My cousin Philip Biel was born Shraga Feivel Bielawski in Węgrów, Poland. His father, Meyer Wolf Bielawski owned a lumber yard and a clothing store, where his mother worked stocking shelves and helping customers.
Life changed immediately under the Nazis as neighbors and friends became complicit in the round-up and killing of Jews. The ghetto was formed in 1941 and conditions for Jews became worse. After the liquidation of the ghetto in September 1942, Feivel and members of his family went into hiding in a barn. While in the barn, he watched the destruction of the Jewish community of Węgrów. He wrote about his experiences in his book, “The last Jew from Wegrow: the memoirs of a survivor of the step-by-step genocide in Poland“, published in 1991.
Feivel immigrated to the US, settling in Rockford Illinois in 1951. He passed away in 2004.
I admit, it is difficult for me to read Holocaust accounts. But below is an excerpt describing a happy event — his wedding after the war in 1949.
AFTER CAREFUL THOUGHT, we decided to be married in Bergen-Belsen. We would be wed near where countless thousands of Jewish men, women, and children had been slaughtered by the Nazis. We had clung stubbornly to life. Now, we would marry where our enemies had sworn to destroy us.
We would reaffirm that Jews still remained alive. We would begin a new life together, bringing forth a new Jewish generation, from that very spot.
We were married on April 29, 1949. Under the canopy I asked the rabbi to recite the E-l Maleh Rachamim (memorial prayer) for my mother, for my father, and for all the members of our families who had perished in the crematoria. As he began to chant the prayer, tears welled up in my eyes, and I began to weep uncontrollably. I could feel the presence of the souls of tens of thousands of those who had been murdered.
Everyone present wept, and it was some time before the ceremony could be concluded. Esther and I embraced, and the flame that had burned so low for the Jewish people, once again flared high. I was 23 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland, and now ten years later, my youth had been obliterated. I felt like an old man at 33, but I was alive and I had survived the worst hell people had known. Now, it was time for a new life.
After we toasted l’chaim, we ate, danced, and sang Am Yisroel Chai (the people of Israel live!). Everyone rejoiced in this former place of death, near the barbed wire enclosures where people had been stripped of their dignity and then their lives. Hitler had lost, and we celebrated to show we had survived to rejoice.
We returned to Munich, and two weeks later, we applied as a married couple for emigration to the United States at the American consulate. We were asked many questions: Where were we born? Where were we during the war? Had we aided the Germans? Were we members of the Communist Party? We answered all the questions and signed our names. They told us they would let us know.
We eagerly awaited a reply for 18 months, during which time we lived relatively comfortably in Munich. Because we got along fairly well, I thought of remaining in Germany indefinitely. Esther, however, became pregnant in the late summer of 1950. She was determined that if at all possible, her child would not be born on German soil.
Finally, we received a letter advising us to be at the consulate with all our belongings on December 15, 1950. We were ecstatic. We packed what we could and presented ourselves on the appointed day. Some military personnel loaded us onto trucks and took us to the port of Bremen. There, we lived in barracks for the next two weeks.
Early on the morning of January 4, 1951, we boarded an old American military transport ship, the General Sturgis. The journey began immediately, and on our second day at sea we encountered a terrific storm. We became seasick and unable to keep down any food. Poor Esther, in a bobbing transport ship, five months pregnant! The days dragged on endlessly. For eleven days, all we saw were sky and water, and we were sick for most of that time.
Early on the morning of January 15, 1951, we awakened and I saw something I will never forget — the Statue of Liberty holding her giant torch above New York Harbor. We cried, cheered, laughed, and celebrated all at one time. The United States! Freedom!
We had waited so long for a chance to live in freedom, and the day had finally come. As we disembarked later that day, I bent down and kissed the ground.