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What I Lost and Found in Poland | Melinda Mandelbaum Stein

“Folks, this is the captain speaking.  We are beginning our descent into the Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport.  Please return tray tables and seats to their upright positions and fasten your seat belts.  We will be landing shortly.”

 

I awoke to that announcement after a long transatlantic sleep.  Instantly there was turbulence in my gut, consisting of excitement, trepidation, and nausea.   Was this trip, planned over three years, really a good idea?  It was Poland, for God’s sake, was I really prepared for Auschwitz and the camps and the history and all the rest?  My entire family on both sides, going back countless generations, had lived here – until they’d perished in the most beastly, horrifying ways in the history of the world.

 

Maybe it wasn’t too late to get back on a plane and head home.

 

We hit the ground, and my husband Steve and our adult daughter and son collected our stuff and debarked. In the baggage area of the airport, we were waiting for our suitcases when a tall bald man, a Polish Mr. Clean, approached us.

 

“Is this the Stein family?”

 

“Yes,” I replied.

 

“My name is Janusz.  I am your driver and guide.  Welcome to Poland.”

 


 ***


  

Jewish people the world over observe the holiday of Passover with rituals including the recitation of the question, Why is this night different from all other nights?  In my youth, I would often ask myself often another question, Why is my family different from all other families?

 

 

 

The sense of being unusual, and that strange things happened in my family, began when I attended kindergarten.  I told my mother one day, “Mommy, the teacher read us a fairy tale called ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.  But I didn’t really understand it.”

 

“What didn’t you understand about it?” she asked.

 

“Little Red Riding Hood goes through the forest to visit her grandmother.  What’s a grandmother?  Is it a really good mother?  I think that you are a grand mother, mommy.  But if that’s what it means, why does she have to go through the forest to visit her?  Wouldn’t her grand mother be living at home with her?”

 

My mother explained that a grandmother meant a father’s or mother’s mommy.  And a grandfather was a father’s or mother’s daddy.

 

“So,” I wondered, “can I go through the forest to visit my grandmothers and grandfathers? Please?”

 

She responded that all four of them had died in a war and then told me to go play in my room. I had a vague understanding of death and of war, mostly from my older brother watching TV, but had my grandparents been soldiers like the U.S. ones?

 

 

 

Whenever I was with my mother as she was trying on clothes in a dressing room, or when she wore a bathing suit, I noticed some funny looking marks on the skin of her back.  They were puckered up, reddish looking areas.  None of the other mothers I saw had such strange back markings.

 

I asked my older brother if he’d noticed our mother’s back, and those odd rough skin things.

 

“They’re not ‘rough skin things,’ dummy.  They’re scars.”  He never explained what that meant.

 

 

 

And then there were the night sounds.  Emanating from my parents’ bedroom, mostly coming from my mother.  I couldn’t understand the meanings, but they sounded like she was in pain. Or scared.  Only once, I made out a word she’d moaned, lager.

 

Again, I consulted my brother, to find out if he knew what that word meant.

 

“Yup,” he said, “it has to do with beer.”

 

I was afraid he’d make fun of me if I asked him if mommy was having a nightmare about beer.  Years later, I learned that it’s a German word for camp.  And not the summer kind.

 

 

 

When I was nine, my mother began going to doctors often.  She had medicines to take, and sometimes groaned while holding a hand over her stomach.  I asked my father if she was sick, and he answered, “She has something called ulcers. She will be okay.”

 

I stopped having friends over to my house, though. My mother was frequently in bed when I got home from school, and I didn’t want any kids asking me about my lazy mom.

 

She and I used to play scrabble, but that too was no longer an option.  She told me she was too tired to play, but that I should do so with my brother.  That was a silly suggestion; the only games my brother enjoyed were card games with his friends. And playing tricks on me.

 

 

 ***

 

 

We left the airport in Janusz’s van, heading out to a modern highway.  I was astounded at the wide clean lanes, in some places covered from the elements.  In the past, my general idea of the country had been a somewhat behind-the-times place, as I’d thought all Eastern Europe was.  But ever since Communism ended in Poland, we were told by the guide, the nation had been zooming into the modern world and everything was far more up-to-date and developed than it had been.

 

“Just wait until you see the hotel, you will all be astonished.”

 

“Is that where we’re headed now?” I asked Janusz. “I’d really love a shower and change of clothing.”

 

“Not yet, we are making a stop in the first place that you need to visit.  It’s quite close.  Afterwards you will go to the hotel.”

 

 

 

About fifteen minutes later the van made a right-hand turn and, looking out the window, I saw a sign ahead.

 

It read, “Treblinka”.

 

 

 

The road was very different from the highway, much bumpier, single lane, and overhung by huge trees. The car parked, we all emerged and stretched.  Nearby we saw a long, snaking road made of rectangular stones, resembling train tracks, leading ahead.  Janusz stated that this was the same path along which the Jews were taken to the camp.  We four followed our guide’s lead down the track, and we emerged in front of a vast open plain.  This immense expanse was dotted with stone monuments resembling gravestones, except that they were irregular in shape and askew asymmetrically.  We began to circulate around the field and when I got close enough to read the stone inscriptions, realized that there weren’t names on these memorials.  Instead on each was the name of a town, and underneath that, the number of Jewish residents from the town eradicated by the Nazis from each location.  On many, there was no number at all.  Just “total”.

 

 

 ***

 

 

My family walked around the perimeter where there were explanatory panels.  I simply wandered from stone to stone, trying unsuccessfully to come to grips with this hellish landscape. Almost 900,000 people, Jews and some of the Gypsy/Romani people, were put to death in this place.  There had been barracks, work buildings, structures that housed “shower facilities”, which were actually gas chambers, and much more.  Now there was nothing except the surreal, Dali-esque terrain. As I circled around, I recalled two lines of a poem written at the war’s end by a survivor:

 

One lonely soul wandered, confused and dismayed,’

For under his feet the ground trembled and swayed.

Endlessly seeking his people, in grief,

Finds only that all is beyond his belief.

 

 

 ***

 

 

One night, when I was eleven, my father came into my room, woke me up, took my hand, and led me to the living room, all silently.  He sat down on a chair and pulled me onto his lap, even though I was getting a little too big for that.

 

“My maidele, my little girl, your mama died tonight.”

 

I stared at my father’s face and it suddenly had streams of tears, like the Niagara Falls, running down his cheeks.  That made me cry as well, while I was thinking, my mother can’t have died, that only happens to very old people. No other kids’ mothers die.

 

 

 

There was a funeral and a gathering in our house, but I felt like I was sleepwalking through all of that.  I barely spoke to the relatives and friends and tried to just stay in my room.  I kept thinking about my mother’s face and swearing that I would never forget what she looked like.  Unfortunately though, the last few times I saw her, she hadn’t really looked like herself anymore.         

 

 

 

I also tried to puzzle out why she’d died.  There was a new cold medicine advertised on TV, called Con-Tac, a time-release pill that delivered its medication over a long period of time. It gave me an idea, that maybe the Nazis had developed a time-release death pill and gave it to my mother so that she would be sick, but not die, until I was old enough to really need and miss her.  At this point in my life I already knew about the Nazis, having read the book, “Anne Frank”, which I hated.  How could she have possibly said, “Despite everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”  She had to be a moron!  People really are evil at heart, most of them anyway, and the ones that weren’t were only pretending.  I had been getting books from the library, mostly about the Jews and the Nazis. 

 

 

 ***

 

 

After a much-needed night of rest in our Warsaw hotel, a shockingly elegant lodging (which Janusz informed us had been the headquarters of the German officers during the war), we headed out for another death camp visit.

 

 


Maidanek was built to destroy all Jews in living in Lublin and surroundings, as Treblinka had been for Warsaw.  Another vast area, not of stone tablets but of low buildings, ditches, and a strange concrete structure on a hilltop.  

 

Before we reached the hill, we paused at one of the open buildings.  Inside there was a huge wire enclosure extending the length of the place and filled to the top with shoes.  Boots, high heels, sport shoes, footwear of every description, in variegated colors, materials, sizes.  I kept looking at the gigantic collection, fascinated by the spectacle, and one small plain white item caught my eye among the kaleidoscope.  It was a baby’s bootie, exactly like the ones my children had had.  It showed some wear, and the shoelaces were untied.  I had a crazy urge to climb into the bin and retrieve the little shoe in order to properly lace it up.

 

 

 

As we left the shoe hut, lines of another Holocaust-era poem came to mind:

 

I have seen a mountain,

And it is higher than Mt. Blanc

And holier than Mt. Sinai.

Such, such a mountain I have seen,

A mountain of Jewish shoes in Maidanek.   

 

 

 

Atop the hill stood something resembling a granite flying saucer that had been sliced in half.  The bottom part was cuplike, and the top half partially covered it like an umbrella. 

 

When we reached the structure, we all looked inside the low portion.  It was filled to the top with ashes.

 

      

 

“This camp was liberated by Russian troops when the German army retreated.  They found many piles and heaps and ditches, all full of human ashes.  And they made this monument to preserve the remainders of many who were murdered here. Through even the worst weather, these ashes stay put.


There is no possible way to estimate how many human beings are represented in this ash mound.”

 

 


We stared into the ashes, and I noticed here and there small white particles.  Janusz quickly said, “If you look closely you can see bits of bone that weren’t totally destroyed.”

 

 

 ***

 

 

My mother had a sister, Sally, and one day on my thirteenth birthday she came to my house with a present and a story.

 

 

 

 “It’s time to tell you about your mother, you are now a big girl.  During the war, she and I were taken from our home in Lodz to a slave labor camp named Skarzysko.  It was a terrible place, we hardly had anything to eat, and we worked in a factory making bullets.  Two buildings, called Werks A and B, were for the bullets, but the third one was for working with picric acid for underwater bombs, that killed many of the workers, who were almost all men.  When you worked there, your eyes began to turn yellow from the poison, and you died soon.  We did not know if we would ever get out of Skarzysko. 

 

Thank God, the war ended eventually, and we were liberated.  We were taken to Germany where the Americans were in charge, and they helped us.  Your mama was sick but they took good care of her, and finally we all came to America.”


I was speechless, didn’t know what to say or ask, so I just thanked her and after she left, I went to the library, and read up on that concentration camp.  It made me ill and depressed, and I went home and stayed in bed the rest of the day.

 

 

 ***

 

 

Many years later, when I was married and had young children, I developed a career as a lecturer.  Many of my topics related to World War II and the Holocaust, which seemed to fascinate and puzzle people.  I always began my talks with a brief introduction to myself and my family, and the latter’s experiences during the Nazi regime.


After one such talk, which focused specifically on the topic of the labor camps, a man about my age approached.

 

“Where was your mother during the war?” he enquired.

 

“She was in one of the camps in Poland,” I replied in brief.

 

“Which one specifically?”

 

“It was not one of the well-known camps, I’m sure you haven’t heard of it.”

 

“Try me.”

 

I was becoming annoyed by the questioning, so I snapped, “Skarzysko!  Skarzysko-Kamienna, in full.”

 

And he responded, “That’s where my mother was.”  I was skeptical, because this one had one of the lowest survival rates of any of the slave labor camps.

 

He reiterated that his mother had been imprisoned there.  Then he reached into a pocket of his jacket, took out a small notebook, ripped out a page and scribbled on it.

 

“This is my mother’s name and phone number.  She lives in Florida.  Can she call your mom so they can talk to one another?”

 

“My mother died in 1963.”

 

“Oh, sorry to hear that.  Could you call her?  She’d still be thrilled.”

 

I didn’t reply but took the information.  The rest of that day and for another couple of days, I thought about whether to reach out.  That dusty grey attic box of memories had lain shut for decades, was there really and point in opening it all up again?

 

 

 ***

 

 

Three days later I made the call.  “Hello?  Is this Rose Weinstock?” I asked.

 

A heavily accented voice replied, “Yes, who is calling me?”

 

I told her my name, and that I’d met her son at a lecture.

 

“Oh, yes, he told me!  Redst du Yiddish?

 

The rest of the conversation was in a mix of Yiddish and English.  My first question to here was if she remembered a woman named Ruth Korek.  I was prepared to hear a negative response, since that camp at full occupancy had 15,000 prisoners.

 

She said, “Yes!”  My heart rate sped up!

 

“What do you remember?”

 

“I remember that she had made a decision to mess up the bullets, how do you say it, sabo---

 

“Sabotage?”

 

“Yah, exactly.  She couldn’t live with making ammunition for the Nazis, may their names and memories be blotted out.  But the guard in the building, Werk A, saw this and she was punished. At the morning lineup they ripped off her shirt and whipped. She was badly hurt and lost a lot of blood.”

 

I could not say a word.

 

“Do you know what happened then?”

 

Shook my head.

 

“They sent her to Werk C.”

 

The deadliest place in the camp, where nobody survived.

 

There was silence between us, as I tried to absorb the information.  The she said, “I saw your mother about two weeks after she was sent there, and her eyes were beginning to turn yellow.  She was very lucky, because right after that the camp was liberated.”

 

 

 ***

 

 

Januz told us at breakfast that we were going to visit the town of Skarzysko-Kamienna that morning.  In the van as we began driving I girded myself mentally for what would no doubt be a difficult experience.

 

 

 

After two hours, we came to a town with a bustling main road.  Our guide slowed down, then turned into a parking lot right off the street.  There was an obelisk shaped structure with A Jewish star and a cross on it, as well as a sign next to it with the information about the history of the Skarzyso labor camp.  We all read the inscription, then we stood for a short while with our heads bowed.  Then I looked up and said to Janusz, “Okay, I’m ready to move on.”

 

“What?” he exclaimed.  “You don’t want to see the camp?”

 

I stared at him incredulously.  “How could we see it?  The Russians pretty much destroyed all the labor camps as they marched west to Germany!”

 

Janusz did an about face and pointed. “See that alley?  Down there you will find the Skarzysko camp.”

 

I was dumbfounded.  I turned and spotted a metal fence enclosure, and we all crossed the road and made our way down the ally.  There, an armed guard barked at us in Polish, and our guide began a prolonged discussion with him.  Finally, Janusz said to me, “This place after the war was turned into a Polish armament factory.  It has high security.  But I explained why you are here and you all have special permission to enter.”

 

 

 

We were escorted around the fence and walked all the way around.  There, we saw several factory buildings, prominent were two of them near each other.  I said, “These have to be the bullet factories, Werks A and B, a little updated but still here and in use!”  Further on, there were barracks-style structures with bars on the windows, and I assumed that these were the places for the workers, aka slaves, slept.  And further down the road was another factory, larger than the others, and this one had an armed guard in front.

 

 

 

I turned to my family and Janusz and told them that I just want a little time to myself.  Then I began walking up and down between the structures.  Suddenly, I experienced a cold shiver and goosebumps.  Standing still, I could feel some kind of aura next to me, and I thought I detected a faint outline of a woman.  Her face looked like my mother’s, before she got sick.  I’m not superstitious in the least, but I was sure something strange was occurring. The spirit, if that’s what it was, motioned me to walk.  So we did, in silence.  Twice she looked at me and smiled.  I couldn’t speak or touch the vision.  We came to the fence, stopped and looked at each other again, soundlessly, and then her presence evaporated.  I felt shaky and tried to control my rapid pulse.

 

 

 

Rejoining my family and Janusz, we began heading towards the exit and without warning, a dog began barking vociferously.  We all looked around, and on a ledge of the first factory building was a large German shepherd barking like mad.  I yelled out, “I need to get out of here!” I was feeling on the verge of being mauled by the animal, as had happened countless times during the Holocaust.  We ran out, even as our guide kept saying that nothing would happen, the dog would not bother us.

 

 

 ***

 

 

We saw more of the Polish camps and graveyards.  I found the resting place of my mother’s family, the Koreks, one of whom had been my great grandmother Gittel.  That’s my middle name, in her memory.  Another cemetery held an uncle who had been shot at the age of 16.  But most of my kin had been lost in the death camps and no place on earth held any remnant of their existence.  I lost not only the relatives that had lived in Poland prewar, but in addition, the generations that would have come from them that had been extinguished before they were even conceived.  Loss upon loss.

 

 

 

But there in Poland, where so much tragedy occurred and the trip so filled with sadness, there was one positive outcome.

 

   

 

I found my mother.

 

Melinda Mandelbaum Stein was born in Brooklyn, New York but has been residing in Savannah, Georgia for many years. She is a senior lecturer at the Learning Center of Savannah, a forum for avid mature learners. Melinda also writes on a number of topics, especially her experiences as a child of Holocaust survivors.  Melinda has been published in Aish Online, Frazzled, The Skinnie, and she will have her piece entitled, ‘Unlike Sheep To The Slaughter” featured in the upcoming spring edition of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

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