Sunday, May 1, 2011

Coming Full Circle

You have all had a chance to re-live the story of Sarah, Manek and Zosia, and their amazing survival.  I grew up my whole life knowing these stories.  My whole life, I had been searching for a meaning, for someone to give me a reason as to why this happened.  It wasn't fair!  I was deprived of my family, and more importantly my father and aunt were deprived of an innocent childhood, actually deprived of a childhood at all.  I realize there is no answer, but in the end there is a lesson.  No matter how dark things may seem, there will always be light.  Sarah was able to see the light, and in 2009 so were we.

 In June of 2009 I had the opportunity to return to Poland for the second time, after 18 years, with my sister, mother and father.  The reason for this trip, although very short, was to re-certify a destroyed Jewish cemetery in my father’s home town of Brzostek, and it was a life changing experience.

A few year’s back a gentleman by the name of Jonathan Weber, a religious studies professor in England whose family immigrated to England from Brzostek in the late 1800's, took it under his wings to campaign to the state of Poland, the town and the head Rabbinical College of Rabbis to re-instate the only Jewish cemetery in Brzostek.  After many years the head Rabbi of Poland agreed and a project of massive undertaking was on its way.  The Brzostek cemetery was destroyed in 1942 and therefore prior to June of 2009 all that remained was an empty lot of land.  Professor Weber took it upon himself to reach out to the Mayor and the Priest of Brzostek to help him rebuild a holy site.

Amazingly, we found out later in the day, that the entire community got behind this project.  When the town heard about what was happening, the people of the Brzostek realized the importance of this and rallied to help, finding headstones that had been used for masonry work or just finding them in junk yards.  By the time the cemetery was ready to be unveiled, the people of Brzostek found over 30 original headstones from the cemetery.  Amazingly, one of the matzevah’s (head stones) that was returned was my Great-Grandfather’s, Fischel Schonwetter. 

The day of the opening was a day I will never forget.  None of us really knew what to expect.  Honestly, we were thinking it would be a nice little ceremony, with a few dozen or so people (Professor Weber had brought a contingency of about 15 people with him). 

First, we congregated at Town Hall, which also housed the jail which my Grandfather was taken to regularly, to unveil a memorial plaque that was hung on the outside of the building.  This ceremony was attended by about 20 foreigners that had some connection to the cemetery, along with about 30 townspeople, including the mayor and local priest.  We were surprised at this point, that so many local people came out and even cared.

The plaque reads:

            IN MEMORY OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF BRZOSTEK ITS RABBIS, TEACHERS, SHOPKEEPERS AND ARTISANS AND ALL FAMILIES AND IN MEMORY OF 500 JEWISH MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN OF BRZOSTEK MURDERED IN 1942 IN THE PODZAMCZE FOREST, IN THE BEZEC DEATH CAMP AND OTHER UNKOWN PLACES.

It was a very nice ceremony, and after it we were lead by the Head Rabbi of Poland, through the town a little ways to the cemetery.  It was a bright and sunny day, and we walked about 5 minutes down the road.  As we approached I turned the corner to where the cemetery was located.  I was shocked by what I saw. 

Hundreds of people from the community, both young and old, came to attend and witness what, to me, was a very emotional and historic moment.  All of us were speechless.  We could not fathom that so many townspeople had actually taken the time on this morning, to come and witness this event.  Tents and chairs were set up for people to sit on, and there was not enough room.  The first few rows had been left empty for the "VIP's", how funny that my father and his sister were now being welcomed as a VIP.  It was totally unbelievable.

Speeches were made by Prof Weber, the Rabbi, the head Priest and Mayor of Brzostek, three families that had ancestors buried there and lastly a speech from two Holocaust survivors, my Father and my Aunt.  During my father's speech, he recounted some of the stories that I have told you.  I heard people behind me that made comments, as they remembered the family names of some of the people that had saved my father.  Even Zosia Dziedzic, whose family saved so many Jewish people including my family,  was there at the ceremony.  My father does not cry, and he actually got choked up when it came time to talk of his mother.  The sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky, it was as if they were looking down on us from above, with a clear view.

After the speeches, prayers and blessings were recited, the shofar was blown and we proceeded to the gates of the cemetery.  Prior to walking into the cemetery, another prayer was recited as we walked the length of the cemetery and threw garlic over the fence into it (an old Jewish custom I had never heard of before).   When we entered the cemetery, to the left were all the restored matzevahs.  Directly in front, however, were 3 more unveilings of new matzevahs, one a memorial and commemorative one to honor all the Jews of Brzostek that were killed by the Nazi's, one that was placed by another survivors family, and the third one for my Father’s Father, Israel Schonwetter.

In the Jewish religion, when someone dies, the family recites a prayer (like a blessing for the dead) called Kaddish.  It meant the world to me to hear Kaddish being said for my Grandfather, and to know that he had finally received a final place of rest.

I approached the mayor after the service and thanked him for giving my grandfather a final resting place and providing me with a place that I can bring my children.  I will never forget his response.  “You don’t need to thank me, it was the right thing to do, it was the only thing to do and there is no thanks necessary”.  Unbelievable, I hate to admit that I kept thinking, these people are really doing this for what, what are they getting out of it?  

If I ended the story there, it would have been enough, but it was not over.  Following this very emotional afternoon the crowd left the cemetery and was invited to attend an assembly put together by the high school students.  They had buses for all of us visitors, to take us the short distance to the high school.  When we got to the school the site was astounding.

The children and their families had googled authentic Jewish recipes and cooked home made Jewish and Polish dishes for us, in a buffet that was almost 20’ long.  They also prepared Kosher meals for those that were observant.  After we indulged in some really good food, we sat down to hear the concert that they had prepared.  These Polish children had learned and sang Hebrew Jewish songs, like Shalom Aleichem and Hava Nagila and according to my Aunt, who lives in Israel, they sang it better than most Israeli’s.  We learned that the school has now incorporated into their high school curriculum Jewish studies and Professor Weber established a scholarship that will be awarded yearly to students in the school.  To know that the future generations will learn about the real history of their town, their country and the many people that no longer live there makes me fell that there is still hope and that the hell that my father, aunt, grandmother and millions of other Jews experienced will not be forgotten. 

The day was full of emotions; we also had the opportunity to visit the house my father lived in prior to the war, the entrance to the forests where he lived/hid, as well as met with the daughter of the Polish man that was the key factor in my father’s survival. 

As Jews we know how important and fragile our heritage is, and as children of holocaust survivors, we can not help but feel cheated for not having the opportunity to know our lost family. But to see and hear that others understand this as well has truly restored my faith in mankind.  We always preach “Never Forget”, it is heartwarming to know that there is a community out there that has taken this very seriously.  I hope we can all learn from this.  In a way I see this as a sort of closure for my father, and I hope that it can be the beginning of a compassionate and understanding journey that other towns and communities will venture upon. 

The Question: Who?
The Answer: Me

The Question: Where?
The Answer: Here

The Question: How?
The Answer: With in

The Question: When?
The Answer: Now

The Question: What?
The Answer: Never Forget

Thank you for taking the time to hear my story.

Ann Schonwetter Arnold

Friday, April 8, 2011

Liberation

"Those of you who feel you are not affected, are affected the most
Those of you who feel it did not happen to you, will experience it the most
Those of you who don't want to remember, will have the most terrifying nightmares
Those of you who think it never happened, will live through it again." - Ann Arnold

By the end of 1944 and beginning of 1945, the sounds of guns, canons and artillery began to become a daily occurrence.  Some days you would hear more, and some days less.  At the beginning, everyone was very frightened by this onslaught of fighting nearby.  German troops would go back and forth through the village where Sarah and the children were hiding.  They would drive in their jeeps along the farm roads, and sometimes they would be followed by ground troops or tanks.  Bronca's house, the house that the Schonwetter's were hiding in, was a bit secluded and on the outskirts of town.  There was one other Polish refugee family staying in the house during that last winter.
After months of hearing the sounds of war, the fighting sounds began to fade away, and then one day it was quiet.  No artillery fire.  No sounds of canons.  No army driving on through the dirt roads.  And then the day came, Bronca ran into the house frantic, "I see soldiers coming, but they don't look German, maybe we are liberated!"  And so they all waited anxiously.  Soon 2-3 soldiers came to the house.  They started to speak to the group, but in some different language.  No one really understood what they were saying, but they realized that it sounded Russian.  Some of the soldiers spoke broken Polish, and soon the words "You are free" were understood.  The Russians continued with their somewhat one sided conversation, and started asking if anyone had seen any German soldiers, or if anyone knew where they were.  They all answered "NO" very quickly, and soon the soldiers left.
Sarah was stunned.  She could not really comprehend what she had heard.  Could it really be over?  Could they really be free?  Could they really go home?  It was too hard to believe, and it was easier to not believe it, so she stayed where she was for a few more days.
The next few days brought more of the same.  Russian soldiers coming through town would stop and start talking in broken Polish.  They would ask if anyone had seen any Germans, and then one day, they asked a new question.  A soldier had stopped at the house and asked Sarah  and the group of people there "Do you know if there are any Jews here?"  Sarah did not know how to respond.  She so desperately wanted to say "Yes I am a Jew!", but years of skeptisim had her asking herself, "why would they be asking this question, are they killing Jews too?"  So fear won out, and Sarah responded that there were no Jews that she knew of.  The soldier accepted the answer, and proceeded  to ask, "Are you all from here?"  "No" answered one of the refugees, Sarah continued "we are from other villages, like Brzostek."  "Ok" the Russian soldier responded, "You can return to Brzostek, that direction is OK, but don't go in the opposite direction, the Germans are still there."  And then the soldiers left. 
Sarah was relieved.  She did not expose the truth about who she was to the soldier.  "You see" she thought "I would have told him I was a Jew, and then he would have left me here, and what would these townspeople do to me?  I must keep a low profile."  But most importantly, it was time to go home.
The next day, Sarah turned to the children and said "We are free, it is time to go home."  And so they went.  It was winter time, and it was cold, but in spite of the conditions, they walked all the way back to Brzostek.  It had been almost 3 years since the night that they had fled the safety of their village.  Almost 3 years since they had seen the place they had called home.  Almost 3 years since they were free to be who they were.  But were they really free?
When the threesome got to Brzostek, they finally saw what was left of the house.  It had been badly damaged from the war, it appeared that a shell must have gone off in the house.  The windows were broken, debris was everywhere, and the house was empty.  Since it was so cold, Sarah took the children down to the basement.  She found some pots and pans in the kitchen.  There was no food, there was nothing left at all.  Sarah began to look around the grounds, and found a old stock pile of frozen and badly damaged potatoes.  What choice did she have?  She took these potatoes, started a fire and cooked the worst tasting potato latkes.  They had also found some wheat in the barn, and Manek and his mother took the wheat, and ground it by hand to make flour.  They mixed it with some water and baked "bread".  They stayed in the house for about 1-2 weeks.  Sarah was afraid to go anywhere.  She was afraid to let anyone know that she was alive and back.  You see although the war was over, some Jews were still being murdered when they returned to their homes, this time by their Polish neighbors. 
After a couple of weeks, Sarah had a visitor, cousin Fritz Schonwetter. 
Fritz's father was a brother to Israel Schonwetter.  He was living in Hamburg, Germany with his mother, father and brother in 1938 when Hitler came to power. At that time he was in his late teenage years.  When the Jews were kicked out of Germany, the family came to Brzostek to stay with their relatives.  They were all rounded up that fateful day in 1942 when the Jews of Brzostek were eliminated.  Fritz was the only one of his family to escape.  He was soon captured however, and sent to a concentration camp, where he survived until the end of the war.  After he was liberated, he came back to Brzostek to see if anyone was left.  He met up with Sarah and the children, but he only stayed a few days.  He told Sarah that they had to leave and get out of Brzostek.  She agreed and headed to Tarnov while he left to try to find more of his family.  Sarah lost touch with Fritz for many years.  When she finally reconnected with him, she found out that he had gone back to Hamburg to search for any survivors.  He found none.  At that time he connected with other refugees, and headed to Palestine.  He eventually wrote a letter to Tarnov searching for Sarah and that is how they were able to reconnect.
Meanwhile, Sarah left for Tarnov.  Before the war Tarnov was a big Jewish center.  After the war, many Jewish survivors came to this city looking for any survivors.  The United Nations Relief and Rehabilition Administration (UNRRA) established offices here.  This group was established to get foreign aid to help survivors pay for housing and food.  They began to compile a list of all survivors.  When Sarah arrived in Tarnov, she went to the UNRRA office for help.  They helped provide temporary shelter and food for her and the children.  She would take a bus to Brzostek once a week on Wednesdays, to visit the farmers market, where she would buy chicken, eggs and other staples.  The prices were much cheaper here.  She was also able to connect with her family in America.  She had 3 sisters and a brother that had left Poland long before the war started.  After the war they wrote a letter to Brzostek desperately looking for survivors.  Sarah received their letter and was able to reconnect with the only family she had left.
But going to Brzostek also allowed her to begin selling off her land.  She had no money, and the only assets she had was her home and land.  She first gave Pilat one of the houses on her property, as she promised.  She then began slowly selling off parts of the vast farmland that she owned.  Eventually she sold the house.  The family that bought the house still own it today.  She was able to make a little money this way.  In order to make more money, Sarah began to buy and sell American dollars on the black market.  You knew she would always find a way to support her children.  She soon met up with some other familiar faces, Romek and Fish.
Romek never really gave up his rowdy and thieving ways.  Although it helped him survive the war, he eventually got himself in trouble and ended up in jail.  He escaped once, but was recaptured and eventually died in prison.
Fish had first gone back to his home town of Jaslow.  He did not find many survivors.  He did however find his sister's husband, Solomon Katzbach.  Solomon had joined the Russian army early on in the war.  His wife and children however, perished at the hands of the Nazi's.  The two men travelled to Tarnov together to look for more survivors.  There Fish was reunited with Sarah.  He introduced her to his brother in law, and so her new life began. 
Solomon and Sarah married in 1947 and were together until the day he died in 1968.  Sarah never remarried again after that.  I remember seeing my grandmother always with her wedding ring on.  Until the day she died, she always remembered Solomon.  From what I hear he was a wonderful and kind man.  It is a shame that he died the year before I was born, and I never had a chance to meet him.
Manek and Zosia finished high school.  Manek (who by this point had kept his Polish name of Maryan-pronounced Mar-yan) began law school and Zosia began medical school to become an orthodontist.  The family stayed in Poland until 1957.  At that time the government funded voyages on ships for any Jew that wanted to leave Poland to Israel.  Poland was not an easy place for a Jew to live.  And so Solomon, Sarah, Maryan and Zosia left Poland and moved to Israel.
My dad did not return to Poland again until 1993.  My father, mother, sister and I went on a family trip.  It was a moving experience to witness firsthand the places that I had heard so much about.  But as special as that trip was, our next trip to Poland in 2009 was life changing.
Check back next time to hear about the experience that no one could have dreamed possible.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Confessions

"Even though it may be scary, confession is the right thing to do."
Alexis Arnold
After the incident with Manek and the vodka, Sarah took her children and left the house of refugees.  She continued to walk down country roads with the children with no destination in mind.  There was no food, no shelter, just the monotony each day of getting up and wandering, and the fear that at any moment someone may figure it all out.  One day, in the Polish town of Jaworze, Sarah stopped some people walking by her and asked them if they had anything to eat.  They looked from her to the two shells of what was once children next to her.  They only had 1 hardboiled egg that they could spare.  She took it and thanked them, and thanked them, and thanked them.  She and the children sat down on the curb on the side of the road.  Sarah then took that one boiled egg, and split it into small pieces, gave each child a small piece, and saved the rest for "later".
It's funny how a memory stays with you forever.  When we were driving through Jaworze on our trip to Poland in 2009, my father and aunt actually stopped the car and pointed out the very spot they sat and ate that boiled egg.
As Sarah and the children indulged in their hearty meal, a woman, Bronca, walked by them.  She was by herself, and noticed the mother and her two young children.  She stopped and asked Sarah, "Who are you, and where are you from?"  Sarah replied "I am Francesca, and these are my two children Maryan and Sophia.  We are from Brzostek (they were far enough away that she felt safe to name her home town)."  Bronca looks at her and continues her questions, " Why are you alone with two children?  Where is your husband and family?"  Sarah continued to make up an elaborate tale and excuse.  Bronca, seeing the sorry state of the threesome tells Sarah "You know what, why don't you and the kids come to my house and I will give you something to eat."
And so they went with Bronca a short distance to her home.  She fed them Borscht and Potatoes.  It is hard to imagine but this was their first half decent meal in almost 2 years!  After the meal, Bronca asked Sarah where she was going to stay.  She answered "I'll be honest with you, I have nowhere to go."  Bronca looked from Sarah to her children and said "OK I understand, why don't I keep you here for a little bit."  Sarah was hesitant but she decided she would graciously accept the offer.
After a few days, Bronca came to Sarah and told her that people were beginning to talk about her and the children because they looked so different, they started to suspect that perhaps she was not who she said she was.  Sarah asked "Who was saying such things?  Let me see if it is who I think it is."  Bronca pointed out the woman that started the talk.  Sarah immediately responded "Aha, that is who I thought you would say.  You see I think SHE is a Jew and she is trying to put the suspicion off herself and onto anybody else.  I'll go tell her!"  Bronca assured Sarah not to worry that she would take care of it and told Sarah not to start anything.  Of course Sarah had no idea who the woman was that Bronca pointed out, she made the whole story up to cast the suspicion of herself.
Sarah had stayed a few days, and still had no idea where she would go.  Bronca was good to Sarah and the children and soon Sarah had to confide in her.  Sarah went to Bronca and confessed.  "I have to be honest with you.  I am Jewish and I don't know what to do anymore, or where to go."  Bronca responded "I suspected that just looking at you.  Ok, stay with us, but don't tell anyone what you have told me.  I will keep you as a refugee like all the others, and let's see how long I can keep you like that.  You must watch all that I do.  You must act like a Christian.  Tell your children that each morning they must get up and pray like everyone else.  Every Sunday we will all go to church.  All of you must watch and follow all that I do."  So life as a Catholic began for Sarah and the children.  They went to church every Sunday, took communion, and no one suspected a thing.
When you go to church, not only do you pray and take communion, but everyone is expected to go to confession.  So Sarah went to confession.  When she got there, she was at a loss.  Bronca was not near her so she had no one to mimic.  So she did what any good Catholic would do, she confessed.  She turned to the priest and told him "I am so sorry but I do not know what to do, I am not really a Catholic."  The priest immediately understood her meaning.  He had seen her and her children at church.  He put his hand on her head and said "You are a very brave woman, the war is getting closer to the end and being a hero woman you will survive and you will be fine and G-d will bless you."  When Sarah walked out of the church Bronca was standing with a few other towns people.  Bronca commented on Sarah's talk with the priest, "Francesca, you must not have had many sins because the priest was so nice and cheerful to you!"  This killed any and all suspicion that may have been left.
The encounter with the priest had a profound lasting effect on Sarah.  She would forever have a soft spot and a special feeling for the Catholic religion.  Even though over the years I have heard many of the stories that I have recounted during this story telling, there have been many more that I am learning about for the first time.  This story is one of the ones I had not heard before.  It brings a smile to my face that I can still learn something new about my grandmother.  I miss her so much each day. Writing this story has made me feel closer to her, and as I shed a tear writing this, I only wish I had the chance to ask her about all that I am learning.  The one thing that always struck me as odd though, was that after all that she went through, she still believed in G-d, kept Kosher and believed in religion.  I never really understood it until now. This priest truly understood the meaning of G-d and that there is only one G-d.  He gave her strength to go on and know that G-d was still with her and always would be.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Instinct

 “All the learning in the world, cannot replace instinct” – Robert Ley

Instinct is a funny thing.  Are people born with a certain amount of instinct, can you learn instinct, can instinct be taught?  Many studies are done about babies and young children.  Do they learn that crying brings them attention, or is it an innate behavior, one that does not need to be taught, but rather is instinctive? 
Children will be children the saying goes.  Young children want to play and laugh and sing.  But when young children are forced into situations beyond our imagination how will they react?  Manek, being a little older than a toddler, reacted in a way that was very grown up.  He took protecting his family very seriously.  Zosia, being only a small child, barely older than a baby, did not know any better.  She would want to play and laugh, but that behavior brought unwanted attention to her and those around her.  Early on in the war, the people around Sarah told her that Zosia’s behavior would be the death of them all.  They convinced her that the best thing for both her and her child would be to find a place for her to stay and to give her away.  Thinking that perhaps they were right, she asked Romek to find a “home” for her youngest child.  Zosia was taken away to her new “home” and was separated from her mother and brother for a few months.  During this time, unbeknown to Sarah, Zosia was treated horribly.  Once again, a mother’s intuition won out. Sarah just knew it was wrong to be separated from her child, and after a few months forced Romek to take her to the family where Zosia was hiding.  When she arrived, she was presented with a child.   The child was badly malnourished, had no hair and was unrecognizable.  She demanded to know where “her” child was, not realizing at first that she was looking at her own daughter.  Seeing what had become of Zosia, she vowed that she would never allow herself to be convinced against her own instincts again.  And Zosia “learned” that she had to behave a certain way in order to not face the same sort of ordeal again.
By the time the spring of 1944 came around, living in the forest had become second nature to the Schonwetter family.  This time when Sarah and the children were hiding in the forest, they started to see more and more German troops, and hear more artillery gun fire.  The front was getting closer.  Polish families were driven from their homes with the war approaching.  Every few days, those hiding in the forest would see groups of Polish families walking on the country road, carrying all their belongings, or at least all that they could carry.  Some groups would be as small as 10-15 people, some as large as hundreds of people. 
The partisan groups were also getting more active at this time.  During the war there were Polish partisan groups that fought against the Germans and the occupation.  At first there were two partisan groups, the Army Krajowa (otherwise known as the National Army) and the Army Ludowa (The People’s Army).  Army Ludowa eventually merged with the Army Krajowa.  This group was very helpful to the Allies throughout the war and even played a role in helping liberate the Warsaw Ghetto.  However, within this group of partisans were many Polish people that were anti-Semitic.  Hiding in the woods, you did not know if the partisan you would encounter was a friendly one or one of the anti-Semites, so it was best to stay hidden and not let your presence known.
By the late summer, early fall, Sarah, Romek and Fish came to the conclusion that they could not just sit in the forest any longer.  There were too many people coming and going and it was just not safe anymore.  They decided it was time for them all to split, go their own way and survive best they can.  Sarah was now on her own with her two small children.  She saw a group of Polish people, about 10-20 of them passing by.  A few minutes later another 7-10 people go by, and maybe 10 minutes later another few.  She makes a decision.  She takes the children and says lets go, and proceeds to go out on the county road and start walking like all the others.  She really did not know where she was heading, she just started to follow the path the rest of the Polish refugees were taking.  And so the life of Francesca, Maryan and Sophia began.
As Sarah walked on the road, she started to come in contact with other people.  They would ask her where she was from, her response was “Where are you from?”  She would listen to the names of the villages they gave her, and then tell them she was from another village a little further away.  She told them her name was Francesca and that these were her children, Maryan and Sophia.  Since many times she would give names of villages very far away, she would get comments like “Oh, so far away?  No wonder you look so terrible and malnourished.”  She would answer “Yes, they were fighting near my home and I had to leave.”
Sarah and the children walked for days.  They would sleep on the ground on the side of the road, if they ate at all it would be a raw potato if they could find one, or berries.  The children knew better than to cry or complain.  One day they came across a home that was housing many Polish refugees.  Refugees were sleeping in the stables and in the house, so Sarah approached and she asked if they could take her and her children in as well.  The woman that owned the house said she would but she did not have any space left.  Sarah begged and said she would even stay in the attic, the woman mentioned that the attic was empty, and nothing was up there, Sarah said that was OK with her.  And so they stayed for about 1 week, but what an eventful week it was. 
There were many different people staying in this home, and some began to get suspicious of “Francesca’s” story right away.  Sarah would overhear them going to the woman, asking “Are you sure she is not Jewish?  Look how dark her hair is, she has no husband, just her and the kids, something is fishy here”.  Sarah kept her ears and eyes open on everything. 
One night, Sarah sent the children up to bed.  A cousin of the woman that owned the house had been one of the most suspicious ones of them all.  When he saw that the children went up to bed alone, he quickly climbed the ladder into the attic.  Manek had just fallen asleep and was startled awake as the man tried to pull down his pants.  The young boy started screaming and the man backed off, and as Sarah ran to her son, the man left as quickly as he came.
To find out if you were a Jew, it was very simple if you were a man.  All that needed to be done was to see if you were circumcised.  This was the tell all sign.  This was how many Polish people tried to weed out the Jews.  This experience in the attic was not the only time that Manek was almost found out. 
Homemade vodka was a common place in Poland.  In the house next door, the men would make vodka for themselves.  They would brew it in big barrels, slowly cooking the potatoes over the fires, stirring it constantly so that as not to burn anything.  With the front approaching and the Germans coming closer, the men would get afraid that they would get caught.  So they enlisted the help of the young boy, “Maryan” to help them stir and make the vodka.  After a few days the vodka was ready, and after filtering it through a hat, they were ready to celebrate their success.  Evening had approached.  The 4 men insisted that Maryan join them in their celebration, after all he had done such a good job and had helped them brew the gallons of vodka they got.  One man gave Maryan a shot of vodka, raised his glass and said “Nastrovia” (cheers in Polish).  The boy had to do the shot, and so he did.  Well, the men now explained to the young boy, out of respect, since they toasted and drank to him, he had to toast and drink to them as well, and so a second shot was circulated and drank by all.  They young boy started to get tipsy, and so did the men.   They told the young boy, “Why don’t you sing for us?  Do you know any songs?”  Of course he knew songs, so he started to sing, and after each song, they would toast with another shot, and tell him to sing again.
Meanwhile, Sarah started to worry, it was evening and her son was nowhere to be found.  She started to ask around to see if anyone had seen him.  No one had.  As she walked outside looking for him, she headed toward the house where he had been spending his days.  As she approached, she starts to hear him singing.  She quickly looks inside the house through a window, and what she witnesses stops her heart.  There, standing on top of a table is her son, singing, and one of the men starts to approach him and undo his pants in an attempt to pull them off.  Sarah started knocking on the window and ran to the door and barged in.  She grabs her son and starts yelling, “YOU DIRTY OLD MEN, YOU ARE TRYING TO RAPE A BOY!”  The drunk men respond back, calling her a “Jew”.  She screams at them, “It is not enough that you are trying to rape a boy, but now you are insulting me on top of it.  I am going to go to the police and tell them and everyone what you were doing to a child!” And she took her son and walked out the door.
Sarah knew her time here was over, and early the next morning took her two children, left the house and never looked back. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Courage

"Courage is not the lack of fear, but the ability to face it"
Lt. John B. Putnam, Jr. (1921-1944)

In the winter of 1943, again Sarah needed to find shelter for her and her two small children.  Her friend Romek knew the Mordel family and arranged for Sarah to hid there.  The setting was all too familiar.  Mordel had dug a hole in the ground for Sarah and her children to lie in.  The only difference this year was that they were to "live" under a pig pen as opposed to the stables.

Most of the winter went by without incident.  When the winter was almost over, the pig that had been sheltered in the pen was slaughtered.  Mordel told Sarah and the children that on Sunday's, when everyone was at church, they could come out from the floorboards into the pig sty for a few hours.  On one Sunday, when they were in the sty, Manek looked out through the wired window and asked his mother, "Why can the chickens run free and play and we can not?"   Sarah answered from her heart "I have no answer for you, but to tell you that one day you will be able to run as free as the chickens."

On one of these Sunday's, Sarah saw Germans coming.  People were running away, into the woods and in all directions.  Sarah knew she could not be found hiding in a pig pen.  She instantly got up, stepped out of the pen, grabbed the children, and went right up to a German soldier.  She started yelling and screaming in Polish to them.  One of the soldiers understood Polish and asked her what she was doing here.  She answered, "We were in the next town over and told to leave.  So we came here.  This man gave us shelter, but he is cruel to us.  He does not feed us, look how pale my children are, and he beats us."

Meanwhile, Manek, who had also seen the Germans coming and seeing his mother talk to them, became terrified and let go of his mother's leg, and ran into Mordel's house and hid under a bed.  You see, Sarah had always warned Manek that if he were to be caught and captured, anyone would just need to pull down his pants and see that he was Jewish.  When the German's approached, he was so scared that they would do as his mother had warned and that he would give them all away.  As Manek ran away, the Germans questioned where he was going.   Sarah and the soldiers followed Manek into the house.  Sarah found him under the bed, and her quick thinking prevailed, "You see he is so scared of men because that one is always beating him."  She then came and took Manek out from under the bed, "Don't be frightened" she soothed, "Don't worry, these men are nice men, they won't beat you, yes they are men, but not like the other one."  The German soldiers replied, "No we won't hurt you." 

They all proceeded outside, and the Germans continued to question Sarah.  "Look the man has a cow, does he not give you milk?"  "No" she replied.  The Germans proceeded to go and start taking the cow.  Mordel, seeing the Germans taking his cow, begged them not to take it, it was his only one.  The Germans told him that it was his punishment for not even feeding these people.  Mordel begged, he said he had tried but it was so hard to feed so many.  The Germans took the cow. 

They returned a short time later with food for Sarah and her children and told her if she needed anything else, they were stationed nearby and she should come to them and they would provide her with food for her children. 

I often think about the courageous things that my grandmother did.  I honestly can say I do not think I would have the courage to even think to do half of what she did.  It amazes me every time I think about what she endured, what she did, and what she did not do.  She was not the only courageous one.  I think of all those Polish families that helped her and hid her, my father and my aunt.  I am a mother of two children, would I have the courage to risk their lives to help another?  I say to myself that I hope I would find that courage, but I am not sure.  Would you?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Choices

"And in life, it is all about choices we make. And how the direction of our lives comes down to the choices we choose." Catherine Pulsifer, from HONESTY. . . A Core Value?

The spring of 1943 was approaching, and once again Sarah and the children had to head into the forest to hide.  Romek had known where they were hiding.  He had kept tabs on Sarah and the children, and as the weather started to get a little mild, he and Fish came to get Sarah and the children.  They met up with Ignash  in the forest.
The days were long.  To pass the time, the men would teach Manek how to handle a machine gun (they had stolen weapons), how to fire it, take it apart, put it back together and clean it.  If they were sure no one was anywhere around, they would allow the young boy to do target practice and shoot into the woods.  They felt he needed to learn how to protect himself and his family.  He took his "job" very seriously.  One day, Fish thought it would be funny to "scare" the young child.  He snuck out of camp, and then crept around the outskirts, so as to approach from behind Manek.  But Manek was a quick study.  He was a child that was quickly learning to rely on instinct.  He heard some rustling in the  woods behind him and quickly sprang from where he sat.  Fish had left his machine gun at camp, and Manek immediately grabbed it, pointed and aimed.  Sarah, seeing the activity, cried to Manek "What's wrong?".  "I hear something, someone is coming."  Sarah told him to put down the weapon immediately.  At that moment, Fish jumped out from the woods laughing.  Well that did not last long, Sarah gave him an earful about what an idiotic stunt he tried to pull, and he could have gotten himself killed.  As far as Manek was concerned, he was just happy he did not have to put his training to the test.
Occasionally the men would go on a "mission".  They would leave at night, go far away from where they were hiding, so as not to attract any suspicion or attention to their area.  They would go steal clothes, flour, potatoes and other items to help them survive.  This summer the accommodations were good.  Romek proved to be a very good provider (aka thief).  On one of these outings, Romek came back with jams, crackers, sugar and other "goodies".  He told the story that he had gone through a village and had come across a German supply truck.  When the truck stopped, two men emerged and went to the side of the road to relieve themselves.  Since he saw that there were only two men, he quickly killed them both, and then proceeded to take as many supplies as he could and bury them in the woods.  Every 1-2 weeks he would go to his "stash" and bring back more food.  They were "well fed". 
But not all the outings were as successful.  One night, at the beginning of spring, the three men had gone to look for food.  They again went far away, but this time they came across Polish police.  These police, armed with weapons, were trigger happy.  They began to shoot at the men.  The three men tried to run as fast as they could, but Ignash was hit.  He was injured very badly from the gunshot wounds.  Romek and Fish each took an arm, and tried to run with him to escape a similar fate.  They dragged him for a little bit and then realized that his injuries were too bad.  Romek did what he felt was the only choice he had, he aimed his own weapon at Ignash and killed him to put him out of his misery.  When they returned to camp, they only told Sarah that Ignash had been shot and that they lost him in the woods.  Years later, Fish could not live with the guilt of what they had done, and had confessed the truth to Sarah.
Days were long and nights were even longer.  How people deal with the circumstances they are dealt can vary from person to person.  Not everyone reacts the same, or has the same courage as others.  Who is to say who is right and who is wrong?  Would you have done what Romek did?  Could you have? Would you have risked your own life to save another one?  What if that other life was your child?  
During this summer, Sarah and the children encountered about 5 other Jewish people hiding in the woods.  Romek and Fish had found them.  Amongst them was another woman with two small children, about Manek and Zosia's ages.  A little bit later, Romek and Fish came across the group again, but this time there were only 3 of them.  They found out that the group had been found, and that they had to run away in order to avoid being killed.  The mother had left her two young children to die in the woods, while she ran away to save herself. 
After the war, Sarah ran into the woman.  The woman immediately started to make excuses for her actions. Sarah could barely even look at her straight in the eyes.    Sarah found out later that this woman moved to South America soon after the war, got very sick and died at an early age.  Sarah said to her children "You see, G-D does punish."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fear

"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by each experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do. "
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) American Columnist, lecturer and humanitarian.

The Dziedzik family became known amongst the Jews as a "friendly" family.  They helped many Jews over those formidable years, including Sarah and the children.  They were the family that you would go to as an "in between" house.  You would stay a few days while looking for other shelter, but if you were in a bind, you knew you could come here for help.  Their reputation spread amongst the people, and of course the Germans caught wind.  This is how they came to the house looking for the Schonwetter's that day in the attic.  They knew that the Dziedzik family had been rumored to be Jewish helpers, and they were eager to catch them in the act.  Because of this, no one could hide at this home for very long.  After the incident in the attic, Sarah and the children knew they had to leave. 
Just prior to coming to the Dziedzik's, Sarah had hid at another family's house attic for just a little while.  They had left that hiding place because one night, a few days after they had arrived, someone had tried to steal some chicken's from the man's home.  He did not know who it was and got scared and told Sarah she had to leave.  Ironically enough, it had been Romek who had gone to steal the chickens that night, but of course there was no way of knowing at the time who it was, it could just have easily been someone who may have seen something.  When Sarah had to leave the Dziedzik family she went back to this house and begged him to take her and the children back.  He finally agreed, but refused to put them back in the attic.  He told Sarah to give him a few days and to return.  And so she did.
When she arrived back a few days later, he took her and the children to the stables.  He had dug a hole in the ground under the floor boards, and told Sarah and her children that this was their new hiding place.  And so they crawled in. The space allowed them only to lie on their backs, they could lift their heads up only slightly, just about enough to prop yourself up on an elbow.  He placed hay over the floor boards and left.  This man made tomb became their new home.  They could not leave this hiding place.  Sanitary conditions were nonexistent.  "Luckily" since they were in the stables, the smell was masked by all the other animals that also just did their business where ever they so chose.  At least the horses were lucky, they did not have to live and sleep in their own excrement.
Once a day the man would come and give them some bread and soup.  Other than that they were left on their own.  One day however, they heard some commotion.  Sarah could only peak out of a small hole in the boards above her.   You would think that living with fear as your constant companion would lessen the fright, but it did not.  German soldiers were entering the stable with their horses.  Sarah was frozen with fear.  The Germans needed a stable to hold their horses for a few days.  The next day they took their horses and went out for little bit.  The kind owner came to Sarah, peaked through the hole and told her to stay hidden, don't let the kids make a peep, there was not much else he could do, they should be gone in a few days.  Sure enough a few days later the Germans did leave, and Sarah and the children stayed hidden in the floorboards for the rest of the winter until the Spring of 1943.
I don't think anyone can truly understand what fear tastes like, unless they are in a life and death situation.  I often look at my children, and think how many times I beg them to be quiet.  How many times have we all been to a movie, restaurant, at a house of worship, or any of the countless other times that we have just asked, no begged our kids "Please quiet down" or "Be Quiet!", and how many times do they listen? and if they do, how long does it last?  Imagine having to make sure your children did not make even the slightest noise for days on end?  Could they do it?  Intrinsically Manek and Zosia must have known their life truly depended on it.  My grandmother used to say it was not easy, after all my father was a little boy.  I have girls, so maybe it is harder for me to relate, but I have plenty of nephews, and boy, do boys like to jump around a lot and cause a commotion.  I could not imagine them staying still for more than a couple of minutes, unless of course you have some good candy or a good show on TV!  But what if there was no TV? No reward for staying quiet?  Would they understand that the reward was the greatest gift of all? Life.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Attic

of the Baltic
"There was silence as deep as death; And the boldest held its breath, For a time"
Thomas Campbell, Battle of the Baltic
Winter was coming.  Sarah and the children could not stay exposed to the elements for the entire winter, so shelter had to be found.  As you can imagine, this was no easy task.  She first went back to the home that had been so kind the winter before.  But they refused.  She did get them, however, to agree to at least watch the children for a few hours each night so that she could go searching for another shelter.  Sarah had names of people that she would approach.  But she was smart enough to not go with just anyone.  If she went to a home and they accepted her too easily, with not much fear or resistance, she would say thank you, I will go get the children and return, but she would never come back.   She knew that would be the last shelter she would ever find.  Instead, she waited until she found a family that begged her to find another place, one that begged her to not put their family in danger, and then Sarah would beg even more.  She knew that a family that had that much fear would not turn her over to the Germans.  And so she found just the family.
The Dziedzic family lived in Brzostek and had been acquaintances of hers.  They gave her, Manek and Zosia, shelter in their attic, where Sarah and the children stayed and lived under the hay.  They would make a hole in the hay that was stored in the attic and live there for the whole winter. 
One day there was a knock on the door.  It was the Gestapo.  They had heard that the Schonwetter's were hiding out in this house.  Of course the whole Dziedzic family denied this allegation.  The Gestapo's answer was quite clear, "You know the consequences of lying, if you are lying you will be as dead as them." 
They then proceed to search the house.  They started by looking through all the rooms, every hole in the wall, the barn, and then they came to the attic.  Sarah had heard the commotion below and quickly took the children and burrowed themselves deep in the hay.  She covered each child's mouth with her hand, and then just waited.
She heard the German soldier climb up the ladder and enter the attic.  At first it sounded as if he  was just looking around, and then Sarah heard the noise.  He had grabbed a pitchfork and was jabbing it violently into the hay.  Sarah held the children closer and tightened her grip on their mouths.  One of the stabs just barely missed their bodies, it was so close they could feel the sharp, pointed ends of the tool that had turned into a deadly weapon.  But once again, luck would win out, and the German, satisfied that there was no living being in the hay, retreated back down the way he came.   
We visited Poland for the first time in the early 1990's.  It was my father's first time back to his home country that he had left over 50 years earlier.  We met Zosia Dziedzic, the daughter of the family that had hid Sarah and the children all those years ago.  Zosia recounted this story to my sister and I that day and took us to her family home.  My sister and I climbed up that same ladder and looked into the "shelter" that housed our family.  It was a humbling experience to not only put an image to the story I had heard so many times, but more importantly, to meet a member of the family that over the next two years would play such a key part in the survival of our father, grandmother and aunt.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gunshots

"The only real valuable thing is intuition." - Albert Einstein

The first summer that Sarah, Manek and Zosia survived in the woods was the summer of 1943.  One night Sarah had been awaken to a strange noise.  In the morning, she told her companions about her fear that they had been discovered.  When she told Romek, Fish and Ignash that she had heard the cracking of twigs as if someone was walking nearby, their response was filled with indifference, "Ugh, here we go again", they said, "It could have been an animal."  To that Sarah replied, "By this point I know the difference between an animal and a human being.  I am going!"  So they once again complied in order to pacify the woman's ranting, and moved about 100 meters away.
The following night Romek went to a nearby village.  You see he would go there often to see a girl he had found and had been "seeing".  He would leave during the night and return in the early morning.  This time he returned before dawn, and when he returned he told the story that in the village there was a wedding and all the attendees  got very drunk and started fighting, so they were warned that the police was going to be called to stop the fight.  At that point Romek quickly left.
About an hour or so later, as dawn was breaking, Sara heard some gunfire.  It was only a couple of shots, and Romek commented "You see the police came to the village to break up the fight".  But Sarah was not convinced.  She said, "No way, the shots are too close."  A few minutes later, machine gun fire broke out.  They all wanted to run, the men wanted to run deeper into the forest, away from the village, to try to get away from the gunfire.  But Sara said "No, if two nights ago someone was walking here they  know we are here and will go into the woods looking for us, we should go in the opposite direction, towards the gunfire, but around them to get past them, they were already there."  This time there were no arguments, they all followed Sara.
So they ran into the direction of the gunfire, not directly, they tried to go a little off so that they would get around the shooters, and they came upon a twisty path.  Sara stopped and peaked out.  She saw a German soldier with a gun, pacing back and forth on the path.  They waited a few moments and when his back was turned, she grabbed one child under each of her arms and as quickly and quietly as they could, they crossed the path and ran  away, just as they heard more machine guns and gun shots.
They continued to run about a mile away and until they felt safe enough to just sit.  That night the men decided they wanted to find out what had happened.  Romek and Fish decided to go, while Ignash stayed with Sara and the children.  When they returned 2 1/2 hours later they were very silent.  Sara and Ignash asked what had happened, they would not answer.  The only reply they gave was "Just let's get away from here."  Sara agreed and suggested they go back to where had been hiding.  Romek and Fish answered "It's better if we don't go there."  Sara wanted to see if anyone had survived, she and Ignash insisted on going back.  They were not getting any answers from Romek and Fish and wanted to see for themselves what had happened.  Fish replied that it was impossible to explain and describe, and if Sara was insisting on going, he would take her, but it would be horrible.  Romek stayed behind because they refused to let the children go and see.
What Sara saw was a complete massacre, like nothing she had ever imagined in her worst nightmare.  Bodies of men, women and children were just laying everywhere.  Two of those bodies were her cousins from the barn.  Years later, after the war, Sara found out that there were two survivors that night.  A man and a woman who had fallen during the shooting and were covered with the dead bodies of their friends and family that had fallen on them.  They had laid there very still, pretending to be dead and waited until it was safe to dig themselves out.  The woman was the female cousin of Sara that had escaped to the barn with her.
Winter was coming, find out next time how and where Sara found shelter, and how shelter does not always mean safety.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Forest

Our pleasures were simple - they included survival. Dwight D. Eisenhower

In June of 1942 the people of the Dembice ghetto became just another statistic in the ever increasing death toll and extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazi's.   However, Sarah and her two young children escaped.  Thanks to their friends, the Pilat family, they escaped termination again by one day.
Pilat, Sarah and the children made it through the  city that day, without anyone stopping them.  They met at the outskirts, and started a 3-4 hour journey to the outskirts of the Jaworze D. forest.
Pilat had arranged for a family to take Sarah and her children in for the winter months.  He left them there, and it was the last time they would see Pilat, until after the war.  The family had a daughter that lived with them, she was about 18 years old and mentally challenged.  They were to live in the attic of the house.  Once a day food would be brought to them.  A pail was placed in the corner, and they would relieve themselves in there.  Each night, Sarah would go outside to empty it.  The days were long, Sarah would try to teach the children the alphabet and counting. 
Sarah had a way of becoming "friends" with anyone she met.  She and the woman became friendly.  One day, about 2 months after they arrived, the woman told Sarah she had a secret to share, just don't tell anyone (as if Sarah had anyone to tell).  She was hiding more Jews in the barn, would Sarah like to meet them?  Sarah felt obliged to go and meet these people.  The woman took her to the barn, and when she opened the door, Sarah was surprised to see her 3 cousins were staying there!  They were just as shocked, and riddled her with questions of how did she get there and how did she escape and now they should all be together.  Sarah just said, "we got here on our own, we are fine" and left.  However, when spring started to arrive, the kind Polish woman told Sarah and the others that it was time to leave, she had already kept them for too long, and they had to go.
So Sarah and the children left their shelter, with the 3 cousins, and went into the woods.  They would eat berries and lots of wild mushrooms for survival.  Small twigs and branches were gathered to make a fire, however, they could not risk being caught so they needed to make sure there was not too much smoke.  Not even a week after they left the house they were hiding in, they came upon another, larger group of Jewish people hiding in the woods.  Amongst the group were 3 men that Sarah would spend the next 2 years hiding and surviving with: An old friend, Romek, his friend Fish, and her cousin, Ignash.
When Sarah joined the group she saw that there were too many people.  She told the group that it was too dangerous for all of them to stay in one such big group, they should split into smaller groups in the area.  All of them said, "Oh a woman, always with their ideas, no reason for us to split up, no one is going to notice us, what's the difference?"
Well, Sarah was not going to just stay, she told them "I don't care what any of you do, but I am going to take my children and hide a few meters away."  Romek, Fish and Ignosh did not want her to be on her own, so they agreed to go and stay with her.  The 6 of them left, and it would be the last time that Sarah would see 2 out of her 3 cousins that she had arrived with.
Fall began to approach, and one morning, Sarah woke up and told the men that they better move out from their hiding place.  They said, "Why? What's the matter?"
Sarah responded "During the night I heard something as if someone was walking nearby us!"
Check back soon to find out who it was and how a woman's intuition is something that should not be ignored, and can be a life saver.