Saba, z”l, lived in Poland until he was 25.
The first 20 years of his life passed pleasantly in the company of his father, mother, brothers and sisters. Then came five years of horror during which he was persecuted for the crime of being a Jew. He was transferred from one camp to another, enduring forced labor and death marches to the point where he felt that he was staring death in the face.
And then, at the very last minute, just before he succumbed but after he’d lost everything dear to him, the Russians arrived in Auschwitz, and liberated Saba and another handful of starving Jews, their bellies bloated with hunger.
Saba wanted to go home. With strength he didn’t have, he began the long journey from Auschwitz to Bendin, in the Zaglembie sector. He remembered the way by heart. Before the war, he had studied at Yeshivas Keser Torah in Oswiecim — a town later to become better known to the world as Auschwitz — and he’d return home every Yom Tov, to spend it with his family.
This time, the journey seemed strange — and even more, hostile. His threadbare prisoner’s clothing and pitiful appearance left no room for doubt as to where he was coming from and where he was going. But the reception Saba received at journey’s end was beyond anything he had ever dreamed. He arrived in Bendin and saw his parents’ home — occupied by local Poles, who threatened to murder him unless he left immediately.
Saba went on to Germany and from there, he emigrated to the United States. He never wanted to return to Poland — not even to daven at the burial places of his ancestors. He didn’t want to visit Theresienstadt, where his younger brother was murdered in the final days before liberation. Local Poles had turned in his brother when they spotted him attempting to flee the camp. The Poles hadn’t killed him — G-d forbid, no. All they did was hand him over to the hangmen.
Saba didn’t want to go back because he had seen up-close and felt in his own flesh the hatred, the collaboration between the Poles and the Nazis. He told us about the beginning of the Holocaust in his city, Bendin, how the local Polish residents assisted the Nazis in rounding up the Jews and herding them into the beis knesses, where they were burned to death al kiddush Hashem.
Saba saw and never forgot all his life the ingratitude of the Poles, who worked hand in hand with the demon Hitler. Saba never forgot and never forgave. He remembered the years-long friendship with his family’s Polish neighbors, how they had helped one another, and how they had then sold their souls to the worst of all devils.
Saba never went back, but two years ago, we — his grandchildren — went to visit his homeland. We tried to enter the house on 66 Modzyovska Street, where he’d lived for years. The house still stands; the Polish neighbors have completely taken over. They’d forgotten to remove the mezuzah and the magen Dovid above the entrance. But now they refused to allow us in, afraid that we’d sue them for years of theft.
As we left, a car with a number of Polish teenagers inside took advantage of the darkness outside to spit at us, curse us and wish us “death in Auschwitz.” This was in 2016, more than 75 years after they “didn’t kill us” in Poland.
Maybe they didn’t kill, but neither did they let us live.
The Polish government’s imbecilic attempt to shake off its dubious past can be compared to a child walking around in a chocolate-smeared shirt and denying any connection whatsoever with the disappearance of the chocolate bar in the cabinet. Wherever you set foot on Polish soil, you see and feel the past bubbling up, and there is no denying that the Poles played a considerable role in the greatest murder of all time.
Over the past few years, the Polish government has been trying to minimize the part it played in the Holocaust and, at the same time, explain that 60,000 chassidei umos haolam lived within its borders. The two facts are not in keeping with one another, and the rope cannot be grasped at both ends. If the Holocaust took place, and that is undeniable — there are still Jews living among us who were there — it took place thanks in part to the Poles’ apathy. Even those who didn’t personally hand over the Jews saw and remained silent. And that is unforgivable.
Seventy years later, the blood of our martyred people is still bubbling. There is no law in the world that can deny it, and there is no limit to the chutzpah of those who come to deny and attempt to cause the world to forget what really took place.