OR A HERO?
That what has been
done in the past
cannot be undone, but it can be evaluated.
It was early spring of 1942. The official status of
unemployed Jews was becoming more and more alarming. More and more Ukrainian
militiamen penetrated the area where my parents, my two sisters and I lived
illegally in the basement of a storefront photo-studio. Thrown out of our
apartment over a year before, we disobeyed the order to move to the mean
streets designated for the Jews.
Father opened and operated the studio under the Soviet
occupation, which preceded the German one. He had to conceal his past as a
teacher, writer, scholar, and Zionist.
When the German order forced Jewish storekeepers to have
a Star of David displayed on their windows, Father hired a sign painter who
expertly painted a blue star over the word “Photographer.” After that, he
kept the security shutters open halfway, thereby camouflaging the new
emblem. It was a dangerous game.
Toward the day’s end I was returning from a short visit
with a friend. My heart sank at the sight of the black uniform of a
militiaman. There was no way of escaping. The white cotton armband with an
embroidered blue Star of David was giving me away. The man walked
decisively, in a straight line toward me. “Your work paper, miss.”
He was not nasty looking. His faint smile suggested one who was doing what
he was ordered to.
“No paper? Then come with me.”
He grabbed my elbow and directed me to the former seat of Polish Bank, at
the street corner. In the large room with tall windows, there were already
about a dozen of the entrapped, more women than men, sitting on chairs
alongside the window wall. A uniformed guard stood by the door. My escort
led me to an empty chair, then turned to the girl about my age who sat
nearby, next to a sobbing woman, holding her hand and whispering to her
“Miss, I told you, you may leave” murmured the Ukrainian.
“I stay with my mother!” the girl exclaimed angrily.
“But remember, I told you…”
With an impatient gesture, the man turned around and
left. It didn’t take him long to return with two more captives. I stared at
them speechless, beside myself. They were my father and my older sister,
There weren’t any empty chairs left, so I stood up and
“Where are Mother and Mina?” I finally managed to
whisper, without really regaining my composure.
“In the basement. He didn’t notice the stairs…”
There was nothing more to say. We stood there without
speaking, as more and more people were brought in. It was already dark when
the group, grown to about forty, was ordered out. The three of us followed,
still without a word. My head seemed hollow. The intense fear pushed out all
other feeling, all thought. We proceeded slowly through the crooked, badly
paved streets. The sidewalks were not for the likes of us. Though the sound
of feet shuffling was quite loud, passersby paid almost no attention to the
hapless throng guarded on all sides by the militiamen.
We arrived at a school building. Our guards, having
ordered us into its entrance hall, left us with our new wardens, the Jewish
Council and Jewish Order Service members supervised by the SS-men. This was
our first encounter with the Jewish bureaucratic bodies created by the Nazis
for their own purposes. We were ordered into a large room already filled
with a human mass, men, women, and children. The air was dense. The crowd
agitated, unless one had baggage to sit on, only standing was possible.
The three of us found a little space at the left side of the room. Near us,
a German-speaking family of three, a couple and their teen-aged daughter,
sat quietly on the neatly labeled valises. Their placidity contrasted
sharply with the general unrest. I wondered whether they still believed in
“resettlement.” They must also wonder about our group of three, calmly
resigned to their fate. There was no way escaping from that awful place.
An orderly brought a large basket filled with bread. Those who were close
began grabbing the loaves, but unable to retreat with their loot, because of
the advancing hungry crowd, they stood in place in defensive postures.
One individual, a husky man, was especially violent in
his attempt to reach the basket. An SS-man, alerted by the loud commotion,
entered, a lash in his hand.
“Come, come,” the German pointed to the husky man who
froze in place.
“Come here, schnell!" <1>
When the man obeyed, the German ordered him to pull down
his pants and to bend. Then he furiously struck the exposed buttocks with
his lash. With each stroke, the man howled like a beaten dog. Ordered
restored, the SS-man left the room.
There weren’t enough loaves of bread for all, and we didn’t make any
attempt to get to the basket. We stood close to each other, waiting.
The door opened again. A young man in civilian garb, a
white armband with a Star of David on his sleeve, stopped at the threshold.
He seemed to be listening to the incessant hum of voices, while scrutinizing
the people’s faces. His glance lingering here and there a little longer, he
at last noticed our group, the tall lean man, and two young women at his
side, standing quietly at the far side of the room. All of a sudden, he
pushed his way through the crowd toward us.
“Professor, you shouldn’t be here. Follow me,” he
whispered. Grabbing the edge of Father’s coat, he led him out of the room.
It happened so unexpectedly, so suddenly, that it seemed as if an angel had
been sent from heaven to the rescue. The young man, we later learned, was
Father’s former student, who took advantage of the SS-men’s dinner time and
dared to come in search of familiar faces.
In a short while, before we could recover our senses and
feel glad that at least Father would be able to return to our mother and
sister, the rescuer came back. He nodded at us from the doorway, and we made
our way through the crowd and followed him to the hall.
There, at the conference table, sat members of the
Judenrath <2> and the Ordnungsdienst.<3>We noticed a young woman sweeping
the floor with a straw broom, but Father was nowhere in sight.
“Quick! Quick! “ urged our angel. He drew out of his
pocket two labels bearing a sign Hillfsdienst,<4>pinned them to our blouses,
and instructed us where to find brooms. We were to sweep the empty
It was already early morning, a twilight hour, when
through the open window of one of the top floor rooms we heard a clamor of
human voices. We looked out. A stream of people, spilling out of the
building, was herded onto the open military trucks. Their bags and bundles
were nowhere in sight. The Jewish militiamen and armed SS-men were forcing
those resisting onto the already densely packed vehicles, with shoves of
fists and jabs of rifle-butts. An eerie cacophony of screams and curses
filling the area seemed to penetrate all nooks and crevices.
“So this is what was in store for us,” whispered Noemi,
“so this is how we would have been thrown in, like bags of garbage, and
The trucks filled to their utmost capacity with the
tortured mass of living bodies, departed, and a silence, not less
Their job done, the crew of SS-men left. The Jewish
officials kept checking, verifying, collecting their lists, and closing the
business of the day. Our rescuer unlocked one of the closets, let our father
out, and we were free to go.
The hour was early, the streets deserted. We hurried out
and arrived at Batory Street without any trouble. Raising
the shutters, we entered the unlit room. Mother and Mina sat of the settee,
huddled, and weeping softly. As soon as they saw us, the weeping became an
uncontrollable stream of tears.
“We thought we would never see you again…” they managed
to mumble in their disbelief and joy.
I did not reflect, at that time, on the nature of our
rescuer’s role. He was chosen by the Nazis to be a member of the “elite.” I
did not indulge in philosophical discourse asking myself: why us? Were our
lives worthier that these of others? I knew in my bones that all lives, even
the most humble, are precious, but the primitive instinct of
self-preservation became the prevailing force.
Today, when I think of our rescuer, I reason with myself:
he was one of the devil’s helpers. However, if he weren’t, would he have the
power to free at least a few individuals? Didn’t he endanger his own
He was also a victim. The culprit was the Nazi system,
not the basically decent - and in his own way heroic - young man.
<2> Jewish Council
<3> Order Service
<4> Help, assistance
I don’t know how my sister Noemi perished. She remained in Lwòw, working as
a photographer at a photo-studio whose owner provided for her false ID
papers. I was lucky to have also gotten false ID papers from a sister of my
schoolmate, who endangered her own life. Posing as a Christian I was sent in
1942 to Germany
where I worked in a factory. My sister and I corresponded until 1943. In her
last letter she wrote: “I know that I will see my mother before I see you.”
Our mother was already gone. It was her last letter. In my poem I imagine
her behind electrified barbed wires of a concentration camp.
A MEMORIAL VILANELLE
Nothing is left of
them, a hair, a bone…
Only the ashes of that lovely bride,
that man, that woman, child. These ashes are blown
earth. They do not have a stone,
in any graveyard; no, only our pride,
our memories of them. No hair, no bone
them. We wish our thoughts alone
could bring them back, allow them to abide,
that man, that woman, child… these ashes blown…
crimes: who- and how- to atone?
Our grief forever will remain inside
us. Nothing left of them, a hair, a bone…
years have passed, we still bemoan
the losses that we cannot heal or hide…
that man, that woman, child…these ashes blown…
We bless the
memories that are our own.
How did she die, that young and lovely bride?
Nothing is left of them, a hair, a bone…
that man, that woman, child…these ashes blown…
Mother and baby Noemi
SEPIA RECORD *
"The photo is literally an emanation
of the referent."
Two living bodies -
one ripe with fullness
of fruit-bearing years,
the other a promise,
dawn without stain -
struck by radiant energy,
darkened a lining
of silver halides.
Two decades later,
behind barbed wires,
what energy stilled them?
A mother, a daughter
of camp secrets,
protagonists of tales
grimmer than Grimm's.
A proof that they were,
a sepia record:
profile of one
who gave life
to the infant clad
in finespun batiste,
asleep againt her breast.
Two paper ghosts
haunt a gilded frame.
The poem is published in TO TELL THE
STORY-POEMS OF THE HOLOCAUST
You hid behind a borrowed
bleached your raven crown,
but there was no dye
to cover the pigment of doom
in your eyes.
Night after night I see you
alone in that place
quarded by a killer-fence.
Night after night I am dying
all your deaths.
I didn't follow you, sister.
Can I be ever forgiven
the blueness of my iris,
the paleness of hair- hues of
I escaped to be your witness,
to testify: you were.
I live to carve your name
in all the silent stones
of the world.
*the poem is published in TO TELL THE
STORY, and in the anthology BLOOD
TO REMEMBER edited by Charles Fishman.
My mother, together with my father, many relatives, teachers, and friends,
were deported to Belzec, an extermination camp in eastern Poland.
Several years ago I traveled to
for the unveiling of the monument in Belzec.
THE UNVEILING OF
Earth, do not cover my blood.
Let there be no resting place for my outcry.
These ash-clad acres imbued
with charred remains
of women, men, and children, young and old,
induced with lies and ruse to board the trains
that brought here all their stories left untold….
O, mother, father, sister, teacher, friend…
O, countless strangers, and my murdered youth…
Here have I come, striving to comprehend
your silence, you bequest of final truth.
As I descend the narrow ditch that cuts
that grisly field, I breathe your breaths and feel
your dread, constrained to die your many deaths.
Your stone - embedded deeply, like a seal.
I light my candle, pray, and bless each name,
then turn to what will never be the same.