Category Archive: POLAND

Auschwitz Memorial Sees Record Number of Visitors in 2016

World Youth Day was a large boost to attendance. But how about Pokémon Go?

The memorial and museum and Auschwitz-Birkenau announced on Monday that a record 2,053,000 people visited the former Nazi concentration camp in 2016. Tops among attendees are from Poland, the UK, the U.S., and Italy; 97,000 visitors came from Israel, a 59 percent increase from the year prior. Also boosting yearly attendance were the 155,000 people who visited for World Youth Day, including Pope Francis. Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński, the museum’s director, said eloquently, “In today’s world—torn by conflicts, increased feeling of insecurity and strengthening of populist tones in public discourse—it is necessary to re-listen to the darkest warnings from the past.”

A few weeks before the Pope visited Poland, there was hubbub about the fact that kids had begun playing Pokémon Go—a newly-released, augmented reality GPS-enabled videogame in which players try to catch, say, a Jigglypuff—at Auschwitz. The museum’s spokesman called it “disrespectful.” Tablet senior writer made the case otherwise, arguing that the forced emotion, the requisite sadness, that is struck upon young visitors is oppressive. “When urged to bow before death, life finds a way.”

Let these kids play their game, then, not even in Auschwitz, but especially there. Let them feel again that mad methectic magic Huizinga spoke about. They can’t make sense of Auschwitz, anyway; they can’t fathom what led to such brutality, can’t make sense of such hate. But they can catch a Jigglypuff and feel a burst of life whistling through the airless chambers of the factory of death. And that’s no small thing, no minor testament to the same resilience the Nazis eagerly and futilely tried to extinguish. Where better than Auschwitz to admit we’ll never have real knowledge, and where better to declare we’ll always have great games?


The Auschwitz museum has a Twitter account, and this ex-journalist runs it

Whether he’s engaging the misguided (he prefers not to) or tweeting historical facts, Pawel Sawicki sees his job as shielding the memory of the victims

sawicki-1-965x543OSWIECIM, Poland (JTA) — Long before he moved here to become the spokesman for the Auschwitz museum and lead its social media effort, Pawel Sawicki’s life was intricately connected to this sleepy town near Krakow.

A Warsaw-area radio journalist, Sawicki used to visit Oswiecim as a boy on holidays to stay with his grandparents and play with his cousins, who had moved to the town shortly after World War II.

When he was 10, Sawicki learned that Auschwitz was an epicenter of the Nazi genocide against the Jews — he gleaned the details from a book about the camp that he found in his grandparents’ home.

“Most people visiting Oswiecim, especially from outside of Poland, are shocked to discover there’s a town next to the former German Nazi camp, the memorial which they come to visit. For me it was somehow the other way around,” Sawicki said.

That realization, he said, sparked an interest that led him here a decade ago as a reporter — and it consumes him to this day.

This initial connection to the history of Auschwitz was the beginning of a “constant presence in my life that kept sending me to look for more information,” said Sawicki, 36, who began working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in 2007. Sawicki has encyclopedic knowledge about Auschwitz, which he has shared in countless articles, guided tours, and several radio and video documentary productions.

But the advent of social media has highlighted another role fulfilled by his office: as “a shield protecting the memory of victims” against rampant abuse online, he said.

A case in point was Sawicki’s intervention last month on Twitter when he called out Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for the conservative news site Townhall, for writing that Jewish supporters of Barack Obama and John Kerry “would have made a fine helper at Auschwitz.”

After some deliberation, Sawicki decided to tweet Schlichter’s message on the Auschwitz memorial account, adding: “The tragedy of prisoners of Auschwitz and their complicated moral dilemmas which today we can hardly comprehend should not be instrumentalized.”

With 40,000 likes and retweets, it became the memorial’s most retweeted message ever, topping the one about Pope Francis’ visit in July and exposing Schlichter to withering criticism.

This reach and intense reaction demonstrate the reasons for Sawicki’s careful consideration on whether to intervene, he said.

“In some cases, such actions risk offering a platform to abuse, thereby amplifying it,” he said. “But exposing and correcting such behavior can have a positive effect that sometimes justifies this risk. But it’s always a fine balance.”

The overwhelming rejection by Twitter users shows that calling Schlichter on his words was the right move, said Sawicki, whose office once was the pharmacy of the SS troops serving in Auschwitz.

But he does not engage Holocaust mockers and deniers as a matter of policy.

Sawicki has also demanded corrections from journalists who apply the word “Polish” to death and concentration camps built by Nazi Germans on Polish soil; doing so is a felony in Poland. And the museum will seek apologies or corrections from those who note that the camps are in Poland without adding that they were built under Nazi occupation.

But much of the online activity of the museum is to highlight positive examples of online engagement with Auschwitz, in Polish, German, English and other languages. There are regular “this day in history” tweets, links to articles and comments from recent visitors (“Where was man?” asks one), and news articles referring to Auschwitz and Holocaust commemoration. Earlier this week there were photos of the camp under a blanket of snow with the message: “New year brought snow which changes the landscape of the historical site.”

On the ground, the museum’s task is to safeguard the buildings and environs and to gather, study and publish evidence on German atrocities. But online, “our main goal is to provide education on the scale of the crime and what made it possible,” Sawicki said.

The Nazis murdered more than 1.1 million Jews at Auschwitz as well as 70,000 non-Jewish Poles, 25,000 Roma, and some 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.

“Our social media policy is an extension of our guidelines as an institution, but it is developing week by week because we’ve never had such direct interaction with so many people,” Sawicki said. It’s both a chance to “educate people from all corners of the world, many of whom will never be able to visit the memorial.”

But abuse online is also a growing problem.

Amid a renewed wave of interest in the Holocaust in recent years in films, books and other media, as well as in visits to the museum — it registered a record of more than 2 million entries last year — the “instrumentalization,” trivialization and denial of the Holocaust has been growing as well, Sawicki said.

“It’s a daily, fast-changing challenge,” he said.

At the museum, Sawicki navigates the institution’s 470 acres with certainty, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of almost all aspects of life — and death — here. Unlike some visiting guides who resort to pathos or sanctimony, Sawicki, wearing a colorful scarf that his mother-in-law made for him, shares in an informal but precise manner illustrative facts and anecdotes that he has spent a decade collecting.

At the Death Wall, an execution site that is located in the yard adjacent to Block 11 in Auschwitz I, Sawicki dryly explains to a group of journalists that around the wall there was sand mixed with sawdust designed to drain blood.

“Some testimonies mentioned that an adult male bleeds about two liters [67 ounces] when shot, so on days with dozens of executions this place was quite literally soaked in blood,” he said.

Sawicki once interviewed a survivor who recalled laughing at the sight of a fellow prisoner wrestling free from under cadavers that had collapsed on him from a cart. SS guards also laughed. Such testimony illustrated to Sawicki the complexities of surviving at Auschwitz, “but also the amazing human personal strength” doing so required, he said.

While most of the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Oswiecim annually likely associate it with death and horror rather than a town with 900 years of history, for Sawicki it is also the place where he started a family after moving in 2007 with his wife, Agnieszka, whom he married while living here. His son, Wojtech, attends kindergarten near here.

For Sawicki, the town’s dark history is no impediment to loving it.

“It has always been a second home to me, and now it is even more so,” said Sawicki, who grew up in the quiet Warsaw suburb of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki. “We have to accept these aspects of history in Poland and strive to make a better future.”

Agnieszka, however, has had a tougher time acclimating “because she’s a real city person, a Warsaw girl who needed some time to get used to the different pace,” Sawicki said.

The couple have told their son neither about the Holocaust nor about his father’s workplace except to say that it’s a museum.

“We don’t want to introduce it before he’s ready to take it in,” Sawicki said. “So we’re kind of waiting for him to ask the questions.”


Court faults German TV for calling Nazi camps ‘Polish’

Polish citizen Karol Tendera, 95, brought the case against Germany’s ZDF channel over wording in a promotional trailer

aushwitz-copy-635x357WARSAW, Poland — An appeals court in Poland on Thursday ruled that a German broadcaster must publicly apologize to an Auschwitz survivor for having described Nazi-German death camps as “Polish”.

“Every Pole won’t necessarily be offended but the plaintiff was. He went from being a victim to the culprit” because of the erroneous wording, the judge wrote in his ruling.

Polish citizen Karol Tendera, 95, brought the case against Germany’s ZDF channel over the wording in a 2013 promotional trailer for a documentary about the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek.

The Nazi death camps were set up and entirely controlled by Germany in occupied Poland.

A lower court had earlier dismissed the case by saying ZDF had “effectively” explained its behavior in two letters it sent to Tendera and a statement posted on its website.

But the appeals court in the southern city of Krakow overturned the earlier decision and called for more, asking ZDF to publish its apology for a month on its website.

It said the wording had violated Tendera’s rights, including his dignity and national identity.

Warsaw monitors global media closely for descriptions of such camps as Polish, having also censured British and US media in the past.

Even if the term is used as a geographical indicator, Warsaw says it can give the impression that Poland bore responsibility for the Holocaust, whereas it was one of the greatest victims of the slaughter.

Poland was attacked and occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II, losing six million of its citizens, including three million Jews in the Holocaust.

The government said this year it would seek fines or jail terms of up to three years against anyone who referred to the camps as Polish.


Struggling for justice — name by name

Under a new Polish law that took effect in September, Holocaust survivors and their heirs who unsuccessfully tried to reclaim their property in Warsaw decades ago under the Communist-era 1945 Warsaw Decree must come forward within six months after their property is listed in a Polish newspaper. If claimants do not come forward within that period, the City of Warsaw will permanently assume ownership of the property.

In response, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) has created a unique database to reach those claimants.

Lists of street names in the database conjure up images of a once thriving Jewish world, images tempered for the reader by the devastation that was soon to follow. Name after name of people who lived and worked in a busy city. A world that exists today in old photos and faded memories. And in this database.

The 1939/1940 Homeowners Directory for Warsaw, as its name suggests, was perhaps the final chapter of the documentation of an orderly structured society on the eve of destruction. Other directories from that period captured snapshots of the life of pre-War Warsaw — lists of properties, lawyers, dentists, phone directories, mortgage records, etc. Because of the outbreak of war, the 1939/1940 Homeowners Directory was never published. Years later it was found and painstakingly digitized by committed genealogists.

It represents the seeming solidity of a city and a vibrant community. Thirty percent of Warsaw was Jewish. It was the city with the second largest Jewish community in the world, after New York City.

Many survivors returning to Poland after the Holocaust filed claims under the 1945 Warsaw Decree. However most of those claims were either rejected or not resolved, and many survivors and their families, 70 years later, do not know that they can pursue their claims.

In June 2016, a list of 2,613 street addresses with open claims under the 1945 decree was made available by the City of Warsaw. They did not, however, publish the names of the claimants or owners of the properties — just the street addresses.

WJRO matched that list against the Homeowners Directory and other historical material leading to the possible identification of two-thirds of the owners of properties that may have open claims.

The database is a creation of diligent research, manual data entry and modern technology combined with a stubborn refusal to let history disappear.

The database will not reconstruct a devastated Jewish community. But it does offer a view into a forgotten world and it creates a dramatic new opportunity for the families of those who perished to reconnect with that lost past. And towards reclaiming that which was taken.

Scrolling down the names of streets listed in the database leads one to imagine wandering through Jewish Warsaw amidst the bustling streets. Not much remains of the pre-War buildings of Warsaw today — most were destroyed in the War. But the streets are largely the same and the plots are those on which previous generations built their lives.

Nalweki Street was at the heart of the Jewish district of Warsaw. Who was Zelko Goldberg, who according to the database, was the owner of 40 Nalweki Street — right by the synagogue at Number 41? What was his profession, who was in his family and did he or any of his family survive the Holocaust?

For some, this may be an opportunity to recover what is today valuable property and for others it will serve to renew the public effort to secure from Poland a full and complete return of property confiscated by the Nazis and the Communists — both in Warsaw and throughout Poland.

And it is a powerful reminder that the Jews who lived in Nalweki Street had real lives and families, homes and businesses. And that the struggle for historical justice is not finished.

The new WJRO Warsaw database can be found here or through


Polish town snubs UNESCO honors for father of Esperanto

Councillors in Bialystok say international language invented by Ludwik Zamenhof, a Jewish physician born in the city, has no value for mankind

zam-635x357WARSAW, Poland — Maybe they should have said “Pardonu, li ne estas fama sufiĉa” — which is of course Esperanto for “Sorry, he’s not famous enough.”

The city hall in Bialystok, Poland has refused to honor a UNESCO-sponsored “Zamenhof Year” in 2017 commemorating Ludwik Zamenhof, its native son who invented the international language, officials said Friday.

Zamenhof, a Jewish physician, was born in the northeastern city in 1859 and died in Warsaw in 1917. He invented Esperanto as a universal communication tool in 1885.

Councillors for the conservative ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) voted against the Zamenhof Year commemorating the 100th anniversary of his death, Przemyslaw Wierzbowski, head of the Bialystok Esperanto society, told AFP.

Wierzbowski said the councilors — who narrowly rejected the project by 12 votes against 11 — saw Esperanto as a dead language that has no value for mankind.

In fact, Esperanto became an unprecedented international success and linguists say up to a million people still use it.

Konrad Zieleniecki, spokesman for PiS councilors in Bialystok, told AFP that Zamenhof was “an important Bialystok man and deserved the commemoration.”

But he added he had voted against because the city had already decided to celebrate next year’s 150th anniversary of the birth of Josef Pilsudski, the father of Poland’s independence.

He said the decision was also due to a local political conflict between PiS and city president Tadeusz Truskolaski, who “is looking to use Zamenhof for political goals” and take control of the Zamenhof Center, an autonomous institution.

“It’s a bad and sad decision,” said Wierzbowski.

“Over the years Zamenhof seemed to us to be an unquestionable icon of our city, a symbol that made Bialystok famous worldwide.”

Zbigniew Nikiforowicz from the opposition liberal Civic Platform told AFP the decision was due to “an unfavorable stance inside PiS towards anything that is not ethnically Polish”.

He also slammed the “growth in Catholic nationalism” which “would like to forget about the history of Bialystok, a city almost half-Jewish in the 19th century and until World War II.”


Around Auschwitz, Holocaust items rescued from oblivion

Poles dedicated to preserving history are finding and saving thousands of artifacts that originated in Nazi death camp

aushwitz-copyBRZEZINKA, Poland (AFP) — When the war ended, returning, destitute residents had nothing, so they scavenged what they could from the camp that the Nazis had built where their village once stood.

In doing so, tens of thousands of items from Auschwitz-Birkenau — from a roller used by prisoners to build roads, to plates from a SS dining hall — escaped destruction, and now, more than 70 years later a group of Poles dedicated to preserving history, are rescuing these artifacts from oblivion.

Several members of the group, called the Foundation of Memory Sites Near Auschwitz-Birkenau (FPMP), are sifting through a small wooden cabin located near the barbed wire fence surrounding the former Nazi German death camp.

“This metal container must have been a washbasin for the camp’s inmates,” explains 43-year-old Dag Kopijasz, a diving instructor who devotes himself to local history in his free time.

“There’s also a stool, hangers, an ammunition box and dishes.”

There are also dishes embossed with two lightening bolts, the insignia of the SS, the notorious armed wing of the Nazi party.

“These here are plates from a set of dishes from the SS dining hall,” he says.

“The SS dining hall wasn’t far from here, and behind us, 200 meters (650 feet) away, there was the Birkenau camp.”

One million European Jews died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland in 1940 and which became Europe’s biggest death camp.

More than 100,000 others including non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Nazi resistance fighters also died there.

In order to build the camp, the Nazis cleared all the residents out of the village of Birkenau and razed most of its houses.

“When the previous residents returned after the war, they had absolutely nothing so they took items they found at the site,” Kopijasz adds.

Three years ago, Kopijasz set up the Foundation of Memory Sites Near Auschwitz-Birkenau, whose goal is to collect items related to the death camp and save them from oblivion.

“No one was interested even though there are still tons of objects at homes in the region… Often people don’t know what to do with them,” he says.

Such was the case with 55-year-old Zbigniew Gierlicki, who agreed to hand over the cabin to the foundation after his parents died.

“From what I was told, it seems my grandfather built it out of planks from a dismantled camp barracks. There was a ton of stuff — German uniforms, soap, army stretchers — but it’s all lost now,” he told AFP.

“My grandparents took it all from the camp, like everyone else here. At the time we had nothing, not even building material,” Gierlicki says.

“But my grandmother never used these plates. Ever.”

Inside the hut, the number C652 can be seen through the peeling white paint, suggesting the planks were scavenged from what was once the camp’s clinic, Kopijasz says.

Andrzej Kacorzyk, a historian and deputy director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, is not surprised that so many objects are still being found.

“You mustn’t forget that some 100,000 men — inmates, the SS — lived here, so there was an enormous amount of all sorts of goods, which still resurface today,” he told AFP.

Efforts to preserve the site and objects found there began two years after the end of the war when Poland set up the museum in the southern city of Oswiecim.

“We’re delighted that history buffs also manage to find items,” Kacorzyk adds. “What’s most important is for these items to be preserved.”

Once empty, the cabin will be dismantled, plank-by-plank, and taken to a warehouse belonging to the foundation, which has already dismantled 15 others and filled up three small exhibition halls with the objects found.

At the foundation’s headquarters in the nearby village of Budy-Brzeszcze, visitors can see a wide range of artifacts.

Among the items on display is a large concrete roller used by inmates to pave roads which had been used for years by a nearby football club to level its pitch.

There is also a porcelain Mickey Mouse figurine that once belonged to a child killed at the camp, as well as a tiny wooden clog charm which was hidden between bricks in an attic where prisoners once slept.

“We don’t know who made it or to whom it was given,” says Kopijasz.

“We’ll probably never know.”


‘Saved’ Yiddish propaganda film is haunting glimpse into lost world of pre-war Polish Jewry

1936 documentary ‘Mir Kumen On’ unintentionally portends the horrors that awaited its subjects

unnamedcrop-965x543NEW YORK — There are entire libraries of books that describe “the Old Country,” the Jewish communities in the cities and shtetls of Europe prior to the attempted Nazi genocide. There is far less of it on film, especially primary source documentaries. The percentage of what is easily available is about to shoot up, thanks to a new digital print of “Mir Kumen On (Children Must Laugh).”

This educational film from 1936 (or, to be fair, propaganda film, but more on that in a moment) is one of the precious few surviving movies evoking Jewish life in Poland prior to its poisoning from external, racist forces.

The newly patched-together, cleaned-up print is the work of France’s Lobster Films, Germany’s Deutsche Kinemathek, Poland’s Filmoteka Narodowa, the American film and home video distributor Kino Lorber and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Its first screening was at MoMA’s 14th annual “To Save and Project,” a festival of restored films. (Don’t think they are all such noble picks — the top bill was the ubiquitous horror flick “Night of the Living Dead,” now with a new coat of paint.)

A second screening of “Mir Kumen On” is scheduled for Sunday, November 20, at 1 p.m. (It is programmed with Herbert Kline’s notable “Lights Out in Europe,” an American documentary shot in London and Gdansk in the run-up to the war. Both films are about one hour long.)

But I was there for the first screening a few weeks ago and, let me tell you, even for 4 p.m. on a random Thursday, there was a considerable audience. You can’t keep New York’s Yiddish enthusiasts away from a newfound treasure.

“Mir Kumen On” has great historical, artistic and cultural value today, but at the time its principal purpose was to raise money. Most of the movie, which qualifies as documentary, but not “documentary-style” as we currently conceive of it, is filmed at the Vladimir Medem Sanatorium.

This was, firstly, a clinic in Miedzeszyn outside of Warsaw for children with or at-risk of contracting tuberculosis. It was also an arm of the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia and, as such, its aims were in line with that group’s rhetoric.

Bundists were secular, Bundists were intellectuals, Bundists were not exactly Zionists. And Bundists were, at least from a distance, hard to distinguish from Communists. Moreover, if “Mir Kumen On,” the direct translation of which is “We Are Coming,” is any indication, like the Soviets, Bundists had the knack for producing effective movies.

Heavy on montage, close-ups on faces and eschewing any one protagonist, the one-hour film begins with scenes of children in the city, playful and spirited, but overwhelmed by poverty, pollution and illness. Many of these children board a train.

As a moviegoer I’m conditioned to get my guard up when Jewish kids in black and white films get in a train in Poland. Especially when they are headed to a camp. But when they get to the Sanatorium it is, literally, a breath of fresh air.

“The newcomers have arrived!” the other children shout, and an open paradise awaits for the kids brought in from the harsh metropolis. The veterans welcome the greenhorns, show them the ropes, lead them to the showers (another inadvertent morbid signifier) and soon all are singing leftist songs, engaging in optimistic classroom lessons, playing sports, planting crops and putting on performances. In 2016, eight weeks in the Berkshires like this would cost a fortune!

A central set-piece is a talent show, where an adorable girl no more than 11 years old does a comedy song-and-dance act and a boy earnestly reads Walt Whitman in Yiddish. Performance is a big part of the whole film.

Before meals there is a pantomime of the “camp radio news,” which is someone reading aloud with a mock announcer’s voice. A recurring story is of a nearby miners’ strike and, if “Mir Kumen On” could be said to have anything of a plot, it would be the children’s decision to share their good fortune in any small way they can with the picketers’ children.

“Camaraderie!” they shout time and again, and, sure, the movie lays it on a little thick, but if the idea is to get wealthy idealists to dig deep in their purses, mission accomplished.

Naturally, watching the film today is completely different. These teens and pre-teens documented 80 years ago, we know, are all doomed to looming history. The best we can hope for any of them is a terrifying escape to an adopted country or an eventual settlement in the Jewish homeland. An opening card on this new print says that many of the subjects shown in the film later took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The director of “Mir Kumen On,” Aleksander Ford, had a tragic life of his own. Born Mosze Lifszyc in Kiev in 1908, he cut his teeth on these stagey documentaries in the 1930s and ended up as the head of the Polish People’s Army Film Crew with the Soviets during World War II.

Afterwards, he ran the national film school in Lodz, where he basically defined the Polish cinema. His pupils included two of the most important directors of the 20th century, Andrzej Wadja (who died just a few weeks ago at the age of 90) and Roman Polanski.

In 1968, when Poland’s Communist party had an anti-Semitic sea change, he emigrated to Israel, then later West Germany, Denmark and finally the United States.

He was never able to reassert himself in exile, though he did direct an Israeli-German co-production in 1975, a biopic of Janusz Korcak, the head of a Warsaw orphanage who died at Treblinka.

In 1980, in Florida, Ford died at his own hand.

While I normally tsk at people who talk during movies, I was lucky enough to end up near a group of Yiddish scholars who really knew their stuff. This completed print was something of a dream. “I’ve never seen this bit!” was excitedly murmured multiple times.

As one of the children sang a nursery rhyme, an older woman behind me whispered, “my mother used to sing that to me!”

There was also a little criticism at some of the Yiddish translation.

“That’s not what that really means!” a man fumphered.

“I know,” his friend sighed back, and even though I couldn’t see him I knew he was shrugging with a “whaddyagonnado” on his face. (Fact is you get the same with the subtitles at any movie, but with so few people speaking Yiddish, it feels a little extra important to get everything right.)

At one close-up of a counselor one of the gang behind me piped-up, “Oh, I think that’s Mrs. Kowarski.”

I don’t know if he knew her, or had read about her, or heard stories, or maybe was just telling a private joke. And I may even have the name wrong, as I was jotting notes of what was on the screen, not what the voices behind me were saying.

Naturally, when the movie ended they were gone and I couldn’t follow up. Maybe I imagined it. The whole afternoon felt a bit like a séance anyway.


The Story My Bubbe Told Us

BubbeI can’t remember the exact moment when I realized there was a lot more to my Bubbe’s story than a grandmother who baked amazing chocolate chip cookies and spent her winters in Florida. Her past wasn’t really discussed openly, and it wasn’t until after my bat mitzvah that I started to really understand what she had been through. A young girl at the time Hitler rose to power, Esther Sal spent her teen years in a ghetto before escaping and hiding with her family in the forest, among other places. They narrowly missed death numerous times.

Now, as a mother to an 8-year-old, I struggle with how to share my Bubbe’s story before it’s too late. With my grandfather — a concentration camp survivor — having passed a few years ago, my son deserved to hear my Bubbe’s story straight from her. But could he handle it? While he’s learned a little bit about the Holocaust in school, he has been shielded from many of the more intense details. I wasn’t sure how he would react to hearing about some of them, especially from his great-grandmother.

We traveled down to Florida a few months ago so I could record her story for posterity. We talked about what Bubbe might share, and he said he wanted to be there to listen. And so, together, two days after we arrived in Boynton Beach, we gathered in the lanai and listened to her story.

Esther was born in Złoty Potok, Poland in 1929. The second oldest of five children, she lived with her family in a nice neighborhood, and due to her father’s successful store, they were comfortably middle-class. Like all of their Jewish neighbors, they were religious. There was nothing else but being Jewish, so there was no identifying by sect, really. And in the end, being Jewish was all that mattered.

“My life before the war was wonderful. I went to public school, and to a good Hebrew school. I could read and write in Hebrew. It was a private school, which was expensive and something not everyone could afford. When the war started I was 12 years old. They announced that no Jewish children could go to school. It was upsetting. Why could everyone else go to school but not us?”

When the Germans took over my Bubbe’s village, they also took away her father’s store and everything that was in it. The Germans created a group of Jews called the Judenrat, and forced them to go and collect valuables from their neighbors. They took everything from furs to jewelry, even wedding rings.

“We still lived in our house though. We had a very nice house that my father built two years before the war. It was brick, a beautiful home. I shared a bedroom with my sister upstairs. Then, it started getting really bad, and we were scared. The Germans chased us out of our home to the city of Buchach. All the Jews had to leave. They let us take a suitcase and that was it. You couldn’t take your furniture. When they chased us out of our house, our grandfather came with us. He was 72 years old.

“They used to surprise us during the night with trucks — the SS. You didn’t know they were coming. My father was always looking for hiding spaces for us. So on the third floor, where the attic was, he divided a wall and the door was hidden so you couldn’t tell. When we heard the shooting outside, we went up and hid. We were 13 people between my family, some friends, and the couple that took us in. The Germans would go from house to house. Whoever they found, they took them out and threw them in trucks and took them to a forest. They made the Jews dig their own graves and then they shot them. Hundreds and hundreds of people were killed there.”

My Bubbe shares this as if talking about the plot of a book, but there is a weariness to her as well. Pulling up these memories can’t be easy. I look to my son, who has been quiet this whole time. I wonder if it’s too much for him, but he seems okay, absorbing it all.

“Once, the Germans came to the attic. They were looking for us, yelling “Jude! Jude!” We were very scared, but they finally left. While we hid in the attic, we heard all the shots that came from the forest, Feder Hill, all day and all night. They killed a lot of Jews that time. After two days of shooting, things quieted down. We started coming out of our hiding place. Downstairs there were some other people that lived there. The SS took the parents; the grandmother and a little boy, only 2 years old, were shot. The little boy wore a white coat and the blood ran all over the coat and the boy. I will never forget that. And when we came out, on the street, there were a lot of dead people, their brains splashed all over. I was only 12 years old.”

Twelve. Four years older than my son. I can’t imagine. I don’t want to imagine. But the picture she’s painting is so vivid and so painful. My Bubbe explains how her family was then forced into a ghetto, surrounded by wire. They weren’t allowed to leave and the conditions were horrible. Once again, her father went into the attic of the house they were in and made a hiding space. The Germans continued to “surprise” them, and they managed to survive every shooting that happened. Her father realized that staying in the ghetto didn’t necessarily mean survival. He felt that if they “were going to die anyway” they should at least try to escape. In the middle of the night he packed up the whole family and they walked 18 miles back to their village of Złoty Potok where they were able to stay in the barn of a woman they knew. It was then that most of the family fell ill with typhoid fever.

“My brother, he was two years older than me, didn’t get sick. So my father put him in another place, with a non-Jewish family, very good people. They took my brother in and kept him, not long. Maybe a week or two. And my grandfather, he was in a barn somewhere else. Somebody saw, and squealed on my brother, telling the Germans and they came in and took him out. My brother was 17 years old. They also found my grandfather. They took them to the Jewish cemetery, made them undress, and then they shot them both. My father knew about this, but didn’t tell us. He told us they took them to a camp.”

She explains that they all eventually survived the typhoid. Her father realized that they couldn’t stay in the woman’s barn for too much longer. My Bubbe emphasizes how brave this woman was, because if the Germans had caught them there, she would have been killed as well. A glimpse of all the kind hearted people within all of this madness.

“When we finally felt better we went into the forest, and again, my father protected us. He built a bunker very deep in the forest. We cooked outside. We stayed there for a while until it was too dangerous. So we went elsewhere in the forest and started again. My father built another bunker, under the ground. Then another one, and a third one underneath that one.

“I remember, there was a woman there with her husband and she was pregnant. And that wasn’t a good thing. She had the baby and… he didn’t survive. The baby was screaming, and there were other people in the bunker and they didn’t want that. Don’t ask, it was a whole different kind of thing.”

At this, my son’s eyes grow wide with understanding but he remains silent, wanting my Bubbe to go on. He has fallen into her story and, like me, needs to hear it through until the end.

“Well, the soldiers came and we ran into the bunker. My father made a cover from a tree stump, with moss around it. You couldn’t tell it was a cover and that there was anything underneath. Somehow, they found the bunker. They opened the cover and started shooting. They were afraid to go in. They threw in a hand grenade. But we went into the third one, down below and we were safe.”

I start to imagine what the two years in the woods must have been like for her. She explains how they foraged for food like mushrooms in the summer, and in the winter they got whatever food they could from a Polish doctor who was a friend of theirs. She describes the one dress she wore the entire time in the forest. More than 60 years later she can still describe it with such clarity: dark orange, almost red, with pinstripes. I wonder what happened to that dress.

“There were always surprises. Once, we didn’t have time to hide in the bunker. We ran and ran and ran, down to the stream where we washed up. We could see the German’s boots and rifles. Until today, I still have nightmares that I’m running and running, but they didn’t get me. My heart, racing. We had so many close calls, but they never got us.

“Winter was really bad. We were starving and had no food. My mother decided that we had to get out of the forest. She had a brother and a sister, and they were staying with a Baptist couple, who had kept 12 Jews underneath their barn in a bunker. My mother said, ‘We’re going to die either way, so we might as well try. Maybe they’ll take us in.’”

She tells me that they did take them in, despite the fact that there were already too many people hiding in their bunker. They were allowed to stay there for four weeks.

“We had to stay in the dark bunker with no windows. You couldn’t see anything and I did not like that. Until today, I still hate the dark.

“We walked through the night back to our hometown Złoty Potok and we went into a neighbor’s barn. We were frozen and hungry. She had two cows in there, we sat around them and it was nice and warm. There was food left for the cows, so we ate it. Then we figured our neighbor would come in during the morning, see us, and then run to the police and that would be the end.

“When she did come in, she knew us. She used to come to our house on Shabbat. She felt sorry for us. She started crying. She kept us there. She used to bring food for the cows and for us. She had a very sick husband — he was very mean. If he had known we were there, forget it, we would have been gone. But he was paralyzed, so he had no idea we were in the barn. Everyone thought she was a crazy woman. Well, she wasn’t so crazy.

“My father made a room from the straw and manure in the barn, so if anyone came in to look for us, we would hide. And we stayed there for three, maybe 4 more months until we were liberated by the Russians.”

It’s been almost an hour. My son — who is the definition of “ shpilkes in the tukhis ” — has sat, engrossed this entire time. I know we’ll have many follow up conversations about much of what he has heard, but I am so grateful for this moment. For him to hear my Bubbe’s story from her lips. Perhaps he will one day share this story, when all we have left are recordings and written words. He’ll be able to say, my great-grandmother was a part of this awful and historic event. This is her story.

Avital Norman Nathman is a former teacher turned freelance writer.

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Avital Norman Nathman