75 years since liquidation of Zaglembie Ghettos: WJC General Counsel reflects


אונטער די פוילישע גרינינקע בײמעלעך, שפילן זיך מער נישט קײן משהלעך, שלמהלעך – שפילן זיך מער נישט קײן שרהלעך, לאהלעך –                                                        


Under the green Polish trees, no Moyshelekh or Shloymelekh play any more, no Sorelekh or Leyelekh play any more –

Growing up, I remember listening to this haunting song by the poet Yosef Papiernikov.  It always brought and still brings tears to my eyes, as I am sure it does for all of us. But I never truly understood it until, in late 1995, I went to Będzin and Sosnowiec. I say Będzin and Sosnowiec, because the Bendin and Sosnowce about which I had heard so much from my parents no longer exist. They vanished from this earth together with all the Moyshelekh and Shloymelekh, the Sorelekh and Leyelekh, the Mottelekh and Rifkelekh of Bendin, of Sosnowce, of Zawiercie, of Czeladz, of Olkush, of Dombrowa, and of all the other towns and shetlekh throughout Zaglembie, throughout Poland and Eastern Europe, who were so brutally murdered in the gas chambers of Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and all the other infernos of the Shoah.

Those few hours I was in Będzin and Sosnowiec that day were among the most uncomfortable, the most unpleasant I have ever experienced. I felt that I was in alien, hostile places where I definitely did not belong. Earlier that same day, I had been to Auschwitz and Birkenau for the first time, and I felt more at ease there, where most of my family together with most of the Jews of Zaglembie perished, than in the cities where my parents were born and had lived.

I have not been to Będzin or Sosnowiec since.

I came to Będzin and Sosnowiec that day in 1995 with images of Bendin and Sosnowce in my mind. My father’s heder in Bendin – the Gerer Shtibl where my grandfather and great-grandfather davened – streets and alleys permeated by a Jewish atmosphere that transcends both time and space. Those streets and alleys, that shtibl, that heder – they now exist only in our hearts, in our dreams, in what we call our collective memory.

Jane Lipski, formerly Jadzia Szpigelman, remembered the Bendin of her youth in her memoirs:

We lived in an enormous, five-story, double-courtyard building on Kołątaja Street, one of three main boulevards that ran through the city. More than a hundred families resided in the building's one- to four-room apartments. Even the basements and attics were occupied by tenants, except on the side of the attic where everyone hung their laundry to dry. Professional people, such as doctors, lawyers, professors, and schoolteachers, lived in the front apartments where the windows faced the street. The rear apartments were mostly occupied by trades people, including tailors, seamstresses, shoemakers, . . . and milliners, all of whom worked at home. The building also housed a bakery, a hair mattress factory, a chicken wire fence factory, and a blacksmith, as well as a school for ballroom dancing, a trumpet school, a merchant's organization, a private school for girls that my oldest sister Helen attended, a sport club called Hakoah, where I exercised when I was grammar school age, and a heder  . . . where a rabbi taught young boys to read the Torah. There seemed to be a whole city within the confines of this one urban dwelling, a city densely populated with vivid sounds, smells and characters that I have never forgotten. Almost all of the tenants were Jewish and everyone knew everyone else.

As we all know, this Jewish Bendin has disappeared. So has my mother’s Jewish Sosnowce. In 1979, my mother returned to Poland for the first time since, 34 years earlier almost to the day, she had been deported from her hometown to Birkenau by the Germans. She returned to Poland as a member of President Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust. The group traveled to Warsaw, to Treblinka, and to Auschwitz and Birkenau.  And then, my mother recalled in her memoirs which she finished writing shortly before her death:

I went to Sosnowiec from Auschwitz, afraid of what I would see and how I would react. New buildings have gone up and highways have been built. Otherwise, geographically and physically, the town remains the same, except in one respect:  there are no Jews left. The street where I had lived is almost the same. But this street, which used to have only Jewish inhabitants, only Jewish-owned shops, except for one pharmacy, now has no Jews, not one. I stood before the house I had lived in. I looked up and saw the apartment with its balconies. Unchanged.  Here I was born and raised with my brother and sister. Here I spent happy years of childhood and youth with my wonderful parents. Here I was married. As I stood there, I felt I was in a strange town on a strange street in front of a strange house. Nothing was mine, perhaps it had never been mine.

Thirty-nine years after my mother’s only return to Sosnowiec, and 23 years since I was in Będzin and Sosnowiec, I am about to go there again next week, together with all of you, and while I confess that the prospect of doing so still fills me with substantial trepidation, I know that things are different now, in a positive, reassuring sense.

First, and most importantly, we will be experiencing this journey into our individual and collective past together. We will be there to support one another, to cry together, and to laugh together. Many of us met yesterday for the first time. Over the course of the next week, I am certain that we will become closer to one another, and that this trip to Zaglembie will bind us together for years to come.

I want to express the deepest admiration and appreciation to Rina Kahan who has worked tirelessly and with unbelievable dedication and passion, to organizing this trip on behalf of the World Zaglembie Organization, together with Daphna Londner Eldar, Dov Pnini, Shimshon Jashvitz, Rafi Yahalomi, Haim Dekel, and Rachel Bebes. Rina has seen to all the logistics, preparing materials, responding to questions and requests, in order to make sure that each of us has as positive an experience as only possible. She is absolutely terrific.

I also want to express the warmest best wishes to all of you for a most meaningful trip from World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder and CEO Robert Singer. The World Jewish Congress is proud to be co-sponsoring this week’s journey of remembrance. 

Also, we are no longer alone in our sacred mission of remembrance. We have wonderful friends in in Będzin, Sosnowiec, Zawiercie, and elsewhere who are devoting themselves passionately and with the highest integrity to commemorating what happened to our families and their communities during the Shoah.

It is always dangerous to single out some, because one risks omitting others – but I need to mention here Piotr and Karolina Jakoweńko, and Adam Szydłowski, from Będzin; Monika Kempara from Sosnowiec; Marcin Bergier from Zawiercie; and the unsurpassed historian of Zaglembie Jewry during the Shoah, Dr. Aleksandra Namysło. We owe them all a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Finally, I want to urge you to attend a series of presentations and special programs later today and tomorrow afternoon. In planning the trip, we wanted it to prominently include a historical dimension so as to put the experiences we will have over the course of this coming week in perspective.

This afternoon at 3:00 o’clock, my friend Henri Lustiger-Thaler together with Piotr and Karolina Jakoweńko will tell us about their forthcoming exhibition and book, Ghost Lands: Zaglembie and Upper Silesia.

At 4:00 o’clock, Ann Weiss will speak about the thousands of photographs of Jews from Zaglembie that she discovered in 1986, and that are the subject of her book, The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We will see these photographs on Sunday at Birkenau.

At 5:00 of clock, we will have the unique opportunity of listening about the Bendin – not Będzin – that was from Esther Peterseil who remembers it from her childhood, and who will be in dialogue with her daughter, Dorothy Tananbaum.

At 6:00, and again at 6:00 o’clock tomorrow evening, Jeffrey Cymbler will deliver lectures on different genealogical aspects of discovering elements of our families’ histories. As you know, this is Jeffrey’s area of expertise, and he is certainly the authority on genealogical issues as they pertain to Zaglembie.

Tomorrow afternoon at 3:00 o’clock, Haim Dekel and Fred Frenkel will provide us with an introduction to the world of genealogy.

This will be followed at 4:00 o’clock by a lecture by Professor Robert Moses Shapiro on the phenomenon of the Judenrat.

And at 5:00 o’clock tomorrow afternoon, I will try to place the different roles of Poles during the Shoah in historical context. As you know, this is a subject that has been much in the news I recent months, and I think it is important for all of us to have the facts.

We very much hope that you will all attend these programs.

One last thought as we embark on our journey of memory. Throughout the coming week, let us remember our murdered families and all the murdered Jews of Zaglembie for who they were and how they lived, not for how they died. When we think of them, let us remember their love, their warmth and their smiles. As I remember my five-and-a-half-year-old brother Benjamin, my mother’s son, who was killed in a Birkenau gas chamber, as we remember Moyshelekh and Shloymelekh, Sorelekh and Leyelekh, let us remember them as they played and laughed, not as they cried. And so allow me to conclude this morning with the lyrics of another song by Papiernikov, which I look forward to singing together with you this evening:

זאל זיין, אז אזך בוי אינדערלופט מיינע שלעסער,      

זאל זיין, אז מײן גאט איז אינגאנצן נישטא  –            

אין טרוים איז מיר העלער, אין טרוים איז מיר בעסער,

אין חלום – דער הימל – נאך בלויער פון בלוי.           

It may be that I build my castles in the air
It may be that my God does not exist at all
In my dreams it is brighter, in my dreams I feel better
In my dreams the sky is even bluer than blue.

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