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.