A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet:
My Grandfather's SS Past,
My Jewish Family, My Search for the Truth
Bloomsbury USA, New York, NY, 2015
following passages have been excerpted
with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury, USA
Testimony of the 91-yr.-old poet Zenon Tumalovic
We have friends, and they were forced to dig, young men, Norbert Uzela (he died already). He told how it was . . . not everyone was killed immediately. It was cries and movements of hands, terrible. We were afraid too. They were absolutely innocent. The ones who were shooters had a sign of a corpse, a skull on their uniforms, and bones. Shaulists. Everything was organized beforehand. It was the ditch, local people were forced to dig in the evening before. People in the town knew. The ones who dug told to their families. They explained to everybody. And they knew that the Jews were over there. And it was the local people who were covering the ditches, a function like some people were bringing the dirt, others were putting in corpses, like a conveyor. And they were putting lime on.
I was born in January of 1923. I was nineteen. When they were over with shooting all the shooters went to Svencionys and they were singing Lithuanian songs . . . they were very joyful. They were drunk beforehand. In Svencionys there was a big long table in the open air, with food like a holiday. The mood was supported by the orchestra. They got drunker. They took from the orchestra two men with beards, old believers, Russians. They took them away, and they were found killed as well. And the people buried them. It was a duty for them to shoot. They signed that they will shoot. It was a service. But the two people from the orchestra--instinct.
Over here there were two wooden synagogues and these were used as warehouses. All the belongings of the Jews were put over there, and afterward there was a sale, an auction. "Who would give these marks, who would give more?" I'm partisan. I'm not standing in line. It was like euphoria. I saw it. People were very excited. It was after the killings, so everyone knew. Later they figured out that the best things were already taken. Cicenas was in charge. The clothes, the dress, he would give the price, and they were selling. Underwear. Some people were very upset that there was nothing good. There were war shortages so people wanted what they could get. When the Jews were taken from their homes, they carried suitcases. Suitcases were left, so people came to look for them. People from the villages used to come. Children used to sneak over to Poligon. One Polish man told me sometimes they would find a coin. Villagers who found suitcases were hiding them. I do not know. I do not care. When the Jews were killed . . . some people would go and dig and find the gold . . . near the houses.
Testimony of Karina Margolis
What was possible? What was not? Could a secret be kept in the ghetto? Who, among those outside the ghetto, might help you or kill you? Dvora Goldhirsh’s best friend in school—a Polish girl—had turned on her in 1941, “never so happy as to see Jewish blood spill.”
Karina Margolis, with the peroxide-blond hair, had a different story.
Her parents, perhaps better informed than most or shrewder than some, understood when they heard through rumor or official announcement about the roundup for Poligon that they would probably be killed or taken to a camp, where their four-year-old Karina would have little chance of survival. They begged a man named Sylkovsky to take Karina and raise her. He agreed. One of the few memories Karina has of her birth parents is of the piano in their house that her mother, who did not work, sometimes played. They seemed to have been well off, so they would have offered whatever they could on behalf of their only child.
Silkovsky grew frightened. It was hard to disguise a little Jewish girl. Perhaps the fact of the slaughter at Poligon terrorized him. First the Jews—who would be next? He decided he couldn’t keep the child. It was simply impossible. He began asking, discretely, this person and that person—take the girl, I beg you. But one after another, those he asked refused until finally, Anna and Piotr Miksta at 112 Strunaicha Street said yes. They’d just lost a twenty-year-old son to war. They opened their hearts to Karina.
. . .
Her new mother and father were at constant risk. Inevitably, someone informed on them. Karina was hauled to the police station with Anna Miksta, who was put in a separate room, down a hallway, behind a closed door, out of Karina’s sight line. Karina was five. She was led into a room where a red-haired German officer waited to interrogate her. . . .
A female translator, well dressed, well spoken, was in attendance.
. . .
Crammed into the office with the translator, the officer, and the girl under scrutiny were all the women of the Svencionys ghetto of childbearing age. Rachel, Hana, Ester, Mira, Genia, Riva, Frieda, face after face, hands nervously pulling at the fabric of a shawl or chafed and white and still.
The German began his interrogation abruptly. He wasn’t going to slip a sweet to the girl to disarm her. He wasn’t going to pat her on the head and instruct the translator to reassure her.
He tipped his head or motioned with a large hand toward the cluster of women sitting and standing, some in near rags, others wearing the well-made clothes of their former lives: a blouse, a dress, a sweater that had not yet been bartered away. “Look at them. Look,” he commanded the blond Jewish/Catholic girl. The translator quickly translated his German into Polish. Did she know it was a lie—this girl, her Polish “mother” down the hall? She must have known. The informer had some sort of proof, others to confirm his story. But then, it was a time of informers, a consumer enterprise that brought every liar, every local with a private jealousy or old wretched grudge, every man or woman hungry enough and/or mean enough or frightened enough, to the buyer’s table.
The women’s faces were turned to the floor. Some wept. At least a few had known Karina’s mother or father or both before the couple were summoned away from their piano, their only comfort the fact that their daughter was, they hoped, safe. Which meant that they had lost her, that they were lost.
Which one is your mama? The German officer made it clear that the women from the ghetto must show their faces to the child, all headscarves off, no shifting behind someone taller.
. . .
“My mama is in the other room,” Karina replied in Polish without stumbling.
How thick the air must have been. . . .
“Look at them,” the German screamed in his frustration. He pointed at the women summoned without warning, their lives resting on the ability of Karina to withstand the German officer’s threats.
Karina didn’t know Polish well, but her adoptive parents had made the most of the little time they had to teach her a few words about her mama, to drill into her that this was all she must say, whatever question she was asked. So she, who “understood everything” did. Her only mother was outside the room, down the hallway, in another room. She was terrified to look at the ghetto women crowded together. Among them there might have been a familiar face—a neighbor, an aunt, a family friend, even her real mother—and she might have given them all away. Longing compelled her to risk; she looked. Among the distraught group there was no one she recognized, no mother.
The red-haired German had had enough. He undid the large buckle of his belt, a practiced move—he’d used it before, though perhaps not on his own children.
“Which one is your mama?” As he spoke, he slapped the belt down on the edge of the desk. . . . He turned to Karina with the belt.
“Mama,” Karina cried.
He grabbed her arm, bent her over for the first blow, but suddenly the translator . . . began speaking to him quickly, softly. Karina, today, has no idea what the translator said to him, what mollification, what alternative—a better way to find the truth, or perhaps a very carefully worded suggestion of what the little girl might be worth to her “family.”
The women from the ghetto were there for all of it. The little blond-haired girl was one of them, belonged to them, but she didn’t. She ate bacon and potatoes with Piotr and Anna. She slept outside the ghetto. She’d been baptized at the Catholic church. She would survive, and as an adult she would never be sure of the day or the year in which she was born.
Whatever the translator had said on the day of the German and the belt and the weeping women, relatives of the Mikstas who had a farm gave away a prized cow, and with the Mikstas, put together a huge sum of money in addition to the cow—both impossible to recoup in wartime—and in this way paid off the German officer, the informer, and whoever else could have taken Karina away.
For the moment, Karina was safe. She was allowed to go down the hall and find Mama and go home.
On the phone I asked Karina what she believed accounted for the bravery of Anna and Piotr Miksta.
She didn’t know. She didn’t even know if she would call it bravery. Maybe they just wanted a child to love them and to love.