We just returned from a trip to Poland, a trip to Sokolow Podlaski, a trip to the past. What past was it? It was my family’s memories past, the town’s past, Poland’s past. A trip to bridge the pain and losses of the past, a trip to find signs of and links to those we lost and those we never knew and a trip to look for signs of hope that the suspicions and hatreds and abuses of past times could be overcome and new bridges built.
My family had lived in Sokolow for generations. They were born there, grew up there, walked the city streets and countryside, made friends, got married, had normal lives. My father and mother were only in their early 20’s and were sweethearts when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. They were in the town when it was bombed, and they were there when the German army invaded Sokolow on September 10, 1939. Beatings and abuses of the Jews rapidly escalated and when my mother was attacked, she and my father decided they had to leave. During a short period when the Soviets pushed the Germans back, my father got a horse and buggy and took my mother, her sister, her sister’s fiancée, and their mother and fled across the Bug River to Drohiczyn, to Russian territory. His mother, his sister, and two brothers and aunts and uncles refused to leave reasoning, “How bad can it be? Where can we go? We know no-one in Soviet Russia. How would we live?”
So they stayed behind, convinced that even if the German’s were abusive, that they were civilized and that they could survive. They could never imagine the horrors that the Nazi’s were capable of. My father, once across the Bug River, asked a friend of his, Chayim Kawer who went back once on a bicycle to try again to convince his mother and siblings to leave, but they refused.
My parents and their little party went on to Bialystok where they were married. They learned of possible work for Jews far in northeastern Russia, in the Ural Mountains and so they went in boxcars to Berezniki in the Ural Mountains, about a thousand mile journey of 18 days. They arrived there in January 1940 and my father was put to work in a labor gang in the winter. He struck a power line, was blinded, and wound up in a Russian prison accused of sabotage where he was imprisoned and beaten for four months, and only released through my mother’s constant pleading. In October 1940, their first son, Abraham, was born in Berezniki.
Not long after, my father’s sister who had left Sokolow before the war and gone to Israel somehow managed to get them a letter that the Jews of Sokolow had been put into a ghetto in the town. That was the last my father heard from his sister in Israel or any family in Sokolow.
The climate, for weather and for Jews, was terrible there, so my father took my mother, my grandmother, and their son and left to go south hearing of other possible safe havens and work there. My mother’s sister and husband stayed behind in Berezniki throughout the war.
After traveling for more than 1000 miles, by March 1941, my parents wound up in a small town in Crimea on the Black Sea. They stayed there until September 1941 when, again the Germans were almost where they were and they had to flee again. They fled east as the Germans occupied Crimea and ultimately made their way to Mahachkala, Azerbaijan where they were housed with other fleeing refugees. My father was accused of running away from the Russian army and imprisoned again for 3 months. By the time he returned to my mother, he found out that his son, Abraham, had died of influenza. My father traveled throughout Azerbaijan and Georgia looking for work. Conditions were very difficult. Ultimately they made their way further to areas around Baku, Azerbaijan where he and my mother were able to work in the fields. I was born there in 1942.
When the Soviets started pushing the German army back from Stalingrad, my parents began going back. They went first back to Crimea at the end of 1944 where my brother Irving was born. They were there until 1946 when they left to go back to Poland.
They wound up in southwestern Poland in a little town called Kamienna Góra, not far from Walbrzych a refugee collection center where they miraculously found my mother’s sister and her family, returned from Soviet Russia. My father temporarily left his family there while he returned to Sokolow to find what relatives he could. None had survived. All had been put into the ghetto and on September 22nd 1942 either executed or taken to Treblinka to be gassed to death. I have a picture of my father, his mother, his brothers, and a little sister before the war. All but he were killed as were many of his aunts and uncles. He found that he, himself, was unwelcome there, and returned to Walbrzych.
From there, they were placed in several displaced persons camps in Austria, first in Steyr and then in Wels, and finally were able to emigrate to the United States in October 1949 after wandering thousands of miles in the Soviet Union, from north to south, from west to east always looking for a place to survive.
I grew up knowing much of this from their stories and after being married and having our own son, always wanted to go back, to walk the streets of the town my parents walked, to see where their generations had lived and worked and grown up. And even though I made many trips to Europe over the years because of my job and it would have been easy to get to Sokolow, I never came.
I could speak no Polish, knew no-one in the town, was suspicious of what reception I would get and didn’t know even what to look for. The opportunity never came while my mother and father were alive. Yet, the older I got, the more I wanted to see where I came from, where my ancestors had called home.
Almost 2 years ago, through contacts I established at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, I learned of Katarzyna’s interests in the Jewish history of Sokolow and in her efforts to bring survivors and the town together. We began a long and fruitful correspondence that finally made my visit possible.
I came with great concern. Would I find welcome or suspicion or hatred? Did the town want to know anything of its past or of the Jews, my ancestors, who lived so long among them? Would it be safe for my wife and me to walk those streets, to stay in its hotel? Could I find anything that indicated Jews had ever been in that town. What was I coming for?
When Katarzyna proposed a Memorial Service, a Kaddish, for those who had been pulled out of the ghetto to their deaths on September 22, 1942, it was impossible not to go, not to help lay to rest the spirits, the “neshama,” the souls of those still restless in that place and to possibly be a bridge to a reconciliation of those spirits, of our spirits, and those in the town who might want to know and not to forget.
We visited the town on Saturday and Sunday, September 17 and 18, checked in our hotel and met Kasia to walk the streets my parents walked.
We went to the center of the city and saw what looks like a small park with trees and benches and surrounded by small shops. This is the center of the city and the small park is what is left of what was before “the Large Market.” I have some old pictures of this, and this is where my grandmother, Chaya Altman, nee Chaya Rosenbaum used to earn money by bringing geese that she’d bought from a farmer to the market to sell. This is where she earned enough money to live and when she and her two daughters, Leah and Frayde (my mother) came back to Sokolow from Warsaw to live with her relatives after my grandmother’s husband Avram Altman died and his flower factory was sold.
We walked a little farther and less than a block away saw an even smaller square. This is where the Small Market was. My mother lived not far from here on the same street. Today, this looks something like a small space between rows of shops. No sign of what it once was.
Kasia explained to me that one area of the shops used to be an area where shoes were sold and where shoes were repaired. I can visualize in my mind’s eye my uncle Velvul Lopata working here. It felt very emotional to be in this space and feel that the spirits of those who once lived and worked here were around me, some who managed to escape to life and better lives and some who were never able to get away, who lived wonderful Jewish lives all around here, but were trapped in the Hitler war machine and perished savagely. It was hard to talk while we walked around here.
We continued on. Kasia showed us where the “new” Synagogue used to be and where the structure still stands, but is now incorporated into a larger business building, the exterior spruced up, fresh stucco applied, painted but I could see the soul of what once was still shining through. Nearby was the old Bes Medrish where students and their rabbis worked and studied. Again in my mind’s eye, I could see those students and their rebbes sitting and studying and working together with old yellow Yiddish books piled around them and books all around in bookcases. How much was lost!
Kasia showed us what was here and what was there. She said with some feeling. “This was once a Synagogue. Today there are no Jews in Sokolov so it doesn’t need a Synagogue.” The March of Time, and with the bustling shops around, The March of Progress.
We continued on. The town has grown; the old houses have mostly disappeared although you can see many "hiding" under new exteriors. It's interesting when you look for traces of the old with the new. I took a lot of pictures! It was a beautiful day to walk around. We visited the old cemetery, now a park, with only trees left to be witnesses to the souls that are still wandering around there. It's a peaceful place. We visited the new cemetery, some distance from the town and no trace of it at all anymore. Only mournful weeds. Time left it to forget.
We came back into the town and Kasia took us to a house with a yard that has some unusual feature around it. Kasia told us the story that this is where the last Jews were buried. That they were forced to dispose of the last Jews in the town, told they would be allowed to live and, when they were done, they themselves were taken to this place, shot and buried in a mass grave. Today, this is a kind of memorial to them, a small tree planted here, some circular plots for flowers to mark this place. No flowers there; only overgrown weeds. The memory of this can’t be allowed to disappear.
Later, I had a chance to walk around some more. More pictures. Now alone, I looked to try to see inside what is. I could see buildings with modern facades, fresh paint, fresh stucco, but when I looked higher, I could see old wooden windows, peeling paint, places on the walls where the stucco has fallen off and the old walls shone through. Old red bricks; old painted wood. Second stories that look like they were before the building was renovated. Many of the old houses are there where they once were, still standing as ghosts of the past, but in new clothes, serving new purposes. And as I walked around and as we walked back to the hotel later, I saw many signs of these. Pictures. Pictures. Sadness that they weren’t preserved; happy to see they’re still there, even though underneath it all. Realize that it isn’t realistic here or anywhere that the past stays as it was forever to keep the memory alive for anyone that comes back, whether in Sokolow or in some old city in America. Time Marches On and the Needs of the Present, of the Future, take over keeping the memories of the Past.
But the past here is different; it’s tragic and from the past to the present, when there is such a past, a transition has to be. a reconciliation with what ripped the past apart. Forgiveness may be impossible, but reconciliation, Teshuva, is always possible. And while the ghosts remain and continue to look for peace, just as the town and its memories look for peace, our Memorial Service on the day after Yom Kippur 1942, September 22nd, might be part of putting those ghosts into the past.
Many many pictures taken to seal my memories. Some sadness at the terrible ending. Some appreciation to be walking the streets my parents and ancesters walked. Some happiness to still see pieces of our past.
As we walked back to the hotel, we saw the sign “Gravestone Cemetery.” It was about 4:30 and it closed at 5 according to the sign. The gate was open. We went in. Around the edge of the yard, we saw mazevoth, headstones with Hebrew/Yiddish script. Some very worn and clearly old. Some intact, some only remnants, fittingly as the Jews have been many times remnants. We saw maybe 6 or 8 of these. Pictures again. Pictures. Is this all there are? We continued toward the back and found more. Pictures Pictures. And we continued all around the house and found even more. More pictures.
As we seemed to have exhausted what we found, we started to leave, but I wanted to thank the man who preserved these. Rhoda is reticent. Maybe he’s just a crazy old guy. We should leave. I couldn’t do that. I found the door to the house and rang the bell. No answer. I waited for a while and eventually an old man opened the door. I’d clearly interrupted his supper. I can’t speak Polish. He can’t speak English. I only know one Polish word – Jenkuye- Thank you. I point around at the headstones and say Jenkuye. I give him a hundred zlotis for his efforts. I point to some and beckon him to come with me. Some are upside down; I want to tell him. He points back that he has to go inside and motions me to wait. We wait.
He comes back out with me and I motion to the ones that are upside down to show him that. He recognizes what I mean. He responds back in kind that they’re upside down because they’re broken and they stand that way. He’s clearly involved with us and wants to show us more. He took us to the back where there’s a small locked hut. Many locks. He unlocked them and beckoned us in. Inside, all kinds of war memorabilia. Knives. Guns. All kinds of stuff. What’s here for us to see anyway? Not interested in war souvenirs.
He took us to a corner and took out old yellowed Yiddish newspapers and showed them to us from the early 1930’s. I could only read part of them. Amazing that he’d saved them from them. Pictures . Pictures.
He showed us pictures of his mother and father and told us they were trapped in the ghetto also. Jewish? No.
He showed us an old Jewish coin.
He brought us over to another corner, took out a book – looked like a fairly new book – opened it and showed us a section that described what happened in the ghetto and had pictures. He rans us through the pictures. I looked at the author on the cover. It had his last name on it. And then I understood, he is the author of this and he’s written this because of his parents that were trapped in the ghetto with the Jews. Preserving the tombstones is also part of preserving his memory of the time his parents also were treated as the Jews in the ghetto. I looked at the back cover of the book. It’s him. It’s a picture of him as a younger man. And then I saw more books next to this. He’d written a number of them.
We got ready to go. His wife came out of the house, a pleasant older woman. We shook hands. Jenkuye again. We took pictures of them and them and me. And then we left.
From Sokolow, we went back to Warsaw and then spent some days at Cracow before returning to Sokolow on September 22nd, that horrible day in 1942 when so many of our loved ones were sent to their deaths.
On that day, 69 years ago, Jews were pulled from their homes, in Sokolow as well as surrounding towns. After being pushed more and more into a crowded Sokolow ghetto, they finally were forced out even from that refuge as part of the horrible Nazi death machine. Some were shot if they rebelled. Some stayed in bed waiting to be shot rather than be taken to Treblinka for unknown tortures and un-imaginable deaths. Some ran, looking for refuge in the unforgiving countryside. Some had tried to hide the night before, when rumors spread, when rampages of hideous and often drunken soldiers started their terror. Where to escape to; where to hide?
Some hid inside haystacks in the fields standing inside like scarecrows, more like ghosts than humans, hoping not to be found and dragged away. Some hid lying down in the cornfields, just like I saw outside my window today, pushing themselves into the ground, trying to become part of the earth rather than people so as not to be found. All these horrors and more are described in the journal kept and published later by Simcha Poliakevitch, a horror itself to be read and to know that it’s completely real.
As we rode the bus to Sokolow, I felt like I was back there on this day in 1942, looking for where there could be to hide? Stay away from the road; not to close to a farmer’s house; beware barking dogs. Look for dense bushes; trees to climb; holes to bury myself in. Where in all this we pass could there be sanctuary? If it were me out there then, how could I have found where to go, how to survive? The horror of this day so long ago now. And how to think of all those then…the soldiers who saw us as vermin, not people, the people themselves who were afraid to be involved. And what would we find at the end of this day, now 69 years later in the very square where Jews were dragged out, some killed, the rest taken to rail cars, jammed in, men, women, children to be taken to Treblinka and killed. Besides me and Rhoda, Shoshi Shatit, David Lewis and his visiting cousins, and Kasia, would we find any from the town who wanted to know or who wanted to care? Would it be just us alone, alone again?
Before we left for the bus on this day, I got an email from Kasia. Unbelieveable! Both the Chief Rabbi of Poland and the Ambassador from Israel to Poland were to come join us at the ceremony, to say kaddish together! In this small town, with so few of us to remember, would anyone else care? When I asked Kasia before, how many she expected to come, she said maybe 40. I really couldn’t believe that at all in this time and place. I thought, “we’ll be lucky if we have 10.”
5:00 o’clock, we took a taxi to the square. We found Kasia. We founnd Shoshi. David and his cousins were there. The old buildings are still mostly there, now painted up in their new cosmetics, but still there. Pictures again. Just a few people around. I’m not surprised. In front of one of the stores, two speakers and microphones set up. Very unusual for this square! Normally today, just a small shopping area and parking.
6:00 o’clock came around. Not ready to start. More people arrived. Chief Rabbi and Israeli Ambassador to Poland not here yet. Kasia said they went to the mayor’s office and are talking with him.
More people arrive. A boy scout troop in full uniform marched in, very serious. Boys of all ages. A girl scout troup is there. A little girl, maybe 5 year old, dressed in pretty clothes, stands there with flowers to give. I noticed along one side of the square, memorial candles lit, in a row, standing on the street, ready to give witness. Parents with children. A police car patrolling, to make sure all is well? More people.
Now 6:30. Not ready to start yet. Then the Chief Rabbi and Ambassador arrive and we were ready to start.
100 people around us! All serious. All waiting to be part of this history. The houses all around, witnesses to the horror exactly 69 years ago, now witnesses to a new generation trying to come to grips with their history. Kasia introduced us and spoke to why we were all there. The ceremony started. The Ambassador went first. He spoke to the crowd extensively in Polish, emotionally and emphasizing his words with strong gestures. Kasia told me later that he was telling them exactly what happened here. Very strong, brutal language, matching the brutality of that time. I can still hear from him the screaming of the parents and the crying of the children as they were dragged out of their homes to go to their deaths. Hard to take.
After the Ambassador, it was our turn. We introduced ourselves and talked about my parents, their long history in this town, and the generations that lived here in peace until that night and day. We showed pictures of what they looked like, normal people trying to live normal lives.
When we finished, Shoshi talked about her family and about Rachel, the sister of her father who died at that time. She turned to the youngest of those there and said, “People during the Holocaust diee in silence. Do not remain silent when you see injustice. Talk to the world about what you learned today here. It doesn’t matter what the color of the eyes or the differences of religion. Just listen to the goodness in your heart.” She finished by reading a moving poem.
When this part of the ceremony was over, people came to us and wanted to look more at the pictures. A lady and man came over to talk. The lady spoke some English and thanked us again and again for coming and showing all this, especially the pictures. She introduced the older man. He’s responsible for the Museum at Treblinka, would like to make the pictures part of the exhibit at the Museum and wanted to know if that was possible. I’m truly overwhelmed and honored and gave him the pictures to take with. Another woman, a teacher who teaches the kids about the Holocaust also wanted the pictures. She was Kasia’s teacher and she also asked for these. I committed to send them when I got back. She wanted them for the school and their program. There were 3 teachers their with their kids. They wanted them to understand exactly what happened so they could tell their parents and so they can be part of making sure this never happens again.
We were so involved in talking with these people. Hard go break away! They wanted to keep talking and stay with us. In the meantime, the ceremony went to the old cemetery where they took the lit memorial candles and where the Chief Rabbi sang E-l Malei Rachamim and recited Kaddish.
Translation of "E-l Malei Rachamim"
O G-d, full of mercy, Who dwells on high,
grant proper rest on the wings of the Divine Presence -
in the lofty levels of the holy and the pure ones,
who shine like the glow of the firmament -
for the soul of those who have gone on to his world,
because, without making a vow,
I will contribute to charity in remembrance of his soul.
May his resting place be in the Garden of Eden -
Therefore, may the Master of Mercy
shelter him in the shelter of His wings for Eternity,
and may He bind his soul in the Bond of Life.
God is his heritage,
and may he repose in peace on his resting place
The little girl left the flowers there and all went home.
When I think back on all this, I’m overwhelmed. What started with a great deal of trepidation and even fear turned out to be baseless. We met people honestly interested in knowing what had happened in the past and wanting to participate in honoring the memory of those who were lost. We met people in the streets who were friendly to us when we got lost and who helped whenever they could. We met an old couple who had been trying for years to record what had happened in the ghetto and had saved remnants of it and of desecrated gravestones. We found people, young and old who wanted copies of our pictures and memories to tell to their children and parents so that horrors like this couldn’t be allowed to happen again.
We expected only a few to care; we found many. We were amazed to find support from outside the town in the Chief Rabbi of Poland and the Ambassador from Israel. We found a lot of people who cared and who want the future to be different and we left with a sense of relief and of hope.
Fred Feldman, USA