Tag Archives: revisiting the past

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 Imperative of Remembrance

by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)

This piece is dedicated to the six million Jews and other innocent victims who perished in the Holocaust and to the beloved families left behind.

Years ago, after visiting my family in Israel, I stopped for several hours in Berlin before a connecting flight back home to the U.S.A. I shall never forget the overwhelming feelings of dread I had when I saw the building that once was the headquarters of Hitler’s Nazi regime. The thought that here I was, standing on the soil where the Final Solution was planned to murder six million Jews and other innocent victims, filled me with anguish. I wept. I could not wait to leave the country and vowed that I would never set foot on German soil again.

Several years after my stop in Berlin, a friend and her husband in Israel called, asking me to join them on an organized tour from Israel to Germany. Initially, I declined the invitation. The thought of being in Germany again made me uneasy. As a child, I had lived through the pain of prejudice and persecution just for being Jewish. I remembered the beatings and every syllable of slurs, a traumatic experience that has been like a shadow accompanying me throughout my life. 

Also, my late husband was a Holocaust survivor. Except for one brother, the rest of his family were all killed in the Holocaust. The atrocities inflicted on him during the years he spent in several labor camps left psychic scars with which he wrestled the rest of his life. The trauma became a silent phantom; during the day, painful memories were locked away, but at night, when the repressed pain became too much to bear, it burdened his dreams with nightmares, awakening him from a storm of grief, as he called out the names of his perished loved ones.  Witnessing his suffering from a wound that would never heal was painful. Many times he expressed the wish that one day he would visit Dachau, the concentration camp from which he was liberated. 

Like other survivors he journeyed from darkness to light, striving toward the birth of a new life. We built a family with two wonderful children, and he lived to enjoy our first three precious grandchildren. Like other survivors, the love and pride he took in his children were deep and truly meaningful. Often, my husband would say: “The revenge is to live a successful, meaningful life.” At the age of 93 after a long illness, Samuel Holzkenner (z’l) passed away. His wish to visit Dachau remained unfulfilled.

So, the question of whether to join my friends in Germany rattled around in my head for weeks.  After some deliberation, I contacted the administrative office in Dachau. Initially I was told they had no record of a Mr. Holzkenner. But after much correspondence, I finally received an email saying that they had found several documents about my late husband. This information was pivotal in helping deal with my emotional turmoil.

I wanted very much to fulfill my husband’s wish to visit Dachau, and I needed that to happen before memory deserted me, before age took me down. Also, I wanted to impart to my children and grandchildren the beauty and tenacity of their Jewish heritage. But being in a country where my people had been systematically annihilated filled me with anxiety, anger, and fears.  My grandfather’s words of wisdom came to mind: “Hate is the seed of evil that tarnishes the soul, while finding creative ways to no longer be a victim is self-healing.” His words inspired me to look into unresolved fears from my past traumatic experiences with prejudice and how they continued coloring my present life.  I realized that I had to cultivate a healthier perspective of life. I said to myself, healing only comes through learning to forgive and making peace with the past, and if a lesson is to be learned, one must never forget.

Yes, I thought, why should the good-hearted young German generation be judged by the sins of their fathers or grandfathers? This rekindled awareness imbued me with the strength to join my friends, tour the country, and visit several Jewish historical sites. And on the day my friends returned home, I took the early train to Munich, arriving in the late afternoon.  I spent a sleepless night in a hotel. In the still of the night, I cried and awakened. The first crimson hues of dawn brought the promise of a new day, a new hope. Early the next morningI took the train to Dachau.

In this cataclysmic landscape, I walked with apprehensive steps over the gravel walkway, thinking this is the same path where prisoners in a human chain of misery were forced to walk as they were brought into the camp to meet their demise. The path led toward the main original gate with its motto in German, “Work Sets You Free.”  I saw a variety of people of all ages strolling in groups in solemn silence. Everything seemed eerie at this site that was once a killing field. I felt the ashes of the perished ones still permeating the airI exhaled a long sigh.

As I had been directed, I went straight to the administrative office that preserved the legacy of the victims. The staff there welcomed me warmly. One administrator guided me to a room and we sat down. He asked me several questions to verify who I was before getting up to go to the archive room. When he came back, he provided me with my husband’s background information – his birthplace, date of birth, a list of names of people who were deported with him on the same train, the names of the camps he was in before Dachau—and the identification card Jews had to carry with them at all times. He gave me copies of all the documents.

I felt overwhelmed with sadness and pain at the images this information conjured up in my mind, imagining my husband and others taken from their homes, their families left behind in anguish and fears, the cries of loved ones being separated from loved ones, and the horror that awaited them all. I felt a lump in my throat and tears sprang from my eyes. When I lifted my gaze to the man in front of me, his eyes seemed rimmed with red, as though he was holding back his tears.

He got up and showed me around the place. There was a room where paintings of survivors were displayed, a library, and a big archive room that contained films, relics, photos, written documents about the history of what happened in the camp, eye-witness reports, personal narratives of survivors, and scholarly work. I was filled with a sense of gratitude and extended my thanks to all those involved in maintaining this place as a reminder of history, and as a resource for people like myself who wanted to research and learn about their loved ones’ experiences of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. I left the office knowing that the people here were on the right side of history.

I walked along the Path of Remembrance, viewing several Jewish memorial halls and monuments, all of which commemorated the sanctity of those who had perished and solemnly honored the loved ones who survived.  A Jewish menorah on the wall displayed the words “Never Again.” Another memorial sculpture in the yard symbolized the emaciated bodies of the prisoners dangling down; underneath was a placard indicating the dates 1933-1945, the years the camp was in use. Also, there was a big sculpture of a menorah and a lectern engraved with the word “Yizkor,” Hebrew for “to remember”; a museum; and other memorial sites to commemorate non-Jews.  Utterly chilling were the barracks, the gas chamber, and the crematorium building, all too painful to describe. 

As I moved around, I was consumed with grief. How could such a highly cultured nation as Germany descend into such unfathomable depths of barbarism?  The question remained beyond my comprehension. I wanted to be alone in some corner, mourning the martyrs in silence. I asked myself, how does one mourn for six million Jews and all the other innocent victims who perished. What prayer shall I recite?  I shut my eyes and bowed my head low, and cried for the suffering of humanity as I recited a prayer: “May the souls of the six million Jews, and the millions of others who were victims of Nazi persecution, rest in peace, and their sacred memory last forever and ever. Amen.”

When I opened my eyes, tears still dropping down my face, my heart filled with sadness, I was awake, yet felt physically transported to another time and place, I wished that by some miracle I had been disguised as an invisible eagle, with strong wings that soared over the regions of the world in turmoil, to redirect the tide of history. 

I wished that I had been there with the innocent victims yearning to live and be free, to hold their hands as my grandfather held mine once, walking together to the synagogue on Shabbat or the holidays, or to sing to them the first song my mother had sung to me to soothe my fears before bed. Or, that under my wings of love, I could have been their mother, or sister, and together we could have prayed to change the course of the trains and every road that led to their impending doom, and take them to the city of their ancestors that stands on the hill in the Promised Land. Out from the rhythm of my imagination: somehow, I heard voices, I knew they came from a nation in anguish of grief in a prayer asking: “Please, please, never, never again.”

On my way back home, I looked at the gravel paths. Among the stones are the ashes of cremated corpses of which I felt I was a part. Their infinite and indestructible souls are beyond the celestial heavens gazing at us here on earth, reminding us that wherever they are, they will always be part of us, for in the chain of life by many threads we were, we are, and we will always be interconnected, between the land of the dead and the world of the living, ancestors and descendants united. And yes, we must preserve the collective memory and keep truth alive so that these atrocities do not happen again, toward anyone regardless of age, gender, race, color, religion, or creed. 

I looked back one more time. I said to myself, I shall continue to mourn the annihilation of the innocents. And yes, I shall never forget. But I am also thankful for the miracle of survival and for the tremendous power of the human spirit to triumph over the extremes of evil. For I know that these monuments are a precious legacy, commemorating all the victims who perished in the Shoah, a symbol of human tragedy. 

Before reaching the main street, I picked up a stone as big as a coin cut from the evil of time past, a silent witness. I can’t see it, but I know it is there: engraved on it the word Zachor (remember). The clouds moved in wandering shadows, mirroring my emotions — intense and painful in a complex way. Everything here was, is, and will for eternity remain touched by solemnity and sorrow and tears.  Under my breath I said, Hitler did not win; here I am walking out of here as a free Jew, a testament that the Stars of David are not all burned out or destroyed; we still live and shine among the nations of the world. 

Just as I was leaving the camp, I met a group of non-Jewish German boys and girls, high school students with their teacher who — from what I could ascertain — was explaining the history of the camp. I was interested to find out what emotions this place stirred in them, so I approached the group and asked in the few words of German I knew, “Do you speak French or English?” The teacher answered, “Yes, I speak English and some students do as well.” I asked, “How do you feel being here?” One of them responded by asking me, “Why are you here?” I told them that my late husband was liberated in this camp, and briefly related my early childhood experiences of persecution. 

They were curious and articulate, not shy to ask their own questions. I encouraged their curiosity and answered as best I could. The students told me that they were here as part of their school curriculum that prescribed over 14 hours of instruction in National Socialism of WW II, as well as learning about the Holocaust, including a visit to a concentration camp. They also mentioned that they’d seen Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Some expressed a wish for sympathy for their grandparents’ generation and resented being defined by their grandparents’ genocidal history. The past, they said, had so little connection with their immediate lives; they were no longer willing to bear the weight of historical wrongs. Others maintained that the past was still part of their psyche as they continued to struggle with their ethnic inheritance and national collective guilt, trying to make things right with the world. 

After this emotional discourse, we concurred that each generation must create a new culture of its own humanity by playing a unique role in the moral conscience of the world. Inhuman behavior toward any race, gender, age, creed, color, or religion is simply not acceptable. Every individual must seek insight in order to separate darkness from light, for if we are indifferent to the plight of others’ humanity, we will be neglecting the future and risk repeating the past. Moreover, we must be aware of the importance of participating in whatever minuscule manner we can to build a safe, more humane world. In Hebrew, I told the teens, we say, “Tikkun Olam” — a phrase describing the effort to repair the world. Two of the teens broke down in tears, as did I. In their words, I heard remorse and sadness; in their eyes, I saw hope. 

Among the swirling clouds I thought heard words wrapped in a celestial rhapsody. 

I looked up into the vast sphere, and smiled. I want to believe it was Samuel Holzkenner (z’l), smiling back from above, whispering, “Yes, may the seeds of hope give humankind strength and love to teach them more.”

 Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner is a psychoanalyst and family therapist with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, early childhood development, and couples and family therapy. Born in Morocco, she lived briefly in France and Israel, and has resided in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan for the past 56 years. 

Her poem, “Hidden Identities in Transition,” inspired by the Jews of Belmonte, Portugal, and an essay, “When Understanding Comes,” both appeared in The Jewish Writing Project, and her poems and prose have appeared in such publications as Reflections in Poetry and Prose 2015, HaLapid, Chelsea Now, Chelsea Community News, the Israeli Birding Portal (in both English and Hebrew), and, most recently, she was profiled on Senior Planet- “Poetry, Power and Perseverance.”  Her photographs have appeared in Dance Studio Life, the Audubon Society Newsletter, and Persimmon Tree, as well in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin.

She has two children, and  five grandchildren, for whom she writes storybooks and poetry. 

 

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