FRONTLINE Show #1320
Air Date: April 17, 1996
ANNOUNCER: It's been more than 50 years since the Nazis came. Now he's come home to the place he loves and the place he fears. Has anything changed or nothing at all?
Tonight on FRONTLINE producer Marian Marzynski travels to Poland to search for remnants of the lives and memories of an entire Jewish village, a shtetl
lost in the Holocaust.
[on screen: "To my father, who was killed at the age of 37 only because he was a Jew.
To all the righteous people who cared about Jewish lives during World War II.
To Nathan Kaplan (1920-1994) who was my inspiration."]
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] This is Poland, the country where my Jewish ancestors lived for centuries. Before World War II, 85 percent of all Jews had their roots in this part of the world. Then six million Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust.
I was among the few survivors, a child hidden by Christians in Warsaw. My war began in a horse wagon. In 1942, I was smuggled from the Warsaw ghetto to the Christian side of the city. I was sitting in the carriage with a woman guide, her hand over my mouth as I struggled to scream, "I want to go back to the ghetto. I want to go back to Mummy."
In the ghetto, a massive deportation of Jewish children to the death camps had just started. On the Christian side of town, Germans posted notices of death penalties for hiding a Jew.
My hideouts were Warsaw courtyards. I called people who took care of me my aunts and uncles. Their children pretended to be my cousins. But the game was over when a friendly neighbor said rather loudly for everyone in the courtyard to hear, "I don't remember anybody in their family looking like him," and I had to go.
When all doors had closed, my mother took the elevator up to the top floor of 59 Mokotowska Street. She was going to open the window and jump and take me with her, but she couldn't. Then she made a decision. She brought me to this courtyard of a Christian charity organization in the hope that I would be sent to an orphanage.
She gave me a brown bag with my favorite sugar sandwich. She hung a cardboard sign around my neck, "My name is Marys. My parents are dead." She watched me carefully from across the street, fearing that I would run after her. I didn't. I stood still.
I survived the war, but 90 percent of my family didn't. Some of them died in the Warsaw ghetto. Others were killed in this little town called Leczyca, where the history of our family was written. Before the war, most Jews lived in places like this. They called them shtetl, "a little town" in Yiddish.
In the 25 years I lived in Poland after the war, I returned only once to Leczyca, in 1969. But when I started asking questions about those in my family who were killed and those who betrayed them, I couldn't take it. I decided never to return to my shtetl. I left for America with the image of shtetl life frozen in time. It smelled of death.
Another 25 years have passed. I find a way to enter this haunted world of my ancestors. My friend from Chicago is searching for his Jewish roots. It's easier for him. He was born in America. He never lived in Poland. I feel secure with him leading the way. I will be his translator. This is him, Nathan Kaplan.
We are going to his family's shtetl, a place called Bransk, 100 kilometers east of Warsaw, near the Russian border. Nathan was 2 years old when his father died. "I have no memory of my father," he told me. "It's only by going to Bransk that I can touch him, that I can understand who I am."
Nathan wants me to ask a fellow passenger what does he know about the Jews who once lived in Poland.
[to Nathan Kaplan] He says that they talk about Jews differently and they know they were Jews that mainly were in commerce, that they were taking care of the commerce.
He_ he also knows that there is a little forest where_ where there are graves of_ where_ where they_ the Jews are_ were buried dead there and that they were killed by_ by the Germans. He knows that. Near by here.
NATHAN KAPLAN: The fellow behind you, on the seat, he's old enough to remember some things.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] "You are of the age. You should know something," I pursue. "I'm only 50," he replies. "And your father?" I ask. "He passed away," he answers. "But when he was alive?" "He never talked about it."
Two years ago, Nathan Kaplan sent a letter to Bransk asking for information about his family. A few weeks later, he got a reply from someone who worked in the town hall. "Dear Mr. Kaplan: There are no Jews in Bransk today, but I am a Pole whose family has lived here for generations and I have an interest in Jews. I'd like to help you."
"I am trying to recreate my family's life in Bransk," replies Nathan. "I know my grandmother washed clothes in the river and walked on a cobblestone path to the Mikveh. My mother was born in a one-room cabin. Would you know how those homes were furnished? Did people sleep on straw? Were there wolves in the forest? Were there bandits in the forest?"
"Dear Nathan," comes the answer. "Your mother lived in very interesting times. Bransk had three marketplaces. Polish farmers from 60 villages sold corn, potatoes, eggs, horses, cattle, sheep and poultry. In the market square, all the houses belonged to the Jews. In those houses, Jewish tailors, shoemakers, bakers and sellers of fancy goods had their shops." Signed, Zbyszek Romaniuk.
NATHAN KAPLAN: My young friend and our great hope. I came to see my young friend.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] There have been over 100 letters exchanged over a two-year period between the 70-year-old Jewish man from Chicago and this mysterious 29-year-old gentile from Bransk. I wonder who he is and why he does it.
There is no hotel in Bransk. Zbyszek has invited us home. His parents will sleep outside in a tent so that we can stay in their bedroom.
[translating for Zbyszek Romaniuk] There is a saying in Polish, "A guest in your home is like God in your home. The guest is God."
That's the_ you want to write it down?
NATHAN KAPLAN: Yes!
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: It has to do with the fact that if you know well how to receive a guest in your home, that you have God's blessing.
NATHAN KAPLAN: I wrote also that we met at the station and what my greetings to him were and that he may be a dreamer, but not_ not to my face he's a dreamer. He's a_ he's a_ I see him as a practical person who knows what he wants to do and how to go about it.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] "That's very nice to hear," says Zbyszek, "but I am not sure I deserve it."
"There's real warmth here," Nathan will write in his diary. "Zbyszek's mother is a husky woman. Her eyes sparkle with love."
NATHAN KAPLAN: [toasting] Long live democracy in Poland!
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] "The Jewish quarter was just behind their window," reads Nathan's diary. "The pastoral setting is silent about the past sorrow."
"In a house much like this one," writes Nathan, "my grandparents lived and my mother was born."
NATHAN KAPLAN: Four children in this house. My mother was next to the youngest.
In the summertime, the women came here and did their laundry and talked to each other. In the wintertime, the people ice skated here. The Polish fishermen caught fish and the Jewish women would come to dry the fish to prepare for Friday night's dinner. The ice_ I mentioned the ice? Okay. In the winter, they took off the ice, carved out the ice for storage, wrapped it in straw for storage. The water for the other_ for the Jewish bath house, which included the Mikveh, was drawn from here and was emptied in here.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Zbyszek collects photographs of old Bransk. "This is the river as your mother would remember it," Zbyszek tells Nathan, "wider and less polluted."
[to Nathan Kaplan] The original house, okay, and then the synagogue where_
[voice-over] All five synagogues in Bransk were destroyed during the war. Nathan wants to know precisely where each of them stood.
[to village man] [subtitles] Do you remember this? How old are you?
VILLAGE MAN: [subtitles] Sixty-eight.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] So you can remember.
[to Nathan Kaplan] Another synagogue on this side.
VILLAGE MAN: [subtitles] One synagogue here, one there, and the third was over there.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [to Nathan Kaplan, translating for village
woman] Saturday, they would walk long walks. The difference between Poles and the Jews were that both were rich and poor, but the Jews were continuously collecting for their poor and the Poles always could not understand that they are doing this because they say, "In our community, if someone is poor, he gets poorer and nobody will help them."
[voice-over] The only synagogue that survived the war in this area is in Orla, on the Russian border. Ten years ago a renovation project began with limited funds from the government. But in the last five years, because of lack of financial support, the synagogue is deteriorating.
[to Nathan Kaplan] I tell you, what he's telling me is just incredible because it was first neglected. It was totally destroyed. And then in the last 10 years, there's nothing but stupidities that are being done to this place_ a wrong way of_ of reconstructing. The things are discovered and then stolen. The_ the_ the glass is gone. The door is gone, the fresco. Then some students come and do some reconstruction.
[voice-over] Zbyszek, who never learned at school that Jews ever lived in Bransk, discovered on his own that before the war Jews made up 60 percent of the Bransk population. Tracing their history became an intellectual adventure for Zbyszek. He has gathered his own Jewish archive.
During the demolition of one of the old houses in Bransk, some school children found three fragments of Torah and brought them to Zbyszek.
Today is pig-killing day in Bransk. "I've killed 30,000 pigs in my life," boasts Fabian, an old-timer, and he introduces himself as an expert on Jews and economics. "A Jew owned the bank," explained Fabian. "When a Polish farmer needed to borrow money, he had to come to the Jew for it. The rate was 2 percent per month."
"That means 24 percent per year," I figure. "Do you know that Polish banks charge 60 percent today?"
"You see, that's the Jewish way," says Fabian. "A Jew looks at the pig and says, `I will give you 2 zlotys per kilo.' `Not enough,' says the Polish farmer, and the Jew goes away. The next day another Jew comes and offers a zloty and a half for the pig and the farmer refuses again. Then the first Jew comes on the third day and buys the pig for 2 zlotys. That's how cunning they were. That's how cunning."
[to village man] [subtitles] What are your memories of the Jews?
OSTROWSKI: [subtitles] Only good ones. I know nothing bad. We lived together, played soccer together, volleyball. Two Jewish musicians played instruments with me.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] What kind of tunes would you play together? [Ostrowski hums one of the songs]
[voice-over] "Bransk is no longer a hidden world to me," writes Nathan in his journal. "I am touching the places my parents touched. I walk on the ground they walked on." Nathan is like a sponge. He's overwhelmed by information he cannot sort out. He absorbs it all.
My eye is on Zbyszek. The Jewish subject was a taboo when I lived in Poland during the communist era. But even now, in a small town like Bransk, it takes guts to advertise this type of interest. As long as he collects remnants of Jewish life, he's safe. But what about when he touches on Jewish death?
In 1942 the Germans fenced in the Jewish quarter with barbed wire and created a Jewish ghetto. At the edge of it was this mill. The miller's name is Jan Olszewski. Today he's 96 years old and blind. Before the war a Jewish merchant sold him grain. The name of the merchant was Maurice Goldwasser. Goldwasser's son lives in Chicago. He is a friend of Nathan's.
"This is Nathan from Bransk," I make the introduction. "He knows the son of Goldwasser. Nathan lives in America. He is 72_ not that young. You can touch him."
"I can tell he is an older man. I can feel his stubble," says Olszewski. "Nathan knows the son of Goldwasser who lives in Chicago and who is a doctor," I repeat. Olszewski has witnessed the deportation of the Goldwasser family from the ghetto.
JAN OLSZEWSKI: [subtitles] Goldwasser came to my yard, grabbed me and kissed me. He showed me the poison he carried in his pocket. He told me it was for himself, his wife and his daughter. Before they reached the train depot, they were already dead_ suicide. They used the poison.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] The same they showed you?
JAN OLSZEWSKI: [subtitles] Yes, they swallowed it. He grabbed my hand, hugged me and said, "May God protect you." How can I be a normal person after what I witnessed? Watching what happened here was unthinkable. You can't imagine how humanity was being destroyed here. Germans!
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] As a part of the plan to erase the Jewish past, the Germans ordered Poles to remove the gravestones from the Jewish cemetery in Bransk. Most of them were used as under-pavement for local roads and sidewalks, like this one around the Catholic parish in Bransk.
When Zbyszek learned about it, he asked the priest for permission to break up the concrete and retrieve the gravestones. The priest agreed under the condition that Zbyszek will be responsible for repaving the sidewalk. "But I have one request," says the priest. "When you show this film, make sure in your commentary that it is clear that the Germans did this, not the Poles."
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] Oh, look. A woman was buried here.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] How do you know?
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] Because of the sign of a candle holder. It's damaged, but still readable. Bring it into the light.
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] [sprays foam on the stone]
When the letters are filled, they are easier to read.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Zbyszek has learned some Hebrew to be able to read the inscriptions on the graves.
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] Here rests a modest woman who died at a young age. A lady named Shava, the daughter of Eljer. She passed away on the 16th day of the month Elul. It looks like either 1905 or 1915. And at the end it says, "Let her soul enter eternal life."
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] To his search for stolen gravestones Zbyszek recruited a friend, a local school teacher and his students. The latest tip came from this farm. According to the farmer's son, two Jewish gravestones lie on the ground. One is at the entrance to the pigsty and another one by the stable, cut into a circle for use as a grinding wheel.
FARM WOMAN: [subtitles] We prepared it for sharpening, but didn't use it yet.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] These stones mean a lot to Zbyszek. One of his projects is the compilation of the list of Jewish families who lived in Bransk in the 19th century. But I wonder what meaning these stones have for a woman who is old enough to remember the Jews. Do they remind her of the Jewish death she witnessed during the war?
FARM WOMAN: [subtitles] We saw Jews floating in the river. People took their gold and dumped them in the water. And I saw Jews tied with rope, carried to the Germans.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] This is the result of two years of collecting gravestones by Zbyszek and his friend. They have been carrying them to the old Jewish cemetery from where the original stones were all stolen. A hundred and seventy-five gravestones separated from the bodies they once marked make up this exhibit.
Zbyszek calls it a "lapidarium," a museum of stones. For Nathan and me, these stones are alive. This is a roll call of the dead_ for the Kaplans, the Rubins, the Edels, the Finkelsteins, the Tykockis. When World War II started, there were 2,500 of them in this town.
On November 8th, 1942, Germans rounded up the Jews of Bransk. They ordered Polish farmers to provide 500 horse wagons to transport 2,500 Jews to the nearby train station. Within 24 hours, the Jews of Bransk died in the gas chambers of Treblinka. Only 300 of them were able to escape.
Nathan wants to meet people who remember what happened to Jews who went into hiding.
JOZEF SKOWRONSKI: [subtitles] It was a bad story with the Jews, so bad that the Jews had to hide. Some people were turning them in. Others were keeping them for the cash.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] What did they pay with?
JOZEF SKOWRONSKI: [subtitles] Dollars and gold.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] His name is Jozef Skowronski. I ask him about the deportation of the Jews. He tells me that after the Jews left, the Germans ordered the Poles to demolish some of their houses and offered building materials for sale. Skowronski was one of the buyers, but he was looking for other bargains, as well.
JOZEF SKOWRONSKI: [subtitles] I knew that the rich Jews had left something in those buildings, so I took a crowbar, pried up the floor and saw something there. So with my claws I started scraping. I saw two huge kettles with lots of fabric in them. They were Astrakhan furs, a seal skin. There was jewelry. We divided the four furs between me and the neighbors I went with.
I took the Astrakhan fur. I took the best fur because I found them. But my neighbors called the Germans on me. They came and asked me what I had taken. I said I had taken a fur because I found it. But I also found one box of silverware. I took it and no one saw me. So the German asked what else I had taken. Then the German slapped me in the face. I had to give it back.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] As soon as we leave Skowronski, Zbyszek Romaniuk has a revelation for me. After the war, Skowronski was accused of giving up Jews to the Germans.
[to Nathan Kaplan] After we finished our conversation with the guy_
NATHAN KAPLAN: Yeah?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: _our friend Romaniuk says that he has enough evidence from the Yad Vashem_
NATHAN KAPLAN: Yeah.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: _that this guy that we gave $5 to_
NATHAN KAPLAN: Yeah.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: _gave up a full room of Jews to Germans. He has evidence in the Yad Vashem. The guy gave up, I don't know, 30, 20_ a bunker full of Jews to the Germans. It's blowing my mind. I cannot believe it.
So I went to the guy and I ask him, "Are you the only guy under this name?" He says yes. "Did you live all your life over there?" Says yes. I came back to_ and so, of course, I_ I don't want to confront him. But that's how tragic is this whole thing.
NATHAN KAPLAN: I can't even think. I can't even_ everything falls apart. Everything falls apart. You know, I_ I can't_ I can't_ I can't_ it_ there's nothing in life that connects with this_ with this_ what we have here, this double_ this revelation of righteousness and evil.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Nathan wants to believe the best in people. But in my pocket I am carrying depositions from several Jews accusing Skowronski of betraying them to the Nazis. I decide we have to see Skowronski again.
[to Nathan Kaplan, translating for Skowronski] He's not guilty. There was a man whose name was close to his. He knew this. He was interrogated. He proved his innocence. So this is a false accusation. False accusation. Jozef, Jozef_ Skowronski, Sowinski_ he was arrested.
[voice-over] "I am a poor man, but I am a righteous man," says Skowronski. "Apparently, I have accused the wrong man. But somebody did it," says Nathan.
OLD WOMAN: [subtitles] Don't record what I'll tell you about the Poles. I don't want them to know what I'm telling you. I knew a farmer who finished off a Jew. I know a woman whose family killed Jews. If I could only point them out to you. But I'm afraid.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Is she alive?
OLD WOMAN: [subtitles] Yes. She yelled at me one day and I said, "I didn't kill Jews. I didn't sell Jews. I gave them bread."
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] What was the argument about?
OLD WOMAN: [subtitles] She said I was selling vodka without a permit. I said, "I was selling vodka, but I didn't sell Jews, like you did." I used to sell vodka, but not anymore. I am sick now and I don't have the strength.
Over there was the ghetto. I remember how they were dragging them from the ghetto. I was in the ghetto myself. You better believe I was there. I came to visit the Jews in the ghetto. A German stopped me. I explained I was buying potatoes. The Germans were herding them all through our field. We knew them. My whole family did business with them.
I remember. They were coming to our farm. I remember. I was leaving bread for them on the pigsty. Yankel Voytek was his name. There was also Shlomo. Another one was David, a little Jew. There was also_ what was his name?
OLD MAN: [subtitles] A Jew was worth as much as a rabbit is worth to a hunter. When a German saw a Jew, he shot at him like he would shoot at a rabbit. It gave him pleasure every time.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] How did it feel to watch this?
OLD MAN: [subtitles] You had to watch it.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Did it make you cry?
OLD MAN: [subtitles] If a German found out you kept a Jew, you would be finished. I know one case where a farmer kept Jews and later disappeared.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] So a man could do nothing?
OLD MAN: [subtitles] There was no way.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Did some Poles turn in Jews to the Germans?
OLD MAN: [subtitles] It hardly ever happened. A Jew had no value. It was like a fly on the wall.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [to Nathan Kaplan] A Jew was like a fly.
NATHAN KAPLAN: Sometimes in life, events awaken us to new perceptions of ourselves.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] We return to the parish because Nathan wants to ask the priest about Polish-Jewish relations during the war.
NATHAN KAPLAN: Now, here is Bransk, who, in a way, is a symbol of every town. What great realization has come to this town as a result of the events of Nazi occupation?
NATHAN KAPLAN: Yes. How does it affect their lives and their thinking and their hearts?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] "The trick is to live as close as possible to the teaching of the church," answered the priest. "Everybody had family_ father, mother, children. They had to choose. With those who kept Jews, it was more than ordinary love, it was heroism. According to God's love, I can love my brother more than myself, but I don't have to. I am not talking about those who are doing it for money or gold, some of whom perished, as well. But those who kept the Jews with pure intentions were taking risks."
Although the priest privately compliments Zbyszek on his Jewish research, he refuses to discuss it in the church or to give Zbyszek public support.
In Zbyszek's house we learn that there are other clouds over this young man's head. His mother, who help him gather information about the Jews from older people, has run into some resistance.
[to Nathan Kaplan] She met just a moment ago a man who said, "I have a lot of stuff to tell you about Jews, but I won't because I saw that there are guys here. They are taking picture of the Jewish homes and that means that if we talk more about it, some Jews will come and take the homes and we will be left here and we don't want this to happen."
[voice-over] Nathan worries that he has created problems for his young friend, Zbyszek, who has changed Nathan's perspective on Polish anti-Semitism.
NATHAN KAPLAN: It took me a year of correspondence to wonder where he's coming from. There's a certain tension as to what is the meaning of this man's thinking now? How often do we come across a person who says he's a friend of the Jew, but dormant_ but_ but he_ he has all the_ he has the negative images? He will say, "The Jews are okay," he says, "but"_ he won't say "but"_ he says, "They really know how to make money." He_ or else he'll say, "He's the Jew in my family," meaning they have an image that he is an aggressive hustler, money_ money-ambitious person.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: When I was baptized during the war with my mother, this older woman that was really taking care of us came to my mother and said, "Congratulations. I'm so happy for you. Finally you do not smell Jew." So I'm saying that even the heroes were not free from anti-Semitism. That's a big contradiction. And he is free of anti-Semitism.
NATHAN KAPLAN: He's outside of our experience.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] From my conversations with Zbyszek, I begin to imagine what has happened here 50 years ago. During the liquidation of the Bransk ghetto, 300 Jews escaped to the surrounding forest. Their chance of meeting a German soldier was slim. For a population of some 6,000, the entire occupation force consisted of five Germans.
The survival of Jews depended on getting food and shelter from Polish farmers, like the family of Boleslaw Zapisek. I wanted to know if the farmers were getting anything in return for their help.
"The Jews had nothing to pay us with," says Zapisek. "Did they have a good appetite?" I ask. "Not bad," he answers. "But we had 20 pigs and five cows and for bread mother bought grain and baked it in the oven."
Zapisek's story seems too good to be true, so I decide to provoke him and ask him if he recognizes a Jew in me. "You know what? You could be one," he says. "Because of my nose?" I ask. "And him?" I point to Nathan. "He looks like one. I can tell by his nose."
[to Nathan Kaplan] You look like a Jew. He says your nose.
[voice-over] "And how about me?" asks Zbyszek. "No." "But really," insists Zapisek, "tell me the truth. Are you?" When I confirm, he assures me that he doesn't have any problem with it.
I tell Zapisek that I was saved by Christians, but that most of the people in hiding were given over to the Germans. "It's true," he says. "I know of a case where a beautiful Jewess, along with a whole bunch of Jews, hid in the forest nearby and were betrayed by the farmers."
"Who were the farmers?" I ask. "The people over there," he says. I ask for names, but Zapisek is elusive. "I have to think about it," he says.
[to Nathan Kaplan] He doesn't know who exactly it was, but it was a group of seven Jews.
NATHAN KAPLAN: Seven Jews?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: That were_ that were living in the forest when you took this and they were coming to this little area of the houses.
NATHAN KAPLAN: Yeah.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: And they were asking for food.
NATHAN KAPLAN: Yeah.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: And he says that they were probably annoying them by asking them too often_
NATHAN KAPLAN: Yeah.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: _or maybe they didn't want to pay them or whatever. At one point, they came from over there to this road, to the place where they were hidden_
NATHAN KAPLAN: Yeah.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: _and they take them physically and drove them to Germans.
He's saying that's it. What would you call it, a "dig-out" or_
NATHAN KAPLAN: Dug-out. Dug-out.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: What_
NATHAN KAPLAN: A dug-out.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] The next day we get a phone call from Zapisek. "Come over to the wedding of my niece," he says. "I have some news for you. I know the names of the two people who betrayed the Jews in the dug-out."
"I know the names of the two people," he tells me. "One is dead, one is alive." Zapisek tells me where to find him. At the first glance, I realize that the man is senile. It crosses my mind that I should back off and not bother him. But then I realize that when he closes his eyes, the last traces of memory will disappear and we'll never know.
His daughter insists that he was too young to remember and that I should go to their neighbor, who was older. He says he knew Jews were hiding in the forest and farmers were giving them food. "They had to give them food," he adds. "They were afraid of them."
I tell Kurek that I have seen the places in the forest where the Jews were hiding and I ask him if he ever came across them. "I didn't," he answers, "unless by accident when I was herding the cows. I could have stumbled on them," he says.
"Whenever Germans found them, they would bash their heads in and throw them into the pit and that was the end of it." "Did Germans ever come to your house, asking about the Jews?" "They didn't need to ask. They knew how to handle them," he answers, and unleashes his fantasy. "Sometimes they would send planes after them and bombard them from the air."
Zapisek's lead has reached a dead end, but the investigation has hooked me. One thing I know. The atrocities happened here in the remote farm areas where there were no witnesses.
From the pages of survivors' testimonies certain names stand out, like the brothers Hrycz, who would receive Jews, grab their belongings, bludgeon them to death and throw their bodies in the river. I learn from Zbyszek that one of the brothers Hrycz is still alive.
[to Hrycz] [subtitles] I've heard a lot about you. You are one of the oldest people in this village. You remember the war. The times were hard?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] Oh, don't ask! And today death sits on my nose. I am eighty. Are you photographing me?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Tell me, what happened to the Jews here?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] They shut them in the ghetto, carted them away and killed them.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Did you have anything to do with the Jews?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] Nothing at all. I was not interested.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Did Jews hide with you?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] God forbid! No. If a Jew was found in your house, your house would be burned. It once happened nearby. The farmer ran away and the woman was killed.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] So you were living in Chojewo?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] Yes.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] You and your brother?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] Yes.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Brother is dead?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] Yes, he's dead.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Weren't you accused after the war of doing something bad to Jews?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] We were accused, but so what? They even arrested us, but let us go. Kaminski went to jail for the Jews.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] So Kaminski killed the Jews?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] He was catching them and delivering them to the Germans.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Wasn't he the head of the village?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] He was.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: What happened to him after the war?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] I know he went to jail for years, came back and died.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] So no Jew ever knocked on your door, never asked for a piece of bread? You never saw a single Jew throughout the war?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] I saw them when they were taken from the ghetto.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] And none of them would stop at your house and try to hide?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] No way.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] You were in Chojewo, one Hrycz and another one_ two brothers?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] Yes, we lived in a remote area.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] You were near the forest and the river?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] Yes, very close.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] So Kaminski was catching the Jews?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] He was catching them and delivering them to the Germans. He went to prison for it.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] He returned and he died?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] Death already sits on my nose.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] On your nose. That's what they say?
HRYCZ: [subtitles] Death sits on my nose.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] None of the people who served jail sentences for betraying the Jews is alive, but the daughter of a man who was convicted of killing Jews is willing to talk.
"I really don't remember this well. I don't know where those Jews were. Did they round them up to our house or someplace else? I couldn't tell. My father was told that if he doesn't report them, he will pay the price. He had family. That's why. I really don't remember this well.
"My father had some good Jews with whom he was friendly. They left some belongings with us for safe keeping and went into hiding. After the war, they returned and picked those things up. But the others were desperate, with no place to go.
"How did it happen? Why did it happen? I don't know. Was it in the hands of people or was it God's will? I don't understand. People told me that it happened, but I didn't see it, so I cannot testify. They said they shot them in an open field."
[to Nathan Kaplan] Maybe he did something wrong. He spent 15 years in prison. He was a good man. He didn't drink. He was_ he would go to the church. But there were the times.
[voice-over] "I'm sure it all happened under great tension," I say. "We were only human, you know, and those were the times." "Everybody was a victim." "That's right." "I wonder if people would act the same way if it happened today," I ask her. I never get an answer.
NATHAN KAPLAN: And you try to make sense of this_ and I cannot make sense of this. My mind cannot support decency and inhumanity in the same people. I don't know what it means. How can a decent man be inhuman at times? What component of a man, of a just man, of a decent man, of a caring person, had evil working in their hearts and that evil would assert itself and rule that person? I don't know this. I don't understand it. It doesn't_ it doesn't_ I can't take anything else in life and use that as a yardstick, as a comparison, as an explanation. I don't know what this is. I_ I don't_ I can't_ I'm stuck. I'm stuck. I have to figure this out. I don't know.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] At the home of Zbyszek's friend, with whom he restored the Jewish cemetery, Nathan and I receive farewell wishes.
Trains bring back memories. After my mother left me in the courtyard, a Catholic priest took care of me. Later he brought me here, to the orphanage of the Brothers Orione, 15 miles from Warsaw.
I was a 5-and-a-half-year-old boy who knew his story well. My mother was a maid. I never knew my father. Here, at the age of 6, I had my first communion and became the most dedicated altar boy. From here we saw the heavy smoke over Warsaw. The ghetto was burning and I knew my father was there.
Only the principal knew who I was. When the Germans visited the orphanage, he brought me to the chapel and I would work around the altar or hide behind it.
Since I had lost my mother, memories of my father were coming back_ the touch of his unshaved cheek when he invited me to his bed Sunday morning in our ghetto room.
Then the war was over. I was sitting in the dining room, at a table. A woman came from the entrance. An old woman with sunken cheeks was looking at me. "Marys," she said. "We can't speak," I told her. "We have meditations now." "I'm your mother," she said. "I don't know you, ma'am." "I'm your mother. Don't you remember your aunts and uncles?" "No. I don't remember you." "I would like to take you to Warsaw." "Do you have enough money to take care of me? I am okay here," I said. She cried.
I later found out that my father cut a hole in the train's floor on the way to the concentration camp and jumped off. He joined the partisans and was killed in a battle.
Nathan could be my father, but I see him as a schoolboy, eager to learn. I am grateful to him for bringing me to Bransk. I couldn't face the memories of my own family's shtetl. I have adopted Nathan's Bransk as my own.
But my journey in search of a shtetl has only begun.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] A year later, Zbyszek Romaniuk comes to Chicago, where Nathan and I live. Zbyszek wants to gather more material for his research about Jewish life in Bransk. They haven't seen each other since we left Poland.
NATHAN KAPLAN: [to Zbyszek Romaniuk] I think about him all the time. I have conversations and dialogue with him all the time. I look after him all the time. I worry about him all the time.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [translating for Zbyszek Romaniuk] He never believed that he would be in Chicago one day and it's a big, big emotion.
NATHAN KAPLAN: I want to know what was the atmosphere that you grew up in in Bransk that_ the information that you got about Jews.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [translating for Zbyszek Romaniuk] A lot of jokes which would make fun of Jews. A lot of sayings that were_ they were derogative about Jews_ Jewish sayings. For example, since he was very little, whenever someone is dressed in bad taste, the comment is, "You are dressed as if you are going for a Jewish wedding."
NATHAN KAPLAN: Okay Can he give me another example?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: When people talk at the same time and there is a noise in the room, the person says, "It's noisy like in a Hedder, or in a Jewish school."
NATHAN KAPLAN: Okay. You know, I was so touched and so overwhelmed by the hospitality and the congeniality after that first day, I_ I was_ I was just really touched. I couldn't_ I couldn't see through it.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: It is very nice that you got this impression and he's very glad.
NATHAN KAPLAN: I was overwhelmed.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: However, the day after you left and the day after other Jews leave, what he hears from his neighbors often is that he again brought the Jews so they can reclaim their properties. A woman told him after he started to do work on the cemetery, "You better stop doing this because something bad can happen to you. I worry about you."
NATHAN KAPLAN: How does he_ how does he react to these things? How did he react to these type of things?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: I was never afraid of anything. I'm not concerned about threats.
NATHAN KAPLAN: That's why I worry about him.
It's from these towns that we mark over here that I can humanize the experience of the Jews and to steer away from cold history. The ghetto wire was over here and the ghetto fence_ the ghetto wooden fence was here and when people went to the church, they had to see this ghetto fence. And I always wondered what type of impression that made on the people going to that church.
This is the market. This is where my grandmother sold soap in the market. This is the market where my grandmother sold soap.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] This is the last time Zbyszek will see Nathan Kaplan. Within a year, Nathan will die, leaving behind him hundreds of pages of notes from a four-year-long search for his shtetl.
NATHAN KAPLAN: This is the street where the synagogue_ where three_ three of the five synagogues were on this_ were on this street, a little cluster of religious_ a spiritual cluster. And I can imagine that all the time the sound of prayer and chants were filling the streets.
Don't forget I want a picture of you and your wife.
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: Okay!
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] It was Nathan who set up appointments for Zbyszek across America. I will be Zbyszek's guide. My assignment is a difficult one. I will be opening the door for him to the Jews from Bransk who live in America. I know they never met a gentile who studies the Jewish life. I also know that American Jews have different feelings toward the shtetl. For some it is an inspiration, for others a nightmare.
In this New Jersey condominium complex, most of the residents are Jewish. It occurs to me that I am taking Zbyszek to a vertical shtetl in modern America. We are visiting an Israeli woman whose mother was born in Bransk. Her name is Ryvka Kornreich.
RYVKA KORNREICH: Hello, nice to meet you. My mother came from Bransk, which I can't understand_ the most elegant woman that you can imagine. So ask him if he heard about it, people in Bransk in those times was so elegant. Everything_ when my mother passed away, my cousin told me that she remembered the way she came to Israel, everybody looked at her, not only because she was beautiful. She had the most gorgeous clothes, very high-heeled shoes. In fact, she could not even use them in Israel and we had them for years and years in the closet.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] This is the first time that Zbyszek is in a Jewish home and right away he's under scrutiny. "How come your parents didn't object to you delving into the life of the Jews?" I translate Ryvka's question.
[translating for Zbyszek Romaniuk] His parents always stayed away from his life. They have nothing against what he's doing. Sometimes they would come home a little nervous when they heard in town a bad gossip about him. They_ he has a nickname. "Jude," they call him in town, some people.
RYVKA KORNREICH: Because of this venture?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Because of this, right.
RYVKA KORNREICH: I have_ no! My_ my most important question of today_ do you think that he can be objective in searching the Jews because he is not Jewish? And this is really_ I want an answer. I have a little bit doubt. Don't tell him! Don't tell him.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: I'll tell him.
RYVKA KORNREICH: No!
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: I'll tell him. [crosstalk]
[translating] "Absolutely yes. Why you_ why you connect objectivity with being a Jew?"
RYVKA KORNREICH: No! Because this is a subjective_
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: I would think subjective.
RYVKA KORNREICH: Right. No! [crosstalk]
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: But who is most qualified, you're saying, to really write the history of a little Polish town is not a historian that lives there that has access to archives? Isn't it in the Polish interest to know the history of the land?
RYVKA KORNREICH: Absolutely. I agree.
DAUGHTER: He can be more objective than if you were writing it because you would write_ you would make it a_ you would, like, beautify it or whatever and you would put in all your subjective opinions, which you have plenty of, and he doesn't have any. Well, maybe he has some, but_ but he could be a lot more objective than anyone else.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: And also_
DAUGHTER: And as a historian_ I mean, he's looking up history. Why would it be suspicious? It's_ it's_
RYVKA KORNREICH: No, in some ways_ [crosstalk]
DAUGHTER: He's not writing a novel. I mean, he's writing a history book.
RYVKA KORNREICH: Right.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: He speaks some Hebrew. He learned Hebrew.
RYVKA KORNREICH: Really? You learned Hebrew? I can't believe it!
[on the phone] Anya, it's Ryvka!
ANYA: Oh, Ryvka?
RYVKA KORNREICH: How are you?
ANYA: Oh, not so good.
RYVKA KORNREICH: What's happened?
ANYA: Oh, my eyes bothers me.
RYVKA KORNREICH: Oh!
ANYA: My sinus, my legs. I can hardly walk.
RYVKA KORNREICH: The last time I saw you, you were in A-shape!
RYVKA KORNREICH: Yes. I just spoke with somebody and I told them how nice you look. How is Esther doing?
ANYA: Oh, Esther's not so good.
RYVKA KORNREICH: Okay. I will make you now feeling very good because I have a surprise for you.
RYVKA KORNREICH: You know, I have in my house three people that are doing a project about Bransk, about your shtetle.
ANYA: Wherever the Poles was, there was no good. When the people used to go Saturday mornings in shul_ in the_ to synagogue, they used to beat them and_ on Sunday they used to tie them to the tails of the horse and then they used to drag them in the street.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: What do you remember else? What else do you remember? Do you remember_
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] How could children threaten grown-ups?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Was it children that were doing this or the older folks?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: People. Older people?
ANYA: Older people.
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] I never heard of facts such as these.
RYVKA KORNREICH: One more question. Anya, listen to this. My mother came to Israel. She brought beautiful clothes and beautiful shoes and we have pictures. She was so elegant. And she used to tell me that when they come to Israel, she had such a hard life. You know, they had to establish Hasidim and [unintelligible] They had to work in the day and they have to watch at night. They have so many problems in Israel. So I always were under the impression that in Bransk she had good life.
ANYA: No, no. I can't say that they had such a good life.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: So how come she came with these beautiful clothes and with the high-heeled shoes and_
ANYA: No, listen. This is your life. Whatever you needed, you spent on yourself whatever you had_
RYVKA KORNREICH: But she used it in Bransk?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: No! She probably took all the savings and bought one pair of everything and came to Israel. That's what immigrants like to do.
RYVKA KORNREICH: That's what she did?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] After our first experience, I feel like a voyeur. I am watching Zbyszek as he trespasses into a foreign territory, just as I did during the war when I lived among Christians in Poland. I watch him entering a world he could only imagine until now.
In a suburb of Atlanta lives a woman who left Bransk as a 14-year-old girl. Her name is Evelyn Silverboard. Her family fled Bransk in 1938, just before the war.
EVELYN SILVERBOARD: [subtitles] [showing photos] This is my house!
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] I've never seen pictures like these! They alone make my trip worthwhile.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: That's incredible.
EVELYN SILVERBOARD: [subtitles] Church. Edelman_
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] Edelman's brewery.
EVELYN SILVERBOARD: Right here is the_ the_
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] City hall. Jail.
EVELYN SILVERBOARD: Yeah, and the [unintelligible]
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Would you go to Bransk?
EVELYN SILVERBOARD: No.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Why?
EVELYN SILVERBOARD: I want to remember it the way I am. That's my home. Home! Bransk is home. That's my_ that's_ that's where_ it's home and that's the reason I don't want to go back because I want to remember my home the way it was. I don't want to remember it the way it is now. I don't know anybody there.
I_ that was_ all the familiar faces, every nook and cranny_ I mean, I drew him a map of where people lived, and names, and I can still see in my mind's eye. I can see everything. I can see the way it looked and I remember going on the river, with Lyzwy, on the river when it was frozen. And I remember going in the summertime swimming in the river. I remember that, all of that.
This is from Rachela Finkelstein. This is from Shana Gold, Goldowna_ her mother_ they had a galanteria store. This is Jozef Balkestin, in Jewish. And this is from Motl Szpitalny. And this is from Hajcuvna. And this is from my Aunt Huma, Mulhuma. And this is Stella Lerner. We were a close-knit group of girlfriends.
The last night, I went with_ we said good-bye. The lights were out in town. The electrownia was being cleaned. So we had lamps and everybody came to say good-bye. And in the morning, I remember Chumski_ do you know the name Chumski? Sonya Chumski, who was_ they were very good friends of our family. She was knocking on the_ on the_ to wake up. It was time to wake up.
Then the bus stopped in front of our house. All the good friends, they went on the bus with us to the outskirts of town, when the bus was near Binduga. And that's where they got off and walked back in and we went on. And we_ I remember my aunt saying, "They'll never see us again." And that was it.
Then we went to Warsaw and we stayed in Warsaw three, four days. Papa went to Lodz to say good-bye to his brothers and sisters and two brothers came and_ and a nephew came back to Warsaw to say good-bye to us. And I remember going on the bus to the train station to go to Gdynia and there were riots in the street.
And the last thing that I remember about Poland, and I don't know whether I should say it or not, was we were on the bus and the students, college students, university students, yelling and carrying signs, "Precz z Zydami," and that I'll never forget. That was in my brain. It still is. And that's another reason I won't go back to Poland because that's my last memory of Poland was "Precz z Zydami." We were on the bus. We were all scared. And that_ that was it.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: How would you say "Precz z Zydami" in English?
EVELYN SILVERBOARD: "Down with the Jews."
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Evelyn shows us a collection of letters from Bransk written to her in 1939 before the war put an end to all correspondence. "I can't believe that you are seas and continents away from us," reads one of the letters. "Your golden America is a dream for everyone. You read newspapers and must know what is happening in Germany. Therefore you should not miss Bransk, even though you had your sweet childhood here. I hope you will forget Bransk soon and adapt to the American life."
"Life in our shtetl has become unbearable. I am sick of this hideous word 'Jew' I hear all around me. It seems that we are born to suffer. The only hope is that one day we will all be in our sunny Palestine. And you are so far from me in your golden America. I can't believe I won't be able to see your beautiful little face and kiss your rosy lips."
EVELYN SILVERBOARD: Look_ [unintelligible] on Friday. Friday night we used to put this on our table.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Shabbes.
EVELYN SILVERBOARD: For shabbes. "Pulshenin tishtact" that was called_ this_ and Mama's_ my mama's silver candlesticks. This is the way it looked, Lord. It's pretty. It's still pretty. And we've been here since 1938 and_ and I don't think it's been used since.
We have some beautiful candlesticks and Mama used to put it right here, at the end of the table. And she used to benchlicht. There was_ what was, was, was, and it'll never, never, never be again. It's a civilization, a way of life that's gone forever and it'll never be duplicated. It can't. It was a very rich, rich, rich civilization.
How can you transfer the flavor, the_ that was? Sure, there are American Jews that are doing_ that are making shabbes, but it_ have they got the Pulshenin Tishtact? I mean, that doesn't make the shabbes, but it's the little things. It's the way of life. It's_ [sings] En shul a rhine_ Are you going to hear it here, Maycheu, the calling?
You can't_ it's just a way of life that I was really blessed to_ to know. I really was. And that is_ you asked me about going back to Bransk. I want to remember. I want to have my memories that I remember, my good memories.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] A Holocaust survivor from Bransk lives in Baltimore. After the war, he came to America. Now Jack Rubin owns a clothing store.
JACK RUBIN: This is the entrance from the back.
In 1947, we came to this country. Now I'm in the United States. I'm in America. What will I do here? You don't have money. You don't have a trade. You can't talk. Everybody looks at your like you're a dummy. What will I do here?
So my uncle saw the way I was walking around. He says, "What are you worried about? You don't have what to eat? I'll take you in the country, out of town. I'll take you over there. You would be a whole summer. You're not going to do nothing. You're going to drink and eat. You're going to rest after all your troubles."
I said, "Uncle, I'm going to get crazy over there. I want to do something. Give me"_ I said, "I want to do something." "So what can you do?" So I told him I got a lantzman in Baltimore. So he told me if I'm not going to be able to do nothing in Philadelphia, I should come to Baltimore. I know him. He knows me. And both together, we'll do something.
We used to sell suits. If I'll tell you_ we used to buy suits, let's say $5, $6, $2, $3. I went once to one man. We bought 1,200 suits. Maybe 20 percent of them we had to throw out, and the rest of them_ we paid maybe 50 cents apiece. And the rest of them, we worked it out. We sent to the cleaner and we had also a seamstress to fix it up and to sell it. And the same thing shirts.
I can only tell you when I had pants_ here you see the pants? They're lying_ I didn't like the way they lay like this. They don't lay straight. I sold pants for a dollar. From far away they looked better than this, the new ones. I sold also pants, $3 a dozen_ $3 a dozen. Shirts, $2 a dozen. A dollar_ used to buy for a dollar a dozen. But you have to work it out and grade it out.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] With Jack Rubin, I feel we are back in the shtetl. I can hear him speaking Polish with the same Yiddish accent. I can see his store on the market square in Bransk.
Jack Rubin presides over a small community of people in Baltimore who call themselves "Branskers." Some of them left Bransk before the war. A few, like Rubin, survived the Holocaust in Poland.
This evening everyone was asked to bring family photos from Bransk. They are joined by their children. Zbyszek Romaniuk is the guest of honor, his computer the main attraction. In it he has entered 2,000 names of Jewish families from Bransk.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] David Rubin is my father.
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] His wife, Perla_ children Jankel_
JACK RUBIN: Simon_
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: _Simon, Szprinca.
JACK RUBIN: _Szprinca.
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] Your father contributed to the building of Tailors' Synagogue. I found his name in a document from 1904.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] When Zbyszek grew up in Bransk, the word "Jew" was always whispered. But here he says the word aloud, sits among Jews and feels trusted. I am glad for him. I always wanted the same from the Poles.
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] I live on the market square. You lived on one side of the market. I live on the other.
BRANSKER: [subtitles] How many Jews are in Bransk today?
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] None.
BRANSKER: [subtitles] None? And you?
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] I am Polish.
BRANSKER: [subtitles] I understand, but_
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] I am not a Jew.
BRANSKER: [subtitles] But you were born a Jew.
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] No. No, I am not.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] I am eager for Zbyszek to make more connections. A friend of mine teaches a course called "Shtetl" at Gratz College in Philadelphia. He's excited to have Zbyszek in his classroom.
MICHAEL STEINLAUF: Here is a Pole, right, who has a certain need, a very profound need for the same memory, right? Now, his needs may be very different and, in fact, he_ he represents a whole young generation in Poland that_
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Michael Steinlauf, the instructor, is a son of Holocaust survivors.
MICHAEL STEINLAUF: He is, no doubt, the focus and the core of this_ of this new interest.
He drew the marketplace. [translating] Monday. Monday was the market day. Five-hundred-year-old tradition of Monday being the market day. That was_ and here was the small_ a smaller marketplace called the "horse" marketplace, where animals were_ were traded.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] This is a history class and Zbyszek is in his element. He tells them that in the 19th century the Jews of Bransk occupied 400 houses in the town center. Only 10 houses belonged to the Catholics. If a Pole wanted to live there, he had to be interviewed by the Jewish community board. The Jews controlled the town's economy. The Poles ran the local government. A vice mayor position was reserved for a Jew.
During the break, Michael invites Zbyszek to his office. The two historians have different views about 1918, when Poland regained independence after centuries of foreign occupation.
"Jews did not support Polish independence," says Zbyszek, "and therefore they became a focus of animosity and were called unpatriotic." "Why should they be patriotic?" asked Michael. "Under Russia, they were one of many minorities, but they didn't know what kind of destiny an independent Poland will bestow upon them. As a matter of fact, they saw nationalism on the rise and 10 years later they saw its results, an openly anti-Semitic society."
One of the students has prepared a recital of shtetl songs in Yiddish. This is a song about a house left behind in a shtetl somewhere in Poland.
STUDENT: [singing] [subtitles] The poor little house where I laughed with the children. Every shabbes I'd run there with a prayer book to sit under a little green tree and read by the river. My shtetl, my little home, where I had so many beautiful dreams.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] At a Polish-speaking radio station in children, Zbyszek and I are invited to tell the story of Bransk and to answer callers' questions.
[subtitles] Let me introduce you to Zbyszek Romaniuk from a little Polish town called Bransk 160 kilometers east of Warsaw, 40 kilometers from Bialystok.
When did the first Jewish survivor return to your town, where 2,500 Jews perished during the war?
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] When I was a child their visits were very rare. There was a secrecy around their arrivals. At one point, the Jews started visiting me. My neighbors were suspicious. They would call me names like "Jude," "Jew."
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Someone carved a Star of David on your door. You were called a Jewish servant.
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] That happened only once. Unfortunately, there is a lot of jealousy among our people.
1st CALLER: [subtitles] I think it's great that you are bringing this subject to us.
2nd CALLER: [subtitles] People associate the word "Jew" with a greedy, stingy, bad person. It's wrong. I am lucky to know many Jews in America. I find they have lots of good qualities. They care about their families and friends, but they also care about others, non-Jews. I see them as people with a capital "P."
3rd CALLER: [subtitles] In my opinion, Jews were responsible for their plight. They lived by themselves in segregated communities. They never explained to us their religion and tradition.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] How can you blame them for that? A minority always lives under pressure from the majority. Isn't it the obligation of the majority to build bridges?
4th CALLER: [subtitles] I am furious to listen to you! My blood is boiling! In Poland I was never an anti-Semite, but after three years in America I became one. As for Mr. Marzynski, let him to go Israel and film the Jews!
5th CALLER: [subtitles] The 2,500 Jews in Bransk owned their buildings. And the Poles? They lived in basements.
6th CALLER: [subtitles] Those things were done by Germans, but it sounds like the Poles did it. There is nothing like fabricating history 50 years later! Young jerks like you have no idea about history. Now we learn that it was Poles who tortured Jews.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] When I bring Zbyszek to the Holocaust museum under construction in Washington, D.C., the words from the Polish radio still ring in our ears. His attempt to maintain a cool command of his Jewish studies keeps colliding with living memories tinted by moral judgments. This museum will again confront him with the question of his people's responsibility for the fate of the Jews.
One of the exhibitions in the museum will be dedicated to life in the shtetl. The exhibit is the result of 20 years of photographic research by a Brooklyn College scholar, Yaffa Eliach. She collected some 2,000 photographs taken in a shtetl called Ejszyszki, not far from Bransk. Fifteen hundred Jews lived in the shtetl. Only 29 survived the war.
We are at the home of Yaffa Eliach in Brooklyn.
YAFFA ELIACH: [unintelligible] pictures in a minute. Let me see if the synagogue is here. It's not here. I just have to_ I'm not sure in which one is the synagogue.
This is Binyamin_
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Polish army.
YAFFA ELIACH: _Kabacznik. Now, he was killed. He was the father of that little boy that_ he was killed in the house of Bikiewiczowa. That's the father of that little boy. I'll show you the synagogue. [crosstalk] Here is this little boy and him.
Each of us that survived is alive because of the Poles. And those that escaped who are not alive, most of them are dead also because of the Poles.
Let's say a family_ for instance, the family of Rogowski escaped, five sons and a sister. And they came to a farmer that was very friendly with them and they asked him for honey because honey you could keep for a long time. He gave them. The minute they walked out from the house, he took a gun and shot and killed. He killed four. One escaped. One, Binyamin Rogowski.
So from the entire Rogowski family, one son survived. I interviewed him extensively. He could not understand. He died in Israel. He has two sons in Vancouver. He told me, "I cannot understand why."
When he used to come on market day, he used to park his horse in their back yard and used to come the night before and sleep over and slept in that house, so in the morning he would be very early at the market. It didn't enter his mind. Why? I mean, he was a friend.
I think there were a handful of wonderful people that were willing to give their lives. Everything was an issue of life and death. And unfortunately for others, it was a time to take Jewish property. They were paid for being nasty. They were paid salt. They got the Jewish homes. They got the Jewish clothing. They got the Jewish money.
And it_ there was_ there was anti-Semitism that was there for years. It's not_ it was not something that happened when the German occupation_ because we were different. It is the dislike of the unlike. We were Jewish and they were Christians and they hated us because we were different.
Here_ yes. Here_ my father gives who were the Poles who preached against Jews in church_
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Before Yaffa's father had died, he gave her a list of Poles who were openly anti-Semitic in this shtetl, along with the list of Jews who were killed by the Poles.
YAFFA ELIACH: _Krolewits and two young priests that both were working. They were the assistants of priest Machulski.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [translating for Zbyszek] Seventy Poles?
YAFFA ELIACH: Seventy Jews.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: They were killed_
YAFFA ELIACH: No, because sometimes a family of five was killed by one person.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Okay.
YAFFA ELIACH: Or one person_
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Okay, but_
YAFFA ELIACH: _killed 13 people.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: All right. I see. But there_ how many Polish names are there?
YAFFA ELIACH: The Polish names I really didn't count. I counted the victims' names. I did not count the Polish names.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: He counts the killers. He, as a Pole, is interested how many were Polish killers. For him, it makes a difference, for some reason, that someone says 100 and were only 50.
YAFFA ELIACH: I_ I feel very sorry that our conversation focuses on_ on those that killed rather than those that saved. I would rather have it focus on those that saved because he would not be here to tell his story, to do all that, and I would not be here to do all that, if_
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [subtitles] I am shocked by those numbers. It's all new to me. I've heard of about a dozen cases, but not 100.
YAFFA ELIACH: I understand and it's very_ I understand how painful it must be for you and you must understand it was very painful for me getting all the names together because by now I knew each victim. And I also knew many of the Poles, as part of my chapter on market day. They used to come and they drank in this house. They took photographs in this place. And just a year later, or two years later, they killed the people with whom they drank, with whom they did business, whose photographs they took.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: How your mother was finally killed? Show me just the scene, how it was.
YAFFA ELIACH: It was October 20th, 1944. We came back on July 14th, 1944. We were liberated on the 13th and we came out at night so nobody could see that we were on the farm of Mr. Kokuc because there were rumors that he is hiding Jews and if people would know, they would kill him. So he was not safe, so he wanted us to leave at night so nobody would know that he gave shelter to Jews.
We came_ we were_ we slept in the field and came to the town, to Ejszyszki, in the morning. When we walked in, a group of us, the Kobacznik family all hiding_ 15 of us hiding on Kokuc's farm. When we came in, people came out and said, "How come you are back? Hitler, after all, didn't do such a good job." This was the welcome.
My mother was begging my father not to stay. She didn't want to, but the war was going on. And my father said, "We'll just stay for a while and then we will move on." The meantime, we got back my brother, my baby brother, from a priest.
And there were rumors that we had a lot more gold, not only the gold that we took out during the war, but we must have a lot of gold with us, and that my mother is going to open the drugstore that was owned by my grandmother, that we are going to open again the drugstore in town, the sklad apteczny, that my mother will open it. And the_ the pharmacist was one of the people that was one of the town's outspoken anti-Semites.
At night, on the 20th of October, there was a bang on the window where my brother and I slept, which was downstairs, and my brother grabbed me by the hand and we went upstairs to my parents, that were sleeping upstairs. A minute later, a grenade was thrown into_ through the window and all the blankets, the covers and the pillows, everything exploded and all the feathers were all over. And we heard shooting downstairs.
There were Russians also living in our house, two Russian officers that were sleeping downstairs. And other Jews around the house were jumping from the windows and running, but we couldn't because my mother was holding the baby.
So upstairs was a little closet, like, because for the ceiling to be straight was a little closet. I have a picture of the house and a picture of the closet. And we were_ we went inside to hide. And my father took a piece of furniture to block the door so it would look like it_ there's is no_ no little door there.
And we heard them downstairs and we could identify the voices. We knew who they were. One of them was the son of the pharmacist. And then one of them said, probably Mishenka_ my father they used to call Moshe, but they_ locally, everybody called him Mishenka_ that he_ probably he and the daughter of Katsova, meaning my mother, ran away with their children and took all the gold with them because they couldn't find any gold in the house.
Then somebody said, "Let's go and look upstairs" and he said, "They probably ran away. They heard that we were coming." But then there was on the floor, when my father pulled the furniture, there was, like, a scratch on the floor. It was a wooden floor and somebody said, "It's a fresh scratch."
And then they pulled the furniture and opened the door and there was my mother sitting, and the baby. I was sitting behind my mother, and then my brother and my father, because it was on a slope, so there was almost no space, and my father was flat on the back so I could sit up and my mother and the baby could sit up.
My mother stood up with the baby and she_ she spoke. She called the man by his name. She knew who he was. He was a neighbor. He was the son of the pharmacist. And she said to him, "Please kill me first so I will not see when you kill my baby."
So he shot my baby brother first. And I counted the bullets, and I will never understand why, but I did. There were nine bullets that killed my brother. And then he shot my mother with 15 bullets and she fell on the back, on top of me, and I thought that I was dead. It didn't_ and then they still did some shooting on the floor, but all the bullets went into my mother's body. And they left. They didn't_ they were very upset they didn't find any gold. And they thought that my father managed to run away and they were very upset that they didn't get my father.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: What did you do next?
YAFFA ELIACH: They left. We heard_ I thought that I was dead. I didn't move. Later, when the light started to come in and they left, my father crawled out. He was a little bit wounded in his neck. And we heard downstairs the other Jews that came out from hiding.
And we took my mother's body down and the police came. The KGB came. The NKVD came and my father gave them all the names of the people that were there. They were closer to me than you are and my father knew them all. And we buried my mother in the Jewish cemetery. She was the last Jew. My mother and my brother were buried in the cemetery. And people lined the streets and some of them were very happy. They_ they told us we should have never come back, that we should have not come back.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: They were happy.
YAFFA ELIACH: They were happy.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Zbyszek and I are in Israel. We've been invited for the commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the liquidation of the Bransk ghetto.
These are the Jews from Bransk. Most of them emigrated to Israel before the war. A few are Holocaust survivors. For Zbyszek, it is his shtetl coming alive, his first witnessing of the Jewish religious life.
There is a famous rabbi who was born in Bransk and went to Yeshiva there. Today Rabbi Man runs his own Yeshiva here in Tel Aviv. After the prayer, Zbyszek will meet him. This will be Zbyszek's first meeting with a rabbi, a religious figure he knows intimately from his research and readings.
Zbyszek knows that the Jews come to rabbis with questions, so he, too, came with one. He looks for assurance that what he did with the gravestones is in accordance with Jewish religious laws. He has placed the stones in the old cemetery, but he has no way of matching them with the bodies lying beneath the ground. "This is not a problem," the rabbi tells him. "You did the most you could do under the circumstances and we consider this a mitzvah," a good dead.
When I learned that a group of Ramat Aviv High School seniors has just returned from a trip to Poland, I thought Zbyszek should meet them. Their trip was part of their studies of the Holocaust.
[translating for Zbyszek] He wants to break the barrier between Poles and Jews where a Pole, by definition, is no good, according to some people, and vice versa.
1st STUDENT: His people had a big part in what happened. He must accept it. I_ I think that going to schools and trying to re-educate kids is no good. I mean, it won't change a thing because this kind of education, an education of racism, is something you get at home.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: But why are you so pessimistic? I cannot believe it. Why?
1st STUDENT: Why can't you believe it? I mean, you've been there, as I have.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Yeah.
1st STUDENT: And you've seen the things that I have seen.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Yeah, and my father died in the Warsaw ghetto. I understand everything. My family was completely killed by Germans. But I can still think that it happened because of the ignorance.
1st STUDENT: No, ant-Semitism is rooted. It's_ it's there to stay.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [translating for Zbyszek] He disagrees violently and he says that he cannot stand that you think like that. In the Holocaust, he says, Poles do not play an important role. [crosstalk]
2nd STUDENT: Thirty million Poles against I don't know how many regimes_ German regimes could have done something. They didn't.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [translating for Zbyszek] For helping Jews, Poles were killed by Germans. He brings the point that how can you expect from Poles to defend the Jews if Jews didn't fight back themselves, except for the Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos?
3rd STUDENT: There were Jews that escaped from the concentration camps and they_ they tried to run to the forests and join the partisans, the guerrilla forces. And the Polish guerrilla forces never accepted Jews. They were anti-Semitism_ there was anti-Semitism in the guerrilla forces, like there was in the German_ German leadership. It wasn't different. They just killed any Jew that_ that came near them. It's_ it's like_
4th STUDENT: Even though they were in the situation of surviving the German_ the German_
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [translating for Zbyszek] How can you imagine everybody goes out in public and helps Jews where every_ on the building it says that for helping a Jew, there will be a death penalty? He has nothing to do with the Varonki. He says only those who had conditions could help. What kind of conditions? Everybody has the same country_ I said, "Listen, what are you talking about conditions? Every peasant has one pig, one cow, one house. Everybody has the same conditions." You could_ you could_
5th STUDENT: One barn. [crosstalk]
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: You could bring a Jew and hide him in a cave or in a barn or whatever_ but he says_ but there was always one or two Poles that were collaborating with the Germans in this village and the other people were afraid of those other Poles.
5th STUDENT: Oh, two_ a whole village afraid of two Poles? That_ think about it.
6th STUDENT: I have the impression that what he's trying to do is clear his conscience, more than he tries, you know, to understand. He's_ he's coming here with all kinds of excuses and I'm not sure that his goal is to change opinions more than to, you know, relax a bit, feel that he's not as guilty as he really is.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: He never felt guilty, he says. His family was very friendly with the Jews always and never had any problem.
7th STUDENT: He's talking about a very, very dangerous thing right now because he's saying that if a crazy group like the Nazis takes over Europe again, the same thing could happen because he says that it wasn't possible, but it was possible. You understand what I'm trying to say? He says that they couldn't have done anything. The situation hasn't changed since then. If the same thing happens again, we're not safe. I_ I think that none of them are safe_ not the Poles, not the Jews_ anybody.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] "Look, I never had a chance to talk to you about this," begins my heart-to-heart talk with Zbyszek, "but here is something you don't understand. They know their facts. You must admit it." "But which facts? Who provides them?" asks Zbyszek.
"All the tragic facts," I answer. "Where there is even one person who killed a Jew, they want to know about it. They want to speak loudly about it. They want to condemn it. And that is their education. And you, while admitting certain facts, try to rationalize them by saying, 'Oh, yes, but the same things happened in France' or 'Yes, but most Poles didn't do it.' Why do you make these excuses?" I ask.
"Because," says Zbyszek, "all I hear about in Israel is how it all happened in Poland. But where else could it happen? Jews were living in Poland. What sense would it make for Germans to send the Jews to France and kill them there?"
"Nobody says the Polish nation is no good. We are talking about Poles, about people. We are talking about Poles, Jews, Germans." "Then let's mention their names," says Zbyszek. "Fine," I agree. "Let's do it."
"Then I have no problem," says Zbyszek, "as long as we mention the names." "Your problem," I say, "is that you don't like to mention the names. You prefer to use words like 'bandit' and then you suggest that bandits are everywhere. You suggest that people generally acted fine, with just a few exceptions."
"I didn't say everyone acted fine," argues Zbyszek. "But by underlining the word 'bandit,' " I insist, "you try to diminish the gravity of all of this." "I still take the criticism of bad Poles to be the condemnation of Poland," says Zbyszek, "and it hurts me because I know that there were those who helped. Where are they talked about?"
"Not far from here," I say, "in the museum of Yad Vashem." "How many of them are mentioned?" asks Zbyszek. "You know very well how many Jews are grateful to those who saved their lives," I say. "But how many of the Poles who helped did not even admit it?" he asks.
"I am sure there are many," I answer, "but what does it say about the world they live in if they are still afraid of admitting to their neighbors that they had helped Jews? Doesn't this condemn Polish society?"
"Wait a moment," says Zbyszek. "I'll ask them about it and I will tell you." "But you yourself told me that people in the villages are afraid of being accused by the neighbors of getting rich from the Jews." "That's right," says Zbyszek. "That's exactly what they are afraid of, not of being accused that they helped."
"So what do you think," I ask, "about a society with this type of mentality?" "I deplore this mentality," answers Zbyszek. "To me," I add, "it is tragic that a world in which you cannot admit altruism still exists." "On that point you are right," says Zbyszek, and we both agree that this world needs improvement.
Eleven thousand trees have been planted at Yad Vashem in memory of righteous gentiles who helped Jews to survive the Holocaust. Half of the names, almost 5,000, are Polish. Seven belong to families from Bransk.
I return to Bransk. One of those Jews saved by righteous Poles is with me. He is Jack Rubin, the clothing store owner from Baltimore. He survived the Holocaust against extraordinary odds. Before the war, his family owned a goose-feeding yard in Bransk. This is the house the Rubin family lived in for many generations.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] That was the door. It looks so small.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] [translating for Jack Rubin] There were no stairs here. That was a bedroom. On this wall was the telephone and the telephone number was 11. That tells you how many phones there were in Bransk.
They were a prosperous Jewish family in Bransk. His parents and three children_ Shimon, the oldest, sister Szprinca and Jack_ Jack in the uniform of the Polish army, Jack the bodybuilder, his mother, Jack at 14.
He was known in this town as "Jankiel gesiarz," "Yankele, the goose man." At 16 he started to work for his father. At 20 he was in charge of 11,000 geese.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] These are oats. But we would never have used that kind.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] The Rubin family's competitive edge was that they would walk the geese to the market, rather than cram them into wagons, so that they would arrive unwrinkled and presentable.
Jack reveals another business secret to the attendant of the now state-run goose yard. "After we bought the geese," he tells him, "we would pluck the down from their bellies. And guess what? They would immediately start to eat like crazy. You can't imagine how many thousand of zlotys we made on this invention."
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] You can feel the fat under the wing.
How much are the cows today?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] The Monday morning market was the only place where Jews mingled with Poles. When it came to geese, Jack was the king. He was setting the pace.
Immediately he runs into one of his old farm hands, whose name is Jan Dobrogodzki. They recall the times when they served in the same military unit_ number 79, 2nd company. Jan remembers best the pledge of allegiance. The Catholic priest, the rabbi and the Orthodox priest were all there. Everyone pledged to serve the fatherland in his own faith.
Another former worker shows up. His name is Bronek Lochnicki. "Everything I know, I learned from you, the Jews," says Bronek. "During the war I was nobody. Today I am wealthy. I own four or five houses," he brags.
"Do you know you can reclaim your goose farm?" he asks Jack. "I know," says Jack, "but I'd like to give it away to people who helped me during the war."
Jack wants to visit another man who worked for his father's business. Zbyszek shows him the way.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] Is it Jozef, Jozef Borowski? I remember you very well.
JOZEF BOROWSKI: [subtitles] But may I know who you are, sir?
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] Rubin, Yankel, from the goose-feeding yard.
JOZEF BOROWSKI: [subtitles] Yankel Rubin?
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] The brother of Shimmel. You worked for us. We lived like brothers.
JOZEF BOROWSKI: [subtitles] Are you Yankel?
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] Yankel. Yankel. I want to give you something. Enjoy it.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] "I have to explain something to you," says Jozef. "After the war, people were saying bad things about us. But you know how much we did for your family_ sneaking your stuff out of the ghetto. After the war, people started to say bad things about me. These were lies, but people believed it. It was about this fur that Shimmel left here and later gave it to my mother. He told her, 'This is yours. You can keep it."
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] If I had any grievance, I wouldn't come visit you, and I wouldn't have given you this present. Remember that I have nothing against you.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Looking for the old-timers, Jack meets a man who remembers the Jews.
OLD-TIMER: [subtitles] There were rich Jews and poor Jews, but all businesses were in Jewish hands, from the smallest to the biggest.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] So weren't the Poles allowed to be in business?
OLD-TIMER: [subtitles] Yes, but all the materials were in Jewish hands. Jews were fixing the prices. Just before the war, the Poles started to revolt. They opened a few Polish stores. Still, they had to buy from a Jewish wholesaler.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] Why couldn't they buy elsewhere?
OLD-TIMER: [subtitles] Because they only had a little money to start their stores.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] I'm sorry, but do you think all Jews were rich? How about workers, tradesmen, carpenters?
OLD-TIMER: [subtitles] Yes, yes, but they were all Jewish. I was a poacher. I brought a little deer to your father.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] Yes, my father would buy deer, rabbits_ everything.
OLD-TIMER: [subtitles] Your father said, "Ten zlotys for the deer." I said, "Fine." Then he talked to someone and said, "I cannot give you more than eight."
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] I'm sorry, but to tell the truth, I cannot listen to this.
OLD-TIMER: [subtitles] Since he said 10, it should have been 10.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] My father wouldn't change his mind even for 1,000 zlotys. His word was as good as gold! Everybody knew his word in Bransk.
OLD-TIMER: [subtitles] Anyway, I took the 8.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] It is very hard to listen to you. If my father said 10, he couldn't give you 8.
OLD-TIMER: [subtitles] Perhaps he put it on the scale and maybe the scale was wrong. Anyway, there were rich Jews in Bransk, like this man who had a trunk filled with money. He opened the trunk and offered me a loan. I saw it. The trunk was full of money.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] It's very hard to listen to this. A person with a suitcase of money would never show it to anyone.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Listening to the old-timer, I find myself thinking about the roots of anti-Semitism. I imagine an argument like this one erupting hundreds of years ago when the first Jews settled in small Polish towns.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] It was very nice to meet you, but it was very difficult to listen to you saying that my father was cheating you.
OLD-TIMER: [subtitles] No, no. He first said 10 zlotys, but when he put the deer on the scale, it didn't work out for him. Things like that happen in business.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] To build a new life, the Jews had to be industrious. It didn't take long before envy and narrow-mindedness pushed them into isolation. And they believed in a wrong God. When the Holocaust began, the silence of their Polish neighbors made the Jews vulnerable.
Jack was 16 when Germans invaded his shtetl. He was a golden, athletic boy wearing a fashionable leather jacket, a young, successful man starting in business. He was 19 in 1942, when his family was forced to leave their house on the main street and move to the ghetto quarters at the outskirts of town.
He was 20 when machine guns woke him in the middle of the night and the liquidation of the ghetto began. The Germans were taking the Jews by horse wagons to the nearest train station, then transporting them to the death camp of Treblinka. Jack begged his parents and sister to run before it was too late, but only the young and gutsy had the strength.
Along with his brother, Jack fled to the forest. They knew one Polish family they could depend on. Before the war, Jack bought geese from their farm. The name of the farmer was Kozlowski. Now only his son is alive.
Jack and his brother hid in their barn for eight months.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] Over here your father made a wall. That was our hideout. We had a tiny door through which we could escape. When they brought food, I opened the trap door and grabbed it. From this wall to that wall was the only place to stand up. We knew if someone was coming by peering through these cracks.
We made playing cards from cardboard. Sometimes we forgot to put them away. The mice would come at night and eat them. In our sleep we felt the mice running over our faces. It was a straw roof. In the winter it was freezing. Summer was terrible. We couldn't stand the heat. I am embarrassed to say, but we had to take off our underwear. But your mother would always remember to bring us water. In the summer we had no air to breathe. Only at dark it was safe to join the pigs, to get fresh air.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] But when one barn became too dangerous to stay, Jack and his brother would look for another shelter. A couple of kilometers away was a farm owned by Jasko Maksymiuk.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] Excuse me, did Jasko Maksymiuk live here?
WOMAN: [subtitles] He did. I am his daughter-in-law.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] My brother and I decided to spend a night here. But we didn't tell the farmer we were here. We saw the chicken coop across the yard. We took two eggs and two straws. The farmer would not notice two eggs missing. We would punch a little hole and we would drink, like this, slowly. It had to last the whole day. I took one, my brother took one. In the straw you can always find some grain still stuck. You take it in your mouth. You bite it slowly.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Soon this place, too, became unsafe. For several months, Jack and his brother hid in the woods.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] Today it feels like lots of trees, but for us there were never enough. We were always looking for a thicker forest. Finding something like this was like finding gold.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] There were 14 of Jack's relatives and friends hiding in different places. Underneath each of them the earth was crumbling. Like animals smelling the hunter, they had to escape the pastoral country. The only possible destination was the city of Bialystok where, surrounded by German tanks, the ghetto was still alive.
In the winter of 1943 Jack collected money and bought a horse and a sleigh. He and his brother were the drivers. There was the brother's wife, their baby child, cousin Mayor. There were seven friends including three children who had lost their parents and a couple who had escaped the Bialystok ghetto, but in desperation were now going back_ 14 people on the sleigh under cover of winter darkness. "Even today in my sleep I count them all," says Jack.
We are riding the road that the sleigh took in 1943. The question that will never be answered is how the Germans learned about Jack's plan. There were only five soldiers overseeing the area and it was unheard-of to see them on the road in the middle of a sub-zero winter night.
With the help of a local villager, we find the place on the road where it all happened.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] We came from over there. Someone said, "Somebody is coming our way," so we looked. We said, "Probably merchants or smugglers. Who would drive a sleigh at 2:00 A.M.?" But the other sleigh is approaching. I can see that there are two horses, not one. Seeing two horses gives me a_ it takes me longer to tell you what happened than it really took.
So the two horses gave me this signal. I had my brother on which side? We were coming from over there_ my brother was on my left side. I see the movement of someone grabbing something. I see his hand and I can see a military hat. I jump off the sleigh and start running. I hear machine guns shooting. But you don't react to it, you just run.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] His goal was to reach Bialystok's ghetto 15 kilometers away, where he saw his only chance to survive. But going alone was too dangerous and only a Polish farmer could offer the protection he needed.
[translating] "So I started to knock on this window. He asked, 'Who is it?' I said, 'I'm looking for the route to Szerenosy.' I already know the road, but I wanted him to come out. I said, 'I am lost. Would you come out and show me?' He said okay.
"Two minutes later, he comes out. He shows me the road. There was a road sign. Now I decide to change the tone of my voice. 'Could I come to your house to warm up?' 'Are you a little Jew?' he asked. I said, `Yes.' He said, "Come in.'
"I told him I had 300 marks in my pocket. 'I will give you 290 and I keep 10 for my first kilo of bread,' I said. 'I will walk behind you and you will lead me to Bialystok.' I told him to carry a stick and walk ahead of me. 'When you see Germans, turn the stick to the right,' I told him. So we went.
JACK RUBIN: [subtitles] I arrived in Bialystok and only then found out that the Germans had caught the Jews from Bransk on the sleigh, the geese people. I asked, "How may were killed?" They said 13. That is the end.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Everyone is on the street when Bransk celebrates Pentecost. With no Jews living here, Bransk is entirely Christian. Every home on the procession route receives the body of God.
A year ago Zbyszek Romaniuk was elected vice mayor of the town, but there are clouds over his political future. Some people are resentful of his Jewish research. "For about a year, from time to time," Zbyszek tells me, "inscriptions of different content appear on the walls of my staircase. Whoever does it has an intention to offend me. For example, here we have an inscription, 'Goy,' followed by the word 'Jew.' Next to it is a swastika. Here is a signpost: 'This way to the Jew.' "
In a couple of weeks Bransk will celebrate its 500th anniversary. As the local historian, Zbyszek is responsible for the program of the celebration. It was his idea to create a monument reflecting the history of the town. It will be erected in the middle of what used to be a market square when the Jews lived in Bransk. The stone has just been delivered.
"The idea of the monument," explains Zbyszek, "is that three of its sides will be filled with inscriptions and the fourth left blank for the future. The three sides point to the most important moments in Bransk history. This side, for example, tells us that from the 16th through 18th century we were the capital of the entire region, the seat of local parliament and courts. The other side speaks about the symbolic victory of Christianity over paganism in this area. The Polish prince, Boleslaw, defeated the soldiers of Komas here."
There is no mention of the Jewish history.
The town council is about to adopt Zbyszek's program of festivities. I invite myself to the meeting. "How much of the Jewish history will be included in your program?" I ask. "I have enough aggravation already because of this subject," says Zbyszek. "Unfortunately, people here don't understand these matters. I have come to the conclusion that our community is still very primitive. The word 'Jew' is still pronounced in a whisper. It's immediately associated with a pot of gold and with dollars.
"It is very unpleasant to see all the graffiti in my staircase with the word `Jew' and the arrow pointing to my door. It has all been annoying to me. I am a Christian and a good Catholic and I am not any less a Polish patriot than the people who oppose me. They must feel guilty or they must be very primitive to do things like that. A wise man does not trade in stupid gossips. That's enough on this subject."
"But Zbyszek, isn't this an occasion to use the energy of wise people and speak publicly to enlighten those who are ignorant?" "Whoever visits me," Zbyszek responds, "is labeled a Jew. Whatever I do, it is in the interests of the Jews. There is even a gossip that the monument we are erecting will be a monument to Jewish history."
"Please don't be discouraged, Zbyszek," one of the town council members advises. "It is a small group that is against you. Speaking publicly is the best solution." "I am a public servant," says Zbyszek, "and I have to act accordingly. My private life is separate. I will still continue my private interest, but what I say as a public official must be balanced."
"But what about history?" I say. "There are no two histories." "I am also saying that there is one history," responds Zbyszek. "I would never say, as vice mayor, that the Jews were never living here and say something else as a private person."
"Of course not," I agree. "That would be very unintelligent of you. I am not concerned about what you are saying, but about what you are not saying." But Zbyszek says that Jews are no longer here and he cannot promote the Jewish subject in a town that 100 percent gentile.
"But you are one of those gentiles," I point out. "Why are you interested in the Jews if they are no longer here?" "Because I am interested in culture," he responds, "and perhaps other people look at the Jews only in a financial light. I am interested in their life and their contributions to the history of this town."
"So they were here for 430 years," I say. "Don't you believe that their contribution to this town deserves public recognition?" "Yes, but I believe it is a delicate subject." "I am not even talking about the 16th century," I say. "I am saying that in 1939, 65 percent of people here were Jewish, so in a five-minute speech about Bransk, can you spend a minute on the Jews or is it too much?"
"Zbyszek, you have a problem. There are two of you, two Romaniuks." "I do not agree," he says. "I cannot make people listen to what they don't want to hear."
ZBYSZEK ROMANIUK: [delivering speech at festivities]
[subtitles] Bransk survived in spite of all the political turmoil. It was a Polish town for centuries and it will be Polish forever. So help us God.
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] In his proclamation speech Zbyszek does not mention the Jews.
Bransk celebrates its 500th anniversary. Fiddler on the Roof by the local military orchestra is the only Jewish element of festivities, not counting one box of Judaica in an exhibit of historic documents curated by Zbyszek.
I am at the end of a three-year-long journey with Zbyszek. We have discovered how fragile are the memories of Jewish life in Bransk. I take some of these memories with me on a piece of film. I leave my friend Zbyszek in Bransk, the lonely guardian of my people's past.
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