December 7, 2019

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Incredible journey

Polish Holocaust survivors' trek a harrowing, heartfelt read

Jews of Pinczow, Poland, were rounded up and marched to the transports in Jedrzejow to be taken to the Treblinka death camp.

Jews of Pinczow, Poland, were rounded up and marched to the transports in Jedrzejow to be taken to the Treblinka death camp.

Toronto-based journalist Ella Burakowski is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. In this heartfelt book aimed at readers aged 14 to 18, but certainly enjoyable by those who are older, she puts into writing the collected oral history of how her mother's family, the Golds, survived the nightmare years in Nazi occupied Poland (1939-45).

In this labour of love, Burakowski reminds us the millions who perished were all individuals who died horrible deaths, and that those few who survived owed their lives to a fate no less arbitrary than that which led others to their death.

Some will see the parallels in Burakowski's family history with the more familiar story of Anne Frank, whose family hid for years in a secret annex in an Amsterdam building. The Franks depended on the goodness of others to keep them alive; they lived in fear someone would betray them, that the German occupiers would find them and a sure death would follow.

These were the fears the Golds faced; their story is one of perseverance, courage, ingenuity and luck. But they knew, as Anne Frank wrote in her diary, "There is nothing we can do but wait as calmly as we can until the misery comes to an end... the whole world waits; and there are many who wait for death."

The family — parents Leib and Hannah, daughters Shoshana and Esther and son David — lived in the market town of Pinczow, Poland. Jews had lived in the town for hundreds of years and, in 1939, made up about 70 per cent of the population. In September 1939, the Germans destroyed the town and the Jewish population was forced to live under the brutal Nazi regime, but the family survived.

As life worsened and endemic anti-Semitic attitudes hardened Leib and Hannah, along with a Polish friend, made plans for the family's safety. However, the arrangements they made fell apart, as it soon became too dangerous to stay in the area.

On October 1942, 3,000 of the town's 3,500 Jews were deported to the death camp of Treblinka — one of whom was likely Leib Gold, who was never seen after that day. The few remaining who were alive fled into the forests to hide, join partisan fighters or seek refuge with Polish families.

The Golds decided to try to reach a nearby town of Dzialoszyce, where they might find precarious shelter in the Jewish ghetto.

Soon it became too dangerous in the town; in November 1942, they decided to seek safety elsewhere, in the hope that good people somewhere would help them and hide them until the end of the war.

David Gold, 12, wearing an armband identifying him as a Jew.

David Gold, 12, wearing an armband identifying him as a Jew.

The number of Poles that helped and hid Jews during the war years is still a historical controversy.

British historian Sir Martin Gilbert claims willing people were "few and far between," but nevertheless could be found in every town; Princeton professor Jan Tomasz Gross writes thousands of Poles helped save Jews, but thousands also helped Germans kill Jews, while many were merely indifferent.

In Burakowski's history we see the full manifestation of what people may do in such horrible times. Poles were motivated by a number of considerations: friendship, business relationships, simple greed, anti-Semitism, as well as preserving their own precarious chances of survival.

Unfortunately, we also see some Jews betrayed their own in the hope of their own survival.

After fleeing Dzialoszyce, the Golds met a Jewish couple who claimed to know a Polish farmer who would hide them if they could pay. The farmer's scheme was to get the money, then betray the family to the Germans and the supposed Samaritans would be in for a 10 per cent cut. As there were few wealthy Jewish people left to bring to the farmer, the couple knew they were next likely victims to be turned into the Nazis.

Ella Burakowski.

Ella Burakowski.

The Golds approached another farmer and asked him to take the family in for a monthly payment. The farmer hid the six in his barn for 26 months and used the money to feed his family, as well as those he was hiding.

When the money ran out, death by starvation loomed. Only when the Russian army retook the region in January 1945 could the starving, vermin-infested survivors leave their rat-ridden refuge.

In what may be called a happy ending the family was able to walk away from the hiding place, back towards Pinczow. But there was nothing there for them.

They left Poland and made new lives in Israel and Canada, where new generations were born and the family grew and prospered.

 

Ian Stewart teaches at Cecil Rhodes School in Winnipeg.

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