Poland - 14 - 21 May 2001

D. Henry Sattler

"Please, don't go" was the pleading of one of my closest friends.

He was referring to my agreement to take part in the March of Remembrance and Hope to Poland to accompany a large group of students from various American universities. Although it is difficult for me to re-visit places of destruction of my whole family and the execution of many of my friends and schoolmates, places where I myself was incarcerated for years, I promised myself a long time ago to go with students whenever I am asked to do so. That is why, 20 years ago I joined the board of Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Raritan Valley Community College in my area, delivered scores of lectures and wrote many articles. I believe that it is important, especially for young people, to learn what happened during World War II. Since I am of the belief that another Holocaust, not necessarily against Jews but against some other minorities, may occur under some political or economic circumstances, I really don't know how to refuse. I believe that learning the stories of the Holocaust, as horrible as they are, may be a deterrent to future tragedies similar to this one. Also, because I am a survivor and fluent in Polish, I thought that my l. presence there would be helpful to the students, teachers and clergy who accompanied the students.

Once in Poland, we met with another group of students from various countries. There were Poles, Israelis, Germans, Austrians, Bulgarians, Kazakhstani, and even a few from Rwanda.

We flew by LOT Polish Airline directly from JFK airport to Cracow. This old, beautiful, historic city, which in medieval times was the capital of Poland, is the city of my birth and where I grew up until the age of 14, when the war began. From the airport we were driven by bus to Katowice, to Hotel "Warszawa". There, after registering, receiving educational materials and dinner we went to DOM LEZARZA (Physicians' House) for an orientation session.

The next day we departed for Cracow. The first visit was to the infamous concentration camp, Krakow/Plaszow, the first camp of my incarceration. There is nothing left of the camp, except two monuments – one large and one small – erected after the war. Suddenly, in front of my eyes I saw the shootings, hangings, tortures that we were forced to witness daily. Every time such tragedies took place, we were surrounded by SS guards who made sure that our eyes were not averted and that we observed what was happening around us, otherwise we were badly beaten.

I thought of my friend, Silber, who was pushing a wheelbarrow right next to me. Our wheelbarrows were heavy, fully loaded with wet sand that we had to push uphill to a road-building crew to which we belonged. Suddenly I remembered a quiet sound. Puff. Silber fell on his wheelbarrow, dead. The camp commander, Amon Goeth, an SS officer of Austrian origin who prided himself on having an excellent aim, was seated on the balcony of his nearby villa and shot prisoners just for fun and to test his sharp shooting skills. (This was related in the book and shown in the film "Schindler's List").

Before my eyes two teenage girls whom I knew from before the war were being hanged from gallows for a slight infraction. I saw the people who were ripped apart by specially trained dogs belonging to Goeth. These were sad memories that I would rather forget, but here I had to live through them again. I had to speak to the young students in front of the memorial, but couldn't get myself to describe all the details.

While we were riding in our bus, we passed by the houses of several of my family members. There lived Uncle Leopold, my mother's youngest brother and a few blocks further Uncle Isaac, her oldest brother. After another few blocks further there stands the soft drink factory that used to belong to my father's sister and her husband, and is still in operation. Its former owners, like the other uncles, aunts and cousins, did not survive the war.

Going to Szeroka Street, the hub of old pre-war Jewish quarters, we passed the house of my paternal grandfather who also died during the war. Walking through that section of Cracow was for me like walking though a cemetery without gravestones. Nearby we saw the "Temple", which before the war was a house of prayer of Reform Judaism, now beautifully restored but empty of worshippers.

Across the Vistula River, we went to the area of the wartime ghetto with a piece of surrounding wall left for posterity. We visited the famous pharmacy of Mr. Pankowski – "Pod Orlem" (Under the Eagle) – whose place of business was used as a smuggling place for Jews trying to enter the "Aryan" section of the city and for bringing in illegal food supplies. One side the pharmacy faced the ghetto and on the other side was the Aryan part of town. There, for many years, Mr. Pankowski dispensed all kinds of medications to poor Jews of the ghetto, all free of charge. His name is now in the "Righteous Gentiles" section of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

We also visited the Wawel Castle, the seat of Polish kings which is located within a 20 minute walk from the house in which I grew up, right on the bank of the Vistula River. It is an old, medieval castle full of sarcophagi of Polish kings and heroes, including one of General Thaddeus Kosciuszko who fought with Washington for American independence.

The only ray of sun to me were the students in my group, mostly American, but also a few from Bulgaria, one from Kazakhstan and a girl from the Dominican Republic. It was a great group and it gave me real pleasure to show them the nice parts of that old city which I know so well: the Church of St. Mary's in the main square, where the present Pope was serving as a cardinal before becoming the head of the Roman Catholic Church; the medieval Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) with all the stalls selling hand carved wood and other souvenirs, chess sets, colorful kerchiefs, amber jewelry. I took a few of the students to Wierzynek, a three story restaurant and coffee shop which was founded in 1364 and never, in almost 700 years of existence changed its location. We heard the famous trumpeter of Cracow, who, from the tower of St. Mary's Church, has played a special tune since 1241 when Tatars invaded Poland. At one point the Tatar's arrow pierced the throat of the trumpeter and the melody stopped in the middle. Until today the tune stops at the point when the arrow hit the trumpeter. This melody, called "hejnal" is played four times every hour on the hour, facing East, then West, North and South.

On the way to Warsaw we stopped in Czestochowa, a place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics where the ancient, holy painting of the Black Madonna, cherished by Poles, is located. It is a huge complex of buildings, which at any time is frequented by thousands of faithful. While we were there, a mass was celebrated for 1,000 Polish boy scouts (harcerze).

Our next stop was Warsaw, the present capital which, except for a few small neighborhoods, was completely destroyed by bombings and two anti-German uprisings. The first one took place in the Jewish ghetto, where practically all its population was killed. The uprising lasted 30 days. The second uprising, by Polish underground, took place right before the end of the war. The old city was re-built after the war, partly with the help of the Italian government, which lent paintings the famous Italian painter, Bernardo Belotto (1721-1780), a nephew of the Venetian artist Canaletto, painted while he lived and worked in Warsaw. At that time Bellotto signed his painting "Canaletto".

We saw the monuments – one for the Ghetto uprising, beautifully executed by the sculptor Natan Rapoport, then the Umschlagplatz, where Jews were herded for deportations, mainly to Treblinka extermination camp – the old Jewish cemeteries with graves of many famous Jews, like I. L. Peretz, a famous writer and doctor Ludwik Zamenhof, a physician and the inventor of the Esperanto language. We saw parts of the walls of the Jewish ghetto preserved for posterity and the house where many of the Jewish Judenrat (Ghetto leaders) lived and where its head, Adam Czerniakow, also had an apartment.

Adam Czerniakow was a chemical engineer who studied in Dresden, Germany before the Nazis came to power and therefore was fluent in German. The Germans appointed him to be the head of the Judenrat in Warsaw. One day, several SS officers appeared in his office and demanded that he make a list of 10,000 Jews for deportation and a list of 7,000 every day thereafter. Czerniakow knew what the deportations really meant. He was to prepare lists of people who were to be sent to their death in an extermination camp, usually Treblinka or Majdanek. While the SS were there, he asked his secretary for a glass of water, took out some pills from his drawer and swallowed them. These pills turned out to be potassium cyanide (chemically: KCN), a fast-acting poison. Two letters were found in his desk, one to his wife and the other to the Warsaw Judenrat saying that he could not make lists of people to be annihilated and was forced to commit suicide.

On Sunday, 20th May we traveled to the city of Lublin where we were invited to a session with the Archbishop of Lublin, Jozef Zycinski. It was a pleasant meeting. A well educated man and a physicist by profession, he spoke openly about the past injustices of the Church toward Jews and what is being done to end them and create a better understanding between the Roman Catholic Church and minorities.

From there we proceeded to the extermination camp Majdanek. This was an eye opener for all the students. The camp is left exactly as it was when liberated by the Soviet Army. The gruesome dark barracks, the dank, windowless gas chambers, the crematoria, the dehumanizing long latrines, each built for about 100 inmates. There still are barracks where prisoners lived in wooden stalls, three to a bunk measuring about five feet in width, three layers high.

There were exhibits of the triangles that the prisoners had to wear on their chests identifying the reason for their incarceration; blue for murderers, red for political prisoners, pink for homosexuals, black for asocial elements, etc. Only Jews had a double triangle, red facing up and yellow down in the shape of a Star of David, all with the first letter of their country of origin. There were the striped uniforms of the inmates, and photographs of some of them in uniform.

The place looks as though it could be opened for killings again the next day. One could see shock on the students’ faces. The entrance to the camp is a ramp sloping downward with walls of raw stone, which by itself was horrifying. But the worst part for the visitors were the gas chambers and crematoria. There, many of the students sobbed or cried loudly. We, the guides, had a difficult time easing the pain that they were experiencing. Professional mental health people were there to comfort the students.

On the side of the crematoria is a small, grassy quadrangle where we met and sat down. For a long time no one said a word, there was absolute silence. Everyone was thinking of what they just seen and experienced; things they could not imagine could actually happen. Many said that this trip changed their whole lives and perspectives on humanity.

The next day, Monday 21st of May was last before the departure the USA. We attended a concluding seminar, a farewell reception and made preparations for departure. My group thanked me for accompanying them on the trip and describing the first-hand experiences of a prisoner. Then they bought a Polish illustrated book, KRAKOW and each one wrote in it a note of appreciation to be presented to me. There was not enough room for everyone to write a note, so they also bought a large beautiful card and again filled it with personal, heartwarming notes.

This was a complete surprise to me and I was very touched. I still correspond with many of the students, who I hope will remain my lifelong friends. I also met with some of the professors, whom I love and cherish. Among them are Dr. Harriet Sepinwall of St. Elizabeth College, Dr. Ann Saltzman of Drew University and Dr. William Shulman of Queensborough Community College, with whom I attended a different March about 3 years ago – The March of the Living. I was also happy to make friends with Dr. Steven Katz, the historian of Boston University and his lovely wife Rika and the Chaplain of Tulane University, Rev. Judith Shema.

I was glad that I participated.

Copyright 2001 D. Henry Sattler