Elie Wiesel’s death makes us face, yet again, the loss of the generation that survived the Holocaust. We mourn for each of them. My in-laws, Sam and Esther Goldberg, born in Poland, survived the Holocaust. They are buried in Israel.
I am writing a book that tells the story of their survival. Sam was one of 60 people to make it out of the Death Camp Treblinka alive. Esther hid from the Nazis, for two years, in a pit in the forest and the barn of Righteous Gentiles. They met after Sam escaped Treblinka during the prisoner uprising. They and hid together for a year until liberation. My book weaves their story with my journey of writing the book. The most incredible part of my journey has been locating and meeting the Stys family – the children and grandchildren of the Righteous Gentiles that helped them survive.
I began this blog seven months ago to share my research, Sam and Esther’s story and my personal experiences.
Having just returned from a three-week trip to Minks, Warsaw, Krakow, Jerusalem and Amsterdam, I have much to report. Please enjoy catching up with me and stay tuned for future posts.
Bagatelle – Scam or No Scam
NOTE TO READER:
I left Poland nine days ago. While I was there, I wrote posts capturing some of what I was seeing, experiencing and feeling. But so much more happened that I was unable to write about – just not enough time. Over the next weeks, I will write about these yet undocumented places and experiences. I will also modify the Sam and Esther story as told in these posts with the new information learned. This post describes our trip to Bagatele.
Do you wonder whether the Holocaust tourist industry in Poland (yes, that’s a thing) hires old people to pretend to have known your parents, grandparents, Uncles and Aunts before the war? Because I was worried that our tour guide employed these particular services when we arrived in Bagatele, Poland.
Out of the window of my tourist van, I watched as we turned off the main road and saw a sign – Bagatele – it consisted of one long, winding road, lined farm land and scattered with houses. At the beginning, the houses were nothing fancy, but respectable. As we progressed, the road narrowed and the houses got smaller and older. After driving maybe three or four minutes, I switched my gaze from the side window to the front. The houses and farms did not go much farther – we were nearly to the end of this not-even town – Bagatele.
Then, standing at the side of the road, in front of a very old looking house with an expanse of farm land surrounding it, I saw a short, very old woman with a kerchief tied on her head. Marcin, our tour guide, suggested we stop the van and talk to her. My husband Shlomo and I looked at each other skeptically.
Bagatele – Sam’s birth place and the place he lived with his parents and siblings for some 20 years. Even before the war, it was tiny -not even a town – think houses and farms. The closest town was, and still is, Wengrow – where Gzrgorz Maleszewski lives. The Goldberg farm was a busy place. With non-Jewish workers, the farm’s produce was sold in the market places of nearby Wengrow. The family owed cows and chickens and ran some kind of butcher shop where they sold meat.
The Goldberg farm was large – 25 hectres. Their farmland stretched out behind their home – as far as the eye could see. The visual expanse of the farmland was only broken by a road in the far off distance. On the opposite side of the road lay a row of trees hinting to the forest beyond. The Goldbergs owned a horse and buggy – a big deal in small town Poland. Zelig was well regarded in the area of Ostrow Mazowiecka – people knew and respected Zelig of Bagatele. This Shem Tov – good name – helped to save Sam after his escape from the German POW camp in 1941 (see blog post Sam – Prisoner of War – 1941).
When the Germans attacked Poland in September of 1939, the Goldberg family found themselves on the German side of the Molotov Ribbentrop Line – putting them under Nazi control. One day some Poles came with Nazi soldiers and threw them out of their house and off their farm. They left with one cow, their horse and buggy and whatever belongings they could gather and fit in the buggy. They did what so many other Jews did – crossed the Line to Soviet-controlled territory. They were one of the “lucky” ones – they crossed the line before the border was sealed and they had relatives to move in with – Sam’s mother had a sister living in Yashnitz.
So, here we were – June 21, 2016, in Bagatele. We see this old kerchief-covered Polish woman on the side of the road – right where we stopped. If she knew the Goldberg family, it would have been too tidy, too contrived to believe.
So, five Goldbergs, one Treiger, one Hacohen, Marcin, and Gawel (our videographer) file out of the van. We were happy to get out – we had been driving for an hour and a half. Marcin translated our questions to this old woman, who stood alone on this empty street: “Hi, do you live here? Did you ever know a family named Goldberg? We are looking for the place they lived.” She looked at us – a large group of Americans, Israelis and Poles (one with an intimidating video camera) huddled around her as if for warmth. I was waiting for her to say – “yes, I have lived here my whole life– and yes, of course I remember the Goldberg family. They lived just over here – such a tragedy.” I was ready to believe that with the help of a few zlotes, this old woman was here to create a “Polish roots experience” for our family.
Well, she spoke in a quiet, crackly old voice: “No, I don’t live here and I don’t remember any Goldberg family. My son lives here now and I am visiting him.” So much for the staged old woman theory.
Then, a man who appeared to be about 50 with a generous paunch, emerged from the house. Warily approaching our group, he addressed his mother and asked who we are. We introduced ourselves as the Goldberg family from Seattle, Washington. We were visiting to try to find the house and farm that used to belong to Zelig Goldberg. “Oh, my grandfather told me stories of the Goldberg family,” he responded. “They used to live just over here – next door.”
Your kidding – was this to be believed? The old woman was not a plant, but was the farmer’s grandson with the beer belly and jeans the zlotes recipient meant to create the authentic “roots experience?” No, if they were going to hire someone convincing, it would have been the old woman. She could have pretended to know the Goldbergs and tell us how when she was a girl she saw them forced to leave their home and farm. This may just be authentic…
We continued to listen as the farmer told us what he knew from his grandfather. The Goldbergs lived here before the war. Their farm was just here, as he waives his right hand showing the expanse just next to his farm. And the house was over there – near that tree. We walked over to the indicated property.
Another man showed up to find out who we were. At first, his body language read hostility. He was the current owner of the Goldberg property and wanted to know what we were doing on his land. We explained we were tourists, not land-claimers, and he softened. He showed us where you could see part of the old foundation of the home on the now empty lot, covered with grass and weeds. They both explained that the farm extended all the way to the road – far in the distance – bordered on the other side by trees. It was huge. We all marveled at the estate that was the Goldberg farm. I imagined the house filled with the smell of roasting chicken and fresh baked challah on Friday afternoon. I pictured Sam, walking this small road with his fathers and brothers, on those same Friday afternoons –down the street to the Mikve – the Jewish ritual bath – where they would bathe and immerse their bodies to physically and spiritually prepare for the coming Sabbath.
I began to believe that this really was the place of the Goldberg farm and home. What a way to start our day of exploring the lives of Sam and Esther both before and during the war.
We took some pictures of Shlomo – Zelig Goldberg’s grandson – with the two farmers and my daughters with the old women. We said our goodbyes and piled back into the van.
We drove a bit farther down the road reaching the sign that showed we were leaving Bagatelle – Bagatelle with a red line across it. This was a fitting sign – Zelig of Bagatelle and his family farm was no more. Bagatelle is not the place it was before the war – the Nazis and the Poles made sure of it.
You can catch up with the rest of Karen’s journey by reading her older blog posts here.