Monday 12 June 2017, Warsaw Region 10:15am
They’d been waiting to meet this witness since the beginning of the trip. An eye-witness capable giving such an accurate account of the shooting of Jews is very rare.
It was worth the 1 hour drive.
As usual, I wait with part of the team while Michal and Renata make sure the witness is available. He’d set up a meeting so we weren’t too worried.
From the small van I saw the wife of the witness speaking with a serious expression on her face. What was she saying to her husband? They were deep in discussion and Michal tried to calm the situation. After 15 minutes of talking they came back carrying folding chairs.
– “He doesn’t want to talk! It’s a real shame. He’s definitely the best witness of the trip, it’s such a shame”, said Michal with a hint of disappointment in his voice.
What happened? A loss of memory during the night? The fear of talking? The desire to forget? Maybe someone else was involved?
Imagine a village emptied of half of its inhabitants. We have to ask the inevitable technical question when the life of a village disappears like that – what happened to the assets and possessions of the Jews? We often talk about their clothes and jewellry being sold off in the public square, but what about their houses? Their animals? Their shops?
This is not an isolated reality. This is what happened in the vast majority of villages, towns and countries after the horror of the mass extermination, from Ukraine to Poland, across Belarus and Lithuania etc .
Is the silence of some a refusal to confront a shameful past?
It’s impossible to answer that question, but impossible to not think about it.
I shared my hypothetical thoughts with Michal, our team leader, but he refuted this assumption.
– “Mendel, it’s impossible, in this village there were no Jews before the war.”
How could I have chosen the worst possible hypothesis in order to explain a banal incident – not being able to do a testimony in front of a team of strangers and a camera at such an old age?
Monday 12 June 2017, Village of Dabrowa Kozlowska 15:35pm
Mariusz Derlita used to build railroads in the labour camp of the village of Dabrowa Kozlowska. He was only 15, but he was already strong enough to not be shot too early by the Germans. Natalia P. – our witness – was only 10 in 1943 but was already extremely courageous. She wrapped up bundles of food and hid them in the bushes, just next to where the railroads were being built, hoping that the prisoners would be able to feed themselves properly.
One day, Natalia’s father came discretely up to Mariusz.
– “Soon, the Germans are going to liquidate this camp. Your life is in danger. I’ll wait for you tonight at home. You need to flee, I’ll hide you.”
No-one knew his real name … Moshé? Or another name that sounded similar?
Mariusz had his head shaved in order to look more like Natalia’s brother who’d just left home. He also wore his clothes and said “Tato” when speaking to the father of the family. He had to avoid arousing suspicions.
Towards the end of the war Mariusz decided to look for another member of his family who’d managed to escape. A few months later he came back to the village to tell his adoptive family that he’d found his aunt and he wished to join her.
After an emotional thank-you for having saved his life, his silhouette melted into the horizon as he left for his new life.
The statement in the Talmud – “he who saves a life is rescuing a whole world” – is not just a legend or an assertion, it is a reality that can be found even in the middle of horror.
Tuesday 13 June 2017, town of Jedlinsk
– “Hello sir, are you looking for information on the Jews?”
– “Exactly”, replied Michal to the stranger who was passing on his bicycle as we were getting back into the van after an interview.
– “You’re in luck, I found a book in Hebrew dating from before the war, can I pass it on to you? I’m sure you’ll make better use of it than me.”
After hoisting his bicycle into the van, the man sat down next to the driver to show him the way to his house. We parked in front of a huge field, the house was on the other side of the field.
.- “This was the old Jewish cemetery, I live on the other side. Wait for me just a moment, I’ll come back.”
While he walked across the cemetery towards his house, I look around the burial site. The ground was tidy and well-kept, the fence encircling the area seemed new. However, there were no Matzevot (gravestones), no sign of a cemetery, it must have been pillaged during the war. That being said, the guardian clearly had a lot of respect for the place.
– “Here’s the book, it’s not in very good condition, but must be of historical value for the Jews” declared the stranger to Michal, handing him the book wrapped in a plastic bag.
– “Thank you, can we do anything to show our appreciaton?”
– “Absolutely not. My grandfather lived in the house on the edge of the Jewish cemetery, he had many Jewish friends, he spent lots of time with them and in spite of the prejudices and stereotypes that some people held at that time, my grandfather taught me to love and value the Jews and their religion. Today, I am happy to see you and to give you this book which is so important to you.”
Not being able to understand Polish I waited until the end of the conversation to ask Michal what the man had said. Michal passed me the bag with the book in it. It was a volume of Exodus, the one which tells the story of the suffering of the servitude of the children of Israel in Egypt and their liberation.
I felt like this volume between my hands summarised perfectly the complexity of my experiences.
Each person is free to choose the path of openness and tolerance, is that not the definition of liberation?