DON'T ASK DON'T TELL
"They protected me by not talking; I protected them by not asking."
Leo and his parents
With these words, Leo Turkel succinctly describes his upbringing. ‘Don’t let people know that you are Jewish’ was a piece of advice he received growing up in Canada. Friends will eventually turn on you, and politics is dangerous for a Jew, since anything a Jewish politician does that is unpopular will be taken out on the Jewish population. While growing up, he deemed these messages normal. Danger is everywhere, he was warned. Keep a low profile.
He did get to witness trauma playing out in front of him in the person of his aunt, who had been through a terrible ordeal in Europe. She gave birth to a baby during the Holocaust and the Germans killed both the baby and the baby’s father. She immigrated to Canada, where she married her late husband’s brother, with whom she was mismatched. This emphasized to Leo throughout his childhood the terrible consequences of the Holocaust.
Considering his parents’ silence on their Holocaust experiences, Leo was shocked to receive a phone call several years ago from Yad Vashem. After ascertaining that it was neither a prank call nor a solicitation, he heard that Yad Vashem was apparently investigating the rescue of his father Simon by a Polish Christian family during the war. Yad Vashem was considering this family for the honor of being named Righteous Among the Nations. (This is an honor awarded to non-Jews who have risked their own lives to save Jews. It is sponsored by Yad Vashem, a large memorial, museum, and educational center in Jerusalem which keeps the memory of the Holocaust alive). Thus, Leo was suddenly thrust back into his father’s survival story.
Leo is certain that his parents’ Holocaust experiences have scarred him. He is keenly aware of the burden he carries, consisting not only of the knowledge of his family’s suffering but also of the attitudes and warnings passed on to him.
He is familiar with the harrowing survival stories of both his mother and father, even though his father was less willing than his mother to talk about it. His parents both come from eastern Poland, which is now western Ukraine, They were sweethearts before the war, which temporarily separated them. His father, Simon, was captured and placed in a slave labor camp, where he had to do farm work. After 14 months, he heard rumors that the camp was going to be liquidated, and he managed to escape. His parents and two sisters, one of whom was married with two children, had been killed.
Since he could not risk going to his own home, he went to a Christian friend in his town who lived with her parents and brother and the brother’s wife and four children. The town was actually a country hamlet with only 7 houses. They were good Christians and agreed to hide him.
He was hidden in their attic. Since the Poles were not able to send their children to school once the Germans had taken over, Leo’s father tutored the four boys. He taught them all the major subjects. In addition to that, he taught them to play the mandolin. He had loved playing the mandolin, and there were many Jewish mandolin orchestras then. Before the war, he played for silent movies. Later in his life, when he was safely living in Canada, he felt that he could no longer play this instrument he’d once loved.
“He had no heart for it anymore,” Leo explains. When Leo connected with one of the four children years later, the now-grown child told Leo that he acquired his love of learning from Leo’s father. This “child” had become a university professor in Wroclaw, Poland.
After Simon had spent 15 months in the attic, the word must have gotten out that this family was hiding a Jew and the police came to look. When they got to the attic, Simon was hiding underneath a pile of straw. Fortunately and amazingly, the police did not find him. What a stroke of luck!
After this, however, the family realized that they themselves were in danger for hiding a Jew, and they could no longer keep him in their attic. So these good people went into the woods and dug a hole in the ground for him to live in. He lived there through the winter, subsisting on food the family brought him.
After supposed liberation, neither the Jews nor the Poles were safe, since the Ukrainians hated both groups and were rampaging throughout the country. Leo’s father was able to get back to his old home. He found other people living there but they left willingly and he got his house back and moved in. He was 32 then. (That house, Leo has discovered, is now a supermarket) Simon found out that one of his sisters had had a baby. Attempting to hide the baby from the Germans, she had stifled its cries and inadvertently suffocated her child.
He also found out that Ukrainian partisans had killed the father of the four boys he had tutored. The mother came to Simon’s house with her boys and moved in. Leo’s mother Buzia, who had survived her own ordeal, also came and moved in. She was 28.
Leo’s father got a job in a vodka factory as an accountant. When the Russian military brass came in, he had to drink with them, even though he was not a vodka-drinker. Part of his job was to get the quotas for vodka sales. He wanted low quotas, as did everyone in the business, and he had to bribe his way to get them. He would bring vodka home and Buzia and her sister would sell it on the black market. They were doing what they could to survive.
Leo’s mother Buzia had experienced her own ordeal, which had begun when the Germans killed her brother and father. She had an aunt who was friends with a Ukrainian who had become the chief of police in a nearby town. To save her niece, the aunt appealed to this man, who was a Ukrainian nationalist but not an anti-Semite. He obtained false papers for Buzia and made her a maid in his house. German officers often came to the house and Buzia had to serve them.
The rest of her family did not fare well. Her mother was called by the Judenrat (Jewish committees set up by the Germans to handle matters in the Jewish community, mainly used to assist in roundups) to report to the ghetto and she was killed. Her mother’s sister – the aunt who had brought Buzia to the Ukrainian chief of police – gave birth to a baby. As mentioned earlier, the Germans killed the baby and the baby’s father. This traumatized aunt eventually came to Canada.
At some point during Buzia’s employment in the home of the chief of police, the Ukranian decided he did not want her there anymore, and she had to leave. She found her sister and the two of them went into hiding. One day, they were stopped by the police. Buzia still had her false papers, which she produced. Her sister did not have papers and became so frozen with fear that she could not speak. When she opened her mouth, the only thing that came out were sounds of stuttering and stammering.
Exhibiting quick thinking, Buzia told the police that this woman was crazy and sick and she was getting her help. The police drove on.
Buzia and her sister went back to the chief of police’s house and asked to be reinstated as maids. He agreed. Leo believes that the war seemed to be turning by then and thus the Ukrainian may have considered the two Jewish women his “insurance policy.” By saving Jews, he probably reasoned, he could escape punishment. Bruzia later found out that this man eventually traveled west into Germany and then studied in the United States. She knew she could have made a case for him being a Nazi collaborator. She reasoned, however, that he had saved her life, so she left him alone.
The area Leo’s parents lived in had changed hands many times. Originally part of Austria, it became Poland between the two world wars, then Russia, then Germany, and then back to Ukraine. While living in part of Russia, his parents were “re-settled” in a German town, where they lived for several months. In 1946, before the Communists took over, an organization called Bricha, which aimed to get Jews to come to Palestine, brought them to Salzberg, Austria. There, Simon was employed by the American army, teaching refugees math and bookkeeping. Simon wanted to go to Palestine but Bruzia refused, saying “No more wars,” as it was clear that the Arabs would not stand for the influx of Jews into Palestine and there would be war there. They therefore applied to Canada, the United States, and Australia. When Canada accepted them, they went.
While growing up, Leo learned about his parents’ experiences through snippets of information. He would not ask questions as that would clearly be upsetting, especially to his father. He grew up in a mixed area, about 25-30% Jewish. Aside from being a Jew among mostly non-Jews, his parents were “greenies” while the parents of his Jewish friends were Canadian-born. Thus, he knew he was different.
His parents always cautioned him not to let people know he is Jewish, for the reasons mentioned earlier. Leo remembers that his father regularly had nightmares and was often moody, and he attributes that to his experiences in Europe. His mother, whom Leo describes as a “positive” person, would try to prevent Leo and his brother from upsetting or disturbing their father, who was a “negative” person. Despite all that, Leo felt close to his father. And in spite of the trauma passed on to him, he recognizes how his parents loved him.
He also understood, like many other children of survivors, the importance of doing well professionally. Leo became a dentist and his brother earned an MBA from Wharton. Thus, their professional accomplishments proved to their parents that they had survived and immigrated to Canada for good reason.
In spite of the trauma Leo's parents had experienced in Europe, they were strong enough and loving enough to build a new life in a new country and focus on their two sons. "I had a very happy childhood," Leo recalls. "There was lots of love and laughter in my house." It is important to Leo that that be known.
As Leo grew up, he began to question the warnings he had always received about keeping his Jewishness hidden. While the sense of danger and suspicion was a normal reaction from his parents, which he had absorbed, his own attitude began to change.
Recently, he has found himself more open to revealing his Jewish identity. He feels that with an unidentifiable last name, people might assume he is not Jewish and say something anti-Semitic, so he would rather head that off. His children were raised Jewish and they understand what their grandparents went through. They also understand what Leo has lost – 4 grandparents, plus numerous aunts and uncles.
Fortunately, Leo’s father, while hesitant to speak of his experiences later in life, was willing to write them down shortly after the war. When his memories were translated into English from Polish, Leo was able to grasp some of the horrors his father had experienced.
“Our despair was boundless,” Simon wrote of the beginning of the war. “The Jews were already so broken morally and psychologically that life in the ghetto had no value for them. So we will die – they would say. Nothing terrible about it. But when we remember how horrific a death awaited us from the hands of the butchers, our souls shiver. That’s why people chose death from their own hands and the number of suicides in the Jewish quarter rose rapidly.”
Ruminating on everything he witnessed and experienced and the family losses he heard of, Simon speculated that one day, “people living in the world of culture and civilization will not be able to comprehend the logic and objective of this crime. This enormous atrocity does not fit into a sphere of normal imagination…The Nazi crimes will become famous because even most primitive cavemen could not commit a slaughter on this scale. And yet it was done by a great nation, powerful, dominant over most of Europe, wanting to extend its rule over the whole world…All else becomes insignificant in the face of those graves, like nothing comparable throughout mankind’s history.”
When he was working in the fields as part of the labor camp, Simon witnessed some terrible murders. One overseer enjoyed riding through the field and whipping the Jews working, saying that Jews don’t work. Simon witnessed a starving Jew who had been hiding in the fields warily approach a farmer and tearfully ask for a slice of bread. This farmer, expressing shock that Jews are still alive, attacked the man, threatening him with a sickle, saying “Give me your money.” When the Jew insisted that he had nothing, the farmer sliced his throat. The Jew fell, his blood spilling on the ground. The murderer went home, returned with a spade, dug a grave and dumped his victim in it.
“People gathered around,” Simon wrote. “Some shook their heads, others congratulated the hero. Nobody admonished him, That would be forbidden. The murderer received perhaps more than 70 zloty, since he saved the police much work.”
A mason Simon worked for told him of a trip he took to another town, where he saw bodies of Jews hanging from balconies, on public display. Over a hundred were murdered this way, as revenge for a supposed attempt to kill a member of the Gestapo.
One day in the field, on a freezing, rainy day, Simon overheard some Yiddish spoken nearby and he discovered two Jewish men, almost naked, shivering feverishly. They told him that they had entered a house to get a drink of water and the owners robbed them of their shoes and outer clothing. They were hiding in the rye, planning to travel at night to another town where they hoped someone would give them shelter.
He wrote about receiving news from his hometown, where the Jews were all herded into a newly created district in a nearby town where there was not enough room for all of them and many had to live in the street. One day, several hundred Gestapo and Ukrainian policemen surrounded the district and forced all the Jews into railway cars with nothing to eat or drink. Packed like cattle, people in the train were dying from lack of air and starvation. The train went to Belzec and no one returned from there. A few Jews managed to escape from the train by breaking down a railway door. “Belzec is a giant cemetery,” wrote Simon, “which swallowed millions of Jewish victims.”
Upon finding out that his mother had died after a second “action” in the town, Simon wrote that this loss “stunned him” and he was close to losing his mind. “My mother could barely see or walk…and must have suffered terribly. My saintly, poor mother. I don’t know if she made it alive to Belzec.”
Simon mourned the loss of his beloved family and the loss of Jewish life throughout the region. He mourned the cruelty he witnessed and heard about. He mourned the desperate attempts of the Jews to escape and to find ways to survive. He mourned the callousness of people toward good people who helped others, especially when he heard of a little Jewish girl, not yet three, who was taken in by an old Aryan lady after the girl’s family had been killed. The girl and the lady became very attached to each other. However, someone informed the Gestapo that this woman was sheltering and raising a Jewish girl. The Gestapo came to the house and made the woman walk the girl to the cemetery. They shot the little child, who did not die. They threw her into the grave, alive, and covered it, then arrested the woman.
Simon mourned for all these victims of such horrors. “Why? To what end? For what reason?” he wrote.
As horrible as were the events Simon chronicled, Leo knows that there were more horrible things his father experienced and witnessed that he did not write down.
After receiving the surprise phone call from Yad Vashem, Leo discovered that a member of the Christian family that saved his father had applied for Righteous Among the Nations status. There was no response for quite a while. Now, years later, a researcher wanted information and evidence.
Leo looked but could not find any concrete evidence. His father had already passed away. The only thing he knew about were packages his parents regularly sent from Canada to this Polish family, including medication for Parkinson’s disease, which a member of the family needed. This medication was unavailable for them in Poland.
Eventually, Leo was informed by Yad Vashem that the family had been approved and would indeed be honored as Righteous Among the Nations. A ceremony was to be held at a synagogue in Wroclaw, which had been Breslow, where the family had settled. There was also to be a ceremony at the consulate in Warsaw. The date for the ceremony was only about a week away, and Leo had just returned from visiting his daughter who lives in Germany, so he could not go. Fortunately, however, his daughter was able to travel from Berlin and attend.
When she arrived, she discovered that the Israeli ambassador was present, as well as two of the four brothers (the other two had passed away) and their families. When she introduced herself, they welcomed her warmly and were thrilled that she had come. She asked if anyone spoke English and no one did, and she does not speak Polish. However, the brother who had become a professor spoke some German so they were able to communicate. Leo’s daughter spent several days with the families and found it a moving and meaningful experience.
A member of the savior family, Ryszard Czarny, the man who had become a professor, put together a booklet of writings and photographs which he entitled “A Story of Mutual Help.” In it, he emphasizes how his family helped Simon and how Simon was ultimately able to reciprocate and help his family. It includes history and maps of the area, photos of their house and property, and photos of their now quite large family.
He traces the origin of his (and Simon’s) town of Grzymalow to the year 1590 with the construction of a castle. The town grew and thrived until World War I. Three districts – Polish, Jewish, and Ukranian – were formed. The Jews formed the second largest group at 33% of the population, They were mostly traders but also craftsmen, doctors, lawyers, a vet, and apothecaries. Obviously, they were an active part of the community. Trouble and cruelty began first with the arrival of Soviet troops in 1939 and then the German troops in 1941. Deportation and internment of the Jews became common.
“From one of these work camps,” he wrote, “Simon Turkel, who had been a friend of Aniela Czarny from school, escaped. After the escape, he asked us for help. Josef Czarny (the patriarch of the family and Aniela’s father), knew what could happen if they helped, but he couldn’t just say no and so Simon Turkel since 1942 until 1944 lived on our farm or in a dugout which we made.”
Ryszard not only records his family’s good deeds but Simon’s as well. “I would like to stress,” he writes, “that during those days we all supported each other, among family and also Simon. In our family, the one who helped Simon the most was his school friend Aniela Czarny, and the one who helped her the most was her youngest brother. That’s why we’re very proud that they were decorated with the “Righteous Among the Nations” medals.
A page from the booklet "A Story of Mutual Help" about the saving of Leo's father
“Simon helped us too after that, because when Jozef’s son had been killed, he took in the widow and her four kids to his house in Grzymalow. We lived there since January 1945 to May 1945, when we departed to lower Silesia.”
Photographs included in the booklet reveal the ruined remains of both the church and the synagogue in the town. A once-thriving town reduced to these ruins is a truly sad sight. Photos also show how the family tried to survive during the war, hiding wheat from the Germans, who took everything they could find, and grinding the wheat into wafers at night. The family had to endure difficulties in leaving the town as well, which involved waiting for a train outdoors for two weeks and then traveling for three weeks, followed by a two-week wait in a rail station for a place to live. Ultimately, members of the family scattered to various towns. The family, now quite large, gets together for reunions and remains close.
Most moving in the booklet are photos of the family’s visit to Jerusalem, where they went to Yad Vashem and prayed at the Wailing Wall after receiving their Righteous Among the Nations award. Among the photos taken is one of a group of Israeli soldiers touring Yad Vashem, which Ryszard entitled “”Young Israelis, military. Similarly to us, they’re expanding their knowledge.” What a beautiful tribute to the value of knowledge of the Holocaust.
A member of the Czarny family at the Wailing Wall
They told Leo how impressed they were with Israel. Leo has been in touch with the family and visited Poland to meet them. They were warm and welcoming and glad to meet him. Ironically, Leo felt the meeting was “strangely normal.” With the war and all its suffering and danger in the past, what can be more normal than a group of nice people meeting one another? Their shared link to the past has bridged the generations and strengthened their bond.
Leo is extremely concerned about anti-Semitism in the world today. He carefully follows events in Europe, as two of his three children reside there. Any pessimism regarding the surge in anti-Semitism is tempered by his relationship with the kind members of the Czarny family. He maintains contact with them to this day. That contact, and the telling title of Ryszard’s booklet – “A Story of Mutual Help” – sum up this remarkable and inspiring story.