In 1938, my great grandfather Abraham received a postcard in London from his older brother Chaim in Poland. Written with paragraphs in Yiddish and Hebrew, the card is a photo of Chaim seated in a chair with his wife Rachel standing by his side.
Chaim was a successful timber salesman, one of my great grandfather’s 11 brothers and sisters. A few years earlier he had moved to Chicago to live near a younger brother, but decided the US was not for him and returned to Poland.
The postcard is a poignant relic of family tragedy. My great grandfather never heard from his brothers and sisters in Poland again. The story he handed down to my father and grandfather was short on detail and infused with trauma and guilt. The large family he left behind when he sailed to Britain, aged just 16, were murdered in the Holocaust. Originally from the small village of Jasionowka, the large Zaranski clan had branches in nearby Lomza and Bialystok.
The story of Jasionowka’s Jews is like thousands of similar stories. A tiny dot on the macabre map that depicts the brutality and scale of the murder of 6 million Jews and the destruction of the 3.4m strong Jewish community of Poland.
Jews first arrived in Jasionowka in the 17thcentury and in 1799 half of the population of 700 people were Jewish. By 1931 there were 1300 Jews out of a total population of 1900. The Bialystok region of north east Poland had different rulers over the centuries as Poland was carved up and invaded. It became part of Prussia after the third partition of Poland, later taken by Russia, occupied by Germany during the First World War, a battleground in the Russian-Polish war and part of independent Poland between the wars until it was occupied again by Russia after the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939.
The Germans invaded eastern Poland on 22 June 1941 and captured Jasionowka five days later. A violent pogrom broke out on the same day and 72 Jews were killed. The Germans forced the Jewish community to wear yellow stars and, with the help of local villagers, they were evicted from their homes and crammed in to four Jewish owned houses close to the village square in a mini rural Ghetto.
On 24 January 1943 the Germans took their final action against the Jews of Jasionowka, destroying three centuries of Jewish life. Early in the morning hundreds of men, women and children were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to assemble in front of the wall of the local Church. Wooden carts were provided by their neighbours to help transport them to the village of Knyszyn 14km away. Anyone who tried to escape was shot or captured by groups of men from local villages who enthusiastically assisted the Germans. On arrival in Knyszyn, the Jews of Jasionowka were directed to the railway station, loaded into cattle trucks and taken to Treblinka 115km away.
There were no selections at Treblinka to separate Jews who could work from those who were immediately killed. Treblinka had no industry staffed by slave labour, it was a factory of death that murdered 875,000 people. The small number of survivors from the revolt that eventually led to the complete destruction of the death camp described how the station at Treblinka was specially designed to look like a wholesome replica of a rural station with signs about tickets and luggage to reassure the new arrivals. A small number of Jewish prisoners worked in the process that led them to the gas chambers, cremated their bodies and sorted belongings and valuables from the dead, but they in turn were murdered and replaced.
My great grandfather’s entire extended family were murdered at Treblinka, but there was one survivor. During that terrible journey from Knyszyn, Chaim’s grandson Yirmi was able to break out of the cattle truck and jump off the train. The story passed on to my relatives in Chicago is that Chaim and others forcibly pushed him off in a desperate bid for someone to survive. There are other stories of young people jumping from cattle trucks in that period, but many were shot, captured, froze to death or were killed by Polish partisans.
Yirmi was only 11 when he escaped. For nearly two years he lived alone in the forest and crept into local farms at night to forage for food. When the war ended, he travelled to a Displaced Persons camp where he met his future wife. They somehow made it to British controlled Palestine and their children and grandchildren still live in Israel today.
After hearing about Yirmi’s story and piecing together the family history, my brother and I decided to visit Jasionowka in 2014. Arriving by car from Warsaw, we walked to the village square on a freezing cold December day and quickly identified the grass verge in front of the Church wall where the Jews of Jasionowka were forcibly assembled 71 years earlier. Remarkably, many of the houses were the same simple wooden structures I had seen in photos from the 1930s. As we walked around taking photos, we attracted the attention of local residents who shouted at us angrily from their houses. When we got closer the shouting got louder. My brother said they were yelling about documents and saying we couldn’t have our houses back. I noticed a small group of men gathering near our car. Fascinated and appalled, we decided to leave, bitter and upset at the sick irony of what was happening.
There is no memorial in Jasionowka that pays tribute to the Jewish community or tells the story of how they were killed. The only monument that exists is the Jewish cemetery which we knew was located a few kilometres outside of the village. But there were no road signs to it and, after our previous encounter, we were reluctant to ask for help. Instead we relied on directions in an online travel diary of someone who visited the area in 1982.
For the next two hours my brother and I drove around on narrow roads along the vast expanse of the Polish countryside. We stopped at three likely locations, but each time we were disappointed when collections of large stones, turned out to be just large stones. The sun was setting and the air was so intensely cold it was hard to breathe.
We parked the car at the bottom of a steep hill and climbed up the snow-covered grass towards a line of trees that marked the edge of the forest. My mind drifted to thoughts of Yirmi living in that forest, a terrified child waiting for his moment to come out and search for food, when my brother shouted out. He had wiped the snow off a large stone and, incredibly, read a Hebrew name. I crouched down and started wiping snow off the stones at my feet and read the names too. In a short time, we had uncovered hundreds of gravestones. Our joy at finding the cemetery was tempered by the enormous sadness at the sight of hundreds of graves, mostly broken up and overgrown, a testament to a once thriving community, destroyed and all but forgotten. In a final act of remembrance, we stood together and recited Kaddish, the mourners prayer.
When I was 18, I was studying in Israel at the end of my gap year and decided to read Martin Gilbert’s remarkable history of the Holocaust. For two days solid I read that book, frequently close to tears. But when I read on page 531, the two lines recording that the Jews of Jasionowka were rounded up and deported to Treblinka, it broke me. I stepped out into the Jerusalem sunshine, cried hard, and resolved to find out how my great grandfather’s family died. But this article is only half the story, the next journey is to find out how they and their ancestors lived.