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Portrait of Papa as a Young Man

In my grandfather’s village, I found the man he’d been before memories of the Holocaust destroyed him

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The author’s grandfather, 1950. (Courtesy of the author)
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Grandpa’s Secret Shoah

My grandfather never talked about his time in a concentration camp. Five years after his death, I finally heard his story.

The cellar was only about six stairs deep. By stair three, my throat started to close as I felt a rising sense of panic, a combination of claustrophobia and fear of insects and rats and whatever else might have been skittering around in that dank, pitch-black hole.

How 13 or 14 people could have fit down here was beyond me. I tried to engage in the imaginative exercise that I’d thought was the point of the trip, tried to picture what it would have been like to hide here, all those cramped and trembling bodies, the damp and mold in their lungs, the yeasty tang of animal fear, the knowledge that a cough or sneeze would mean instant death.

But it’s impossible to really imagine it. I saw it the way I’d see a suspenseful scene in a movie, staged and artificial. The idea of being down there, choked with dust, possibly moments away from oblivion, simply wasn’t something I could grasp. It certainly brought me no closer to my grandfather, and I’d begun to appreciate how insane it had been to assume that it would.

When we returned to Yuri’s home, Alex, Mom, and Ludmyla were talking to an old man who lived down the road. He had bright blue eyes and bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows. Alex asked the old man if he knew my grandfather’s family—Pohoryles was their name. He thought for a moment and then nodded, tentatively at first, then emphatically. “Yes,” said Alex. “He knows the name.”

“Nahmush,” Mom said, her voice earnest and hopeful. “My father’s name was Nahmush.”

The man thought again and this time his eyes lit up as he slapped the back of one hand into an upturned palm.

“Yes, yes,” Alex translated. “Nahmush Pohoryles. His family sold grain. Lived right over there.” He gestured to a house up the road. “Yes. I’m sure of it.”

As if on cue, we spotted an elderly woman hobbling toward us with a crude walking stick. She wore a black headscarf, even though it was probably 90 degrees in the midday sun. When Alex addressed her, her face brightened and she began speaking with great animation. The moment she heard the name Pohoryles, she nodded and pointed to the same house the old man had. She then went on a long monologue, and we listened with astonishment as Alex translated and revealed an impressive array of biographical detail. Her mother used to deliver milk to the Pohoryles. Baba’s mother used to give her a roll on Shabbat. Papa was the youngest of three brothers; he was handsome and charming, but very serious, a good businessman. Everyone knew and liked him.

Suddenly I could see Papa as a young man, his hair thick and black, his lean and handsome face radiating a friendly professional intensity. In the 1930s, Janow was a village of over 2,000 people, and everyone knew him. I’d devoted so much mental energy to picturing Papa in hiding that I hadn’t once attempted to picture him in his day-to-day prewar life. In 1938, he was 25 years old, a decade younger than I am now. That’s the only Nahmush these villagers knew. The tormented old man with the large bloodshot eyes, the man I knew when I was a child, would be totally alien to them.

Surely my grandfather wasn’t simply sitting around Janow waiting for the Nazis to invade, for his life to become a hopeless tragedy that would end in suicide. Standing there on a flower-dotted hill, drinking in the gorgeous sun-struck landscape, listening to these charming villagers talk about my Papa, I got a small taste of what it might have felt like to be in Janow before the war. I’d thought that the point of the trip was to see the blasted, war-torn landscape where he’d almost died, but instead I found the gorgeous pastoral village where he’d lived, where he’d been more than just a victim, where he’d been an actual three-dimensional person who played and loved and thrived, and perhaps this was a far richer, more valuable thing to discover.

For a moment, I found him. I can imagine my prewar grandparents as young and in love, splashing in the Seret, surrounded by wildflowers and turkeys, giggling and happy. Such simple joys don’t begin to make up for what happened to them. Nothing can. But there’s value in remembering that their lives were more than the war and its attendant trauma. It’s something that, in a moment of terrible loneliness and pain, my gentle Papa forgot.

***

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irvingdog says:

Beautiful piece, thank you

Well, he didn’t forget. It was the stupid destruction of that life that was unbearable.

Very moving. Thank you for sharing.

Glad you were able to go and “find” your Papa. Wonderful piece

disqus_wefb6Xz2V7 says:

bravo, a wonderful piece. I particularly liked your superlative-rich description of the pastoral beauty of the village.

This is the area where my father, named Andrzej Gołębiowski, a Polish Catholic, came from. He was taken Prisoner of War by the Nazis in 1939, and survived the war in a POW camp in Germany. He never went back to visit his hometown. I believe that he wanted to keep the beautiful image of the Seret river, the surrounding hills and his life living as a young man with other people his age who included other Poles, Jews and Ukrainians. I dream of visiting his hometown one day, just as you did your Papa’s. Thank you for taking the trip, and for writing about it. May they all rest in peace.

Thank you for sharing your moving and powerful story.

Pam Green says:

Has Yulka Kryvoruka been recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations?

Zoe Tarshis says:

Yulka was recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 2011. Ludmyla attended a ceremony to honor her father in Ukraine last year.

Beautiful, message worth remembering. Celebrate life more than suffer loss!

Beautiful, message worth remembering. Celebrate life more than suffer loss!

For many of us, our parents never discussed the Holocaust, perhaps this was the pain they felt, which would never go away. Reading this story, made me realize, that they were in fact suppressing the sadness that would evidently affect their children. This is a superb story!

Pam Green says:

That’s wonderful! I’m so happy to hear that!

Pam Green says:

That’s wonderful! I’m so happy to hear that!

Gorgeous prose and poignant story … I look forward to reading your novel!!

Sara Russell says:

Thank you for sharing your story. So glad you could connect with the family who saved your grandparents.

Debabrata Chakrabarti says:

Touching. I can easily visualize the picture, since I had been in three concentration camps, among those were also one in Poland.

Annette Gendler says:

What a beautiful tribute to your grandfather to discover that there was beauty and happiness before the horror of WWII. It is amazing, isn’t it, what one finds in going back. And how little sometimes things have changed. Not exactly what one expects, but a valuable insight nonetheless.

Aebaknyc says:

Very inspiring and heart wrenching story. Its a tragedy that Jewish people would be seen as oppressors in similar stories told by the descendants of the Palestinian refugees around the world..

Jingleballix says:

Well done – fine piece.

So many suffered in silence, perhaps not just the horrors and inhumanity, but also guilt at having survived. God bless your grandfather – and the people who helped him.

WWII was the greatest carnage ever suffered by Europe – read ‘Savage Continent’ by Keith Lowe and ‘All Hell Let Loose’ by Max Hastings, you will feel anger, despair and sadness at what men are capable of.

Sorry to say, the same foolish, egotistical, paranoid little men are at it again. Europe is standing rather closer to the edge of dictatorship than I feel comfortable with.

very touching. i enjoyed reading about this wonderful man,and his village.

SherwoodRobin says:

I read once about the Jewish detainees escape from the Nazi Concentration Camp Mauthausen, Austria (I hate the word Jewish prisoners which makes them sound like criminals which is untrue) I imagined the inhabitants of Mauthausen village to be the worst form of human life and obtained this impression from what I had read about them when they assisted the SS to round up 410 men who had escaped from the camp. The locals were asked by the SS to go on a ‘hare hunt’ with them, to round up camp escapees and, whilst doing so, some of the crimes they committed in that small village over a period of 3 days are beyond belief.

I visited Mauthausen in 2008, and was shocked at how normal and wonderful it was, it’s situated in a beautiful area. Its built 95 km from Braunau am Inn (the madman H home town) 12km from Linz and near Salsburg, It would have been fitting end to this story to say that every person who killed a Jewish person on that manhunt was hung in the market Square, but that would be wishful thinking on my part. All I can say is you cannot view Mauthasen town and not be shocked that in the hill above the village was one of the most dreaded camps in history. An estimated 150 000 detainees died there, some say more, the exact figures are unknown. .MTDSRIP.

WilliamBarnes says:

I’m very happy for you. From your writing I feel your real and imagined ghosts are finally at peace. God Bless You.

greis kaarvaliksen says:

Interesting story….I am sure there are many of sad stories in Palestine. It is sad that mankind still has not learned to live together in peace, the ones that were tormented by the Nazis now torment others.

Vanessa E. says:

Touching story. I have so much respect for war survivors and victims.

Marilyn Newman says:

Mr. Goldstein,
A most poignant article. You owe it to your family to build a family tree in your grandparents honor. Check out http://www.IAJGS.org, click on member groups; i.e., Jewish Genealogy Societies throughout the world and possibly one near you.

Continued success.
Marilyn Newman
Florida, formerly Pittsburgh, PA

2000

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Portrait of Papa as a Young Man

In my grandfather’s village, I found the man he’d been before memories of the Holocaust destroyed him

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