Our Holocaust Family History, Part I. My Father, Survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Treblinka Concentration Camp Uprising

Our granddaughter, in eighth grade, is studying the Holocaust.  We took her to Israel for her Bat Mitzvah where our Yad Vashem Museum guide, Mindy Ribner, had studied our family Holocaust history and took us directly to exhibits related specifically to our family.  Although I am so familiar with it, experiencing our family history through visual exhibits was overwhelming for me. I broke down in front of the Treblinka exhibit.  My father, Great Grandfather Mordechai to our grandchildren, was one of only sixty-seven survivors of the Treblinka uprising after having fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Now, our granddaughter asked me to write down our family Holocaust history. Many previous blog posts have recollections and thoughts about our family Holocaust history, if you put “Holocaust” in the search on www.grandmother-blog.com.  However, our granddaughter is right.  Before I die, a record must be made of what I know as a child of Holocaust survivors.

My father died in September,1989, and was able to see the birth of and have a relationship with his two granddaughters, which gave him ultimate joy.  He said the Nazis did not win (succeed in killing all the Jews in the world), a common saying of Holocaust survivors who were privileged to see the next generation.  Before he died, my father did an audio tape of his Holocaust experiences.  Our family donated that tape and a partial transcript of that tape (partial because of transcriber’s inability to understand some of my father’s accent) to the United States Holocaust Museum.  My father’s birth name was Mordechai Miotelka, which was Americanized to Morton Mattel when he arrived in the United States.  The audio tape is accessible on their website.

Oral history interview with Morton Mattel

Oral History | Accession Number: 2014.327.1 | RG Number: RG-50.347.0001

I, his only daughter, have never listened to my father’s audio tape or read the transcript. I know I never can. As a child born to two Holocaust survivors just after the end of World War II, I learned too much too early in my life, from the nightmares of my Father and daymares of my Mother. I know I will never listen to it, so my knowledge of my Father’s Holocaust history comes from listening to the nightmares and daymares, from hushed conversations between my parents and relatives not intended for my ears, and finally from my father himself, beginning when I was thirteen.  I was thought to then be old enough to hear his story.  He first gave me a book, “The Wall,” by John Hersey to read, so we could discuss it.

My father said that “The Wall,” although fictionalized, told of his life in the Warsaw Ghetto.  After I read it, my father said, “do you remember when the Nazis opened fire on the hay trucks which contained children hidden to be secreted out of the Ghetto?” He said, “I was there in the square.  Someone had tipped off the Nazis.  They fired machine guns into the wagons.  There were screams and cries everywhere in the square as the parents of the children were there watching and saw what was happening.  There were screams and cries of parents and of the children in the wagons.  Blood was dripping through the hay in the wagons and the hay turned red from blood.  Finally, the screams and cries and whimpers in the wagons stopped.  All of us in the square left quickly, all of us in trauma, but we knew the Nazis would quickly turn the machine guns on us.”

That was my life as a child of Holocaust survivors.  Years of hearing screams and cries and whispers and whimpers and stories from which I learned my father’s Holocaust story.  I sometimes wonder whether my perception from childhood is reality, but I still cannot listen to the tape. Our eldest daughter, our granddaughter’s mother, has listened to it. I told her my recollection and she confirmed that I what I knew is my father’s Holocaust history.

My father grew up in Warsaw, Poland, then a cosmopolitan city.  His mother, Rifka, was married to Mordachai Kalman Miotelka, her sweetheart, as a teenager, who was my father’s biological father.  He died from leukemia at age 17, before my father was born.  His mother remarried and had three additional children, Fay, Edward, and Basha Potash.  My cousin, Barbara, one of two  daughters of my only uncle Eddie, is named for Basha.  In the Jewish religion, we are named for those who have died to honor their memory.  Barbara said her mother’s video of her Holocaust experiences (Uncle Eddie’s wife Berta Potash) is also in the United States Holocaust Museum. Fay was a survivor of Auschwitz; she had a tatooed number on her arm.  She lost a husband and two year old son and was sterilized by the Nazis. Edward joined the Russian army and survived.  Basha was murdered by the Nazis, as were the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and all extended family.  All the survivors were traumatized, suffering mental and physical distress in some way, for the rest of their lives.

Oral history interview with Berta Potash

Oral History | Accession Number: 2019.253.1195 | RG Number: RG-90.063.1195

My father said his stepfather was cruel to him and his childhood was difficult as a result.  The Polish people were very antisemitic and continually made life difficult for the Jews, even before the Nazis invaded Poland September-October 1939.  Three uncles, his mother’s brothers, immigrated to American in the 1920’s to escape the pogroms, organized massacres of Jewish people in eastern Europe that could happen at any time. Many pogroms took place during holidays to bring greater trauma.  His mother stayed back in Warsaw to care for their elderly parents.

My father was unable to finish his education due to antisemitism.  My Father ran the Warsaw business for the three uncles who were in the import export fabrics business in New York City.  My Father said that their life was excellent as the uncles sent money from America for the family.  They had the best apartment, newest appliances and furnishings, and even had a live-in maid. Sometimes the money came late from America and they had to pawn things to retrieve when the money arrived. I knew he had married.  I recently learned from my brother this year that he had a nine year old son who was killed. My brother and I were told different stories at different times, but very infrequently. Our parents rarely talked to us directly about the Holocaust.  Mostly we learned by listening when our parents thought we were not listening.

The next book that was relevant to my learning of my father’s Holocaust history was “Mila 18,” by Leon Uris, given to me by my father to read when it was published in 1961.

I was fifteen when he gave me the novel, “Mila 18.”  He said that it told the story of his time as a fighter in the bunkers during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  I remember he said that the name “Mila 18” was taken from the headquarters bunker of Jewish ghetto fighters underneath the building at ulica Miła 18 (18 Mila Street, in English, 18 Pleasant Street).  He was in a bunker close by with a group of fighters, including his wife.

My father never told me dates.  From the internet, I learned that the Jewish resistance fighters’ Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was from April 19 to May 16, 1943.  I am not able to watch very much about the Holocaust, but I did watch a short YouTube video about the uprising, “To Live and Die with Honor: The Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”

To think just several hundred Jewish fighters with few guns and provisions fought off well armed Nazis for almost a month seems miraculous to me.  To escape the final smoke of the burning ghetto and bunkers when the ghetto was finally liquidated building by building by the Nazis, my father said he tried to escape through the sewers.  He was shot in the forehead coming out of the sewers.  Fortunately, it was a surface wound, but he always had a scar. He, his wife, and the other captured fighters were taken by train in crowded cattle cars to Treblinka, a death concentration camp.

My father said he and his wife were naked, on line to go into the gas chamber to be killed, when a “garbage detail” Jewish man (the men who emptied the dead bodies from the gas chamber) went to a Nazi guard and told him my father was his brother, and saved his life.  The gassing took about thirty minutes to kill, where screams and cries could be heard and slowly stopped. My father carried his dead wife’s body out of the gas chamber.  I do not know what happened to my father’s son.  I could not bear to ask my brother.  Our granddaughter will have to ask her great uncle.

My father said the man who saved him was a friend, a fellow fighter.  During the time  my father joined the “garbage detail” at Treblinka, he said that he was tortured, his bones broken, starved, and at one point told his friend he had enough and was going into the gas chamber the following day.  His friend told him to wait a few days.  Unbeknownst to my father, his friend was a leader of the Treblinka uprising about to come.  He said his friend probably saved him because he needed known fighters for it.  When the uprising began, a hole was blasted into the guard fence.  My father said his friend then told him it was an uprising and they dug up hidden bags that contained guns, ammunition, gold and small diamonds.  My father’s friend told him to grab five bags and grab five men and run for the woods outside Treblinka concentration camp.  At that moment, his friend was shot and killed.  My father grabbed all the bags and five men and ran.  The men my father saved all survived with the assistance of guns and ammunition and extra gold and diamonds to trade with farmers in the woods for food and shelter during their escape.  Our family still has some of the small diamonds that saved my father’s life again, to be held by the great grandchildren to pass on to future generations.

I was able to watch another short YouTube video, Treblinka Uprising.”  I learned the date of the uprising, August 2, 1943.  I am shocked my father lasted from the middle of May until then in Treblinka concentration camp.  He said survival had an element of luck to it and he was lucky that he arrived in Treblinka close to the time of a planned uprising.

My father joined a partisan resistance fighting group he came upon in the Polish woods.  Partisans were military groups participating in the Jewish resistance movement against the Nazis.  My mother was a fighter in that group too and that is how they met.  His partisan group decided to fight their way west from Poland into Germany to be liberated by the Americans as a better chance of survival.  They were told by other partisan fighters that the Russians who were coming from the east were killing any Jewish survivors they found.

My parents’ partisan group made it to Germany to be liberated by the Americans.  My father spent many months in and out of hospitals. His body was never the same after the physical trauma of his time in the concentration camp.  Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp, near Stuttgart, Germany, was turned into a displaced persons’ camp.  My parents were stateless persons, persons without a country, displaced persons who could not return to their country of origin. My parents were taken to Bergen Belsen.  They married on May 20, 1945, right after VE day, May 8, 1945, the day of the unconditional surrender of the Nazis, marking the end of World War II in Europe.

My mother became pregnant with me in Bergen Belsen displaced persons’ camp. My parents intended to go to Palestine, not yet established as the country of Israel, to fight in the war of independence.  Israeli Mossad, Israeli intelligence, and Haganah, Israeli Special Forces, were secreting those survivors who could shoot a gun and fight out of the displaced persons camps and getting them to Palestine for military training.  Holocaust survivors had great difficulty getting to what was then Palestine due to strict quotas for Jews.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his policies changed the course of our lives. During World War II, General Eisenhower became a five-star general in the Army and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe.  He served as the 34th president of the United States from 1953 to 1961.  President Eisenhower was revered by my parents and I learned his part in our family Holocaust history.  Our family history has been included by Susan Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s granddaughter, on page 65 of her most recent book, “How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions.”

“Renee Goldenberg, a judge in Florida, was born in a DP camp after the war.  She recalled that her parents, both Holocaust survivors, told her about the harrowing time before she was born. They had struggled their way across half of Europe so they could find their way into American hands.  When they arrived at a camp–with memories of Nazi rule fresh in their minds–they were terrified when trucks rolled into the facility.  Out of the trucks came Yiddish-speaking American soldiers, who brought with them U.S. telephone directories that enabled them to help Renee’s parents make contact with their relatives in the United States.  It was through what they thought of as Eisenhower’s consideration that Renee, then six months old, came to the United States instead of resettling in Palestine, where her parents might have been sent.”

General Eisenhower not only documented the liberation of the concentration camps, his humanity* helped the Holocaust survivors in many ways, including my parents.  My father’s first cousin, who was an American soldier stationed in Germany, was permitted to visit them in the displaced persons’ camp and convinced them to come to America instead of Palestine.  My father’s uncles helped us come to America when they found out my father was alive, that he was married, and his wife was pregnant.

In 1978, my father was to testify at the trial of Feodor Fedorenko, a Nazi and S.S. (“Schutzstaffel,” German for “Protective Echelon,” a cruel Nazi military unit) officer who was an assistant commander at the Treblinka Concentration Camp, who beat my Father viciously as he disembarked the train to Treblinka.  My father said, after all the years passing since he arrived in Treblinka, he could still identify Fedorenko, due to his evil eyes. He said you never forget the man who nearly killed you, as he had killed numerous others who disembarked at Treblinka.    Fedorenko, who had immigrated to the United States under false pretenses, was arrested and brought for a denaturalization trial in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In 1981, Fedorenko was deported. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was executed by shooting in Crimea in July 1987.  You can read about his evils at Treblinka on Wikipedia.

I was born a stateless person in Stuttgart, Germany on October 25, 1946, and arrived in the United States in May, 1947.  I was six months old.

My Mother’s Holocaust story to come.

With necessary sharing to preserve our family Holocaust history,

Mema

 

*Through mutual friends, I not only have met Susan Eisenhower but had the opportunity to introduce her at a legal event honoring her and her grandfather’s legacy.  I ended my introduction by saying, “only in America can someone, born a stateless person in a displaced persons camp to Holocaust survivors, have the opportunity say ‘thank you’ to the granddaughter of a President of the United States for his humanity.”

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