Her Brother’s Sandals
A Holocaust Short Story
By Rabbi Pamela Frydman © August 2009. All rights reserved.
This short story first appeared in Poetica Online Magazine, August 2009 (Rabbi Pamela Frydman Baugh).
The Nazis entered Chmielnik, Poland at night. They rounded up rabbis, teachers, the President of the Jewish community, and other leaders. After forcing them into the beis medresh, the community center and hub of local Jewish life, the Nazis poured gasoline around the perimeter of the building and set it ablaze. Meanwhile, other soldiers held a crowd of Jews at gunpoint, requiring them to watch and listen as their leaders burned alive, along with the beis medresh and the Torah scrolls housed inside.
Three years later, during the autumn festival of Succot 1942, signs were posted in the open-air market ordering men ages fifteen to forty-five, and women fourteen to forty to report to the market on a particular morning. Perhaps the morning was Hoshana Rabah or maybe it was Sh’mini Atzeret; no one remembers for sure.
The night before they were to report to the market, my Uncle Getzel Frydman, the oldest of my father’s seven brothers, invited his teenage sons Volvela, age seventeen, and Zelik, fifteen, to the cellar where he dug a hiding place in the floor and buried the family’s shabbos candle sticks and the passports they were planning to use to immigrate to Palestine. “Tomorrow will be a yom din (day of judgment),” Getzel told his sons. “We don’t know what is going to happen. But we have to be strong. And whoever will return will dig up these things.”
Because he was the oldest, our grandparents, Leibish and Pessel Frydman, had sent Getzel to yeshiva, a seminary for boys where he studied Bible, prayer and Jewish history and law. This was the best education available to a Jewish child in Chmielnik at the turn of the twentieth century when public school was off limits for village Jews. Before the war, Uncle Getzel had a cherished leadership role in the community’s religious life. He read Megillat Esther, containing the Purim story, in the beis medresh during the community Purim celebration, and like all of the Frydmans, he was a kohen—first to be called to the Torah on Mondays, Thursdays, Shabbat and festivals. Once the war started, it became impossible to celebrate Shabbat and holidays in the harsh ghetto environment, and Getzel struggled to eek out a living raising chickens and geese with his mother, who was widowed in the late 1920’s when Zeyda (Grandpa) Leibish died of a kidney ailment.
My father had immigrated to the United States in 1929 and settled in Canada in the 1930’s, all the while sending money home to help his family. Uncle Getzel hadn’t wanted to leave his mother, and she didn’t want to leave her other sons and their families, so they used their portion of the money for other things while Getzel kept the passports ready, hoping for a better time to leave Chmielnik. His heart ached as he gazed from Zelik and Volvela to the passports on the cellar floor
; if only he had taken them to Palestine when he had the chance.
Sixty-five years later, I asked my Cousin Zelik whether he ever dug up the valuables his father buried that night. “No, of course not,” he said, explaining that vacant Jewish homes were taken over by Poles during the war, and after returning from concentration camps, survivors feared the local Poles as much as the Nazis.
My Uncles Getzel, Yossel and Kalma Itzchal reported to the market in the morning with their appropriate aged children. People were beaten indiscriminately and forced into lines. One by one, each adult and teenager appeared before an S.S. soldier. Some were sent to the left and others to the right. Uncle Getzel was sent to the left, beaten and sent home. Cousins Volvela, Zelik and their older sister Saraleh, were sent to the right, herded into trucks and taken to concentration camps in Skarzysko-Kamilenna. Cousins Volvela and Zelik were in a truck headed for Lager (camp) B; Saraleh was in a truck to Lager A. Uncles Yossel and Kalma-Itzchal and other family members were in the same truck as Volvela and Zelik. Eventually, Kalma-Itzchal and Yossel were taken were taken from Lager B to Buchenwald, where they were murdered.
Zelik remembers that while sitting in the truck in Chmielnik, their mother, Chayaleh, ran home, retrieved part of a loaf of bread and threw it up to them. As she ran and as she threw the bread, Chayaleh screamed through her tears, “What are you doing to my children?” Her sons called to her and begged her to return home. Their last memory of their mother was hearing her sobs as she ran down the street away from the truck. Getzel, Chayaleh and their two younger children were taken when the Chmielnik ghetto was liquidated a few days later; they never returned.
There were many types of prisoners in concentration and forced labor camps. Each population was handled differently, and Jews were treated the worst. As in many camps, the barracks in Skarsysko-Kamilenna had stoves, but Jewish prisoners were not given anything to cook in the stoves or to burn for warmth during the frigid Polish winters, except during Red Cross inspections. Jewish daily rations included breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast consisted of a hot beverage, either black coffee or herbal tea. Lunch was a bowl of soup served at each prisoner’s work location, and dinner, served back at the barracks, consisted of another bowl of soup and a piece of bread.
The soup in Skarzysko-Kamilenna was called lentil soup. “You could sometimes find a lentil in your bowl,” recalls Zelik, “together with occasional potato flakes.” Zelik and Volvela received one hundred grams of bread each day. Sometimes they saved part of their bread for the morning because it was difficult to work on an empty stomach, but this was risky since it could be stolen during the night.
Occasionally, Zelik, Volvela or others in their barracks managed to steel cooking coals from the piles in the kitchen area by dropping them into the large tubs of breakfast coffee or herb tea. After carrying the tubs of hot liquid to their barracks as part of their work duties, they would fish out the coals from the hot liquid and hide them to heat the barracks at night. When possible, they also stole potato skins or other food scraps and cooked them on the coals.
Each prisoner was issued a bowl at the beginning of his or her imprisonment. Prisoners were expected to carry the bowl with them to and from the barracks and work. They received their morning drink and their lunch and dinner soup in the same rusty, dirty bowl. Zelik washed his bowl with sand repeatedly in an attempt to remove the grime, but he could never fully clean it.
Zelik and Volvela were assigned to work in factories just outside Lager B. Volvela was assigned to a defective machine, and he suffered serious burns on his abdomen from the scalding oil that spattered as the machine sputtered and failed. Normally, workers are issued protective coverings when working on such machinery; but for the Nazis, requiring Jews to work without the protective covering was “part of the fun.” Volvela became weak from his injuries and could not produce the requisite amount of goods every day, so he was beaten and tortured for the shortage. This took a further toll on his health, and he became too weak to be adequately productive, so he was taken into the forest and shot.
When the order was issued, Volvela said good-bye to his younger brother with whom he had shared a narrow cot each night in the Lager. “If you ever make it through this and get out,” Volvela told Zelik, “you must tell everyone what they did to us here and what happened here. The world must know.”
Volvela and Zelik hugged and kissed and cried as they said good-bye. Volvela removed his boots and gave them to Zelik. Zelik made leggings for himself from the upper parts, and sandals for their sister Saraleh from the lower parts. Risking his life, Zelik made his way from Lager B to Lager A to deliver the homemade sandals to Saraleh. Sixty-five years later, sitting in a restaurant in Toronto, Canada, with their spouses by their sides, Saraleh smiled and nodded as Zelik recounted the story. Darting a glance toward her brother, she said, “Yes he did. He made me sandals from Volvela, and he brought them. Imagine.” Nodding and looking at her plate, as if into another world, she said, “I remember those sandals.”