By Leba Sonneberg
My father, Isidor (Yisroel Yitchak) Stern, z’l, was reluctant to tell me anything about his family that perished in the Holocaust. He and his younger brother, Naftali, z’l, were born in Berlin. My grandparents were born and married in Poland. They left Poland and moved to Berlin because of the anti-Semitism and pogroms that they endured in Poland. My grandfather, Nachum Stern, z’l, was from a small town 30 miles south of Cracow called Mszana Dolna. My grandmother, Leibe Feige, z’l (after whom I am named) was from a town nearby called Wisnitz.
After much prodding, when I was a young adult my father finally told me that after the war a man contacted him and related to him the yahrzeits of his parents and of his brother as well as the circumstances of their demise. It was my understanding that my grandparents lived a comfortable life in Berlin. My grandfather owned the apartment building in which he lived and had other business concerns as well.
For reasons that I am unable to comprehend, my grandparents did not feel threatened by the rise of Hitler and Nazism. At 17 years of age, my father was very concerned. After being slapped across the face by a Nazi in a public location, my father decided that since he was unable to secure entrance to Palestine, he would emigrate to America, where some family members (aunts, uncles, and cousins) had already moved. His parents did not object but would not allow him to take along his younger brother, who was just bar mitzvahed that year—1937. After Kristallnacht, my grandparents and uncle were expelled from Berlin and sent back to their Polish town of origin. A copy of their expulsion papers was provided to me recently by an archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.
I do not know much detail about the time that my father spent in Europe en route to America. Apparently he spent some time in France and some in England. He traveled on a large ship called the Aquitania for passage from England to the United States. My father was a resourceful and enterprising individual, and he made his way on his own in the U.S. and became a successful businessman manufacturing zippers.
In 1943, he rented a room in Boro Park in the house where my maternal grandparents lived. He had spotted my mother, Goldie Aronson, z’l, sitting on a bench in front of the house where a sign read “room for rent.” He courted my mother relentlessly as he was very much taken by her at first sight. They married in March 1944—and my father was drafted into the U.S. Army two weeks later. In many of the letters to my mother during his stint in the army, he asks her to contact various agencies in an attempt to ascertain information about his parents and brother, with whom he had lost contact shortly after Kristallnacht. When my older sister Sharon was born in October 1945, my father still had no knowledge about what happened to his family. By the time I was born in August 1948, he had gotten word.
I was named Leba Feige. My younger brother born in 1951 was named Nachum Naftali, after my grandfather and uncle.
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The circumstances of the murder of my grandparents, as told to me by my father (as related to him by a Mszana survivor), were that on August 19, 1942, 6 Elul, they were marched from the village square in Mszana Dolna to a nearby wooded area, where they were shot and thrown into a mass grave together with all the other Jews of the town. Only the young men were spared and sent to a labor camp. My uncle Naftali Stern, z’l, was among the young men. He reportedly died of typhus on December 25, 1942, 17 Tevet. He was 18 years old at the time of his death. Although I was curious for more information, realizing the great pain that this topic caused, I did not pursue further discussion. I have only one photograph of my grandparents with my uncle and one photograph of my grandmother holding my father as an infant. To the best of my knowledge, there are no other photographs of them that survived the war.
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My father passed away in November 2006. A short time thereafter, I visited the Holocaust museum in Manhattan, where I purchased a book from the sale table. A Voice in the Chorus by Abraham Zuckerman describes a young man’s life in Cracow prior to the war and the step-by-step deterioration of the quality of life of his family members and all the Jews from the late 1930s until the end of the war.
When I read a description of how the Jews living in Polish towns absorbed the Jews who were expelled from Germany, specifically Berlin, my interest was really piqued. I started to feel as if I was reading the story of my grandparents’ journey. The book describes how on August 13, 1942, the Jews of Dukla, a ghetto where the Jews of the surrounding towns including Rymanov were concentrated, were marched into the woods and shot at the edge of a pit into which the bodies fell. The author’s parents were among them. He was a strong young lad and was spared in order to work in a labor camp. After the war, the author returned to the town of Dukla, where there stands a matzeivah on the site of that massacre. As that murderous action chronicled in the book took place a mere six days before the Mszana Dolna massacre, it started me thinking about the possibility of there being some sort of demarcation at the site of my grandparents’ murder.
I started searching online for additional information about my grandparents and the town Mszana Dolna. I searched the Yad Vashem archives as well as those of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. I learned that the Nazi who was responsible for Jewish affairs in Mszana Dolna and who orchestrated the massacre was named Heinrich Hamann. He was described as one of the particularly cruel and brutal Nazis. He escaped to Argentina after the war, where he lived in comfort until 1960, when, while working as a waiter in a restaurant, he shot a customer over a conflict regarding the tip. He was then outed as a former Nazi and returned to Germany, where he was tried, convicted of many heinous war crimes—including the murder of the Jews of Mszana Dolna—and sentenced to life in prison. He died in prison.
Further research on a website called Jewish Genealogy guided me to other individuals from around the world who had searched the same town. I e-mailed all of them and discovered that many of them also had relatives in this mass grave in Mszana Dolna. One of the respondents asked me if I had seen “The List”—referring to the list from Mszana Dolna. I asked him to forward it to me. I could not believe my eyes when I first saw a copy of the list of 1,029 names, which comprised the census of all the Jews in Mszana Dolna as of June 1942. My grandparents’ names as well as my uncle’s name appear on the list: #654 Stern, Natan, 27-12-1880; #655 Stern, Leibe Feige, 24-11-1883; and #656 Stern, Naftali, 25-10-1924. Next to my uncle’s name there was a check, as there were next to all of the young males who were spared on August 19, 1942, the day that the Nazis massacred 881 Jews of Mszana Dolna.
Upon further research, I discovered that there was a matzeivah erected at the site of the massacre in Mszana Dolna. I learned how “The List” was held by a Polish man from the town who subsequently gave it to a survivor, Mr. Jacob Weissberger, when he returned to Mszana Dolna after the war.
• • •
I still didn’t know the particular circumstances regarding the death of my uncle and where he died. This query brought me back to my father’s story about the survivor who contacted him after the war with information about his family. I couldn’t remember his name, although I thought that my father must have mentioned it to me. I tried to get some information from my mother, but she was already not well. Her memory was inconsistent and she had no interest or desire to return to that particular unpleasant chapter of life. I knew that I had to find out who that man was who had contacted my father, and whether he was still alive.
I decided that it was imperative for me to travel to Mszana Dolna in order to visit kever avot and to see if I could find out more information about what had happened to my uncle from the day of the massacre on August 19, 1942, until the day of his death on December 25 of that year.
It would be several years before my sister Rena and I could make the trip to Poland, but during the spring of 2013 things started to come together. Through my other Mszana contacts, I learned that the officials in the town welcomed the descendants of the Jews who had once lived there. I was able to contact a woman, Agnieska Jozefika, who worked for the mayor, and she agreed to have a guide meet me in Mszana and show me the gravesite and other areas of Jewish historical interest in the town. I was ecstatic and extremely motivated to make this trip to Poland happen. I noted an advertisement in the Five Towns Jewish Times for a heritage trip to Poland in July 2013, but my sister and I both got busy with other things, and it appeared as if my pilgrimage was returning to the back burner.
I was planning my own February wedding to Alter Glass, the wonderful man whom I had been seeing for the past year. My granddaughter Sigal’s bat mitzvah and Pesach were coming up soon after that.
At my wedding, my sister Rena had the perfect occasion to talk to two of my father’s cousins, Josh Adler and Margaret Sussman. Among the topics of conversation was my research into Mszana Dolna and our plan to travel to Poland. As it turned out, Josh Adler’s nephew was leading a tour to Poland in July 2013. Josh gave my sister the information about the Jewish Heritage tour led by his nephew Rabbi Aron Adler of Yerushalayim. We subsequently contacted Rabbi Aron Adler and signed on for his July tour of Poland.
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My cousins Margaret Sussman, Rabbi Yossi Adler (Aron’s brother), and two of Aron Adler’s daughters were also in our tour group of 38. Over the ten days that we spent together, we toured the cities where Jewish life had been active and rich before the war. We saw many magnificent restored shuls and the remnants of many that were left in ruins. We visited many cemeteries where gedolim and martyrs were buried. We visited concentration camps and saw firsthand the places of the horrors that we read about for so many years. It was extremely difficult in the short time that we were in Poland to process all the history that was imparted to us by Rabbi Adler.
One morning, our guide from town, Joanna Huber, showed us where the shul once stood and where the Jewish neighborhood had once been. We visited the old cemetery, which miraculously had not been destroyed by the Nazis. We were taken to a small mass grave where 22 Jewish men were murdered by the Nazis on June 15, 1942. Then we came to the area of my grandparents’ gravesite. At the road there was a brass plaque mounted on a large stone dedicated to the memory of the Jews of Mszana Dolna. There was an attractive brick walkway leading to the gravesite. The walkway bears a sign naming it “Alley of the Holocaust.” There is also a large sign with a full description (in Polish) of all that happened to Jewish population of Mszana Dolna on August 19, 1942.
Rena and I walked the path that had been the path of death for 881 Jews. We wept at the sight of the matzeivah that was erected there. We said the appropriate tefillot and we lit yahrzeit candles. We left photos and a family tree of the 22 descendants (to date, kein yirbu) of Leibe Feige, z’l, and Nachum Stern, z’l, who came to exist because their son, our father, Yisroel Yitzchak Stern, z’l, had the foresight to leave Europe in 1937.
Shortly before leaving the town, our guide there asked us if we knew Moses Aftergut, an individual who had been visiting the town every year on the yahrzeit of the massacre. The moment she uttered the name, it triggered a memory. Rena and I looked at each other. We immediately realized that he was the person we were looking for. Joanna promised to e-mail to me the information about Mr. Aftergut so that I might possibly be able to contact him.
After I returned home from Poland, I was all the more obsessed with my family research project. As promised, Joanna e-mailed me articles with photos about the visits of Moses Aftergut, the only known living survivor of the Mszana Dolna massacre. I was fascinated and I immediately forwarded them to a dear friend of mine, Tamara Klein, whom I had kept up to date on my research throughout the years of this project.
I got a phone call from Tamara right away. Now here is where the craziness begins. My friend of 30 years told me that she knows Mr. Aftergut well—I had crossed paths with him at all of her simchas. Her cousin is married to his only daughter, Chani. Tamara knew that he had been returning to a town in Poland regularly but never realized that it was to Mszana Dolna. I called Mr. Aftergut and we talked a bit. Yes, he knew my family in Mszana Dolna. Yes, his parents and siblings were also in the mass grave there. And yes, he was with my uncle in a labor camp after the massacre.
He related to me that in the camp, my uncle was ill with typhus so he was transferred from the labor camp to Rabka, where he died. Mr. Aftergut was the individual who contacted my father to tell him what had happened to his family and to provide the yahrzeits. I wanted to hear more from him, but it was difficult to continue on the phone. He agreed to meet with me.
In another strange turn of events, at dinner a few weeks later, when I mentioned the name Moses Aftergut to my friend Carol Lempel, she excitedly told me her father knew him in Poland and he was at her wedding. She too wanted to meet with Mr. Aftergut because he had letters that her father had written to him. Carol’s father passed away some years ago. We decided we would try to go together to visit Mr. Aftergut at his home, but the Afterguts are elderly and had been experiencing some health issues and were not up to having company. I was disheartened and I was getting the feeling that I would never get the opportunity to meet this man whom I had been seeking for so long.
In a conversation with my friend Tamara, I expressed my feelings of frustration. Tamara then mentioned to me that there was a simcha coming up in the family. The grandson of Mr. Aftergut was to be bar mitzvahed. The words just came out of my mouth: “I would like to come to the bar mitzvah.” Tamara agreed to call her cousin Chani, and Chani graciously invited me to attend her son’s bar mitzvah party.
The night of the bar mitzvah, in a shul in Flatbush, not far from where I grew up, I had the opportunity to sit with Mr. Aftergut while he related his memories of my family. He told me about life in Mszana Dolna before August 1942. He described the personalities of my grandparents and my uncle. He told me that one day while he and his friend Naftali (my uncle) were working on a road for the Nazis, a soldier approached and said that he was taking Naftali to a convalescent home in Rabka because he was too sick to do the work. Soon after that, Moses Aftergut continued, he received a letter from my uncle, which he recited to me verbatim in Yiddish and translated for me.
The letter said to consider the 17th of Tevet as his yahrzeit, as he knew that he would not be alive another day, and to get that information to his brother Yisroel Stern in America if possible. The letter contained an address in Boro Park and a telephone number.
Mr. Aftergut was in Bolivia for some time after leaving Poland and he arrived in Boro Park in 1946. (The story of his survival is a lengthy saga as well). The contents of the letter were in his head and he knew that he had a responsibility to deliver the information. He was able to contact my father (another story) and they agreed to meet in a restaurant in Boro Park. When my father walked in, Mr. Aftergut almost fainted because he looked so much like Naftali that he thought it was techiat hameitim.
With great difficulty, he gave my father the details about the August 19, 1942 massacre of the Jews of the town of Mszana Dolna, including my father’s parents and his own parents and siblings. He related the words of the letter he received from Naftali with his yahrzeit. At the time of this meeting, Moses Aftergut was about 20 years old and my father was 25.
He then went on to describe to me his many trips back to Mszana Dolna for the yahrzeit of the massacre and the ceremonies that are conducted there each year by the mayor of the town, other dignitaries, and schoolchildren. The matzeivah and the surrounding area are maintained by the municipality. He asked me to visit him at his home soon so that we could talk further.
When we sat down to dinner, I felt as if I’d come as close to closure with the past as I ever will. I was seated at the table near my dear friend Tamara of 30 years who, unbeknownst to me all these years, through which we shared so many good times and hard times, was strongly connected to me through family and past events. I sat next to Tamara Klein and her mother, Bertha Kurtz, and her sister-in-law Marcy Kurtz, all of whom I have known for many years, and I listened to Moses Aftergut, my uncle’s friend from Mszana Dolna in Poland, speak words of inspiration (in Yiddish, only some of which I was able to understand) to his youngest grandson. It was truly a feeling of great fulfillment for me. v