At the outbreak of World War II, more than 100,000 Jews lived in the south-western Polish region known as Zaglembie (in Polish, Zagłębie), adjacent to other Polish regions known as Upper Silesia (Oberschlesien, in German), and Eastern Upper Silesia (Ostoberschlesien). Zaglembie had one of the largest Jewish population concentrations in prewar Poland.
Będzin, my father’s hometown, and the city of Sosnowiec, where my mother was born, were perhaps the best known locations in Zaglembie. Będzin was frequently referred to as the Jerusalem of Zaglembie. Other Zaglembie cities and towns include Czeladź, adjacent to Będzin, Dąbrowa Górnicza, Zawiercie, Olkusz, and Sławków. In the 1930’s, Jews made up between 45 and 50 percent of Będzin’s total population, and more than 20 percent of the population of Sosnowiec. Thousands more Jews lived in the other Zaglembie municipalities.
The Germans entered Zaglembie upon the outbreak of World War II in the early days of September 1939, and immediately began imposing a reign of terror on the Jews there. On Sept. 9, 1939, Jews were forced into the main synagogue of Będzin, which was then burned to the ground together with those inside it. Jews who tried to escape were shot. Other Jews were executed and many others publicly humiliated in full view of the town’s population. Similar scenarios were played out throughout Zaglembie. The main synagogue of Sosnowiec was also burned down on Sept. 9, 1939.
Starting in 1942, large transports of Jews were sent from Zaglembie to the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where most of them were murdered. Others were taken to Nazi labor camps. The largest ghettos of Zaglembie, those of Będzin and Sosnowiec, were liquidated in the first days of August 1943, and the last Jews of Zawiercie were deported to Birkenau at the end of August 1943. By the fall of 1943, Zaglembie was for all intents and purposes Judenrein, that is, literally, “cleansed of Jews.”
On July 27, 2018, more than 200 Jews from the U.S., Israel, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, and Germany gathered in Krakow to embark on a historic trip to Zaglembie. The group included two survivors from Będzin, Esther Peterseil and Dasha Rittenberg. The others were primarily children and grandchildren of Zaglembie Jews, as well as members of their families and friends. Quite a few had come on the trip with members of their families so as to explore their common roots together.
The trip was sponsored by the Israel-based Zaglembie World Organization in cooperation with the World Jewish Congress. Rina Kahan, director of foreign relations of the Zaglembie World Organization, was the driving force behind this extraordinary week-long journey into our collective past. I was privileged to organize and lead it together with her.
There were two three-generation families on the trip: Esther Peterseil, her daughter Dorothy Tanenbaum and her husband Andrew, and Esther’s grandsons, Nahum and Yosef Peterseil; and Helen Isaacson, her daughter, Beth Kean, the executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and two of Helen’s grandchildren, Jenny Kean and Joshua Brooks. Hanna Feffer, the president of the Fraternal Order of Bendin-Sosnowicer, was there with her sister, Ruth Plawner Blumenfeld, and sets of cousins from Belgium and Israel.
Two cousins of mine, Susan Rogol and Talma Keshen, were there with their husbands, Peter Rogol and Nelson Keshen. Susan and Talma’s mother and my grandmother were sisters. The three of us had a week-long reunion during which we exchanged stories of our parents’ childhood. Susan’s mother and my father were the same age and grew up together. Talma’s father was older and immigrated to Palestine before the war. We were comforted by each other’s presence.
One of my closest childhood friends, Jeff Katz also came on the trip with his wife Noel. He has no direct connection with Zaglembie. He knew both my parents well growing up, and wanted to know them better. Two other friends of mine traveling with us were Trudy Elbaum Gottesman and her husband Robert. Trudy’s father, Izak Elbaum, was from Będzin, and her mother, Sheindl Bierman Elbaum, was from Olkusz. This was her first trip to Poland. Each participant in the trip had his or her own reason for being here, but all wanted to learn more about our families’ respective histories, and to share stories, insights, and emotions.
Below, I have tried to convey the trip through my eyes and perspective, knowing full well, of course, that each one of us experienced it differently, through the memories that had been transmitted to us by our parents and grandparents.
On Friday morning, July 27, Rina Kahan and Daphna Londner Eldar of the Zaglembie World Organization welcome us all at the trip’s opening ceremony in Krakow’s Temple Synagogue. Daphna’s father, Ze’ev Londner (Liron), who became a senior officer of Israel’s Air Force in its early years, was a friend of my father’s in Będzin, and the two were imprisoned at Auschwitz together. I am then given the privilege to address the group and, hopefully, set the tone for the trip:
Unter di Poilishe grininke Beymelekh, shpiln zikh mer nisht keyn Moyshelekh, Shloymelekh, shpiln zikh mer nisht keyn Sorelekh, Leyelekh –
Under the green Polish trees, no Moyshelekh or Shloymelekh play anymore, no Sorelekh or Leyelekh play any more –
Growing up, I remember listening to this haunting song by the poet Yosef Papiernikov. It always brought and still brings tears to my eyes, as I am sure it does for all of us. But I never truly understood it until, in late 1995, I went to Będzin and Sosnowiec. I say Będzin and Sosnowiec, because the Bendin and Sosnowce about which I had heard so much from my parents no longer exist. They vanished from this earth together with all the Moyshelekh and Shloymelekh, the Sorelekh and Leyelekh, the Mottelekh and Rifkelekh of Bendin, of Sosnowce, of Zawiercie, of Czeladź, of Olkush, of Dombrowa, and of all the other towns and shetlekh throughout Zaglembie, throughout Poland and Eastern Europe, who were so brutally murdered in the gas chambers of Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and all the other infernos of the Shoah.
Those few hours I was in Będzin and Sosnowiec that day were among the most uncomfortable, the most unpleasant I have ever experienced. I felt that I was in alien, hostile places where I definitely did not belong. Earlier that same day, I had been to Auschwitz and Birkenau for the first time, and I felt more at ease there, where most of my family together with most of the Jews of Zaglembie perished, than in the cities where my parents were born and had lived.
I have not been to Będzin or Sosnowiec since.
I came to Będzin and Sosnowiec that day in 1995 with images of Bendin and Sosnowce in my mind. My father’s heder in Bendin–the Gerer Shtibl where my grandfather and great-grandfather davened–streets and alleys permeated by a Jewish atmosphere that transcends both time and space. Those streets and alleys, that shtibl, that heder–they now exist only in our hearts, in our dreams, in what we call our collective memory.
This Jewish Bendin has disappeared. So has my mother’s Jewish Sosnowce. In 1979, my mother, Dr. Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft, returned to Poland for the first time since, 36 years earlier almost to the day, she had been deported from her hometown to Birkenau by the Germans. She returned to Poland as a member of President Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust. The group traveled to Warsaw, to Treblinka, and to Auschwitz and Birkenau. And then, my mother recalled in her memoirs which she finished writing shortly before her death:
I went to Sosnowiec from Auschwitz, afraid of what I would see and how I would react. New buildings have gone up and highways have been built. Otherwise, geographically and physically, the town remains the same, except in one respect: there are no Jews left. The street where I had lived is almost the same. But this street, which used to have only Jewish inhabitants, only Jewish-owned shops, except for one pharmacy, now has no Jews, not one. I stood before the house I had lived in. I looked up and saw the apartment with its balconies. Unchanged. Here I was born and raised with my brother and sister. Here I spent happy years of childhood and youth with my wonderful parents. Here I was married. As I stood there, I felt I was in a strange town on a strange street in front of a strange house. Nothing was mine, perhaps it had never been mine.
Thirty-nine years after my mother’s only return to Sosnowiec, and 23 years since I was in Będzin and Sosnowiec, I am about to go there again next week, together with all of you, and while I confess that the prospect of doing so still fills me with substantial trepidation, I know that things are different now, in a positive, reassuring sense.
First, and most importantly, we will be experiencing this journey into our individual and collective past together. We will be there to support one another, to cry together, and to laugh together. Many of us met yesterday for the first time. Over the course of the next week, I am certain that we will become closer to one another, and that this trip to Zaglembie will bind us together for years to come.
I want to express the deepest admiration and appreciation to Rina Kahan who has worked tirelessly and with unbelievable dedication and passion, to organizing this trip on behalf of the Zaglembie World Organization, together with Daphna Londner Eldar, Dov Pnini, Shimshon Jashvitz, Rafi Yahalomi, Haim Dekel, and Rachel Bebes. Rina has seen to all the logistics, preparing materials, responding to questions and requests, in order to make sure that each of us has as positive an experience as only possible. She is absolutely terrific.
Also, we are no longer alone in our sacred mission of remembrance. We have wonderful friends in in Będzin, Sosnowiec, Zawiercie, and elsewhere who are devoting themselves passionately and with the highest integrity to commemorating what happened to our families and their communities during the Shoah.
It is always dangerous to single out some, because one risks omitting others – but I need to mention here Piotr and Karolina Jakoweńko, and Adam Szydłowski, from Będzin; Monika Kempara from Sosnowiec; Marcin Bergier from Zawiercie; and the unsurpassed historian of Zaglembie Jewry during the Shoah, Dr. Aleksandra Namysło. We owe them all a tremendous debt of gratitude.
One last thought as we embark on our journey of memory. Throughout the coming week, let us remember our murdered families and all the murdered Jews of Zaglembie for who they were and how they lived, not for how they died. When we think of them, let us remember their love, their warmth and their smiles. As I remember my five-and-a-half-year-old brother Benjamin, my mother’s son, who was killed in a Birkenau gas chamber, as we remember Moyshelekh and Shloymelekh, Sorelekh and Leyelekh, let us remember them as they played and laughed, not as they cried. And so allow me to conclude this morning with the lyrics of another song by Papiernikov:
Zol zayn, as ikh boy in der luft meyne shlesser,
Zol zayn, as meyn Got iz ingantzn nishto –
In troym iz mir heller, in troym is mir besser,
In Kholem – der himmel – nokh bloyer fun bloy.
It may be that I build my castles in the air
It may be that my God does not exist at all
In my dreams it is brighter, in my dreams I feel better
In my dreams the sky is even bluer than blue.
After the opening ceremony, we go on a walking tour through what had been the Jewish section of Krakow. That afternoon and the following afternoon, after Shabbat services, we listen to a series of talks so as to provide some background and perspective to what we would be experiencing over the course of the next week. Esther Peterseil beautifully and poignantly describes her personal experiences during the Holocaust in a dialogue with her daughter Dorothy Tananbaum. Esther is originally from Będzin and describes her return there after the war. “I realized,” Esther said, “that whatever memories of my childhood I had kept with me were completely erased.”
Esther gives our trip its historical mooring. She tells how the Germans forced Jews in Będzin forced Jews to surrender the keys to their businesses, and how Jews bribed Poles “with lots of money for a little extra food.” She described the transport to Auschwitz, how her mother wanted her to survive, how her head was shaven, and how, her arm tattooed with number 52058, she no longer had a name. She describes how she successfully saved her younger sister from a selection, the January 1945 death march from Auschwitz, liberation, finding her brother back in Będzin, and being told in post-war Będzin by a Polish woman who used to work for her family, “What, you are still alive?”
Dr. Henri Lustiger-Thaler, chief curator of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn and professor of cultural anthropology at Ramapo College, is joined by two young intellectuals and activists from Będzin, Karolina and Piotr Jakoweńko, in describing their efforts to recover and chronicle remaining traces of Zaglembie Jewry. Ann Weiss recounts how she came across more than 2,000 photographs of Jews from Zaglembie in Birkenau, and how making these images known to the world became her life’s mission; Robert Moses Shapiro, Professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, gives a lecture on the complex historical and moral dimensions of the institution of the Judenrat, the Nazi-imposed Jewish leadership in the ghetto; and there are presentations by genealogists Jeffrey Cymbler and Haim Dekel.
On Saturday afternoon, I try to place the complex roles of Poles during the Holocaust in historical context. I had planned to speak on a different topic altogether, but I feel I must correct an erroneous misconception. It is, of course, true that there were Poles who risked their lives to help and save Jews. They deserve to be honored. But they are a small, exceedingly small minority. In my talk I balance both the sides: the positive roles played by the Polish Government in Exile in London, the initiative by Polish diplomats in Bern, Switzerland, to provide forged passports with forged Latin American visas to Jews in Polish ghettos, and the heroic activities of Polish rescuers are one side of the ledger. But I also point out that antisemitism was rampant in Poland before the war, including in Zaglembie, and that many Poles denounced Jews to the Germans, blackmailed Jews, killed Jews, and raped Jewish women. I cite numerous instances in Zaglembie that were provided to me by Polish historians.
Other speakers who address us over the course of the trip are Mary Fulbrook, Professor of German History at University College London, and author of A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust; Dov Pnini, president of the Zaglembie World Organization; historian Dr. Aleksandra Namysło; Adam Szydłowski, chairman of the Center of Jewish Culture of Zaglembie and head of the Rutka Laskier Foundation; Lesław Piszewski, president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland; and genealogist Fred Frenkel.
In her presentation, Ann Weiss recalls how she almost accidentally came across one of the greatest treasure troves in the field of Holocaust remembrance. It was 1986, before the fall of the Communist regime in Poland. She was at Auschwitz with an elite group of American Jews, when she was shown more than 2,300 photographs that Jews – it turned out, Jews from Zaglembie – had brought with them as they arrived there, unaware of their fate, and that they were forced to surrender together with their other meager belongings, their suitcases, their clothes. These were photographs from before – family portraits, wedding pictures, photos of lovers, of parents, of friends. Candid mementos of vacations in the mountains. Members of the Jewish underground in the camp decided to hide them, defying the Germans’ edict to destroy all such photographs. Their motivation, in Ann’s words: If we can’t save the people, the people, let u at least try to save their memories.
They photographs in a storage room in one of the buildings at Auschwitz for decades until an official showed them to Ann. She returned to Poland two years later and painstakingly copied them. In 2001 many of them were published in Ann Weiss’s book The Last Album, Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
All this is fascinating. The dramatic moment for me comes when Ann shows a selection of images from the book. Suddenly, I see a black and white photograph of a young man standing near the tower of the 14th century castle in Będzin. He is wearing a long-sleeved white shirt and tie but no jacket. He holds a hat in his hand as he looks into the camera. It is a picture of my father, Josef, or Yossel, Rosensaft, taken before the Germans arrived, before the Jews of Będzin were forced to live in a ghetto, before my father’s sisters and brother were taken to their death at Auschwitz Birkenau.
My father did not know when he posed for this photograph that he would eventually be deported from Będzin together with his wife and her daughter, or that he would escape from the Auschwitz-bound train by diving out of a window into the Vistula river, or that he would return to the ghetto even though he had been hit by three German bullets, or that he would learn that virtually all the Jews on his transport, including his wife and her daughter, had been sent directly to be gassed.
He did not know when this picture was taken beside the Będzin castle that by the time a war that had not yet begun would come to an end, he would have survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, including a long stretch in the notorious Block 11, known as the death block, at Auschwitz 1, as well as the Łagisha labor camp and the Langensalza, Dora-Mittelbau, and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. All that was still to come.
I will never know whether the picture had belonged to my father’s wife, or to one of his sisters, or to a friend. But it has given me a glimpse of my father before all the horrors, when he still seemed entirely happy and carefree.
On Sunday morning, July 29, we leave Krakow for Auschwitz where we are welcomed by Andrzej Kacorzyk, deputy director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. He has provided electric carts for those participants in the trip who have difficulty walking long distances. In the morning, we are taken through Auschwitz 1, the original camp on the site of what had previously been Polish military barracks. Guides from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum take us to the mountains of shoes, hair, suitcases, and other personal belongings of the approximately 960,000 European Jews who were murdered here. They also take us through Block 11, the notorious Death Block, where my father was tortured for months, and the only extant Auschwitz gas chamber and crematorium. The guides are not only knowledgeable but sensitive, emphasizing at all times the Jewish identity of the vast majority of the camp’s victims. The guide in my group, Anna Skalska, was outstanding, providing us with an excellent historical overview. While we were at Auschwitz, Henri Lustiger-Thaler also gives us a preview of an exhibit he is curating, “Through the Lens of Faith,” scheduled to open there in 2019.
Henri Lustiger-Thaler is an old friend. His mother was from Będzin, a cousin of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris. He and I worked closely together in the creation of the spectacular museum at the sites of the Bergen-Belsen concentration and Displaced Persons camps in Germany. Henri is now engaged in two major projects, both directly related to Zaglembie Jewry.
The first, which he is undertaking together with Karolina and Piotr Jakoweńko, is the identification and preservation of traces of pre-war Jewish existence in the region – outlines on doorways where mezuzahs used to be; remnants of Hebrew inscriptions on a building indicating that it once was a mikve, a ritual bath, or a Jewish school; etc. The goal is an exhibition and a book to be entitled “Ghost Lands: Zaglembie and Upper Silesia.”
Henri’s other endeavor is more complex, and perhaps even more important. Many, perhaps, most, of the Jews from Będzin, Sosnowiec, and elsewhere in Zaglembie were religiously observant. Before the war, Będzin alone had more than 80 Hasidic prayer rooms, or shtiblekh. What happened to those devout Jews who survived the selection upon arrival at Birkenau and made it into the camp? How did they cope?
For decades, the ultra-Orthodox community refused to confront the Shoah. This is changing, slowly, in large measure due to two interrelated Brooklyn institutions, the Amud Aish Memorial Museum and the Kleinman Holocaust Education Center. Henri is the chief curator at Amud Aish.
Henri is now teaching guides at Auschwitz-Birkenau about the way observant Jews lived and adhered to their faith in the death camp. “For the very first time, the complex topic of how Orthodox Jews dealt with the reality of the Auschwitz extermination camp was analyzed in an exhaustive manner and presented to the museum educators. They were provided with an important tool which will enable them to present this question both to visitors who are not involved in Jewish Orthodoxy, as well as to Orthodox groups, whose presence in the museum is constantly increasing,” Andrzej Kacorzyk said last year in an interview with Times of Israel.
“By adding this dimension you start to see that the story of the religious Jews and the religious culture of Europe was completely destroyed. Incorporating this gives them [the prisoners] a voice here and also helps reanimate that world as well. The story isn’t just about a person entering the ghetto, or the work camp, or the gas chamber — it was about a culture entering the ghetto, or the work camp, or the gas chamber,” Henri explained.
We then go to Birkenau where we walk slowly, inexorably past the vast monstrous assemblage of wooden barracks where much of the Hitlerite Final Solution of the Jewish Question was implemented. We knew that we were walking where our parents and grandparents had walked, and where many of them had seen their loved ones for the last time during a selection for the gas chambers. We know that we were walking where members of our family had walked on the way to their death.
Auschwitz – no matter how many times I go there, it is always the same. Unbelievable, in the sense that one cannot – at least I cannot – believe that this was the nerve center of the most monstrous, the most nefarious multi-national mass killing machine in history.
I am not suggesting here that the Holocaust that engulfed, that devoured European Jewry was in any way more heinous than, say, the Armenian genocide, or the Rwandan genocide, or the slaughter at Srebrenica, or the massacre of the Cathars at Béziers during the 13th century Albigensian Crusade, or the brutal forced march 19th century relocation of Native Americans on what is known as the Trail of Tears. What I am saying, however, is that Auschwitz was a central cog, and is emblematic, of the most intricate, the most hyper-sophisticated, the most multi-faceted, technically developed, and, yes, diabolical murder-centric operation ever conceived and perpetrated.
Merciless is one of the most accurate operative terms to describe Auschwitz-Birkenau. With only minor aberrational exceptions, the SS who ran the camp showed no pity, no compassion, no humane emotions whatsoever. They killed either dispassionately or enthusiastically, but never, to the best of my knowledge at least, reluctantly.
A sudden storm forces us, umbrellas in hand, to find refuge in a Birkenau barrack. More than 200 of us are crowded – by 2018 standards – in a wooden structure where up to 1,000 spent their nights 74 and 75 years ago. We are uncomfortable in clothes that had become wet during the very few minutes it took us to find shelter from the rain. Birkenau inmates were forced to endure hours of daily roll calls in the rain, snow, and suffocating heat.
Our day at Auschwitz-Birkenau culminates in a moving memorial ceremony next to the ruins of crematorium 3 and its gas chamber. Rina Kahan reads an excerpt from her Auschwitz survivor father’s memoir. We sing the words of Maimonides’ twelfth Principle of Jewish Faith-Ani ma’amin be’emuna sh’leima, b’viat hamashiach; v’af al pi she’yismameya, im kol zeh, achakeh lo b’chol yom she’yavo. “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nevertheless I will wait every day for him to come.” The melody has become intertwined with Holocaust remembrance. It is told that Reb Azriel David Fastag, a disciple of the Hasidic Rebbe of Modzhitz, spontaneously composed and began to sing it while in a cattle car from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. A young Jew managed to escape from the Treblinka-bound train, taking with him the nigun, the melody, of Reb Azriel David Fastag’s Ani Ma’amin. Eventually, the melody reached the Modzhitzer Rebbe who is said to have exclaimed, “With this nigun, the Jewish people went to the gas chambers, and with this nigun, the Jews will march to greet Moshiach.”
Then, Esther Peterseil speaks to us:
We are in one the most horrible places on earth.
Here, at Birkenau, hundreds of thousands of Jews, almost one million Jews, were murdered.
Here is where I saw so many of my family, so many of my friends, for the very last time.
Here is where the smoke we saw rising to the sky was all that was left of children, women, and men who never did any harm to anyone, and who were tortured and killed by monsters.
My dear friend Hadassah Rosensaft, Menachem’s mother, said that after our liberation, we survivors were free from the fear of death, but not from the fear of life.
Today I speak not only for myself but for Hadassah, and for all my friends who were with me here at Birkenau, but who are not here anymore.
Hadassah was right. But this fear of life started for us long before the liberation.
Here in Birkenau, we were always afraid – afraid of being cold, afraid of being hungry, afraid of being beaten, afraid of being selected to die, afraid of seeing a member of our family or a friend selected to die. We all wanted desperately to live, but we knew that here tomorrow would not be better than today. We knew that the cold would continue, that the hunger would continue, that the SS and the kapos would continue to beat us. And we knew that many of the Jewish prisoners who were with us today would not be with us tomorrow.
But we also had dreams, even here in Birkenau.
We dreamed of our homes, of our parents, of our brothers and sisters. I dreamed about the life I had before the Germans came to Będzin and destroyed that life. I dreamed about the ghetto which seemed so bad, but was so much better than the hell of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
These dreams kept us human. They reminded us that we were better than those who wanted to kill us.
And each one of us also dreamed that the nightmare would end, and that we would be allowed to live again.
We dreamed that we would one day have homes again, and families, and nice clothes, and good food. Those dreams gave us a little hope.
I am here today with my daughter and my grandsons. I dreamed of you, that I would one day have you.
And I want to say to all the children and grandchildren of survivors here today: we all dreamed of you. We did not really believe that our hell would ever end, but we dreamed that it would, and that we would have you.
Here at Birkenau, I give you our memories and our dreams. They are your inheritance. Use them to fight against hatred, against injustice, and to prevent other genocides.
And never forget whose children and grandchildren you are.
After Shimshon Jashvitz sings the El Maleh Rakhamim memorial prayer for the dead, and we jointly recite Kaddish, I read a poem of mine, Meditation on a Ghost Child, with my brother’s image at the forefront of my consciousness:
through the snow
above the snow
the ghost child
does not know
who he is
who he was
if he was
does not speak
he no longer knows
how to speak
refuses to speak
certainly not prayers
will not sanctify
does not know how many
minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years
he has drifted aimlessly
through the snow
above the snow
drenched by rain
scorched under an august sun
like the last flowers
he saw before
but always between
no longer remembers
only faint echoes
of a lullaby
another ghost child walks
do not see each other
do not touch
they know they once
heard the same lullaby
the same ashes
the same grayness
two ghost children
through the snow
above the snow
On Monday morning, July 30, we hold a ceremony in Będzin on the site where the town’s Great Synagogue had stood, with both Esther Peterseil and Dasha Rittenberg providing their personal recollections of how it was viciously destroyed. Shimshon Jashvitz again sings the El Maleh Rakhamim memorial prayer, only this time to the melody of S’Brent, It Is Burning, a song popularly associated with the Holocaust, but actually written in 1938, before the outbreak of World War II, in reaction to a March 1936 pogrom in the Polish town of Przytyk. From there, we go to a nearby Roman Catholic church and honor the memory of its priest, Father Mieczysław Zawadzki, who gave shelter to Jews fleeing from the burning synagogue. That afternoon, we visit the nearby town of Zawiercie.
On Monday evening, we sit in groups of 12 or so and share family histories. Most of have brought family photographs. Naomi Stawski-Altholz shows the only picture she has of her father before the war, together with a friend of his who was killed. Trudy Elbaum Gottesman brought a photograph of her mother’s father, Shloime Bierman, two photographs of her mother with her classmates in Olkush, and a picture of her father’s three maternal aunts.
The picture I brought is one of my most valued possessions. It is of my grandfather standing outside a house, a window behind him. His beard is white, his eyes are piercing. He is wearing a black hat and coat. On his left arm is a white armband. Some weeks, perhaps a few months, before the liquidation of the Będzin ghetto, the Germans apparently wanted to document it for whatever reason. My grandfather was standing in the street and was captured on film. After the war, the film was found somewhere in Będzin. Someone who saw it recognized my grandfather, and knew that my father was in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp. Two frames of the film were cut out and sent to my father. I always thought–and still think–that maybe he is looking directly at me, the grandson he knew he would never see, and that he is trying in this one gaze to teach me everything he wants me to know.
Tuesday begins with a memorial ceremony at the Jewish cemetery of Czeladź, on the outskirts of Będzin, where there are more than 3,000 graves of Jews from both towns, including my grandmother. The cemetery is one of the best preserved Jewish cemeteries in Poland, thanks to the Czeladź municipality and the generosity of a survivor from Czeladź, the late Moniek Stawski.
Three of Stawski’s children, Naomi Stawski-Altholz, Mike Stawski, and Irene Fogel are on the trip.
I want to find, no, I must find one particular grave. My grandmother, my father’s mother, who died in a flu epidemic in 1919 when my father was eight years old is buried here. I find myself walking anxiously through rows and rows of tombstones, looking for her grave. Many of the stones are broken. The inscriptions are often faded, often illegible.
I know my grandmother’s tombstone survived World War II intact. In the 1950s or early 1960s, a friend of my father’s was here and photographed it. I have been told it is still here, near the front of the cemetery, but the coordinates I’ve been given for it turn out to be inaccurate. A different name is on the stone in that location–someone else is lying in that spot. I look nearby–to the left, to the right, a row further back, a row further to the front. No stone for Deborah, daughter of Yaacov Szpiro, wife of Mendel Rosensaft.
I begin to be deeply, deeply depressed. One of my reasons for going on this trip is to say Kaddish at my grandmother’s grave. I didn’t realize quite how much this means to me until it looks like it may not happen. One thought overwhelms me: How can I tell my father that I couldn’t find his mother’s grave? My father died more than 42 years ago. Still, I have this overwhelming feeling that I cannot, I must not, disappoint him. Or myself, for that matter. I imagine him saying to me, “There was only one thing I wanted you to do on this trip, and you were not able to do it?” I look further, almost frenetically, at the inscriptions on the stones. No success. I feel my heart beating harder. A sense of panic sets in. I look further, and realize I am reading names I already read.
From the very first row of graves, I hear my cousin Susan Rogol calling me. “Here it is. I found it.” I literally run over. It is indeed my grandmother’s grave. At the top of it, a candelabra with two broken candles. I touch the stone, and realize that I am standing where my father must have stood year after year, probably until he left Będzin for the last time. My grandfather must have stood here, too. I touch the stone where they probably touched it, resting my head against it. I break into uncontrollable tears.
Others on the trip find graves in the Czeladź cemetery as well. Naomi Stawski-Altholz’s grandmother Chaya Sara is buried there. Standing in front of the graves of her grandparents, Raisl and Baruch Wohlhander took Trudy Elbaum Gottesman’s “breath away.” Susan Rogol found the graves of her father’s sister, Deborah Yachet Zander, and my father’s sister Leah’s husband, Israel Levi Justman.
Naomi Stawski-Altholz and her husband Andre Altholz in particular are intent on continuing their father’s and father-in-law’s mission of preserving the Czeladź cemetery. At a subsequent meeting of Naomi and Andre, Mike Stawski, Irene Fogel, Zaglembie World Organization president Dov Pnini and myself with Zbigniew Szaleniec, the mayor of Czeladź, Naomi and Andre commit to funding a study of what is necessary to protect the cemetery into the future and perhaps build a small museum in an abandoned building outside its entrance. During the trip, the three of us gravitate toward one another. We seem to see and react to things the same way. Others on the trip develop similar friendships.
Later on Tuesday, participants in the trip have the opportunity to make personal visits to different towns in Zaglembie, and in the afternoon we see the beautiful Jewish Museum of Upper Silesia in the nearby city of Gliwice (known in German as Gleiwitz).
Wednesday and Thursday constitute the culmination of the trip in, respectively, Sosnowiec and Będzin. Following memorial ceremonies recalling the fate of the Jews of the Srodula (Sosnowiec) and Kamionka (Będzin) ghettos, we march to the railroad stations of both towns from which our families were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We also take walking tours to what had been Jewish sites in both Sosnowiec and Będzin, including the Brama Cukermana prayer room in Będzin, restored and maintained by Karolina and Piotr Jakoweńko, and the Mizrachi Synagogue, also in Będzin, restored and maintained by Adam Szydłowski.
Throughout much of the trip, reference has been made to Christian Poles who helped or rescued Jews. The descendants of several of these Righteous Among the Nations are recognized. These altruistic individuals deserve to be honored, but it must never be forgotten that, as I pointed out earlier, they were a tiny minority of the population as a whole. At the Sosnowiec ceremony I read a poem, Sosnowiec Visited, that I wrote after standing outside my mother’s former home 23 years ago:
light cuts the rain grey
sixty years old
from across the street
that should have been
but never will be
I see shadows move
behind windows where
another family once lived
perhaps even the same furniture
here the good church-going citizens
watched and waited
until the non-believers
were finally taken away,
then they stole
my mother’s home
my brother’s toys
dead Jew reborn
to refuse to knock on their door
I came to curse
only to find
them cursed already
my final victory: I can leave
even the air tastes bitter
On Wednesday night, we host Mayor Szaleniec and the mayors of the other Zaglembie municipalities. They are the good guys, intent on facilitating a proper remembrance of the region’s Jewish past. One of our honored guests is Stanislawa Sapinska, a non-Jewish Polish woman who is approaching her 100th birthday. During the war, she befriended a 14-year-old Jewish girl in Będzin named Rutka Laskier. The apartment in the ghetto where Rutka and her family lived belonged to Stanislawa Sapinska’s family. According to Rutka’s half-sister, Zahava (Laskier) Scherz, born after the Shoah,
Stanislawa, then 20 years old, worked near the ghetto and used to visit the apartment from time to time at her father’s request, in order to check on its condition. That is how she met Rutka, who, according to Stanislawa, was a serious, mature young girl, and they became friends. . . . During one of their encounters, Rutka told Stanislawa that she was writing a diary, and that she knew she would not survive the war. However, she wanted the diary to survive. The two girls decided that when the day came, Rutka would hide the diary underneath the double flooring of the staircase where she lived, and Stanislawa would take it and look after it. [Rutka’s Notebook: A Voice from the Holocaust, p. 2]
In April of 1943, Rutka and her family were moved elsewhere within the ghetto. After the war, Stanislawa returned to the apartment and found the 60-page handwritten diary, covering three months from January to April 1943. The last entry was dated April 24. In 1998, she handed the diary to Adam Szydlowski, and it was published in Polish in 2006. An annotated English edition followed two years later.
Rutka Laskier’s words hung over our trip. Her description of a roundup of Będzin Jews is bone-chilling:
People were thirsty, and there was not a single drop of water around. It was terribly hot. Then, all of a sudden, it started pouring. The rain didn’t stop. At three o’clock [SS Obersturmführer] Kuczynsky arrived and the selection started. “1” meant returning home, “1a” meant going to labor, which was even worse than deportation, “2” meant going for further inspection, and “3” meant deportation, in other words, death.
Then I saw what disaster meant. We reported for selection at four o’clock [p.m.]. Mom, Dad and my little brother were sent to group 1, and I was sent to 1a. I walked as if I were stunned.
Hours later, Rutka escaped and returned home to be reunited with her family. She continued, almost matter of fact:
Oh, I forgot the most important thing. I saw how a soldier tore a baby, who was only a few months old, out of its mother’s hands and bashed his head against an electric pylon. The baby’s brain splashed on the wood. The mother went crazy.
On Wednesday afternoon, I take a taxi to what had been my mother’s home in Sosnowiec, at 5 Modrzejowska Street. It looked as I remembered it from my previous visit. I take some photographs on my iPhone of what had been her apartment, and leave. I have no greater desire to remain there than I had had 23 years earlier.
On Thursday, Piotr Jakoweńko takes me to my grandfather’s house in Będzin at Berka Joselewicz Street 20. My cousin Susan Rogol and her husband Peter come along, as do Jeff and Noel Katz and Henri Lustiger-Thaler. The house where my father lived still stands, and one can see the outlines of the original windows, now bricked up. We stand there for a few minutes, taking pictures. A woman comes out, offering us water. She makes a point of emphasizing that her family has lived there since 1939. Perhaps 1942 or 1943! I have no desire to go inside. As we walk away, several young tough looking locals approach us and ask, in Polish, what we are doing here. We hear the word “nasz”–ours–said in a threatening tone. Piotr explains that we are here on a “sentimental” visit. They glare at us. Some things never change.
I had been to Auschwitz before. I had been to my parents’ home towns before. Others on the trip were in Poland for the first time, apprehensive of what they might encounter, what they might feel. Most of us did not know one another when we first met in Krakow. Some of us never spoke with one another throughout the entire trip. And yet we understood one another, recognized one another. When we looked at one another, we intuitively knew what the other was thinking. We walked through Auschwitz, Birkenau, Będzin, and Sosnowiec as a family. When the children and grandchildren of Jews from Będzin and Sosnowiec walked to the train stations there, we knew, we felt, that we were somehow walking with our parents and grandparents, or, perhaps more accurately, that they were walking with us. When we stood beside our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ graves at the Czeladź cemetery, we were fulfilling a sacred obligation.
During the course of the trip, we talked, cried together, sang together, sometimes even laughed together. We learned about one another, and discovered that we wanted to know more, about our families, about where we came from, and about one another. Being in Zaglembie made the past, our past, seem more real.
In the end, perhaps most importantly, this trip, the journey of a lifetime, gave us a sense of closure.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is the associate executive vice president and general counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. He is the author of Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen.