Naming the Jews of Bocki
By BERNIE M. FARBER
Globe and Mail
September 30, 2004
My father was the only
Jew in his village to survive the Nazis, and I feared
the memory of the others had died with him.
I spent a week last month in Poland
in honor of the 60th anniversary of the liquidation
of the Lodz ghetto. On my last night, I stood waiting
to address a crowd of more than 3,000 in the prestigious
Grand Opera Theatre of Lodz. I thought about the courage
of my late father, Max. His journey for survival began
nearly 63 years ago, as he attempted to escape from
certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
Like the stories of all victims
of the Holocaust, my father's is one of pain, loss,
evil, and a plunge into the kingdom of darkness. But
it is also one of miracles, luck and the courage of
a Polish gentile friend named Julian who hid my father
after he jumped from a moving freight train headed for
the Treblinka death camp.
It was November, 1942. My father
and two other men were outside the fence of the Bocki
ghetto where they lived, scrounging for food for their
families. That night, the SS liquidated the ghetto.
Amidst human screams and the howling of dogs, my father
was scooped up by the Gestapo, thrown into a freight
car and separated from his first wife and their two
young children -- my half brothers, Yitzhak, 8, and
Terrified and wanting desperately
to find his family, my father jumped from the moving
train and took shelter in the woods. It was there that
his friend Julian found him and explained what had happened
to his friends and family. Risking certain death at
the hands of the Nazis, Julian hid my father for three
months, after which Max joined the Russian partisans
until the end of the war.
In the final days of the war,
my father made his way back to Bocki, only to discover
that of the 750 Jews who once lived there, he was the
sole survivor. He left Poland, eventually immigrating
to Canada, where he bravely started a new family and
a new life.
My brother and I grew up in the
shadow of the Holocaust. My father was always careful
when sharing information about himself, his family and
the destruction of the Jews of Bocki. But as the years
went by, a snapshot of a lost community came into focus.
In time, I hungered for more information about my father's
small Polish village. When he died in 1990, I feared
that any more knowledge about Bocki had died with him.
However, over the past 10 years,
I have discovered bits and pieces of the story of the
Bocki Jews. In The London Jewish News, I found a review
of a book titled Bocki, written only a few years ago
by a former Jewish inhabitant of the village who left
before the war, that tells of Bocki's early Jewish history.
The book, which includes all the stories my father used
to tell me, has become a treasure trove of information
that I cherish.
I find myself in Poland again,
not far from my father's village, which I first visited
in 1992. There is barely a trace left of the Jews who
made up almost half its population. The synagogue was
destroyed, the Jewish cemetery overgrown with weeds,
and only three gravestones survived the Nazi destruction.
During this present visit, I
spent part of a warm summer day standing at the gathering
point from where the Jews of Warsaw were shipped to
the Auschwitz death camp. I'm listening to my guide
describe that horrifying time more than 60 years ago.
In the corner of the plaza I notice an elderly Polish
man with a table full of books. I amble over to casually
look through his wares. Among the recipe books and other
tomes I don't recognize, I find a book titled Jewish
Bialystok and Surroundings in Eastern Poland, written
by Thomaz Wisniewski in 1998.
I flip to the table of contents,
and notice a chapter on my father's village. The book
also included a list of Jewish families named in a 1928
guidebook prepared by the Polish authorities. I read
down the list: "medical doctor Joseph Szlifenstein,
hairdresser Jonas Czesler, grocers Chaim Epstein, Szymon
Kaplanski." Then I see it -- "grocer Chaim
Farber" -- my grandfather.
I slowly slid down on the edge
of the plaza wall. The astonishment of finding a book
that mentioned my family, my grandfather and other Jews
who lived in this small Polish shtetl moved me to tears.
For the longest time they were just "the Jews of
Bocki." Now I have names.
As I stood on the stage of the
Grand Opera Theatre in Lodz, I saw the faces of Jewish
survivors, Polish citizens, dignitaries and politicians.
I saw more than 3,000 people who came to pay homage
to the survivors in their midst. I recalled the members
from Toronto's Lodzer synagogue, comprising survivors
from the ghetto we were commemorating. I felt the presence
of my father; I felt the presence of my grandfather,
Chaim; I felt the presence of Joseph Szlifenstein, Jonas
Czesler and all the Jews of Bocki, and I felt proud
to honour their memory.
As I left the stage I couldn't
help but think that in the end it was civilization that
triumphed over Nazi madness. While the Jews of Bocki
may have perished, one of its descendents represented
the Jews of Canada in their honour and memory.
Bernie M. Farber is executive
director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Ontario Region.