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The Early Life of Ben Barenholtz in Europe

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by Peter Belsito
October 8, 2013 9:00 PM
1 Comment
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"Polish farmer who saved our lives during the war" (Ben Barenholtz)

Ben Barenholtz' birthday is this week.

This is the second part of a 2 part blog about his career in film and his early life when, as a child, he barely escaped murder by the Fascists.

Ben recently published the following which needs no description except to say it is a very moving and evocative piece. Quite unbelievable actually except that Ben bears witness, his amazing life, to the truth of his words. I have always liked Ben so very much in the years I have known him but now he appears to me as an heroic figure as well.

Wow.

Nekiya Journey by Ben Barenholtz

THURSDAY, JUNE 10, 2010

The following is not intended to provoke or to elicit any kind of response or argument. It is not intended to offend. If it does, I hope, as a Human being you can forgive me.

What I am attempting to do is to share with the people I loved; those who have endured my moods and silences, my Friends who thought they knew me and my acquaintances, a dialogue that I realized I’ve been carrying on with my father and with my contemporaries who died over sixty five years ago. This dialogue consists of my personal observations, opinions, and mainly the questions that I have been unable to answer in trying to make some sense of what has happened since they all, “got out of here.”

This may also be my way of trying to leave a mark in the sand before the next wave comes to wash it away.

I am what is commonly called a, “holocaust survivor.” If I live long enough I will probably be part of the last generation with direct memory of that history.

I was born in 1935 in the small city of Kovel in Eastern Poland, now part of Western Ukraine. We lived in the nearby village of Kupichev. Being in a “border area” it was populated by Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, some Germans, and about nine hundred Jews. The area became part of Russia in 1939 and in 1941 the Germans came. When the “final solution” took shape about two-dozen Jews escaped to the forest. Hunted like animals by Ukrainian Nationalists but helped by simple Ukrainian, Czech, and Polish peasants; twelve of us including my mother, my older brother, and myself, the youngest - managed to survive in the forest for 22 months until we were liberated by the Russians.

The Ukrainian Nationalists, who at that time collaborated with the Germans, killed my father on one of their raids. He taught us all how to Survive and how to Live.

I am not a writer, historian, philosopher, or any kind of academic. I had four years of formal schooling, but even those years were spent in movie theaters whenever I could earn or steal the money. I have lived in New York City since 1947 and mostly, like some other survivors, I’ve been silent.

There are survivors who bear witness and others who write books, plays, or make films. However most, even with each other, remained silent. Even the ones who talked got tired of the tears, or that glazed look in the listener’s eyes, “God, another Holocaust story…”

Everyone had their own horror stories but mainly they kept them to themselves. To try to make sense of it was too painful, only survival and whatever could be conjured up about the future is what mattered. They did not understand explanations. For some, God was the least helpful. He was, “The Unmentionable,” and therefore was not mentioned. As long as he was silent, they would remain silent. All excuses from whatever source were irrelevant. They had to hide from their own shadows.

Whole industries have been created trying to explain what happened through: books, films, plays, lectures, philosophical excuses, and banal explanations by intellectual giants making their reputations with their theories and analysis.

Of course museums, memorials, and monuments abound.

They have fixated on a precocious girl in Amsterdam, representing the lost children. Of course my contemporaries with whom I could not grow old with, did not have the time to write or paint like her or the children of Terezin and some other places. They were liquidated in two days.

I’ve stopped believing in a grand plan that let me survive for some greater purpose- delusions of grandeur- contrary to some of my religious brethren and other believers, I am truly convinced that my survival or anyone else’s survival was arbitrary and had no purpose whatsoever. In one way or another we are all survivors, and my survival is not more important than any other.
But, the guilt can linger. 

The above photo was taken in 1939 or 1940 at a Purim party. I am the sullen one in the front row on the right with my friends, my contemporaries. My brother is in the second row, third from the right. As far as can be determined we are the only survivors. It looks like I am not sure about what is going on, trying to make sense of it all. I still have not succeeded.

The above photo was taken in 1992 across the road from a thriving farm in the lush Ukrainian countryside. A simple stone carved with the date and the number of Jews (seven hundred and fifty-two) shot and buried on that spot. Among them were my aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and my contemporaries.

Near the slight mound that is still discernible, a young boy and girl were chasing one another and laughing, as if they were dancing on the grave. At first it was upsetting but than I realized how fitting that was. I hope that someday children will dance on my grave, and everyone else’s as well.

In the meantime their father, the farmer from across the road, recounted the grisly details of those two days in the summer of 1942 methodically. Obviously he had done this many times before and expected the $20 dollars he was given.

My friends, I am compelled to continue on my quest to ask questions that will not get answered. The river of blood that divides us cannot be breached; but I will still ask and share my observations and opinions with you my lost friends, who are in the front row with me in the photo and share that grave with all the others.
___________________________________

I can imagine talking to you and you are as old as I am, but have been away…
There is so much to tell you, to discuss with you. So many wondrous things have happened, many discoveries, scientific and technological advances that boggle the mind. But, essentially Humans haven’t changed very much. I want to tell you that there is less hatred, there is kindness, and compassion. That you did not die in vain. I am sorry, it seems that very little has been learned. Many “isms” have been added to be used as excuses for intolerance and barbarism. Stupidity and hatred has not abated, only changed forms.

They have gone to the moon with the help of Nazis but cannot manage to feed a hungry child.

There was a time right after the war when Jews created their own country and became strong. Maybe had it existed earlier we would not have had to go through the nightmare. No one wanted to take us in and in that way they all participated in the “final solution” including the Jews in powerful positions who were afraid to make waves.

There was a moment, after the war, when there was hope. “Never again,” became a rallying cry. Never again will Jews be led to the slaughter like sheep. “Never again,” also became the world’s rallying cry.

The original meaning has been long forgotten. It has become over and over again in: Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, the Congo, and numerous other places. Power seekers rise all the time steeped in old hatreds, traditions and prejudice, and it is all repeated again and again.
_____________________________________

The sound of the machine gun that was killing you still echoes.
My father, mother, brother, and I sat in silence under a large tree hidden in the forest listening to the RAT-TET-TET of the machine gun every fifteen minutes or so. It lasted all morning. Into the afternoon. A lifetime…

What sins did you commit my friends, to die that way? Where you being punished for the sins of your parents? Your ancestors? Did you pray before the bullets cut you down? Did you say the, “shema?” Was God working in his mysterious ways?

Was God’s answer to your prayer, RAT-TET-TET? The same as in Babi Yar and hundreds of other places? Was his voice in the hiss of gas in the showers before the crematorium in the concentration camps?

“Got mitt unz,” was etched on the belt buckles of the German soldiers. Is that where God was?

Thankfully you only went through one day and night of hell. Standing in that building, nude and shivering, packed in like sardines. At least you were spared the indignity of the concentration camp.

Did you see my uncle charge the machine gun with the shovel they gave him to dig his families grave? At least he made them use some extra bullets.

Mainly you went silently. There was no one listening anywhere. Your parents couldn’t even comfort you in those last moments.

There are still debates about what happened to you, some are even denying that you ever existed. Sometimes I wonder myself, maybe it was all a dream.

I’ve learned to understand every kind of evil mankind can inflict, but I can’t get my mind to comprehend the ability to kill a child. How is that rationalized? 


Was that what made it so difficult for you to continue, Paul, Jerzy, Carlo, and the thousands of others?
_______________________________

Great Chasidic sages, some of them survivors, said that, “You were punished because the Jews did not keep the commandments.” Doesn’t that mean that you can’t blame the perpetrators? They were only God’s Instrument. The same Sages and many of their followers maintained that it was God that saved them. I guess you were not worthy, no divine intervention for you.

He and other “sages” just like them must have been true descendents of, The Wise Men of Chelm, the clever residents who thought that they captured the moon in a barrel of water. I am sure you heard those stories from your parents. Their descendents captured God in the their own barrel. They now have the answers, but if you question them it is always, “Who are you to question God’s work? His mystery is forever, beyond our ability to comprehend.”

They maintain nostalgia for a time, place, and traditions that could have only flourished under oppressive conditions.

A Nobel laureate, a renowned witness bearer, tried to instruct me on the correct way to sit shiva. He should have been sitting shiva for his God.

Some pious Jews are now fusing their fundamentalism with the same people who began their persecution a long time ago; who are only waiting for the “The Rapture,” the second coming, so that the Jews can be “perfected.” In the old country in the “stetel” they didn’t want to wait for “The Rapture” so they sped things up a bit. Of course the great sages think they are smarter and the Messiah will come before the next inquisition.

Aren’t they helping to perpetuate the same kind of tribalism and racism that started this entire problem to begin with? It seems they have not learned a thing. Power seekers will arise and repeat the horrors. And God will be with whom?

My friends, don’t you think that as long as children are being slaughtered, starved, and maimed anywhere in the world, that no one is safe anywhere? As long as intolerance exists no one is safe. Will they ever learn what, “never again,” really means? Don’t you agree that steeped in old hatreds, traditions and prejudices, we are doomed to repeat history? That instead of, “never again,” it will happen over and over again?

There are still arguments particularly by the great scholars of the Torah, about who is considered a Jew. I had always assumed that it was defined by them putting a bullet in you and then dumping you into the pit they had your parents dig, my friends.
I am sure they didn’t ask you if you were a Hasid, a Socialist, a Zionist, what class or group your family belonged to, assimilated, name changed, or if your mother was Jewish. Do we need other definitions? Maybe any innocent child who is shot, starved, or maimed should be considered a Jew.

It seems that all religions, spiritual movements, and other “isms” have captured their Gods in their own barrel of water. Some will even kill you if you don’t believe that their barrel contains the, “True God.” And the assimilated, with their name changes, nose jobs and political correctness, are they not also descendents of The Wise Men of Chelm?
_____________________________

I have taken many trips to Germany and other parts of Europe. I’ve seen many memorials, monuments, and museums to the six million dead (some say five, but what’s a million between friends?)

On a recent trip to Munich, I happened upon a Jewish Museum in the final stages of construction. Of course it was being made bomb proof, to be guarded day and night. A monument to the Jews of Munich, not too far from where the Fuhrer made his plans, close to where, “the good soldiers,” gather every year to assure themselves of their righteousness.

Normally I don’t visit those places. What can they really show me that I don’t already know?

It did, however, cause me to start thinking about the purpose of all those monuments, museums, and other forms of remembrance. What are they for? What purpose do they serve? Who goes to them? Are they survivors? Are they relatives who have a good cry and then go on their way? School children who are forced to go and are only happy when they escape to daylight? Are they people who go to salve their conscience because they acquiesced by doing nothing?

I realized that quite a few of those visitors were the innocent children and grandchildren of the perpetrators. They were there trying to make sense of their elder’s silence. You see, the people who committed the atrocities were silent and never spoke about what happened or they just rationalized it away, leaving the next generation to shoulder the guilt. What will another museum, another monument, another sermon really do?

But of course, “the good soldiers,” and the Germans at home didn’t know anything about what was happening to you.
The ones who came to watch the executions for entertainment forgot about it. The brave Germans who killed innocent people in order to relieve the tension of battle, became heroes. Ironically, mostly, German soldiers who refused to participate in the killings were not punished.

Resistance was suddenly remembered, collaboration and acquiescence was conveniently forgotten. “But what could we have done?” Echoed across a continent, “Look what was done to us.”

They died peacefully in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the United States, and in their own countries complaining that they too were just as victimized as the Jews were.

There was some sort of de-nazification process, which in reality was used by the conquering powers to absorb and control the people who were useful to them.

Do the museums, the monuments, or the restitution money exonerate them and make them feel better about their deeds?
They denied their Humanity to follow orders and indulge in their hatreds and prejudices.

Instead of monuments to make them feel less guilty for their participation, or for just standing by. What about a tent, or a well, or a shelter for lost children? Wouldn’t that be a more fitting monument to you, my friends?

At Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, “the righteous gentiles,” who helped people survive, risking their lives are honored. But, in their own communities particularly in Eastern Europe these brave souls are ostracized. They can’t even talk about their deeds since they are considered traitors. 


When asked why they risked their lives to help, invariably the answer was, “I am a Human being just helping another Human being.” Some were religious, some agnostics some communists, they never thought of themselves as being heroic only, “Human.”

And you, my father, lying in an unmarked grave in Litin Forest; we, your two sons, are alive today because you never forgot your Humanity. Whenever someone needed help- a farmer, a peasant, anyone- you always did what you could. Never did you ask of their religion, nationality, or political belief. They remembered; they only had to hear, “I am Aaron’s son,” whispered at a door or window on those dark nights and whatever food they had was shared.
___________________________________

My friends, there was another part of Chelm that even your parents did not hear about; and that was ruled by the hidden society of seeker, mystics, and hole diggers. This society still exists worldwide. They dig holes since the water barrels are now full to: Tibet, India, China, Japan, Egypt, South America, and Atlantis. They seek the lost knowledge and magic formulas of the ancients and the remarkable men that they are sure exited in a past golden age. They continue digging embracing all kinds of mantras, magic potions, crystals, aromas, astrology, numerology, and many sacred traditions that they fight to preserve. 


Traditions, which with all their beauty perpetuate an inordinate amount of evil, racism, and hatreds that probably, kill more women and children than any disease. Embraced by the “enlightened” and their “Panglossian” brethren with their well-meaning blindness and new age pieties, they romanticize a past that never existed.

They rationalize female circumcisions, honor killings, and numerous other traditions. How do they serve Humanity? The ancient mysteries they now crave and believe in are blinding them: gurus, shamans, mystics, holy men are the same in their hunger for power- pretenders to knowledge that never existed.
There was never a golden age. 


There were, and still are good Humans and in a few places where tolerance and learning are respected. There were once and still are lawgivers who try to civilize, but the power seekers quickly corrupts their teachings. The visionaries are buried or sacrificed to appease unknown forces, Gods, and traditions.

Belief in God, afterlife, the supernatural, reincarnation, Karma, Satan, gurus, new age mantras, magic, and of course drugs. A pill, a shot, a toke will make you free and enlightened. Does all of that lead to more ethical behavior or only to the destruction of the innocent and the extension of power by the self-promoters and so called leaders.

Anything but reality. Even the brave are afraid of the abyss.
The nothingness they fear exists in their own lives, it gets filled with the most simplistic, fundamental nonsense increasing the fear of reality. Which you, my friends, know cannot be avoided and in the end will catch up with all of us.

__________________________________

The memory of the children dancing on your grave, my friends, fills me with hope.
The priests, the imams, the rabbis, the gurus, the mystics, and the assimilated. The children will dance on their graves too.
The children will dance on all the graves: victims, perpetrators, moguls, and leaders.
Their innocence, their joy and laughter echoing.

Wouldn’t you rather see them laugh, cavort, and dance while you’re still able to see and feel their joy?

What can I say to you my friends? Will you be remembered as victims, martyrs? You will probably be forgotten. But forgetting you is not an option for me.

You never got the chance to grow old. Who knows what you would have accomplished?

And you my little best friend, there are much more pleasant things do to girls than to throw stones at them. You never got a chance to wake up next to one of those little girls now a grown woman, looking at you lovingly with mischievous laughter. You never got a chance to greet the sunrise on the ocean, or to have cigarette with your morning coffee.
But we did feel the warm mud oozing between our toes and we did share that joy and how we laughed…
You shared the last moments with my little cousin who was handed over to the killers by our neighbors. They did take in my dog and cared for him, which would please certain groups now.

There was a moment when I was facing the guns as a curious eight year old. I wasn’t afraid, but was looking forward to joining you, my friends, and my father.

And, father, your last word to me was, “run.” I have been a dutiful runner ever since and when I come to rest, when my ashes are spread over Litin Forest, they will find your grave and join you. Maybe they will help a flower to grow for a child to pluck, and that child will dance and cavort over us. That will be your - our monument.

I still have hope that one day the grandchildren of the survivors, the perpetrators, and the enablers will join together, in memory of the millions of forsaken children worldwide. Together they will inspire everyone to say, “never again,” as HUMANS not bound by their race, tribe, religion, or tradition. One day all will listen- and finally commit to real change.

As Paul Celan wrote, “There are still songs to be sung on the other side of mankind.”

5/27/10

Footnotes:

1)- Nekyia: the evocation of the dead in order to know the future. Described in Book 11 of the Odyssey.
2)- The Ukraine Nationalists: Refers to a political movement that was designed to protect the Ukrainian population. They frequently used violence as a tool and their actions were mostly directed towards the Poles, Jews and communists.
3)- Purim: a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 14th of Adar in commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews from the massacre plotted by Haman.
4)- Shema: an affirmation or a declaration of faith in one God. Some considerate it to be the most important prayer of the Jewish faith.
5)- Paul Celan.
6)- Jerzy Kosinski
7)- Carol Levi
8)- The Wise Men of Chelm: Jewish folklore and tales about good-natured but misguided that date back to the 1500s. The “Moon and Barrel” tale refers to a story when the men thought that they could cover the moon’s reflection and keep it locked inside of a barrel filled with water.
9)- “The Rapture”: A belief that Christ will return to gather all of the “true
Christians”.
10)- “Perfected”: Refers to the belief that 144,000 Jews will be chosen by Christ at
“The Rapture”.
11)- “The Good Soldiers”: reference to the book Those Were the Daysby Ernst Klee.
12)- Yad Vashem: Israel’s monument to the Jewish victim’s of the Holocaust.
13)- Panglossian: marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds or excessively optimistic. Voltaire.

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1 Comment

  • Mazowa | October 21, 2013 2:41 AMReply

    The first photo is incorrectly described. There are Maria and Władyslaw Kotowscy with his son Władysław. They rescued the family Barenholtz. His parents names Aron and Paula. http://embassies.gov.il/warsaw/Departments/Sprawiedliwych/Documents/2012-11-08_Wro.pdf

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