by Mark Russ (Larchmont, NY)
My father, Yosl Russ, was born in 1907 in a shtetl 30 miles southeast of Warsaw called Kaluszyn (Kal-u-sheen). Kaluszyn, the Poles corrected my pronunciation to Kal-oo-shyn (I explained mine was the Jewish pronunciation), was a midsize commercial town that was on a major trade route between Warsaw and eastern Poland and Russia. My father was one of six children born to a poor family that dealt in the beer distributing business; they had a small tavern connected to their home. The family was observant like all others in the shtetl. Crisis struck the family when my father’s father suddenly passed away in 1917, one of millions of victims of the Spanish flu pandemic. With no means of support, the family moved to Warsaw. My father was sent to live with an aunt at the age of 10 and spent his teenage years performing housework and eventually learning to work in the knitting trade. He, like so many others in his poverty-stricken, working class generation in Poland became radicalized, gave up religious observance, embraced a Jewish brand of socialism and internationalism, and went on to organize like-minded Jewish youth in Warsaw. He became active in the Jewish Labor Bund, the principal Jewish political party of his time and place, a Yiddishist, consistent with the Bund’s tenets, and a leader in the party-affiliated sports and outdoors organization, Morgenshtern. The latter provided organized physical activity and an appreciation of the natural world to slum-bound, impoverished Jewish working youth. He led “ski trips,” hikes and other expeditions in the Carpathian Mountains and environs of Warsaw. It was in this context that he met my mother.
My parents never wanted to return to Poland after the war. They had escaped east to Bialystok and the Soviet Union in 1939, one step ahead of the German advance into Poland. They spent the next 18 months in a forced labor camp in Siberia cutting timber. The Sikorski-Mayski Agreement was struck in 1941 between the Soviet Union and Polish Government in exile in London, effectively liberating all Polish citizens held captive by the Soviets. My parents, like tens of thousands of other Polish Jews who had taken the same path, made their way south in a harrowing journey through the Soviet heartland. They spent the remaining war years in Uzbekistan. After the war they briefly returned to Poland to see who had survived; all but one sibling on each side of the family perished. They lived in a German DP camp for a time, Paris for a year, and eventually immigrated to Cuba (where my sister and I were born), and finally, to Philadelphia.
This background is necessary to explain what happened when my wife and two adolescent children decided to visit Poland. Initially, the trip was planned as part of a larger Bar Mitzvah journey for my nephew’s son that was to begin in Poland and end in Israel. Timing was such that we could only join my sister’s family for the first part of the trip. I shared my parents’ reservations with respect to visiting Poland. I imagined a land full of anti-Semites, denigrating me and insulting me on the streets of Warsaw. Although I had powerful trepidations about the trip, I remained curious about what it would be like. Part of me was drawn to travel there.
My father had a younger brother, Henekh. Growing up, I heard bits and pieces about his life. I heard that he was smart, quick-witted, passionate, and very energetic and capable. I also knew that he was very well thought of. My parents’ friends, all Holocaust survivors, many of whom were bona fide heroes in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and partisans in the Polish forests, all knew him and held him in high esteem. He was one of them. As I grew older I read some the biographical sketches that had been written about him in Yiddish texts. Before the war he had been a leader in the young adult section of the Jewish Labor Bund, the Tsukunft, and served on the Bund’s Warsaw central committee, a major achievement for someone so young. With the advent of the Internet and newly discovered references to him in a variety of books and documents, I learned more about him over the years. I learned that he had been an active member of the Jewish underground in the Warsaw Ghetto, and that he had been the co-editor of one the underground newspapers, Yugnt Shtime, preserved as part of Emanuel Ringelblum’s Oneg Shabbat archives. He also authored a “diary” consisting of the proceedings of meetings and historical events related to the Bund in the Warsaw Ghetto, preserved in the YIVO Archives in New York. I learned that his infant son was killed during a bombardment in the Ghetto. According to Marek Edelman, the leader of the Bund fighting organization in the Ghetto, Henekh’s vote broke a deadlock resulting in the decision to create the Jewish Combat Organization (the Bund’s military group) in the Warsaw Ghetto. Henekh and his wife were captured and sent to the Majdanek death camp near Lublin for four months. I read that he had engaged in acts of heroism while incarcerated. He and his wife were ultimately sent to Werk Tze, the section of the notorious munitions factory commandeered by the Germans in the town of Skarzysko-Kamienna midway between Krakow and Warsaw. This factory had three sections, the third, Werk Tse, a combination factory and concentration camp, was reserved for Jews. The work in this part of the factory was so dangerous and toxic (they used picric acid as part of the munitions processing that literally turned the skin yellow) that the life expectancy of Jews in this setting was 3 months.
And I knew two more things. I knew that my uncle and his wife, along with others, were shot in the forest outside this camp in a failed attempt to escape following a rumor that the camp would be liquidated the following day. And I knew from the time I was a small boy that my father had always said: “If I knew where my brother Henekh was buried, I would bring flowers to his grave every day.” These were words I never forgot, words that expressed both a connection and a loss too intense to comprehend. I had always imagined a “grave” waiting for flowers that would never come.
Mixed feelings regarding our trip to Poland gave way to clarity of purpose. I did not know where or how my family perished. Only Henekh’s journey could be traced, and, with the help of my research efforts, Internet and modern technology, I was intent on addressing my father’s wish. I found a map of the factory where my uncle and aunt had been incarcerated in Felicia Karay’s book about the Skarzysko camp, Death Comes in Yellow. With the help of Google Earth, I was able to superimpose that map on the current map of Skarzysko. I contacted the local historical museum in the town and was informed that parts of the factory still exist, that it is still a munitions plant, but that it makes classified weapons (many of which, ironically, it sells to Israel), and that I would need permission to visit. My goals were to visit the ruins of Werk Tse if they were to be found and the forest where my uncle was murdered. With this information in hand, I was able to surmise the approximate location of where Werk Tse stood and that a forest still exists outside the factory complex. As expected, it was to the east, precisely the direction they would have gone in 1944 to reach the advancing Soviet army. With help from the local museum staff I was able to contact the factory administrator and set a date for a visit for my wife, my children and me. We arranged to have a guide as well who would drive us from Krakow to Skarzysko and on to Warsaw, our final destination. My plan was simple; lay flowers at the ruins of Werk Tse.
In Krakow, we stayed in what had been the Jewish quarter, on the block lined with “Jewish” restaurants, each with its own ensemble playing Yiddish folks tunes and klezmer music into the night. Initially odd and off-putting, there was an air of respectfulness among the locals we met, and, for me, a kind of strange familiarity that counterbalanced an otherwise bizarre and awkward scene. We visited Auschwitz and toured Krakow, including the site where the Krakow Ghetto had stood. On July 30th, coincident with the exact day that my uncle and aunt were killed (this was not planned), we bought a bouquet of flowers, and were off to do what we set out to do. That very morning, however, I received an email from an administrator at the munitions factory stating that he regretted to inform me that the factory was about to start its annual two week summer holiday and that our visit could not take place. I asked our guide for advice. He said we should not respond, check in with the museum staff first, and then make our way to the factory and “play dumb.” If asked, I was to lie about getting the email that morning. This made me very anxious (I am not a good liar), but fittingly seemed to evoke the uncertainty and tension of an earlier time. We followed his instructions. The museum staff could not have been friendlier or more welcoming, and, in a show of support and enthusiasm, two of them piled into our van in a scene reminiscent of “Little Miss Sunshine,” and we were off to the factory. Our guide took the lead, spoke with Security, and after what seemed like an eternity, arranged an impromptu meeting with a plant administrator. A long and tense discussion took place in Polish in the parking lot of a surviving factory building. I was not called upon to lie, but did learn during the negotiations that Werk Tse no longer stood. However, there was a memorial at the site of Werk Tse, which they referred to as the “Patelnye,” which was absolutely off limits for a visit. The word “patelnye” was instantly recognizable to me as it was one of the many Polish words that made its way into Yiddish vernacular and my family’s kitchen. It is the word for frying pan, and came to epitomize the horrifying conditions of the labor camp in the most grotesque terms imaginable. I also learned that the larger factory complex had its own memorial. It was located in the surviving and refurbished building immediately in front of us. They called it the Room of Remembrance and it was dedicated to all those who had perished in the era, Poles and Jews alike. After what seemed like endless negotiations, we were informed, begrudgingly, that the administrator could take me alone into that room, and just for a minute. Realizing this was the best I could do, I took my flowers and followed her to the room. Among the various military artifacts and other memorabilia in the room was a simple stone memorial dedicated to the Jews who had perished. In an experience that was robbed of meaning and emotion, I lay the flowers down in a perfunctory manner, and left.
But my real goal, to honor my father’s wish to visit my uncle’s “grave,” was not yet realized. Naturally, there was no grave, but there was the expanse of forest immediately adjacent to the site where the camp had stood. I knew that somewhere in that forest, my uncle, aunt and others had been shot. After dropping our new friends at the museum, I instructed our guide to drive down the road that bordered the forest. At a small dirt road, which I found on Google Earth, I asked him to stop. My wife, daughter, son and I walked down the road to a small clearing in the forest. This was certainly not the spot where Henekh perished, but it would have to do. We read my uncle’s biography. My son chanted El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the dead. We hugged and shed some tears. I suddenly felt this pang in my heart; I had used the flowers to support our ill-fated visit to the factory, and could therefore not fulfill my father’s wish to lay flowers on Henekh’s “grave.” And just as suddenly, I had this epiphany. I had, in fact, fulfilled his wish. My children and my family were his flowers. We had done what we set out to do.
But the story does not end there. There is a postscript. Part of our itinerary in Warsaw included a visit to the museum, POLIN, dedicated to the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland. It is a magical place, first rate, detailed, comprehensive, and beautiful. After wandering through centuries in the galleries, we walk into a gallery devoted to the history of Jewish political movements between the two World Wars. We approach the section devoted to the Jewish Labor Bund. The exhibit includes several “Ken Burns style” slide shows depicting photographs of the era. As I watched one of these slide shows I gazed upon a photograph of a large group of young people in boats on a lake. To the right in the photograph was a handsome man, bare-chested, wearing sunglasses. I swear it is my father. But I am very familiar with how the unconscious desire to see things can influence what you see. I call my wife and ask her, without preparation or warning, to watch the slide show. “Oh my G-d, it’s your father!” I break down. She then goes to a second slide show in the exhibit. She says, “Quick, come here. It’s a picture of Henekh.” He is marching in a parade, his clear and piercing eyes evident, dressed in the uniform of his party. The poignancy of the moment does not escape me. For however long this museum will stand, my father and his beloved brother will be together. And, perhaps for at least a brief moment in time, one brother’s wish will have been honored, bringing a modicum of peace to another brother’s soul.
Mark Russ is a psychiatrist in Westchester County, New York. He is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and Vice Chair of Clinical Programs and Medical Director at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Behavioral Health Center in White Plains, New York. Dr. Russ was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States at the age of 2 with his parents and sister. He was the first in his family to achieve a baccalaureate degree and attend medical school. Dr. Russ has contributed to the scientific psychiatric literature and is beginning to publish fiction and non-fiction pieces.