Phyllis Sterling Jacobs
Every person has a story – and I’m going to tell you mine as a child of Holocaust survivors.
When I was a little girl
The Holocaust was a ghost that inhabited my parents’ eyes
Forcing them to look backward
They begged me to look forward – not to join them
But, when I peeked
Watching my mother’s eyes fill with tears
As she lit Shabbat candles,
I ran back as fast as I could
And did not want to look again
Until I grew up.
I was born while my parents were waiting in the Fohrenwald displaced persons camp to come to America. We were miracle children born to parents stunned and grieving, woken up to life by our cries and smiles. My mother wrote in a letter from the camp, “She is a good girl and our only consolation.”
Of our extended family living in Poland, only my two uncles – Isak and Michael –survived. My 6-year-old brother, Zygmunt, died in the Brody Ghetto. In 1949, my father, Simon, age 43; my mother, Sophie, age 40; and I, just 2-1/2, landed in Philadelphia where, like lost luggage, we were thankfully claimed by our American cousins.
As a child of survivors I received my knowledge of the Holocaust not through my mind, but directly through my heart. There was no filter; no context for words spoken like bursts of fire one does not dare approach: Ghetto. Shtervitz. Brody. Fohrenwald. Words seared in my mind but detached from sentences I could understand. Words that sucked in all the air around them – leaving little left to breathe.
When my father was 80 and I was 36, I asked him to tell me his story from the beginning of the war. For me, that is where his life began. My mother could never speak words about what she endured, and I knew never to ask her.
As my father and I sat eye to eye in his dining room, anchored to this world, grasping cups of coffee, he went back to the other world – starting with the invasion of his village in Poland. With a tape recorder as our witness, I listened, asking few questions.
I breathed in the words, and the words made a story, and the story had a beginning, middle and end. And I learned I could hold this story in my heart, and it would not stop beating. And with time, I learned that I too have a story.
First, I needed to begin mourning what was taken from me – the chance to know and love the family I was missing. Now, many years after my parents died, I search for any remnants of people’s memories of my family – memories that now have a home to return to in the story I keep. Any person, picture, name from that other world comes saying; “Take it in – this will make you whole – shalem.” I came to understand that I needed to travel backwards in order to move forward.
In 1991 flew to Saskatoon, Canada, to meet Franca Lukasiewicz, the woman who, with her late husband, Anton, hid my parents in their barn and then helped them as they hid in the woods near their house. Could the good woman who willingly stepped into my parents’ nightmare, risking the lives of her own family, actually exist?
During that trip, I spoke at the Yad Vashem ceremony in which Franka and Anton were honored as Righteous Among the Nations. I read an excerpt from my father’s story, where Franka gave my father food; he was crouched in her pantry as a house full of dangerous guests celebrated Christmas in the next room. Yes, Franka was real, and honoring her before her family and community was exhilarating.
In 2006, after watching the movie Everything is Illuminated, the story of a young Jewish man’s journey to Ukraine, I knew I had to go to my parents’ village of Shtervitz (also called Szczurowice). This was the place where my parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and brother once lived normal lives and from which most of them disappeared.
My husband, Marc, and I began our journey by first visiting Anton and Franka’s son, Bronislaw Lukasiewicz, who was just 19 during the war. He was now 80 and had moved to western Poland after the war. Thankfully, Bronislaw’s lovely granddaughter, Alicja Gorska, who is fluent in English, stayed with us every minute. We shared three days of gratitude – they so grateful for being remembered and visited; we, of course, grateful for their family’s courageous help to my parents and for being welcomed now like family.
Bronislaw, whose family had lived in the village next to Shtervitz, told us stories about my family before the war, about which I knew almost nothing. We learned that my grandfather, Meyer Reiss, had the reputation of being able to heal any sick cow, and that my other grandfather, Eliezar Sterling, was the head of the village’s Jewish council.
He also told us this harrowing story: When they were hiding in the woods, my parents would come to the Lukasiewicz farm for food and sometimes stay in the barn for a few days. This was very dangerous not only for my parents, but also for Anton, Franka, and their children. Their neighbors left threatening hints that they knew about Jews coming to their house. If they were turned into the police, it could mean death for the entire family.
One day my uncle Michael, my mother’s brother, came to Anton and Franka’s house for food. Anton and his son, Bronislaw, took Michael to the home of the neighbor who was threatening to turn them in. Once inside the house, they said: “Now you have a Jew in your house! If you threaten again to tell the police that we are hiding Jews, we will report that you had Jews in your house.” That took care of it!
After taking a train to Krakow, Marc and I met up with our Ukrainian guide who drove us to Belzec, located in Poland near the Ukrainian border. Belzec was a killing factory where 600,000 Jews were murdered in nine months in 1942 – including my grandparents Eliezar Sterling, Meyer and Baille Reiss; my aunts Rachel, Hanna and Pepe; and countless other people in my family whose names I don’t even know. The Nazis planted pine trees afterwards as if to hide what lay beneath.
I remember my father’s piercing eyes as he would ask, without expecting an answer, “Why doesn’t anyone mention Belzec?” It was as if what happened here was erased even from memory. But the truth is there were no survivors to scream, “Look at this place!”
In 2005, a memorial and museum were finally built. Belzec is in the middle of nowhere. I walked around alone in silence thinking what a small area to consume so many people. I sent the museum copies of my father’s story, which I had made into a book entitled Light in Darkness – a voice sent back to hell from heaven saying I know this place, and what happened here will not be erased.
We next went to my parents’ town, the village of Shtervitz, near Brody and L’viv (or Lemberg as the Jews used to call it). Before the war, 400 families lived in Shtervitz – one-third Jewish, one-third Polish Catholic, and one-third Ukrainian. In 2006 it held 300 people – all Ukrainians. There were dirt roads, horses and wagons, one small store, no running water, chickens in every yard, a flourmill, and food grown in gardens behind the houses. A small Jewish cemetery overgrown with 6-foot weeds and fallen tombstones bordered the edge of the village.
As I walked down the dirt road, I wanted to touch everything my missing family had touched. Surely my grandparents walked on this road; my brother played in this small park; my cousins swam in this river. I wondered if the geese I was photographing were the descendents of geese who gathered here 63 some years ago. What stories do they hold?
What was I hoping for? I secretly hoped to feel the presence of my lost family. I was back; they needed to come back, too. That did not happen, but I believe they sent some messengers. We stopped a 40-year-old man walking on the road who told us that he grew up in the village and was just visiting for the day. He offered to walk with us. His grandfather used to tell him about all the Jews who once lived here. He pointed out the house on the spot where the synagogue once stood and the Jewish beach area along the river. When I commented that I wanted the door handle of the abandoned house that I believed was my parents’, he ran to borrow an ax and presented me with the handle. I pointed to the flourmill telling him that my father used to own it, and we locked eyes as he said, “My grandfather worked in that flour mill.” Our first messenger!
I learned as we knocked on people’s doors that my grandmother, Baille Reiss – called Reissova by her neighbors – ran what could be called the corner store. Women now in their 70s bragged that when they were children they could get anything they wanted from Reissova.
A woman named Maria offered to take us to a certain area of the forest near the village where my parents hid. We walked through marshes and fields to an area so dense with mosquitoes that I could hardly hold my camera. We were standing in the very woods where 63 years ago my parents buried themselves in the winter snow and scorching summer heat like animals trying desperately to avoid being caught by their hunters. I gathered pinecones from the floor of the forest, which I placed on my parents’ grave.
The town of Brody has paved roads and apartment buildings more than a few stories tall. The old part of the center holds some still beautiful, crumbling ornate buildings, looking much as it did 65 years ago. In 1942, section of the town had been transformed into a ghetto holding thousands of Jews from the area. This was the place where my 6-year-old brother, Zygmunt, died.
When we arrived in Brody, our guide, Svitlana Kovalyk, called a high school history teacher named Andriy Korchak, whom she heard was an expert on the Jews of Brody. She was right. Andriy, only about 30 years old, seemed to make it his mission to know everything about the Jews who used to live in his town. He read from the Hebrew inscriptions on the collapsing grand synagogue and took us to a small store that once was the little synagogue. We saw the old Jewish cemetery at the edge of town, with stones 6 feet high still trying to maintain their balance, and graves of famous rabbis where some still come to pay respect. Then Andriy took us to another cemetery with no markers; it was an open, hilly field covered with rocks and grass. He told us that thousands of Jews from the Brody ghetto were killed and buried here in a mass grave. I said Kaddish, a prayer for the dead, standing at this grassy field.
After Andriy received a copy of Light in Darkness, he and Halyna Lysyk, an English teacher, took it upon themselves have their students translate my father’s story into Ukrainian. Amazing! I am forever grateful to them. In the town of Brody, where so many suffered, and where an unmarked field stores thousands of untold stories, one found its way back. A voice sent back to hell from heaven saying, “I know this place and what happened here will not be erased.”
As Jews we search for signs of Jewish life and survival in every corner of the earth. We look with wonder and sadness at crumbling buildings where Jewish prayers were once said. Touching doorways, we feel for the outlines of old mezuzahs. We cradle miraculously salvaged photos of smiling or serious people posed in their finest. As we hold these images of life frozen in time, we stare at their faces. For some, we know we are their only witnesses to life.
So what is my story about? What is our story about? It is about witnessing. It is about feeling the pain that comes with knowing. It is about integrating this pain into our lives by giving it a sacred reserved place – always there, but not everywhere. It is about our obligation to keep in this place the wisdom and strength acquired through our people’s suffering and triumphs. Our story is about guarding this sacred place as a source of our compassion.
Author’s note: Years ago, I read and was moved by Eva Hoffman’s powerful book, After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust (PublicAffairs 2005). When I prepared to write this essay, I returned to it again for inspiration, and found it.