It had been a long week. An upsurge of emotion was long overdue. It wasn’t so bad, really, as it finally welled-up and surged, rising from the bottom of my gut toward the mystical place where weeping begins… a soft, rolling wave of moist sadness that shaped my heart rather than erode its shoreline. The wave of angry grief seemed to extend and strengthen my soul’s coastline rather than weaken it in any way.
When Izzy began to tell his story of returning to Poland to find his family’s belongings, which had been hidden in a bucket and buried in the basement of the family home in Plock, Poland, I knew I had a bucket of emotion buried somewhere in my own soul—somewhere there, in the basement, as well—but I wasn’t quite sure just where. We were assembled at the Union Oyster House in Boston for the occasion of hearing that story, a story that would add a new sense of meaning to my life, based on Izzy’s life and the lives of two seven-year-old boys.
Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter was born on April 25, 1925 in the village of Plock, Poland, a medium-sized city with about 10,000 Jews. Izzy’s father Yitzchak Arbeiter, a tailor and his mother Hugara Malenka Arbeiter had five sons of which Izzy was the middle child. In 1940, Izzy’s hometown of Plock was invaded by the Germans, incorporated into the Third Reich, and declared “Judenrein” meaning “free of Jews”. One year later, in 1941, the entire Jewish population of Plock was forcibly evacuated to a camp in Soldau (East Prussia) and after a short stay there, were sent to a ghetto and then forced labor camp in Starachowitze (Poland), where Israel was forced to become a slave laborer for the Gestapo, working 12 hour shifts in the munitions factory, where he was mistreated and reg
ularly beaten. In 1942, the Germans gathered the Jews together and held a “Selektion” separating the strong from the weak, the very young and old from those who were deemed “useful” for labor, and it was then that Izzy, 16, witnessed his mother, father and youngest brother Yosef being led away, forced into cattle cars and taken to TREBLINKA Extermination camp in Poland, where they were gassed to death and then burned. Izzy, still alive, remained a prisoner and slave, systematically starved and beaten.
Over the next few years, he was transported to numerous concentration camps, including Birkinau – Auschwitz, where 1.5 – 2 million people were murdered. At Starachowitze, Izzy became infected with typhoid, was selected for quarantine and housed with 87 other prisoners, left to starve to death. Were it not for the sheer kindness and courage of a fellow prisoner girl he hardly new, smuggling him bits of food through a fence every day to keep him alive, Izzy would have died. Izzy’s barrack was sprayed with a hail of bullets killing 86 of the 87 people inside. He was the sole survivor. Over the next 4 years, Izzy was transported from Birkinau-Auschwitz to the sub-concentration camps of Stutthof, then Tailfingen and then Dautmergen, one seemingly worse than the other. He was liberated on his 20th birthday, April 25, 1945, on a death march from Dautmergen, through the Black Forest. [From: The Israel Arbeiter Gallery of Understanding at Kehillah Schechter Academy]
His effort to return to his childhood home in Plock to recover the buried memories had been long blocked by bureaucratic red tape. Finally, a rabbi in Poland had helped Izzy secure permission to enter the home and excavate the basement. Izzy’s grandson, Matt Fritz, and Jon D’Allessandro, a family friend and World War II buff from Quincy who helped finance the trip, accompanied him, along with the Boston Globe.
To be continued… more of Izzy’s story next time…