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

5 comments:

  1. What a lovely story. Thank you for sharing. My great-great grandfather was Rabbi Abraham Perlmutter, head rabbi of Warsaw around 1900. I wonder if he figured into your story. My mother is a survivor from Radom, Poland.

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