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After 70 years. . . the rest of the story.

Much has been written about survivors trying to rebuild life after the war. Almost as
much has been documented about the Churbans impact on survivors children.
And in many ways, I carry the same virtual emotional scars as my peers in this
regard. [Churban: lit. destruction of the Temple; commonly used in Yiddish for
catastrophe]
My parents were unrestrained with the details of their pre-war, war-time and postwar experiences. On one level transmitting, and on another teaching their lifes
lessons. Growing up in central Poland, you could say the gruesome war incidents
were always just below the surface of our everyday lives. ALL the Jews with which I
ever had any encounter until I turned 19-20 were survivors. As anywhere in the
world among Jews, multiple days a year were aside for family Yohrtzeits and for
Yizkor. But for us, annual family trips included visits to the sites where my parents
families were killed.
You could say these childhood memories heightened my Holocaust connection.
Fortunately, I was avidly interested in hearing my parents accounts. My father in
particular very vividly described his life and I was both sympathetic and eager to
commit my mothers and his experiences to memory so I could pass them along to
the generation I hoped to create one day.
While most of the survivors were in the 13-19 year old range during the war years,
my father was 31 years old in 1939. He was old enough to have created and
ultimately tragically lose his own family during the war, consisting of a wife and 4
little children.
His heart rending story actually began much before WWII because unlike other
survivors who grieve the lost their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings in
the war, he had none. My father had been orphaned at the age of 6.
Born to Menachem Mendel, zl, and Chana (Jakubowska) Strazynski, zl, in 1908,
Rachmil Strazynski, zl, had no recollection of his father, who passed away when he
was 4. His mother, Chana, was loving and nurturing. Soon, World War I broke out
with all the calamities that accompanied it, including a plague of cholera, typhoid
fever, etc. Chana became one of the victims of cholera. My father was by her side
as she succumbed to the fevers and was found nuzzling up against his mothers
dead body hours after she had died. The man to whom she had been remarried
showed no interest in the responsibility for her 6 year old orphan and turned little
Rachmil out. My father never knew why he was not placed in the towns orphanage
or taken care of by one of the numerous chesed societies (organizations helping
others in need) functioning at the time. He also had closely related cousins who did
not bother to take him in.

Sleeping outdoors and foraging for food sustained him that first summer. He earned
money slipping back and forth between the Russian and German army camps,
smuggling Russian tea and tobacco between the soldiers. But even at 6, he knew he
would starve during the bitter Polish winter and thought staying on a farm would be
his best chance for survival.
A Jewish farmer let him stay in a barn for a while in exchange for labor. Work for
little Rachmil started before sun-up and didnt end until late evening. During trips to
the market, the farmer had him follow behind the buggy in order not to overwork
the horse. To keep up, he would run in his clumsy wooden shoes, trying hard not to
slip on the icy road. Rachmil worked for and stayed a few months with several
Jewish farmers during the next few years. Most were equally indifferent to his youth,
education, health standard and poor living conditions.
At just 10 years old, my father started to see the impact WWI was having in
Wloclawek. He related anti-Jewish riots being common place in January 1919.
Almost routinely, individual Jews were attacked and beaten and windows in Jewish
shops were broken. Over a course of two brutal days he recalled in particular, there
was an unrelenting escalation of Jews being beaten, shop and even private home
windows broken, and premises looted. Rioting crowds shouted the slogan: "Kill the
Jew." It was a dangerous and difficult time for Jews. Now more than before, the
struggling Wloclawek Jews were focused on survival of their families and themselves
with little sympathy or concern for another orphan mouth to feed.
After a few years and numerous work-for-food situations, he was fortunate to work
for and live with a kind hearted Jewish farmer who was a shochet (kosher animal
slaughterer and butcher). While doing various chores around the farm, my father
became interested in this trade and believed he could successfully do this kind of
work. He would sometimes sneak over to the butchering block and try his hand at
cutting the meat. When the shochet found out my father had been doing this
without permission, he sent my father on his way.
My father persevered in this ambition, however. As a pre-teen bocher (young man)
he apprenticed at a Gur Chassid shochet, followed by another Gur Chasid shochet
during his early teens. (After WW II, he learned these two shochtim were the two
grandfathers of the woman who would be his future wife, Pola Strazynski-Spigelman
nee Klepacz.)
At the age of 14-15, my father went into the business for himself. Getting up at a
crack of the dawn was his nature by now. To procure the best livestock he would
travel the country side, visiting Jewish farmers and buying their cattle. Back in
Wloclawek, he would shecht (slaughter) the animals and then cut the meat up for
sale. He made a handsome living. For the first time in his life, he was free to
socialize, learn, and be involved in the community chesed (helping others in need).
Since he did not experience much of it himself, chesed became a high priority in his
life as part of his Tikun haOlam (repairing the world).
At the age of 19 he married his first wife, Bayla Jakubowska, zl. This angel of a
woman created a home like my father have never known and gifted him with four
children, Chana, zl, Mendel, zl (for whom Im named), Avrum Yosef, zl, and
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Zaddik (Zuddik), zl. My father became a gabbi (services helper) in the Wloclawek
Shul (Synagogue). His life was a dream come true. His door was opened to anyone
needing his or Baylas help. Passing Jewish travelers slept there in beds, on the
benches, floors or wherever one could find a place and Bayla served them free
hearty home cooked meals, practicing chachnasas orchim (hosting the needy) to
the fullest.

Wloclawek wasnt the largest of the Polish centers of Jewry, but it was substantial.
By this time, there were 5 Jewish political organizations, a Jewish school for men,
two Synagogues, Jewish theater, a Jewish hospital, a Jewish nursery and orphanage,
a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath), and a Jewish Gymnastic Society. Jews participated in
at least 27 different professional organizations. There were at least 10 different
Jewish cooperatives to help other Jews in the community. Almost 10 differing Jewish
schools and almost 30 cultural organizations were operating, and 40 Jewish
newspapers were being published in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew. The Jewish District
primarily consisted of ten streets containing over 88% of the Jewish population.
Around 1920, it was estimated that Wloclawek Jews owned almost 70% of the "big"
industry, and about 50% of small and handicrafts" industries.
But in the 1930s, as instances of anti-Semitism were being experienced all over
Germany and Poland, it was no different in Wloclawek. There were flyers, posters,
and inscriptions calling for an economic boycott of Jewish businesses. The increase
in public support for anti-Semitic activities had been promoted by the various rightwing organizations that had sprouted during the Great Depression. November 1931
began with several days of anti-Semitic speeches. Anonymously written
proclamations calling for participation in an anti-Semitic rally were widely
distributed. After worship in the churches, multiple groups gathered and roamed
the streets shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Anti-Semitism intensified through the rest
of the decade.
September 1, 1939, the beginning of WWII, shook the world and shattered Jewish
lives as never before. It marked the beginning of the end of Jewish life for the
14,000-17,000 Jews in Wloclawek. The somewhat idyllic life my father and his family
lived was shaken to the core.
After the entry of German troops in Wloclawek in 1939, the first persecution took
place. On September 22, 1939, erev shabbos, (evening the Shabbat starts) Nazis,
arrested 23 Hassidic Jews who prayed in the Gur shtiebel (small prayer house)
located in the house of Reb Gutowski at 79 Legska St. They were ordered to dig a
hole in the backyard of the adjacent house at 69 Legska Street. Nine Jews were
murdered and the rest had to bury the dead bodies. A day later, a massive search of
the Jewish homes began. Nazis arrested about 300 men. The next day, September
24, the Nazis selected a group of Jews, forcing them to roll barrels of tar into the
main synagogue and Gur Hasidic klausn (prayer house) and ignite them. One of
the most beautiful Synagogues in Poland, designed and built 100 years earlier by
Francis Tournelle with seating for over 1,000 people, was burned to the ground. The
fire spread also to the neighboring Jewish buildings.

Wloclawek Synagogue burning


Though being the victim of the fires, the Jews were blamed for them, had to pay
restitution and in retaliation, more Jews were arrested by the SS-arsonists. 1,200
Jewish hostages were taken. In the course of arrest and escort to the prison, many
of the Jews were shot or wounded.
Individual murders became common events. Jews were beaten on the streets by
uniformed Germans for "fun" and were prohibited from walking on the sidewalks.
For any violation, Jews were shot in the back of the head or hanged on the Market
Street gallows. Jewish property was confiscated. The city of Wloclawek was fined
100,000 zlotys as the payment for "provocative behavior of the Jews against the
German troops and for arson." A second fine was imposed "for non-compliance
walking on the sidewalk" in the amount of 200,000 zlotys, and the third for noncompliance with the regulation of wearing yellow patches" for 250,000 zl.
Wloclawek was the first place in occupied Poland to have the patches yellow
triangles instituted.
In November and December 1939, groups of Jews displaced from neighboring
districts were forcibly moved to Wloclawek. These Jews generated a steady supply
of free slave labor. After the arrests and multiple consecutive selections, a group of
several hundred men were assigned to remove the debris of war damage in the city
and its surroundings for two months. Reb Rachmil was assigned to clean the rubble
and transport heavy rocks for the repair and construction of the Vistula River
waterfront at Piwna and Boulevard Streets. He and the other waterfront workers
were mercilessly harassed by insults and beatings severe enough to kill in many
cases. These attacks were so frequent; the street was nicknamed Death Street.
My father and others like him were assigned to clean up the prisons, the military
barracks, cart garbage, and clean the streets. After releasing the initial Jewish
detainees, the Wloclawek Jewish community was ordered to provide 800 workers to
the city each day, the majority of which needed to be specifically skilled craftsman.
The remaining Jewish intelligentsia, elderly, sick, and young were not considered of
much redeeming value to the Nazis and were to be transported away.
The first two deportation transports of 550 people, on which my mother Pola
Klepacz, may she live and be well, and her family were included, were sent to
Ozarow (1 December 1939). Carrying what little they had by hand, they were
beaten and pushed into crowded cattle cars by the Nazis. The second transport was
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to Zamosc and Wloszczowa (15 December 1939). The third transport (15 February
1940) was sent to Szczebrzeszyn and Tarnow. All this took place during the bitterest,
coldest months of Polish winter. The deportations continued until March 1940, until
only 4,000 Jews remained in Wloclawek.
The creation of the Wloclawek ghetto began in the spring of 1940 and was
completed by fall in the most decrepit slums of the Rakutowek district. The
resettlement to the ghetto took place gradually until the beginning of November
1940. Then on 9 November 1940 the remaining Jews were required to resettle in
three short hours. 3,000 Jews were forcibly resettled in a space previously occupied
by 600 outlaws, prostitutes, thieves, and other derelicts. Overcrowding and lack of
water, light, and poor sanitation resulted in the quick development of numerous
diseases and epidemics, which decimated the Jewish population further.
Until the end of 1940, Jews could move freely through the city and into and out of
the ghetto. But in November 1941 the ghetto was put into lockdown. Jews were
forbidden to move outside, and Poles were restricted from entering. Living
conditions deteriorated even further. Rations of food and fuel for the ghetto were
minimal to none. The men were taken out of the ghetto for labor daily. Like most
other male laborers, when outside the ghetto working, my father accumulated as
much food and supplies as he could possibly smuggle back into the ghetto for his
family. And as had been her good hearted practice, Bayla shared these meager
rations with others who seemed to need them more.
Beginning September 1941, in addition to transports to labor camps, Jews were
relocated to the Lodz ghetto. The first transport of 1000 people to Lodz was sent on
26 September 1941, another - 1000 (including Jews from nearby towns) on 28
September. The next, about 1,000 people - 30 September 1941. A group of about
500 people were deported to work in Poznan (Pozen) region on June 26, 1941. A
week later, another about 500 were sent to Chodziez (Kolmar).
The process of final liquidation of the Wloclawek Jews started at the end of April
1942. On April 25, a group of men was sent to the Lodz ghetto. My father was one of
another group of approx. 500 men who were deported to Wrzesnia, the labor camps
in the Poznan (Pozen) district. The transports of men to Lodz and Poznan had no
idea of what was about to happen to those left behind in the Wloclawek ghetto. The
elderly, the sick, the children, and an assortment of others were assigned numbers
and thrown out of the ghetto buildings they inhabited. Two days later, they were
sent to a camp in Chelmno on the Ner River and immediately gassed and burned.
My fathers wife, Bayla, and their four young children, Chana, 9 y/o; Mendel 6 y/o;
Avrum Yosef, 3 y/o; and Zuddik, 9 months old were among those murdered in
Chelmno. My father never would have left his family had he known the ghetto was
going to be liquidated and his wife and children mercilessly murdered. Of course,
he sustained this guilt and regret for the remainder of his life. The last transport of
the Wloclawek and the surrounding area Jews was sent April 26, 1942, mostly to
Fort Radziwill.

Memorial for my family at Chelmno death camp I erected in recent years.


The ghetto was subsequently completely cleared and its buildings and all property
doused with gasoline and burned. The Nazis even vandalized and leveled the
Wloclawek Jewish cemetery, using the lovingly, carved headstones for paving roads,
fixing thresh holds, and repairing outhouses, etc.
From Wrzesnia in the Poznan region, my father was subsequently shipped around
through various labor camps (arbeitslagers) including Fort VII, Soldau, and Janina;
until he ended up in the ill-famed Auschwitz. There he was permanently tattooed
with his new identity, inmate #141507. During subsequent selections the Nazis
sought laborers with needed skills. Still being a strong, fit person, conditioned by his
lifelong hard labor, he passed selection and was chosen to serve the Reich by
providing needed labor. He heard they needed carpenters, so he claimed to be one.

Wrzesnia Labor Camp


In the camp my father happened upon a pre-teen inmate from Wloclawek among
the men, a boy whose parents my father had known, Abraham Morgentaler
(Abramek). He took Abramek under his wing, pulling him along as his skilled
carpentry apprentice. Having lost his own children and feeling remorse for this
young, nave survivor, my father did his best to provide some guidance and
nurturing for young Abramek. Soon the German supervisor recognized my father
had no carpentry skills and reassigned him to work in the kitchen for the officers.

Abramek ca 1945/1946
To avoid being accused of preferential treatment while filling dishes with watery
soup, my father asked the German supervisor to have a wooden shield nailed to the
soup serving window. This blocked my fathers view of anything but the empty
dishes to be filled. Young Abramek was the only one for whom my father risked
taking extra rations.
With the approach of the Soviet army in January 1945, the inmates of the camp
were evacuated through death marches. At this point my father was separated
from Abramek. The death march took my father through a number of camps:
Flossenburg, Oranienburg, and many others, until he ended up in Dachau. Abramek
was transported to many of the same camps but they lost touch with each other.
However, after the war, they both came back to their home town of Wloclawek. My
father arrived first followed by Abramek few months later. Abrameks family home
was still standing after the war. Having known from Abramek where his family
buried money and jewelry my father retrieved it and waited for Abramek.
Abramek left Poland in 1946 with intentions to resettle in Canada. My father stayed
in Wloclawek awaiting his family, hoping for a miracle. After learning and confirming
the murder of his entire family he married Pola Klepacz, with whom he raised 4
children. We never heard from Abramek throughout the years and while we asked
people in USA, Canada and Australia if they knew of him, we never could find him.
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My parents in 1960s
My parents and I both had a longing to see him, to find out how the rest of his life
turned out, almost like a lost son/brother. Many times, with tears in his eyes, he
asked rhetorical question, Where is my Abramek? My father never found him and
passed away in 1972, never leaving Wloclawek. The rest of us, one by one, made
our way to the US. With the vast resources in the US, I continued my search for
Abramek. Was he now Abramek Morgen? Abramek Morgenthal? Abramek
Morgantal? My search was unproductive. I search for him in all English speaking
countries but to no avail.

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My avid interest in the Holocaust has continued throughout my life. I read


everything I can get my hands on about that period and I am in touch with survivors
all over the world, answering questions, translating Polish documents, exchanging
experiences and searching for Abramek.
In one of these hundreds of now email-exchanges, I found a website referring to
Holocaust survivors visiting their old homes, places of martyrdom and the like. In
one of those websites I spotted a couple from Israel visiting Chelmno death camp.
The article referred to the man in his 70ies or 80ies as Abramek. Could it be??!!
I was excited and nervous all rolled into one. Would I finally have the chance to
speak to this brother my father had adopted during the war?

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Abramek and Ella in Chelmno

Furthermore I found out the couple lived in Haifa, Israel. Without wasting any time I
Googled Haifa telephone book. There it was: Abraham Mor (apparently shortened
from Morgentaler).
Nervously, I dialed the number. A woman answered the phone. In English I asked if
Abramek was at home. She asked me to hold for him. He answered the phone,
Hello?
I said, Do you speak English?
No.
Do you speak Polish?
Yes.
Switching to Polish I asked, Are you a Holocaust survivor?
Yes.
Were you in Auschwitz?
Yes.
Do you remember someone by the name Rachmil?

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Yes, very well. I visited Poland and saw his metzeiveh (grave) in Wloclawek. Who is
this?
I am Rachmils son.
Silence.
Abramek? I asked.
Silence.
At this point, my thoughts raced. Was he angry I had contacted him?
Embarrassed? Preferring to have buried that period of his life? I held the phone.
Hello? I heard. It was a womans voice.
This is Ella, Abrameks wife. Can you call back tomorrow? she asked in English.
Sure, I said. Ill call him back tomorrow. My questions would have to wait.
I called again the next day. Ella answered the call.
She explained, Abramek was crying and he couldnt talk.
He was clearly moved by my call, but I still wasnt sure why.
Abramek, Ella, his son Udi (Ehud) and I had many conversations and exchanged
many emails over the course of the next few months. We exchanged photos. We
told each other about the years after the war and the family each survivor had built.
I wanted to meet him. He was in his mid-eighties now, in failing health and of
course no one knows how many years each of us has left. And while it would take
me another year and one half, my wife and I finally make the trip to Haifa.
My wife and I took train trip up to Haifa from Tel Mond. Ella picked us up from the
train station. She was so excited to see us. Abramek had recently had a stroke and
had lost much of his ability to speak, walk and see.
It was quite an emotional meeting. We both cried and hugged. We spent time
reconstructing the years after the war for each other. I asked Abramek to tell me
more about my father. Throughout our meeting Abramek kept repeating "wonderful
man, wonderful man. His life had played out a bit differently from my fathers. He
had left the G-d forsaken Poland, with intensions to go to US or Canada. At the last
minute, some friends talked him into going to Israel (then Palestine). As a young,
single refugee, he was in a struggling territory surrounded by sworn enemies and
again fighting for his life. He was soon befriended by a family who often invited this
lonely young man into their home for the holidays. Their 18 year old daughter was
soon smitten by this gentle man and they were soon married.

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Abramek with Ella and I with my wife Marsha in their home

As with many survivors, the struggle to make a living, build a family and the endless
hardships in a newly formed country was Abrameks life focus. He and Ella have
three sons and lived a very happy life together. He brought them all back to
Chelmno to memorialize his family. He had not forgotten them and had not
forgotten all my father had done for him.
He never really explained why he hadnt found my father. He confirmed everything
my father had told me about their relationship. My father had saved his life on
numerous occasions and gave him extra food whenever he could, and given him
good advice after the war.
When after WWII Abramek came back to Wloclawek and winter was nearing
Abramek wanted to sell some recovered family gold in order to buy himself a winter
coat. My father forbid him and reasoned that once he shows the Poles that he has a
piece of gold they will suspect that he has more and may kill him for it. Rachmil
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truly cared for Abramek as for his own son. For the money he was able to save he
bought Abramek a winter coat before he bought one for himself.
I chose not to dwell on the lost years with this now fragile elderly man. The
important thing was to move forward and enjoy creating a relationship with this
brother while there was still time. A few days later, my biological brother Josef,
my wife and I went back up to Haifa to visit again. This time one of Abrameks sons,
Udi, was able to join us as well. It was very special to construct this relationship.
After 70 years, I finally found the famous (in my mind at least) Abramek. My father
would have been so pleased that we had found each other and that Abramek had
also built a beautiful family. I am thankful that my search was successful and that I
kept looking all the years.

Abrameks family
Perhaps my veracious interest in the war and in being in touch with survivors was
partially driven by this quest to find Abramek. My parents each stayed behind in
Wloclawek, despite the mass exit of most survivors, because each possessed a
perpetual hope that at least one of their family members had been reported
murdered in error. That at least one more had survived. They never gave up the
search. And neither have I.
And now, after 70 years . . . you know the rest of the story.
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PS. Unfortunately Abramek passed away earlier this year. May his memory be for
blessing.

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