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The Lost Months of 1940

In February of 1940, my father walked out on his wife and eight-month old son in California, never to be heard from again by them or anyone in his family.  He re-surfaced six months later in New Jersey using a different last name, and shortly thereafter met my mother.  They dated, married, and raised my brother and me.  It wasn’t until 37 years after his death that I discovered this on Ancestry.com, and then found my half-brother, who Dad deserted, now living in Texas.  We may never know why he left his family as he did, but I’m hoping the 1940 census will give us some information on where he was that year, before he appeared in New Jersey, and what he was doing.  So many questions…

1940 Census brings a family stories to life…and brings us closer to our grandparents

Early in their marriage my grandparents lived in Washington, D.C., having moved there from Philadelphia as newlyweds.  Growing up in nearby Maryland, I remember listening to stories of their time in the capital. They both had fond memories of going to the National Zoo, and poignant recollections of being at stadium watching the Redskins play the Eagles at Griffiths Stadium on Pearl Harbor Day.

When my husband and I moved to Washington as newlyweds, we tried to locate my grandparents’ former residence.  My grandfather had passed away by that time and all my grandmother could tell us was that she lived in a townhouse on Irving Street near 16th Street.

Today, I found them on the 1940 Census.  With their address, I was able to locate the house they lived in-still standing and about 15 minutes from my own home. I can now compare it to photos I have of them sitting on the same front porch more than 70 years ago.

On the census record is also the name of the family from whom my grandparents rented their apartment.  One of these is a two-year-old girl called Diane, whom my nineteen-year-old grandmother was so taken with that, six years later she named her own daughter-my mother-after her.  

Finding my grandparents on the census brought treasured family stories to life and makes me feel even closer to the grandparents I have loved and lost.

Israel Arbeiter: Ready to Return to the United States

After 8 days that took him from Warsaw, Poland to his native city of Plock in Poland, to Krakow and finally into Germany, where he gained his freedom in 1945, Izzy is tired.

At 87 years old he has the right to be.

After seeing his parents and brother shipped off and murdered at Treblinka, his friends and other relatives also killed in the concentration camps, he has said his final goodbyes to the places and the difficult times that shaped who he is today.

Izzy has walked the grounds at Auschwitz-Birkenau, his home in 1944, where the Nazis killed 1.1 million of the 1.3 who came through their three separate camps there (at Auschwitz).

He walked in darkness beside the memorials at the Treblinka death camp and said a prayer for his family members murdered there.

He has met with school kids from two nations to talk to them about his experiences as a Jew living through the Holocaust and the price he paid for his religious beliefs.

He has reconnected with the daughter of a German family that sacrificed their own lives to throw bread to Izzy and the other slave laborers in his group as they passed down the family’s street on a daily basis to work in a local quarry.

He has visited with old friends, both Polish and German.

If there is one final lasting memory for all of us on this trip it occurred just last night. It’s the photo that accompanies this blog. It’s a snap shot taken last evening of Izzy and another man also in his mid 80’s. His name is Walter Fischer. Walter was a German World War II army veteran.

Walter’s hometown happens to be the same German village that housed a concentration camp in which Izzy spent his last days behind a wire fence before becoming a free man again after almost six years of torture and mind-numbing experiences.

Walter and Izzy sat next to each other during dinner. Their discussion was both quiet and personal, but also animated at times. It was not accusatory in any way, but there were also not a lot of smiles, back slapping and toasts to the past.

There is forgiveness in Izzy Arbeiter, but to forget is impossible. Walter said he was not a Nazi in WWII, just a soldier doing his job. He also said he never knew about the concentration camps, especially the one in his own village. Izzy has heard that reaction many times.

One young German in his early 30’s, when asked on this trip about Germany’s role in WWII and the Holocaust said loudly “It’s over”-meaning the war and that era should be put behind all of us. Should it be forgotten? Is it time to move on? Is it really over?

I can tell you for Auschwitz survivor Israel Arbeiter it’s not that simple and the answer is no. The lessons of that time have to be talked about and preserved. If not for him, then for the six million who cannot be heard any longer. Those voices silenced in the cruelest way possible just because of who they were and what they believed in. Izzy speaks for them. He must carry on. If you have ever visited Auschwitz or Treblinka then you will understand why.

Thank you for following this blog the past week and we hope you have enjoyed tracking Israel Arbeiter’s travels. If you would like to help us in our efforts to fully-fund this important documentary film project, you can donate via: www.wwiifoundation.org. Thanks Izzy for allowing us to be a part of this incredible experience.

Prisoner A18651 Returns to Auschwitz

Contributed by Tim Gray, chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. For more information about the foundation, visit www.wwiifoundation.org

The majority of Holocaust survivors have not the desire nor the will to return to the place where they lived through the most disturbing moments of their life and watched others die in ways still not easy to describe more than 70 years later.

Today in Oświęcim, Poland, 87 year old Israel Arbeiter confronted his past for most likely the final time. He did it on his terms. He held his head high and walked with a crisp step. He wore a Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series baseball cap, dress pants and sneakers and carried a bottle of water with him at all times.

It was a far cry from the striped uniform the German SS made him wear in 1944 designating him as a Jew and that he could die at any time the Nazis so chose.

The German SS could have shot Israel Arbeiter, hanged him, starved him to death, gassed him, thrown him in a pit of already burning corpses or just left him to decompose as a result of disease. In reality, Izzy could die in any fashion his captors could dream up. There also wasn’t any bottled water back then. In fact, Izzy was lucky if he could find any drink or food at all. He was sure he was going to die here. It was almost certain.

Fast forward now to a beautiful Friday in April of 2012. On this sunny and warm morning , thousands of miles from his home in America, Izzy Arbeiter walked through the gates into Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is part of the Auschwitz complex in southern Poland (3 camps in all, about an hour from Krakow). Auschwitz-Birkenau or Auschwitz II as it is also known, is a place where trains pulled directly into the camp from the outside world and as you stepped off your over-crowded, wretched-smelling cattle car, you were told to go to the left or the right. Either way determined whether you lived a little bit longer or died that very day in the gas chambers.

The young and strong had the best chance to live and Israel Arbeiter had one thing going for him, he was a determined teenager from Plock, Poland who had made his father a promise to stay alive and also keep alive his Jewish tradition.

Because of his youth and strength Izzy was “fortunate” in that he would be forcibly worked to death as a slave laborer for the German war machine instead of killed right away. Izzy was told to go to the right.

On Friday, April 27th, 2012 as Israel Arbeiter walked back into Auschwitz-Birkenau he felt free, because inside he knew he could leave the camp at any moment if he so chose and that the gates that once closed behind his train car in 1944 would not be making the sound of metal locking onto metal on this day in 2012.

Israel Arbeiter is a survivor.

This place could not kill him, no German Nazi could, even after they already had murdered his parents and younger brother in another death camp (Treblinka).

As Izzy walked around the camp today he had the air of someone who owned the place and the blue tattoo on his arm that read, A 18651, labeling him a prisoner of Auschwitz, pretty much gave him the right to say so if he wanted to. He didn’t.

His ability to walk freely around this place was enough for him and a silent statement that he had beaten the Nazis at their own game. Izzy was still alive and they were now all dead and residing in Hell.

Israel Arbeiter showed those with him today where people were killed. He stopped to talk about his life in the camp, even visiting what was left of his old prisoner barracks, number 28, now just a pile of bricks. The chimney and the foundation were still visible, but the wood siding and roof were gone. He showed his grandson Matt where his wife future wife (and Matt’s grandmother) Anna lived at Auschwitz II, the exact barracks where she and other female inmates slept and prayed.

He talked about how the gas chambers would be so busy that the Germans actually had a waiting area in the nearby woods where prisoners were politely asked by the SS guards to remain until it was their time to die (or as their guards told them, to take showers or be fed, whatever the lie). He (and we) sat on that very ground, under those very trees today, and listened to Izzy talk about what is what like watching those people wait. He knew what was going to happen to them and could do nothing about it. It was the killing of the young children that bothered him the most. I poked through the dirt with a stick while Izzy spoke, maybe hoping to find something buried by one of those who sat on the very spot I was now sitting on. Maybe if I did find something I could return it to a family member still living somewhere in the world. I found only more dirt.

Izzy talked about the finger nail marks on the inside of the gas chambers, where victims tried to claw their way out through concrete as the SS dropped Zyklon B gas into openings at the top. The finger nail marks remain today, a testament to those who fought to the very last second to stay alive.

I saw them myself and it made me ill. To stand in a gas chamber now and to see those marks on the wall is sickening. Just feet away from the gas chamber at Auschwitz I are several ovens. Victims were cremated within minutes of their death.

Truthfully, ever since we planned to film Izzy’s story here in Poland I have dreaded my first trip inside what today are memorials inside the gas chambers. It  was exactly how I thought it would be. Nauseating. I felt like I had just walked into another world. You could just feel the evil that occurred here.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II) Israel Arbeiter visited what was left of several of the crematoria buildings there. Several were blown up by the Germans in 1945 as they tried to destroy evidence of their mass murders and the burning of the victims bodies. The Russians were prepared to liberate Auschwitz. One of the crematoria was also blown up by prisoners using dynamite, part of a revolt in the camp that the SS quickly snuffed out. There were heroes everywhere here amongst the death.

Izzy stopped by a very small pond where fish nibbled at insects. Underneath the surface, the foundation of the pond was a mixture of sand, but mostly the ashes of those killed in the crematoria. Maybe that’s why the water color seemed go grey?

Izzy visited the building where he was given his tattoo and uniform and instead of being gassed, was given a real shower and disinfected.

Mostly, Israel Arbeiter talked. He feels the need to speak for those who did not survive here. Of the 1.3 million who came through the Auschwitz killing factories, an estimated 1.1 million died. Izzy speaks for them and his parents and younger brother. Everyone who suffered.

School kinds from Slovakia stop and talk with Izzy in front of an old cattle car still on the train tracks inside the camp. He tells these high schoolers to go home and kiss their parents and tell them they love them. He tells them to enjoy their day, but stops and laughs and says that “enjoying” was not what they should do here. Learn was probably a better word. He says God Bless America and God Bless Slovakia. They like that. The two generations part and they clap loudly for this 87 year old man. In a place like Auschwitz applause is not a sound heard very often.

It is now time for Israel Arbeiter to leave Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unlike 1944, no one will tell him he can’t. No one will stand in his way. He will no “go out through the crematoria” as his only means of escape, a phrase told to him when he arrived here in 1944. The only way out then they said was to die, be cremated and your ashes blown into the wind of Poland. That would be the only way to freedom.

Our guide on this day told us Auschwitz survivors rarely come back to visit the camp. The majority are now dead or too ill. Also, those still alive find it too difficult.

On April 27th, 2012 Israel Arbeiter and his grandson Matt walked through the front gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau leaving for the last time. Israel Arbeiter never looked back to say goodbye.

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

Izzy Arbeiter Waves Goodbye to Plock

Israel Arbeiter said his final goodbye today to his home city of Plock, Poland.

At 87, Arbeiter will most likely never again be healthy enough to return to the city that gave him life 87 years ago, but is now more remembered as the place where he last saw his mother, father and youngest brother alive. His father’s final words before the Nazis separated his family in the city square were both calm and powerful: “Izzy please make sure to carry on the Jewish tradition.”

From Plock, 14 year-old Israel Arbeiter was sent to a slave labor camp and his parents and younger brother put on a train bound for the death camp at Treblinka. At Treblinka Arbeiter’s family was gassed and cremated. Another brother disappeared and hasn’t been seen since. One other brother also survived the Holocaust.

As our film crew left today Arbeiter passed Plock’s beautiful city hall building, in the foreground, a sparkling water fountain danced in the sunlight. How different a scene it was for Izzy to witness today as compared to 1939 when the German SS and Gestapo entered the city and people started to disappear. There was no sunshine then, only gathering clouds of impending death.

As we drove through the Polish countryside bound for Krakow, I asked Izzy many questions about his younger days. Every answer began with joy, but ended in sorrow.

Last night we stopped at the Treblinka death camp. It was already past dusk when we pulled into a small area about 150 yards from the center of what was then the camp. The Germans did their best to hide the camp when they left, tearing as much down as possible to leave no traces of their crimes behind. But such a mass-muder could never be covered up and today, on this ground where Israel Arbeiter’s family once stood and breathed their last breath, Izzy also said his goodbyes to them.

In the darkness he spoke to his father, quietly whispering in such low tones that it was hard to hear from just yards away. He reassured his father he had kept his promise from that last day they were together in Plock and kept his family’s Jewish tradition alive. Next to Izzy stood the proof, his grandson Matt, who also wept for the pain his grandfather still felt and all those souls around him who cried and pleaded for their own lives more than 70 years ago.

The grounds of Treblinka were quiet. A half-moon peaked through the tall pines, and stars blinked in a cloudless Polish sky. There was hardly a breeze or a noise from the nearby woods. It was quiet. Death occurred here and you didn’t need any man-made signs to tell you that. You smelled it, but there was no odor. You could see it, but there were no bodies or walking skeletons visible. It was just total blackness, a deep dark color that was actually darker than black, if that is possible. It was the devil’s waiting room and all the lights were off, yet you didn’t feel scared for yourself, just sad for them.

As Israel Arbeiter walked across Treblinka, the shadows danced on the memorials put in place to honor all the cities, towns and villages in Poland where the victims of the camp arrived from. Izzy stood by the stone with the name Plock on it, his grandson Matt just inches away. The tears came running down his face, illuminated only by the low light of our video camera and a small flashlight nearby.

As emotional as this was for Israel Arbeiter, it will be much worse on Friday as he returns to the place whose name still makes him stop and stare off into the distance, Auschwitz. It was here where Izzy Arbeiter was sure he saw the Devil. He was wearing a black uniform with SS on it and he was hell-bent on one thing: killing as many people as possible and making sure they suffered tremendously in the process.

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

Page-by-Page 1940

Most of my relatives lived in San Francisco in 1940.  While looking for a particular address in an ED I scan every name on every page hoping to find someone who’s address is unknown.  So far I’ve found three maternal and two paternal families living near each other.  Mine eyes have seen the glory! 

Linda Galley