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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.

On Aug. 9, 1982, the day before my fifth birthday, my grandfather killed himself. After taking a fatal dose of sleeping pills, he went into the living room and lay down on the couch, where my grandmother found him the following morning.

I have few memories of my grandfather, whom we called Papa. Occasionally, there was a hushed comment or two about “the war,” but when I was young, I had little sense of what that meant. According to my mother, Papa had terrible nightmares, his screams occasionally waking her and my uncle when they were young. Like most Holocaust survivors, my grandparents rarely discussed the war with their kids, and so my mother assumed that the night terrors were perfectly normal, that all fathers occasionally woke their children with their shrieking. It was all she knew.

After the war Papa owned a supermarket in the Bronx, which he sold around the time I was born. Without the store to occupy his time, he was perpetually restless. There was an unmistakable sadness to him, his cheeks lean and hollowed, his icy blue eyes a shade too big for his face. Whenever he visited, he’d take me onto his lap, kiss the top of my head, and tell me that I was his lawyer. It was a joke I didn’t understand then, and it makes little sense to me now. He was gentle and sweet, and I was his lawyer. Then he disappeared. I’ve been searching for him for 30 years now.

The author and his grandfather, 1980
The author and his grandfather, 1980.

***

Over time, I’ve gathered additional bits and pieces of his life story, most of which came from my mother and centered on Papa’s experiences during the Holocaust. He married my grandmother, whom I called Baba, a few months after the Soviets and Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. His brothers were killed in 1941 after the Nazis broke their pact with the Soviets and occupied all of Poland. In 1942, he and Baba were herded into a ghetto in Ternopil and spent time in work camps. The following year, fearing that the ghetto would be liquidated, they fled back to Janow, the small Polish village where they’d grown up. From then until the Russian army liberated the village, they hid in a bunker in the cellar of a house owned by the Kryvorukas, gentile neighbors who risked their lives to save village Jews.

According to one story my mother heard from my grandfather, a Ukrainian policia once held a gun to the head of the youngest Kryvoruka child, Yulka, and demanded to know where the Jews were. Yulka remained silent even after the policia fired a warning shot behind his head and so saved the Jews hiding in the cellar. On another occasion, whoever was supposed to be keeping watch in the attic had taken the night off. My grandfather ran to the lookout in time to see a group of soldiers trudging through a heavy snowdrift. The reason that he had time to gather everyone and scramble to the cellar to hide was that one of the soldiers dropped his pistol, and the others got on their hands and knees and groped and yelled at each other until they found it. Meanwhile, Baba, Papa, and about a dozen other Jews hustled into the bunker to safety. It is The Pianist meets The Three Stooges, and it is only because of absurdities like this that I exist.

In 2003, more than 20 years after Papa committed suicide, Baba died of complications from Alzheimer’s. While sitting shiva, my family gathered to share stories of Baba and Papa, and we realized once again how little we knew. It was then that one of my brothers or cousins first proposed a trip to Janow. Somehow, though, there never seemed to be a good time, and we procrastinated for years.

Finally, in late 2010, we got around to planning our trip. Through Yad Vashem, we were able to find the contact information for the offspring of Yulka Kryvoruka, the brave neighbor who’d saved our grandparents 70 years before. Yulka had died in 1991, and his children wished to have him recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, an honor for gentiles who’d saved Jews during the war. After a few weeks of exchanging letters, Yulka’s children agreed to meet us in Janow. I wasn’t sure what I hoped to learn, but some part of me thought that if I could see the setting of Papa’s nightmares, I could feel closer to him. I thought I might finally find him there.

When we arrived at Janow, we pulled over on a road by the village’s entrance in front of the welcome sign. After taking a picture or two, my brother Jon and my wife Zoe and I ran up to the top of a hill so we could take in a better view of the village. I’d been expecting the village to feel dark and haunted. When I’d dreamed of it, the images were always in black and white, the landscape ghostly and stark, the buildings crude, burnt-out husks.

But Janow, it turned out, was beautiful. And it wasn’t just beautiful, but exquisitely, heartbreakingly, every neuron-in-your-brain-taking-a-giddy-gulp-of-pastoral-ambrosia beautiful. The rolling green hills were covered in purple and yellow wildflowers. There were thick, healthy bees, swollen as grapes. There were low, winding brooks and fruit trees. In the distance we could see the sun glinting off the cross atop a cupola on a moss-green monastery. Below us, the Seret River ran through the village, a turbid bubbling artery, its banks covered in mud and damp grass.

After asking a few villagers where the Kryvorukas lived, we drove up to a small blue house, the path to the front door flanked by gnarled grapevines. A man and a woman walked toward the car. The woman introduced herself as Ludmyla Kryvoruka. The man was her twin brother, Yuri. Yulka’s children.

Inside, we sat and offered each other apologetic smiles. After a few minutes of exchanging pictures, we began to communicate through Alex, our tour guide. I cleared my throat and said what I’d rehearsed in my head a dozen times—something about how unusually brave and heroic their father was and how he was responsible for all of us being here. Ludmyla’s eyes grew damp. Though their father had occasionally talked about the war, he apparently said little about my grandparents. Our encounter with the Kryvorukas was gentle, suffused with a kind of stilted warmth, but clumsy. And I discovered nothing new from them about Papa.

Later we learned that the house where my grandparents had hidden was still standing. It sat at the edge of the village, about two kilometers away. My mother, Ludmyla, and her son drove with Alex. Zoe, Jon, and I walked with Yuri and his dog.

After a kilometer we ambled down a steep grassy embankment to the muddy banks of the Seret. In the distance, at the edge of an untilled field, was the house. A broad, thickly forested hill rose behind it, marking the edge of the village. This was the forest where my Baba’s youngest brother, David, for whom I’m named, was shot and killed. The scattered bones of dozens of victims must still be lodged in the earth.

The house itself, like most homes in the village, was simple and crude, a dirty white-and-blue façade with a weathered brown roof. From 100 yards away, I could see the tiny attic window through which Papa kept watch.

By the time we crossed the field, Mom, Ludmyla, her son, and Alex were on the porch with the middle-aged woman who now owned the house. Inside, the floor was coated in dust and covered in bent metallic wires. Next to a low pile of splintered wood planks was a naked doll missing its legs, its head twisted all the way around.

To our left was the room where the policia took Yulka and fired a shot over his head. To our right, through the room covered in bent wire, was the entrance to the cellar.

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.

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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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