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    Issue 1, 2007

    Conversation 1

                                                                      Yala Korwin    

 

 

A VILLAIN OR A HERO?

That what has been done in the past
cannot be undone, but it can be evaluated.
                                                Elie Wiesel

 

Yala Korwin

 

 

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.

 

 

Father

 

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 softly.

“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, Noemi.

 

Noemi

 

There weren’t any empty chairs left, so I stood up and joined them.

 “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.

 

 

Breadline

 

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.

 

Father’s students

 

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 classrooms.

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 driven away.”

The trucks filled to their utmost capacity with the tortured mass of living bodies, departed, and a silence, not less terrifying, followed.

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 life?

He was also a victim. The culprit was the Nazi system, not the basically decent - and in his own way heroic - young man. 
 
<1> Quick!

<2> Jewish Council

<3> Order Service

<4> Help, assistance

 

COMMEMORATIONS

 

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

 

over the earth. They do not have a stone,
in any graveyard; no, only our pride,
our memories of them. No hair, no bone

 

remains of them. We wish our  thoughts alone
could bring them back, allow them to abide,
that man, that woman, child… these ashes blown…

 

Such horrid crimes: who- and how- to atone?
Our grief forever will remain inside
us. Nothing left of them, a hair, a bone…

 

Though many 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."

                                 Roland Bartes

 

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?

Guns? Gas?

 

A mother, a daughter

became guardians

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 

 

 

 NOEMI*

 

You hid behind a borrowed name,

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

Slavic fields?

 

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 Poland for the unveiling of the monument in Belzec.

 

 

THE UNVEILING OF BELZEC MONUMENT*

 

 

 

Earth, do not cover my blood.
Let there be no resting place for my outcry.
-Job 16:18

 

 

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.

 

*Published in Midstream

 

 


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