Iowa Writes

JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN
The Two Little Boys (Part 2)


        Groisser Zaydie Baruch and Groisse Bubbe Esther in those days had relatives on both sides living in Toronto and Minneapolis.  I think Baruch's brother managed to immigrate to Canada in 1914 to avoid serving in the Russian army before that war.  Esther's two sisters and brothers-in-law migrated to Hamburg for a few years, and then boarded ship for New York and America after Hitler came to power.  How they ended up in Minneapolis, I never heard.
        In the case of these photographic memorabilia, having relatives overseas saved the tragic remnants of Zaydie's once lively and happy family in Piatowka.  Zaydie told us how Groisser Zaydie bought a Zeiss camera when he and Groisse Bubbe visited Lodz to see friends.  One afternoon on their way from a stroll in a nearby park, they noticed a specialty shop, and a huge sidewalk sign advertising cameras from Germany at "amazing prices" found nowhere else in Poland!  While Great Grandmother Esther tried to dissuade Great Grandfather Baruch from entering the store, he would have none of it.  On the counter were five different cameras, but the Zeiss double-lens model captured his heart, and wallet.  The camera was a wonder to behold, he would say.  The salesman told him that he could order film directly from Germany by post "conveniently and safely" because the Germans were famous for their punctuality.  With a bit of bickering back and forth, and promises that "they would never be sorry taking pictures of the family for posterity," the sale was consummated.  The rich reddish-gold leather carrying case and strap were extra, but the salesman did throw in two rolls of film for free.  Zaydie said the camera cost a "fortune," and that Groisse Bubbe Esther was not too thrilled.  But when the first pictures started filling up the picture album a friend gave to them as an anniversary gift, she was a convert.  As page after page showed Zaydie and his siblings growing, playing, at school and on trips, Groisse Bubbe had seconds made of each and sent to our overseas relatives "to keep in touch," she would remark.  In turn, we got their family photos to add to our album, then more filled a second album, and both parents were working on the third when Hitler invaded Poland.

        Groisser Zaydie Baruch and Groisse Bubbe Esther in those days had relatives on both sides living in Toronto and Minneapolis.  I think Baruch's brother managed to immigrate to Canada in 1914 to avoid serving in the Russian army before that war.  Esther's two sisters and brothers-in-law migrated to Hamburg for a few years, and then boarded ship for New York and America after Hitler came to power.  How they ended up in Minneapolis, I never heard.
        In the case of these photographic memorabilia, having relatives overseas saved the tragic remnants of Zaydie's once lively and happy family in Piatowka.  Zaydie told us how Groisser Zaydie bought a Zeiss camera when he and Groisse Bubbe visited Lodz to see friends.  One afternoon on their way from a stroll in a nearby park, they noticed a specialty shop, and a huge sidewalk sign advertising cameras from Germany at "amazing prices" found nowhere else in Poland!  While Great Grandmother Esther tried to dissuade Great Grandfather Baruch from entering the store, he would have none of it.  On the counter were five different cameras, but the Zeiss double-lens model captured his heart, and wallet.  The camera was a wonder to behold, he would say.  The salesman told him that he could order film directly from Germany by post "conveniently and safely" because the Germans were famous for their punctuality.  With a bit of bickering back and forth, and promises that "they would never be sorry taking pictures of the family for posterity," the sale was consummated.  The rich reddish-gold leather carrying case and strap were extra, but the salesman did throw in two rolls of film for free.  Zaydie said the camera cost a "fortune," and that Groisse Bubbe Esther was not too thrilled.  But when the first pictures started filling up the picture album a friend gave to them as an anniversary gift, she was a convert.  As page after page showed Zaydie and his siblings growing, playing, at school and on trips, Groisse Bubbe had seconds made of each and sent to our overseas relatives "to keep in touch," she would remark.  In turn, we got their family photos to add to our album, then more filled a second album, and both parents were working on the third when Hitler invaded Poland.
        On the day the radio blared that Germany invaded Poland, Groisser Zaydie Baruch was at his office talking to his manager about next spring's contracts to buy wool.  He hurried home to find his house in tumult. Groisse Bubbe Esther was ordering the girls to bring suitcases on closet top shelves, and Zaydie Mendel the trunks from their basement.  The twin boys were scampering everywhere, and squealing in delight at all the excitement around them.  Magda was crying inconsolably because she feared her younger brother Stanislaus might be killed at the front.  Rachel, Zaydie's youngest sister and all of 11, was trying to comfort her "nana"; to no avail.
        The Jews in Groisser Zaydie's neighborhood were doing exactly the same thing -- evacuating as fast as they could.  Piatowka was near the Russo-Ukrainian border.  Everyone had a friend or family across the Polish frontier.  When people remembered that just a week or so before the Nazis and Soviets signed a pact dividing Poland like a roasting pig, the smarter--or luckier--Jews made arrangements not to become part of the tsibbilis, or side dish, for this meal!
        Not all of our family was among the luckier ones to escape. 
        When Zaydie came to this part of the history, his eyes watered and voice quavered until he could draw some deep breaths to collect himself.
        Groisse Bubbe Esther and the girls were sent east to Minsk in White Russia just a week before the Red Army arrived to take their share of the Polish spoils.  Groisser Zaydie Baruch, Zaydie Mendel, and the twins Elihu and Zachariah, on the other hand, somehow got trapped and left behind.  Zaydie never found out for sure what happened to his mother and sisters after that.  One report mentioned that they were safe at first, but when a cholera outbreak happened around late spring 1940, Groisser Bubbe Esther died, and the girls were left with our relatives in another town -- Gomel -- Zaydie Mendel guessed.  Another rumor was that they were all killed in 1941, by one or another SS 'special occupation squad,' after White Russia was invaded that summer.
        In the meantime, the NKVD moved in to make arrests, while the Russians pushed westward to meet their German partners.  Groisser Zaydie Baruch pooled his remaining resources -- American dollars and British pounds -- squirreled away when times were better in peacetime for such emergencies like the one now staring the family in the face.  Bribes and contacts bought time and favors.  Perhaps the money could have been put to better use than to buy time.  It only postponed Sobibor for 33 months.
        On the day Piatowka was emptied of all its Jewish residents, Groisser Zaydie Baruch was helpless at the worst possible time.  He caught pneumonia a week before the Germans arrived at Piatowka.  The SS unleashed their 'Aktion' against neighboring shtetls and small towns on the way to Zaydie Mendel's.  The Germans wanted to get rid of all the Jews in this part of Poland forever, where most of our people once lived for hundreds of years.  As everyone in the neighborhood walked to the square to be deported, one of the neighbors told the Germans, when they were asked, if any Jews were sick or unable to walk.  She thought she was doing a kindness; never realizing her words were a death sentence.
        The SS sent two men into Groisser Zaydie's house to find him.  Zaydie Mendel and his brothers were hiding in a storage room, where potatoes and beets were usually stored for the winter.  They heard shouting and hoarse screaming coming from the main floor.  Then, suddenly, there was no more commotion.  Each boy strained to hear something, anything, from their hiding place in the cellar below.  Zaydie said time stopped.  So did all their hopes.  Then the door to their sanctuary was smashed, and the Family Bennesavitz of Piatowka was no more.
        Zaydie remembers the truck transport to Lodz only as an afterthought.  One thing that stuck out in his mind was when a little girl, who couldn't climb into her truck without assistance, was picked up by a large SS man and smashed against its side.  The thud of her head cracking open, and the SS standing around laughing were almost too much.  Otherwise, he said little about that journey from Piatowka to Lodz, besides this incident; compared to the transport to Sobibor later.

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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

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JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN

Joseph Richard Goldman has taught modern European history at the University of Minnesota and the University of Kansas.  He is now writing two novels.  He has participated in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival since 2014.




The Two Little Boys will appear on the Daily Palette in four parts.  If you missed Part 1, be sure to check out yesterday's page.

This page was first displayed
on March 08, 2016

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