Requirements for a First-Time Visitor to Poland
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:
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:
Question: “How many?”
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.”
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.”
THE SCAR by Janusz Korczak
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.
“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.
THE THIRD GENERATION an excerpt
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.
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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A wanderer, lost in a dense forest
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|April 28 - May 11, 2008|