‘I have lived with the Holocaust my entire life — and I still don’t understand how this could have happened’
Tuchow, Poland — On this day in September, the last warm breeze of summer teases the tall grass as we climb to our destination. Pristine churches, cottages and fields stretch in all directions. Horses graze nearby.
But 70 years ago, these were fields of death. Nazi storm troopers ordered Polish firemen from this village to transport the bodies of murdered Jews to this hilltop. Dumped in shallow graves, their corpses were covered with lye and dirt. Then the next truck arrived with more bodies.
The trenches dug for them covered an area barely bigger than a basketball court. There are no records of the number of bodies that lie here.
Zbigniew, a 14 year-old boy at the time, remembers digging those trenches. Now a lean and wiry 84-year-old in a blue windbreaker and jeans, he looks over the crest of the hill, and speaks slowly in Polish, sharing the horror of that time.
He has come to bear witness. And so have we.
Nearly 40 members of Milwaukee’s Jewish community came here in early September on the Krakow Shofar Mission, coordinated by the Jewish Federation. Under the guidance of the Rev. Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest who has made it his life’s work to uncover the mass graves the Nazis left behind, we spent this day listening for the voices of ghosts. We have come to consecrate the land under which they lie — and to remember the millions shot and shoved into mass graves, who died leaving hardly a trace.
In this holiest season — when Jews mark the High Holidays — remembering and honoring the dead is a cornerstone of Jewish ritual. The Milwaukee mission left a small box of mementos — poems, stones, prayers — buried at the edge of the grave site. We don’t know the names of those buried in these mass graves. That makes our mission to honor them even more important.
“Memory is such an important part of being Jewish,” says Hannah Rosenthal, president and chief executive officer of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “We go to Poland because there is no one left to remember them. We don’t know the names of people buried in that field. How do we honor their memory? We went, we witnessed, we buried a box of memories.”
Rosenthal conceived this mission. The child of a Holocaust survivor, she met Desbois in 2010, when she was the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.
“I have lived with the Holocaust my entire life — and I still don’t understand how this could have happened,” she says.
Based in Paris, Desbois conducts research the old-fashioned way. He and his team move through the tiny rural villages of Poland, Moldavia, Hungary, Germany and Russia, gaining the trust of locals. His clerical collar reassures them. He questions. Slowly, elders in the town share memories from the German occupation. They recall midnight raids, forced labor and the life-threatening servitude to the Nazis forced upon them.
They take him to the edges of their town — into the fields and forests — and they point to where they remember.
Jan, a 93-year-old former forced laborer, is a stooped and slowed witness today. (Like all the witnesses he works with, Desbois reveals only their first names.) He meets us in the Buczyna forest, not far from Tuchow. It was here where he and his neighbors waited for the Nazi vans in the night. This is the first time he has shared his story with anyone besides Desbois’ researchers.
Jan points to where the first of two vans arrived. The Jews in it were alive. They were marched, two by two, to the trenches, shot and killed. He remembers Nazi soldiers smashing the infants against tree trunks, so they wouldn’t “waste” a bullet.
It was Jan’s job to straighten the bodies, pour lye, and then cover them with dirt.
The second van arrived, stuffed with the recently dead. Jan pulled them from the truck, untangled the bodies and dragged them about 40 yards to the pits. He remembers piling them into neat rows. He took their shoes, and undressed each corpse.
Jan remembers looking up in the forest to see Poles from the village watching from the branches of trees ringing the clearing. They came to see the Nazis kill the Jews.
Guilelessly he tells us “those Poles took great risks, coming to watch us. They could have been killed for being there.”
Desbois tells us as many as 8,000 Jews died in — or were buried in — this forest. He believes that throughout the war, Nazis executed and buried as many Jews in mass graves like those we saw today as the number exterminated in the death camps. His team alone has discovered 1,600 mass graves throughout Europe.
He is driven by urgency. The war ended 70 years ago. Witnesses who were children then are elderly today. They will not live much longer to share their recollections.
In 1939, the year Germany invaded, Poland alone was home to more than 3.25 million Jews. Today, it is estimated that fewer than 4,000 are left in the country.
The Nazis killed 6 million Jews and millions of other “undesirables”— Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, political prisoners. Jews had made up as much as 50% of the population in the towns and villages ringing Krakow.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous death camp depicted in “Schindler’s List” and many other films, is a short drive from Krakow. Some 1.1 million died there — as freight cars or open-air cattle cars carrying them from all over Central Europe unloaded hungry, thirsty, sometimes frostbitten men, women and children directly from the depot to the “selection station” to death in the gas chamber.
The name Auschwitz became shorthand for the deepest evil that man can devise, and the destination is well known. Indeed, the preserved camp site has become the No. 1 tourist destination in Poland, with 1.5 million visitors last year.
But Desbois is dedicated to those who died outside the camps: shot at the edges of mass graves, buried under unmarked fields. Their suitcases weren’t marked to be displayed in an Auschwitz museum. No one removed their spectacles or their gold fillings. All we know is that they disappeared.
Most members of this Milwaukee mission have family who were lost in the Holocaust. This trip became an opportunity to search and remember.
It concluded with the dedication of a 17-foot stainless steel shofar sculpture at the Krakow Jewish Community Center, depicting the traditional ram’s horn blown at High Holiday services. The piece is the gift of Milwaukee sculptor Richard Edelman to commemorate the rebirth of Krakow’s Jewish identity.
“Everybody has a story,” said Daniel Bader, president and CEO of Milwaukee’s Bader Philanthropies. “The ones without a story didn’t make it out.”
Bader’s father, Alfred, escaped Nazi Germany in the first deportation of 10,000 German children to Britain in 1938. He went on to a distinguished career as a chemist, business owner, art collector and philanthropist. Bader Philanthropies and another anonymous donor underwrote the curriculum, speakers and research for the Krakow Shofar Mission.
Bader says he learned of Desbois and his work, and his family foundation decided to sponsor this trip. “It really struck a chord with us. It enabled people from Milwaukee to make a connection with these mass graves in Europe.
“It’s about us as a Milwaukee community realizing the impact of hatred and genocide. We realize we can’t forget it.”
While the group toured Poland, breaking news provided a stark reminder of insensitivity and hatred toward foreign cultures. Refugees from Syria and the Mideast poured into Europe. Authorities in the Czech Republic detained hundreds of migrants in train cars, diverted them to holding “camps” nearby, and even cataloged them with numbers written on their arms. It raised too many distressing reminders of the Holocaust.
Rosenthal’s sister, Debbie Zemel, of Milwaukee remembers stories told by their father, a rabbinical student in 1938 in Mannheim, Germany. He was rounded up and shipped to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Nazis made him stand motionless for two full days as his barracks were constructed. He was forced to run concrete boulders back and forth across a yard, after the Nazis had broken his ribs with a rifle butt.
Family members were able to engineer Rabbi Rosenthal’s release from Buchenwald. But two years later, he was rounded up again and returned to the camp — only to have his freedom negotiated by Pastor Hermann Maas of Heidelberg, known years later as “the pastor who helped the Jews.”
In 1961, Rabbi Rosenthal took his family back to Germany. He introduced his young daughters Hannah and Debbie to Maas.
“This was his way of saying ‘They (the Germans) didn’t win,'” Zemel said. “He survived to have us. There was real pressure on us to be successful, to be good. We felt an incredible responsibility to be good — and to give back to the community — because of what he lived through.”
Attorney Michael Taibleson of Milwaukee blows the shofar on the High Holidays at Milwaukee’s Temple Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. He has collaborated with Edelman on three other sculptural shofar installations, which all double as amplifiers for the original ram’s horn sound. Taibleson studied harmonics to align the shofar notes precisely, and to maximize the megaphone quality possible through the stainless steel.
Taibleson’s family was originally from Bronsk, outside Warsaw. His grandfather came to the United States in the late 19th century. Those left behind would all die at the hands of the Germans.
“Deciding to go on this trip was extraordinarily difficult for me,” he said. “My family was massacred. There’s no one left. There’s no one to go see. If Richard hadn’t asked me to do this, I wouldn’t be here.”
Shay Pilnik, the director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Center for Holocaust Education at the Milwaukee Jewish Community Center, grew up in Israel, the grandson of Holocaust survivors. His grandmother was a slave laborer in eastern Poland, who lost her parents in a mass grave near their home in Vilna, Russia. His other grandmother, who lived in Uzbekistan, watched her father murdered by Lithuanians, and her mother die of starvation.
Pilnik has taught Holocaust studies to 18,000 students across Wisconsin, weaving modern-day lessons on bullying, propaganda and discrimination into his historical accounts.
Nina Gendelman Edelman, Richard Edelman’s wife, went looking for remnants of the family she knew perished in the war.
She employed a genealogist to piece together clues to their existence. Together with her husband, brother and daughter, they traveled five hours to the village of Bolechiv, in Ukraine, to search for any traces of her family.
They tracked down a dilapidated Jewish cemetery, with headstones broken, uprooted and askew. Searching yielded nothing — until their guide noticed the tombstone Nina rested on listed the name “Bruckenstein” in Hebrew. It was her great-great-grandfather.
“Everyone should come here with someone who is younger,” says Craig Zetley of Fox Point. “When you see how they deal with it, it makes you stronger.”
Zetley came to Poland with his 21-year-old daughter, Mikaela. They made time each night to talk about what they witnessed and how it affected them.
“You are so shocked, you don’t know what to think about it. It’s incomprehensible that 2.9 million Polish Jews were murdered.
“But if we don’t talk about it, it’s just going to keep happening — to other people, in other parts of the world.”
Milwaukee public relations executive H. Carl Mueller was raised Lutheran and still worships at Lake Park Lutheran Church. But he agreed to go when Zetley, a lifelong friend, invited him to join the mission.
Mueller was familiar with the history of the Holocaust. In Poland, he says he experienced firsthand that those who died at the hands of the Nazis shouldn’t be forgotten.
“The message I took from this is to speak out,” Mueller said. “Be a voice that speaks out against hatred and intolerance, against prejudice against everyone. We have to remind the world that something like this could happen again.”
That task never ends. As our group left the site of the first mass grave, a local farmer confronted us. Angrily, in Polish, he shouted that Zbigniew was a well-known liar in the town; that Jews didn’t die there — and in fact, far fewer Jews died in the war than we believed. This denier wanted to be certain that we left with no illusions. According to him, the Holocaust was an extensive exaggeration.
Tell that to the bodies buried beneath this quiet field.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Brenner is publisher and president of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Post courtesy of the Journal Sentinel