My Family’s Holocaust History Impacts My Observance of Rosh Hashannah

13 Sep

As Rosh Hashannah approaches, I have a new view of my family’s heritage, a new reality that will impact my observance and prayers this year and in all future years.

It started with a Facebook Group called, “Tracing the Tribe.” I actually was able to find a family member due to a blog I posted about my grandfather’s family history and his town in Austia/Galecia called Mielec. I met Susan when I was in New Jersey this summer. It is actually her husband who was related to me.

We spoke about the family and how we might be related. I actually found the connection. My great grandfather and her husband’s great grandmother are probably brother and sister.

She emailed me a testimonial written by her husband’s first cousin, “E”, about her Holocaust experience. “E” survived the Holocaust and settled in the USA. In this memoir, “E” recounts a story about the Jews of Mielec and how they died. She wrote that 600 were rounded up and burned alive in their synagogue. She received this information from relatives in Mielec.

What! I was somewhat stunned. No one had ever mentioned this to me before. Whenever there was discussion about our family who died, we were told that they were burned alive in the fires of the Holocaust; or that some had died in Auschwitz; or that my great grandmother had been hidden and then murdered by the people who had stolen the family farm. But this story was never mentioned. Never.

But I remember thinking, when my Mom would tell me that our family was burned alive, that in the crematorium, the people were dead before they were burned. Weren’t they? So why would I be told that they were burned alive? Could this be what happened?

My Grandfather never talked about his family. He lost almost everyone who still lived in Europe: his parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, cousins. Everyone! Only a few cousins survived. When I finally got him to talk to me and tell me about his family, he was vague when talking about the Holocaust. He would tell me a little about life when he was a boy. But he did not like to mention the names of the dead.

When I found out that Germany was giving money to those who could prove they had owned property, I suggested that he apply to get money for the family’s farm.

He was furious. “Will this money bring back my mother and my father?” He yelled at me. “Will this money bring back my brothers and my sisters and their families? NO! NO! I don’t want their blood money! Let them keep their blood money!”

I can still hear him yelling at me. So I stopped. I never asked again.

My mother told me that a relative, Zissle Feuer, came from Europe and told my grandfather what had happened. And then my Grandfather contacted the Red Cross. Everyone was confirmed dead. My mother was about 16 when they found out that everyone died. She said that every morning when my Grandpa came upstairs from the bakery she would hear him cry while sitting at the kitchen table; sobbing over the loss of his family.

Now I read this testimonial. What is the truth? How did they die? “E” was not there. She only heard about it. So I looked through all the papers I had gathered through the years. And I found one document that I guess I never read entirely. I just read the part about the city of Mielec before the war. I never read the section that was call Holocaust Years. Because there it states, halfway down the page, that on September 13, 1939, on the eve of Rosh Hashannah, 20 Jewish were pushed into a burning synagogue. If they tried to escape they were shot. Then the German soldiers put Jews into a slaughterhouse and set it on fire. Then they went to the Mikveh and killed Jews there. On the second day of Rosh Hashannah a second synagogue was set on fire.

So many burned alive on Rosh Hashannah. I do not know if it was 600, but even one is too many. What a horrible death!

How can I ever see Rosh Hashannah in the same way again? How can I understand that on this holiday my family might have been murdered, burned alive. Up until September of 1939 there were 4,000 Jews living in Mielec. When they were deported in March 1942 only 2,000 were still alive.

Did 600 get burned alive in the four buildings set ablaze during Rosh Hashannah of 1939? Did my great aunts, great uncles and cousins suffer in those flames? Did my great grandfather die there? Is this why my Grandfather could never talk about it? Did he know that is how most of his family perished? When my mother said they were burned alive, did she know as well?

Was it just too horrible to tell us?

Mielec, the home of my family, was one of the first to be totally depleted of its Jews. This report said only 200 Jewish people survived the war: 200 out of 4000. I know that four of them were cousins of my grandfather. I met them all: one settled in Montana; one in England; two in Israel. They have all since passed away.

On Rosh Hashannah we chant the Unetanah Tokef.   It is a prayer that has always made an impact on me. But this time when I read “who by water and who by fire,” I will be wondering: “Who died this way? Who?”

And I will chant Kaddish.

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