These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Reflections on Gniewczyna, Poland

Posted on February 27, 2018 by Doug Russ

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A few weeks ago, while on the Pardes trip to Poland, I and our group visited the hometown of my paternal grandfather, William Russ z”l. It’s a small village named Gniewczyna, located in Southeastern Poland. My grandfather grew up there with his two brothers and parents – one of the twelve Jewish families in a village of 2,000 people. At the age of 18, he fled home upon the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 to smuggle Jews from Nazi-occupied to Soviet-occupied Poland. Of his family, only he and his elder brother escaped the Holocaust. His mother, father, and younger brother went into hiding in Gniewczyna but were murdered by their Polish neighbors. That my great-grandfather was killed by the local gang was known, but family research I had done in preparation for this trip revealed that my great-grandmother and great-uncle were likely murdered by the same perpetrators; they were taken into the woods by Gniewczyna Poles and shot like animals. Remarkably, I had discovered that Polish Holocaust researchers in Warsaw recently published a book uncovering the sobering story of what befell Gniewczyna’s twelve Jewish families at the hands of their Polish neighbors.

As we passed the road-sign announcing our entrance into Gniewczyna, driving in the pitch black and steady snow, I began to weep as an intergenerational anguish surfaced from the depths of my being. During our trip we explored the complex relationship between Poland and its Jews, the country’s historically positive reception of Jews during a millennia of persecution elsewhere in Europe, and instances of both complicity and righteous defiance of the Nazi’s systemic destruction of Polish Jewry. In Markowa, a town not from where my grandfather grew up, many Poles hid their Jewish neighbors during the war and saved their lives. But here in Gniewczyna, I cried, because my family was utterly betrayed. The efforts of those good neighbors who hid my ancestors for several years was not enough to withstand a relentless Jew-hunt by Gniewczyna’s local militia. Apparently, twelve Jewish families was twelve too many.

We searched in the night for the mass grave where my great-grandmother (Rahel Leah) and great-uncle (Moshe Dov) rest among hundreds if not thousands of Soviet soldiers, Gypsies, and other Jews. With the gracious help of a local we found the burial ground and their precise resting place as identified by two numbers: 344 and 345. I thank God we were able to find the grave so that I could say the kaddish for them; since their murder about 75 years ago, this was the second time a relative had said kaddish at their graves. It was an emotional experience hardly describable, and I will hold it close to my heart for a lifetime.

During the past few weeks I’ve tried to process this experience and my entire visit to Poland – the cities, the death camps, and tiny remnants of a once vibrant Jewish civilization. I’m haunted by those universal questions of fate and fortune; why I’ve been granted such a privileged, comfortable life while my ancestors, just two generations ago, were swallowed in the flames of the Shoah. I’m infuriated, yet so cynically unsurprised, at Warsaw’s recent political steps to spurn Poland’s obligation to reckon with its past – an archetypal example being the murder of my grandfather’s family by their own neighbors in Gniewczyna.

There is no correct way to react to a visit to Poland. Each individual has a unique emotional, philosophical, and theological response. For me, out of the overwhelming pain emerges an aspiration to keep my ancestors’ memory alive by living in a posture of loving-kindness to the world around me. I didn’t make a conscious decision to react this way, and I’m okay with that. Nevertheless, now, when I think of my visit to the mass grave and how the blood of my relatives screams and cries out from the ground, my outlook is recalibrated away from the noise that fills so much of our modern world and back toward that high aspiration. May their memory truly be for a blessing.

Doug Russ