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....

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