Tears of Remembrance
|As she heard the shot ring
out next to her and the body fall limp to the earth, she turned to her
friend and whispered “selvus [farewell], Hela,” and braced herself for
death (Drzymala). On a bitterly cold January day in 1945 Poland, seven
German troops shot forty-one innocent Jewish women outside Grünberg.
Polish forced laborer Florian Drzymala, who actually drove the wagon
carrying the women to their gravesite, filed an affidavit, but was never
heard from again.
Fifty-four years later I took a trip to Central Europe to retrace my heritage, traveling in Austria, Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic for five weeks. Our itinerary took us to Grünberg, Poland, where my grandmother worked as a slave sewing parachutes for German paratroopers. My grandfather recounted the story of the forty-one Jewish women, and we began to search for a boulder which served as a monument at the site of the massacre. Six of us piled into a car which could uncomfortably accommodate four, and we baked under the summer heat traveling down the dirt roads. As we continued to search, I read, and kept, a copy of the affidavit filed in 1968. The writer explained that his landlord ordered him to help transport the women, whom he described as looking “miserable and exhausted. The women were wearing rags and they were almost barefoot and their heads were wrapped in blankets. I realized the women hadn’t eaten at all” (Affidavit). Mr. Drzymala wrote that they were under the impression that they were departing for a hospital, but the Germans told the wagon driver “to turn right into the forest. After about 300 meters, they ordered [the wagons] to stop. They were pulling the women by their hair and shooting” (Affidavit).
As I finished reading the terrifying document, a feeling of frustration lingered inside me. I did not understand why the man had not rebelled, why he had not saved the women. Meanwhile I failed to notice that we had stopped the car and our translator was asking the village people for directions. He beckoned to an elderly woman and described the monument.
“Why do you want to see the monument?”
she asked our translator. “Speak to a man who was there; he lives ten
We walked to his farm and a young man came out. The translator conversed with him for a few minutes, and the man went into the field.
“Yes, this is the house. That was the man’s son, and he is going to get his father now.”
A few minutes later an elderly man, dressed in an old pair of cargo pants, a brown button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a green hat and thick glasses greeted us cautiously. The lingering fear of his government was evident in the way he watched us with his intense eyes. Eventually he agreed to speak with us. An incredible sense of excitement was in the air. Everyone was cognizant of the importance of the event about to take place.
We huddled into his humble kitchen and sat in a small booth. I was sitting at the edge of the booth, directly across from Mr. Drzymala, when an idea struck me. I had been lugging around a videocamera, documenting interesting points along my journey. I knew I had an opportunity to document history, to make a mark on the world at age fifteen. So I picked up the camera and began to record. Mr. Drzymala stopped mid-sentence and began shouting at me in Polish, obviously upset with my efforts. But our translator calmed him down, and finally he consented.
Through the black and white lens I could see a man who had been tortured over the years by the events he had seen. Tears streamed down his face as he told his story. I did not understand a single word he said that day, but the emotions behind his words were perfectly clear. When he finished, a tremendous sense of relief came over him. Seeing his countenance taught me an incredibly important lesson, a lesson which I had failed to completely grasp while studying the Holocaust in film and literature. Not I, nor anyone else, has any right to pass judgment on the actions of other people. With the diversity of race in our society comes a diversity of religion, of talent, and of ideology. And while we must celebrate such diversity, we cannot deny the bonds of humanity which, tying every human being together in a collective unconscious, transcend the ideals and situations of the group or the individual. I realized that this man could not do anything to help those girls, and yet he still feels the weight of his burden everyday. I realized that my obligation to him and to others is not to add to their guilt, but to support them in their times of need. The famous slogan “Never Again” applies to the idea that not only will the seeds of hatred never be sown against a people, but also that the world will not complacently stand by while such evil deeds are committed.
A few months later my grandfather commissioned a Polish immigrant to translate the tape I had made. A copy of the video with subtitles is now at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel. I was lucky enough to document a miracle, and am glad to share it with the rest of the world.
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