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Friday, August 7, 2020

Recognizing the righteous in my family’s Polish town

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It’s August, and I’m jockeying for air in a banquet room at the Warsaw Marriot, wedged shoulder to shoulder with a few hundred others: Holocaust survivors and their descendants, members of the Polish parliament, press and ambassadors from 20 European Union nations. We’re here for a very special ceremony bestowing one of Israel’s highest honors — the Righteous Among the Nations medal from Yad Vashem — on a group of Poles who rescued their Jewish neighbors, acquaintances and even complete strangers, during the Holocaust.

The ceremony is running late by half an hour so the Israeli team could do a security sweep of the ballroom.  Finally, we’re allowed inside. Eleven Polish rescuers will be honored today, but I’ve come from Los Angeles to witness the tribute to the late Janina Bereska and her surviving son, Marian Bereska — rescuers from Radomsko, Poland, the town in Central Poland where my mother’s family lived for generations.

I take a seat between Szymon Bereska, a grandson of Marian Bereska, and Leo Ofman, the son of the survivors who traveled here from Scottsdale, Ariz. One seat over is 77-year-old Marian Bereska himself.

For 70 years — until this moment — Marian Bereska has kept secret the story of how he and his mother hid five Jews in their house in Radomsko.  He has told no one. Not even his wife or his son or any of his neighbors or friends. 

It’s difficult, from our perspective, to fathom why, but Marian learned very young the exigency of guarding this secret.  In Poland, it was not only Jews leaving the ghetto who were subject to the death penalty. In the words of a Nazi decree of Oct. 15, 1941, “The same penalty applies to persons who knowingly shelter such Jews.”

In her book on Christian rescue during the Holocaust, the author Nechama Tec writes, “It was not uncommon in Poland to conceal one’s help to Jews from one’s own family — one wanted to shield them from anxiety and possibly, from death.”  And then, after the war, during the decades of communist rule in Poland, it was forbidden to speak about many aspects of Poland’s World War II history — including the annihilation of the Jews by the Nazis, as well as the activities of the Polish Underground.

During the Shoah, as the Yad Vashem Web site reminds us, “Bystanders were the rule, rescuers were the exception.” An act of heroism like that undertaken by Janina and Marian Bereska was outside the social norm of a small town. To reveal it to one’s neighbors or employers was to court social and economic ostracism or, as one Polish friend of mine remarked, “to bring upon oneself a thousand unpleasant things.” 

Marian Bereska might never have broken his 70-year silence had it not been for his grandson, Szymon, 28, now a doctoral student at the University of Warsaw. Over the last two decades, Szymon coaxed this tale out of his grandfather and finally convinced him that in the “new” (post-communist) Poland, it was safe to tell his story to his family and to the world.

The ceremony begins. A choir sings a song in Hebrew. The Israeli ambassador to Poland, Zvi Rav-Ner addresses the assembly: “These people … whom we honor today, were human beings. But more than that, they were brave, sincere, and they risked their lives. They risked the lives of their families and their towns. And they made the right choice. These are human beings whom we have to honor and respect forever.”

My journey to this ceremony in Warsaw began with my own family research. I wanted to learn the fate of family members who’d stayed behind in Radomsko when my grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. In 2000, as regional archives were opening up in a newly democratic Poland, I joined an online group called CRARG (Czestochowa-Radomsko Area Research Group), organized by a dedicated descendant of Radomsko’s scattered Jewish survivors.

Radomsko landsleit — fellow Jews — from all over the country pooled resources to cover the cost for a Polish researcher to type records in the Radomsko city hall.  What I found was both moving and chilling: the location of my great-grandmother Golda Wajskop’s grave in the Radomsko Jewish Cemetery; the last address for my great-aunt, Feyge Konarska Wilhelm, before her deportation to Treblinka.

But I wanted to interview someone who’d known what prewar life was like in Radomsko, when Jews made up almost 55 percent of the town’s then-population of 27,000.  Among the Radomsko survivors I was able to locate was a distant cousin named Berek Ofman.

In 2004, I flew to Sun City, Ariz., to interview Berek, a charming retired tailor whose father was the last kosher butcher in Radomsko. When the war began in 1939, Berek was just 14.  He escaped the Radomsko ghetto in 1942 — after both his parents and brothers had been deported. He made his way to a house outside the ghetto that belonged to a Polish-Catholic carpenter named Wladyslaw Bereska, to whom his older brother had been apprenticed.

The carpenter’s wife, Janina, responded to his knock. “She had an 8-year-old boy and a girl 4 years old,” Berek said. “She didn’t hesitate. She let me in.” 

Berek was shocked to learn that Janina’s husband had been arrested by the Germans in the middle of the night — still wearing his pajamas — and that he’d died in Auschwitz. Later, Berek learned that Janina’s husband had been a Home Army officer who attempted to blow up a factory producing military equipment for the Germans.

Berek explained to Janina that he was his family’s sole survivor. She was well aware of the danger, but she agreed to hide him. Soon, he brought four others —Regina Epstein, her parents and her cousin Marysia — to the little house. Janina’s young son, Marian, helped Berek construct a camouflaged cellar. The five fugitives hid there for nearly three years.

Berek, Regina and Marysia all survived the war. Regina’s parents were shot and killed by German soldiers one week before the end of the war, when they ventured out of the hideout. Two days after liberation, Berek Ofman married Regina Epstein. Their son Leo was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany in 1947, before they emigrated to Israel and then to the United States.

Berek called Janina his “angel.” He refused to judge those Poles who lacked her courage. “If somebody did hide a Jew, then they are the most heroic people, and I cannot explain why they did it.”

Janina Bereska passed away in 1970, but her son, Marian, still lived in Radomsko. Berek declined to give me Marian’s address there.  “It would be too dangerous.”

Surely Berek was mistaken. He didn’t understand how the climate had changed in Poland since the end of communism. But Berek was adamant.

I returned a second time to interview Berek in 2006. Once again I asked him for Marian’s address. Once again, he balked. I tried to reassure him. My translator was discrete and diplomatic. We would ask Marian to meet us outside the town. I would keep his secret if he wished.

“Yes, you probably would,” Berek conceded. “But … you cannot comprehend this history.” His voice rose with emotion. “It’s something that I won’t touch,” he said flatly.

Berek was right. No one who wasn’t there could comprehend what had happened in Poland during the war. Berek wasn’t even sure whether Marian had ever told his own children what his mother had done during the war, or that he himself had been involved in the rescue effort. “You don’t know how they would react,” Berek told me. “Because this was the greatest secret in the world!” 

Before I left that day, Berek made me tea. As the pot brewed, he picked up a Christmas card from the sideboard and placed the envelope — addressed in a feathery European-style handwriting — upside down in front of me on the table. “This is a card from Marian Bereska in Radomsko. He remembers me every year.”

Berek watched as I carefully transposed the upside-down address into my notebook. He did not give it to me; but he did not prevent me from taking it.

It took several more years for Marian Bereska finally to agree to meet with me. In December 2010, I traveled to Radomsko with my translator and listened as Marian, a dignified, craggy-faced man, described those dangerous years of concealment. His grandson Szymon sat beside him. 

Snow fell steadily outside the windows of the hotel as Marian carefully sketched out the dimensions of the bunker: the trapdoor in the kitchen, the second door to the potato cellar. Five Jewish souls hidden under their roof, under their floor.

He used his strong hands to demonstrate, occasionally placing a cup or a spoon on the table to indicate how close they came to disaster. He recalled when the SS came to arrest his father during the night, and how he instantly became the man of the house. He told me how he journeyed to neighboring villages to exchange linens for bread, trying not to attract attention from nosy neighbors as he procured enough food for seven people on rations for three. 

All my attempts to question the why of the risk he and his mother assumed were ignored, did not register. Someone needed their help; they responded.

I’d been in touch with the Bereskas for a while as part of a tandem effort to submit testimony to Yad Vashem. Throughout 2009, I helped the Ofman family prepare Berek’s statement. In Poland, Szymon readied his grandfather’s testimony, had it notarized and sent it to Jerusalem.  Yad Vashem took a year to make its decision. Part of the process was verifying the survivor’s testimony and confirming that the rescue was for altruistic reasons, not material profits.

More Poles have received Righteous Among the Nations medals than people of any other nationality. Currently, the number from Poland is 6,266, with the Netherlands next, numbering 5,108. That may not sound like many out of a population of millions, but, as the Israeli ambassador reminded us at the Warsaw ceremony, “When we ask, ‘Why weren’t there more?’ To be honest, each and every one of us has to ask — in a world of broken moral order, ‘Would I have risked my own life and my family’s lives to save a neighbor — a stranger?’ ”

OK, ask yourself: Would you shelter an undocumented immigrant in Los Angeles on penalty of death? Not just your own — but your entire family?

Two days after the ceremony in Warsaw, Szymon and Leo Ofman and I drove the four hours from Warsaw to Radomsko for the press conference to witness Marian Bereska reveal his long-kept secret to his fellow citizens. Anxious for his first glimpse of the town he’d heard about his whole life, Leo pushed the speed limit on the winding roads. Szymon cautioned him to slow down. We passed apple orchards and fat cows grazing next to sunflowers.

En route, Szymon told us how he unraveled his grandfather’s secret. “He often mentioned a cellar … what cellar?”  He heard the names “Berek and Regina Ofman” and when Szymon was old enough to use the Internet, he found these names in the Memorial (Yizkor) Book of Radomsko’s Jewish Community. He started to piece it all together.

A phalanx of eager young reporters awaited us in Radomsko’s Town Hall.  The mayor, Anna Milczanowska, described to those assembled how Marian had been her boss at a city agency in the 1980s. At the time, young Anna was a Solidarity activist, and Marian, an engineer, belonged to the Communist Party. Marian warned her when the communist secret police took an interest in her activities, and he kept her under his protection. “I thought of him as my father after that,” she said. “We wish to have more people like Marian Bereska in our community … so helpful, so open, so brave.”  The Bereskas are the first family in Radomsko to be honored by Yad Vashem.

After the press conference, Marian, Szymon, Leo and I walked the streets of the little town. We walked through the cemetery, past the tzadik’s tomb and my great-grandmother’s grave.  We ended the emotional day at the Radomsko train station, where Szymon and I would catch the express back to Warsaw. Leo was staying overnight in Radomsko at Marian’s house.

As we boarded, I got a last glimpse of Marian, the rescuer, and Leo, the survivor’s son, standing side by side on the platform. They had met for the first time only the day before, and yet, they already knew each other so well. 

Szymon wrote me from Poland that his parents and siblings were very proud to learn about Marian’s and Janina’s actions during the war.  The Radomsko newspaper and local television station featured the story quite prominently. As part of a government program, The Righteous in Polish Schools, Marian likely will tell his story to schoolchildren in Radomsko, so they can learn from his heroic actions during the occupation.

For Szymon, the most essential reason for his grandfather to tell his story was simply this: “This is history, this really happened, people cannot deny that it happened.”

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