Last month I broke a promise.
I visited Poland for the first time in 2015 for the March of the Living (MOL) and upon returning home to Dallas, I wanted to carry with me the lessons learned but had no desire to return to the country. That was, except on one condition: Lukow. My family can trace its roots to this small Polish town going back hundreds of years up to the 1940s. My grandfather, Aaron Prengler, his twelve siblings, and their families lived and prospered there, that is until they were either murdered or forced into hiding. On November 14, 2019, I broke the promise to myself and made a pilgrimage back to the country of Poland.
I flew to Warsaw and after a one-night stay in the Polish capital, the day started with jitters. After a restless night, my alarm clock sounded and I was admittedly nervous, not knowing where my emotions would lead me during the day. Zbigniew Mokicki, the grandson of Wacek and Leokadia Mokicki (one of the two families who hid the Prengler family during the Holocaust), picked me up at my Warsaw hotel and the 80-mile drive began. I had met Zbigniew once before in Warsaw during the MOL but recognized now how different and special this meeting was, being that I had the opportunity to interact with my family’s righteous saviors in the very town where it all took place. We chatted some, but I spent most of the car ride staring out of the passenger side window, trying to separate the modern country from its horrific past (spoiler: I couldn’t). For the duration of the two-hour drive southeast to Lukow, I was fixated on the trees—tall and thin, yet dense. It was an observation I had on my first trip to the country, and independently the same one my father had when he visited in 2013, and yet again the same thought came to mind: these trees have seen a lot. The trees have a story to tell of Auschwitz-Birkenau, of Sobibor, of Treblinka (where most of my family was murdered), and even of small-town Lukow. These trees could tell a horror story, but they also provided cover, hiding, and home to evading and attacking partisans.
Upon arrival to the outskirts of Lukow, we stopped at Zbigniew’s sister, Aska’s, home where I met his mother, Danuta Mokicki, had coffee, and was, naturally, force fed pastries (apparently the motherly worry about the kids being hungry isn’t exclusive to Jewish mothers). After half-an-hour, we were out the door to meet Zbigniew’s dad, Kazik Mokicki, who was born just before the war and remembers well my grandfather, Aaron Prengler, and the rest of the Prengler family. The three of us started with a walk from their family apartment through the small town of Lukow. The weather was cold and windy but not unbearable. Our first stop was at the home of my great-uncle, Sol Prengler, firstborn of thirteen to David and Rebecca Prengler. The yellow house sits in the direct center of town and is now used as a trade school. Approaching the building’s façade and reaching for the wall to just feel this structure, knowing Sol built it himself, I could already tell it would be a special day. They took me for a lap around town and visited what were once other Prengler family homes. Today, they house banks, grocery stores and shops. I had the chance to take a photo in front of the town emblem in the same spot that my “Papa” stood six years prior on his first and only trip back to Lukow since leaving in 1945.
From there, we went to the site of my great-grandfather’s former brick factory, which was co-owned by a gentile woman. The woman employed two families—the Mokickis and Konkos—who would both ultimately be tasked with the responsibility of hiding my family. Kazik Mokicki described to me where the industrial chimneys once stood on the property that Papa and his family used as an alternative hiding spot when the mainstay barn needed to be vacated for one reason or another. While the structures of the chimneys are no longer there, the outline of the base is, giving a rough estimate of how (not so) wide this hiding spot was. The site is now used as a building material supply yard. There, Kazik Mokicki told me a story about my great-uncle, Mendel, (who still lives in Dallas at 93 years old) hiding under a bed in the Mokicki family home while a German officer came in and attempted to bribe a then 5-year-old Kazik with candy to tell him if he had seen any Jews hiding around. Young Kazik refused the candy by throwing it at the officer’s feet and exclaiming that he didn’t know any Jews. Only a young child, he could have given them up on that fateful day but miraculously didn’t. You don’t factor in little things like that being so important when taking into account survival during the Shoah.
Ultimately, we headed from there to the barn. Lo and behold, it is still a barn today—a pigsty to be exact (still in its 1940’s form). Can you imagine? A pigsty is precisely where the modern Prengler story begins. Papa and his family of about twenty lived, hid, and survived under and in the barn, which sits roughly 25 yards from the semi-busy street, for the better part of three years. Let me add this, it is mid-November, temperatures are in the low 30s, with no snow, and with no rain…yet. It is hard to fathom the horror that is a Polish winter in this barn. It’s remarkable to think they survived the winters, let alone the war, hiding, foraging for scraps of food, and trying to stay warm. I spent some time in the part of the barn nearest the Mokicki family home, reciting kaddish (the Jewish mourner’s prayer) and taking in the sights, smells, and sounds. It was everything I could have wanted. This barn is our family narrative. It is the lore my cousins, brothers, and I grew up on. It is seared into our collective family memory and, for the first time, I was feeling the bricks, the wood, and the mud with my own hands. Standing in awe inside the decaying walls, I witnessed our history. I put my palm against the fading red bricks and knew I wasn’t alone. I knew my Papa, his parents, and siblings were all there with me, proud that a Prengler was free to walk into, and out of, this barn. The construction itself is nothing special—a 15’ wide x 75’ long red brick structure covered by a tin roof and surrounded by mud. Regardless, I walked up to it with the same reverence and awe that I had at the Western Wall my first time there. The spiritual connection hit hard. After so many years of hearing about it, like the Temple wall in Jerusalem, it was incredibly surreal to finally be able to bear witness to it.
We eventually left and headed toward Urick Konko’s home, the son of the other man who helped hide the Prenglers in Lukow. Urick has had a slew of health issues in the past, including eye issues that led Uncle Sol to organize and fly Urick to Dallas for eye saving surgery years ago (thanks to Dr. Jeff Whitman). Most recently, Mr. Konko suffered a brain aneurism and his memories often evade him. I introduced myself and he shook my hand with enthusiasm as if he recognized the name anyway. It took showing Urick photos of Papa and his brothers to jog his memory but soon he and his wife, along with Kazik and Zbigniew Mokicki, started telling old stories of Aaron, Mendel, Herschel and the Prengler lot. In that moment, I couldn’t get over how unbelievable it was that I was sitting at a table with representatives of both righteous Lukow families, while in the very town the stories played out. We chatted over thick coffee and after an hour of schmoozing, we headed back to Zbigniew’s sister’s home. We reflected on the day over a huge, formal lunch and I conveyed how important it was to me to be able to feel the barn, see our family homes, and meet and thank the families that enabled mine to grow and flourish in their new lives in Dallas after the war. Their families may have saved a few at the time, but those few have turned into hundreds. Their modesty and Polish customs do not allow them to fathom the righteous actions they so dangerously undertook.
My intention with this trip, knowing that it would be both emotional and challenging, was to trace my roots and I can say, with confidence, that I accomplished that goal. How remarkable and unique an opportunity that the grandson of a Holocaust survivor was able to not only visit the hometown his Papa hid in but to be given a tour by the sons and grandsons of his saviors, nearly 75 years after liberation? Survivors, both Jewish and not, are slowly but surely becoming fewer in number. It is time for the future generations to learn the stories, witness the camps, and seek out their family histories so that the stories don’t die with those who were there. The late, great Holocaust survivor and educator, Elie Wiesel, once said, “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” This experience in Lukow is one that I will take with me as my generation begins to bear the responsibility of passing along the stories of the Shoah.
So, I will conclude with a new promise. One that I will truly never break. That is, to tell the story of that old brick barn in Lukow for the rest of my life and to challenge others to explore their own family’s stories so that we may all never forget.
This article is dedicated to Helen Biderman and Mendel Prengler, and the memory of Aaron Prengler (z”l) and the Prenglers of Lukow no longer with us. Also, with great appreciation to the Mokicki and Konko families for their hospitality all these years later.
I will be running the Tel Aviv Half-Marathon on February 28th for the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. If you would like to make a contribution to my run to support Holocaust education in Dallas, please follow this link:
To donate directly to the museum, please follow this link and put “Prengler Marathon” in the note section.