This is not scrupulously researched biography, rather the personal recollections of a forty-seven-year-old grandson. In my earliest memory of Lola and Sol, I was an elementary school student playing hooky from school to visit them at their home in San Diego. To get there my family took my first plane ride, a long one, from Boston. I remember the pilots invited me into the cabin before take-off, sat me in the co-pilot’s seat, and pinned metal wings to my Red Sox jacket. Once seated in coach, I began studying the evacuation manual and barf bag. My mother, seeing me turning pale, jammed them back in the seat-back pocket and handed me a stick of gum. For the entire flight I gazed out the window, noting every texture and color of cloud, shape of farm field, and matchbox-car clover-leaf, looking up only when the flight attendant gave me my choice of soda. Heaven. Sugared drinks were forbidden in our house.
As novel as all this was, my grandparents’ house felt still more foreign, despite being a banal, new, cul-de-sac subdivision, two-bedroom one-bath ranch with a patio overlooking Mission Valley. Inside, nearly all the furniture was covered in thick vinyl plastic that crinkled to the touch. No one occupied the living room, a museum of marble eggs, gilded porcelain bowls, and sparkling silver serving utensils that had never touched food. “Why can’t I sit down?” I asked my father. He whispered, “They worked hard for those things.”
A shy child, I reluctantly drifted into kitchen / dining-room. The barf bag had scared me off consuming anything than ginger ale that day, so I was starving and sidled up to the long buffet. Lola pronounced the dishes’ names with relish—gefilte fish, whitefish, herring, lox. I understood the word “fish,” but these didn’t look like any I’d ever seen. Their scent, mingling with my grandmother’s musky rose perfume as she planted red-lipsticky kisses on my cheek, turned my stomach. When Lola turned to my younger brother to try to interest him, I snuck over to the refrigerator and scarfed some cold ribs. I thought no one noticed, but at nearly every meal afterwards, Lola always made sure to put some ribs on my plate.
The people here were hardly less exotic. My grandmother, heavy jewelry on her fingers and hanging from her long earlobes, spoke English but nearly incomprehensibly. It wasn’t just her thick accent, she peppered her speech with Yiddish grammar and a fair number of Yiddish words. It was with the most basic, commonly used words that she clung to the Yiddish version. She was forever saying mit instead of with. I’d never met a non-native speaker. Does she have brain damage? I asked my parents.
My mother blushed and said that Lola grew up in Poland, as if that meant something to me. Still more confounding were the others. Middle-aged men and women I didn’t know who looked like clones of Lola and Sol, down the shade of nail polish and the cut of the men’s hats, kept approaching me, saying my name and grabbing my cheeks as if we were old friends. They knew the name of my small hometown, my school, the little league team I played on (or failed to play on) and what kind of piñata I’d had at my birthday party. One tsked my Red Sox jacket and solemnly placed his San Diego Padres hat on my head. When I escaped their grasp, I divined the root of their omniscience; with each other, they spoke only of grandchildren.
My grandparents and their friends wanted to take us everywhere. To Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, the Jewish Community Center (several times), a Padres game, Disneyland. To the Hotel del Coronado, where my Sol’s favorite film, the Marilyn Monroe vehicle Some Like It Hot, had been filmed. For school, I was supposed to journal every evening, but by then I retained just enough energy to write “Met Mickey Mouse today.”
Grandparents spoil children. But mine gloried particularly, they needed to. This was the pay-off, the catharsis, not just for all their suffering, not just for the memories that still wrenched them awake several times a night, not just for the postwar years they spent toiling; in their eyes, grandchildren were a vindication, for Jews everywhere.
Back home in Massachusetts, it was school again plus “Hebrew school “on Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings. I hated both, but I especially the latter, because most other kids I knew didn’t have to do it, and none of it made any sense to me. It mostly consisted of memorizing prayers whose translation and importance were never explained. My discomfort grew when I discovered that Jews and Christians took opposite positions on Jesus’ divinity, and I hated the idea that whatever the truth millions of people were living a lie.
But honestly what I hated most was rising early on Sunday. I begged my parents for deliverance. “Not until you’re bar mitzvahed.” But why? I knew that my parents weren’t believers. “It means a lot to your grandparents.” I accepted that, begrudgingly. I loved them.
When my bar mitzvah finally arrived, I passed out during my dress rehearsal. Then a freak October snowstorm left the area without power. But in the end it went off without a hitch. Sol and Lola loved it. While in town, she visited my English class, which was reading Anne Frank. I’m sorry to say that when she told her story, I was not transfixed, but discomfited. A target for bullies, I didn’t like standing out. Nor did I want her unhappiness piled on top of my own. I tuned her out. And then I skimmed Anne Frank just enough to pass the test.
Only once a freshman in college, securely happy, did I read about the Holocaust, books by Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. I flew to Lola and Sol at winter break, sat in their kitchen, ate ribs, and told them I wanted to listen. They eyed me warily. They were asking themselves, I later learned, “How much does he really want to know? How much do we want him to know?”
I sat down first with Lola, on her bed. She delivered the long monologue she had given many times, to the many school classrooms that invited her, plowing right through her frequent tears. Lola Szlamkiewicz was born on May 10, 1924, in Krzepice, a Polish town of a few thousand, nearly half of them Jewish, thirty-five kilometers from the city of Czestochowa, which numbered 140,000. Unlike her parents Eva and Moszek, who had five and ten siblings respectively, Lola was an only child, and for this reason, she said, she had “a very nice life,” playing the violin, gathering with her loving extended family. She had many girlfriends, some Christian. They gossiped about boys from the surrounding towns, including another only child, Salek Lachman, four years Lola’s senior, who scarcely knew she or her friends existed. He, however, had a wide reputation as a ladies’ man with a glamorous fiancée.
Jewish kids were often stoned by classmates. Sympathetic teachers dismissed them fifteen minutes early so they could return home unhurt. In 1940, Lola’s father was taken away. Her mother ordered her to hide. Her Christian friends secreted her in barns and silos, moving her frequently, at night, to escape detection, but within a year she was discovered. She and her mother ended up in the Czestochowa Ghetto. In 1942, her mother was sent to Treblinka and Lola to an ammunition factory, whence she moved from one concentration camp to another, six in all, finally ending up in Bergen Belsen, the megacamp where Anne Frank died of typhus, which Lola also contracted.
When the camp was liberated, Lola was discovered barely clinging to life and sent to a Brussels hospital. Doctors insisted she couldn’t be saved, but the Red Cross nurses insisted on trying. After several months, she regained full health. One day late in her stay, a man visited the crowded ward to try to find surviving relatives. She called out his name. “Salek!” He turned, confused. “You don’t know me, but I know you,” she said. “You were the playboy.” After a few visits, they had fallen in love. When Lola left the hospital, they married, settled in Brussels, and had their first child, my father, Abe.
He was a sickly child. At three, his doctor suggested a change of climate. Lola and Sol requested visas from Australia, the USA, and Israel. Australia agreed first, but before they left, America agreed too. They had a New York City cousin, so they booked passage from Marseille.
En route they overnighted in Paris and cabbed to visit friends they’d met in Belgium. After a merry evening, Lola, Sol and Abe returned to their hotel in another cab. When the manager asked for their passports, kept behind the desk while travelers slept, Lola realized that her purse, with all their papers, money and jewelry, was still in the cab. She collapsed to the floor and wailed. Sol consoled, the manager hushed, to no avail. Sleepers emerged, among them a radio reporter, who gleaned their story and rushed to the station. “COUPLE WHO LOST EVERYTHING, LOSE EVERYTHING AGAIN.”
The bulletin aired all night and morning. Late morning, a woman handed Lola her purse. “I’m ashamed. I saw you get out, forget. I jumped in. I needed the money. It’s no excuse. I heard your story on the radio, knew I couldn’t live with myself.” My grandmother began crying again, tried to reward the woman, who refused. The woman said, “They said the Red Cross saved your life, give them the money.”
Sol’s cousin arranged an apartment, taught them English, found Sol work tailoring, Lola housecleaning. Over three decades in Queens and the Bronx, they had another child, my aunt Ava, sent both kids to college, and saved enough to retire. They chose San Diego’s large survivor community. Every weekend, at someone’s house, they ate dinner, and after dessert, there was only ever one topic of conversation. They told and retold their war stories. “What was the point of telling them again?” Lola asked me, shrugging and throwing up her hands with a little laugh. There was no helping it. They thought of nothing else.
Lola returned to the kitchen to fetch Sol. He sat and regarded me balefully. He was no monologist. Where to start, or stop? There was both too little and too much to say. Finally, he said, “Ask questions and I’ll answer.”
He was born Salek Lachman on May 1, 1921, in Działoszyn. His father was a tanner and tailor, a hard worker. Sol was a hedonist. If he wasn’t going into the city to eat, meet girls, and watch movies, he was thinking about it. Eventually, Sol eventually acquired a fiancée, the love of his life, he said.
When the war began, he and his family evaded capture for some time, always managing to get word that a deportation was imminent, but in 1942, they returned home from a business trip in the middle of one, unwarned. Sol spoke bitterly of the many neighbors who identified them as Jews to the authorities. They didn’t need to, Sol said. What’s more, he’d counted many of them as his friends. Still he hated the Polish more than the Germans.
Sol, young and strong, was earmarked for the work side of Treblinka. His father, too, after Sol convinced a Nazi he was haler than he looked. His mother was killed quickly. The camp work broke many men. After several months, one day Sol’s father fell down, unable to carry a heavy stone any farther and was killed on the spot.
On August 2, 1943, the Treblinka uprising began. Sol wasn’t an organizer, but prepared himself to participate when the time came. In his memory, that moment came a bit too soon. A suspected spy, who had just gleaned information, walked toward a guard, presumably to spill the tea. One organizer saw nothing to do but start the revolt, now, and hurled a grenade at the two men. Two hundred of the seven hundred insurgents escaped.
My grandfather fled into nearby woods and climbed a tall tree with seven other men. For a week they perched on branches, roping themselves at night so as not to fall out, while guards with dogs roved below them. Finally the searches lessened, hunger grew, and they walked into Orzeszowka. Villagers instantly recognized them as escapees and fled.
The men hid in a barn, where they were discovered by the farmer who owned it, Julian Pogorzelski. They begged him for food and shelter. He refused and ordered them out. He and his family would be killed if he was even seen with them, he said. They refused as well. After a long standoff, he gave them bread, they vowed to leave and never return. Back up into the tree.
When the bread ran out a few days later, they returned to Julian. It seemed safer than trying again with someone new. He seethed, but saw that there was no getting rid of them now. He told them to wait in the barn. At midnight he stashed them in the root cellar under his kitchen, a mere crawlspace not tall enough to stand up in, just wide enough for the eight men to sleep chest to back. If one man needed to turn over, they all had to.
Julian didn’t tell his wife and two daughters, knowing their anti-Semitic feelings, only his son Stanislav. Each midnight, Julian on Stanislav let them outside for fifteen minutes, to stretch their legs, refill their food bucket, and dump their waste. Saturday nights were the worst; relatives would stay over, and the men couldn’t emerge at all.
One of them eventually took Julian aside. The man whispered but the others managed to hear anyway. He was propositioning Julian. “This is too dangerous for you. We’ll be discovered, we’ll all be killed. You and your family too. I look enough like you, take me in, tell everyone I’m your cousin, and eject the others. You’ll finish the war having saved a life.” Julian told the man never to speak of this again.
That was the hardest night in the cellar. For hours the men debated whether to kill the traitor. When dawn broke and they had to hush, they put it to a vote. Four to three, they elected to spare the man. After the Russian forces overtook Orzeszowka in 1944, and the men finally walked free again, they dispersed, and rarely saw each other again. Reunions were too bitter a reminder of the cellar, the misery, the betrayal.
I asked Sol how he and Lola managed to continue to believe in God. Sol gave a hollow laugh. “We don’t believe,” he said. “I haven’t since Treblinka. Would God kill babies like that?” Thinking of all Sol had witnessed, and lost, I suddenly felt embarrassed for thinking my afternoons at Hebrew school were real suffering. I also laughed at the irony that I’d put in those hours for grandparents who themselves didn’t believe.
“Why,” I asked Sol, “was it important to you that I get bar mitzvahed?” “Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t know how to explain it to people at the JCC if you didn’t.” Until I sat down to write this essay, I thought he meant he didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of his friends, a bit of vanity, perfectly understandable. But now I suspect he was being empathetic and kind, that he didn’t want to wound his still-believing fellow survivors with an apostate grandson.
“There’s so much I didn’t know,” I said. “Why didn’t my father tell me?” I asked. Sol said my father himself knew little, because Lola and Sol swore to tell their children as little as possible, to raise them as “happy normal Americans.” What a gift. And what a sacrifice. If all Lola and Sol ever thought about was the Holocaust, then parents and children would never speak openly about their hearts, the former constrained by oath, the latter for lack of modeling. My bafflingly taciturn father suddenly made a lot of sense.
Wars don’t end when the peace agreements are signed. They echo down the years. Only at Sol’s funeral did I discover, from my uncle Neil, that Sol had nightmares most every night that eventually crept into the day. He’d turn on the sink faucet, and see blood instead of water. The tv, only blood. It took a powerful antidepressant to quash these hallucinations.
Sol was wracked by regrets. Neil told me that on day one of Treblinka, Sol’s father had told him they had to escape, knowing he’d never make it. Sol encouraged him to wait. Men were already putting together plans for a mass escape, he said, it was the only hope any of them had, but it would take time to prepare. Over and again, Sol’s father urged flight, and Sol counseled patience. After the war, Sol agonized over his not listening to his father.
The fiancée also haunted him. He couldn’t relinquish her memory, and thus Lola could never measure up in his mind. Lola knew this, and suffered for it. Finally, Sol rued his participation in the 1980 trial of John (Ivan) Demjanjuk and Fedor Fedorenko. Sol was exhorted to identify the criminals and achieve justice. He wanted to. But he also doubted he could reliably connect these wizened faces to those of four decades ago.
Lola, too, struggled to make sense of her past. So she could help the world avoid another such catastrophe. She spoke to countless schoolchildren, and treasured all her life the letters they wrote to her relating how affected they’d been. She followed the news avidly, on the alert for dangerously underestimated strongmen. Regrettably, this led her at one point to adopt the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was plotting to make America an Islamist state. I include this detail reluctantly, not wanting to sully her story, but I think it’s a useful warning to us all that learning from history is no simple matter.
And yet we must keep trying. Whenever someone asks me to recount my grandparents’ experiences—be it a journalist, a school, or a newsletter—I try to agree. I haven’t always. I wince recalling all the times I’ve failed to rise to the challenge, especially when, a couple decades ago, Neil wrote a history of my grandfather that in that moment I couldn’t bring myself to read and help edit.
I say this not to congratulate myself for having written this, but to encourage us all to keep doing what we can. It seems the least we can do, to continue puzzling over their stories, to try to learn something. It’s no guarantee history won’t repeat itself, but it might be our best shot.