Naming the Jews of Bocki


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 Sholom, 13.

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.