Retracing a tragic course

Chicago Tribune 18 October 2002
By Howard Reich

Gerald McDonald barely slept the night before he went to Poland for the first and probably last time.

He already was weak and sick from his journey to Prague, where he had gone to see the artworks that belonged to his great-great-uncle, Emil Freund, who was killed in the Holocaust.

Startled by the beauty of the artworks that belonged to Freund and shattered by the sight of Freund's name among 80,000 painted on a synagogue wall memorializing the dead, McDonald decided that he had to pay his respects at Freund's grave -- if he could find it.

Though the Czech government had managed to deny McDonald the art -- by declaring the most valuable pieces in Freund's collection "national cultural treasures" that could not be exported -- McDonald now was caught up in something deeper: Seeing exactly where Freund ended up and finding out exactly how he died.

Too exhausted to rest, McDonald left his hotel room before sunrise and arrived at Prague's central station more than an hour before boarding the 7:23 a.m. train to Wroclaw, Poland, where he would transfer to the train bound for Lodz.

Compared with the dive where McDonald was staying in Prague, the train car didn't seem so bad, a $64 round-trip ticket getting him a seat in a somewhat cramped compartment with no air-conditioning or food. But by afternoon on this hot summer day, the temperature in the car easily exceeded 100 degrees, making it difficult for McDonald to breathe. The only way he could draw enough air and cool his body was to stick his head out of the window for an hour or more at a time.

With no food but the ham and cheese sandwich he brought with him and no water but the single bottle he emptied by noon, Mac -- as everyone calls him -- looked as if he were going to faint when he arrived in Wroclaw, eight hours later. He bought a lukewarm soft drink at the station, then did a double-take when the train to Lodz pulled in, its skin covered in rust and graffiti, its innards so spartan and worn it looked as if it had been running during the Russian Revolution.

The heat inside became oppressive as the afternoon wore on, but Mac's journey was luxurious compared with the trip Freund endured on Oct. 21, 1941, when hundreds of Jews were jammed into every car, standing-no windows, no air, no toilets. Many did not survive the trip; Freund, who was 56, did.

Mac arrived in Lodz after nightfall, but even under the glow of old street lamps the place looked battered, its buildings crumbling, its streets so dirty one might have thought time had stopped around 1944.

The next morning Mac took a cab to the oldest, most impoverished part of town, which the Nazis had cordoned off six decades earlier as the Jewish ghetto. The cab dropped him at the office of a tiny organization called the Jewish Community in Lodz. Its name was not ironic, even though in Lodz there virtually is no Jewish community, its population down to 300.

The head of the organization, Symcha Keller, explained what happened here to his great-great-uncle and tens of thousands like him.

Before World War II, Keller said, Lodz teemed with life. Nearly a quarter million Jews -- about a third of the population -- thrived in Lodz. Then, on Sept. 8, 1939, the Nazis occupied the city and began to apply some of the harshest strictures yet seen in the expanding German empire.

On Sept. 18, all Jewish bank accounts were frozen. On Oct. 13, all goods were removed from Jewish-owned factories and shops. On Nov. 10, the four great synagogues -- including the splendid edifices on Wolborska Street and Kosciuszko Boulevard -- were bombed, then burned to the ground, while buildings abutting the ghetto were razed to make room for high, barbed-wire fences and guard posts.

It was in Lodz that the Nazis first ordered Jews to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothes. And by May of 1940, the Jewish ghetto was sealed, 160,000-plus Jews trapped inside approximately 2 1/2 square miles with virtually no money or other assets. Because this ancient part of the city lacked underground sewage canals, no food or medicine could be smuggled in, as they were in other Jewish ghettos, such as Warsaw's.

Everyone age 10 to 65 was forced to work, making textiles, uniforms, shoes, metal objects, rubber products and other items for Germany's military and businesses. The Jews of the Lodz ghetto worked 10 to 12 hour days on a food ration of approximately one loaf of bread every eight days. Hundreds died of starvation every month.

"From last April until now -- it's only the middle of May [1942] -- you wouldn't recognize many of your friends," wrote an unknown prisoner of the Lodz ghetto on a scrap of paper found after WWII. "Faces have become more `round' because of famine swelling. . . . Our physicians have already for a long time known the only medicine for the ghetto diseases: eating."

Meanwhile, tuberculosis, dysentery, typhus, diphtheria, scarlet fever, trachoma and meningitis ran rampant.

Into this horror arrived Emil Freund, a man who had flourished at the pinnacle of life and culture in Prague. He was allowed to bring with him 100 Reichsmarks, which was of little use in a Jewish ghetto forced to trade in a separate currency used nowhere else in the world.

"The people like Freund, from countries outside Poland, had it the worst," Keller told Mac.

"The poor Jews of Poland already knew how to live on scraps of fish and water all day. The rich did not know how to survive.

"They come here, like Freund, from the beautiful streets of Prague. They don't know Polish, they don't know Yiddish, and they now must live without food, water or sanitary," Keller added.

"For them it was more tragic."

The records in Keller's office showed the exact address where Freund had spent his last days in the ghetto, and a friend of Keller's who works as a cab driver volunteered to take Mac there.

On the way, driver Hubert Rogozinski showed Mac the open fields where the great synagogues once had stood, the infamous Red House where the Gestapo tortured its victims and the old, abandoned train station, near the main gates of the ghetto. Through this station tens of thousands of European Jews -- including Freund -- were funneled into Lodz, their last stop before death.

To make room for the new deportees, thousands more were sent out, through this station, to be killed. In the first five months of 1942 alone, while Freund was trying to survive in the Lodz ghetto, 54,990 were sent to die in the Chelmno extermination camp, 37 miles away, the total reaching 145,000 by August of 1944.

All passed through the purgatory of the train station, but you never would know how much sacred history was contained in this building by its current condition. Unmarked, overrun with weeds, its doors locked, its facade filthy, the station had been forgotten by the city that surrounds it.

"Here was Holocaust," the cab driver Rogozinski told Mac. "But no one talks about it."

Mac nosed around the building, noticed an old German lock on one of the doors and got mad.

"What a travesty," he nearly shouted, the physical pain, sleeplessness and anxiety of the past week showing its toll, as Mac erupted.

"How could they let this place decay?

"Who the hell are they, these people, to ignore a place like this?"

The cab driver then took Mac to a rusty, battered shack at Franciszkanska 120 -- or at least that was the address before the Nazis conquered Lodz. When they did, they changed all the street names to German and even the name of the town itself, to Litzmannstadt.

So when Freund arrived, in 1941, the address on the shack to which he was assigned was Franzstrasse 120. Sixty-one years later, the address was back to Franciszkanska 120, but little else had changed.

No one was home, so Mac walked around back and sat on the stoop, lingering there for 20 minutes or so, not saying a word.

Then the young man who now owns the place appeared from across the street, introduced himself and started conversing. After Mac explained why he was there, the fellow -- Piotr Adamusiak -- allowed him inside the house.

"My grandfather built this building in 1936," said Adamusiak, his Polish translated into broken English by the cab driver Rogozinski.

"When the war came, my grandfather was sent to a concentration camp," added Adamusiak.

Later, Mac said he wasn't sure if Adamusiak was telling the truth or just making up something to deflect any hard feelings Mac might have had.

Either way, Mac could see the compact dimensions of the place, its two small rooms once having accommodated Freund and several others assigned to the same space.

"Sitting on that stoop is when it really started to dawn on me," Mac said later.

"This is where Emil Freund ended up.

"Here's this wealthy man looking at this patch of dirt, wondering how the hell did this happen. One day he's got everything, the next day he's got a piece of dirt."

If the downward arc of Freund's life was becoming apparent to Mac, the number of times his tragedy was repeated through 1944, when the Nazis succeeded in liquidating the Lodz ghetto, became clear at the Jewish cemetery. Like some vast forest for the dead, the cemetery stretched for acres, its thousands of tombstones dating back to 1892, its ancient trees so thick that only an occasional beam of sunlight shone through. Even at noon, it looked as if it were dusk here.

Yet at a certain point the trees disappeared and only an open field remained. This is where 43,000 people from the Lodz ghetto who did not live long enough to travel to their deaths elsewhere are buried, their tombstones missing because the Germans did not allow them. Instead, small markers on the ground note their names and their dates and of birth and death.

But Emil Freund was not lucky enough to get even that kind of marker. There is nothing to indicate where he's buried because he had the misfortune to die on Sept. 13, 1942, records at the Jewish cemetery showed (this means that the date next to Freund's name on the Prague synagogue is not precisely correct).

Freund died a day after one of the most horrific periods in the ghetto's brief, bleak life, when the Nazis declared a round-the-clock curfew, or "szpera," as the ghetto prisoners called it. From Sept. 3 to 12, the Germans rounded up 15,681 children under 10 and adults over 65 to die at Chelmno, because the extreme young and old had been deemed "a dispensable non-working element."

During and immediately after this terror, the record-keepers in the Jewish ghetto could not convene to chronicle births, deaths and causes of deaths, nor were undertakers allowed to mark the final resting place of the dead. The bodies simply were placed in holes and covered with dirt.

Mac walked around this field, the weeds as high as his waist, wondering exactly how Freund might have died. Had he grown so weak from starvation or sick from disease that he simply expired? Had he given up, like many ghetto prisoners, deciding to end his life simply by walking toward the border of the ghetto, at which point German guards predictably began shooting?

No one knows.

As the afternoon wound down, Mac got back into the cab and tried to make sense of this field of death.

"Standing in those weeds, knowing I was standing on top of thousands of people, that was amazing even to me, and I've seen my share," Mac said.

"What I've got to do when I get home is get 100 BB's, put them in a jar and look at them, just to understand how much 100 is. Then I've got to add another 100 and another 100 and keep adding until I really know what 43,000 means."

As the day wore on, Mac's body was starting to give out.

His aching knees and ankles, which had begun buckling in Prague, were getting so sore that he wobbled a bit as he walked down the streets of Lodz. His swollen calves and feet, meanwhile, would not allow him to move faster than a crawl, every step taking considerable effort and robbing him of what little energy he had left.

The locals stared at this giant American with his ornate tattoos, giving him a wide berth but ogling nonetheless, perhaps thinking he was a drunk, though Mac hadn't had a sip in 15 years.

In the late afternoon, he went to an Internet cafe in Lodz to send a note home to his daughter, Megan, but couldn't focus, even with his reading glasses. After 20 minutes of staring at the keyboard, he looked up and saw that he had produced a screenful of "g's."

So he gave up on the Internet and wandered into a few bookstores on Piotrkowska Street, Lodz's main boulevard, to ask where they kept their volumes on the Lodz ghetto and the Holocaust.

The answer was always the same: "No have."

By the third store, Mac blew up again.

"Can you believe these people?" he said aloud, though if he had hoped someone would respond, he was wasting his breath, because no one appeared to understand what he was saying.

"No books on the ghetto. No plaque or anything on the train station, which is almost impossible to find, anyway," he added.

"It's as if the whole damn thing never happened."

The next morning, Mac took the long train ride back to the Czech Republic but this time with enough food and water.

On his last night in Prague, he went to the city's Old Town, where merchants hawk souvenirs, and decided to buy a painting of a Prague street scene. If he wasn't going to get any of Freund's artworks, he decided he would settle for a $72 oil on canvas.

The next morning he put his painting and his suitcases in a cab and went to the airport.

"What a joke," he said, holding the painting under his left arm.

"The Czechs won't give back Freund's art, and the Poles pretend nothing happened in Lodz," added Mac, in the heat of the moment perhaps forgetting that the Czechs and Poles, too, suffered during the war.

Despite the ruckus he had raised as a youth and the trouble he had gotten into in Vietnam and after, he knew full well that his follies were child's play compared with the things he had seen in Prague and Lodz.

"I still may have larceny in my heart," said Mac, who understands that people change only so much in life, "but this is a whole different thing.

"From here on, whenever anyone asks, I know what I'm going to say," said Mac, preparing to board his plane.

"I'll say, `Yeah, I'm a Jew. I'm a Jew.

"`You got a problem with that?'"
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