Birth in Belzec: Finding My Family

Walking near the entrance to the Belzec memorial.
Walking near the entrance to the Belzec memorial.

The colorful facades in the town square of Zamosc hide the horrors of the region’s past. If the buildings could talk they would speak of the deafening cries of those who perished in Belzec, just a short drive away. And so, on the eve of Yom Kippur last year, I made the short drive to hear the echoes of the cries myself in one of the world’s notorious centers of death. What I did not know is that I would find my own family along the way.

When I founded Together, Restoring their Names, a Holocaust education service-learning program for college students, I strangely never found the urge to look into my own family’s Holocaust history. As I Jew, I clearly felt the communal pangs of the Shoah, but in fear of knowing too much I preferred to think of where my ancestors lived, rather than where they died. I went through the first 20 years of my life knowing that before the Holocaust my family, the Kesten family, lived in Kolomyia, but not knowing what came after.

I wanted to protest when the man at the rental car agency handed me keys to a Mercedes, but did not know how to explain my internal conflict. So, without I word, I thanked the man and drove off in the peppy little sedan. I would happily drive a German car in America, but for some reason it felt different in Poland. As I parked the car outside the cold walls of Belzec, I regretted not swapping out for a less storied import.

The memorial at Belzec is striking. A field of metal and stone covers the site of the former camp, where about half a million were killed. A walkway fissures down the middle, leading to more remembrance displays in the back of the camp. Along the perimeter are the names of towns where Jews lived before they were taken to Belzec’s gas chambers. Trekking up one side, I was dazed by the plethora of town names. Looking for nothing in particular, I walked and walked until one after another, the names blurred together.

I found myself walking slowly, when suddenly, one town name stood out from the rest. “Kolomyia.” Rattling my brain for its significance, I finally realized that the town is my roots. My rebirth, my deeper connection to the Shoah. At the time I had no idea that the people of Kolomyia were sent to Belzec, but in that moment I accepted that it was time to learn more about the painful parts of my family history.

The Kesten family was large. My great-grandmother, Fanny, was one of at least eight siblings and step-siblings who called the Polish town of Kolomyia home. To my knowledge, only her and her brother Eli (a founder of Kibbutz Bet Keshet) survived. Now in western Ukraine, Kolomyia’s Jews numbered 15,000 before the Holocaust. Between 1941 and 1942, nearly all of them were killed. Some by bullet, but most at Belzec. In the months that followed my visit, I searched for answers online and at Yad Vashem about how the Kestens perished, but never came to a definitive conclusion. So, I have chosen Belzec as my site of mourning.

To the side of the main entrance to the Belzec memorial is a wall adorned with quotes of metal letters, dripping with rust. “Earth do not cover my blood,” begins one line, taken from the book of Job. “Let there be no resting place for my outcry!” Kesten family, I assure you your cries and the cries of the six million will not rest. We will never forget.

About the Author
Elan Kawesch is the director of Together, Restoring their Names, a Holocaust memory service-learning initiative for students in the Boston area, and a student at Brandeis University.
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