Throughout my childhood when I asked my parents about their years spent living and growing up in Europe, they discouraged any conversation concerning their painful losses and hardships. I was mostly interested in family members, the locations of their homes and how and why they came to the United States. I was able to receive many answers to my questions and find out more information than I had expected, on my journey to Poland in April 2013. I never imagined how that experience would change my life.
In preparation for my trip with my husband, Lenny and daughter, Alexa, I was able to obtain considerable information from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC. I received information about both my mother, Fajga and my father, Zalek (pictured on right) and their time spent before, during and after the Holocaust. We were amazed and saddened by so much of the information we reviewed, and yet, we agreed to travel to Poland without any anger or resentment. Most of the information concerning my father shaped the trip’s itinerary and the locations that we visited.
My Mother’s Story
We began our trip in Stoczek, which is located in the northeast part of Poland, and where my mother Fajga was born on February 20, 1918. She was the first surviving child of Zelda and Szaja Schneidman, and as her family continued to grow, she became the oldest of seven children. Every story that my mother shared with me was one of the love, devotion and closeness of her family. She also told us about the luxury of their furnishings, clothing and of abundant culinary treats. She told us about the family’s holiday celebrations and customs, and of their life of tzedakah for the town-needy. She would both smile and cry when she described her fabulous, warm family. She treasured them all.
At that time, more specifically when WWII broke out, about 3,000 Jews lived in Stoczek, approximately three-quarters of the town’s population. In the middle of September 1939, the Germans invaded Stoczek. They proceeded to burn Jewish homes and synagogues, confiscate properties and grab Jewish residents for forced labor. Within days of the Nazi occupation, my grandfather gathered his wife and children and they made their way to Russia, to escape the persecution and inevitable death. By the end of 1939, all the Jews that remained in Stoczek were ordered to move to the town’s ghetto. In November 1941, several hundred more from the surrounding communities were also sent there. On September 22, 1942, the Ghetto was liquidated, and all its inhabitants were deported to Treblinka. (Source for historical information)
Treblinka was one of our stops. We wanted to be there, to think of the members of our family who had been deported to that horrible place, and to pay our respects to all the victims who had perished there.
The Stoczek we found in April 2013 was quite unlike the vibrant town that had lived on in my mother’s memories. The sections we visited had no synagogues, the stores seemed shabby and rundown and the houses plain and barren. There was no trace of Jewish life, except for the monument (pictured on left) honoring the victims of the town’s Jewish community.
My mother’s entire family stayed in Magnitogorsk, Russia, throughout the war years; my mother got married there and in 1941 had a daughter. On August 18, 1946, the family arrived at what would be the first of several displaced persons (DP) camps in which they stayed. My grandparents and three of their seven children immigrated to Israel; my mother and her daughter, her two sisters and one brother, came to the United States.
My Father’s Story
My father Zalek was born on February 27, 1906 in Florynka, a beautiful village bordered by the Carpathian Mountains in the southeast part of Poland. He was the oldest of six children of Estera and Solomon Popiel. We knew very little about my father’s family, as he did not speak about them or about his life before and during the Holocaust. Only once did he mention that when he escaped from one of the labor camps and returned to his town, everyone was gone and he never saw his family again.
Most of what I now know about my father I’ve learned from historical records I received through the USHMM, The International Tracing Service, and information given to me by our Polish guide (who holds a Ph.D., and is very knowledgeable about the events of the Holocaust in the locations we visited).
According to the USHMM records, my father lost all of his family in the Holocaust. In addition to his parents and siblings, he had a wife and three children. His son, Usza was born on 9/19/1933; his daughter Mala was born on 2/6/1935, and his youngest child, Wolf was born during the war, on 2/16/1940. I can put names to them now and consider them my half siblings. On the eve of Yom Kippur, I light yahrzeit candles in their memory.
Our Polish guide, who had thoroughly researched local documents for information about my father prior to our coming to Poland, took us to Grybow, a town near Ropa, the village in which my father and his family had lived before the war. There we stopped at the memorial (photo on left) for 360 Jewish victims who were killed on August 20, 1942. On that date:
"... all the Jews assembled next to the Judenrat offices. The Germans selected the old people and joined them to the sick group that came from the Stemlach school. Both groups were then taken about 5 kilometers to a place called Grodek and murdered. Another group was murdered in the Piontekowa area. Youngsters who did not want to be separated from their parents during the selection joined them in their final destination. About 1,500 people (including the Jews from the surrounding villages) were taken to the Sandzer ghetto and shared the fate of the local Jews." (Source)
My father Zalek’s first wife and his children were among the murdered.
I also wonder if my father ever saw his youngest son, Wolf, because according to the records at the time he was born, my father had already been incarcerated in labor camp. In fact, between 1939 and the end of the war in 1945, he was in 5 different locations:
- From October 1939 until June 1941 my father was in Zwangsarbeit Ropa
- In July 1941 he was sent to the Bobowa Ghetto where he remained until August 1942
- From August 1942 until July 1943 he was in ZAL Prokocim
- From August 1943 until November 1943 he was in Plaszow
- From Plaszow he was sent to work in an ammunition factory in Czestochowa, where he stayed until January 15, 1945
The documents and information given to me by the USHMM show that after the war ended, my father was in several DP camps; more specifically, from 1946 until 1950
My Parents Story
Perhaps by a twist of fate in a sad, depressed time in their lives, my parents met in a DP camp somewhere between September 1, 1948 and May 24, 1949. How they met and what transpired between them is what I can only imagine and romanticize as I do not and will never really know. Their lives began in very different settings. Their experiences during the war and the outcomes after were also different, and so were their personalities. And yet they survived and met.
On January 2, 1951 my mother and her daughter sailed on the USS General Stewart on their way to the United States (pictured: my mother, second from left, with her sisters, Millie and Libby, and brother, Joseph). On April 16, 1951, my father boarded a ship (the name of which I can’t decipher), also for the United States. They got married in their new country in September 1951, determined to do their best at building a new life together. And they did!
Within the next seven years they had my sister Esther and me (photo on left). They also enjoyed their grandchildren and were able to see the first of their two great granddaughters.
My journey brought to light the suffering and losses my parents had experienced. I now realize what extraordinary strength it had taken them to survive the horrific conditions and terrible losses. During my trip I also learned about relatives I briefly heard about before, or not at all. They have now become a part of my life, and I was able to pay my respects to them. Most of all, the experience of my journey has made my parents’ silence more understandable.
My heart is filled with love and admiration for my parents. For the way they learned a new language, adapted to a different culture, faced new challenges and opportunities with courage and an open mind, and learned to love again.