As we look back over the unconscionable horrors of the Nazi era, let us also reflect back on the numerous acts of courage and go forth to transform the world.
What follows is an address I presented to the residents of Krosno, Poland on Monday, 4 August 2014 as an introduction to a screening of a film my grandparents, Simon (Szymon) & Eva Mahler, took while visiting Simon’s family in 1932. This screening was projected out-of-doors on a building in Krosno’s Market Square, which was the actual site where the film was shot.
I would first like to thank the good people who organized this week’s events, and for their kindness, their friendship, and their generosity in inviting me to present tonight.
I remember the first day when my maternal grandfather, Szymon Mahler told me about his family in Krosno. One day, when I was very young, I sat upon Szymon’s knee. Looking down urgently, but with deep affection, he said to me, “Warren, you are named after my father, Wolf Mahler who ran a butcher shop just [one short block from where we are now] in Krosno, Poland. I lived in Krosno with my father, Wolf, and my mother, Bascha, and 13 brothers and sisters, and aunts, uncles, and cousins.”
Szymon talked about his family with pride, but as he hold me this, he seemed rather sad. I asked him if our relatives still lived in Poland, and he responded that his father, mother and most of the remainder of his family were no longer alive. When I asked him how they had died, he told me that many of them had 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.
Szymon left Krosno in 1912 bound for New York City, leaving most of his family behind. Already in the United States was one brother named David Mahler. Szymon 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.
Szymon returned to Krosno with my grandmother, Eva, in 1932 to a joyous homecoming. This was the first time he had seen his family since he left Poland. He took with him an early home movie camera to record the good people of Krosno 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 those others he left behind alive. Just seven years later, on 1 September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland.
Szymon 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 Eastern Europe as he had known it. He knew it meant certain death for people he had grown up with, people he had loved, people who had loved him.
Szymon’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 his father, and a number of his siblings were killed by Nazi troops either on the streets of Krosno or up a small hill in the Jewish cemetery. Other friends and relatives were eventually loaded onto cattle cars and transported to Auschwitz and Balzec concentration camps. His mother, Bascha, had died in 1934 before the Nazi invasion.
Szymon never fully recovered from those days in 1939. My grandfather, Szymon, was a loving and caring father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He gave me so much: my enjoyment for taking long walks and sitting in quiet solitude, pride in my Jewish heritage, and most of all, my ability to love.
I want to tell you too that although tragedy befell the Jewish community in his homeland, some people undertook and are continuing to express acts of courage, kindness and compassion. In the midst of danger, righteous rescuers came to the aid of those who were oppressed.
For example, Krosno farmers, Jakub and Zofia Gargasz who practiced the Seventh Day Adventist faith, risked their own lives to shelter from Nazi troops and to nurse back to health a Jewish woman, Henia Katz, and her daughter. A neighbor, though, betrayed them, and Jakub, Zofia, Henia and her daughter were arrested and sentenced to death on April 26, 1944. At the trial, Zofia affirmed that she and her husband took this courageous action motivated by their religious faith.
Hans Frank, the governor of the occupied Central Polish government decided to commute the death sentences to incarceration in a concentration camp. Jakub and Zofia survived the concentration camp, which was liberated by the Allies. Henia and her daughter did not survive.
After the war, Jews no longer resided in Krosno. Subsequently, the Jewish cemetery fell into disarray. In 2002, local students from the “Olszówka” association, working under the energetic and compassionate leadership of Grzegorz Bożek—a local teacher and activist with the ecology organization “Workshop for All Beings”—restored the Jewish cemetery in Krosno. The Krosno Jewish Cemetery is now considered one of the best kept Jewish cemeteries in all of Poland because people care and because people want to ensure a brighter future.
I will close by invoking a central tenet of Jewish tradition, which is Tikkun Olam: meaning the transformation, healing, and repairing of the world so that it becomes a more just, peaceful, nurturing and perfect place.
I hope you will all join with me to make the world a more peaceful, nurturing and perfect place. And there is much we can do in this effort. As I travel around Poland, I see good people learning and caring about the Polish Jewish history, which, as we know is all of our history, not only Jews.
A number of issues, and one in particular, is still very troubling to me. It is the tradition in Poland of the image of Jews holding a coin hung on the walls of businesses or homes as symbols to bring wealth to those who won and enter the space. Some of the pictures contain the caption: “Żyd w sieni pieniadze w kieszeni” (“A Jew in the room, a coin in the pocket”). Either one day per week (usually on the Jewish sabbath between Friday at sunset and Saturday at sunset), or on January first of each year, the pictures’ owners hang the Jew upside down for a while to assure them greater wealth during the week or in the new year.
I hope you can understand how very offensive is this stereotype of the rich Jew and the Jew whose main concern is money and wealth.
So, in conclusion, as we look back over the unconscionable horrors of the Nazi era and what they did here, and also as we reflect back on the numerous acts of courage and rescue, I hope we will all go out into our lives and work for Tikkun Olam. Let us transform the world.
You can find the film my grandparents Simon and Eva Mahler took of the Jewish community of Krosno, Poland when they traveled there in 1932. This is the oldest film of Krosno, and the only film we know of projecting the Jewish Community. The Subcarpathian Museum of Krosno has uploaded the film onto their website:
On the right side of the screen you will see blue bookmarks. Click onto “Film Krosno z 1932.”
Also, for background information, you can see my PowerPoint presentation about the Jews of Krosno, Poland.
Please contact me if you have any questions.
Unedited Photo: Flickr/Vintageprintable1