Monday, January 27, 2014

Day of Remembrance at the United Nations and in Family History

On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops came into the largely empty death and concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Its prisoners were sent on the death march towards Germany. Only few were left behind. The United Nations selected this day to establish the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. The more time passes since the war, the more people want to forget or deny that it happened. It is important to remember. All the more so, that people who have seen and heard what happened when it happened are dying out. It is important to record their memories, even if these memories are not exact and fit for official historical record. Even if they are garbled in family stories, passed on from grandmother, to mother, to daughter, transmitted from grandfather, to father, to son.

 Born in Warsaw, Poland, with ancestral roots in Podlasie and Kresy - eastern borderlands of Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus, now divided between these three countries - I used to travel to visit the tombs of my grandparents every October, for All Souls Day, Zaduszki. On the way we passed through a small town with a cemetery right by the road. What happened is in my poem.


The arch of candlelight in the night sky
above the town of Kałuszyn greets them on the way
to the grandparents’ village. Zaduszki.
All Souls’ Day – the annual visit to the cemetery.

They drive towards the yellow halo
above charcoal horizon. Aunt Basia reminds her:
You have to remember. This town was Jewish
and they were all killed. There’s nobody left
to light a candle for them. They don’t even have tombs.
They were all taken, all murdered.
Other people moved into their houses.
Beyond the moss-covered stone wall
of the village cemetery in freshly plowed fields
her grandparents twin tombstones
rest in the reassuring golden shade
of ancient chesnut and oak.

Candles, chrysanthemum, flower wreaths.
They walk in the rustling leaves,
pray, think of the past.
She tries to imagine the empty town,
the unnamed strangers.

Thirty years later, in Montreal, she sees her first Jew,
in a long satin robe, yarmulke, with curly locks of hair.
She smiles, finally relieved of her duty.
They remember.

(C) 2014 by Maja Trochimczyk

This poem is a part of a new book I suddenly started writing, What Children Learn from War with bits and pieces remembered by my parents, my grandparents, my friend's mother. With bits and pieces heard and seen. With lessons what to do and how to behave to survive. I started thinking about it because I had to. Invited to a conference on "The Musical World of Polish Jews, 1920-1960" at the Arizona State University in Tempe, I decided to educate myself on the historical context of the musical lives I was writing about. My study of "Jewish Composers of Polish Music in 1943" evolved into a different paper, seeking to show the extensive presence of Jewish musicians in Polish musical life in the interwar period, and their displacement or destruction afterwards. For the context, I read some books, then decided to see what happened and, thanks to YouTube, was able to watch documentaries. The most striking one was about the trials of German guards caught by Soviets at the extermination camp in Majdanek near Lublin. Their complete lack of remorse, their inability to understand that what they did - kill Jews - was wrong. They turned to their accusers, not comprehending: "But we did not kill you, guys. We had to do what we did. We just killed Jews."

For these men, quickly relieved of their lack of comprehension by the "guilty" verdict and a public execution, the Jews were not human beings. Over 100 death camps guards were convicted and executed in Poland, under Soviet rule, only about 10 in Germany, liberated by American and Allied troops. The purpose of remembering the Jewish victims is obvious: this was an unprecedented crime against humanity, crime against all of us.

I went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time this year. I was very impressed with the scope and tone of the exhibits. As a Pole, I was also grateful for an extensive and fair portrayal of the suffering of all Polish people: the Slavs, in accordance with their name, given to them back in the times of the Roman Empire - sclave/slave - were to be slave laborers. Their leaders - teachers, priests, university professors, officers - murdered, their schools and colleges closed. Poland was the first country invaded by Hitler that fought the invasion. The first country that never formed a government supportive of the Nazi rule. The country with over 400,000 people involved in the  underground Home Army - armed resistance. The country with the largest number of the Righteous among the Nations in the world.

Some people want to use the term "Holocaust" for other victims. It is and should be limited to the Jews and Gypsies, who were both scheduled for complete annihilation. It is hard to visualize a crime of such monumental proportions, executed in a frenzy, accelerating towards the end of the war: when all was lost and the ring was tightening around Germany, they still have time to kill the Jews. Calling it crazy does not do it. But visiting the Museum is a step towards understanding.

One exhibit struck me - the photographic record of the entire shtetl of Ejszyszki, from 1890 to 1942. All its Jewish inhabitants were killed but the photographs somehow survived and now form the inside of a circular tower that spans several floors. You can look up from the ground floor and see the small photographs way up high, with details disappearing. You can look down from the second floor and see the generations receding into shadows. The exhibit is masterly, as it brings the ordinary lives of ordinary people to our attention. Just like you and me. They went to school, worked, married, had fun, posed for family portraits... This exhibit filled in the blank that I had in my mind about that empty ghost town of Kaluszyn that we drove by each year and I had to remember. I did not know what to remember, just that it was empty after the war. So this is how these people looked like. Us. I went into the Hall of Remembrance, lighted a candle - just one candle - for all the people from Kaluszyn whom I never knew. Never had a chance to know. Germans made sure of that. I also lit a candle for the victims from my mother's family.

Thanks to the efforts of family historians Waldemar Wajszczuk and Barbara Miszta, we know how many people in the extended Polish family Wajszczuk from Podlasie have been incarcerated in Auschwitz, who died there. Who was a prisoner in Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Majdanek. Who died there.

My family is not Jewish, yet claims quite a few victims. And freedom fighters. Father Karol Wajszczuk (b. 1887 – d. 1942) was a prisoner of the Lublin Castle since April 1940, he was then moved to Sachsenhausen and then to Dachau on December 14, 1940. He died on 28 May 1942 in the Castle Hartheim in a gas chamber built to exterminate the disabled for the Euthanasia program. His father, Piotr, was the brother of Franciszek, the patriarch of the Wajszczuk-Trochimczyk branch. He was a chaplain for a small cell of Polish freedom fighters, an underground group called "Our Eagles" and including the following men: Stefan Kowalczuk, Bazyli Łaźko, Adolf Młynarczuk, Feliks Szafrański, Józef Krawiecki, Tomasz Stańczuk, Jan Dąbrowski and Bolesław Hawryluk killed in Auschwitz; Stanisław Daniluk arrested and murdered by the Gestapo in Radzyń Podlaski; Jan Ciechowski and Jan Saczuk, also murdered by Germans. "Only Jan Kozłowiec, imprisoned in the Lublin castle, was rescued by members of the Warsaw diversion section of AK" - states the memorial site for Father Wajszczuk in his home parish of Drelow.

His cousin, Father Feliks Wajszczuk (b. 1902 – d. 1973) was in Sachenhausen, then in Dachau since 14 December 1940 and was liberated by Americans on 25 May 1945. He spent the rest of his life in a monastery in France, since his damaged health did not allow him to work. All together, seven members of the extended Wajszczuk family were imprisoned by the Nazis at the infamous Lublin Castle. Two died there and one, Józef Wajszczuk, died in Auschwitz where he was sent in April 1942 and died on 20 December 1942. “Known” as “Mały” he was a member of the Polish Underground (Home Army). Three other members of the extended family were killed fighting in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944: Barbara, Wojciech, and Antoni Wajszczuk. They followed in death their father Edmund (Karol’s brother) who was also involved with the Polish underground.

I wrote about them in two poems. Their memories should be carried forward to the younger generations. I did not want to know, did not want to remember. I was "allergic" to all these monuments to the victims, commemorations, the entire month of April spent on national "martyrology"... Too much for a teenager wanting to study music, read books, go to art exibits. Too much for a young "social butterfly" flitting from an art opening to a new music premiere.

Standing Guard

Enough with the cemeteries, martyrs.
Who cares? Not she, forced to stand
at a tombstone for some fifty strangers
in the freezing rain of April.
She shivers in a white shirt, pleated navy skirt,
a school sweater. The longest hour
of her ten young years.

Someone gave her an ugly beret
she would have never picked. A red tie?
Not allowed to move, sit, turn, frown,
or scratch her nose. Not allowed to talk
to the other girl. No smiling either. Eyes fixed
straight ahead, looking at a distant point.
The longest hour. This is how the dead
consume the living. Reverse cannibalism.

Would she have been more willing
had her parents told her?

Two great uncles, priests held at Dachau:
one relieved of his ills in a gas chamber,
one liberated, with his body, spirit broken.
A fighter of the Polish underground killed in Auschwitz.
Two others hanged in the Lublin Castle.
A denounced Home Army soldier
who came back alive from Majdanek and Gross Rosen.
Three siblings went to fight in the Warsaw Uprising,
were buried in ruins in September 1944.
Those who perished in the Soviet Gulag.
That officer shot in Katyń.

The list goes on and on.
Is that what a ten-year-old should learn?

The list of my family's victims includes freedom fighters, members of underground resistance. Not ordinary children, babies, mothers, grandmothers, wheel-chair bound invalids. It is the killing of ALL that is unique to the Holocaust. It is the killing in the name of making a new, better world. This, too, we have to remember.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Part of never forgetting is sharing the stories we have with our friends and family.