My father’s history and his conscious decisions were not those of his cousin Severin, who married out and effectively and consciously terminated his connection to his heritage, while my parents rebuilt their almost extirpated lineage thereby evincing the ultimate vengeance by producing multiple succeeding generations of highly-regarded and pious torah scholars and “people with good names.”
In 1987, I spoke to my father about going back to Poland, to a world that no longer existed. He expressed both an interest and a sense of fear venturing, “What if they determine that I left illegally and arrest me?” He was assured that if they will grant him a visa he would be safe. He at 68 was going with his 40-year-old son to a tableau of raw emotional confrontations, to a lost world that was incapable of being retrieved, of dynamics that survived only in his memory.
Arriving in Poland we drove to his former hometown Bendin/Dombrowa observing a certain sense of sterility and overwhelming ugliness about Communist Poland.
We did not linger anywhere in Poland. I sensed my father’s pain and depression when he saw that nothing remained. We went to Dombrower and saw this tiny empty lot which my father with a sense of satisfaction said was where his in-laws, the Gutterman’s, had lived. In Bendin he pointed with pride to a small apartment house and said that on the third floor was the famous Yeshiva Keser Torah that he attended as a child.
There were no plaques, no signs that declaimed the former Jewish quarter. There were no Jews extant, not even dead ones since even the cemeteries were destroyed.
We drove around asking elderly babushkas if they know where the old Zwydovsky (Jewish) cemetery was. We got these responses: no, it doesn’t exist—they built that factory there or they constructed a highway ramp where it used to be. Only in the outskirts of Bendin did we find the remnants of a cemetery that survived. It was overgrown with weeds and bushes and many of the tombstones had fallen. The road encroached upon one side of the sacred earth as did an adjacent farm. We spent several hours looking in this pre-war cemetery for a grandparent’s headstone to no avail. My father with a shudder says that he sees what it is like to be buried in galus and wants to be buried in Israel.
We then went to Shrodula, a village that became in 1941 the de facto local Jewish ghetto. All the Jews from the surrounding towns were forcibly relocated to its hovels and then en masse stuffed into cattle cars for the 25 mile journey from these relatively benign privations into the hell of Auschwitz/Birkenau.
We drove those 25 miles and entered the gates of Birkenau and walked alongside parallel rails bisecting a huge strangely barren field. There were no other people. Neither of us spoke, the only sound a soft wind blowing. We saw barracks with numbers on them and we looked for #11, the one that once housed my father and several hundred other unfortunate Jewish souls.
Each barrack had a pot-bellied stove and a series of three-tiered wooden bunks 4 feet wide. My father said that there were five people on each level and when one person turned, all the others sharing had to also turn in unison. With a far off look in his eyes, my father said that many tormented beings would, in desperation, kill themselves by hurling their bodies onto the electrified barbed wire fences.
We walked around viewing the seemingly endless expanse of the camp (camp–a strange euphemism that usually denotes good times), said Tehillim and davened Mincha. My father then began to say Kaddish with tears flowing; a Kaddish encompassing all the dead whose bodies were wrested away from their souls on these killing fields, for the loss of his parents and sisters and relatives and his pregnant first wife whose lives were cruelly extinguished and also for the civilization that was vaporized and now existed solely in his memory.
We walked silently to Auschwitz which was turned into a museum to the Polish war experience with no mention of the Jews. There were dusty and decaying exhibits, rooms full of human hair, shoes, eyeglasses, and most poignant of all, forlorn suitcases with Jewish names painted on them that would never be claimed by their murdered owners.