Park, Brooklyn, he davens (prays) in the Munkascer Shulâ€”which has the latest morning services in New York. I said that the rebbe was my first cousin, and that the services were so late because heâ€™s had trouble getting up in time for morning services since he was a teenagerâ€”and my mother had to throw water on him to wake him up.
Israel Speilman works really hard at the cemetery. When our mutual friend, Zalmen Mlotek of the National Yiddish Theatre told me Spielman had catalogued about 43,000 graves, I told Zalmen that to date, Spielman has catalogued approximately 88,000 gravesâ€”as a labor of love.
Yasher Koach, Israel Spielman, Kol Tuv and a Gut Yohrâ€”May you have the strength to continue this important work, may everything good come your way and, please, have a Shana Tovah.
My first glimpse of Poland came through an airplane window. The thick turbulent clouds had just thinned, and from my aisle seat I could see a lush checkerboard of fields punctuated by small forests, and realized that these were the fields and forests where the Jewish Partisans I wrote so much about lived and hid during the Holocaust.
When they told me their stories, they were building word pictures in my mind. As I wrote what they described, those places seemed to be tinted in shades of gray or sepia. I was unprepared for the vivid, startling bright greens that were impressed on my retina.
Then there was nothing more to see, as the plane landed and I went through an airport that was no different (perhaps a little smaller) than the airports in the U.S, What was different was the language, but two hours earlier, I had changed planes in Frankfurt-Am-Main, where my father had been a student in the yeshiva. The language there was German, but everywhere, people spoke English.
On the first leg of the journey from Jersey to Germany, I sat with two high school students, two girls, one from Miami and one from Prince Edward Island. They told me they had studied the Holocaust and were told that antisemitism was alive and well in Germany. One wants to be an anthropologist and work in the Smithsonian. The other wants to open a 4/20 cafe in Holland. It was hard to keep a straight face!
The program they were in was created soon after World War II to promote racial harmony between nations–and their intention was to push the envelope if they had to in order to squash any racism they encountered.
I thought about the girls as my very Polish cab driver drove me to the Warsaw city center to the Marriott hotel, a Marriott like any other Marriott on the planet, except this one had a huge poster informing guests that the hotel was equipped with a special kosher kitchen. Even the Marriotts in New York and New Jersey don’t make such a fuss! It was unexpected.
The cab driver asked me why I had come to Warsaw. the Jewish star hanging around my neck was clearly visible, but I chose my words carefully. I said I had come to see the city where my mother grew up–in a pension (essentially a bed and breakfast) and reception hall owned by her mother–who died there of typhus in 1942.
Instead, as I looked at the wide boulevards and the skyscrapers in the distance, I said my mother had begun her journey in Poland, then had gone on to Slovakia and Hungary (where she was put on the Kasztner transport, but I didn’t tell him that), thence to Germany (to Bergen-Belsen, but I didn’t say that either), Switzerland, Palestine, France and finally New York. He thought that was funny, and them pointed to the Marriott. “Five more minutes, Pani!” he said.
And then the adventure began. I was attending the conference of the World Federation of Jewish Hidden Children & Descendants, where I was going to participate in 2G workshops. People came from as far away as Melbourne to attend. We came to figure out how we deal with our past in the place where it actually happened, and what we will do about it in the future.
Warsaw was a city rich with Jewish history, and Poland, until the Holocaust, was filled with the largest Jewish population in the world. It was a Jewish population that came from all walks of life–from sophisticated city dwellers to ignorant peasants, from the magnificently wealthy to the wretchedly poor, from communists to Zionists, to Hasidic dynasties and the anti-Hasidic Jewish scholars who despised them. Things have changed dramatically since then, but I only heard about it over Shabbos, in the different workshops, where the Polish 2Gs finally found the courage to come out and speak up.
But on Sunday morning, I was determined to leave the Cocoon and venture out into the city itself.
More to come. Pozdrowienia z Polski–it means greetings from Poland where the only word I can pronounce is Tak–yes.