My father, Joseph Greenfield (z"l), was from Dabie, a small town in central Poland. My mother, Rachele Bunis Greenfield (z"l), was from Kowel, a town which is now part of the Ukraine. They survived the war, met and married while in a Displaced Persons camp in Austria. With their families decimated and persistent anti-Semitism in their hometowns, my parents’ hope was to reach Palestine and be part of the rebuilding of the Jewish national homeland. At that time of dispersion and homelessness, and with a sense of loss and isolation, they knew of no other option. Several unsuccessful attempts by the Bricha, the underground movement of survivors from Eastern Europe, to evade the British blockade and smuggle my parents ashore in Palestine followed. By 1949 with me already in tow, we were fortunate to arrange passage to the United States through the assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).
In the summer of 1993, I traveled with my wife and two teenage children to Poland. We wanted to investigate sites of importance to Jewish history in cities such as Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow, but the primary mission remained to learn firsthand about our family roots by exploring my father's hometown, and to meet the family of the heroic Polish woman, Pani Anna Kucharska, who helped save my mother during the war. I also wanted to recite Kaddish, a memorial prayer for the grandparents I never knew.
Our experiences created an emotional roller-coaster: the low of standing alongside the mass grave at Chelmno, the extermination center where my father's parents and relatives were murdered, to the elation of spending several days with the Wujastyk family, Polish Catholics whose matriarch helped hide my mother and her sister seventy years ago at great personal risk to herself and her family.
It was a journey and an adventure of a lifetime. Each of us was profoundly and irreversibly touched by people, places and experiences we encountered.
Okopowa Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw
We landed in this capital city under heavy cloud cover and in the midst of a soaking rain. Much of the architecture was drab and monolithic, having been constructed during the Communist Era to rebuild a city severely damaged during the war years. Our primary interest in Warsaw was to see historic landmarks in this once famous center of Jewish culture. To gain an appreciation of the culture which flourished in this city, one had only to tour the Jewish cemetery on ulica (ul.) Okopowa, located at the westernmost border of the former ghetto. This is the final resting place of many of Jewry's eminent rabbis, writers, politicians and performers. It remained relatively unscathed despite the utter destruction of the ghetto.
Prior to our departure for Poland, my father drew a map of his home town of Dabie as he remembered it in 1939. On it he located the familiar landmarks around the town square: the gasoline and water pumps, the bridge spanning the Ner River, the synagogue and Catholic church, and the roadways leading to the neighboring towns in the district - Klodawa, Grabow and Chelmno. He also precisely noted the site of his boyhood home on a narrow side street named ul. Kilinskiego.
Ul. Kilinskiego, Dabie
We left Warsaw and drove for two hours, winding our way through an endless series of towns and villages until we reached the outskirts of Dabie. Once in the central square, we were immediately surrounded by a band of inquisitive kids who followed us as we searched for my grandparents' former apartment on ul. Kilinskiego with the help of the map and our Polish interpreter. The gentleman in the photo was a deep well of historical information. During conversation he recalled the Greenfield family and their shoe shop. He also remembered my father's uncle, the photographer, and his little studio. At this point I was very excited to have used the map to find my father's birthplace and to have come across an elderly resident who remembered my grandparents. In the initial euphoria, I never thought to ask permission to go inside the apartment. It was only a short while later that I began to wonder how the current residents got possession of this property which used to belong to my family. Were their relatives willing occupiers of vacated Jewish homes when the ghetto in Dabie was established? Did they collaborate and identify homes where Jews could be found? I never found out. The questions still haunt me.
Young Boys, Dabie 1939
These boys were at play in front of the house where my father lived. They seemed so carefree, as young teenagers should be during summer months. As I stood there, my thoughts drifted to those precious few quiet moments when my father would give me a vignette of his teenage years in Dabie before the war. He attended "gymnasium", was a member of a Zionist youth movement, and often had coffee and pastries with his girlfriend. Unlike my newfound Polish friends in the doorway, my father would not fully savor his adolescent years since they were suddenly truncated at the start of the occupation. Instead, he grew up much too quickly at places like Mauthausen and Auschwitz.
The synagogue in Dabie is an historic structure erected in 1895. The majestic lines and arches of the exterior architectural design remain intact. Today however, its soul serves as housing units. Rather than being graced with an Aron Kodesh or Magen David, drying laundry adorns its sides. There are no Jews left in Dabie.
Transport to Chelmno
The following letter was received by my father while in a Displaced Persons camp in Austria after the war. It was sent by J. Podgorski, a Pole from my father's hometown of Dabie who worked for my grandfather in his small shoe shop. The letter provides an eyewitness account of the deportation of the Jewish population of Dabie to the nearby extermination center at Chelmno. The deportation of Dabie's remaining 920 Jews took place in mid December, 1941 after an earlier Aktion in which my father, referred to as Mr. Josko, and his brother Mendus as well as other young men and boys were taken into forced labor by the Nazi occupiers. This letter and a subsequent one in November confirmed for my father the fate of his family. Only he and his brother had survived.
Rzuchowski Forest, Chelmno
Chelmno is 6 kilometers away on the road leading out of Dabie. It has the infamous distinction of being the site of early Nazi experiments with gas chambers, i.e. transports with exhaust re-routed to the passenger compartment. The camp was in the midst of the Rzuchowski Forest, an eerie and densely wooded area from which cries and screams could hardly have been heard only a short distance away. There were several mass graves in this huge clearing. Threatening clouds darkened the sky as if in response to our realization of what had occurred on this ground seventy years ago. I placed a stone at the edge of the crude gravesite and with the help of my family recited Kaddish for my grandparents while choking back a torrent of tears I never knew I was capable of shedding.
Memorial Inscription, Chelmno
"From infants to the aged - We were taken from the towns of Kolo and Dabie.
We were taken to the forest and there we were put to death by gas, shot wounds and fire.
We are pleading with our brothers who witnessed our plight to punish the murderers who live in this area.
Once again we cry out - let the murderers be known throughout the entire world."
A grim exhibit was housed near this massive memorial. On display inside were Nazi records of the liquidation of the Jewish population in the surrounding district. We read that 920 Jews from Dabie were transported to Chelmno between December 14 - 19, 1941. In total, approximately 350,000 Jews were turned to ash at Chelmno.
"Bathhouse" - Delousing Section in Majdanek Camp, Lublin
After completing our mission in Dabie and Chelmno with its grim reminder of the depths to which man's inhumanity to man can sink, we anxiously anticipated meeting a family which represented the good that is also within us. Our journey continued on a route from Warsaw to Lublin. As the road passed by this famous center of Jewish learning, we were shocked to see Majdanek, a former concentration camp, immediately bordering the city. As I think back, no discovery on the entire trip was as disturbing to me as this - a death camp in plain view of the city. How could the residents not see, hear or even smell the evidence of the atrocities at this notorious center. The answer is sadly obvious.
Rachele and Anna Kucharska
For a Jew today, Poland is a cemetery. For my family however, the country has another facet embodied by Anna Kucharska, a Polish Catholic who lived on a farm neighboring my mother's home in Kowel. When the danger of the Nazi occupation became too great, my grandparents sent my mother and her older sister away to hide in the adjacent forests. When they needed shelter from the cold, Anna Kucharska, at mortal danger to herself and family, and unbeknownst to her husband, allowed the sisters to use her barn and occasionally provided small scraps of food saved from her own meager table. She never asked for anything in return. The sisters had nothing to offer.
Righteous Among the Nations
In recognition of her heroism, the Israeli Special Commission for the Designation of the Righteous conferred the State’s highest expression of gratitude, the title of Righteous Among the Nations, to Anna Kucharska. Her name was subsequently inscribed on the Wall of Honor at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and a tree was planted in her name. The awards were conferred in November, 1992. Sadly, Anna died just two months earlier.
Farm in Zoltance
With Polish borders redrawn after the war, the Anna's farm and my mother's former home in Kowel became part of the USSR. The Kucharska's moved west to the village of Zoltance to remain within Poland. Although the two women did not meet again until 1979, my mother always remained in contact with Anna Kucharska until her death, and continues to call, write letters and send packages to her son, daughter and grandchildren.
When we arrived in Zoltance, to the farm on which Anna Kucharska had lived, I was drawn to the barn. Although it was not "the" barn in which my mother sought refuge, the setting was the same; a few exterior loose boards that served as a secret entryway and the piles of hay next to the cows that provided bedding and an additional hiding place during random searches. It was always hard to imagine how young girls could leave their home and be in hiding for years. Seeing the countryside and the "hiding spot" did not make it easier.
The Wujastyk Family Remembers
There are three daughters in the Wujastyk family, Edytka, Agatka and Rennatka. They are Anna Kucharska's grandchildren. Only Rennatka spoke sufficient English to facilitate conversations. Most of the time however, the circumstances that bound our families together created a communication that transcended the spoken language.
The Wujastyks are deeply religious people and our presence in their home seemed like nothing less than a visit by an official of the Catholic Church. We were tangible evidence of a lifeline sustained by the bravery and unselfish actions of their family matriarch. The sisters revered their grandmother and learned a considerable amount about the war years from her. They certainly learned more than I did from my mother who remained very secretive about her experiences. At times when we were together we would often touch upon a subject that triggered thoughts of Anna and her stories. Sitting in the field near the farm, time would stand still as Agatka recounted some of the anguishing tales the girls heard from their grandmother. There were also stories about my mother and her family that I had never heard, and may never have heard, had it not been for our journey to Zoltance.
The Kotel - Remu Synagogue, Krakow
It was a tearful farewell as we left the Wujastyk's home. We all knew that it was uncertain when if ever we would meet again. It was certain though, that we would not forget the days we spent together. It would be hard to imagine another meeting in our respective lifetimes that would represent such an emotional "reunion."
Our journey now took us south to Krakow, home to Schindler's Jews and the once flourishing Kazimierz Jewish Quarter. A small but aging congregation still exists here at the Remu Synagogue. We met the gabbai who brought us to the synagogue's "Wailing Wall," a detail of which is pictured here. During the Nazi occupation, not only were Jewish lives violated, but the memory of those who had already been buried was desecrated. Otto Wachter, the Nazi district governor in Krakow, ordered the destruction of gravestones in this ancient cemetery. Some broken pieces were preserved and after the war a wall composed of these shards was constructed within the area of the cemetery. A casting of a section of this wall is on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
On the outskirts of Krakow at an important railway junction was the small provincial town of Oswiecim. In an area isolated from the center were several old deserted Polish military barracks. After the fall of Poland following German blitzkrieg of September, 1939, this town was incorporated into the Third Reich. With prison overcrowding in the adjacent Silesia sector, and in anticipation of pending waves of mass arrests in the rest of occupied Poland, the German High Command gave the order to proceed with expansion and conversion of the existing facility at Oswiecim to a concentration camp. The first prisoners were transported to the camp in the summer of 1940. By that time the town’s Polish name had been changed to its German moniker, Auschwitz.
As the number of inmates continued to increase, the original camp in Oswiecim, Auschwitz I with its insidious entryway sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei,’ expanded into a sprawling complex of additional camps in the Polish countryside.
Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, became the actual killing field, encompassing an area several football fields in size. When the Final Solution was operating at its peak, more than 5,000 Jews were turned into smoke daily at each of the four huge crematoria.
Auschwitz III was comprised of smaller labor camps in the nearby town of Monowitz. Inmates housed at these subcamps provided slave labor to various German industrialists like I.G. Farben Industries. One such camp, Buna, held my father as a prisoner.
Birkenau, Auschwitz II
The gaping archway at the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau was the last stop on the cattle car for millions. As we drove the 3 kilometers from Oswiecim to this camp, what enfolded before us was the largest death factory in human history. Standing next to the railway lines that were routed here from all parts of Europe, I was astounded at the enormity of the complex. As far as one could see in all directions were remnants of barracks that once held Jewish inmates. During our walk through the camp, a thunderstorm moved quickly into the area. We were caught hundreds of yards from shelter as the skies opened up with lightning, rain and hail. It was a terrifying 30 seconds which seemed like hours as we sprinted for cover. Once safely in an enclosure, I tried to comfort my daughter who had become almost inconsolable with fear. I thought about those Jews trapped here 60 years ago. They were totally exposed and vulnerable as we had just been for a brief moment. They, unfortunately, had no place to run and hide.
Confiscated Suitcases, Auschwitz I
We took the train from Krakow back to Warsaw, our last stop before leaving Poland. Our suitcases with all our valuable possessions and memorabilia were always in our sight during transfers the train stations.
As we sped northward, I stared out at the countryside. Impressions of our encounters of the past two weeks were racing through my mind. In the end it was clear that we had just completed a unique odyssey. I learned about my own roots in a way that only a journey to the source could teach. It was also clear that my children had developed a sense of their legacy that an oral history alone could not provide.
At this point, I've been able to process the film that I exposed along the way. I do not expect to ever fully process all the experiences that I had.
On May 21, 1997 I received official notice from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem that Anna Kucharsk'a name had been engraved on the Honor Wall of the Garden of the Righteous.
Mr. Turski served as our guide and translator while in Warsaw and was also our driver during travels to Dabie and Chelmno.
May 5th - A Survivor’s Story
Joseph with son David
My father Joseph was liberated from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp by the US 11th Armored Division on May 5th, 1945. That day a pillar was erected on which rested a legacy of Jewish survival, and a model for hope of a better future. The pillar’s permanence was assured precisely 30 years later on May 5th, 1975 when my son Josh, Joseph’s first grandchild, was born. Recently, after a brief but turbulent struggle, my father lost his battle with cancer. Josh had the honor to be the leader at the last evening service of Shiva, the initial seven day period of mourning. After reciting the Kaddish prayer at the conclusion of the service, he selected as a thought for the day, a passage from Pirkei Avot, a text of Bible commentaries, which proclaims the world is supported by a triad: wisdom from the Torah scrolls, service to God, and acts of kindness. Josh chose well since the portion defined my father’s spirit during life. His story is a survivor’s story.
Joseph Greenfield’s life spanned most of the 20th century and continued to embrace the new millennium. Along the way, he worked to overcome every obstacle thrust in his path, and engaged every opportunity presented. He approached everything with his good nature, artistry, and the common sense Judaic wisdom he learned (as he used joke) at "Dombia College," a fictitious institution of higher learning he named after his diminutive Polish home town. He was a gentleman with qualities as beautiful as any of his multi-talents’ wondrous creations whether with camera & film, leather, or wood. At all times he maintained a "shem tov", a good name.
He was my hero, and I told him so.
So what was it like on that long journey?
He witnessed the transition of travel from using a horse and wagon to get to the neighboring town to manned flights to the moon and back. In the one room cheder (school) of Dombia he used a quill pen to write letters composed of the aleph, bet - the Yiddish alphabet. Decades later in his New Jersey home he used a computer to send email. He experienced the euphoria of the rebirth of a Jewish homeland after 2000 years of dispersion. But in the years leading up to declaration of an independent Israel, he was almost consumed, as most of his family was during the Holocaust.
Standing as a survivor at ground zero in post war Europe, he chose a path of light from the darkness he endured, and built a new life and family in his adopted country, the US. His life became enriched; rich with love for and love from his entire family, rich in the teaching and traditions of Yiddishkeit, and rich in artistry. He was touched by many and he touched countless others. In fact, I’ve given up tallying how many were graciously given at least one “Joe Greenfield” original wood crafted creation, creations he made with his hands but gave with his heart.
But long before being identified by artistry in wood, my father had a legacy of other tangible works…..
With a Leica camera bartered for 2 tins of canned fish, he became prolific as a photojournalist in the post war era documenting the emerging life around him in Jewish Displaced Persons camps of Allied Occupation Europe. Little did he know, 50 years later more than one hundred of his images would be selected for permanent archives of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Two of those photos were later chosen for the Museum’s special exhibit entitled, “Life Reborn – Jewish Displaced Persons 1945-1951” which portrayed the ingathering and eventual complete repatriation of hundreds of thousands of the DPs. Twelve “Life Reborn” images subsequently graced the pages of the commemorative calendar published by the Museum in the year of the exhibition. One of those twelve photos was from my father’s work.
Prior to his exodus from the ashes of Europe in 1946, my father was married in the Braunau DP camp in Austria. With the help of relatives in the States, the young couple, including their first child, me, resettled in New York in 1949. Joe’s active working years which followed were in the shoe industry. As a respected “Pattern Man,” he created designs, hand cut the leather, and assembled prototypes for countless shoes produced by the factory in Brooklyn where he was employed. If a completed shoe came off the assembly line with an imperfection, Joe, as he now liked to be called, was ushered in to identify where in production the fault occurred so it could be remedied. He was known as a premier “shoe-man!”
Creating fine woodcraft, however, was the constant that most closely defined my father’s artistic side. His portfolio included hardwood tables of all sizes with tops of inlaid veneer, ceramic or granite. There were wall & table clocks, and a myriad of Hanukah menorahs. He built his most cherished work, an aron kodesh, the ark that houses the Torah scrolls and stood taller than him, in his 86th year. It was to be among his last creations. My father had been approached by representatives of his congregation and asked if he would build a new ark for High Holy Day services. Needless to say, the words of the request still hung in the air as he began sketching a design. With experience gained in building a portable ark for Hadar, my son’s new congregation in NYC, he joyfully undertook construction. He worked with even greater zeal, fearing he would not complete the project, as his illness surfaced and began sapping his strength. When the ark was completed, ahead of schedule, my father received accolades and an outpouring of affection that stunned him. The rabbi would later comment, it was a work of art defined not only by its majesty, but by the love infusing every joint. The elation my father realized after completing the ark fueled his subsequent request to create a properly distinguished stand on which it would be displayed, and a Kiddush cart to convey the wine and challah for the traditional blessings at the conclusion of Sabbath services. These labors of love were to be an exclamation point at the end of the final chapter of the story of one man’s survival and accomplishments in life.
But, his amazing artistic creations notwithstanding, my dad's most enduring legacy is the one that will remain the longest. It is the example he set for all who knew him in how he treated and cared for everyone he encountered, and especially how he loved our family. If we each model at least a portion of our lives by how we saw my dad treat and care about people, even while gravely ill, that will truly be his greatest legacy.
Let me close with a personal vignette. Over the years there have been several quiet moments that I shared only with my dad when he might recount an experience as a boy in Dombia, or in one of many labor camps he suffered through during the war. My inclination was to stop him so I could get a recording device to capture these pearls. I soon realized that a pause ruined the purity of the moment, and I learned to just sit, listen and savor what I was hearing. While he was recently undergoing medical evaluation in Boston, one night we shared one of our last special, quiet times together. We were up late watching “On the Waterfront,” a classic film about hard life and rising above adversity. It was shot in the black and white photography we both loved, and featured several great actors, our favorites being Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger. In a pivotal scene Brando is in the back of a cab with his brother Charlie, played by Steiger. Brando is bemoaning the fact that he squandered opportunities to make the best of the tough hand he was dealt, and that his life was aimless, going nowhere. He unloads to his older brother, as only Brando could do, “I could’a had class. I could’a been a contender. I could’a been somebody…..” My dad was dealt a very tough hand, but he never complained, and yes, to be sure, he had class, he was a contender, he was somebody – somebody special – very special.
As I said, he was my hero.
David S. Greenfield
“May his precious soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life.”
Those words are etched at the base of the monument recently dedicated in my father Joseph’s memory. I’ve been thinking a lot about everlasting life during the last 11 months since he died. I’ve now come to a better understanding of its meaning. In the beginning, I fully expected to feel lost and aching. Expressing similar pained emotions, two Jewish sages, “Shimon & Garfunkel,” better known by their stage names of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, composed these lyrics for their soulful song America:
“I’m lost and aching and I don’t know why,
Counting the cars on the NJ Turnpike”
When my journey of mourning began late last January, it was also in New Jersey, and it was also on a highway. But it wasn’t the Turnpike, and I wasn’t counting cars. I was, however, numbly staring out the window of a small limo as it cruised down Jersey’s Garden State Parkway on the way back from the cemetery where my father had just been laid to rest. Although traffic was flowing freely, our driver suddenly exited onto a side road. I turned to ask why the switch. He told me he grew up in New Jersey and loved driving the rural routes whenever he could. At that moment, I pictured my dad leaning over to give him the directions to turn off, just as he often did to me when I was driving, and just as he would have done if he was behind the wheel and the option of a more scenic route presented. I realized in that instant that I would never again take the quiet “road less traveled” without feeling my dad’s presence. So, despite the tears of the morning and the turbulence of the previous few months, and unlike the lost and aching souls in the song America, I smiled and turned to continue gazing out the window. Somehow I was happy and at peace.
Sitting in synagogue for the daily morning service a few weeks ago, I sensed my father’s presence once again, as I have on numerous other occasions during this year of saying Kaddish (the traditional prayer recited after the loss of a family member.) My eyes had momentarily drifted from the siddur (prayer book) and fixed on the beautiful Aron Kodesh (ark containing the Torah scrolls) in front of me. A smile was spontaneously triggered and spread across my face. What happened to elicit such a pleasurable diversion? Among his many talents, my dad was a master craftsman. One of his last creations, at age 87, was building a commissioned Aron Kodesh for his own congregation. In the exuberance to complete the project, he made an errant cut with a power saw and it needed to be disguised with just a slight, undetectable modification of design. This scenario of an “excitement faux-pas and correction” did occur occasionally in his creations. When he showed me what happened, I invoked the traditional carpenter’s mantra, “Remember, you measure twice and cut once, not the other way around.” This interchange had long ago become a standing joke between us. For added emphasis, I would add that in my surgical work, I typically measure three or four times before an incision is made, never the other way around. With all of our kidding aside, I always learned a lot standing alongside my father and watching him work. As a teen I often begrudged having to spend my time being his assistant, steadying the wood as he sawed those knotty-pine boards for renovations around our home and other such jobs. But that is how I developed an appreciation for the beauty of wood and the nuances of woodwork. And later it was for photography, of which he was also a master. So now, whenever I take in the aroma of fresh sawdust, or whenever I hear the soft metallic whisper of my camera’s shutter, I know he is there. His presence will always be with me. It is everlasting.
My father did live to an old age, but he never became an old man. He was vibrant, independent, incredibly creative & artistic, and wise with the fundamental precepts of Judaism to the end. I will always be grateful for and inspired by that full life.
“May his precious soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life.”
Passing the photographic torch - Father and son and photos
~ a tale of three women ~
Until the end, my mother was a real Balabuste! Even after she lost the strength to manage by herself, she still wanted things to be just so. In the house everything always had to be spotless and in order: towels and sheets pressed and folded, a china serving vessel for every type of delicacy, and furniture positioned with the precision of a space station docking. “Pahzhondec” as she used to say in Polish. You could eat off the floor! Speaking of eating, did I also mention that she was a magnificent cook and baker? But things were not always so orderly for my mother.
When the Nazis invaded her town in eastern Poland, my grandfather urged my mother, a teenager at that time, along with her sisters to flee from home for the relative safety of the surrounding forests. Fortunately for my mother, Anna Kucharska, a Catholic woman who knew the family, offered my mother and her older sister a hiding place in the Kucharska family barn. Anna provided a lifeline, if not life itself, for my mother in an early, frightful and uncertain chapter of life. Decades later in the angst filled twilight of her widowed life, my mother's 24/7 aide and companion, Elli Kokhreidze, another strong eastern European woman, reopened that lifeline. Anna and Elli frame the story of my mother’s life like a pair of marble bookends; strong, solid and supportive. In-between these two women is my mother, whose innermost thoughts have frequently been, and will now remain, mysteries.
In the spring of 1945 after the fall of Nazi Germany, and with it the goal of a Final Solution to the “Jewish Problem,” the surviving remnant of European Jewry was liberated. Allied forces freed some from labor and death camps; others shed the constant fear and isolation of their hiding places. After two years of living mostly without a roof over her head, my mother emerged from the forest. Like most survivors, there was no family left for a welcome home embrace. Together with her sister, but otherwise alone, they walked into a cold sunshine.
After the survivors inhaled their initial, collective breath of life, their world had to be reconstituted. A fledgling Jewish Agency assumed that mission. The Agency searched for and gathered these shattered souls into Displaced Persons (DP) refugee camps set up in occupied Europe. The organization then provided oversight for rebuilding the lost mountain of their humanity. Painstakingly they accomplished this one grain of sand at a time. By 1951 all the DP camps were emptied. The refugees now faced new lives, relocated primarily in the Americas and Palestine. Life was reborn.
In those immediate, tumultuous post-war years, my mother met and soon after married my father when both were assigned to a Displaced Persons camp in Austria. Despite the visible and unseen scars of his own traumas, my dad remained the strongest of the young couple, and gladly assumed the responsibility of taking care of his new wife. Little did he realize he would continue to do so for the rest of his life. With sponsorship from family already in the US, they left Europe in 1949, with me already on the scene, and arrived at the port of New York. Growing up I gradually stitched together the fabric of my father's "story." Despite the fragility of his life during what we came to know as the Holocaust, he always insisted my mother's ordeal was more trying. Whenever I asked either of them about "the war years," my father always answered, my mother never did.
Thirty six years after liberation they were drawn back to Poland. My father wanted to see his home town one last time; my mother wanted to hug Anna Kucharska again. Although they hadn’t seen one another since 1945, the two women remained in touch by letter and telephone. There were also packages of clothes and gifts my parents sent for Anna, her son, daughter, and grandchildren.
A decade after their return journey, I retraced those same steps with my family. I too wanted to meet and embrace Anna. She was always a mythic figure for me; a real life hero for our family who at great personal risk, and asking nothing in return, shielded two frightened and vulnerable Jewish girls from the destruction that ultimately consumed the remainder of their family. We saw firsthand how much Anna's daughter Helena had become attached to my mother, and how her three daughters had grown up sharing that love. As devout Catholics, the Kucharskas were not familiar with the Talmudic teaching "he who saves one life, it is as if he saved the whole world," but with the birth of my mother's children, my sister and me, and the birth in turn of our respective children, they understood the essence of that teaching to their core. We were a whole world created by the courage of their family matriarch. Helena's daughters worshipped the ground their grandmother Anna walked on. They were captivated by her experiences, many of which revolved about hiding my mother. While my mother never spoke to me about what happened, Anna willingly shared her stories with her family. Anna’s granddaughters learned a lot about Csiocha (Aunt) Rachela, as they called my mother. They knew much more than I, and had I not journeyed to Poland to meet and converse with Anna’s family, those times for me would remain a complete mystery.
And now, fast forward…. After 55 years together, my parents celebrated a wonderful milestone on their wedding anniversary. The Holocaust had forced them onto a treacherous precipice. Against the odds, they miraculously returned and built a new life, and were very proud of their achievements together. Although the stability of their marriage for over 5 decades was a given, stability of my mother’s health was at best meta-stable; periods of relative calm interrupted by all too frequent crises. The quest for stability was becoming more stressful, and difficult, as the couple struggled to understand my mother's complicated afflictions. Although she never said it, my mother knew she was gradually becoming completely dependent on my father to get through the day. In her youth, her parents and older sister maintained responsibility for her care. Then it was Anna Kucharska, followed by my father. But as she watched him age, I believe she was silently fearful that "he had only so much left in the tank," and then she would be alone and lost.
Sadly, two years ago when my father developed the cancer that finally robbed him of his strength and made him reliant on care in his final weeks, my sister and I found Elli, another strong woman like Anna Kucharska. She assumed a caregiver role, briefly for both parents, and then exclusively for my mother. But she soon became much more: a companion, friend and confidant. It was a beautiful relationship. Elli succeeded in achieving that elusive level of stability for my mother, and that stability helped all of us navigate through a difficult transition with reasonable success. She restored the order that was so important for my mom. Ellie is the other "bookend” that gently and lovingly supported my mother in the final chapter, as the book of her life came to a close.
David S. Greenfield
A balabatashe home, decades old ironclad relationships near and far, and a beautiful persona all her days, both inside and out.
These were characteristics of my mother’s life and the legacy she left. As the mourning process for her continues, this is the light that shines powerfully through the developing cracks in the darkness.
In our home during my formative years, everything was always “just so”: towels and sheets pressed and folded, beautiful serving dishes matched for each Eastern European delicacy she created; never, by the way, from formulaic recipes, and furniture adorned with all kinds of “tchotchskes” positioned with trigonometric precision. “Pahzhondec” is the one word Polish descriptor my mother loved to use for this orderly state of affairs. My friends were always welcome in our home. They certainly loved to come and savor her culinary wonders, but also to savor what they sensed as the “shalom bayeet”. And she loved to see these friendships flourish, often claiming to gain a few pounds just from mere enjoyment of witnessing it all. In fact some of my friends continued to visit my mom even after the fabric of our connections were stretched and frayed by years and distance. In her own friendships, seemingly infinite in number and forged at a time when friends were the only family one had, there was an unbreakable tenacity of bond. More amazing was how these ties, spanning continents and years, were sustained not with the facility of cyberspace, but with a landline telephone handset and penned letter. These features of order and beauty were also reflected in my mother’s face, not just an expected smoothness of skin and vitality when a young woman, but throughout life even into the golden years.
But before everything was “Pahzhondec,” there was a dark side: the Ukraine, occupation, ghetto, separation from family, hiding in the forest, relentless fear, a righteous gentile, liquidation, the Bricha, Displaced Persons camp, Aliyah Bet, emigration, Brooklyn NY …… then start of a new life - culmination of rescue at last! …….…. But the dark side was never far away.
So, my mother built her admirable legacy starting from Ground Zero of postwar Europe. Incredibly, she did it all, and left a shem tov, despite a whole life battling what we now consider to be PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder. Periodically PTSD demons spawned from her childhood horrors would suddenly emerge, transforming and incapacitating her, as if she was possessed. These episodes were unbearable and cast a shadow over everything and everyone. As the anxiety ratcheted up over when the next episode might infiltrate the calm, and never knowing how long it would last, I would periodically drift slowly to what our musical sage Bob Dylan described as the dark side of the road. The bright light of my mother’s full life could not easily penetrate this abyss. But starting during Shiva and extending into Sheloshim as I spent time with family, went to shul, and spoke with her friends from all corners contemplating my mother’s whole life, the beauty and illumination she created in this world dispersed the clouds and is now erasing the darkness. We can all see clearly now, and everything is once again becoming “Pahzhondec.”
David S. Greenfield