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May 25, 2012

the Lopuchowo forest in Poland where 2,000 Jews were executed by the Nazis during WWII

Filed under: Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 8:58 am

This quote is from an article in about a group of San Francisco Bay Area teens who participated in this year’s March of the Living:

Walking through the Lopuchowo forest near Tykocin in northeastern Poland, Zoe Weitzman imagined she could hear the cries of the 2,000 Jews who were executed there by the Nazis in August 1941. Weitzman, 19, a senior at Los Gatos High School, says she will never forget the experience.

I visited Tykocin in October 1998 on my first trip to Poland.  I was with a private tour guide, who wanted me to visit the nearby Lopuchowo forest after seeing Tykocin.  She told me that this was where the Nazis had executed thousands of Jewish residents of Tykocin.

I thought to myself at the time:  Seriously?  The Nazis wasted bullets when Tykocin was only a short distance from Treblinka where the Jews could have been gassed?  This didn’t make any sense to me.  I didn’t believe it.  So I told my guide that I didn’t want to take the time to see the forest.  “We’ve got to get to Treblinka,” I said. “We’re losing light.”

A few years later, I heard about the small town of Jedwabne in Poland where, just days after the Nazis occupied the town, on July 10, 1941, the Polish residents murdered almost all of the Jews in the town.  Just like Tykocin, the town of Jedwabne had a population that was half Jews and half Catholics.

I purchased the book by Jan Gross entitled Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne and learned the truth about Jedwabne.  The story of what had really happened in Jedwabne had been kept secret for 60 years.  As I read the book, I thought of Tykocin and the Jews who were allegedly shot by the Nazis, only a few miles from the gas chambers of Treblinka.

This quote is from the website

In the small town of Jedwabne in Northeast Poland, Jews lived side by side with local Poles for over two centuries; by the outbreak of the Second World War, they constituted more than half of the town’s 2,500 inhabitants. Relations were peaceful for the most part until July 10, 1941 when, just days after the Germans occupied Jedwabne, almost the entire Jewish population of the town was murdered. Beginning in the morning, Jews were chased, beaten and killed with clubs, knives and iron bars. Women were raped; a small girl’s head was cut off and kicked about. Jews were rounded up from their homes and brought to the market square where the town rabbi and others were forced to carry the statue of Lenin and to sing, “The war is because of us.” At the end of the day, all remaining Jews were forced into a nearby barn that was then doused with gasoline and set on fire. Music was played to drown out their cries. No Jewish witnesses were meant to survive, but seven managed to escape.

A memorial plaque that was erected at the site of the barn after the war read: “Here is the site of the massacre where the Gestapo and Hitler’s gendarmes burned alive 1600 Jewish people. 10.VII. 1941.” Such was the official version of history for almost 60 years, until the appearance of the book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community of Jedwabne, Poland by Jan T. Gross, a Polish-born Professor at NYU.  In the course of his research, Gross discovered that, in fact, it was not the recently arrived Nazis, but local Polish residents who had carried out this massacre. The book, first published in Polish in May 2000, caused a painful and far-reaching public debate. The dispute was fueled by the realization that the book would soon appear in English, making the story widely known beyond Poland’s borders.

Did you catch that?  The Nazis were blamed for burning Jews alive in a barn in Jedwabne, when it was actually the Polish residents of the town who had murdered the Jews.  Did the same thing happen in Tykocin?

Notice the dates of the massacres:  In July 1941, the Jews were killed by the Poles in Jedwabne, but in August 1941, the Jews from Tykocin were killed in the Lupuchowo forest by the Nazis.  What are the chances of that happening?

May 22, 2012

the long road from the shetetls of Eastern Europe to the good life in America and the UK….via Auschwitz

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 10:27 am

A house in the shetetl of Tykocin in Poland

When I made my first trip to Poland in October 1998, I wanted to see the death camps and the gas chambers.  Before I left on my trip, I made arrangements for a tour guide through a company in New York City.  I wanted to make sure that I had a guide who spoke English.  Before taking me to see the camps, my guide told me that I had to first see a shetetl so I could see what it was like for the Jews who were living in Eastern Europe during World War II.  I couldn’t even pronounce the word shetetl and I didn’t understand why I had to waste time seeing a village where Jews no longer lived.

A log house with a tin roof in the village of Tykocin in Poland

Many of the houses in Tykocin look like barns, with what appears to be a hayloft in the attic space, but you can tell they are dwellings because they are right next to the sidewalk and have curtains in the windows.

The German name for the shtetel Jews was Dorfjuden, or village Jews in English. A few of these villages had a population that was 100% Jewish, but in most of them, the Jews lived side by side with the Polish Catholics. The town of Tykocin was divided down the middle into the Jewish district on the west side and the Christian district on the east side.

The weathered gray wooden house shown at the top of this page appears to have shutters on the two doors which are closed and barred. On the top of the house is a window which looks like an opening into a hayloft. To prove that these buildings are not barns, I took a picture of a barn in the back yard of the house, which is shown in the photo below.

Shetetl house on the left with a barn in the background

If these barn-like houses look familiar, it may be because you have seen houses just like them in the movie Fiddler on the Roof.

When these houses were last inhabited by shtetel Jews, most of them did not have indoor plumbing. According to historian Martin Gilbert, there were whole villages in Poland, as late as 1945, that did not have running water, indoor toilets or a sewer system. There was no industry in Tykocin then and, according to my tour guide, the inhabitants were engaged in farming, including the Jews.

House in Tykocin, a former Jewish shetetl

After Poland was partitioned for the third time in 1795, Tykocin was located in the section that came under the control of Russia. Between 1835 and 1917, Tykocin was included in the Pale of Settlement, the reservation where the Jews were forced to live by decree of Russian Czar Nicholas I. The movie Fiddler on the Roof depicts the life of the Jews in the Pale and ends with the start of their expulsion in 1881 after the assassination of Czar Nicholas I during the revolutionary activity, that was just beginning, which finally culminated in the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II by the Communists in 1917.

Two million Jews were expelled from the Russian sector of the former country of Poland between 1881 and the start of World War I in 1914. Most of the Jews from the Pale of Settlement came to America, but some settled in Germany or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1917, some of the Jews from the Pale of Settlement, who had emigrated to America, returned to fight in the Communist Revolution.

In October 1998, when I visited the Auschwitz II camp, aka Birkenau, it was a rainy day and I was not able to take as many photos as I wanted to take.  When I told my Jewish tour guide that I wanted to come back at a later date, so I could take more photos, she said, “Don’t come during the March of the Living.”  When I asked why, she said that the March of the Living was held once a year to celebrate the victory of the Jews over the Nazis and it was not safe for a person, like me, who looked German, to be in Auschwitz at that time.  (The guide appeared to be Jewish, but she claimed that she was not a Jew because, as I learned when she was verbally attacked in Krakow, Poland was not safe for Jews in 1998.)

This morning, I was reading about three Auschwitz survivors, who now live in South Florida.  They were on this year’s March of the Living.  You can read the article here and see a video about their trip here. The March of the Living also goes to the Maidanek (Majdanek) camp, where the people on the march can see gas chambers and a reconstructed crematorium.

What impressed me about the story of the three Auschwitz survivors on the March of the Living is how lucky they were to have survived their ordeal in a death camp and to have been able to come to America where they could live the good life.

This quote is from the news article:

As the trio travels back to Auschwitz in Poland, each tells a terrifying story about being ripped from their homes and loaded onto crowded trains, with no idea where they were going or what would happen to them once they arrived.

Standing on the train platform at the Birkenau extermination camp, part of Auschwitz, Mermelstein remember the being greeted by the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele, the man who performed cruel medical experiments on children and adults being held by the Nazis. “He looked at you, had on white gloves and a little stick and just motioned right or left.” Mermelstein is explaining what became known as “the selection process.”  In that split second, people where chosen for life or immediate death in the gas chamber.  No one realized at the time what was happening.  “The people went to right went this way, people who went to left, right behind the fence there, there’s a walk way, they walked about a half a mile to where the gas chambers,” recalls Mermelstein.

The photos below show some of the survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the people who were sent to the right during the selection process, and they survived.

Child survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Old woman walking with a cane as survivors leave Birkenau

Child survivors walking out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp