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[Page 389]

From Piotrkow to London

Genesis of the '45 Aid Society

Ben Helfgott – London

As the momentum of the Nazi defeat was gathering pace, the final denouement of the tragedy of the Jewish people was being played out in the concentration camps and death marches taking place in Germany and Czechoslovakia. In retrospect, it is difficult to comprehend how anyone could have survived such inhuman and unbearable conditions. For over five years we had experienced the most unimaginable suffering, cruelty and atrocities. We had survived the bombings; the random killings; the periodic roundups; the filthy conditions in the ghetto; the hunger; the constant fear; the typhoid epidemics; the selections and deportations to the gas chambers; the harsh regimen in the labor camps. We thought we had reached the limits of our endurance. However, the events of the last few months of the war surpassed the combined total of all these excesses. The little that was left over of our civilized life was completely stripped from us. We were literally reduced to the level of animals, without, however, the care that human beings usually bestow on their pets. We were subjected to long hours of hard and tedious work; lacking warm and protective clothing, we were freezing to death; we were infested and eaten up by bugs and lice; and, worst of all, we were steadily becoming demented as a result of the starvation rations. The acquisition of a piece of bread or an extra plate of soup was our main preoccupation. The war was coming to an end, yet our persecutors, even in defeat, had not had their fill and were relentlessly and pitilessly extracting a great toll on us, shooting those who collapsed along the way from hunger, cold, thirst or exhaustion. It was not surprising that the few who had, so far, evaded death through sheer luck or by dint of perseverance were rapidly dwindling away.

Liberation found us in a stupor, in a state of utter exhaustion and emaciation. It took a while to awaken from our five and half year nightmare. As long as we had been struggling for survival and had lived from hour to hour, we had not entertained any thoughts about the enormity of our loss or about our future. Now, it gradually began to dawn upon us that we were, at last, free and that freedom necessitated a complete readjustment. But how does one readjust without either family support or a home? We suddenly realized that we were alone. Those who had reason to believe that some members of their family may have survived attempted to return to their respective home towns, and some emotional reunions took place. However, for the majority this was a disappointing and painless experience. To confound their agony, they were met by a hostile population. Indeed, having been fortunate enough to survive the Nazis' bestialities, many met their deaths at the hands of their Polish compatriots.

The experience of denudation and anguish was felt even more acutely by the relatively few youngsters who had survived. Of the six million Jews who had been killed, one and a half million were under the age of sixteen. Children were, as a rule, automatically selected for the gas chambers, as the Nazis had no use for them. Ironically, the chances of survival for those children who were saved from the selections were better than for their elders. Once snatched from the burning, they were, in the main, protected, and some were not even sent out to work in either labor or concentration camps. This was particularly true in the case of the Piotrkow children. It would appear that, miraculously, relatively more children survived from the Piotrkow Ghetto than from any other ghetto in Poland. How did this happen? To begin with, toward the end of 1941 the glass factory, “Huta Hortensia,” was set up to employ boys 12 years old and up. The deportations had not yet started and there was no urgency to find a job unless it was necessary for one's immediate needs. The factory offered a meal and a modest payment, and this was a strong incentive for a considerable number of boys who had been living below the subsistence level. Later on, a number of boys were also employed in Bugaj, at the Dietrich-Fisher Holzwerke. Most of them were subsequently saved from the deportation, as were a number of children whose parents worked in the Jewish administration. There were also those who were hidden and were fortunate enough to evade the nightmarish round-ups that followed the deportation. When the small ghetto was finally liquidated, they were all sent to the Huta Hortensia-Kara or to Bugaj, where the very young ones were not ordered to go out to work. This was also the case when the boys were later sent to Buchenwald and the girls to Ravensbruck. We were also lucky to escape the dreaded selection for the gas chambers of Auschwitz, since by the time of our deportation from Piotrkow, the SS was already preparing to destroy all traces of their heinous crimes.

Just after the liberation
Just after the liberation – Freedom at last! It is assumed that there are some of our boys in
this picture taken from the Forty-Five Aid Society Journal of 1975

 

Among those who were liberated from Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt were many children and youngsters from Piotrkow. Those liberated from Bergen-Belsen were sent to Sweden. Those from Buchenwald were sent to France and those from Theresienstadt to England. At the beginning of 1945, a Committee for the Care of Children from the concentration Camps was set up under the auspices of the Central British Fund, an organization that had been responsible for bringing tens of thousands of Jewish refugees to England before the war. They obtained permission from the Home Office to bring a thousand orphaned children to England for recuperation. The first group of three hundred came from Theresienstadt and, later on, many were collected from different camps; eventually, seven hundred and thirty-two youngsters arrived in England, among whom were forty-one from Piotrkow; thirty-seven boys and four girls. It seems that there were not enough teenagers to fill the full quota of one thousand.
The large majority of youngsters had lost their parents – only four from the Piotrkow group were left with a surviving parent. Quite a large number had no family or relatives anywhere in the world; there had been a complete and utter loss of family.

Under the circumstances, the organizers were faced with a formidable and mammoth task. They expected to receive children, but, instead, they were confronted with “mature adults” whose stabilizing framework, the family pattern, had long been lost. The twin pillars of independence and security which play such an important part in the mental development of young people were deplorably absent. We were no ordinary orphans: we were in great need of guidance and care, and the process of rehabilitation seemed daunting to the organizers. The late Leonard G. Montefiore, a great humanitarian, philanthropist, and Chairman of C.C.C.C., described us as follows:

They have been in close contact with every kind of vice and wickedness that the mind can conceive. Each of them represents a human tragedy, nonetheless a tragedy, because it was common and suffered by millions. Their lives have been twisted and abnormal. So the acceptance of what we in this country regard as normal standards of behavior, the usual codes of honesty and fair dealing, represent a very considerable individual effort. For them during the whole of their childhood honesty was the very worst policy. It led immediately to destruction. How then can they be expected to learn in a short while the reverse of the maxim taught them by bitter experience?

In another context he wrote, “An immensely difficult educational problem was presented. One must imagine a very large school, with an age range from 3 to 23, where pupils speak a variety of foreign languages and on entering the school are uniformly ignorant of English. Of the 600 boys and girls, 80% are probably post-typhus cases, there are many tuberculosis suspects and some active cases; no toothbrush has been seen for the past five years and there are general symptoms of severe malnutrition. Scabies, impetigo, and other skin diseases are frequent. Again, the pupils in this strange school are all orphans, some of whom, at least, have seen their parents brutally murdered, and who have themselves been beaten time and again. Thus the school authorities have to minister not merely to bodies but to minds diseased. Authority is in itself suspect, to be cajoled or threatened as seems most likely to produce results.

“Again, account has to be taken of all shades of religious and non-religious opinion. A large number feel at home in Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox surroundings, but there are others who are resentful of an attempt to impost religious rules or restrictions. There are some eager for advanced education, others want industrial training, while some display no desire for any kind of work.”

This may have been an exaggerated view; it may even have applied to a number of the boys, but nevertheless, this is how we were generally regarded.

As it turned out, our rehabilitation proceeded at a fast pace. The perceived wisdom of Dr. Oscar Friedman, a psychologist and the director of the C.C.C.C., was that the goal was to make us independent as quickly as possible; on the whole, his policy proved to be successful. After an initial screening, we were dispersed to hostels in various parts of Great Britain. We were offered a choice between hostels which catered to our religious or Zionist inclinations. Here we began to retrieve our lost years of education. We learned English in a furious hurry, studied mathematics, Jewish history, general history, as well as Hebrew and Zionism. We played football and volleyball, went cycling and swimming, and visited the cinemas as often as possible. Here we cemented the friendships that were to develop into an extended family. We served as props for each other and were nurtured by the security which derived from our deep friendship. It was the therapy that we needed and it was a happy and carefree time for us.

When the time came, the hostels were disbanded and we moved into apartments. Oscar Friedman felt that it was necessary to form a club which would serve as a center where we could meet and participate in social, cultural and athletic activities. Membership of the “Primrose” Club was open to the local youth. We were soon competing against other Jewish and non-Jewish youth organizations and became one of the leading Jewish youth clubs in London. All this helped to accelerate our rehabilitation and integration into the community.

As we grew older, the Primrose Club was dissolved and we formed ourselves into a society – the 45 Aid Society – which, over the years, has grown stronger and stronger. Not only do we help members who are in need, we also play an important part in the work of the community. From being yesterday's recipients we have become today's donors. Those who feared the worst from us have been pleasantly rewarded. We have not only been integrated into normal society, we have surpassed all expectations. We have achieved success in most areas of economic and social endeavor; our occupations include shopkeepers, manufacturers, property developers, architects, engineers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, dentists, lecturers, rabbis – the list is almost endless; we could almost be a self-sufficient community!

In spite of the fact that nearly five hundred of us emigrated from England, we keep in close touch with each other and remain probably the most cohesive survivor group. We meet often, attend each other's “simchas,” laugh and cry together, take a keen interest in the fortunes and well-being of our extended families. In addition to our many activities, we hold a reunion once a year, when we focus our thoughts on the six million of our brethren who were murdered. We share the memory of those whom we loved and knew so well so many years ago and permit our personal traumas to merge with those of the collective. We are, in fact, like a large family united by a common bond that springs from our backgrounds and similar experiences, forged in the concentration camps. These experiences have always been fresh and vivid in our minds. The shadows of the Holocaust which have darkened our consciousness and the consciousness of the Jewish People have never left us.

Like most survivors, we have not allowed Hitler to enjoy a posthumous triumph over us. We have shown that the misery, cruelty, despair and injustice that were inflicted on us did not break our indomitable spirit. We did not become consumed with hatred to the point of destroying our own and other people's lives. We did not become terrorists; we did not kill innocent people; we did not even pursue or kill our persecutors.

However, with the passage of time, most of us are inexorably coming to the realization that it is not enough to have harnessed all our energies for, and concentrated all our efforts on, rebuilding and revitalizing our lifeline and spiritual revival. In recent years, like most survivors worldwide, we have become increasingly aware of our responsibility for transmitting to the present and future generations the tragedy and the lessons of the Holocaust. In order to prevent the Holocaust from happening again to anyone ever, its memory must be kept alive by reminding the world of the atrocities that were committed and by deterring future evil-doers, who must be made to see that murder does not pay. It is a task that our members are addressing very seriously; they are a driving force in the community.

London – February 1991


[Page 394]

New York's Society of Piotrkow and Vicinity

In 1965, the Society of Piotrkow and Vicinity was founded in New York by a group of Piotrkower. Their cultural and social activities during the sixteen years of their existence were intense and their achievements quite impressive.

Possibly, the most important of the many accomplishment of this Society was the publication of a bulletin which played a vital role in the lives of a segment of its Landsleit in New York and elsewhere.

The creators of the Bulletin were Moshe Mushinski, Roman Mogilanski (Abram Mogilaner), Marian Maslawski (Mott Szwarc), and Vitek Blachman. Ben Giladi joined its editorial board in 1967. Another notable act of this Society was the donation to Israel of a “Magen David Adom” ambulance for the municipality of the town of Holon. Through a strange twist of fate, General Moshe Dayan was rescued by this ambulance and its staff when he was almost buried alive in an accidental cave-in at the site of an archaeological excavation near Holon.

The fruitful existence of the Bulletin came to an end when the last of the original founders, Roman Mogilanski, met an untimely death in 1981. Shortly thereafter, the Society of Piotrkow and Vicinity, later known as the Nazi Victims of Piotrkow Trybunalski, also ceased to exist.

In 1982, a quarterly magazine, the New Bulletin, under the sponsorship of the Piotrkow Trybunalski Relief Association and with Ben Giladi as editor, began publication. It now reaches well over one thousand readers around the world, including the second generation of Piotrkower.

With reverence and deep affection, we remember the former members of the Society of Piotrkow and Vicinity, as well as all the activists who have passed away over the years.

Piotrkow and Vicinity Society in New York donates an ambulance
Piotrkow and Vicinity Society in New York donates an ambulance
for the Red Magen David in Israel – late sixties

&nbp;


[Page 395]

The Jewish Nazi Victims Organization of America

Founded and Led by Two Piotrkower

In 1957, two dynamic Piotrkower survivors founded the crucially important organization of Jewish Nazi Victims. The late Moshe Israel Sochachevski became its first President and Felix Lasky was its Secretary-General. The three main objectives of the Organization were:

  1. To always remember the Nazi crimes.
  2. To offer help and guidance to Jewish Survivors.
  3. To strengthen the ties between the Sherit Hapleita and the State of Israel.

Moshe Israel Sochachevski and Felix Lasky
Moshe Israel Sochachevski and Felix Lasky holding the pen with which
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signed the historical Yom Hashoa –
The Holocaust Memorial Day Proclamation in 1962

 

Sochachevski and Lasky emerged immediately as untiring champions of Jewish rights and leaders of the Survivors. We, the Piotrkower, were so proud to hear them on the radio, to see them on television or to read about their work in the newspapers. They were the first to intervene against discrimination against the Jewish People in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Russia, Argentina or Uruguay.

Among their most remarkable achievements were these important acts: In 1962, they led a delegation of Nazi Victims and important, political New York personalities (Dr. James B. Donovan, Rep. Emanuel Celler and U.S. Attorney Robert Morse) to see President John F. Kennedy. As a result, the President issued the historical proclamation of Yom Hashoa – the Holocaust Memorial Day, to be observed on Khav-Zain of the month of Nissan. On May 9, 1963, on the 20th anniversary of the end of World War II, Moshe and Felix organized the first major commemoration held in New York. Thousands of survivors assembled at Hunter College to pay tribute to our martyrs. This commemoration started a noble tradition for years to come.

In March of 1960, Moshe and Felix met with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer for the first time when he came to meet President Eisenhower in Washington. This meeting was arranged by Senator Kenneth Keating and by then Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. Thanks to their efforts, the Bonn Government adopted a more serious and urgent attitude toward the forthcoming reparation claims by the Nazi Victims. Moshe Israel Sochachevski and Felix Lasky made numerous trips to Germany, where Moshe spoke in the Bundestag. They fought successfully for the extension of the Statute of Limitations defining the period within which the Nazi criminals could be prosecuted.

Over the years, these men were always helping people – former Nazi Victims offering guidance, advice and intervention, and never accepting a fee for their services. In 1969, on Yom Hashoa, they organized a giant memorial service held in Madison Square Garden.

A few months later, Moshe Israel Sochachevski passed away suddenly. His untimely death shocked the entire Jewish Community. He was laid to rest in Jerusalem, Hayir Hakodesh.

Felix Lasky continues till today his gallant activities as the Organization's Secretary. Notable personalities, such as Dr. Hilel Seidman, Rabbi Yechezkel Besser, the Attorney Milton Kestenberg and others were and remain active in the noble endeavors of the Organization. We all look back with great appreciation and fondness at the important achievements of our compatriots in their faithful work on behalf of the Nazi Victims.

 

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