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Sunday, January 27, 2013

A personal story for Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the theme this year is "Righteous Among the Nations" - to commemorate those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

When the situation in Poland became intolerable for Jews, my grandparents - who owned a farm supply store - asked one of their good customers if they could help save their family, in exchange for the remaining part of the business. They agreed.

This couple built a false wall in their barn and hid my grandparents, my father, two brothers, two sisters and a sister-in-law in the tiny, hidden room.

My father a"h and his brothers only stayed for a few weeks, as the conditions were intolerable for so many people in such a small space. But before they left he told a story of how some Polish anti-semites were going around looking for Jews, and the couple urged the family to temporarily escape up an adjoining forest until the danger had passed.

My grandmother was having problems going up the hill, so they tried to quietly help her. Luckily the trees shielded them from sight.

While they were in the forest, they heard the conversation between the anti-semites and the farmer.

Upon being asked if he was hiding any Jews, my family's savior drew himself up and answered indignantly, "Jews? You think I would be hiding Jews?"

Satisfied, the haters left.

When my father's family returned, the farmer apologized to them for having to hear him say that to the Poles.

After my father and his brothers left the hideout, the couple continued to hide my grandparents and aunts for the duration of the war. My grandfather and one of my aunts succumbed to tuberculosis while hiding, and the farmer buried them himself. (After the war, they were re-interred in a larger Jewish cemetery.)

Food was rationed for the Poles, but somehow the farmer managed to get enough food for so many extra people for several years. He was truly heroic. No doubt he was in danger from someone noticing something like that.

Equally heroic was the couple's maid, a peasant woman who would every day transfer buckets of provisions to my hidden family through the rafters of the barn, and take back the buckets of waste.

This was how my father's family lived for some four years.

The farmer, of course, told no one what he was doing, not even his family. After the war, he admitted to his brother that he had hidden Jews during the war.

His brother answered that he, too, had hidden Jews during the war.

Afterwards, my relatives supported the couple for a while. My aunt met up again with the peasant woman around 1990 and they had a joyful reunion.

I thought that this story had been told to Yad Vashem although I couldn't find it, at least in the English archives.

Around 90% of Polish Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust, and many of the Poles were complicit in the Nazi crimes (indeed, some 1300 Jews who returned to their old homes after the war were murdered; one example was the Kielce pogrom of 1946 .) Today it is very appropriate to remember the Polish heroes. But there were way, way too few of them.