"My Shtetl - My Town” Book Project Sponsored by PJCRP. Learn about “My Shtetl - My Town”, a book of award-winning essays, with contributions from Polish high school students & Jewish students from around the world. Read about the project and submit your own essay.

Requirements for a First-Time Visitor to Poland

sketch book
Gilbert’s Atlas
Wiesel’s Night
An open mind
a long concentration span
an obsession for detail
a capacity for grief
Capture the moment
hang on to every word
internalize the meaning
tell a friend
be a guardian of the past
revere our history
The Germans taught us all
about the value
of keeping records
Solomon R. Kaplinski

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The Power of the Written Word

All over Europe and especially in Poland, Jews conspired to keep a historical record. The ghetto Jews devised techniques to safeguard their documents until after the war and the defeat of the Germans. Some records were buried underground; other were hidden in secure and protected places; still others were transmitted to trustworthy non-Jews.

The most celebrated of Jewish communal archives was the Oneg Shabbat (Pleasure of the Sabbath), the code name which historian Emanuel Ringelblum gave to his clandestine undertaking to document Jewish life in Poland under the German occupation.

As early as October 1939 he began documenting German atrocities, economic conditions, the structure of ghetto institutions, youth activities, forced-labor camps, experiences in the prisons and concentration camps, religious life, ghetto poems, jokes, curses, sayings and much more. To encourage the ghetto Jews to keep diaries Oneg Shabbat (italics) sponsored contests and offered cash prizes.

A 19 year-old youth described his feelings on hiding documents in an underground hiding place in August 1942:
...”my work was primitive, perhaps risky, but it was worth doing. We used to say while working ‘we can die in peace, we have safeguarded our rich heritage.’ I don’t want any thanks. It will be enough for me if the coming generations will recall our times. We did not fear the risk. We reckoned that we were creating a chapter of history and that was more important than several lives. What we could not cry out to the world, we buried in the ground. May this treasure be delivered into good hands, may it live to see better times, so that it can alert the world to what happened in the twentieth century.”

Another extraordinary archive was created and buried at Auschwitz. It consisted of eyewitness testimonies written by members of the Sonderkommando (“special commando”). Knowing they would not survive they buried their records in the ashes that covered the ground at Auschwitz. These were found after the war. One testimony began:
“Dear finder, search everywhere, in every inch of soil. Dozens of documents are buried under, mine and those of other persons, which will throw light on what happened here. We, the commando workers deliberately spread great quantities of teeth all over the ground, as many as we could, so that the world should find material traces of the millions of murdered people. We ourselves have lost hope of being able to live to see the moment of liberation.”

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The Holocaust at the Mercy of Human Memory

Shlomo Breznitz

Question: “How many?”
Answer: “Six million.”
Question: “Is it a lot?”
Answer: “Yes, a lot.”

Here now is a different answer: “Imagine that every single word in the Torah represents the name of a Jew killed during the Holocaust. Unlike the Torah, which by tradition is read by Jews everywhere from beginning to end during one full year, this Holy Book of Names will take seventy-five years to read just once.”

And yet another answer: “Imagine a great multitude of people forming a line, each given just one meter of space. The line starts in Jerusalem, leading from among the olive trees of the Judean hills down to the citrus groves of the Sharon, reaching the Mediterranean, entering the sea, passing by the islands of Cyprus and Crete, reaching the Peloponneses, crossing all of ancient Rome, this endless line of Jews, young and old, standing there, given just one meter each, turning now north to cross the Alps and reaching what was the German Reich, still compact, still packed, the line finally finding its way to Auschwitz, and there, impossible to believe, turns around and winds its way through bloody Europe all the way back to Jerusalem. The line has now formed a closed circle of people. Their number -- six million.”

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Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak was born in 1878 into a wealthy and assimilated Jewish family in Warsaw. From his youth Korczak showed great interest in social issues, and organized reading sessions in public libraries for children from poor neighborhoods and volunteered in summer camps for underprivileged children. After receiving his medical degree, Korczak opened his own orphanage which soon gained wide recognition for its innovative and progressive approaches to caring for children.

Korczak’s educational philosophy, revolutionary for its time, maintained that children’s feelings deserved serious consideration and respect. Consequently, the children in Korczak’s orphanage were encouraged to form their own government and publish a weekly newspaper. Korczak wrote “Matthew, The Young King” (1928) and “When I Am Small Again” (1925), children’s books which were later translated into Hebrew and became extremely popular in Israel. Korczak’s reputation grew and he was asked by the Polish authorities to open an orphanage for non-Jewish children. He also delivered regular chats on Polish Radio where he became known affectionately as the “Old Doctor.” Korczak soon became one of the most popular figures in Poland.

During the years of the Nazi occupation of Poland, Korczak strove valiantly to protect his orphanage as best he could, but in 1942 the Nazis ordered the deportation of Korczak and 200 of his remaining orphans. Korczak, turning down a last minute offer of freedom from the Nazis, dressed his children in their best clothing, told them they were going to a picnic in the country and accompanied them to the awaiting cattle cars destined for Treblinka. Neither Korczak nor the children were ever seen again, as they became the innocent victims, along with millions of other Jews, of Hitler’s Final Solution.

In stark contrast to the brutality of the Nazis, Janusz Korczak gently offered his life to the service of those around him. “I exist not to be loved and admired, but to love and to act” he wrote shortly before his deportation to Treblinka. “It is not the duty of those around me to love me. Rather, it is my duty to be concerned about the world, about man.”
-- Eli Rubenstein

THE SCAR by Janusz Korczak

No one wanted to sit beside him on the bench. And because that’s how they felt, they didn’t sit beside him, and that was all there was to it. Little Jasiek is a quiet boy. If he were told to sit beside that person he would do it, even if he really didn’t want to. Only he’d feel very upset.

To be sure, they wouldn’t let a third person onto the bench.

Besides, that was against the rules even if they had wanted to.

Still, there was no other vacant seat left anywhere. So what was he to do? He sat down on the bench beside that person.

He isn’t crying because he knows that if he did, they would all start to laugh at him. They don’t take pity on you in the playground if you start crying. “Cry baby,” they would call.

Adults often laughed at children’s tears. That’s probably how they learned themselves – through children’s tears. Then one is able to hold back the tears so that the others wouldn’t see.

It’s the first day of school.

Little Jasiek is sitting. He inched his way to the very edge of the bench. But as soon as he glances up, he recalls everything. He has to be on his guard. If only to last through the day. And when he goes home, he’ll tell his mother everything. What could be done so as not to have to sit together with that boy?

Well, little Jasiek is listening – how pupils are supposed to study diligently, that they shouldn’t tear their notebooks, to brush their teeth regularly, and not to interrupt during the lesson.

Seemingly he’s listening, but he’s sniffling too.
The teacher doesn’t yet know the boys, so she says:
“Please come here, you in the last row. What’s your name? Why are you crying?”
At this, everybody turned around to look. Then they begin to shout:
“Because he doesn’t want to sit with a Jew.”
“And why did a Jew come here anyway?”
“Little Jew, Rabbi Moishe!”
The teacher suddenly stood up. The boys quieted down a bit, because they weren’t sure it was allowed. But again:
“He smells of onions.”
“Let him go to the synagogue, to the heder, on the Sabbath! Go to your Moishes! We don’t want him here.”
The teacher is standing and waiting and the boys are curious as to what she will say. She doesn’t say anything. She only takes the pins from her hair and lets her hair run down. And she has beautiful hair – long, light coloured and carefully combed.
“What’s going to happen?”
“Well,” the teacher began, “have you finished?”
“What should we have finished?” says the one who was throwing stones in the playground. “We’ll pelt the Jew and drive him away.”
“No, he won’t leave,” says the teacher. “Even if you were to hit him all day, he will stay here. That’s the law. And now, quiet down. I’ll tell you the story about this scar. Do you know what a scar is?”
The teacher leaned over and showed an empty spot on the back of her scalp – such a scar it was. You could not see it before because of her hair.
“Do you see?”
“Was it from a stone?”
“Or did a horse kick you?”
“Not a horse, but people. Little people, ignorant, malicious.”
She then tied her hair back as it was and is looking at the class, but somehow high up as if she were looking at a picture.

“I was a child then, just as you are now. My mother lived in a little town. There were very few Poles there, only Germans. My father died. There were only the two of us. Mama and I. And that part of Poland belonged to the Germans then. And the Germans had such a law too, that all the children had to attend school. And so my mother enrolled me because if she didn’t there was a fine to pay, or worse, jail. I understood very little then. When I was to go to that German school for the first time, my mother gave me a kiss and began to cry. And she said: “My poor little child.” And I was surprised because I felt glad that I was going to school. So why was my mother afraid or feeling sorry?

“Well? I stopped being surprised. You can guess yourselves why...

“When you yelled at the boy that he was a Jew, I recalled my first sad day in school. And I recalled that when my mother saw the cut she said: ‘God will punish them for that.’ Them – the Germans.

“Well, that’s enough children. That happened a long time ago. That all passed. It’s unpleasant to recall.”

She didn’t want to continue her story, but they all begged her to go on.
“Please tell us how it was.”
“How was it? No one wanted to sit on the same bench with me. They said: ‘Polish swine. Dammed Pollack. Your father’s a drunkard.’ But my father never drank. Not even beer. I understood very little German than.
“And so, I didn’t know what they said. But they were so angry. They had such hatred. Only four of them didn’t give me any trouble: three boys and one girl. Her name was Erna. I asked her afterwards not to defend me, to pretend that she didn’t like me either, because they began to pick on her too. They asked her how much did I pay her to take my side. It was bad, very bad for me in that German school.”
But then the bell interrupted the story.
A pity.
And after the bell they continued to beg her to tell them who and how they threw the stone. But the teacher was resolute. She did not want to tell them.
“It was a long time ago. It’s unpleasant to recall. It isn’t worth it. And what of it. It was a stone; it was hard; it hurt and the cut healed. You wouldn’t understand anyway, children. A scar on the head doesn’t hurt, but there’s a scar left from that stone on my soul and the ache caused by that scar is still present in my soul to this day.” She paused for a moment and then continued. “Don’t bully anyone children, neither him nor anyone. Defend the honour of this school. Let no one from a Polish school carry into the world, into life, such a scar as mine, neither on one’s head nor on one’s soul.”

From the newspaper “In the Sunshine” – June, 1928.
Translated from the Polish by E.P. Kulawiec

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My grandmother gave me my bath before hers in her warm pink bathroom. I would stand, barefoot, on the fuzzy toilet seat cover and watch as she filled the tub. When I stepped into the water it was always perfect – the lukewarm water a child likes to play in, never too hot or cold.

She washed my hair and soaped my back, kneeling by the tub, telling me stories of her childhood in Czechoslovakia. I would ask to hear the story of how she rode her bicycle straight into the river near her home. We would laugh as she’d tell me about her scolding sisters, her tired mother, and her stern father. She had five sisters and three brothers, some of whom I knew as my aunts and uncle; I would listen solemnly as she whispered that one brother had died young of an illness, another in the War. The eldest sister, Sarah, died with her two children in Auschwitz. I would stop for a moment when she said this, staring at the soapy water but seeing my grandmother’s house and the store attached to it, as I imagined it must have been. By the house I saw her sister Sarah, a sorrowful woman with two small children at her side. The children were my age, and they stared at me sadly as I soaked in the pink tub. I continued to watch the water but my grandmother would quickly reach to drain the tub, wrapping me in a towel. She would begin to laugh again, forgetting what she had just mentioned so quietly and secretively, and tell of the hay they played in and their walk across the frozen river to school.

I would sit on the fuzzy cover, dripping but warm, as she filled the tub for herself. The mirrors became steamy and began to sweat when she took her bath; when I tried to touch the flowing water she would grab my arm, warning me that her water was too hot – I would burn my hand.

I turned to my mother with questions about Sarah. I had wanted to ask my grandmother, but the look in her eyes when she spoke of her sister was the same as when she stopped me from burning myself; this was not to be discussed. Unlike her sisters who came to America after surviving Auschwitz or her parents who had died in the gas chambers, my grandmother escaped the horrors of the Holocaust, taking the last train that left her village. Grandmother rarely spoke of their deaths or their suffering. She told me only of the place she knew before its colors turned to grey and she was forced to come to America. My mother told me that Grandmother felt guilty that she had left her family. Grandmother’s suffering was the memory of her weeping mother, who was too stubborn to leave home.

At first I had trouble connecting the image of my happy aunts with the textbook photos I had seen and the stories I was told in grade school. There I forced myself to picture them as we lit candles and sang songs in memory of the Six Million. I could not relate my aunts’ experience to what was to me a chapter in history, another subject in class.

Grandmother stopped bathing me when I began to grow older, and I did not hear much about her childhood anymore. But as I grew, my grandmother’s sisters began to tell me of the camps. They told me how they had to undress for the doctors, and how they held their boots in front of them to cover their bodies. They were young women; only twenty, even less. They could work in the camps so they survived. Sarah was strong and young, but the Nazis would not keep her children. And a bereaved mother was of no use to them.

Aunt Helen is my grandmother’s younger sister. She rubs the number on her arm as she too laughs, telling me about her sister Sarah’s children, a boy and a girl. Helen left school to sew for her family. She made clothes for her little niece and nephew. The niece was especially spoiled, she said, admitting that it was her fault. But they were beautiful children.

Helen had always wanted a doll. She had sewn doll’s clothes and had given them to Sarah’s daughter, but she could not afford a doll of her own. When she came to America she found a doll in the window of a shop, and used some of the money she had earned as a seamstress to buy it. She laughs again as she tells this. “It was a silly doll, you know. I still have it...in my basement somewhere.”

Helen told me this on a porch in Florida. I went to visit my aunts there once, and I spent time being a teenager with them. I saw as they watched me as I swam or talked with others my age. They were not old women longing for a time that had long since passed; they longed for a time they were deprived of by Hitler. I listened as they told me not to take anything for granted; a sentimental message I would have shrugged off, if it had not been for the sad sincerity in their voices.

A month does not go by that I do not have a nightmare about the Holocaust. I’ve had them since I was a child, even when I slept at my grandmother’s house, after she had given me my bath. I dream that they have come to take me and my family away. I hide, I plead, I try to escape. I actually wonder about death and whether it matters when you’re gone as I cry or scream in my sleep. I wake up, my eyes burning and my throat dry. I wonder why I have these dreams – dreams in which I must experience my aunts’ and my grandmothers’ nightmare.

When I awake from the dream, I rise to take a shower. As I undress I remember my grandmother’s pink bathroom. I am no longer the little girl who splashed in her tub and reminded her of her home in Czechoslovakia, and the river nearby. I am as old as my aunts were when they hid helplessly behind their boots. I turn the water on and make it as hot as I can stand it. The steam fills the room as it did when my grandmother took her bath. But now I can reach out and touch the stream. Grandmother is not here to try to protect me from it, and I let it rush down my back, feeling the burden of my family’s past pounding on my shoulders.

Excerpted from an article by the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.

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Thousands of Righteous Gentiles risked their lives during World War II to save their Jewish compatriots. Nine thousands such cases have been meticulously documented by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum. At the memorial, all of the Righteous Gentiles are honoured with a tree planted in their memory and a plaque inscribed with the Talmudic dictum: "He who saves a single life saves the world entire". Examples include:

  • Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved 1200 Jewish labourers from certain death at the hands of the Nazis by employing them in his factory and refusing to turn them over to the S.S.
  • Irena Adamowicz, the member of the Catholic scout movement in Warsaw who assisted the Jewish underground in the ghettos and convinced members of her movement to work with the Jewish underground.
  • Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved approximately 100,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944 only to disappear into the Stalinist gulag after the Red Army liberated Budapest.
  • Senpo Sugihara, the Japanese Consul in Lithuania who defied orders and signed transit visas enabling 6,000 Jews to flee to safety in Shanghai.
  • The nuns of the Benedictine Convent in Vilnus, Lithuania who provided sanctuary to members of the Jewish underground and dressed them in their habits to disguise them from the Nazis.
  • Mother Maria of France who, after being deported to Ravensbruck for rescuing Jewish children, exchanged her identity papers with a Jewish woman to save that woman’s life.
  • The Dutch village of Nieuwlindde, all of whose inhabitants agreed to hide at least one Jew - if not an entire family - from the Nazis. (Everyone of the 117 villagers is honoured at Yad Vashem.)
  • The Danish people. When the Nazis ordered the deportation of Denmark’s Jews, Danish bishops published condemnations of the decree, pastors used their pulpits to encourage resistance and universities went on a week long strike. Within three weeks of the deportation order nearly all of Danish Jewry had been successfully hidden and secretly ferried to neutral Sweden. (The entire Danish people are honoured at Yad Vashem for their collective bravery.)

The Encyclopaedia on the Holocaust writes: "The Righteous Gentiles saved not only Jewish lives but the honour of humanity in the terrible period of the Holocaust."

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The Butterfly

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone...
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ’way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto.
Pavel Freidmann 4.6.1942

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The Last to Sing

The last to sing before the Ark is dead.
Padlocks hang in the house of the Jews.
The windows are boarded, and shadows
huddle in shame in the pews.
Bereavement without end
creeps on the naked walls,
and blazoned crown and priestly hands
lie broken above the Scrolls.
The last to sing before the Law is dead.
There is no one now to go up to the Ark.
The eternal flame, alone in its nook,
struggles and sputters to dark.
And soundless on the steps of the Ark
the abandoned Shekhina rests,
her head bowed down in sorrow,
black as night her dress.
And her lips seem to shudder
a last hushed plea,
as if the Ark from its arras had spoken:
Too late, too late O you who are faithful to Me!
by Dovid Einhorn
translated by Cynthia Ozick

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Ballad of the Seven

As told by Abba Kovner, the commander of the Vilna Ghetto Partisans, who coined the phrase “Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter.”
Translated from the Hebrew by Sam E. Bloch

A wanderer, lost in a dense forest
on a stormy night
sees at a distance a light
dimly shining out of a lonely hut.
He knocks on the door,
enters and sees
a young boy, age nine,
sitting at a fireplace
— Greetings, my child!
— Greetings, stranger-replies the boy.
— Are you alone here?
And here the dialogue between the two begins:
— No, sir, we are seven:
father, mother, two brothers, two sisters and myself.
— Where is mother?
— Mother died.
— Oh, then you are only six, my child?
— No, sir, we are seven:
father, mother, two brothers, two sisters and myself.
— Where is father?
— Father was killed in the war.
— Oh, then you are five only?
— No, sir! I told you, we are seven:
father, mother, two brothers, two sisters and myself.
— And your brothers,
where are they?
— One died in an accident,
the other one was taken prisoner
and never returned.
— Then you are three, only three?
— No, sir, we are seven:
father, mother, two brothers, two sisters and myself.
— Your sisters, where are they,
poor child?
— One drowned in the lake;
the younger one, coming to her rescue,
drowned too and perished in the water.
— Then, you are one only, my boy,
alone - aren’t you?
— No, sir, we are seven in this hut:
father, mother, two brothers, two sisters and myself.
How can a man, like myself, and all
other fellow survivors and our friends
and people of good will everywhere
grown in years and mature,
preserve that thing
which the young boy kept to himself
and expressed
in his own childish way.
Perhaps, it is this memory
that gives us the right
to live and to go on..
As long as there are somewhere
such huts in the world.
such hearts that beat with remembrance
we can turn again
to field and sky, to beauty and joy
and say that our dear ones
are here, living among us
not as shadows but as an essence of our lives
Midstream — January, 1992

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To Go Home?

I owe it to you mom & dad
–even tho’ you rest in the earth
to go home
I owe it to you my bobbas and zeidas
whom I never knew
and who could never spoil me
and who were shoved alive into a
mass burial pit
in the Ponary Forests –
to go home
Home conjures up images of
warmth, familiar smells
and peace of mind
Poland may've been home then
but it’s really hell on earth
It’s evolution in reverse
It shakes you to your very core
It makes you fear for man
So why go back you may ask
To remember
to bear witness,
to be the link
to pay homage
to take care of the past
Solomon R. Kaplinski

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April 28 - May 11, 2008