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We Are 1

A Family of the ...

 A Blog on the Parallels Between Refugees Now

and During World War II
 

WeAre1: Those Who Follow the Golden Rule

Recently, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York denounced the Trump administration's policy of separating kids from their parents at our southern border and holding them in migrant detention centers here. The children languish in horrific, over-crowded detention centers and pens that AOC likened to concentration camps.
 
In response, Republican Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming tweeted, "You demean (the) memory (of 6 million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust) and disgrace yourself with comments like this." Representative Lee Zeldin of New York implored AOC to "stop trying to draw these crayon parallels between POTUS & Hitler!"
 
Rather than channel their outrage, many people became distracted by definitions of camps and debating a hierarchy of suffering. Meanwhile, the leader of the land of the free is persecuting people of color who are fleeing famine and violence—their own pogroms—in Central and South America.
 
Whatever happened to the Golden Rule––the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated? The concept dates back to Confucius (551 - 479 BC) and Hillel the Elder, (110 BCE - 10 CE) and is central to the world's major religions. Why then, in this era of religious fervor, is it so hard for people to note that rule and follow it?
 
Mercifully, my parents were not in concentration camps during World War II. But this month 77 years ago, my mother, her aunt Dr. Augusta Mandel, and her two daughters were forced into a ghetto in Tarnów. Concentrating Jews in walled areas within European cities was the Nazis' prelude to concentration and extermination camps. When the city's Jews and those from surrounding villages were relocated to the ghetto, the population expanded from 26,000 to 40,000. The overcrowding was purposeful—to accelerate suffering and the spread of disease.
 
The Tarnów ghetto had been created earlier, but the Nazis allowed Jewish doctors to practice outside the ghetto for a year, so my mother and her relatives moved to the ghetto in June 1942.
 
That month marked the beginning of a wave of German Aktionen against Tarnów's Jews. Drunken, marauding SS men grabbed axes and went door to door to Jewish homes. Jews having papers stamped with a "K," or who did not have papers, were either killed on the spot, or taken to a nearby forest and gunned down.
 
A few days before, my mother had gone to the Labor Office in the Gestapo headquarters. There she had presented her workcard (as the medical assistant of her aunt) and received a stamp with the initials "SD." My mother thought this just meant that she could remain in Tarnów. She had no idea that it was a stamp of life.
 
The next Aktion, known as the "Children's Action," occurred on July 24 and 25. Jews were ordered out of their houses and forced to walk barefoot to the market square. On the way, Nazis whipped and beat them with their rifle butts. Some Jews deemed fit for work were captured for the purpose of forced labor. Others were deported to Belzec, the extermination camp. Hundreds of children found in the Jewish homes were escorted to a nearby shed and shot. The Nazis lured others to a school where the children thought they were to be disinfected. In fact, they were thrust into classrooms and locked in while steam spewed from the central heating system. They choked to death.
 
Today we are learning details of the deplorable conditions endured by Central American children who have been kidnapped by our government. Seven children have died. Countless others are traumatized daily by this outrageous infraction on human rights. All this is paid for with our tax dollars.
 
How far are today's captive children from experiencing what those Jewish children and my mother, then a teenager, experienced? Why is there not a greater outcry now? Where is the chant, "Not in our name?" When societies ignore the Golden Rule, everybody is doomed.
 
Clearly Trump does not abide by the Golden Rule because he cannot imagine himself in anyone else's situation. He believes he is exceptional, therefore rules do not apply to him. There is a disconnect between him and anyone unlike his image of himself and so he cannot fathom how he would feel if deprived of a toothbrush, nutritious food, sanitary conditions, had to sleep on the floor in a cage, and on and on. Apparently, his narcissistic affliction is the root of his cruelty.
 
Is this the way to make America great?
 
The Nazis were supreme narcissists who discarded the norms of ethical human interaction. But even the Nazis managed to track their victims albeit with ancient IBM technology. The Nazis were able to apply their murderous ideology to Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals because they convinced themselves that their perceived enemies were subhuman. They, too, deserved neither toothbrushes, nor nutritious food, nor sanitary conditions, nor….
 

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WeAre1: Family Statistics

My grandfather, Ojzer Fränkel. He arrived in Palestine without papers because they were on a ship that sank. This is the passport he acquired in August 1944 from the Polish Consulat in Palestine.
My grandfather, Ojzer Fränkel. He arrived in Palestine without papers because they were on a ship that sank. This is the passport he acquired in August 1944 from the Polish Consulat in Palestine.

As Father's Day approaches, I am thinking not only of my dad, but of my grandfather, Ojzer Fränkel. Seventy-five years ago, he stood on a crowded dock in Constanza, Romania, with 1,000 other Jewish refugees from Hungary, Romania, Poland and Slovakia. Among them were 300 orphans. Ojzer was holding a ticket for the Mefkura, a small, rickety, wooden Turkish motor schooner bound for Palestine. Everyone was weary. Mossad agents and the Zionist Organization in Romania had done their best to organize the charter, which included two other ships, the merchant ship Bulbul, and the Morina. Various middlemen, from dockworkers to under-secretaries of the Romanian government, had been paid off. The vessels had been refitted and yet none had sextants. The condition of the Mefkura was so bad that an insurance company consented to cover it only for war risks, not for sea risks. 


Next to my grandfather Ojzer stood a young woman with three children aged about five, seven, and nine. She was talking to her sister and evidently was one ticket short. The mother began to wail. Ojzer, father of three, offered her his ticket. Then somehow he wrangled a spot on the Bulbul, which lead the little flotilla toward the Bosphorus.


At midnight, an unknown vessel asked the Mefkura to halt and identify itself. It proceeded without responding. The vessel fired three times. The last blast split the burning Mefkura in two. Most of the passengers, who were asleep, were trapped in the ship's hold as she sank. Several dozen jumped overboard without lifejackets while the captain and his crew launched the ship's only lifeboat and saved themselves. The attacker machine-gunned the frantic passengers as they struggled in the frigid waters of the Black Sea.


The Bulbul returned to pick up survivors, but it was too late. She saved only 5 people. Five out of 379. 


The next day the Bulbul sailed into the remote port of Igneada, Turkey. From there my grandfather Ojzer and 409 other passengers were transported by ox-cart and then trucks to Istanbul. He arrived in Palestine on August 14, 1944 where he was detained in Camp Atlit, a British-run holding pen for illegal refugees near Haifa.


My grandfather survived the Black Sea crossing by a fluke. He was one of 39,000 Jews to make Aliyah illegally on boats between 1939 and 1944, according to reports on activities presented to the 24th Zionist Congress. The total of those who made Alyah regardless of means of transportation was 69,000. The mother of three and her children were among the 1,393 who drowned, as reported by Dalia Offer in her book, Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1939 - 1944. 


Their fates were the same as thousands of Syrian, Iraqi, and African refugees who recently have tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. According to Missing Migrants, a project of the U.N.'s Migration Agency that tracks missing refugees, over 60,000 refugees have perished trying to reach asylum during the last 20 years. Since 2014, the Mediterranean has proved the most dangerous crossing; 8,000 souls were fatally shipwrecked on voyages from North Africa to Europe. The peak was 3,000 in 2016. So far this year, of the 1,055 who fled their countries and died, 540 died in the Mediterranean. That's a little over half. This year's number of refugees is much lower than in the past because European nations have closed their borders, but the percentage of fatalities is higher.


As one third of refugees that arrive in Europe are children, according to The New York TImes, it stands to reason that many of the shipwrecked dead were children and adolescents. There is no reason to believe that the fleeing adults were not upright and altruistic men and women like my grandfather and the mother he tried to help.

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WeAre1

First Lieutenant U.S. Army Medical Corp, David A. Frenkel, M.D.
First Lieutenant U.S. Army Medical Corp,
David A. Frenkel, M.D.

As a First Lieutenant in the U. S. Army Medical Corp, my father was a medical officer in a secret division––the 93rd Medical Gas Treatment Battalion. The Allies, fearing that the Germans would resort to chemical warfare as they had during World War I, created five such battalions. On Friday, June 6, 1944, my father was stationed in Southampton, England, awaiting casualties from the Normandy Invasion.

 

That evening in Bad Neustadt, a village in Southern Germany, a French POW clandestinely tweaked the antenna of his contraband radio. A mix of crackle and news emanated as the broadcast of Radio London came through. Moments later, he jumped up and ran to the open window of his room, which was across the street from the baracks of the Eastern European slave workers' who toiled in a Siemens factory.


"The Allies landed in Normandy," he yelled. "They were not pushed back into the sea!"


My mother heard him and rushed from her barracks to the fence to ask for details. For the first time, she began to regard her enslavement as temporary.

 

The day after D-Day, my father's team stood ready to triage the first soldiers wounded on Utah Beach. Commanding officer Colonel Joseph W. Palmer acted as the port evacuation officer. He was charged with removing patients from the Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) and distributing them to holding units and transit hospitals. As the LSTs arrived at the wharves and landing ramps, doctors boarded them to recheck the triage that LST doctors had done during the return crossing. Teams of company men carried the patients on stretchers and helped the walking wounded to ambulances parked near the ships. The pace was grueling; they removed as many as 175 stretcher cases in less than half an hour. Ambulances shuttled constantly between the docks and hospitals. One medical ambulance company carried 7,000 passengers and drove 240 kilometers. Medical officers, including my dad, worked around the clock, at times handling one casualty per minute throughout the day.


I've written about it all in HOW FAR.
 

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WeAre1: A Family of Witnesses

Heinz Liepmann

Suppose that, despite our hyper-connected age, you went on a three-month voyage on a vessel unequipped with means of communication—no Internet connection, no phones, no radio. If you had departed any time since the fall of 2016 and returned three months later, would you recognize the country you left behind?
 
In the early 1930s, the German journalist Heinz Liepmann wrote a book based on just such a premise. The officers and crew of a German trawler depart Hamburg the day after Christmas, 1932. Their ship has no wireless, so when they return in late March, 1933, they do not know that the Nazis have usurped power. The returning men, Socialists and Communists, attempt to come to grips with the reign of terror that Spring—the suspicion, fear, and hate perpetuated by the new regime. Some men are beaten, others jailed, and others are sent to the Wittmoor concentration camp on an island in the Elba River. Only one character escapes, hidden in the hold of American cargo ship. The book, titled Das Vaterland, and when translated into English, Murder Made in Germany: A Story of Present-day Germany, was published as a novel. It was, however, based on fact.
 
Liepmann's earlier books earned him a place on the Nazis' list of books to be burned. He, himself, was interned it Witmoor in April 1933. He escaped to The Netherlands where Das Vaterland was published later that year. From all over the world spontaneous tributes were sent to Liepmann, including a message from Albert Einstein.
 
The German government made every effort to suppress the book, instituting libel suits against Liepmann and his publishers in every country where the book appeared. Leipmann won every suit, nevertheless he was imprisoned for several months for having libeled the head of a friendly state.
 
The words that make Murder Made in Germany relevant to today, are "and his publishers." Our government's  indictment of Julian Assange seeks to punish him for publishing unlawfully obtained information. This has caused resounding outcries from defenders of the First Amendment. "For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information," the American Civil Liberties Union warned, "This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration's attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment. It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets."
 
Liepmann did not publish unlawfully acquired government secrets. He based his story on what he observed and on his own experiences as a Jew. The book's dedication could not have been more blunt: "To the Jews murdered in Hitler's Germany." Yes, in 1933. Their fates were the concern of readers like my mother and her father in 1938. As I wrote in HOW FAR, my mother heeded Liepmann's warning and used it, as she had used books about the fate of Native Americans, to argue that her parents must buy false papers.
 
An appalling analogy may be made with Trump's America, if we are not careful. Will publishers simply not publish what the government wants to hide? Will whistleblowers just fade away? And will immigrants, our new scapegoats, not bother to tell of injustices because some leader doesn't like what they see?
 
We already know where that leads.

 

WeAre1: A Family of Witnesses

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WeAre1: A Family of the Hounded

On this day in 1830, the House of Representatives passed the Indian Removal Act. The new law, signed two days later, authorized President Andrew Jackson to negotiate with southern Native American tribes––the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations––to remove them from their ancestral lands. Yes, Jackson is the guy Trump wants to keep on the $20 bill instead of replacing him with Harriet Tubman.

 

The Native Americans and their African slaves were forced to resettle on federal territory west of the Mississippi. The law amounted to systematic genocide because it completely discriminated against an ethnic group. On the 1838 march, known as the Trail of Tears, vast numbers of these tribes perished because of the cold, hunger, and disease.


A century later, my mother, Irena Goldberger, was a precocious teenager in Kraków avidly reading adventure stories about the American West. In books by the late 19thcentury German writer Karl May, she learned how the Old West was won by slaughtering Native Americans. He was influenced by James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans(1826), which my mother also read.


When the Germans invaded Soviet-held eastern Poland in June 1941, my mother and her parents were in Lwów along with 250,000 other Jews. About half of them were refugees who, like Goldbergers, had fled western Poland when the Germans invaded on September 1, 1939. My mother, then 16, felt certain that she and her parents had no a chance of survival as Jews."I had the perception because I read about the American Indians," she told my sisters and me, "and I knew that we were doomed." She identified with the Native Americans and recognized the fate of Europe's Jews before her parents did.


In his tales, Karl May wrote of the friendship and adventures of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, an Apache chief. Although May never travelled to the West and there are inaccuracies, children in Middle and Eastern Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries read and adored him. In the first Winnetou book, Old Shatterhand meets a gunsmith who is fashioning a new kind of firearm with a twenty-five round repetition carbine. May raises the moral question of whether the gunsmith would be an accessory to murder, might even be as bad as a murderer, if every villain acquired his weapons. The Indians would be annihilated—slaughtered everywhere, Old Shatterhand argues—on the prairies, in the forests, in the canyons. My mother understood that May's main message was the injustice of the destruction of all the Native American tribes and collusion in that crime.


The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian Warin the mid-18thcentury. A white man named Hawkeye is friendly withthe Mohican chief, Chingachgook. The chief has one son, the brave Uncas.


During a raid on a settlement, Uncas tries to save the daughters of the camp's governor. But a villainous Huron warrior named Magua wants one of the daughters, Cora, for his wife. He captures her and they and his cohort traverse the rocky Catskill mountains back to his village. Cora refuses to cooperate and tells Magua that he can kill her if he wishes. As they approach a jagged precipice, Magua demands that Cora choose his wigwam or his knife. On the edge of the cliff with arms outstretched toward heaven, Cora cries, "I am thine! Do with me as thou seest best!"


At that moment Uncas, who with the girls' father and Hawkeye has been trailing the party, leaps toward them from a ledge above. During a struggle, Magua recoils and one of his loyal tribesmen stabs Cora. Magua then kills Uncas, but Hawkeye arrives and shoots Magua.


With these stories in mind, in the fall of 1941 my mother begged her parents to buy false papers so that they could impersonate Polish Catholics. My grandfather resisted because he did not have the money, was too proud to ask our wealthy American relatives here for it, and he feared the money would be wasted on useless documents. Afterall, they did not look the part.


Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler also was a Karl May fan. He, too, studied the United States government's treatment of Native Americans and applied it to the Jews. Ignoring May's Christian message of peaceful coexistence, Hitler praised Winnetou's tactical abilities and had special editions distributed to generals and soldiers at the front. Toward the end of the war, Hitler modelled the death marches of concentration camp inmates from one camp to another on the Trail of Tears.


My mother was spared the horrors of the camps and marches partly because she did not yield until my grandfather asked for money to buy false papers. She prevailed because of those stories of slaughter, her prescience, and enormous luck. Thus, she narrowly avoided destruction in one of the greatest crimes against humanity.


I'll tell you another time about how those stories helped propel my mother out of the Tarnów ghetto and her decision to go to Germany.


WeAre1: A Family of the Hounded
 

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We Are 1: A Family of Asylum-seekers

In May, 1939, my mother and her mother went to the dressmaker. Usually my grandmother's clothing was the reason for such an errand, but that spring my 14-year-old mother was to be fitted with new dresses. At the seamstress, my mother noticed that the seams and hems were generous and could be let out, if necessary. Nevertheless, that night she dreamt that she had nothing to wear, just a thin blouse and a skirt.


After the German invasion of western Poland the following September, my mother and her parents fled Kraków for southeastern Poland. They arrived in Tarnopol, the last stop on the railroad line, where a Jewish family took them in and gave them a room.

 

Then the Soviets invaded in May 1940. They gave the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the west the option to return to German-occupied Poland, or to become Russian citizens. But they were not allowed to live in large cities or anywhere within 100 km of the frontier. My grandfather was an officer of the Polish Army reserve, so returning to the west was not an option. Instead, the family went to Zloczów where they lived with another Jewish family on the outskirts of town. And my mother had nothing to wear but a ragged shirt and a skirt.


Jewish refugees who opted to return to western Poland were eventually sent to Siberia, where they had a better chance of surviving than those who remained in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland because the Germans invaded in June 1941.

 

We Are 1: A Family of Asylum-seekers

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WeAre1: A Family of the Unwanted

My father's 1939 Polish Passport photo.
My father's 1939 Polish Passport photo.

WeAre1: A Family of the Unwanted


Eighty years ago this month, the St. Louis languished in the port of Havana with 937 German-Jewish refugees aboard. After Cuban officials refused them entry, American Jewish organizations negotiated in vain for asylum. Ultimately, the ship returned to Europe. Its human "cargo" dispersed to England, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The Jews' lives were again endangered a year later when Nazi Germany occupied the countries on the Continent.


In the 1980s, historians at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum researched the fates of the St. Louis passengers. Half survived; they either hid, or secretly and illegally fled to the United States or then Palestine. The others were murdered.


The St. Louis was yesteryear's Caravan. The ship and the forsaken Jewish refugees became a symbol of callous indifference to the plights of the displaced just as are today's Latin American asylum-seekers and the world's 68 million refugees.


It is especially horrifying that on the eve of this remembrance, President Trump is reinstating his inhumane and illegal policy of denying asylum and tearing apart migrant families. "Our country is full, our area's full, the sector is full. We can't take you anymore, I'm sorry, can't happen. So turn around," he said on April 5. Full? What does that mean? Turn around–again?


I have a personal connection to the St. Louis crisis through a little-known, small French ship that also steamed into Havana harbor that late May 1939, having spirited 104 Jewish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe trying to escape Hitler and 327 Spaniards fleeing Franco. I know of that French liner because my father, David A. Frenkel, MD, was on it.


My father left Poland on March 18, a day after his 26th birthday. He was newlywed, having married an American tourist named Rose, who already had departed for New York City. My father traversed Germany and Belgium by rail to France and lingered there until he bought a "landing visa" from a Cuban official and booked a berth. Le Flandre sailed from St. Nazaire on May 16 andstopped in Havana on May 28 en routeto Veracruz, Mexico.


I imagine my father leaning over the deck rails, elated to be so close to the United States mainland and to freedom. Further in the harbor, he would have been puzzled by the St. Louis at anchor and encircled by a flotilla of rowboats. I can only surmise this because my father refused to discuss how he got here. What he had to do to save himself was so humiliating and dangerous that he chose to spare my sisters and me. Until he died, we knew nothing of his marriage of convenience and harrowing voyage to freedom. Then we learned the barest outline from our mother and our father's brother. I ferreted out some details from his 1939 passport and several archives.


When Flandre docked, the Jewish refugees were not permitted to disembark. By then, my father would have heard that the rowboats bobbing around the St. Louis were filled with relatives clamoring for their loved ones to be freed.
On the dock, among 2,000 relatives and press, stood Rose, according to a June 9 story in the Austin American-Statesman. She asked an immigration official, "Why? Why can't he land? His papers are all in order." The immigration official shook his head and replied, "He's a Jew." "Yes, he committed a crime the minute he was born," Rose responded. Then she changed her approach and pleaded with the bureaucrat. "Won't you let me speak to him for just a minute? We haven't seen each other for such a long time." The official gruffly motioned her up the gangplank where she and my dad met halfway. There was time for a hurried kiss.


The reporter wrote that this was one of many scenes of people split apart. Sounds a bit like our DACA "Dreamers" and Caravan parents and their kids, doesn't it?


I suppose my ever-optimistic father said he would see what happened in Mexico, for which he had no visa. But that is how I like to think of my father. In truth, I cannot bear to contemplate how he really felt, displaced and abandoned.


When Flandre arrived in Veracruz, the Spaniards disembarked, but Jewish refugees were unwelcome. An unexpected commotion irrupted on the quay––a medical emergency. True to the Hippocratic Oath he had sworn at the Medical School of Vienna one year earlier, my father treated whoever was ailing. Then he must have convinced officials that he would not be a burden on the state because his American wife was arranging for his visa. He offered to work for free in a hospital until his visa came through. That's when they probably stamped his passport "Turista" and had his valises transferred to the dock.


Flandre returned to Havana where, again, no Jews were permitted on land. The passengers cabled President Roosevelt requesting that he intervene. He did not. Even though the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee raised $500 per Jew, the Cubans still refused the money. Six or seven Jews were allowed to disembark. Flandre sailed back to France where the government interned her 96 passengers. Their fates remain unknown.


You would not know by my complexion and last name that I am the daughter of a man who married to save himself and that by a fluke he was not forced to return to Europe. Could you have guessed that my father's first wife had a lover who was a gangster and that she expected her greenhorn husband to be her cover? Talk about criminal elements invading our turf. While adjusting to his new country, my dad extricated himself without arousing the suspicions of Immigration Services from a union that could have entangled him with New York's gangland. Then he enlisted in the Army and treated American soldiers in the European Theatre.


What happened to my parents did not occur long ago. In the human psyche, traumatic events are timeless and impact entire families. Certainly my parents' worldviews were permanently affected by their wartime experiences. They would not have recognized their haven today. They would have been appalled at the cruel actions of the Trump Administration and felt that it demeans us. Because they suffered from the world's unresponsiveness to their persecution, they raised my sisters and me to be empathic. We champion solidarity with the displaced and all victims of war because we understand their suffering.


We have a history here of immigrants from all walks of life and places who have contributed vastly to our society. The assumption that Central Americans will not is bigoted and all about satisfying Trump's base­­––those "fine people" whose chant at Charlottesville, "Jews will not replace us," threatened the rest of us.


The consequences of war and indifference last for generations, whether due to Anti-Semitism in 1939, or now from both the Left and the Right, or systemic racism affecting people of color. We must recognize and prevent the suffering of asylum seekers. The trauma inflicted by wrenching apart Caravan families, of a young Somali girl surviving in a Kenyan refugee camp, of slavery and Jim Crow, of the losses European Jews suffered during World War II, must not be diminished. We are one—a family of the displaced. There is no hierarchy of suffering, just timeless trauma. It is universal and immeasurable. The amygdala may or may not recover from the imprint of violence and prejudice singed into that part of the brain. And we all have amygdalae, just as our blood bleeds red.


On the 60th anniversary of the St. Louis crisis, the situation of the Jewish passengers was likened to the victims of the conflict in Kosovo in then Yugoslavia. If we cannot resuscitate tolerance and empathy, yet another group of refugees will be referenced upon the centennial of the St. Louis and Le Flandre, and on and on through the ages. 

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Yom HaShoah 2019 WeAre1: A Family of the Bereaved

Monument of Abraham Finkelstein, my great-great-grandfather, in the New Jewish Cemetary, Krakow.

WeAre1: A Family of the Bereaved

 

Last weekend, my husband and I attended a concert at Lincoln Center. The program included the American premiere of a symphony by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher called Kenotaph. The title is the German word for cenotaph, he explained, an "empty grave" commemorating "people who disappeared." In his work he honored the tens of thousands of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean since the early 2000s, "while Europe did nothing." Other Austrians debated immigration, but Larcher felt terrible about the refugee crisis and also powerless. Kenotaphis is his response.
 
On this Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day 2019, it is heartening to contemplate an Austrian's empathy and desire to do something on behalf of refugees.

 

I think of my great-great grandfather Abraham Finkelstein (1824 – 1899) and his wife Laja, who were buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Kazimierz, the old Jewish section of Kraków. I visited the New Jewish Cemetery during my 2016 trip to Vienna, Kraków, and Lwów to do research for HOW FAR https://www.authorsguild.net/services/sbx/sites/karen73/pages/1021/edit. With the help of the cemetary attendant, we found Abraham's monument in the third row from the front, but Laja's monument was missing. My husband and I placed stones on Abraham's monument. I cannot say I visited his grave, though, because when the Nazis occupied Kraków, they vandalized the cemetery. They collected flat gravestones to pave streets and threw larger monuments, including Abraham's, into a pile. Then they used the cemetery as a shooting range where they held regular target practice.
 
It is now the task of the attendant to try to match these monuments to the burial plots according to a registry and map of the cemetery. My ancestor's remains continue to lie separate from his monument, lost as they turn to dust.
 
And yet, Abraham Finkelstein was lucky. The location of the remains of his granddaughter, my maternal grandmother, Teofila Finkelstein Goldberger, were never known. All we know is that despite having bought false papers and posing as a Catholic, in July 1943 while walking on a street in Lwów she was denounced to be a Jew. Murdered. A person who disappeared. Nor do we know much of the fate of her husband, my maternal grandfather Isidor Goldberger. A friend told my mother that Isidor jumped from a train bound for concentration camp, also in July 1943. My paternal grandmother, Mechla Frankel, swallowed cyanide when the Gestapo came for her. I don't know the year.
 
There are not even cenotaphs for my three grandparents.
 
But my paternal grandfather rests here in New York. I'll tell you about his escape to freedom another time.
 
WeAre1: A Family of the Bereaved

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HOW FAR: A Love Story Against All the Odds

WeAre1: A Family of the Displaced

 

In September 1942, my mother volunteered to go to Germany as a slave laborer. She had false papers, which enabled her to impersonate a Catholic Pole. About 12 million Eastern Europeans worked as forced laborers for the Third Reich, which was desperately short of workers with so many men at the Russian Front. Most workers were captured and forced to work. Many were POWs. Conditions were so bad in the occupied lands that civilians (1.3 - 2.6 million) volunteered in order not to starve. According to one paper I read, "It was a policy of extermination through hard labor of people deemed fit only to work. The Nazis envisioned a slaveholder society after their expected victory." The Reich assigned workers to corporations (some even were German subsidiaries of American companies), small businesses, and farms. Very few Jews masquerading as Catholics in Germany survived this way. My guess is about a 250.

 

Seventy-four years ago this month, GIs liberated my mother. She had toiled first on a farm, then in a produce nursery, and later in a Siemens small appliances factory. The last two were in the stunning resort village of Bad Neustadt-an-der-Saale, Bavaria, known for its therapeutic baths. Here is an excerpt, based on my mother's testimonry, describing her liberation the day after Passover ended.

 

HOW FAR - Excerpt

 

Chapter 44: Bad Neustadt, April 7, 1945 – Liberation


On April 6, 1945, as American troops approached Bad Neustadt, Radio London issued instructions for German civilians to avoid railroad stations because they would be bombed. But the Siemens factory was next to the railroad and bomb shelters were reserved only for Germans. Irena and her friend the French POW ran to the nearest one, banged on the door, and beseeched those inside to let them in. No one heeded their cries for help. Not knowing where else to go, they returned to the factory. Shells screamed and exploded outside. A devastating hit smashed off a corner of the building, leaving an open hole. Clearly it had become too dangerous to stay.


They ran along Redestraße toward the village, thought better of that and turned toward Bad Neuhaus. They had the peculiar idea that the castle, built with thick, medieval walls, might protect them. Getting there, however, meant crossing the railroad tracks. They picked their way over the rails, forded the tiny Franconia Saale River, and climbed the hill to the ruins. It was a steep hike, if you were running from the northwest to save yourself.


 Just above, they heard the roar of two warplanes waging a mighty dogfight. The aircraft swooped and dove murderously, shot and ducked as they fired at one another. Irena pressed herself against the cool gray sandstone of the castle wall. While the planes seemed to glower at one another and the pilots readied themselves for another joust, Irena and her friend ran to the arched main gate for cover. The din of the two swarming fighters, a long series of shots––and then one plane pitched and yawed violently. Something was wrong with its wing. Was it the American plane? Or had the Yankee pilot outwitted the Nazi? As the plane tumbled to Earth, they saw the unmistakable iron cross insignia on its wings.


Irena and the French POW cheered and applauded. Then they turned toward the village to see American tanks rolling into the Market Plaz. Fleeing German soldiers crossed the river and bombed the bridges as they retreated. Irena and the French POW watched in stunned silence. There they stood on the precipice of freedom, the moment of liberation imminent, yet they could not quite believe it.


The battle for Bad Neustadt lasted the rest of the day and into the next morning. When Irena and her friend returned to the village, they again tried unsuccessfully to get into a shelter. Irena saw many wounded American and German soldiers strewn about the streets of the luxury resort. For the first time, she beheld a dead man lying in a pool of blood.
 
 
 
Late in the afternoon, Irena was walking back to Siemens along Redestraße with her friend Stasza when they came upon American troops of the Ninth Air Defense command camping along the roadside. Two soldiers approached and tried to engage them in conversation in broken German. One tall, blond G.I. seemed to be extending an invitation, but he so garbled it that his companion lost patience.


"If you can't do any better than that, Floyd, "Nogi z dupy powyrywam (I'll pull your legs out of your ass)," he said partly in Polish.


Floyd said, "Aw, gówno, Stanley,przestań (Aw, shit, Stanley, stop it)."


Irena and Stasza broke into peals of laughter. The soldiers did double takes.


Said Stanley in Polish, "Rozumiesz po polsku (You understand Polish)!"


The G.I.s were astonished when Irena and Stasza explained that they were Polish slave laborers working for the German state. Stanley and Floyd invited the girls to join them for a delicious meal. Then they apologized for it.


"Look at the sloppiness," said Stanley, as they sat outside the mess tent. "Can you believe it? Serving pot roast with peaches."


Irena did not think this was a quip. As she ate and savored the bountiful meal, it was her turn to be surprised. This was the third invasion she had experienced. First, the swift, brutal one of the Germans. Then the Soviets, who were quiet, well-informed and who spoke the languages of the people they conquered. These liberators, long-legged Pennsylvania troops of Polish descent, were completely unaware of the hardship and starvation throughout Europe.

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