Doreen Levy

Jodi Picoult in her book The Storyteller writes: “Sharing the past with some-one is different from reliving it when you’re alone. It feels less like a wound, more like a poultice.” Although I read this on the way back from Poland to Israel it expresses what I had instinctively felt – a need to go back to Poland and reframe what had been an extremely traumatic visit to Majdanek on my own, a number of years ago (click to read what I wrote then.)


our guides
Our group of 45, organized by Nurit Goshen from the Teachers’ Association was composed mainly of teachers and their families and friends and our exceptional guides, Rachel Volkenfeldt and Eyal Mizrahi, who were from Yad Vashem. The theme was "אם יש את נפשך לדעת את המעיין""   loosely translated as “If you really want to know the wellspring…”

Our week’s journey included visiting Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow and Lublin and other towns and villages as well as the camps Auschwitz- Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka, and Belzec. 

On our first day we visited Lodz, known as the Manchester of Poland. Rumkovski, the head of the Judenrat, was appointed by the Nazis to implement their policies. A flamboyant figure, he persuaded the Germans to exploit the Jews and develop Lodz Ghetto as a textile industry to supply Germans with uniforms, hand-woven insignia, underwear and dresses. He believed that being productive was the key to the survival of the ghetto inhabitants. Whoever did not have work did not get food rations, so the elderly and children under ten were destined for the gas chambers. He managed to get 9 year olds included as workers. 
Rumkovski is best known for his speech, Give Me Your Children, to ghetto inhabitants in 1942 where he reminds people that because he did not have children he always looked after them. Faced with a German demand to round up 20,000 children for the transports, he asked the residents to give up their children to save themselves. They did not. In the end, he too was sent to Auschwitz in August 1944. Roundly condemned for many years, there is more understanding today of his position. Appointed by the Nazis, he had to make impossible choices. Lodz, the first ghetto to be founded, was also one of the last to function.  


The train station at Radegast, serving Lodz, was first used to bring materials for the textile industry. And later, for transports. The memorial complex has a long tunnel that leads to a real train carriage. In the tunnel are pictures of the Jews who were transported from Lodz to the Belzec death camp. Display cases hold articles dropped accidentally in the crush, either at the station or on the trains.  One box contained keys – people really thought they would go back to their homes. At the station, people were squashed into train carriages meant for horses. Trains, under the Nazis, were not only a means of transportation but also part of their efficient death machine – many people died in the trains from heat or cold, from exhaustion, thirst and hunger. One survivor’s story recalled how her father was forced, like all the others, to urinate in a corner of the carriage. She said that at that moment her father died of shame, and not later when he was physically gassed.

In June 1941, when Germany invaded Russian in the Barbarossa Campaign, local inhabitants of villages in Lithuania, Latvia and the Ukraine, gladly rounded up the local Jewish population. The Einsatzgruppen, Special Task Forces leading the Nazi invasion, ordered pits to be dug, usually in forests,  either by locals or by the Jews themselves, The Jews were then rounded up and shot, falling into the ditches. This proved very hard. No, not for the Jews, but for the German officers. Their work schedule was reduced and they were given as much free vodka as they wanted. But still it was hard. Then in 1941, Pavel, a mechanic at the first extermination camp Chelmo, had the idea of gassing Jews in lorries. Between 1941 and 1943, 330,000 people were asphyxiated in three air-tight lorries by exhaust fumes as they were driven from Chelmo to their place of burial. This was the first time that mass murder by gassing was used.

To make the killing machine more efficient, Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor were built. These were Death Camps. The overwhelming majority of Jews who arrived by train were immediately gassed, but a small number of Jewish men were forced to become Sonderkommandos, burying the dead in mass graves, or burning the bodies on open-air pyres.


Majdanek and Auschwitz were Concentration Camps where selection took place. On arrival the young, the old and the sick were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Those selected for life became slave laborers until they were too ill or weak to work and were killed.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, created in 1942, functioned until August 1944, even after parts of Poland had been captured by Russia. Even when they were losing the war they continued their frenzy of killing and Auschwitz-Birkenau was expanded to absorb trainloads of Hungarian Jews destined for the gas chambers. Unlike at the other Camps where the Jews were gassed by carbon monoxide, at Auschwitz the Germans used Zyklon B.


At Treblinka Germans supervised the camp, with Ukrainians helping with guard duty and murder. The first commander of the camp had proved unable to dispose of the huge number of bodies being gassed there. But Stangl, who had been involved in the ‘euthanasia’ of Germans who were chronically ill or suffering from mental disabilities, was well prepared to take over as commander of Treblinka death camp.

When the train transports arrived at Treblinka, those who survived the journey had to give up all valuables which were then sorted and packed and sent to Germany. The elderly and the sick were separated and sent to the lazaretto which flew a Red Cross flag. There they were shot in the head and burnt in pits behind the ‘infirmary.’

The others had to undress and after their hair was shaved, they were forced to run - to the gas chambers. 

One survivor had to cut the hair of the prisoners. Suddenly, he saw his wife and mother approach. He could not tell them what was about to happen, but with infinite tenderness he took an extra 30 seconds and slowly cut their hair.

Treblinka was dismantled in August 1943 after a revolt by 300 Jewish slave laborers who escaped. The camp was totally dismantled.  The bodies that had been buried were exhumed and burnt. The ground was scattered with the human ashes, then furrowed and the area became a farm. This was to hide evidence of the 870,000 Jews who were murdered there in 1 year and 2 months by gassing. Today nothing remains of the camp and in its place in 1960 a memorial was erected.

Treblinka Memorial

As we walked through the forest to the Treblinka memorial, the path suddenly changed into a long line of raised concrete blocks recalling railway sleepers or ties. It ended in front of a raised platform, symbolizing the station. When you walked up onto the platform, everywhere you looked there were upright stones of different sizes, representing the size of Jewish communities obliterated when their Jews were sent to Treblinka. Most of the stones are nameless. The largest stone at this symbolic cemetery represents Warsaw, from where 265,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka. Another stone represents the 43,000 Greek Jews murdered at Treblinka. 

Only one stone bears the name of a private person, Janusz Korczak, head of a Jewish orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. Although given the opportunity to disappear when the round-up of children took place, he chose to lead his orphans to the Umshlagplatz and together with them boarded the cattle car bound for Treblinka, never to be seen again..  

I have visited The Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem. The visit is always at the end of a difficult day and it always seems to be hot and we are tired as we pass almost in a stupor through the maze of names of towns, of villages and cities from where the Jews came.  Here at Treblinka, was an endless field of stones, 14,000 stones. They represent the obliteration of communities sent only to Treblinka.

Loss. Endless loss.   

The magnitude of the destruction of Jewish communities finally hit me.


During our week in Poland we also visited Majdanek. It is one of the most horrifying camps, so real and comprehendible in its compactness. Because of the rapid advance of the Russian army in July 1944, the Germans evacuated the camp before destroying all evidence of their crimes, only partially managing to destroy the crematoria. Although 1,000 prisoners had already been sent on the Death March, thousands of prisoners, including Russian prisoners of war, survived to tell the Allied forces about the horrors of the camp.


It took us a whole day to walk through the enormous complex of Auschwitz.  One of our group recounted the story of a relative who always walked clasping his hands behind his back. He kissed his children frequently but never touched them. When this relative and his family visited Auschwitz-Birkenau years later, he said he had something he had to tell his family.  He told them that during the war he was a Sonderkommando, forced to cremate the Jews who had been gassed. Every night the Sonderkommandos said Kaddish for the Jews they had placed in the crematoria that day. The man asked his family for forgiveness and explained that the reason he had never touched any of his children was because his hands were tainted with the death of fellow Jews. Then, he hugged his children. 


In Krakow a simple memorial in Podgorze Square, the staging area in the ghetto for transports, was erected. 17 large empty chairs were spaced around the square, symbolizing the 17,000 Jews transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Opposite the square stands Afteka Pod Orlem.  We were enthralled by the story of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Pole, who insisted on keeping his pharmacy in the ghetto functioning. He supplied the ghetto residents with much needed medicines, tranquilizers for children if needed during Nazi raids and even hair dye, to enable those who needed to leave the ghetto illegally to go unnoticed. He was later recognized as a Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem 

Lopuchowa Forest
One of the most powerful moments was a memorial ceremony we held in Lopuchowa Forest near the town of Tykocin in Bialystok province. I suspect you, like me, have never heard of it. It was overrun by the Germans when they invaded Poland, but was part of the area given to Russia under the non-aggression Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement signed a month after the war started. 

In June 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Germany invaded Russia, and ended the quiet of Tykocin village. One morning in August, all able-bodied Jews were ordered to present themselves at the town square. When they asked their learned rabbi whether they should comply, he said that he remembered the Germans as gentlemen from WWI and that they had nothing to fear. After being transported to a nearby town and locked in a school building, successive groups of Jews were forced to sing while being whipped during a forced-march to Lopuchowa Forest. Deep in the forest, they were shot in such a way as to fall into three previously dug ditches.  During the following few days, over 2,100 Jews were shot and buried. 
As our group stood in front of these mass graves, we held a ceremony for all Jews who were murdered in the forests by the Nazis and their corroborators. When Kaddish was being recited I found myself sobbing, sobbing for my grandparents who were murdered at Ponar in Vilna. How can I mourn grandparents I never knew?  The feeling of loss, the loss of not having known them, was overwhelming. My father, helped by his uncle Joe, emigrated to South Africa, and when my father had saved enough money, he brought out his brother Mike. Their grandmother, parents and youngest brother remained behind. My grandfather Mottel and his son Abraska were among the first men to be picked up off the streets of Vilna and force-marched to Ponar where they were murdered. Nessie, my father’s mother ran away and was burnt alive in a synagogue. I am always haunted by the image of my grandmother, first saying goodbye to my father and then to her second son Mike when  they left for South Africa, knowing that she would never see them again. And so I wept for her, and for my father who was tormented that he could not save his family, and for me.

Here, in the forest, I was able to read aloud family names, and to remember:

Feige Blume Dagim, my great grandmother who died in Vilna Ghetto 1943

Mottel Glazer, my grandfather,  Ponar August  1941

Abrashka Glazer, my uncle, Ponar August 1941

Nessie Shank, my grandmother, Olshan Belarus 1942

My father’s cousins and their spouses:

Henia Glasser, Ponar December 1941

Yehuda Kagan, Ponar December 1941

Israel Kagan, Ponar 1944

Aaron Mil Germany 1945

Elke Trotsky Mil, Stuthof Concentration Camp Germany 1945

 יהיה זכרם ברוך 

At the end of the war most of the survivors made their way to Israel. Many managed to rebuild their lives, have children and even very successful careers. Looked at in askance when they first arrived, the hidden question was “What did you do to survive?” and the survivors didn’t speak. Today, as the generation of survivors diminishes, they are eager to share their previously untold stories of courage and survival, and all proudly recount the number of children and grandchildren they have.

One of the lessons to be learnt from the Shoah is that there must always be a homeland, a place of refuge, for Jews. For despite having learnt so much on this journey, it remains incomprehensible how human beings could act so monstrously to other human beings. How sadism and brutality became the accepted norm, still remains a mystery to me.

May we always be on our guard that it may never happen again to any people.