Our Holocaust Family History, Part II. My Mother, Holocaust Survivor

My mother, born Feiga (“little bird” or Zipora in Hebrew) Jelen, for whom our granddaughter is named), rarely spoke of the Holocaust. When her first great grandchild was born, she wrote:

“There is an outpouring of emotion. Remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust.  Resistance. Remembrance. Survival. Centered on one basic lesson–to never forget.  The Holocaust is certainly the most tragic event in history. And so are the surrogates for Jews who have died.  We will proclaim we will never forget.  Tears were shared among those families.  How do we speak of the unspeakable.  Our hearts are numb.  But we come here together, and we mourn together.  Six million Jews who fell victims to the most despicable acts ever.  Jews the world over remember.  It fails to capture the pain that we feel, which we are not over.  We need to keep these heroes alive.  They insure us in never forgetting.  We have a deep sense of collective loss.  Most who survived know they were lucky.  Although many survived, few really escaped.  The Jewish people have suffered a loss so great it will never forget it.  I am a survivor.  I did not dwell on yesterday’s pain.  I learned to dream again.  I am proud.  I am humble.  I shall hold my head up high.  I always aspired for a better tomorrow.  I will never forget the Jewish tragedy.”

Frieda Mattel

 

After the birth of her first great grandchild, my mother, in longhand, began writing of her experiences before and at the beginning of World War II, and seemed to rewrite and rewrite them, never getting beyond the beginning of the war and never able to complete them.  Recently I found what she wrote and I intend to donate those excerpts to the United States Holocaust Museum.  My early knowledge of her Holocaust story came from her daymares, episodes that took place without warning where all of a sudden she would fall to the floor, writhing around and screaming in Yiddish, Polish, German, things like ‘don’t kill me. Don’t hit me.”  She was taken to another place and time, oblivious to my presence, unable to control herself and her emotions.  Just as suddenly she would stop, stare for a time that felt very long, and go back to what she was doing, singing Yiddish songs to our green parakeet, cooking traditional foods from her childhood, preparing for the Sabbath or a Jewish holiday.  It was as if recalling a bittersweet memory triggered the horror of the past. For my mother, just a young teenager herself when she experienced the Holocaust, adaptation was survival.

As I said when recounting what I know of my Father’s Holocaust history, 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. My knowledge of my mother’s Holocaust history, like that of my father’s, mostly came from listening to her calming my father during his nightmares, her daymares, from hushed conversations between my parents and relatives not intended for my ears.

As I grew from teenager to adult, every time my mother heard any “story” about a horror that took place during the Holocaust, she would say, “that is nothing compared to what happened to me. . . .” And, of course, I would experience her revelation that to me was indeed worse that the Holocaust story on the news, in a movie, or any other form of media, and worse than anything she had previously revealed.  She was my mother and if she was in pain, my pain was as bad.  My old sore of the remnants of recovery from trying to cope with what had occurred in the previous Holocaust story was still a dull ache, and here it would come through another revelation, each more incredibly diabolically evil, easily causing one to question the existence of G-d.

With my mother, the transfer of her trauma to me became most apparent to me when I was forty-seven years old. My mother had gone to see the movie, Schindler’s List, and I expressed my surprise and angst as I had seen the movie and could not understand how she could sit through it.  Of course, she said it was nothing, and proceeded to tell me something in the Holocaust she experienced that was worse.

What was shared with me then was the worst yet.  She said in the camps, and she escaped from several small work camps, every Friday night was the same. The Nazis were known to follow meticulous repetitive practices and schedules in the concentration camps, so I understood.  Friday night was the beginning of the Sabbath, a day of religious observance and restraining from any work, kept by Jewish people from Friday evening to Saturday evening.  My mother said the Nazis built a giant bonfire in the camp every Friday night. She said all the young women of child-bearing age were made to strip naked and dance around the bonfire and sing lullabies. Then the Nazis took all the babies and toddlers and small children that arrived in the camp that week and threw them alive into the bonfire.  There were piercing screams from the fire as the babies and toddlers and small children were burned alive. My mother said their mothers started screaming and some jumped into the bonfire. If someone stopped dancing or singing they were whipped.  My mother had many scars from whip marks on her back.

That my mother had the resiliency to survive this horror repeatedly still amazes me. I could not sing lullabies to my daughters, but I did not know why until my mother told me these Holocaust experiences.  When my first grandchild was a newborn, I intentionally sang lullabies to him.  Tears would roll down my cheeks, and I would shake and sob, but I knew that not only had the Nazis tried to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth, their diabolical plan included psychological torture of those who might survive to destroy the nurturing ability of future Jewish generations.  I could not and would not let them win.  I must admit that it has not become easier to sing lullabies to our second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth grandchild, but I did in memory of my mother.  Yes, six Jewish grandchildren.  As the Holocaust survivors frequently said, the Nazis did not win.

During that horrific revelation, I told her that she had never told me that before.  She insisted she had. Then I realized that she had.  I suddenly remembered.  My brother and I were in an alcove bathtub and there were candles burning in the bathroom, so I know it was a Friday night, the Sabbath, when we did not use electricity.  My brother was in my lap and I was holding him up, so he must have just learned to sit up, about six or seven months old, which made me almost four.  My Mother was washing us and singing Yiddish lullabies from her childhood.  Without warning, suddenly, she fell back on the floor, writhing around and screaming with her face looking like the painting “Scream,” by Edvard Munch. My brother and I started screaming.  He was slippery and I could not hold onto him.  I was too little. His head was slipping under water.  I could not save him from drowning. Fortunately, my Mother regained consciousness, grabbed my brother, and turned him over hitting his back.  We were all sobbing. Then, while we were all still in trauma, I remembered that she said, “they were only killing the children,” and recounted those Holocaust memories.

I did not remember that story when I was close to four years old.  Over many years and through adulthood, I had frequent nightmares that my brother was dying in many different ways and I could not save him. I then realized that the extreme trauma and shock of that story in those circumstances when I was so young translated into nightmares for forty-three years.

When I revealed that she had told me that story when I was younger than four years old during one of her daymares, and not after, my mother whispered, “sometimes it takes sixty years for the words to come out of your mouth.”

The major death concentration camps have names that may be known: Treblinka, Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and many others.  From the United States Holocaust Museum lectures and website, I learned that “[b]etween 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites (including ghettos). The perpetrators used these locations for a range of purposes, including forced labor, detention of people deemed to be “enemies of the state,” and mass murder. Millions of people suffered and died or were killed.” https://www.ushmm.org/research/publications/encyclopedia-camps-ghettos Six million Jews were killed; approximately one and a half million were children.

After the Nazis arrived in her village in Poland, my mother suffered enslavement, forced labor, forced marches, beatings, torture, starvation, disease, vermin, and trauma in a ghetto and several labor camps. When my mother, right after the war, said that she was imprisoned in several camps she was not believed, as early on after the war as she could not recall any names and the camps were not included in the names of the major camps.  At that time, no one knew the extent of the concentration camp system the Nazis had put in place.  No one then knew the extent of the diabolical evilness of the Nazis.

My mother was raised in a small village in Poland called Branszczyk. Branszczyk is in northeast Poland, seven miles northeast of Wyszków, the nearest “large” town, and thirty nine miles northeast of Warsaw in the Ostrow Mazowiecka District, Bialystok Province.  She told me her small village was a shtetl, where there were many Jews in the town and surrounding farm and forest area of Poland. According to Wikipedia, a shtetl “was a small town with a large Jewish population which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.”

Over the years I tried to find as much information as I could about Branszczyk. My oldest grandson was able to locate Branszczyk on Google Earth, and we both went through the streets trying to locate my mother’s house, which I vaguely recalled seeing once when I was young on a postcard of the county or district government office which she said used to be her home.  It seemed like a large town on Google Earth, but then again, she lived there in the 1930’s, nearly ninety years ago. A 1921 census reported only 731 residents in Branszczyk, of which 140 were Jews.

Branszczyk was occupied by the Nazis in October 1939, and the Jews were sent to the large town seven miles away, Wyszkow, and to the east, put in ghettos and camps. Ultimately all were murdered by the Nazis, except my mother, the only Jewish survivor of Barnszczyk. “Before World War II half of Wyszków’s population of 9,000 were Jewish; after the war there were none.”  Information regarding the town of Wyszkow mentions that in 1939 the Nazis used Jewish gravestones as paving stones and to build the local Gestapo, German secret police, headquarters.  My mother mentioned hard labor carrying heavy stones, so it may be that she, when enslaved, was forced to work on that Nazi project.

Also included in the information about Wyszkow was that Jewish partisan groups were operating in the forests of this area of Poland. Partisans were military groups participating in the Jewish resistance movement against the Nazis.   Some Jews were caught and murdered in this area as late as January 1943 to April 1944.

Branszczyk is even listed in Wikipedia.

My mother’s entire immediate and extended family of parents and siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, was murdered by the Nazis.  All of her Jewish friends and neighbors were murdered by the Nazis.  She spent her teenage years struggling to survive. As the sole survivor of her village, after the war, she said she was alone in the world.

In the Jewish religion, babies are named for those family members who are deceased so their memory is kept alive.  We have so honored all of my Mother’s close family.  My mother’s mother was Rifka and her father was Chaim.  I am named in memory of her mother and my brother is named in memory of her father. She had two older brothers, Pesach and Mordechai, and three younger siblings, Meyer, Baruch and a baby sister Shana Pesha.  Our oldest daughter is named in the memory of this baby sister.  Our grandsons are named in memory of all her brothers and her favorite uncle, her mother’s brother, Anoch Wielgolewka.  Her favorite aunt was Raizel Hudzik, her mother’s sister, for whose memory our younger daughter is named.

As had my father, my mother told us that the Polish people were very cruel to the Jewish people even before the Nazis came to Poland, and her shtetl and neighboring shtetls and towns suffered many 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. When the Nazis came, they put the Jews in ghettos, a segregated area to which Jews were restricted, subjected to loss of property, loss of employment, loss of education, starvation and torture, and then to work camps or death camps and murdered.  My mother told me she visited her oldest brother, his wife, Dora, and baby Hannah where they lived in Warsaw when the Warsaw Ghetto was still open for travel, early in Nazi occupation, and told me that she was walking with her sister-in-law and the baby, three months old, in the carriage, and a Polish officer came up to them, took the baby out of the carriage and threw her against the wall.  Her sister-in-law grabbed my mother and whispered keep walking or he would kill them too.

My mother was a young teenager when World War II reached her area of Poland.  Her father, rabbi, a teacher, who studied Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation of the Old Testament Bible, was a counselor and healer, revered among his congregation.  She said sometimes it seemed her father spent more time with his congregation than the family.  She did seem to believe she was her father’s favorite.  Her father told her a few years before the war started that there was going to be a great war and she would be the only Jewish survivor of their entire village. Although women were forbidden to study Talmud, Jewish religious texts, and Kabbalah at that time, he taught her as she was going to be of only a few Jews to survive the war, that she must know Talmud and Kabbalah so the study would not be lost.

Before the family was forced out of Branszczyk by the Nazis, they hid savings and gave furniture and possessions to non-Jewish friends and neighbors for safekeeping.  After the war ended, my mother went back to Branszczyk to see if any of her extended family or friends were alive.  She learned that all her extended family, including parents and all her brothers and sisters, perished, and that she was the only Jewish survivor of her village.  The previous Polish neighbors and family friends pointed guns at her and threatened to kill her.  Only her non-Jewish best friend saved her and gave her the only family heirlooms she had been given for safekeeping, some silver and her father’s watch.  My brother has the watch, and my mother melted the silver to make a candlestick, which our oldest daughter has to pass on to future generations.  The family home, which had a small synagogue attached like a leanto, according to my mother, was taken over by the Nazis and, when she went back to the village, by the Poles.  Nothing remained of the family possessions or her life in Branszczyk.

My mother was in five or so “work” concentration camps, each one more debilitating, which if one survived that horror, led to camps where death was the only end.  She survived selection in each by becoming the age and what was needed by the Nazis, a seamstress, a workman, a farmer. . . for survival.   I remember her telling about the “selections” when one arrived at a camp, and how she listened to those on line before her and the Nazis, changed her age, her abilities to do different kinds of work, as she moved up for her turn, and so that she would survive the selection process.  My mother could not remember her real age or real year of birth as she had the resiliency to keep changing to save her life at many times in many ways.  She said that she knew to make herself older as the Nazis enjoyed raping very young Jewish girls.  If the Nazis did not immediately kill the young Jewish girls they raped, some would mark the raped girls in some way, such as breaking an eye socket.

After the concentration camp selection process ended and those sent to death were taken away, my mother said the brutality would start to make the Jews fearful, as if they were not afraid enough. My mother was always terrified of large dogs, and she would grab my brother and me and cross the street in fear in America. Dogs in the camps would be let go to rip adults and children apart alive, limb by limb.  She said she would watch the guards and, in the commotion, move next to a guard who had flinched at the brutality, knowing she might survive beatings and torture then in that guard’s group.  My mother said she would look for the first opportunity to escape those small work camps.  She shared that the first time she escaped from a camp she fled back to Branszczyk to her non-Jewish best friend, who lived on a farm outside the town.  Her friend took her to a distant farm of her friend’s cousin where she was hidden for three months in a hole dug under the floor. Until I was in my forties, I thought she spent three years hidden at that farm from the Nazis and when she said it was three months, I knew my child mind had kept her safe by thinking it was three years rather than three months.

There was fighting in the area of the farm and she had to flee again.  Ultimately, she joined a partisan group in the forests in Poland. My mother became a fighter in that group.  She met my father in that partisan group.

Please read Part I of our Holocaust family history for how their partisan group fought its way across Poland to Germany to be liberated by the Americans, I was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, we almost ended up in Palestine/Israel, and we arrived in America in May 1947 when I was six months old.  “Our Holocaust Family History, Part I.  My Father, Survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Treblinka Concentration Camp Uprising.”    Many previous blog posts have recollections and my thoughts about our family Holocaust history, if you put “Holocaust” in the search on www.grandmother-blog.com.

My life should not have been several times, because both my parents’ lives should not have been several times.  My mother taught us to be good to others and helpful to others, because she would not have survived if others did not help her. In my soul, I know it is a privilege to be an American, to be able to attend school without being expelled for being Jewish, to be free, when my parents were denied freedom and liberty, to be alive without fear of being killed at any time just for being Jewish. I have learned from my mother so much about the need to live life fully each day, do your best always, and use every moment as if it were your last, be happy each day, concentrate on the good in everything and everyone, because, to quote my mother, the Nazis or those like them may just come again tomorrow for us Jews.  I heard often, “for us Jews anytime there may not be a tomorrow.”  I always knew to be cautiously prepared to hide or flee, that leaving might be necessary as a Jew, even in America.  Israel must exist, according to my parents, as Jews were not allowed to go anywhere in the world to be saved during World War II, even America, so we Jews need a place to which to flee.  Even in my homes in America, I always have a “safe” hiding place, and a plan for escape, need be.

From the Holocaust survivors’ child, being continually astonished by the revelations of  the horror that human beings can inflict on one another and innocent children, I became a family court judge that left me continually astonished by the revelations of the awfulness that human beings who were once in an intact family can inflict on one another and their own innocent children.  In some ways, the career kept me from remembering the inhumanity I learned from the wartime experiences of my mother and father, focusing as an adult on wanting to lessen the pain and improve the future of families going through one of life’s worst crises.

I thank my mother for giving me lessons that can make life better in the future and the desire to pass it on.  She succeeded in her aspiration for a better tomorrow, becoming an American citizen and enjoying the life she built in America.  She used to say she had the most precious jewels in the world and needed no others when she held her children, grandchildren and great grandchild. Before she died March 16, 2005, I was able to tell her that she was the strongest woman I ever knew.

My granddaughter’s request has been the impetus to write down what my mind has allowed me to recall of our family’s Holocaust history. It still takes sixty years to be able to do so.

With necessary sharing to preserve our family Holocaust history,

 

Mema

 

 

 

 

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