Weeks ago my cousin Arlene asked me if I could join her to the New Montefiore Cemetery in Long Island for a memorial ceremony for Radom Jews who perished in the Holocaust. This ceremony takes place every year on the Sunday that falls between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Radom is the Polish town where my father and his siblings and her parents lived (my father and Arlene’s mother were first cousins). But my father left Radom with his family in 1926 when he was fifteen, immigrating to Palestine, whereas Arlene’s parents remained there until after World War II, heroically and miraculously surviving the Holocaust.
30,000 of the 280,000 Jews who lived in Radom perished in the Holocaust. Among them was my great- grandfather Samuel Bakman, who owned a flour mill, which stood on the shore of the Radomka River that runs through town. He died of hunger either in the large ghetto in the center of Radom, or in the small ghetto in its Glinice suburb, in 1941-1942. His two sisters were sent with their families to the Auschwitz death camp where they were murdered.
In 2010 I traveled with my Israeli cousin Anat, to Radom to trace our family history, and to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, where part of our family perished. Nothing that I have studied, read, or seen in films, documentaries or photos; none of the interviews I had watched and the Holocaust museums I had visited, including Yad Vashem; not even my previous visit to the Terezienstadt concentration camp near Prague, had prepared me for Birkenau and Auschwitz. What socked me most was the efficiency with which the Nazis ran their oiled death machine and industry. They left nothing, not even the minutest detail to chance: they carefully calculated where the trains carrying their Jewish human transport would first stop, where their victims would initially be selected for immediate death or for forced labor, often by young SS soldiers; where their victims first undressed, where they were first disinfected and shaved, their hair used by the Nazis to manufacture fabric, and where they were disinfected for the second time if they had not been immediately selected for the gas chambers; where their clothing was first fumigated, where their clothing was fumigated for the second time; where their clothing and other belongings were collected, sorted and stored; where they would die by the Zyclon B poisoning gas, and where and how their corpses would be burned. It took merely twenty-five minutes from the time the human cargo arrived to the camps selected to die and turned into ash.
Yet since my arrival in the United States in 1969 I have never been part of the Radom community here, hence I have never participated in the ceremony commemorating Radom Jews, till today.
Since the time I told Arlene that I would join her, both my schedule and my logistics have changed. But because she depended on my driving I had to really maneuver to be able to drive. And I was glad I did.
There, under the bluest of skies, for the first time I saw the two impressive monuments that commemorate Radom Jews. More importantly, I saw three generations of Holocaust survivors: The first who barely makes it to the cemetery but still comes, aided by their children, some of whom are themselves elderly, and their grandchildren. There were tears and there was laughter, and there was hope that nothing like the Holocaust will never happen again to any minority wherever it lives, and the hope that the gatherers will all be there at the same time next year.
Among the other gatherers I met Millie Werber, whose story was eloquently told by the writer Eve Keller in her recently published book Two Rings, and Millie’s sons, who accompanied her.
After the ceremony I visited my dearest friend Amy, who is buried in the same cemetery after succumbing to cancer eighteen months ago. Then I rushed to Brooklyn to catch what was left of the Brooklyn Book Festival, capturing two panels on subjects that interested me.
A good day indeed.
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