Editor’s Note: Bonnie Adler is a reporter and freelance writer living in Westport, CT. Her son works at CNN.
Long before I could speak of it, I knew my mother had blue numbers on the soft skin of her inside forearm. My father had a similar stamp, as did my aunt and uncle. I understood they were very happy in our small family circle, but once upon a time, in a past I did not comprehend, they were not.
They spared us their separate tragic stories for as long as they could, but my sisters and I eventually came to know the bare-bones facts they shared: Parents dead, siblings lost, my father’s brother missing, never found.
I am no different than many children of Holocaust survivors. We share a common denominator. We are mostly recipients of overwhelming love born out of loss and survival guilt. And we share a responsibility to remember and honor those we love and the memory of those they lost.
So when an email came, with information that for the first time there was to be an official ceremony acknowledging the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto in the city of Radom, Poland, my two sisters and I were gripped by a primal reaction.
We knew that 30,000 Jews were killed at that time, including much of our family. We wanted to participate in that ceremony; to go to the city of their birth, and honor the memories of our uncles and aunts and grandmothers and grandfathers who had been the victims of genocide.
We wanted to see their homes, their schools, their stores and their synagogues, or whatever remained of them, to fill in the many blanks of our family history, to color in the sketchy stories we had been raised with.
We had no idea how we would weather this emotional storm, but our indecision evaporated when we learned that three of our children wanted to share the experience with us. They were all adults: my two nieces, aged 37 and 18, and my son, 31. One generation after us, they had all been steeped in our family history and blessed by the unconditional love and warmth of their grandparents.
Our mother and their grandmother, Dinah Horn had just passed away at the age of 87, and they were still mourning her loss. Our father, Joseph Horn, had passed away 20 years before her, but his presence was and remained larger than life. Before he died he wrote a compelling memoir about his experiences as a young boy in wartime, “Mark It With a Stone.” It was a tale of bravery and serendipity and an indictment of the evil to which he was subjected for years. Besides his children, he considered the book one of his proudest achievements.
We were all bound by love for each other, and the certain belief that if our parents and grandparents were still alive, they would appreciate our willingness to take this trip to bear witness to the killing fields of their youth. And so we committed to join a group of survivors’ children in Radom for the commemoration.
To get to Radom, we had to begin in Warsaw.
In 1942, more than 300,000 Jews were taken from their homes in Warsaw, forced into ghettos and ultimately gassed at the Treblinka death camp in a period of roughly two months.
Our guide showed us the remains of the once-vibrant community. We started in a mossy, deteriorated Jewish cemetery filled with tombstones of many who died before WWII. Somber plaques and heart-wrenching poetry also bore witness to the elimination of the Jewish population of Warsaw.
We heard of heroes who sacrificed their lives rather than collaborate with Nazis. We saw the few remaining brick walls of the Warsaw ghetto topped with fragments of barbed wire, and the “umschlagplatz” or the departure point, where Warsaw Jews were forced to board cattle cars to Treblinka.
We heard the story of the famed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 in which a ragtag army of untrained Jewish men and women staged an unheard of revolt against the Nazis, surprising and killing many of their enemies against all odds. That uprising led to their death and the leveling of much of the city by the Nazis in a furious response.
Within the confines of the old Warsaw ghetto is the new Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a starkly modern edifice built in 2013. Its copper and glass architectural lines contrast sharply with the nearby forlorn buildings of the old Warsaw Ghetto.
Here one can learn the 1,000 year history of Jewish life in Poland via an astonishing collection of interactive exhibits. Polish kings had once offered Jews a haven in their country, spurring migration from all over Europe.
However, over time, Jews were denounced by the influential Catholic Church, inciting the wrath of devout Poles. Jews always lived in their country as outsiders. They were Polish Jews, never Jewish Poles.
Radom was even more worn-out than Warsaw.
Our hotel was old, hot and uninviting. We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into, but gamely pressed on to meet a small group of families, mostly Americans, who had made the pilgrimage for reasons similar to our own. The group was oddly knit but congenial.
After a traditional Shabbat dinner with our new acquaintances, many of us strolled down the broad main street.
At first, it seemed alive and bustling, but almost immediately, we realized many of the men were drunk, and there were several unexpected incidents of young men shouting menacingly at us in Polish. Motorcycles roared by us, too close for comfort.
Suddenly we felt eerily isolated, different not because we were Americans, but because we were Jews. Were we paranoid? It was impossible to tell.
‘A beautiful, beautiful girl’
Nevertheless, we went on to locate my mother’s corner apartment on the most prominent street in Radom, which we had always laughingly referred to as the Fifth Avenue of Radom. Her comfortable home had literally been sliced in half by the Nazis when they created the Radom ghetto. One side of the apartment was in the Jewish ghetto. The whole family was moved to that side, and the other side of the apartment was taken away by the Nazis and used to house German soldiers.
Looking up at the once-proud building, my son said, “This is what we came to see.” But it was no longer what it once was. Indeed, this home had been stolen from my mother’s family. After the war, there was no thought of reclamation. Surviving Jews who returned to their homes were often beaten and run out of town. In some cases, they were even killed.
Among our group was one survivor from Radom, a spry and energetic 91-year-old man named Sol Birenbaum. His remarkable determination to teach Polish youth about the history of the Jews during the war had brought him from his home in New Jersey to Radom several times over the past 15 years. Birenbaum connected with some sympathetic local leaders and an educational group called Forum for Dialog, which exposed Polish students to personal stories of Jewish survivors. Most of them had no idea what had happened during the war.
Birenbaum had been a childhood friend of my father’s. His unexpected kind words about my father’s sister, (“I loved her,” he said. “She was a beautiful, beautiful girl.”) for whom I was named and about whom we knew so little, were jarring. Her name was Blima, and my name is Bonnie, in the Jewish tradition of naming a child after a deceased relative by taking the first letter of their name.
Who was Blima? What might have been had she lived? Did any of us look like her, share her strengths? Her weaknesses? My father rarely spoke of her, only said he was alive because of her. Another piece of the family puzzle, lost.
By the time the official ceremony we had come all this way for began, we realized it was all too little too late.
Liberation of Auschwitz
In a swell of emotion, we left Radom for Krakow. Our hotel was situated in the old Jewish quarter, a quick walk from the ancient synagogue and many Jewish-style restaurants crowded with sightseers. Although the area and the restaurants were touristy, we did not mind; it felt strangely comfortable. We walked amongst the summer crowds to see the famed Palace and Town Square with little enthusiasm. Like the Jews in Poland before us, we understood that this was not our history.
The most infamous death camp in history is located in Oswiecen, about an hour from Krakow. We arrived by 9 a.m., and the place was already packed with tour buses and tourists from all over the world. Our guide, Wojchek, greeted us.
It’s not an easy task to visit Auschwitz, to walk through the infamous gate bearing the ominous words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will make you free), and plunge into a world of unimaginable cruelty.
The concentration camp is divided into two sections, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. At Auschwitz I are many small red brick buildings that were used for administration and torture. At Birkenau one sees the train tracks where cattle cars filled with people finally stopped and victims disembarked, most headed for oblivion, but some selected for work details.
One can visit a barrack, learn of horrendously overcrowded and inhumane conditions, and ultimately, see the remains of the crematoria which, along with the gas chambers, were blown up by the Nazis as the Allies invaded in a futile attempt to destroy evidence of their crimes.
Very little of the barracks remain, but the brick foundations are still there and we were able to find the barrack my father lived in while he stayed in this awful place. His detail worked on the arrival ramp in Auschwitz, where he was a witness to the murder of countless Hungarian Jews. In all, the Nazis killed a million people in Auschwitz from all over Europe, most of them Jews.
My mother’s story remains unknown. She was at Auschwitz only long enough to be tattooed, and was never able to describe her experience there. Her daughters asked once or twice, got no information other than, “I don’t remember.”
Bludgeoned by what we were seeing and hearing, it was hard to react until we entered one building in which we heard the plaintive sound of a violin and faced a black wall that bore the word, Shoah, which means Holocaust in Hebrew.
The music penetrated each of us like an arrow to the soul. We each began to cry, at times uncontrollably, under the spell of the music. We entered another room with old-fashioned black and white 8-millimeter film of what life was like before the war for the Jews of Poland.
We saw a toddler dancing along a shoreline, families gathering for dinner. We entered another room to find a structure, like an oversized book, which held thousands of sheaves of oversized white parchment.
Each sheet held the typed names of those who had perished in the Holocaust. We found our mother’s mother and father, and her brother and the city of their origin. We found my father’s whole family except for him. The book and its pages went on seemingly forever and bore witness to those who hoped their deaths would not go unnoticed, despite the fact that they had no graves.
We left, exhausted, ready to go back to our hotel, and more than that, ready to go back to the United States, which we appreciated more than ever.
My father always said, “Travel is the most overrated word in the English language.” But not this kind, where you experience your own heritage, and feel ever more appreciative of the life you have and the people you love.