A legacy lives on: hope after hate

Posted: 5:00 AM, Jun 17, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-18 13:50:47-04

Former I-Team reporter Hagit Limor went to Poland and Germany to retrace her father's steps as a Nazi prisoner during World War II. This is what she found. For more details on her trip, click here.

CZESTOCHOWA, Poland -- The attic didn’t look like anyone had been up there in decades. Old newspapers and cast-off kitchen pans sat in the corner of the large, dark space, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight from several small windows.

It was the place where my father hid from the Nazis eight decades ago.

It was the place where he last saw his mother and brother before soldiers clanked up the wooden steps, burst inside and then sent them on cattle car trains to the death camp of Treblinka in Poland. There, they suffocated in a gas chamber before their bodies were carted off to be burned, among 900,000 others.

There’s no mincing of words in this story of hatred and bigotry and death.

But I came in the quest for hope.

My father, who is now 88 and lives in Nashville, deserves that much.

The generations on either side of my timeline have collided against similar forces where history threatens to meet current events. I traveled halfway around the world from my home in Cincinnati, not only because of my father but also because of my son.

It has been hard to ignore the words of division and hatred that have proliferated in recent years from world leaders to angry voices in the streets. It has been hard to comprehend the increasing incidence of violent, deadly attacks in synagogues and mosques, against immigrants, minorities and the LGBTQ community.

This is my son’s world. This is the place in which he’s growing up.

And it parallels my father’s.

Eighty years ago, the head of a nation espoused words of hatred toward minority groups. Newspaper articles and cartoons spread the bigotry. Common citizens and soldiers targeted or assaulted the Jews, the mentally ill, gay people. They set fire to synagogues and attacked Jewish businesses.

Just like now.

So, I had to go back. I had to travel to the homeland my father left on a death train to a concentration camp three-quarters of a century ago.

It was a quest to understand what to say to my son today.

From sanctuary to prison

Czestochowa is a 13th-century village that’s all grown up. Picturesque buildings line the main boulevard, flanking a wide walking path down its center.

My father grew up next to the upscale shops on the main avenue, in a building that today is split into stores and artist lofts.

But in the 1930s the second level of the building served as living quarters on one side and a shoe factory on the other. My grandfather rose from penury to wealth when he invented machinery that automated shoemaking. He sold the styles he also designed to two major shoe store chains. The family lived well. My father recalls an idyllic childhood in a beautiful town.

I wish I had photos to show, but they disappeared along with almost the entire Jewish population here, 30,000 people imprisoned in a ghetto and then exterminated. They were all guilty of one crime: They were Jewish.

“It was hard to believe that such things can happen,” my father told me. “A lot of people didn’t believe it at the beginning.”

In September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and rounded up all the Jews, one-third of the city’s entire population, into a section that would become the Large Ghetto. The Germans stripped Jews of their rights, forced them to wear armbands with Jewish stars and took away their possessions, including everything in the shoe factory. They took all that my grandfather had spent a lifetime building. My father was 8 years old.

Late one freezing November night, Nazi soldiers banged on the door and dragged my grandfather out of bed, with no time to put on a coat over his thin pajamas. They forced him to shovel snow from the streets barefoot, all night until morning. He never recovered, and his funeral was one of the last formal wartime burials in the Jewish cemetery five miles from town.

Inspiring action today

I went to the cemetery to look for his grave, but it has been lost to time. Vandals and vines have ravaged the tombs. Stones lay broken, toppled, overgrown. The leaves rustled beneath my feet as I walked past centuries of family history, including a grave that no one in my family today knew existed.

Deep in the older part of the cemetery sits the tombstone of my great-grandmother Golda Bomba.

I crouched down and ran my fingers over the broken headstone no one had visited in at least 80 years. I laid a small rock, part of Jewish tradition, that I had brought all the way from the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust and Humanity Center in Cincinnati. It says, “Using the lessons of the Holocaust to inspire action today.”

Before the Nazis invaded, my extended family numbered 200 people; only five survived the war.

I said a prayer at Golda Bomba’s grave in the name of all my family members who died, whose graves I will never find, who have no graves, who died in ovens or gas chambers or on cattle car trains. I can never say a prayer to them at their graves. But that grave stands for all of them.

Among those whose graves I’ll never find are my grandmother and uncle, which brings us back to that attic. After leaving the cemetery, I wanted to see if I could get inside my father’s old home.

Full circle

I traveled to Poland with WCPO photographer Michael Benedic and the Holocaust and Humanity Center’s Director of Education Jodi Elowitz.

When we walked under the stone arch into the building’s inner courtyard, a few men quickly ran inside as the building’s current owner came out. He wasn’t happy to see us.

Some Poles still fear Jewish families will come back to reclaim their homes. Even after I told him that we just wanted to look inside, the building’s owner was having none of it.

Back outside, the church across the street had a huge cross lying on its side, like a fallen concrete metaphor.

That was the square where the selections took place. The Nazi in charge of getting rid of all the Jews in Częstochowa stood while the Jews marched by one at a time. He would point left or right. Left meant death. Right meant forced labor and starvation, but still life.

I was explaining this to Michael when a woman listening from the balcony above motioned for us to come up. She was a tenant renting one of the artist lofts that divide the old flat, and she was letting us inside.

We walked up a flight of worn wooden steps and through what used to be my father’s front door. Inside, a stack of shoeboxes sat four feet high on polished dark wood floors in a high-ceilinged room.

It turns out, the renters sell shoes.

In my grandfather’s old shoe factory. And they had the key to the attic.

Up another flight of stairs, behind a weathered door, I stepped into the hiding place where my grandmother, uncle and father had hidden after my grandfather died. I imagined them cowering in fear, listening to the boots of Nazi soldiers on the street below.

That was the place my father last saw his mother. She had arranged for him to be smuggled out of the Large Ghetto days before Nazis found the hiding place. They put my grandmother and uncle on the last transport from Czestochowa to the Treblinka killing center.

When I was there at Treblinka, I found it to be an eerie place. Thousands of stones represented the towns and villages from where victims were brought from all over Europe. It looked like exactly what it was: a giant graveyard. There were flat rows of low stone benches marking the path of the old train tracks.

I sat one day, listening to wind blow through the trees, like voices whispering. I imagined my grandmother and uncle getting off the train.

In all, 900,000 people died within hours of arriving at Treblinka. They were people who could have been anything -- artists, inventors, doctors.

Charred pits were all that remained of the ashes of humanity, of a culture, of a whole people who are no more.

That was where I said goodbye to the grandmother and uncle I never met.

But even in death, my grandmother had saved her youngest son’s life, arranging for him to be smuggled out. At 11 years old, my father hid in a series of spaces, from a furniture factory to the Small Ghetto. It was a horrible place with little food.

When I walked through the old Small Ghetto, it still looked much as it did then, with crumbling houses falling to rubble.

After the Nazis decided to liquidate even this small section of town with the few thousand Jews left alive, they held the final selection in a square of broken, mismatched stones at the entrance to the Small Ghetto.

I stood where my father lost the lottery of the last selection with a group of other children. They were marked for death, waiting for a truck to take them to the Jewish cemetery I had visited earlier that day. It was over.

Then, a German saved their lives.

The concentration camps

He was a commander at the Hasag-Pelcery concentration camp, and he had children my dad’s age. He had been to the cemetery earlier that day and seen truckloads of Jews brought in, lined up and shot. He told the Nazi in charge of the selection that he would take this group of children to work at his camp.

They marched three miles to Hasag, where they worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, refurbishing bullets and shells for the Germans to reuse in battle. They lived in lice-infested wood barracks and got one piece of bread and some watery soup each day.

The former grounds still hold some industry, but the brick and stone buildings where the slave laborers worked are now empty. I peered through the bars of a window at the exposed red brick interior where emaciated people worn by four years of subjugation were forced to wash and polish armaments for their enemies to use. I stepped over the street where my father had to stand twice a day to be counted, past the side square where punishment ranged from whipping to a final bullet to the head, to an area where the barbed-wire fence used to hold a gate.

It was the spot of the most cherished story my father had told me from the time I was a young girl.

He was so young and malnourished that the camp meister took pity and gave him a special job. The meister had a flock of geese and ducks he kept to feed his family fresh meat. My father got to walk out the gate to a stream just past a small patch of grass, where the flock would swim for a few hours before it was time to go back. He told me he’d lie back on the grass, look up at the sky and dream that he was free.

More than 70 years later, I didn’t know if that stream would still be there. But as I walked past the patch of grass, there it was.

Green algae covered much of the surface, but it was unmistakable. I dropped down to the grass and looked up at the sky.

Just as he did.

And then I called him to share the moment. My dad can’t remember much anymore. Alzheimer’s has robbed his memories. But he still knows his children, and he can still say, “I love you.”

As I looked up from the same spot where my father once dreamed of freedom, I told him how proud I was of him and how he had survived all I was seeing.

Walking freely where he had once been a slave, bundled in a coat he never had, all the emotions flooded in as I rounded the corner and saw the remains of the train tracks. The day before Russian troops liberated this camp, the Nazis had shoved my dad and 3,000 others onto a cattle car train bound for Germany. One day before he would have been free. But he left from there, on those rails, to what would be the worst place yet.

Three hellish days later, he got off the train at Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.

Last stop

That was our last stop, the final leg of my father’s Holocaust journey. We flew to Frankfurt and drove past villages and towns in the beautiful German countryside, up a drive to the tracks where, all those years ago, the cattle car train had screeched to a halt and my dad tumbled out to snarling German shepherds and Nazi guards. He was 13.

I walked the same road as he did then, imagining his fear. Finally, around the corner, was the famous gate with the italicized words I had seen only in photos: “Jedem das Seine.”

It means “To each, his own” or “To each, what he deserves.”

My father once told me he wondered what he had done to deserve any of this.

The place was massive. The barracks were gone, destroyed after the war. Their footprints remained as rubble marking the home of misery. Buchenwald wasn’t a death camp like Auschwitz or Treblinka. There were no gas chambers there. But people died -- of starvation and cold and disease and hard labor.

A boy got off that train. A boy walked through that gate and experienced that horror. It wasn’t an anonymous, faceless crowd. It was one human being, hundreds and thousands of times over.

The barbed wire fence still surrounded the camp where my father spent nine months under the watchtowers, nine months he barely survived before American soldiers drove through the camp gate on April 11, 1945. His nightmare was over. He was free. He had survived.

More than seven decades later, I walked past a hardy flower pushing its yellow petals up toward blue skies, up through the rubble of a former barracks, alive amid so much death.

I finally understood perseverance in the face of adversity. Hope in the face of the darkness.

It’s an unfortunate theme of humanity that periodically we come into times when hatred seems to win the day.

But it can’t. We can’t allow that. We have to fight it wherever it is. That’s the connection from my father’s time to my son’s generation. That’s why I traveled so far. And that’s why it was time to go home.

Limor traveled to Poland and Germany to scout locations for an immersive/virtual reality project her University of Cincinnati students will be helping to shoot this October. (WCPO-TV plans to cover the students’ journey.) Moniek’s Legacy uses her father’s story to fight hatred and bigotry today. The ultimate goal is an educational product available to schools and community groups that want to discuss any form of bigotry today. Find out more here.

You can also donate to the project here.