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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

Israel Arbeiter Returns To Plock

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

Israel Arbeiter was 14 when the Germans took over his city of Plock, Poland on September 3, 1939. There were an estimated 10,000 Jews living in Plock (pronounced Plotsk) in 1939. You would be hard pressed to find a handful in 2012, maybe 2 or 3?  Where did they all go? Treblinka death camp, Auschwitz concentration camp, hanged, shot, deported, simply murdered; all part of the Nazis effort to rid Poland and all of Europe of those not fit to be a part of the aryan race. It would eventually be called “the Final Solution to the Jewish question”-all Jews must die. Israel Arbeiter was a Jew.

Today, on the actual day Izzy Arbeiter turned 87 years old, this resident of Massachusetts returned to Plock. His apartment, which he once shared with his parents and four other brothers, has been condemned; much like all the Jews were in Plock in 1939 as the Germans swept through eastern Europe.

The neighborhood Israel Arbeiter once called home is full of unfamiliar faces. All his old friends were rounded up in the center square of the city and killed by the SS. The barber who lived next door was sent off to a death camp, same with the butcher, the people who lived in the apartment above him were sent away and their father hanged in the public square. His old apartment windows, where this teenager once dreamed of what was to come in life, are now boarded up.

It was painful for Izzy Arbeiter to come home to Plock today. He was once happy, like all of those who lived in this small city, until the SS and Gestapo arrived. He used to play soccer with his friends or just meet them in the street to play. Nobody ever had to worry about leaving their front door unlocked or their children going down the street to meet friends. Plock was a community in the truest sense of the word. Everyone looked after one another.

Now everyone is gone. Israel Arbeiter sits on what was once the front entrance to his apartment. If he listens closely enough he can still hear the laughter of his mother or take in the smells coming from her kitchen as she would cook his favorite dinner. He hears his father come home from his job as a tailor. He would listen as his brothers would get louder and louder as they approached his street, and there they were! Those Arbeiter boys.

But this is now and that was then. Izzy’s parents were sent off to Treblinka along with his younger brother. They were gassed and cremated there. Another brother just disappeared and hasn’t been seen in 73 years. Izzy and one brother did survive, but their life in Plock would never be the same.

After visiting the place where his family was torn apart. Israel Arbeiter had a stop to make before heading back to his hotel in Warsaw. Three hours away he would pay his final visit to Treblinka to say goodbye to the ghosts of his parents and younger brother whose lives were taken at Treblinka simply because of their faith. It was dark when Izzy arrived and the visitors had long since left. Israel Arbeiter, alone with a flashlight,  had the sounds of Treblinka all to himself. A bird would chirp here..a dog barked way off in the distance, but mostly there was a quiet calm. He said a prayer. It was as close as he has been to his parents and younger brother in years. At least that’s how Izzy felt. Like all those murdered at Treblika their souls still can be heard if you listen closely enough as the wind gently whispers its story through the trees. Trees that once stared down on unspeakable horrors.

Thursday Israel Arbeiter returns to Plock and his apartment one final time. He is in search of something his family left behind as the Germans started knocking on every door in the city. If he finds it, it will be the first time in 73 years he has held these items in his hands, items that were important to his family and the way they celebrated their faith. And despite what the Germans did to his family, faith is the one thing the Nazis could not take from Israel Arbeiter.

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