EXPLORING THE PAST
Updated: Oct 14, 2022
Willie Handler knew that his father, born in Wislica, Poland, spent the war years in 7 different concentration camps and that his Romanian mother spent years in a ghetto. It wasn't until recently, however, that he came up with a plan to go back to Poland, where his father was born, and see for himself the places his father inhabited and what has become of the country since.
In the photo above, Willie and his wife Mary Ann visit a museum in Chrzanow, Poland.
This recent trip proved to be a culmination of all his childhood struggles as a child of survivors. Willie has a clear memory of watching the Eichmann trial when he was seven years old and of all the relatives and friends of his parents with Auschwitz tattoos. He remembers his many childhood nightmares, in which the police were coming for him and his family in the middle of the night. He recalls feeling that he never fit in with non-2Gs as a child and that his parents' experiences were either not discussed, or discussed "selectively."
He became aware of the trauma his parents had experienced when he saw his father cry and become emotional when the subject of Holocaust experiences came up. Thus, Willie learned to avoid the topic.
The extent of his father's trauma was revealed to Willie on his momentous trip to Poland. Prior to the trip, Willie received Gross Rosen concentration camp documents from the Arolson Archives in Germany, which showed that his father had two daughters but it provided no details, not even their names. Willie's father had said that he had been married before and had had a daughter, and that his first wife and the daughter were murdered. When Willie examined documents at the Bedzin archives in Poland, he discovered his father's marriage registration as well as his daughters' birth registrations. These documents confirmed the existence of a wife and two daughters, all of whom perished. The older girl's name was Laja and she was 27 months old when she perished; the younger girl was named Jenta and she was 11 months old. Babies.
TWO daughters? His father had only mentioned one. His sister then found a box of old photos belonging to his parents, which contained photos of his father's wife with two children. The photos confirmed the fact of two daughters. Willie found this "shocking." His father, never comfortable talking about any of this, who had lost six in his family, had somehow suppressed the memory of having lost two children instead of one. No one else in the family had ever mentioned Jenta, the second daughter. Willie sees this omission in his father's memory as a sign of a totally traumatized person.
His father and mother met in Israel -- then Palestine -- after the war. His mother, born in Comanesti, Romania, had been deported to Transnistria, Ukraine, where she spent several years in the Shargorod Ghetto. Half the people in this ghetto died of typhus the first winter. Between 150,000 and 250,000 Romanian Jews died in Transnistria, which was located near the Romanian and Ukranian border. Aside from typhus, they died from hypothermia, abuse, and starvation. Willie's mother, along with everyone else there, was starving. Willie attributes his mother's lifelong fixation on food with her experience starving.
Willie's mother arrived in Palestine before Independence Day with her sister, and his father came after Independence Day. They lived in a camp outside Haifa for several months. His father did not want to remain in Palestine as he disliked the climate and the idea of being in the Army Reserves there.
"I survived the Nazis not to be killed by the Arabs," he said. As he had a brother in Canada, the couple were able to immigrate there. This is where Willie grew up and where he continues to reside.
Recalling his mother, who seemed more open than his father, Willie realizes that there were huge gaps in her storytelling and that she too had suppressed many memories. She would often go completely blank on some matters. In her later years, she developed dementia and went into a retirement home. Willie's father went with her and hated the place, claiming it was worse that the concentration camp. Willie realized his father was being traumatized all over again.
Shortly after their move, his parents visited a Jewish funeral home to make arrangements for both of them. The following day, his father stopped eating. He claimed that he wasn't hungry and since he was, as Willie describes him, "single-minded and stubborn," he could not be coaxed into eating and passed away three months later.
Looking back, Willie explains that his father's focus was always on work and making money. He bounced around from one business to another but always supported his family. He had a lot of anger and rage in him and unfortunately did not know how to enjoy life. Although things were difficult, Willie feels he fared better than his 2 siblings growing up. His sister, the oldest and obviously female, bore the brunt of family expectations, marrying young (at 19) and living in a bad marriage, which finally ended. His younger brother, Willie believes, never dealt well with the home environment, perhaps feeling that as the youngest, he always got the short end of the stick.
When Willie retired from his job in government, he turned to writing fiction full time, allowing his lively imagination and creativity to flow. He has published three books: The first, The Road Ahead, published in 2016, tells the story of a businessman convinced to enter politics and it satirizes politics. Loved Mars, Hated the Food published in 2021, is a work of science fiction and features a chef living on Mars and tackles issues of social equality. His most recent novel, Deep Into the Weeds, published 2022, is a black humor crime thriller that tells the story of a farmer facing a slew of enemies as he tries to save his farm by growing and selling marijuana. Willie's novels are known for satire and self-deprecating humor.
Willie has recently decided to write a completely different kind of book -- a memoir of his family's Holocaust experiences. This has thrust him into an entirely new terrain. In fiction, he points out, the writer can make things up, which is "easy." He found his fiction writing cathartic and an outlet for his sense of humor and taste for satire. On the contrary, memoir-writing involves facts, and the writer has to be diligent about accuracy. Because so much research is involved, it is taking so much longer and is so much more tiring. He has worked with a Polish historian on the facts. "I have to have it right," he says.
The trip to Poland gave him the opportunity to learn and understand many of these facts. He and Mary Ann visited areas where shtetls existed since the 1400s that now have no synagogues. In some villages, the former synagogues are just condemned buildings, with very few still functioning. In Warsaw, there is one active synagogue with 30 - 40 people showing up on a Shabbat.
They visited a number of villages where approximately 80% of the population was Jewish before the war, and there are no Jews there now. These towns, by losing their Jewish population, lost people in many trades and professions. They were therefore left devastated and had to rebuild all that they had lost.
Willie and Mary Ann at the entrance to the town of Wislica in Poland, his father's birthplace.
The attitude of Poles today toward Jews and toward the Holocaust is, according to Willie, "a mixed bag." A recent Polish law has been in the news lately, a law which prohibits blaming Poles for what happened to the Jews. Concentration camps in Poland were built by the Germans, the Polish government emphasizes, and were never Poland's idea.
Willie points out that when Poland became a country after World War 1, a right-wing government which was anti-Semitic came to power. Anti-Semitism was rampant in Poland throughout the twenties and thirties. Even in 1945 and 1946, there were dozens of pogroms, some in the major city of Krakow. Pogroms and the old blood libel against Jews flourished after the war.
Nevertheless, Poles say that all the bad stuff was done by Germans. Despite the fact that every town and village has a memorial plaque and there is a museum in Warsaw which chronicles 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, Poles do not accept accountability for the fate of their Jewish inhabitants.
"There were good and bad Poles," Willie explains. There were Poles who saved and hid Jewish neighbors, and there were Poles eager to help the Germans find and kill them. When asked if he experienced any anti-Semitism while visiting Poland, Willie replies that he did not as it is "easy not to be anti-Semitic when there are no Jews."
What surprised him, however, was the interest in Judaism and the Jewish role in Polish history that he discovered among the young people there. In fact, the guide who took him to his father's ancestral village holds a masters degree in Jewish Studies. People in their twenties and thirties, Willie found, are interested in the revival of Judaism and Jewish history. Many of them take Jewish Studies in school.
They do not seem to feel any guilt about their country's role in the extermination of Jews. The young people today, Willie reminds us, are two generations beyond those times.
As a result of this trip and the research and reflection to which it led, Willie refined his attitude toward his childhood and his parents. "They did a hell of a job with what little they had," he concludes. He feels he has come to terms with his parents, particularly his father, claiming that he now has a "better understanding of their trauma and loss and what it took to survive."
One of the Polish towns Willie visited was Pinczow, the home of his grandmother and his father's first wife. Speaking with an employee at the town's museum, Willie shared the last name -- Sledzik -- of his father's first wife. This employee told Willie that a woman with that last name lived in the town. Willie gave his contact information to be passed on to this woman but was told not to expect to hear from her as she would not talk about her Jewish background.
After his return home, Willie actually heard from a member of the Sledzik family. This woman, Anna, told Willie that their Jewish background is a secret because of the anti-Semitism in their Polish town. Anna now resides in Spain and knows very little about her Jewish past. Even though she was raised Catholic, she says she feels that she is Jewish and has even considered converting. Like many Poles Willie encountered in similar situations, Anna is curious about her Jewish ancestry and in Jewish revival in Poland.
It turns out Anna's grandmother was a sister to Willie's father's first wife. She had married a Pole in 1934 and converted to Catholicism. Her family therefore disowned her. She went into hiding when the Germans were rounding up Jews and thus survived. Anna wanted to know about the rest of the family (her grandmother had 7 siblings) and Willie had to tell her that only her mother and sisters had survived and the rest had all perished in Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Willie and Anna are now in communication, and Willie offered to share photos and direct her to resources for further information. Anna already sent Willie a photo of his father's first wife as a child with her two sisters (one of whom is Anna's grandmother) and their parents.
The trip to Poland has obviously opened many channels for Willie. Not only did he feel able to see his parents in a new light, he gained a new perspective on Poland, has embarked on a family memoir, and has connected with someone from his family's past. With purpose, Willie can share what he has learned and help himself and others find peace.