Category Archives: Polish Jewry

Yosl and Henekh

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.

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The truth is not always easy to find: discovering my family’s Jewish roots

by Cathy A. Lewis (Nashville, Tennessee)

In 1963, my thirteen-year-old brother Jeffrey left our home in Pittsford, New York, to travel by plane to Mexico.  I had no inkling he’d return to us changed after spending six weeks there.

My mom’s family lived in Mexico City, which was beyond my comprehension at age six. While I was growing up, there was always a shroud of mystery around Mom and her familial origins.

Mom would tell me, “I’m not Latin, nor is our family. Circumstances caused me to be born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while my brothers and sisters were born in Lima, Peru.”

My parents met in Colon, Panama, where Dad was stationed during WWII. Mom worked on the US army base as a translator. Their worlds collided, and it was kismet. They married six months later. I wondered at the brevity of their relationship. Mom would explain, “Back then, you didn’t waste any time. You never knew from one day to the next whether or not the world would implode.”

It was a year after Jeffrey returned from Mexico when my sister, at age ten, two years my senior, broke the news to me. She said as a matter of fact, “Jeff Lewis is Jewish.”

Puzzled, I asked, “What? What is Jewish?”

At that point, Mom sat me down and explained that my grandparents, who were named Silverstone and had changed the name from Zilberstein, were Jewish. “So that makes me Jewish, and my children Jewish. You are Jewish.”

My brain felt like it could burst by the sheer force of questions popping into my prefrontal cortex. One question dominated all others. “But how did your parents get to Mexico?”

Exasperated by my barrage of questions, Mom answered, “They had to leave South America due to the economic issues plaguing that country. Mexico at that time seemed like a land of opportunity. Plus, there was an already established sizable Jewish community.”

I still had questions. The thing about my mother, though, was once she finished discussing a subject, that was it. No further interrogations could continue. Much of my childhood was like that—no resolution to my unending queries.

In eighth grade, a history project was assigned. We were told to pick a country we’d like to live and work in. Much to Mom’s chagrin, I proclaimed, “My project will be about Israel and a kibbutz!”

My father became involved in my research, helping me put historical events in chronological order. I read an article Dad gave me about David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and the founding of Israel. It inspired me even further to communicate the empowering story of survival and conviction. 

My project was one of three picked to present at a school event, with parents invited to attend. At the end of my presentation, I concluded that “Moving to Israel was on my radar, and kibbutz living was the life for me!” With my parents sitting in the audience, I saw the color drain from my mother’s face.

On the ride home, Mom explained how she came to the US in 1944 after marrying my dad. She faced so much anti-Semitism. Mom had a great desire to protect her children from the hatred she experienced. As it turns out, my mom’s parents had fled Baranovichi, Poland (now Belarus) when WWI ended, to start a new life in Buenos Aires after marrying.  The Nazis murdered their extended family members who had stayed behind. 

Many years later, after Mom passed, I completed an ancestry search and found out that Mom’s family all had come from Israel at the start of the first century, fleeing to Eastern Europe after the Romans conquered Jerusalem, Israel. 

Now I embrace my birthright with pride and joy. Through my newfound connection to Judaism, I’ve formed a meaningful relationship with my Creator. And I’ve found while researching my genealogy over 100 relatives living in Tel Aviv, all Orthodox Jews. I’ve also connected with my cousins who immigrated to the US from Mexico, some of them Reform Jews, some Orthodox living in Lakewood, NJ. 

They have all welcomed me into the family with a full embrace, disregarding our differences, while focusing on the mutual affection and pleasure we derive from being one big family.

Cathy A. Lewis’ novel, The Road We Took—Four Days in Germany, 1933, is partially based on a true story of her father’s sojourn through Europe as a sixteen-year-old in 1933 and the four days he spent in Germany.  The book’s main objective, she writes, is to honor her relatives and those who perished in the Holocaust and express how quickly hatred can destroy our world. “It is a critical imperative,” Cathy says, “to remember history to ensure such events like the Holocaust never happen again.” To learn more about Cathy and her book, visit: https://cathyalewis.com

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Stories My Father Told Me: Remembering Monty Kuper

by Ivan Koop Kuper (Houston, TX)

I shared a hotel room with my father when my family took a trip back to Poland, on a fact-finding mission, in the year 2000. One morning upon wakening, my father, the late Monty Kuper, a man of many interests, identities, and ideas, looked over at me from his bed and said that his “dead relatives” had visited him all night long – in his dreams.

On this particular pilgrimage, my family only scratched the surface of discovering the fate of my father’s parents and siblings, who – like himself – were residing in the industrial city of Lodz, in an apartment building located at Skladowa Street 14, when the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland, on September 1, 1939.

Growing up in Lodz, my father, then known by Moszek, was a very spirited child and with an active and highly developed natural acuity. He was raised with five other siblings, in a poor but nurturing family. Monty often reminisced how he would go to the cinema on the weekends; sing in the synagogue choir during the High Holy Days, and how he would help his father, who was a painting contractor, after school. He once confided that of all his boyhood memories, his favorite was seeing the “Polish Harry James,” aka Adolf “Eddie” Rosner, perform one summer evening, in the city park, in 1938. He also shared that when he used go to the cinema to see the silent, black and white American Westerns, he was particularly fond of the ones starring Tom Mix, and grade-B cowboy actor, Buck Jones, who he and all his friends referred to in their Polish dialects as: “Bucksie Jones.”

As a child, my father developed certain personality traits that would define him as an adult. These were characteristics I would also come to recognize all too well. These defining traits would literally drive me crazy throughout my lifetime; however, it was not until I grew into adulthood that I fully understood his unpredictable temperament. Monty had a short attention span and was easily distracted; he made impulsive decisions, and he often possessed a real lack of focus. My father was known to lose track of time; he would change his mind at the drop of a hat, and he would lose interest in a project before he completed it – only to begin another. Needless to say, his spontaneous behavior tested the limits of my mother’s already depleted patience that often resulted in marital friction between the two of them. 

Monty’s predisposition would be identified by latter-day, 20th century popular culture and men of medicine as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Those who are of the Jewish faith and who speak the Yiddish language also have a word to describe this condition: Shpilkes.

Monty Kuper, however, was also very intuitive, and had an uncanny ability to read people and potentially dangerous situations. It was his highly defined, improvisational, decision-making acumen that probably saved his life, time-after-time, as he traversed the landscape of the Second World War – during the uncertainty of his youth.

My father knew very little of the fate of his missing family in the aftermath of WWII, the war that decimated Europe’s Jewish population. He discovered his older brother, Lyva, aka Leon Kuper, in 1945, convalescing in an International Red Cross displaced persons detention camp after the war, in Zeilsheim, Germany, near Frankfurt am Main. Leon had survived both forced labor in Auschwitz-Birkeneau Concentration Camp and a death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. However, Monty always lacked the hard and fast evidence regarding the fate of his other family members, and how they endured the daily indignation and degradation of the 14 months they spent inside the Lodz Ghetto.

Monty learned from his surviving brother that their father, Izrael Kuper, and their older sister, both died of starvation, in the winter of 1941, in the Lodz Ghetto. And, according to family folklore, my father always maintained that his mother, Cutla Bryks-Kuper, and his other siblings were all deported sometime in 1942, to Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp. It was there – he believed – they met their final horrific fate, as did so many other of his boyhood friends and members of his extended family that forever erased any tangible evidence of their existence from the pages of history.

In February, 1940, when the German Waffen-SS began their roundup of Lodz’s Jewish population five months after the initial invasion and occupation of Poland by the Third Reich, my father, along with several friends from school, were already on their way to the eastern frontier of Poland that was now under the control of the Soviet Union. As a result of the political alignment between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, a non-aggression pact was negotiated between these two divergent ideologues that carved up and annexed Poland, for their own geopolitical and ideological objectives. It was in the town of Kovel (now in present-day Ukraine), where Monty and his friends found refuge, and where they were dealing in black market goods to other displaced Polish, Jewish, Russian, and other Slavic refugees who were also seeking sanctuary from the oppressive hand of German National Socialism. However, Monty was soon approached by the occupying Soviets, who insisted that he become patriated into the ranks of Soviet citizenship and a member of the Communist Party in exchange for asylum. 

The ultimatum Monty received from the Soviets did not exactly fit in with the spontaneous and free-form, decision-making lifestyle he was adhering to since the invasion of Poland by the Germans in their quest for lebensraum (living space). And so – at age 19 – Monty found himself branded as a “political undesirable,” and was sent to the Soviet Gulag forced-labor camp system in Siberia. For the next 18 months, Monty cleared rocks and cut timber for the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railroad in the Russian towns of Kozhva and Vorkuta, near the Arctic Circle. Monty once explained his rationale for choosing the role of a political prisoner instead of becoming a party member and joining the armed forces: “I thought I would never see my family again and I would be sent to the front if I agreed to join the Russian Army and become a member of the Communist Party,” my father confided. “I was never in fear of my life when I was in Siberia. There was always a possibility I could starve or even freeze to death, but the Russians never tortured or deliberately mistreated us like the Nazis would have done.”

On June 22, 1941, the German Third Reich broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Russia was now at war with Germany and, as a direct result of this act of aggression by Germany, the Soviets set their foreign political prisoners free to join them in their fight against fascism. My father and his best friend, Michael Schulz of Warsaw, who he met in Siberia, were both conscripted into the newly formed 8th Division of the 2nd Polish Corp that was in exile and training with the British Army, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, under the command of Polish General Wladyslaw Anders. It was during this period that my father told me he also met a Russian girl named Rada; the daughter of a Soviet diplomat, who, with her mother, were sent deep inside Soviet territory, into Tashkent for safety, along with the families of other high-ranking Soviet officials. It was Rada’s mother, Nina, the second wife of the future premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Kruschev, who befriended young Moszek and who he said was educated in London and who, ironically – as the story goes – taught him to speak English. 

Monty and his friend Michael traveled with “Ander’s Army” from Uzbekistan to Persia, Iran, and eventually into the British Mandate of Palestine. After they reached the territory of the British Mandate, the command of this rag-tag, undisciplined unit of former political prisoners was then transferred to British control. Historically, the 8th Division of the 2nd Polish Corp then joined the British Army in what is referred to as the “Italian Campaign.” This included the infamous Battle of Monte Cassino, where Allied forces were engaged in a series of futile and costly attempts to capture a little-known abbey on top of a hill, on the outskirts of Rome. These series of battles lasted from January to May, 1944. However, while this historic event was unfolding, my father told me that he and his friend, Michael Schulz, were – at that time – in the Royal Tank Regiment of the British Army, and stationed at Camp Catterick (presently Catterick Garrison), located near the town of Richmond, in North Yorkshire, in England. It was there they both remained for the duration of the Second World War, and where my father said that he rose to the rank of corporal, and in charge of the parts department of the British Army’s Royal Motor Pool.

I am familiar with most of my father’s personal war-time history, because unlike most individuals who experienced the Shoah, my father was not introspective or reticent about sharing his personal history. I also do not recall Monty ever showing any indication of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or displaying any outward signs of what has come to be known as “survivor syndrome.” To the contrary, he was very personable and very outgoing. Throughout my lifetime – growing up in Houston, Texas – I heard the same wartime-era stories, over and over again; the same ones with slight variations from time-to-time, although, never presented in a boastful way or in an arrogant manner, but simply as a matter of fact. However, as I grew older, I became acutely aware that there were also parts of his saga that he conveniently omitted, thereby leaving significant transitional gaps in his narrative.

On another occasion my father shared with me that once, when he was in Siberia and had fallen ill, and was delirious with fever, his deceased grandfather, Rachmil Kuper, from Opoczno, Poland, appeared to him in a dream with a remedy. His grandfather told him to drink from a glass of wine that he offered him, and according to Monty, after he drank from the wine glass, his fever broke the following day and he was soon cured of all the symptoms of his illness.

Still operating by his wartime, heightened self-preservationist wits and his highly defined survivalist instincts, in 1992 – not long after the fall of the Soviet Union – when my father discovered I was planning to take a trip to Eastern Europe, he became very concerned. Monty still remembered the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child from his pre-nostra aetate (Vatican II), Roman Catholic neighbors with whom his family lived side-by-side while he was growing up in Lodz. One day before my journey, my father, anticipating the worst-case scenario, took me aside and said, “When you go to Poland, don’t tell anyone who you are and don’t tell them you’re Jewish. Just tell them you are an American.”

The fate of my father’s family was finally revealed to me in the summer of 2019 when my wife and I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. There I was able to discover what my father could not during his lifetime. In their archives it is documented that on the morning of March 10, 1942, 790 ghetto detainees assembled on the train platform of the Radogoszcz Railroad Station, located just outside the Lodz Ghetto. These unfortunate individuals received an order from their Nazi occupiers, four days prior, to gather up their personal possessions and assemble at the station because they had been selected for “resettlement” to a nearby work camp. Included on the roster of names, and chosen for deportation, was my father’s mother and four of his siblings.

“March was a cold month in 1942, with temperatures dropping to -15 degrees C (5 F), and sometimes even -20 degrees C (4 F),” wrote Polish historian and Lodz Ghetto survivor, Lucjan Dobroszycki, in his memoir, Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944. “The mortality rate in the ghetto (2,224 deaths) was higher than it had been in the previous months with suicides occurring almost every other day.” 

Transport No. 17’s destination on that bitterly cold Tuesday morning was actually to Chelmno Extermination Camp, the Third Reich’s very first “death camp,” located 31 miles north of Lodz, on the outskirts of the rural town of Chelmno nad Nerem. According to post-war testimony compiled by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel, these passengers were first taken to the nearby town of Kolo, then they were ordered to transfer to a smaller, narrow gauge train that took them directly to an abandoned brick mill in the forest on the outskirts of Chelmno. It was there they spent the night, and on the following morning they were forced into the back of an ordinary cargo van used for hauling furniture whose motor was left running and whose diesel exhaust system was retrofitted to flow back into the cargo area, thereby ending the lives of all those who were locked into the back of the sealed van. Their remains were then buried in one of several mass graves in the nearby forest, later to be exhumed and cremated toward the end of the war.

This was the Nazi’s attempt to conceal their fanatical mission of systematic mass murder and wholesale genocide from the rest of the world. The ashes of these victims – including those of my paternal family – were then unceremoniously scattered all together on the ground of the killing site that can still be found to this very day on the outskirts of the rural town of Chelmno. This event, which transpired on March 11, 1942, was verified by local Polish journalist and eyewitness, Stanislaw Rubach, who kept a diary of all the deportations and executions he witnessed during the Second World War. Needless to say, there were no survivors of the deportation and the subsequent executions that were delivered by the hands of the Nazis on this tragic day. 

My father has visited me only once since his death in October, 2011 at age 90. I was lying in bed and he appeared before me and asked if he could lie down beside me and rest. And in my dream I found comfort in his presence, and I was truly glad to see him again, although I don’t remember telling him so. And with my father lying by my side, I rolled over and went soundly back to sleep. 

Ivan Koop Kuper is a freelance writer, professional drummer, real estate broker and podcaster in Houston, Texas. His byline has appeared in Aish.com (Jerusalem), Jewniverse (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), ReformJudaism.org, Cable Magazine (London), the Los Angeles Free Press, and the Rag Blog (Austin). Koop invites everyone to follow him on Twitter @koopkuper. He is also available for comment at: koopkuper@gmail.com.

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The Silver Lions

by Steven Sher (Jerusalem, Israel)

for Ari

This old chanukiah

brought over from Poland

from my grandparents’ home

that I lit as a boy

and my son now lights

and my grandson covets

these Chanukah nights

with its twin silver lions

standing guard over flames—

listen and you’ll hear

the lions roar across

a hundred years

rattling every window

on their watch, illuminating

Vilna then New York,

defending Jerusalem.

Born in Brooklyn, Steven Sher is the author of fifteen books. He made aliyah five years ago, and now lives in Jerusalem near his children and grandchildren. To learn more about him and his work, visit his website: https://steven-sher-poetry.wixsite.com/writing

 

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Look to the Sky

by Toba Abramczyk (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

When I was a small child, my dad, a Holocaust survivor,  used to take me over to the window and ask me to look to the sky. He would take my brother and sister and ask them to do the same thing. This happened all the time, whether it was a barbecue or a family occasion, he would take us out and say “Look to the sky.”

When I got married, he took me outside. It was the hottest day of the year, but he asked me to go out and look to the sky

When I had my first child, he said “I am not good with babies. Don’t let me hold her, my hands can’t carry her and I will drop her.”

His hands were bent and swollen from years of hard labour and butchering meat for years and years.

The day my daughter was born, there were about ten family members in the hospital’s recovery room, all waiting for a turn to hold her. All I could see was her little body bobbing up and down from person to person.

There was so much noise and laughter, but through all this hoopla, I could see my dad holding his first grandchild, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was singing so softly to her. I had never heard my dad sing. Perhaps this was a lullaby his mother sang to him. He then walked my daughter to the window and said, “Look to the sky.”

That’s when I got it, I finally got it, and I started to cry.

I was sobbing so hard, everyone around me thought I was breaking down, but my mom understood. She took my hand and smiled.

All these years, all the times we had “looked to the sky,” my dad was showing his family, everyone who he had lost in the Shoah — mother, father, sisters, brothers – he was showing our faces to them, his legacy, and now his granddaughter.

Toba Abramczyk is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father was born in Belchatow Poland, the only survivor of seven children. His parents and two younger sisters, grandparents and extended family were taken to Chelmno. One older brother was shot on the street; two older sisters and an older brother were taken to Lodz and then sent to Chelmno in 1944. Her father came to Canada in 1956 after serving in the Haganah as a soldier (1948-1952) in the engineering corp while in Israel. Her mother came to Canada from Rovna Poland in 1930. A single parent of three children, Toba  lectures on the Holocaust, has gone on the March of the Living as a chaperone, and volunteers with various Jewish organizations. 

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Sing and Tell of My Grandfather

By Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

During National Poetry Month, WNYC invited Pulitzer Prize winning poet Sharon Olds to share a writing prompt on its poetry site. Thanks to the prompt, I ended up writing “Sing and Tell of My Grandfather,” a poem that I hadn’t even known I was thinking about writing.

The assignment from Olds was to write a short poem (16 lines or fewer) using (among others) the words acid, anise seed, butter, cherish, grisly, margarine, mother, pearl, sing, and tell. Here’s the poem that I found waiting for me:

Sing and tell of my grandfather
a baker who learned how to use butter—
not margarine—to add flavor to the cakes
and Danish pastries and bread and rolls
that came out of his oven in Zharnow, hot
and steamy and sweet, not grisly anemic rolls
but thick and fluffy, with drops of sugar, like pearls,
and anise seed, like slivers of jade, the kind of rolls
his mother said would bring him wealth and long life
and happiness if he left home. “If you stay,” she said,
“you’ll live with the taste of acid in your mouth, if they
let you live at all.” So, he sailed for America and became
a baker and bought his own bakery and raised a family,
two daughters, thank God, one of whom became my mother,
and lived a life the ones left behind could only dream of.

If you’d like to read more poems written in response to this prompt, visit the WNYC site: http://www.wnyc.org/story/happy-national-poetry-month-heres-assignment-3/

Bruce Black is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. His work has appeared in Blue Lyra Review, Elephant Journal, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Reform Judaism, The Reconstructionist, The Jewish Week, and The Jewish Exponent, as well as in OmYoga Magazine, Yogi Times, Mindbodygreen, Yogamint, and The Sarasota Herald-Tribune. For information about his book, Writing Yoga, visit: 

http://www.rodmellpress.com/writingyoga.html

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Father’s Phantom First Family

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

When it came to keeping secrets, few were as tight-lipped as my parents. Once these two Holocaust survivors decided to exclude any one particular topic from conversation, no amount of whimpering, urging or cajoling could convince them to reconsider. You see there were some wartime memories that proved just too painful to discuss and so keeping them under wraps was felt to be the only sensible thing to do.

One such prohibited topic dealt with my father’s first family, a wife and three small children, four innocent victims who perished during the Holocaust. They, along with thousands of others held captive in the Lodz Ghetto, had either succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and illness or were ruthlessly singled out, rounded up and taken to nearby killing centers. The story of this first family had become a closed chapter in a book of tragedies that was to be kept out of sight and out of mind. From my earliest recollection, I sensed that this was a subject that was strictly off limits and, though I was always intrigued, I knew better than to ask too many questions.

My father, who was generally an open and talkative sort, never spoke of this phantom first family. There were no details of their lives and no information as to how or where they died. Talk of their appearance, likes, dislikes, mannerisms and personalities was never forthcoming and remained under lock and key. My mother, perhaps fearful of not wanting to open old painful wounds, seldom discussed any subject that was certain to upset my father. “Your father is a nervous man,” she would often say, “he has suffered enough. There are things you should not ask.”

On rare occasions, mother would inadvertently let a word or two slip about the secret first family but there was never enough information that would amount to much of anything. She always seemed to catch herself right in the nick of time. It was like a pinhole in a drawn window shade that permitted a hint of light but resulted in little, if any, illumination or insight. The first family’s names were never mentioned and their faces never graced the pages of our emaciated photo album.

Growing up, I found myself trying to come up with likely names and images for this first family. I played with the possibilities. The color and texture of their hair, the color of their eyes and any distinctive facial features that would make them stand out in a crowd. In spite of a vivid imagination, my efforts failed miserably as these faceless spirits continued to elude me. Whenever emboldened by a jolt of curiosity, I would cautiously approach my father with questions relating to his first family. “Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?” was his customary response, a refrain he often used whenever feeling distressed and at a loss for words. I accepted defeat and never gave it much thought until my own children came on the scene.

While visiting my parents a number of years ago, I was determined to be a bit more forceful in my attempt to learn about this first family. Whether it had been the presence of my own children or the appreciation that I could no longer be put off, my father began to appear a bit more receptive to the idea of introducing his first family into our daily conversations. As the lone survivor of his extended family, he, and only he, could provide information about those who had not survived. No photographs, letters or mementos of the first family’s existence had ever surfaced after the war, making my father’s recollections all the more critical. I was well aware of his sensitivity and appreciated his vulnerability, and, at my mother’s urging, I proposed that we go slowly and proceed at a pace of his own choosing.

Father took a long deep breath and began to speak haltingly of the strife and struggle of life in the ghetto. He continued on this theme for a number of minutes before introducing me to his young daughter and two infant sons. Though details were quite meager, a milestone had been reached that, I hoped, would lead to more open discussion in the near future. A major hurdle was overcome and I could immediately appreciate that a bit of clarity had been sprinkled onto a distant blur. Visions of faint images were beginning to inch forward ever so slowly with the promise of additional advancement if time would only permit. But it did not. My father died soon after our initial breakthrough. This first small step had barely scratched the surface and now there was no one left to ask and nowhere else to turn.

Years later, I came upon a most remarkable work by Josef Zelkowicz, a witness to the horrific events that took the lives of so many in the Lodz Ghetto. In Those Terrible Days: Writings from the Lodz Ghetto, Zelkowicz describes how children were brutally separated from hysterical parents, forced onto transports and then taken to extermination centers:

“Hours have passed since these woes, these agonies, were inflicted on those wretched people, but the situation has not calmed down one bit. Mothers have not yet tired of shrieking, fathers’ wellsprings of tears have not yet sealed, and the silence of the night amplifies the reverberations of the screaming and sobbing. No sound reaches your ears, man, but that bitter wailing; no thought occurs to you but death; and your heart ponders, nothing but devastation.”

I will likely never know what became of this first family. I now, however, understand why it was my father could not relive a time when mothers and fathers, all terror stricken and desperate, wept uncontrollably as their loving children were savagely torn from their protective embrace. His common refrain—“Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?”—has now taken on a clarity of its own. My father had been right all along. I could not possibly understand. I could not possibly appreciate the horrors that had left him dispirited and at a loss for words. When it came to any talk, any mention, any recollection of the first family, I now realize that my father couldn’t and my mother wouldn’t. He succeeded in keeping his secret intact, thereby helping safeguard his sanity and keeping us, his current children and loved ones, safe from harm.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Auschwitz, August, 2016

By Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

I limp in the dark Eicha night with pain in my knee exploding, and I hear dogs barking in the near-pitch-blackness. Tears fill behind my eyes, not from my knee this time, though I say nothing to anyone. I quickly look at my wife and know we are each with private thoughts.

Several friends offer to get the wheelchair or my cane, and I curtly answer that I’m fine, though I’m anything but fine. I’m no martyr, and I don’t love pain. But in this place, my knee is not the source of my torment.

I walk in thin-soled non-leather sneakers where the rock-strewn road hurts the soles of my feet. I am aware that our people were beaten here seventy years ago, tortured, and beaten through hell in ways I pray to God no human being will ever know. So in this place where our people suffered relentlessly, how dare I complain about anything? I remain silent and worry only about how my wife and son are holding up.

Inside the infamous guard tower, we climb up, overlooking the vast Auschwitz acres, and we sit on the floor, leaning against the inside walls. I think of Germans who’d worked the searchlights here looking for “dangerous” emaciated Jews, often shooting them dead for no reason. I hate them all.

And then it hits me: this night it is we Jews who have overtaken this tower, we Jews are in control tonight of this place dripping with evil. We Jews are here: we have won, thriving in our Jewish lives and culture and religion. And the damned Third Reich? Under the ground. History. Pages in some books. In drerd arein, as my blessed father used to say. We Jews are flesh and blood and sinew and bone and we are here, accentuating our Jewishness right here in the lair of the most barbaric people in history.

And here we are, reading from inside this Nazi watchtower the Book of Eicha, Lamentations, over the destruction of the ancient Temple of the Jews. I need to feel sad, but I am nearly giddy with joy that this watchtower, this temple of evil, is in the hands of our victorious Jewish group tonight.

We return the next morning and daven shachrit in the woods of Auschwitz. I see several acorns on the ground, and I pick up a green one and put it in my pants pocket, my personal connection here, the green of it fresh and full of life in this kingdom of death. At home, friends will ask why there’s an acorn on a shelf in my bookcase that holds my Torah books and my collection of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Hemingway and others. I will tell them it fell from a tree in Auschwitz where our group davened shachrit together. The customs people at the JFK airport will ask if I have anything to declare, and I will hold out my wrists and tell them to handcuff me because I’ve broken the law, bringing this acorn home in my pocket. The entire world has committed crimes against us Jews throughout history, and my little green acorn has silently witnessed the Nazi massacre of more than a million of my brothers and sisters and I want to own this teeny, silent witness.

Just a week before, we’d walked through Tikochin Forest, where Jews had been force-marched in, many already near death from weakness and starvation. There, the trees have no branches, no leaves. Nothing new grows, just mammoth tree trunks on either side of the dirt path leading to three mass graves, each site draped now in very large Israeli flags, where Israeli officers pay their respects.  In my imagination, Nazis bully us, smash their rifle-butts against our ribs, our heads, our backs to make us go faster. But we can’t, we are so near death. Some of us fall to the ground, lifeless even as we fall.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the remnant wall. Operation Reinhart. Chachmei Lublin. Treblinka. the Nozyk shul. The Tempel shul. The Rebbe Elimelech of Lezajsk. Majdanek. Crematoria. Krakow. The Rama. Tosafot Yom Tov. The Hocha shul. Schindler and ‘his’ Jews in his factory.

So many reminders of deep Jewish life and most painful Jewish death all over Poland. The Poles, the Lithuanians, the Hungarians, all Hitler’s willing executioners, often gleefully torturing Jewish people. And so many other places and issues and thoughts and pain.

We now have America, as long as that haven lasts.

But we definitely have Israel, our true home, where we Jews will be in charge of the fate of our people. And so it continues for us as Jews whose souls were in Poland, and for us as Jews, part of this mission, living in New York and elsewhere.

On a personal note: when I finished learning the Tractate Taanis in memory of my parents and those of my wife’s, I was excited to make a siyum in Poland. (A siyum is the traditional ceremony one makes upon completing a tractate.) I made a siyum in that very country whose populace sought to destroy the Jewish nation and our Torah, and here I was, in their face, showing them all that we Jews and our Torah live on.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.

 

 

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Finding My Jewishness

by Anna Banasiak (Lodz, Poland)

I’m wandering in life
searching for my promised land
I see their faces
emerging from my dreams
hear the trains
in the forest of thoughts
my eyes are full of light
hands are dancing in the enchanted circle
like the Tzadikim
I hear the melody of the Hebrew alphabet
there is something strange in me
when I’m with people
I tremble
like a frightened bird
trapped in the past

Anna Banasiak, a poet and literary critic, lives in Lodz,Poland. She studied Polish philology and culture studies at the University of Warsaw, and served as the editor in chief of Kamena in Lodz. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals around the world.

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Beginning to Understand

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

A number of years ago, my wife and I joined a small group of fellow New Yorkers on a journey back in time. It was a trip that had all the earmarks of a solemn pilgrimage. A sacred mission of sorts to a place awash in tragedy and tears and the subject of countless discussions and heated arguments. We were about to land in a corner of the world where fleeting shadows have taken on human form and the ground, overcome with sorrow and tormented by unspeakable memories, yearns to reveal its secrets. Looking out the plane’s window, I began to make out the outlines of the airport below. Our jet was about to land in Warsaw, Poland.

We were all children of Holocaust survivors and wanted to see firsthand what the country was like and to appreciate how Poland, the country of our parents’ birth, had so influenced and shaped their lives. Each of us had heard the stories, the tearful recollections of a time and place that is no more. We were eager to visit the oft-mentioned towns and cities and step foot within the few existing synagogues that at one time boasted of overflowing crowds but that now stand silent, forlorn and empty.

There was much to see and experience but what remains with me above and beyond all else was a visit to the Majdanek concentration camp. This notorious extermination center is located only a short distance from the city of Lublin. Much of the camp remains remarkably intact and reminds one of a well-maintained museum. Glass enclosed exhibits contain some of the possessions that were taken from the victims upon their arrival. Eyeglasses, clothing, shoes and suitcases are all that remain of the many souls who entered this evil place.

Foot paths lead from one heart wrenching exhibit to the next and while traversing one particular path, we noticed that the path was paved with odd-shaped stones that looked strangely out of place. Upon closer examination, it became quite clear that some of the stones were actually broken sections of Jewish headstones that were likely scavenged from a nearby cemetery. Some of the stones had their inscriptions pushed face down into the soil below while others had lettering facing the heavens above.

Names of frail saintly elders, mothers who died in childbirth and children taken by illness could be easily identified. It was almost as though the stones, now severely beaten and dispirited, were directing their prayers to the blue skies overhead. They wanted nothing more than to be left in peace. “Why must the evil doers continue to harass us?” I thought I heard them whimper as nearby trees, sensing their anguish, nodded in agreement.

Some in our party began to weep while others raised their voices demanding an explanation. After all that happened here, one would have expected at least a semblance of compassion and good will. A number of workers were only a short distance away unloading headstones from the back of an old truck. Catching sight of this group of distraught Jews, they suddenly began to chuckle and laugh for, after all, this is how it was and continues to be. And for the very first time, I began to understand.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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