“Harvest Festival” 1943: Remembering Together

By Leora Tec November 2018

One sunlit morning, in July 2017, more than a hundred Jews of Lublin ancestry walked together, side by side with our non-Jewish Polish hosts, along a path to the Umschlagplatz in Lublin, Poland. Many of our relatives had been marched along these same streets, to this same place, before being shipped off to the death camp Bełżec, where 28,000 of Lublin’s 43,000 Jews were murdered. It would have been an emotional event in any case, but it was made even more so because our hosts — Tomek Pietrasiewicz and members of the Brama Grodzka team — accompanied us. Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN is an organization comprised of fifty non-Jewish Poles dedicated to preserving Jewish memory in Lublin, Poland and Tomek is the founder and director. For this anniversary, they had created a memorial along this route, consisting of twenty-one stone markers. These markers are engraved with the story of the marches, from the point of view of those who witnessed them almost eighty years ago. Now the stones themselves act as silent witnesses to that trail, one of several paths along which Jews were forced to walk to their deaths. In July 2017 Brama Grodzka organized a Lubliner Reunion — a gathering of over 200 Jews of Lublin descent from all over the world who met in Lublin. Of the myriad events that took place during the five days of the Lubliner Reunion, which included films, performances, lectures and discussions, it was this memorialization of the beginning of Operation Reinhardt that impacted me the most.

We are now approaching the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of Operation Reinhardt — the brutal murder of 42,000 Jews which took place in November 1943 in Majdanek, Trawniki and other subcamps. Operation Reinhardt was the plan to implement the final solution in the General Government of German-Occupied Poland. As a result almost two million Jews were murdered, mostly in the death camps of the Lublin region and surrounding areas: Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka and Majdanek and also through deportations and mass shootings. Day after day in town after town, Jews were taken away, shot and deported. And though Auschwitz is often the first death camp people think of in connection to the Holocaust, more Polish Jews died in Operation Reinhardt than in Auschwitz. Lublin, once an important center for Jewish life, was the headquarters of that operation. My mother and generations of my family were born in Lublin.

I recently talked to one Lubliner Reunion participant who said that the week of the Reunion was the best week of his life. When I asked him why, he told me it was very emotional for him to be with so many people who shared the same ancestry. I can understand that. The Germans wanted to destroy us and yet here we are — fragmented and few in number to be sure — but proof that the memory of Jewish Lublin is alive. And the guardians of memory of Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN, the organization that hosted the reunion, and whose mission is the preservation of Jewish memory, remind us that the memory of Jewish Lublin is alive not only for Jews, but for the descendants of our Polish neighbors as well. Brama Grodzka’s fifty staff members are all non-Jewish and they work tirelessly doing the work of Jewish remembrance. I remember when I first encountered their work in 2005, I was moved and amazed that these people were remembering my people — Jews, and, specifically, Lublin Jews — people whom I, I am ashamed to say, had forgotten. My mother’s was one of three nuclear families that survived the War (mother, father, sister and herself) but she lost much of her extended family, among them her four aunts, Golda, Chana, Elka and Zelda, and the children of three of them; her grandparents Syma and Pejsach Finkielsztajn; her uncle Icek and his wife and children; her uncle Gerszon’s wife Cyla and their son Eljusz. Eljusz, according to my grandmother, had looked remarkably like Gerszon’s daughter Giselle, born after the War in America, part of his second family.

Tomek Pietrasiewicz, the founder and director of Brama Grodzka-Teatr-NN, understands how much families like mine have lost. And he put deep thought into in his presentation of Brama Grodzka’s work and his appreciation of us Lubliners during the Reunion. Before the opening ceremony he told me he planned to speak in Polish. “Why?” I admonished him, “Your English is fine.” But he would not be moved. He was adamant that he wanted to choose the exact words to express his ideas. Even though his speech would be translated by an interpreter, he felt the importance of speaking with the nuance and reverence due to the sacredness of the place and the occasion. For Tomek, who dedicates his life to creating and sustaining the memory of Jewish Lublin, this gathering of the remnants of Jewish Lublin was an extremely meaningful event, made even more significant because it was part of the 700th anniversary of the founding of the city of Lublin.

One of Tomek’s strengths is his appreciation of fragments. He understands that there are stories, history, photographs and names, that we may never fully know. But he still considers it vital to preserve and honor what we have, and to have reverence for the empty spaces, because of who and what once filled them. In gathering us, the remnants of a fragmented community, for five days in Lublin in July 2017, he was holding space for perhaps the most precious fragments of all — the living, breathing human fragments of a lost world. We are the proof that the Germans did not accomplish their goal of wiping out all memory of Jewish Poland, and more specifically, Jewish Lublin.

I often say that when I am in Lublin I feel the ghosts of my ancestors walking these streets. But the walk to the Umschlagplatz was a unique experience. Much thought was given to that long walk. Tomek had set up a sound system so that he could speak at certain points along the way (in Polish, as I said earlier, through an interpreter). At one intersection, a woman stood, waiting for us. Her name is Wysława Majczak, and Tomek had arranged for her to be there, so she could tell the story of what she had seen and heard so many years before. Now an old woman, she had, of course, been much younger when she, a non-Jew, had seen the Jews being marched to their deaths. She had heard the terrible sounds of their fear and suffering; she had seen a young woman, close to her age, lying dead on the ground. And now, she stood in the summer light, telling her story, clinging to Tomek’s arm. As he leaned down to hold the microphone for her, I felt that the bowing of his head expressed not only attentiveness, but also a deep reverence. I cannot forget that image — of Tomek, leaning down, and this woman leaning on him — her two hands gripping his forearm, as if drawing the strength from him to give her the power to voice these memories. It struck me that there are so many memories, so many fragments of lives and deaths that need that strength. I could almost see those silenced voices, those lost lives, those nameless souls, clinging to him too. And as I stood there, I was overcome suddenly by the awareness that Ms. Majczak might have seen my own great aunts — Chana, Elka, Cyla and my great uncle Icek, and their children, Avigail, Eljusz, Chanina, Henek, Nechemiasz and others whose names have vanished with the all the details of their lives — walking this path. My footsteps could have been walking on the same stones that they once walked on — their last walk in Lublin. Minutes after hearing her imploring us not to forget, as we walked on, I found myself leaning on my friend Grzegorz, as the grief for my murdered ancestors and for the colossal absence of our community swept over me. I sobbed uncontrollably, unexpectedly; and he held me up.

The respect, the reverence, that Tomek, Grzegorz, that all the people at Brama Grodzka have for us, the descendants, and for Pani Majczak, the witness, is crucial in allowing for healing. They acknowledge the pain of all parties who lived on this land; they do not engage in a competition of suffering — they do not compare their own suffering as Poles to that of the Jews as I have heard some do. Not only do they acknowledge the pain, they allow those in pain to lean on them for support as part of the healing process — whether it is Pani Wysława as she recounts her agonizing testimony, me as I grieve for the family and history I lost, or scores of us as we retrace our ancestors’ steps along the path to the Umschlagplatz. We walk side by side, guided by our friends from Brama Grodzka, and by the beautiful markers they have built in remembrance.

I think about how Tomek has gathered these threads of humanity together, threads that had been scattered to the winds years before. He has been the catalyst for us to rebuild a kind of community. It would be easy to imagine that we might never have come together this way, after what our families suffered, after we had built lives in such distant places. The tapestry of Jewish Lublin could easily have remained forever unraveled, without so much as a corner reassembled. But because Tomek, and those like him believed it was possible to make space for us — scattered and fragmented though we might be — to return here, we found ourselves walking together that morning July morning, remembering those that came before us, on the very land where they once stood.

And as we stood at the Umschlagplatz, on that earth that had witnessed such brutality, one woman in our group said she wanted to sing a Yiddish partisan song. Two other women joined her. I did not know if this was planned or spontaneous but it felt fitting to me, standing there among the Lubliners — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — hearing their strong voices sing out, in Yiddish, the language of our forbears, “Mir Zaynen Do!” “We are Here!”

Post Script: I am humbled to be the 2018 recipient of the Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship from Wellesley College, which will enable me to spend several months in Poland to explore more deeply the remnants of Jewish life in Poland and particularly those non-Jews who are commemorating Jewish life. I will be in Lublin for the anniversary of the Erntefest, or Harvest Festival—a macabre name for the largest murder of Jews at one time — the culmination of Operation Reinhardt, and I will remember those voices of my fellow Lubliners ringing out, last year, singing, “We Are Here!”

Leora Tec

Director, Bridge To Poland