A photo and a film of his great-grandparents helps one man work to heal and repair the world.
Dear Great-Grandfather Wolf and Great-Grandmother Bascha,
Though I have never written to you, I have carried your image and felt your comforting presence ever since that first day when your son, Simon [Szymon] told me about you. One day, when I was very young, I sat upon Simon’s knee. Looking down urgently, but with deep affection, he said to me,
“Varn” (he always called me “Varn” through his distinctive Polish accent), you are named after my father, Wolf Mahler. I lived in Krosno, Poland with my father, Wolf, and my mother, Bascha, and 13 brothers and sisters, and aunts, uncles, and cousins.”
Simon talked about all of you with pride, but as he told me this, he seemed rather sad. I asked him if you still lived in Poland, and he responded that his mother had died of a heart attack in 1934, and his father and most of the remainder of his family were no longer alive. When I asked him how they had died, he told me that they had all been killed by people called “Nazis.” I questioned him why the Nazis killed our family, and he responded,
“Because they were Jews.”
Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.
As you know, according to Ashkenazi [European heritage] Jewish tradition, a newborn infant is given a name in honor of a deceased relative. The name is formed by taking the entire name or just the initial letter of the name of the ancestor being honored. I had the good fortune to being named after you great-grandfather Wolf. As it has turned out over the years, you not only gave me my name, but you and Bascha also gave me a sense of history and a sense of my identity.
Simon left Krosno with three sisters in 1912 bound for New York City, leaving you and his remaining family members. Already in this country was one older brother. As he left, a series of pogroms targeting Jews had spread throughout the area. He often explained to me that he could only travel by night with darkness as his shield to avoid being attacked and beaten by people who hated Jews. He arrived in the United States on New Years’ Eve in a city filled with gleaming lights and frenetic activity, and with his own heart filled with hope for a new life.
Simon returned to Krosno with my grandmother, Eva, in 1932 to a joyous homecoming. This was the first time he had seen you since he left Poland. He took with him an early home movie camera to record you on film. While in Poland, he promised that once back in the United States, he would try to earn enough money to send for his remaining family members who wished to come to the United States, but history was to thwart his plans. During that happy reunion, he had no way of knowing that this was to be the last time he would ever see you alive. Just 7 years later, on 1 September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland.
Simon heard the news sitting in the kitchen of his home in Brooklyn, New York. He was so infuriated, so frightened, and so incensed that he took the large radio from the table, lifted it above his head, and violently hurled it against a wall. He knew what this invasion meant. He knew it signaled the end of the Jewish population in Europe as he had known it. He knew it meant certain death for people he had grown up with, people he had loved, and people who had loved him.
Simon’s fears soon became real. He eventually learned from a brother who had eventually escaped into the woods with his wife and young son that Nazi soldiers murdered many members of his family either on the streets of Krosno or up a small hill near the Jewish cemetery. His father, Wolf, the Nazis murdered in the Krosno ghetto. Other friends and relatives the Nazis eventually loaded onto cattle cars and transported them to Auschwitz and Balzec concentration camps.
Simon never fully recovered from those days in 1939. Though he kept the faces and voices from his homeland within him throughout his life, the Nazis also invaded my grandfather’s heart, killing a part of him forever. My mother, Blanche, told me that Simon became increasingly introspective, less spontaneous, and less optimistic of what the future would hold.
After the war and continuing today, virtually no Jews reside in Krosno or in all of southwestern Poland.
I recently looked up the word “holocaust” in the dictionary. Among the listings was the definition: “genocidal slaughter.” As I read this, the same nagging questions came to me as they did that first day Simon told me about your death—questions concerning the very nature of human aggression, our ability for compassion, and, to those generations following World War II, our capacity to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
I fear the world is repeating many of the mistakes of the past. With the continuing rise of nationalistic movements throughout the world, viral forms of racism persist, where “ethnic cleansing,” spurred on by religious extremism in many forms, have become the sanitized term for hatred, forced expulsions, and murder.
As you know, I am by no means a very religious person, though I strive to become more spiritual and connected to you. I believed that before the end of my days, for me to be able to say that I have truly accomplished all I needed to accomplish in this world, I must travel back to Krosno. I want to walk upon the soil that you once walked upon, to witness the hallowed ground on which you prayed, and to feel the Polish sun nurturing me as it had once nurtured and illuminated you—that same sun which they eclipsed from you all too soon.
So, in summer 2008, I traveled back to Krosno. I took with me a DVD version of the film Simon and Eva took of you back in 1932. Upon approaching the town from the bus I took from Krakow, I felt as though I were returned back home to a place I had never previously been. I checked into my hotel room, and then walked around the town, this beautiful place with its narrow streets and charming buildings, rolling hills, small factories, and bustling train station – that same station I recognized from the film I had grown up watching.
Then I saw it, and as I did, tears came to my eyes. I was at the entrance of Market Square, the same square Simon filmed in 1932 as happy family members and other residents of Krosno shopped open air surrounded by horse-drawn carriages and vendors’ kiosks selling fresh produce and kosher meats of all kinds. Though this time no outdoor vendors could be seen, I sat down upon a small bench and took in the sweet fragrances of flowers and vibrant pines, and the delightful foods from cafes wafting around me. The beautiful ancient buildings transported me back to a happy time when you walked peacefully and unencumbered on these same plaza grounds. I reached down beside me and picked up a small stone of remembrance of you to take with me now where ever I go.
Walking a very short distance off Market Square, I chanced upon a local museum, Muzeum Podkarpackie w Krosnie (Subcarpathian Museum of Krosno). I entered and asked the first person I met whether anyone spoke English. The person departed momentarily, and returned with Lucas Klopot, a young man who worked at the Museum.
I introduced myself, and informed him that I had a film of the Jewish community taken by my grandparents, Simon and Eva Mahler, in 1932, and inquired whether he would like to view the film. With a look of surprise, he assured me that he would be delighted. Upon viewing the film downstairs on his office computer, he continued to alternately look at the film and look at me. He suddenly paused the film, and collected his colleagues who watched in shocked astonishment. One colleague shared with the others that
“This is the greatest documentation I have ever seen of Krosno’s Jewish community, and it is the oldest film we have of our town.”
The following day, Lucas introduced me to Katarzyna (Kasia) Krepulec-Nowak, local historian and assistant director of the museum who kindly gave me an English-language tour of this beautiful museum.
I knew instantly that Kasia and I would become good friends for many years. This was confirmed when Kasia and Lucas organized a Jewish exhibit at the Museum in September 2010 profiling the Mahler family as its cornerstone. And in their continuing effort to recover and preserve Jewish history and to reconcile and heal from a tragic past, Kasia organized, aided by Lucas and museum director, Dr. Jan Gancarski, their “Jewish Day” Exhibit, 16 January 2011.
Kasia extended a gracious invitation to me to travel to Krosno to present at this historic event. Joining me on our trip were my cousins, Bernard Cohan from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Rabbi Gary Tishkoff, who lives in Israel. Though the Museum auditorium holds approximately 125 people, an estimated 650 people tried to attend the event. Sadly, over 500 people had to be turned away.
Wearing my grandfather Simon’s antique Tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and a beautifully embroidered Kippah (Jewish skull cap), a gift Gary brought me from Israel, I presented my remarks, translated by a woman coincidently also called Kasia Nowak. I read a personal statement about you, great-grandparents, and about growing up with Simon and Eva. This night I fulfilled a life-long dream of bringing you, your children, and your grandchildren home to a happy reunion.
What happened in Poland circulates around and through my consciousness and my soul like blood circulates around and through my body, and what is happening here today and in other museum exhibitions in the recent past is as cleansing, healing, and invigorating to my soul as is blood filtering through a dialysis machine. I have returned now on 5 separate occasions to study and to present your story to the people of Poland in my effort to understand and to work for the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, to heal and repair the world.
Being both Jewish and gay, I truly believe I am “twice blessed.” I ask that you now, great-grandparents, stay with me and continue to be my teacher, my light, my guide. With you by my side, I can never be alone.
With love forever,
To see my family’s 1932 film of Krosno, Poland’s Jewish community, go to: http://www.muzeum.krosno.pl/
Then on the right side, click: “Film: Krosno z 1932 r.”