Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Throughout the rest of the years, Israel's fate was not know by his family. Hope is a hard fire to keep lit during such a violent storm.

After the war, when Sarah finally returned home, she saw Pilat's son-in-law walking the street. She looked down and recognized his shoes. She stopped him, first asking then demanding to know where he had gotten her beloved's shoes.  It was in that moment she realized her fire had been extinguished.

The night that he was taken, Israel sat in the tiny jail cell all night. Early in the morning the police chief came to the cell, opened the door and told him to go "for a walk". Israel left.

However, a half hour later he came back. The chief asked him if he was mad, didn't he understand the meaning, he should go find his family and run. Israel's response was very clear.  "I am not insane, I know exactly what I am doing. I am not going to allow my escape and running to be the excuse and reason that they kill even one man. I will stay and stand with my people and whatever fate awaits us."  You see, he had no idea, who would, that the end of the entire Jewish population of his village was at his doorstep.

That day the Germans rounded up all the Jews of Brzostek. They were put in trucks and taken out into the surrounding woods. Polish men, their neighbors, were taken with them. The Polish men were fed Vodka to make them more cooperative, and hopefully less cognizant. They were told to dig a large hole. Meanwhile, the Jews were told to strip naked and leave all their belongings in a pile. Then, almost 500 men, women and children, that had done nothing more than be Jewish, were told to enter the hole that would become their grave. The Polish men could only stand by and watch as their neighbors and friends were executed in front of their eyes.

After the massacre the Polish men were told that they could take what they wanted from the pile of clothing and belongings. Pilat's son-in-law was one of those men.  With tears in his eyes he told Sarah that Israel was not only one of the most honest people that he had ever known, but also always treated him with the up most respect. He only took from that pile Israel's shoes, because he wanted to honor and show respect back to this great man and wanted to feel as if he stayed close to him even though he knew he was gone.

Next time, Sarah, Manek and Zosia's story of survival begins within the walls of the Dembice ghetto.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A nightmare you can not wake up from

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.  ~Ambrose Redmoon

When Sarah opened the door that night, she had no way of knowing that her life would forever be changed.  She ushered the police chiefs wife indoors.  In a hushed whisper she was told about that night and what had transpired.  Israel had arrived at the police headquarters, and was immediately taken to the prison cell.  When the chief asked what was going on, he was told not to worry about it.  The Germans then went on to say that by morning all the Jews would be rounded up and taken care of, they were starting with Israel, and then his family, so that the others would follow.  The wife had overheard this and had snuck out of the house to warn Sarah.  She knew that if she was ever found out that the Germans would show her no mercy. 

Sarah begged of her to help her husband.  The wife said she would see what she could do, and then, as quickly as she came, she left into the dead of night.  Sarah did not know where to turn.  She woke the children, dressed them quickly, and then ran down to the Pilat house.  When she told him what she had been told, she asked him for his help and advice.  She did not know what to do.  He quickly told her to leave Manek with him.  He would take her and Zosia to a nearby ghetto in Dembice and bring Manek to her as soon as he could.  It would be too dangerous to have all three try to go together, and they may be looking for a woman with 2 children.  He took Manek to the room where his children were all sleeping and told him to crawl into bed and go back to sleep.  He then took Sarah and Zosia on his bicycle to the Dembice ghetto.

The next morning, Manek was startled awake by banging on the door.  It was very early in the morning, and the Gestapo was there already.  The Schonwetter family was missing, and Pilat was known to be one of their friends.  Had he seen them at all?  He responded that he did not know where they were nor had he seen them.  The Germans then came into the house to search.  As they did, Pilat quickly went to the room where the children were sleeping, he woke them all and told them to go out into the back and fields and start their chores.  He then went to Manek and told him to go with the children, but to run through the back into the fields, go far out, crouch down, and do not move until he gets there for him.  The children started to scramble and get up and out.  The Germans seeing all the commotion, demanded to know what was going on.  Pilat explained that it was morning and the children had chores to do.  Then one German man stopped the eldest child, a daughter and asked her how many siblings she had.  She had been up the night before and knew what was as stake.  She answered with out hesitation "12".  This one number saved my father's life and the life of Pilat and his family.

Manek ran as fast and hard as he could, found a spot in the fields, and crouched low and waited.  He waited all day and into the night until Pilat cam and found him.  He took him on his bicycle to a house that Sarah and Zosia were waiting at, and then he took the three of them to the Dembice ghetto.  When they got there, they stopped at the front of the gates.  Then Pilat had to leave and rush back home.  The young 8 year old and his mother and 4 year old sister were on their own.

Check back next time to find out the story of Israel...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Goodness knows no religion

I read yesterday that of the 42 people dead in Israel from the fire, almost 40 of them were Israeli soldiers in a bus on the way to help rescue Palestinian prisoners.  If only the world leaders could capture just a little of that feeling that we are all human perhaps we can start to wipe out any sort of terrorism.

Israel and Sarah Schonwetter had a son, Manek (pronounced Ma-neck, and later changed in America to Mark) and a daughter Zosia (pronounced Zo-Sha).  He was a devout Jewish man, known to be a scholar and leader to the Jewish community, as well as a strict and loving father.  My father recalls putting tefillin on in the morning, his father praying each day, and having to take off his shoes before coming into the house.  He owned hundreds of acres of land and many animals.  As a very young boy, my father would love to go to the barn and be with the horses.  The Pilat family lived with the family in an attached room to the house.  They had 11 children.  They would help on the farm and my grandfather treated them with respect and dignity. 

Brzostek was a small village.  The center of town was a square that would have an open market containing stands of all sorts of fruits, vegetables and meats.  There were a few stores, a bank and a school.  As you walk down the main street, there was a small police station.  The captain of the police and his family lived in the home adjacent to this building.  In the distance was a house with a Jewish star atop, the local synagogue.  In the other direction, a building with a cross, the local church.  As you walk down the main street out of town, the houses were few and far between.  About a mile from the police station, on the left was a brick house.  The dirt road next to the house led to the backyard.  A beautiful flower garden lined the back.  On the right was a stable, that housed the horses and cows, and a chicken coup.  To the left was a barn.  In the barn the workers would use a flail to thresh the wheat that had been picked from the crop.  Using a hand mill, they would then take the seeds and grind them into flour.  In the back of the yard was a small opening that led to the acres of farmland.  In these fields rye, wheat, potatoes, sugar cane and corn were harvested.    Men would use horse drawn wagons to help sow the land and bring in the crops. 

The house they lived in was a modest home.  On one side lived my father and his family, along with his mother's brother, David, in a 3 bedroom "apartment".  The other side was for the Pilat family.  In the bottom, what we would I suppose consider the basement, was more living quarters for the farm help. 

In late 1940-early 1941, the war that had started to ravage the country found its way to Brzostek.  One day the Gestapo rode into town.  They went straight to the police station to find out the lay of the land.  Their next step was the Schonwetter home.  This was one of the largest homes in town, and it was owned by the leader of the Jewish community.  Their first order of business was to inform Israel that they would be "using" his home.  The Gestapo began a daily routine.  Each day they would sit in the backyard of my family's house.  They would set up a table, and call all the Jewish men in.  They would then separate them into two groups.  Each day these groups would go out to "work" and each night they would come back.   By the end of 1941, however, the men started to not come back.  The scene started to get violent.  As men lined up, women and children would line up on the side to watch what was to happen to their loved one.  As the men were directed to the "work" line, some would hesitate, or not move fast enough, meanwhile the women would scream out.  They were answered with guns smashed to their skulls, a violent shove to move faster, and sometimes they would be beaten and left for dead.

Years later, when I had a chance to visit my father's home town, an elderly Polish gentleman approached us.  He lived across the street from my father, and he recognized him and my aunt (who were with us on this trip).  As he reminisced, he got a glazed expression, as he remembered the time, when he was a child, and he watched a German soldier beat a woman right in front of the house.  As his family approached to help, they were told that if they touched her they would be killed.  She lasted 3 days on the side of the road before dying, as her neighbors were forced to watch silently.

One day in early 1942 the Gestapo came in and told Israel that he and his family needed to find other living quarters.  By this point, Uncle David had already been taken to "work" and had not returned.  It was not easy to find someone to take them in, but finally, Israel and Sarah took their children and found a new home, 1 room in their neighbors house that they can use.  It was not long before a knock came one cold, dark night.  They were requesting the presence of my grandfather.  You see this was not an unusual occurrence.  He would frequently be called in to be questioned by the Germans.  However, this night was not to be a usual one.

A few hours later, another knock, this time it was not the Germans or Israel.  It was the police chief's wife.  She was heavily cloaked and quickly entered the small, dimly lit room.  Even though her voice was low, it was clear.  "Sarah, wake your children and take them and run.  Run far and fast.  All I know is that they will be here soon to gather you all up and take you away.  You must leave now, you have no time!"

Check back soon for more....

Friday, December 3, 2010

The World Comes Together

Although the fire in Israel is a horrible thing, there is actual a bright side.  The fact that the world can come together, put their differences aside, and help one another is just one more example of the goodness in people. 

As some of you may know, I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.  My father was born in a small town in Brzostek, Poland.  Brzostek is a small village, about 1-1/2 hours outside Tarnov, Poland.  The total population prior to 1939 was only 1,500 people, of which 500 were Jewish.  Of the 500 Jewish people, only 5 survived Hiltler's wrath, of which 3 were my father, my aunt and my grandmother.  Their survival was purely due to the goodness of a few brave Polish people.  His story, like so many other Holocaust survival stories, is amazing and at times, unbelievable, but what makes it unique is the recurrent theme that there are still good people in this world, even during the most dangerous and terrifying times of life.

The story starts before the war.  It starts as a love story.  My grandmother, Sarah, was 16 years old when my grandfather, Israel, first saw her.  He fell in love instantly.  He was her senior by quite a few years.  He would tutor her in math just to be close to her. Finally, when he approached her father to ask for her hand in marriage, he said no.  You see my grandmother was the youngest of 13 children.  Although 4 of her siblings had moved to America, some before she was born, she still had a couple of older sisters that were not married.  The tradition states that the youngest can not marry before her elders.  Therefore, her father told Israel to choose from one of his other daughters.  He did not want them, he only wanted Sarah, so he waited.  He waited almost 8 years before she was able to be married to him.  They had a son and a daughter.  Tragically, they did not have many years together before his selfless sacrifice.

Israel was the head of the Jewish community of Brzostek Poland.    Israel's status as a wealthy and successful land owner and farmer was well known.  He was well respected not only by his peers, but also by all that worked for him.  He employed the Pilat family as caretakers and workers on his land.  He treated them as family.  They lived in the modest family home with their 11 children, in an attached section of the house.  They would prove to be one of the most pivitol people in the survival of my family.

Next time I will tell you of the Nazi invasion of this small, yet amazing town.

Check back soon for a continutation of this amazing story.