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Emanuel Katzberg’s Story (from Annie’s Prophecy)
© 2016, Gadi Bossin
P.O. Box 20
Kiryat Bialik, Israel
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author.
I am publishing this book on Ourboox on the occasion of Yom HaShoah, 2016.
It is dedicated to my teacher, Rabbi Katzberg, for whom I named the character, Emanuel Katzberg, and to all others who lived through the Holocaust. And to those who did not survive.
Emanuel’s story is a fictional account, but all the dates and places described and the actions taken by the Nazis against the Jews and the Poles that are portrayed in this story have been thoroughly researched and are true to what in fact happened in Poland during those dark days.
These actions include the shutting up in ghettos, the deportations, the wholesale extermination of Jewish communities, the murders of Polish citizens who hid and sheltered Jews.
Emanuel Katzberg, a teenaged partisan, fought against the German soldiers in the forests of Poland. He was the only survivor in his immediate family. After the war, he made his way to British Mandate Palestine with the illegal immigration. He lived and worked on Kibbutz Yagur near Haifa, married Hannahle and raised two children, Matan and Estie.
In these pages, Emanuel tells his story to Geddy Mason who is helping him write his personal history.
“So, did you learn about the Jews of Kazimierz?” Emanuel Katzberg asked Geddy on Wednesday morning as he was plugging in the computer.
“I did,” Geddy said. “It’s a fascinating story, all those hundreds of years of history from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries right up until the war, and the legend of the beautiful Esterka, the Polish Queen Esther, the Jewish mistress and lover of King Kazimierz the Great.”
“That’s a pretty good summary in a few words. I like that. Your academic training shows,” Katzberg said. And then, as if to say that the summary wasn’t enough, he challenged Geddy. “But how would you do if I quizzed you on the details of what you read?”
“If you wait just a minute until I’ve finished setting up, you can quiz me all you want.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Katzberg said. But then he changed his mind and did quiz Geddy. “So how did the Jews of Kazimierz make their living?”
“Through commerce,” Geddy shot back with a chuckle. “Kazimierz Dolny was ideally situated on the Vistula between the south of Poland and the Baltic Sea. And the Jews played a major role in making Kazimierz Dolny into a flourishing center of trade.”
“Very good,” Katzberg said. And then his voice and manner turned serious. “Tell me, what year was it when the Nazis rounded up the Kazimierz Jews and shut them up in a ghetto?”
“1940,” Geddy said, not laughing any more.
“Yes. And what happened to the Jews of the Kazimierz Dolny Ghetto?”
“In March 1942, the ghetto was emptied of all its Jews, all two thousand of them, and they were deported from Kazimierz Dolny, first to the Opole Ghetto, and then to the Belzec death camp, where they were murdered, every last one of them.”
“Correct again,” Katzberg said. “Now that I know you know something about the glorious history and the bloody end of the Jewish community of Kazimierz, we can go on.”
Katzberg said no more and walked over to the window where he stood with his hands in his pockets, looking out at the lawn and the pathways and the surrounding buildings.
Geddy was also silent until he completed his preparations for recording and clicked on the Emanuel Katzberg July 5_2006 file. Then he said, “So tell me, Emanuel, why is it important for me to know about the Jews of Kazimierz Dolny?”
“Because my mother, Estera Tobin, was born and raised in Kazimierz,” Katzberg said, turning back to face Geddy. “She left as an adolescent to study music in Warsaw. That’s where she met my father, Morris Katzberg, when both were students at the university. He was studying to be an accountant. My mother’s family, her parents and her three sisters and two brothers and their families, they all remained in Kazimierz right to the end.”
“Go on. There’s more, isn’t there?”
“I’m listening and we’re recording now,” Geddy said.
“Okay,” Katzberg said. “In early October of 1939, a bit over a month after the German invasion, my parents decided it would be best for my sister Eva and me to leave Warsaw and go to stay in our summer home, just outside of Kazimierz Dolny on the Vistula.
“All four of us made our way there. Our first two days in Kazimierz, we stayed in the home of my mother’s eldest sister, my Tante Faigie. Tante Faigie was a widow and she and her grown children, my first cousins, lived in the town, as did my grandparents and all my other aunts and uncles and cousins. We had a joyous reunion with everyone.
“During those two days, my father made contact with Agnieszka Mislowski, the housekeeper who worked for us when we were at our summer home. Agnieszka was a young Polish woman from the nearby town of Pulawy, where she lived with her parents. Papa asked Agnieszka to come to Kazimierz. When she arrived, my parents sat with her in my aunt’s kitchen for a very long time.
“Eva and I heard them whispering and we strained to hear what they were saying. We overheard Agnieszka say to our parents, ‘Yes, of course, Morris. I will. I will do it, Estera. I love the children.’ The next day my parents kissed us goodbye and returned to Warsaw. Agnieszka and Eva and I walked to the summer house outside of town.
“The three of us opened it up—it had been shut up for only seven weeks since mid-August—and that is where we stayed until the Germans rounded up the Jews to shut them up in the ghetto.”
Katzberg slammed his hand on the table, startling Geddy. “I was twelve years old! That was the last time I saw my parents! My sister Eva was fourteen. She was a beautiful girl, a beautiful girl, so full of life. And Agnieszka, can you believe it? She was just a girl, too. She must have been nineteen or twenty. She was very brave, very courageous.”
Geddy said, “What did you and Eva and Agnieszka do when the Jews were rounded up into the ghetto?”
“When we heard what was happening, we put a few belongings together and left the summer house within minutes. We walked through the fields all the way to Agnieszka’s parents’ home near Pulawy. They lived outside of town, too. The nearest neighbors were maybe 400 meters or so from the Mislowskis’ place. So people weren’t walking by their house all the time. There were trees and outbuildings on the property, too. That meant that to see into the house from the outside, you had to come very close to it.
“We were very cautious and very careful. For almost two years, Eva and I stayed inside and out of sight most of the time. We went outside only at night to get some fresh air and to exercise a bit.
“Jan and Magda, Agnieszka’s parents, treated us very well, as if we were their own children. They were happy to have us there. Agnieszka was the youngest of eight and the only one still living at home. Five of their other children were living in cities and towns around Poland. And the other two had left the country a few years earlier and were living in the United States, in Chicago.”
“What happened after two years? You said you and Eva stayed inside for almost two years.”
“Right. When the Nazis deported the Jews of Kazimierz to the Opole Ghetto and then to Belzec, they were also deporting Jews from towns all around the area to be exterminated at Belzec.
At that time, the Germans stepped up their searches and were encouraging Poles to help them find Jews in hiding and turn them in. Whenever they found Jews being hidden by Polish families, the Germans shot and killed the Polish hosts, sometimes putting to death whole families.
“It was the spring of 1942. Eva was seventeen and I was almost fifteen. We were old enough to understand what was going on and we were very much afraid for the Mislowskis. We thought the risks they were taking on our behalf were too great for us to stay any longer. The two of us talked about what we wanted to do and then we called for a family meeting.
“We all sat around the table in the kitchen. It was like when Agnieszka sat and talked with my parents almost three years before in my aunt’s kitchen in Kazimierz, only this time Eva and I were in the kitchen instead of listening in from behind the door.
“Eva and I told the Mislowskis we appreciated everything they’d done for us. We told them we loved them and they were the best people in the world. Then we told them we didn’t want them risking their lives for us any longer.
“Jan and Magda told us they were getting old and they didn’t care what happened to themselves. They wanted us to continue to stay with them. We said it was time for us to leave and go fight with the partisans. There was much crying. Magda pulled at her hair and begged us to stay. We said we couldn’t stay because we cared too much for them.
“Finally, Agnieszka told her parents she’d go with us to watch over us, to make sure we’d be okay. And then they agreed. ‘Eva, Emanuel, we are your father and mother, too. We love you like Morris and Estera do,’ Jan said. ‘Please, please, be careful. God bless you.’ We felt very strange when they made the sign of the cross over us, but we knew they meant well.
“The next day we left. It took the three of us several days of wandering to make contact with a band of partisans. They took us in and in a short time we became fighters.
“I learned to make homemade explosive devices and to shoot and maintain a rifle, keeping it clean and well-oiled, and so did Eva and Agnieszka.
“We participated in ambushes on German military truck convoys, blew up train tracks and raided enemy supply depots for food and other necessities.
“When I think back on those years in the forest, it’s like I’m watching a movie. That boy battling the Germans isn’t me. He’s someone else. It’s hard for me to believe I did what I did.
“Every now and then, when we could, we dropped in on Jan and Magda for a brief visit, maybe for fifteen or twenty minutes, that’s all.”
Geddy said, “Did you have any contact with your parents? Was there any way for you to hear about what was happening to them? Did you manage to let them know you were still alive?”
“Once in a while we did manage to be in touch, especially after we joined the partisans. Father and Mother knew we’d eluded the Kazimierz Dolny roundup and that later we left the Mislowskis’ home. And they knew we were fighting in the forests. We knew both of them were in the Warsaw Ghetto and we heard my mother died from tuberculosis. But it was only after the war I knew for sure my father died in Auschwitz.”
“What happened to Eva?”
“She was killed in battle in 1944, only weeks before the Russians drove the Germans out of Poland. It happened during a night ambush. Eva was shot and was crying out for help. Agnieszka ran to her side. I was there. I saw it all. I was firing my rifle and reloading and firing again as fast as I could. I was doing what I could to keep the Germans pinned down while Agnieszka was pulling Eva to safety.
“A German soldier threw a grenade. Eva died that night and so did Agnieszka. They died together. The German soldier paid with his life. I shot him dead before we retreated. We buried Eva and Agnieszka in the forest. I cried for two days. Then I didn’t shed another tear until after the war, until I told my story to Hannahle just after we met.
“I made my way to the Mislowskis to tell them Agnieszka and Eva had been killed. Until then, that was the most difficult thing I did during the war, telling Jan and Magda both girls were dead. I never tried to get a message to my father about Eva and Agnieszka. I thought it might break his will to live. My mother was already dead.”
GEDDY TELLS HIS WIFE CAROL ABOUT HIS SESSIONS WITH EMANUEL
Geddy changes the subject and begins recounting how his sessions with Emanuel Katzberg are progressing.
“The first two sessions were interesting enough, but they were also pretty much what I expected to hear after our initial interview,” Geddy says.
“Emanuel began telling me about his experiences during the war, how he and his sister hid from the Germans and then joined the partisans in the forests.
“But at our third session, he softened. He said he was struggling to understand what it all signifies. ‘What does it all mean?’ he said. ‘This is what I want to tell my children and my grandchildren.'”
“So how has this changed what he’s telling you?”
“He’s backtracked a bit. He’s filling in what he skipped over before. What he said about his childhood when we began was that the first twelve years of his life were uneventful and that the German invasion changed everything and turned his life upside down. Now, besides telling me about the war years, he’s describing the years before the war.
“Before, he said everything in his childhood paled when he thought about the war. Now, he’s working on recalling the rich family life he and his parents and sister shared.”
“That’s a kind of breakthrough,” Carol says. “That’s the story survivors don’t tell, the story that’s too painful to face. That’s where all the feelings of loss and emptiness are. How’s he doing?”
“It’s intense and riveting. And both of us are discovering it’s also very rewarding. Emanuel’s face shines when he speaks about his mother and father. He said, ‘They gave me and my sister so much. They gave us everything. They were good people. It feels so good to remember them this way.'”
“What does he remember?”
“He said their home was filled with music. His earliest memories are of his mother sitting at the piano and singing. His sister played piano, too. And Emanuel played the violin.
“He told me he never went back to the violin, not when he was at Yagur in the late Forties and Fifties, not in Dallas, never. This morning he told me he thinks not going back to the violin, to his music, has always been a kind of denial of all he lost. That’s what he said, Carol.” Geddy shakes his head as he drives on and falls silent and thoughtful.
“But you know what?” Geddy says after a few minutes. “He said he’s going to do that now. He’s going to try to play the violin again. Can you believe it?”
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