Two weeks ago, my uncle Philip came to town.
He is the last remaining member of my mother’s family to have personal experiences of the war. He was there when my grandfather was making harnesses and saddles, he remembers the powerful Nazi who protected them, he was hidden by a succession of Polish farmers. Philip was twelve years old at the time. He has a remarkable knowledge of the history and geography of the area, and of the prosecution of the war.
I sat down with him at my cousin’s house to ask him some questions. A Swiss historian and an Israeli journalist are planning a documentary about Bernhard Falkenberg, a German who ran a massive drainage project in the Wlodawa district during the war. Though Falkenberg was a member of the Nazi Party, he wasn’t in the SS; he’d been disqualified in the 1930’s, after he was arrested for handing out anti-Nazi leaflets. The researchers want to know what Philip remembers about him.
Wlodawa was surrounded by bogs and lakes. The scheme was to draw the water away from the land, empty it into the Bug River, then use the newly arable earth to grow crops to send back to Germany. Philip remembers the ditch they dug, an enormous canal, two times higher than he was, twenty meters wide. Falkenberg gave his Jews rubber boots. The day the SS snatched them all away, he said, “Give me back the ones with boots.” He is probably the last person alive who knows this story.
He remembers the Russian prisoners of war, locked up in a fenced-in army base without food or warm clothing, slowly freezing and starving to death. He remembers the Volkdeutscher family, given one of the biggest Jewish farms in the area, commissioning two suits of leather for their new horses and never paying for them. He remembers his friend, shot to death on the stairs of their house, running from SS soldiers who were there to take them away.
He remembers Selinger and Falkenberg, scrambling to keep their workers out of the Nazis’ hands. He remembers hiding in Falkenberg’s stable during the Kinderaktzia, and how Leibish Glincman the stableman gestured them in, urging them to hide, and how Falkenberg’s twelve-year-old son discovered him there, and chose not to give him away. He remembers my grandfather running to Selinger’s Mercedes before an Aktzia, crying, “Selinger, Selinger, what should we do?” He can describe the smell from Sobibor, drifting into town. He remembers Nitschke, an evil man, head of the Gestapo. He remembers a Selektzia where he was separated from his father, and while the officer looked down at his list to read off the next name, jumping to the side of the living.
The stories of Selinger’s and Falkenberg’s heroism belong to my family’s history as much as the selfless courage of the Polish farmers. Falkenberg started out with 2,000 Jews and was saving 500, until he was accused of trafficking in gold and sent to Mauthausen. Selinger protected his Jews as long as he could, but sat by helplessly under house arrest as the SS shot them behind the barn of his castle. It’s a strange thing to be a Jew with beneficent Nazis in your past.
Philip remembers other things, too. He remembers the town, 85% Jewish before the war. He remembers the size and layout of my family’s house, its location across from the glorious 17th Century Baroque synagogue. He remembers my grandfather’s harness and saddle business, the side access road that the horses and wagons came through. He remembers my grandfather’s friends, Jews and non-Jews alike. He remembers my grandmother’s enormous oven, which cooked half of the cholents in town every Shabbos. He remembers that my grandfather had three sisters and two brothers who lived in the surrounding villages.
We sat across the table from each other. My cousin’s house is in a beautiful New York suburb. The house is 1920’s Mission, in perfect condition. I envied the kitchen. It’s just the way I like it, with white subway tiles on the walls and original 1920’s woodwork. In this kitchen, I sat spellbound as my uncle told these tales of death and survival, of wildly unimaginable cruelty and spontaneous heroism. At some point, my fourteen-year-old daughter joined us; she’s grown up with some of these stories, and she was hearing them for the first time from someone who lived through it.
It was the fifth day of Chanukah. We were warm, we were comfortable, there were cream-cheese rugelach on a plate on the table. Downstairs, our kids were playing Just Dance 2. After dark, we would light candles and exchange presents.
But as my uncle Philip spoke, we were transported back in time to 1942, the coldest winter in Polish history. We were twelve years old, there was a frightening smell in the air, and we were hiding from men with guns who were hunting for women and children.