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Israel Arbeiter Returns to Poland

How much inner strength must a man have to be able to revisit places where he experienced indescribable horrors?

Israel Arbeiter has spent the past seven decades keeping a promise. That promise was to tell as many people as possible what it was like to survive and witness, first-hand, the Holocaust.

As Arbeiter gets ready to board a plane and return to his native Poland today, Monday, April 23rd, one can only imagine the thoughts going through his mind.

He will board a German airline, Lufthansa, for his trip home. Of course the irony is that when he was just 14, this boy, who is Jewish, saw German planes of the Luftwaffe  but they were shooting at people, not offering them complimentary meals, snacks and drinks. 

In truth, Arbeiter says there is no better airline to travel over seas than Lufthansa. No one on that airline knows how he was treated by the Germans in the past and that he survived the Holocaust. The war ended a long time ago and people move on. Izzy, at 87 years old, understands this.

His travels will take him to Munich, Germany then on to Warsaw, Poland. He will stay in Warsaw for three days and revisit his home city of Plonsk and then the death camp at Treblinka where his parents and young brother were murdered and cremated. He will then travel to Krakow and Auschwitz and end his journey outside of Stuttgart, Germany.

The middle of five boys, Izzy was 14 when the Germans marched into Poland. He was young and strong and would make an excellent slave-laborer for the Nazi war machine. Then he would die when his usefulness was exhausted or his body failed him. He was sure of that.

Israel Arbeiter has been back to Poland many times before, but because of his health, this will most likely be his final trip back to a place he called home until World War II began in September of 1939. This is a special trip for him because of what he plans to do in Poland (more on that incredible mission as the week unfolds). 

He will see his old family apartment, he will stand in the square where he and the other Jews in Plonsk were rounded up by the German SS and selected to live or die. He will visit the remains of Treblinka, he will walk through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau where over one million were murdered by the SS and Germans and then he will end up in Germany itself, where he was supposed to be killed as the war wound down, but instead where he became a free man again. It was also where he met his future wife, Anna, a fellow Holocaust survivor. Both eventually immigrated to the United States and settled in Massachusetts.

As he boards his plane at Logan airport in Boston today, there must be so many images going through his mind, some good, many very disturbing. 

He also knows that he has kept his promise to his family. He has spent decades talking about the Holocaust to others; in schools; to groups large and small, to anyone who would listen, both in the USA and Europe. He has kept alive its memory for those who were silenced in places like Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Belzec and Dachau. He talks because what he lived through must never happen again and because he is one of the final voices left who actually lived it through it. He realizes he was lucky. He appreciates every extra day God has given him. He questions why he survived while others didn’t. Survivor’s guilt has been his companion for 73 years now. He knows he should have died many times, but always caught a lucky break. A window to sneak through was open while the other 86 in his barracks were taken to their deaths. His youth made him valuable. He looked older than he was, he was moved to other camps at the right time, he had a determination that was inherited from his parents, the list goes on.

It has been many decades since Israel Arbeiter experienced and survived the Holocaust. He is returning to Europe a man who has forgiven somewhat, but not forgotten at all. His trip on Lufthansa Airlines is the first step. They will ask him if he needs anything to make his trip more comfortable, a pillow perhaps, an extra glass of Coke, a warm blanket. Seven decades earlier, in an overcrowded, wretched smelling cattle car heading on the train tracks to Auschwitz, that would not have been the case.

Please stay tuned as we post daily updates on Izzy Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany.

Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org