Iowa Writes

JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN
The Two Little Boys (Part 3)


        "Sobibor was our destiny, but not yet. 
        "When the Germans attacked the Russians in June 1941, we had no idea what this meant for us at the time.  The SS had all the Jews in Piatowka and surrounding villages on some kind of lists.  The new owner of the mill, who used to come every week to discuss business with papa, was arrested and killed.  At the time, he might have been luckier than the rest of us.  After the summer passed into late autumn, things got worse and worse.  Most of the Jews from all over were disappearing into the ghetto in Lodz, we heard.  Finally our time came.  Trucks filled with SS poured into Piatowka, and everyone Jewish left in the area was taken to Lodz first, and then later Sobibor.
        "We were forced into the ghetto first.  The Germans made a special one for purposes different than any ghetto Jews there ever experienced in ages gone by.  Before the SS came, the 'Old Lodz' Groisser Zaydie Baruch and his brothers knew well, was once a textile town; rich with her rewards for Jews and Poles alike.  The Jewish mill owners and weavers made their living from wool and cotton for as long as anyone can remember.  The Poles did well, selling their raw wool to the mills.  My Papa knew it well from his own dealing with business friends over the years.  But these same business friends soon lost their interest in your business dealings with them when they were crammed into filthy buildings, which once were their factories, only after the SS first stripped the Jews of their looms and textile goods to send back to Germany.
        "The day finally arrived when all the males in what was left of my family took the train to Sobibor."
        As Zaydie Mendel recounted the transport ride, he conjured to all of us quite vividly the compactness of that cattle car layer by layer.  "It was full of people I knew," he would say.  "Some were standing in shock and soundless; others crying or shouting; and still more people kept moaning in time with each click of the wheels on rails.
        "When the train arrived at Sobibor, the Germans welcomed their guests and baggage with typical German efficiencies, but none of their courtesies one would expect on a better 'wagon-lit service'."  Zaydie vividly recalled how the twins were pushed forward by people behind him.  Both twin boys had the sense to huddle together while separated from their older brother when they first hit the ground unhurt, despite the pressing crush and chaos all around them.

        "Sobibor was our destiny, but not yet. 
        "When the Germans attacked the Russians in June 1941, we had no idea what this meant for us at the time.  The SS had all the Jews in Piatowka and surrounding villages on some kind of lists.  The new owner of the mill, who used to come every week to discuss business with papa, was arrested and killed.  At the time, he might have been luckier than the rest of us.  After the summer passed into late autumn, things got worse and worse.  Most of the Jews from all over were disappearing into the ghetto in Lodz, we heard.  Finally our time came.  Trucks filled with SS poured into Piatowka, and everyone Jewish left in the area was taken to Lodz first, and then later Sobibor.
        "We were forced into the ghetto first.  The Germans made a special one for purposes different than any ghetto Jews there ever experienced in ages gone by.  Before the SS came, the 'Old Lodz' Groisser Zaydie Baruch and his brothers knew well, was once a textile town; rich with her rewards for Jews and Poles alike.  The Jewish mill owners and weavers made their living from wool and cotton for as long as anyone can remember.  The Poles did well, selling their raw wool to the mills.  My Papa knew it well from his own dealing with business friends over the years.  But these same business friends soon lost their interest in your business dealings with them when they were crammed into filthy buildings, which once were their factories, only after the SS first stripped the Jews of their looms and textile goods to send back to Germany.
        "The day finally arrived when all the males in what was left of my family took the train to Sobibor."
        As Zaydie Mendel recounted the transport ride, he conjured to all of us quite vividly the compactness of that cattle car layer by layer.  "It was full of people I knew," he would say.  "Some were standing in shock and soundless; others crying or shouting; and still more people kept moaning in time with each click of the wheels on rails.
        "When the train arrived at Sobibor, the Germans welcomed their guests and baggage with typical German efficiencies, but none of their courtesies one would expect on a better 'wagon-lit service'."  Zaydie vividly recalled how the twins were pushed forward by people behind him.  Both twin boys had the sense to huddle together while separated from their older brother when they first hit the ground unhurt, despite the pressing crush and chaos all around them.
        At the selection, Zaydie Mendel's smaller brothers were sent into the growing crowd of women, children, the old and sick, while men of all ages who were healthy and able went in another line.  An SS officer on each side of the swelling Jewish mass kept order, like border collies do with sheep.  After the selection was finished, the line with the men began marching away.  Those chosen for gassing and cremation were begging and pleading for their lives, for mercy, like a Greek chorus amidst the cacophony of Germans swearing and their dogs barking in this nightmare opera.  Their tormentors merely laughed, and beat them mercilessly, as they shoved them forward to their doom.
        How did Zaydie avoid gassing that very day?  When he came to that part, more tears flowed, and hitches of breath added pause as prelude to his answer.  Slowly collecting himself, he resumed retelling this tragedy.  It was the first time I really looked at the old photo of his twin brothers on the mantel.  From that sepia print, they looked so happy, so innocent.  But one thing stood out.  Their eyes looking back at you.  Not even the picture could dull the lively mischief and their open wonder at the world the two little boys shared.  As I briefly tore my eyes away to listen to more of Zaydie's recollections about them and himself, it was then that I really sensed the room was shrinking to nothing.
        Zaydie said he was pushed at the last minute into another men's group.  "I was tall for my age.  When I tried to rejoin my twin brothers, a man grabbed my arm and told me to shut up.  "'If you want to live in the next few minutes'," he said to me, "'stand still.  Say nothing.  Do nothing.  Everyone in that bunch is dead, but they have to walk first to get that way.  Now, Sha!'"
        "It was the last time I ever saw my twin brothers.  As their red and black-haired heads bobbed, they melted into that mass of Jews.  Gone!  Gone!"  Zaydie stopped for a minute.  This was our cue to turn our eyes again to the picture of his twin brothers on that crowded mantel of his relatives, and Pop's dead ancestors.
        Mom and I both started to shake.  She pulled a Kleenex from her purse and dabbed her eyes.  I just sat real still.  I thought I saw my grand uncles' eyes looking at me from that picture.  I looked away.  With a sigh, Zaydie murmured, "Genug!"  He let that word hang in the dead air between the mantel and his listeners.
        Pop got up and stood over Zaydie.  "Papa," he whispered, "can I get you some brandy, or something?"  The old man nodded "yes."  His permission was enough for Pop to exit quickly, just to get away from the still-breathing cadaver on the winged chair staring after him.  While Pop was in the kitchen getting a brandy for him, Mom asked Zaydie, "Zaydie Mendel, why did you and Bubbe come to Minneapolis, and not stay in Baltimore after the War?"  Zaydie Mendel answered her the best he could.  "A friend of a neighbor of ours back in Piatowka always said that if any Jew needed a place to stay in America, Minneapolis was a nice town in Minnesota, and far away from all the 'tsuris' ('trouble') elsewhere."
        Was Zaydie's "friend-of-a-neighbor" wrong!
        Minneapolis in those days right after the War, and even back in the 1920s and 1930s, was so anti-Semitic, you wouldn't believe.  True, the Near North Side, and parts of the South Side near the lakes, were densely populated by Jews who mostly kept to themselves, like in the Old Country, for safety.  It was all the unavoidable times when they went out of these 'ghettoes' to go among the goyim for basic necessities or things like jobs, did our relatives oftentimes hear from some ill-mannered strangers ethnic slurs, or experience rude stares like "you're not welcome here!" messages.  Baltimore, like all the other East Coast cities, had larger Jewish populations, and, compared to Minneapolis, one could simply ignore the ignorant Jew haters easily.
        Pop told her some of this history about his parents when they first arrived in the United States.  On shipboard a man with a clipboard asked the refugees like his parents where they wanted to land.  Somehow the Jewish Agency settled them in Baltimore.  Apparently, it was hard for Zaydie and Bubbe to adjust in such a large city; practically with almost no supporting family or friends to help them get started.  After about two years of continuing failure and mounting frustration in Baltimore, Bubbe suggested they try their luck elsewhere in such a big country like America, and out of the hectic and alien East Coast.
        Minneapolis was chosen because Bubbe had a very distant cousin there, and after a few letters back and forth, Pop's parents moved and soon did a lot better, despite some pretty intense anti-Semitism in those days.  "Jew hating" they were used to from Poland and the Holocaust.  However, in the American Mid-West, "Jew-hating" was more about ill-manners aimed at the Jews based on social opprobrium and exclusion being inculcated and espoused by smug anti-Semitic believers from local churches, or members of closed communities, rather than from crackpot racial theories and state-sanctioned extermination programs openly practiced against Jews in the Old World by their anti-Semitic enemies.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN

Joseph Richard Goldman has taught modern European history at the University of Minnesota and the University of Kansas.  He is now writing two novels.  He has participated in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival since 2014.




The Two Little Boys will appear on the Daily Palette in four parts.  If you missed Part 1 and Part 2, you can find them here and here.

This page was first displayed
on March 09, 2016

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