On a beautiful sunny Shabbat in 1938, my grandfather, Chuna Goldman, led his last Shabbat service in the great Synagogue of Wlodawa in Eastern Poland. He was the community’s last cantor. The synagogue was packed and many of the congregants, including all of my Grandfather’s siblings and their spouses and children, had come to hear his dramatic tenor voice one last time.

Grandpa Goldman, PolandMuch to the amusement of the congregants, the mellifluous harmony of my grandfathers’ voice was counterbalanced by his disharmonious relationship with the rabbi. Once, just before the rabbi’s sermon, they were having a heated discussion when the Rabbi hushed the community and made the dramatic announcement that, “Goldman’s chickens were no longer kosher.” (Cantor Goldman was also the mohel and shochet of the community).

The year of his departure from Poland my Grandfather probably heard of the speech of the famous Zionist leader and orator, Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky. My grandfather was a Gerer Chasid, but an enlightened one. He was very interested in Zionism. In Jabotinsky’s address to his co-religionists whom he referred to as, “the crown of world Jewry,” he warned them that they were “living on the edge of the volcano,” and appealed to them to leave Poland. He talked of an imminent slaughter of massive proportions. Jabotinsky urged them to try and get to the Land of Israel, or at the very least to leave Poland in order to avoid the inevitable catastrophe. Most of the more than three million Jews living in pre-War Poland, including my grandfather’s family, dismissed his advice as scare-mongering and melodramatic rhetoric.

After all, my family must have reasoned, the Jews had been in Wlodawa for hundreds of years and, except for a few “hiccups” such as the 1648-9 massacres that totally destroyed the town, and the 1804 Wlodawa blood libel, life there had been just idyllic. Their imposing Baroque stone synagogue was built in 1764 and was one of the many Jewish institutions in the town. Another synagogue, study-house and community center could be found in the center of the town adjacent to the Great Synagogue. The Jews constituted 70 percent of this prosperous trading town. They were well represented in the arts and sciences. There were Chassidim, Zionists, Bundists, and Socialists. What could possibly happen to them?

My grandfather went to England (the Land of Israel was not an option because of the draconian British restrictions on Jewish immigration to the Jewish homeland on the eve of WWII) and became the cantor of Edgware synagogue near London. He worked for a year to save for tickets for his wife and three children to join him. By the time the tickets arrived in Wlodawa, it was August 1939. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been signed, and would divide Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the event of war, which by now all saw as inevitable.  His wife was bed-ridden with sickness, but sensing the urgency of the moment sent their three children by themselves. They arrived in London just before the outbreak of the war. In 1944, my grandfather was out taking a walk with my then 19-year-old uncle when a German VI flying bomb scored a direct hit on his house, killing his other two children who had escaped from Poland.

Back in Wlodawa, after the June 1941 German attack on the Soviet Union (“Operation Barbarossa”), the Jews of Wlodawa were herded into a ghetto. There Jews who were transported from other parts of Nazi occupied Europe joined them. The Jews lived in appalling conditions of overcrowding, starvation and disease. The main synagogue was used as a German military storage facility due to its sturdy construction and watertight roof.

After the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, the Nazis built the Sobibor death camp just six miles south of Wlodawa. In April 1942, the entire remaining Jewish population of Wlodawa was deported there.  They knew where they were going and what fate awaited them. The renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert records what happened upon their arrival at the Sobibor train station:

On April 30, two thousand Jews [were] deported from Wlodawa to Sobibor. On arrival at the unloading ramp, they attacked the SS guards with bare hands and pieces of wood torn from the wagons. All of them were killed by grenades and machine gun fire.

(The Holocaust, The Jewish Tragedy, p.575) 

This was the first and only time in the short but deadly history of Sobibor that a transport was not “processed,” but resisted, even at the gates of Hell itself. At least forty direct relatives of mine were murdered on that day. Thus ended the centuries old Jewish presence in Wlodawa.

Today there is no Jewish cemetery to visit. The Nazis used most of the tombstones for building projects. After the war when the Polish non-Jewish population realized that the Jews were not returning to their houses, now occupied by their former neighbors, they ripped out the remaining tombstones from the cemetery, threw them in the nearby Bug River and built a football field on the site of the cemetery. The synagogue was converted into a library, until a decision was made recently to re-convert it into a museum in memory of the destroyed Jewish community, complete with a Torah in a glass case.

Wlodawa BK

Wlodawa Grand Synagogue.  Photo (c) 2013, Tuvia Book

Upon learning about the fate of his family and the Jews of Poland after the war, my Uncle Judah volunteered to fight in Israel’s War of Independence by joining as a “Machalnik.” He was subsequently decorated by Yitzhak Rabin. Many years later, I proudly followed in his footsteps and also served in a combat unit in the IDF. The reason we fought for the Jewish people in our land is that we wanted to make a statement: NEVER AGAIN will we Jews rely on the pity of our non-Jewish host nations. We will be in charge of our own destiny in our own land.

This article, written in commemoration of Yom HaShoa U’gveruah (Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Day), which falls this year on Sunday April 7th 2013 (28th Nissan), is based on a speech I gave in the Wlodawa Synagogue to a group of students from the Solomon Schechter Day School in Westchester as part of their Alexander Muss High School in Israel experience.