Several weeks ago I invited Temple member Isabella Fiske to speak at the congregation’s annual Yom HaShoah service, which took place yesterday evening. Isabella grew up at Temple B’nai Abraham; her father, Mark Schonwetter, was a hidden child during World War II and her mother, Luba Schonwetter, was born in Russia just after the war. I thought it would be interesting to listen to Isabella’s thoughts on an upbringing so much in the shadow of the Holocaust, and the impact it had on who she is today.
If you weren’t there, you missed something amazing. Isabella told stories of her family’s experiences in Europe which made it clear their survival was part miracle and part due to the unimaginable tenaciousness of her grandmother. Isabella noted the differences between herself and her peers growing up in Livingston, and shared personal observations about herself, her family and how she sees the world.
To say we were riveted and moved is an understatement.
I am pleased to share the texts of Isabella’s remarks. Even reading them to yourself, silently, their power will come through.
Yom HaShoah: The “Next” Generation
by Isabella Fiske, 4/27/2014
When the Rabbi emailed me to ask me to speak today his first question was, “What was it like growing up as a daughter of a Holocaust Survivor?” Well the fact is, I don’t know any other way of growing up. But the first thought that always comes into my mind when someone asks me about my father and family history is “Proud!” I am proud to be the daughter of a Holocaust Survivor! Proud that I had a female role model, my Grandmother, to look up to. Due to her bravery, courage and “street smarts” she escaped a ghetto with two young children and survived years of unimaginable circumstances. Proud because I have a father that when he was a child at the age of 7 he realized the danger his family was in and instead of being a child he became a man and helped protect his mother and sister by being a SURVIVOR!
For those of you that don’t know the story of Mark Schonwetter, I will give you a brief synopsis. Born in Brzotek, Poland he is considered a Hidden Child. Meaning he survived the war on the run, with his Mother and younger sister. They spent 3 years running from the Nazi’s, hiding in the woods during the warm weather months and being hidden in attics and pig pens of kind Polish people during the winter months.
When I was a child my father always spoke openly about his life, therefore, I don’t ever remember a time that I did not know him as a Holocaust survivor. I never realized that my knowledge at such a young age was rare. My sister wrote a paper in high school about our father and she had the class fill out a questionnaire about the Holocaust. It was sad to learn that so many kids were not aware of the real atrocities that took place during the War.
I remember being a little girl and asking him questions about his childhood and asking him to explain to me what a Ghetto is. He tried to explain that it was a community of houses and streets that were fenced off to keep the Jews in and many people were forced to live together in one home. As he described this I would picture the large house I lived in on Trombley Dr. in Livingston and the few streets around it and thought, “not so bad, right!?” Well clearly it was not what I pictured and he would continue to tell my sister and I the stories of his childhood. Living in the Dembitze Ghetto for 6 months, heads were shaved to avoid getting lice, the only food they had to eat would be 1 slice of bread and a bowl of soup, which was really only warm water, a day. Diseases and illnesses running through the Ghetto that you tried to avoid and soldiers walking the streets with guns and barbed wire fences keeping the Jews in like animals. Let me back track for a moment and tell you how my father, aunt and Grandmother ended up in the Ghetto.
Prior to the Nazi’s invasion of the my father’s city, Broztek was a small town with 30% of its population being Jewish and my Grandfather was the leader of the Jewish Community. When the Nazi’s came to town it was very common for them to take my Grandfather away to their headquarters and question him about various things. One evening they came for him and he did not return home. Late that night the wife of the Polish Police Chief knocked on my Grandmother’s door and said that she must leave immediately with her children, the woman told her that my Grandfather would not be returning home and the Germans will be looking for them in the morning. Not knowing what to do she seeked out help from a neighbor. He told my Grandmother to leave my father with him for the night and he took my Grandmother and aunt to his cousin’s house the next town over. Sure enough the next morning the Germans came looking for the Chronometers’. Knowing that the neighbor was employed by my Grandfather and a friend they knocked on his door looking for them. The neighbor, Mr. Piwat said he had no idea where the Schonwetter’s were, the Germans saw that he had a lot of children and asked the oldest child how many brothers and sisters does she have? Without hesitation she responded 11, even though she only had 10 but she knew my father was among them. The soldiers counted the children and she was correct. Mr. Piwat told his kids to run into the farm to do their chores and he told my father to run into the woods and he would come looking for him later. And so that is what my father did. After hiding in the woods by himself till night fall Mr. Piwat finally came for him and brought him back to my Grandmother and aunt. He had heard that the only safe place for Jews at this time was in the Ghetto so he brought them there to live. I think about that night a lot. I think about how would I have reacted if I was woken up in the middle of the night and my entire life as I knew it would be forever changed. As a child I often wondered if I could have been as brave as my father and as a mother I often hope that G-d forbid anything terrible were to happen I could be the brave woman my Grandmother was and protect and save my children the same way she did. My father is my life, he is my best friend and to know that my father did not get the chance to even know his father always makes me sad.
After 6 months living in the ghetto a little boy came to my Grandmother and said a gentleman was looking for her from the other side of the fence. She went to see who was asking for her and to her surprise it was Mr. Piwat. He got word that everyone was be deported from the ghetto the next day and he was here to help them escape. He told her to throw my father and aunt over the barbed wire fence and he would catch them. Not an easy task for a woman to do over a but being only 7 and 5 years old and paper thin from malnourishment she was able to do it. Once father and aunt were safely over he threw a blanket on top of the fence and told her to climb over. Somehow they were lucky and no one saw them. He arranged for them to change their clothes, have a little food to eat and escape into the wilderness. The 3 of them survived in the woods for summer but once the weather started to get cold my Grandmother knew they needed to find shelter. My father would tell us that when my Grandmother would search for places/people to take them in she never would stay with someone that was quick to accept her. If she asked someone to hide them for the winter and they said “sure come in” my Grandmother would pass on the offer knowing that they could not be trusted and would not be safe. But if a person was scared and hesitant to take in her family because the danger was too great she knew then that was a safer family to trust and she would beg them for help.
My Grandmother learned after the war was over that my Grandfather was killed. She learned that the night my Grandfather did not return home, the next day the Police Chief opened the door to the jail my Grandfather was in. He told my Grandfather “to take a walk”. My Grandfather left the jail and a few minutes later he returned. The Police chief said, ” what are you doing? I told you to take a walk. Don’t you understand what I am trying to tell you?” My Grandfather’s response was, ” Yes I totally understand, but you do not. If I leave here tonight and save myself then you will have me as an excuse to blame to everyone else that I am the reason for their deaths. I will not escape to save myself. I will stand with my fellow Jews.” And so he did. For a month he was sent to work in the forest along with other Jews to dig a huge hole. One day those Jews would not return from the forest.
It always amazed me that while I would be running off to play with my friends or being shuffled from Hebrew and Ballet school my father at that same age would be living in a hole underground with his mother and sister, the size only fitting for the three of them to lay down on their back, under the floor boards of a pig pen. He would tell my sister and I how he would look through the cracks of the floor boards and see the birds flying outside and he would ask his mother, “Why are the birds allow to fly freely and we are not?” He wished he could be a bird. And my grandmother would reply to him, ” One day we will be free to fly”. My father would teach us to appreciate the things we were given but to also always be on guard for the things we have. I was taught to trust only my family and always be on guard of the people around me and my surroundings. I was taught not to talk too much and only answer the question that is being asked of you. Never give too much information. I thought this to be normal and all children were taught to be this cautious but looking back I know that yes even though these are important things that we teach our children, these were lessons my father learned early on as a matter of life or death.
As a young child I embraced my father’s stories. I would ask questions always being curious to hear about my Grandmother, Aunt and him. I remember even though I loved to hear his stories I hated to hear the name Hitler and I couldn’t bear to see a Swastika. I had a real hatred for that symbol, as we all do, but I couldn’t even bear to look at it or speak of it. My father, ironically enough, would always be more forgiving. He would say to me that it is important to speak of the history and the stories. It is important to speak of Hitler and what the Swastika meant because if we/I, he would say, wouldn’t talk to you and others about what happened to me and Baba and Zosia, then people will forget and it could happen again. I never want it to happen again!”
I know the stories my father would tell like the back of my own hand. Sometimes I believe I could tell them better than my father. They have become a part of me, a part of my soul.
I always knew I was different from my friends. Being first generation born in America, my mother, born after the war is from Russia and came to this country after going to Poland with her parents and brother. I always realized that my upbringing was different. My parents would speak to us in Polish when I was young and I remember yelling at them to speak to us in English. “You are in America now, speak English” I would say. And so eventually they would and I never learned to speak Polish. That is one of the biggest regrets in my life. By not learning the language I was never able to truly communicate with my Grandmother. She lived in Israel with my Aunt and the only language she spoke was Polish, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Funny I say she only spoke actually I should say I only spoke English. What a fool I was. The one person, the one woman, I looked up to my entire life I could not communicate with unless I had an interpreter like my mother or father to translate our conversations. Which they did, especially my mother. The stories I loved to hear from my father I was never able to understand from my Grandmother.
I always laugh because my father has always been surrounded by women in his life. Lucky Guy, right?! Well first his mother and sister and then my mother, sister and me. My parents raised my sister and I to be strong, independent women. To stand up for what we believe in and that we could accomplish anything. My father survived a war and emigrated from Poland in 1957 to Israel and then in 1961 here to America. He came to this country with $5 to his name and not speaking a word of English. The real American Dream! It’s the stories of his life both during and after the war that has impacted my life and made me the person I am today. I have always asked my father and I still ask him even today, ” How did you do it?” He never really gives me an answer. And if you know my father he is good at getting around an answer!
I assume every child grows up having stories of their parents childhood and embraces an interesting one that might affect their own beliefs down the road. I am very aware that the person I was as a child and the adult I am today is very much a result of the life my father experienced.
My husband would often make fun of me and say I was born 50 years too late. I was always too mature for my age, liking foods and music that was more for adults than children. But I guess that was because my parents always treated my sister and I as adults. They never babied us. They never sheltered us from bad things. Instead they spoke to us and explained about real life and taught us that you can’t be afraid but you have to face things straight on. I have been to Israel many times in my life but I remember when I went for the first time all by myself. I was 14 years old and traveling half way around the world to go visit my Grandmother and Aunt for 2 weeks over the summer. My father wanted to give some money to his family so I remember he took a sum of cash, wrapped it in a handkerchief and sewed it to the inside of my jeans that I would be wearing on the plane. He told me not to tell anyone about the money and when going through security to remember to only answer the questions that were being asked and nothing else. Now you have to realize I was a 14 year old girl traveling by myself. We had no cell phones so once I left my parents I was completely alone until I saw my Grandmother 15 hours later in Israel. But I was not nervous or scared to go through security and travel by myself. Having the cash sewn into my jeans wasn’t even something I thought twice about. Because even though I was 14 years old I was taught at a very young age that fear was never an option. That being on my own wasn’t a big deal. While today we live in the post 9/11 era we are constantly being told to pay attention to our surroundings and always be aware of who and what is around you, these are teachings that I have heard and learned my entire life.
I remember my father telling us a story of a time they were living in the woods. My Grandmother, father and aunt came upon a group of people that happened to have been their cousins hiding in the same forest. The cousins told my grandmother to stay with them and they would hide together. She said she did not want to be with so many people and took her children to a different part of the forest. The cousins called her crazy but she did not care. Later that evening she heard gunfire in the direction of where her cousins were sitting. Somehow knowing that the soldiers would be going deeper into the forest to look for more people hiding like herself she took her children and went toward the gunfire. She escaped once again from near death but unfortunately her cousins were not as lucky. It is with this intuition and downright “trusting your gut” my Grandmother, father and aunt survived the war. She never cared what others said about her and she never followed what others did. She was a smart woman that knew she could only trust herself and her priority was to keep her children alive. Stories like this molded me into the person I am. Until I met my husband I always lived my life with a wall up. I never truly trusted anyone except for my immediate family and I would never really show my emotions. I was aware of these traits I carried but never really knew why I was like that. As an adult I look back at my childhood and I now understand why.
As the year’s went on I was proud of my father. He would come into my classes to speak of his childhood. But not until I became a parent myself did I really realize how proud and important his stories are to share. When I gave birth to Jason, even though my father was already a Grandfather of two beautiful granddaughters, his first Grandson really touched his heart. I remember on Jason’s 7th birthday my father came up to me and with a look of sorrow but happiness, a look I had never seen before, he said to me, “Can you imagine, this is how old I was when the war started and we went into hiding?!” In all my life, in all the years of him telling me his stories, they were just stories. Seeing Jason, 7 years old, made it a reality to me of just how young my father really was.
I was fortunate enough to visit Poland on two occasions both with my father. The first trip we took was my father’s first time returning to his homeland. I was about 20 years old and the experience was extraordinary. Seeing the home my father lived in before the war and seeing the attic he once hid in during a winter finally allowed me to make the stories I always heard come to reality. I met the daughter of Mr. Piwat that saved my father’s life by saying there were 11 children in the home. I walked the streets where my father, aunt and Grandmother ran away from. But it was on my second trip back to Poland that really affected me the most. It was in 2009 I went back to Poland with my father, mother, sister, Aunt, Uncle and cousin. The reason for our trip was to re-certify a destroyed Jewish cemetery in my father’s home town of Broztek. Prior to the Nazi’s invasion Broztek had a population of 500 Jews. After the war only 5 survived, 3 of them being my father, aunt and Grandmother. A few years prior to 2009 a religious studies Professor from Oxford took it under his wing to campaign the State of Poland and the Rabbinical School of Rabbi’s to re-establish this cemetery that was destroyed during the war and all that remained was an empty lot of land. The Professor finally got permission and he reached out to the Mayor and Priest of Broztek to help him rebuild a holy site. Amazingly, the entire community got behind this project. By the time the cemetery was ready to be unveiled the people of Broztek found remnants of 30 headstones throughout the town. Whether they were used over the years as patios, masonry for buildings or just scrap, the people realized the importance of this and rallied to bring them back to their original origin. Prior to the unveiling of the cemetery we gathered at the town hall which also houses the jail my Grandfather was taken to just before his death. We gathered there to unveil a memorial plague. The plague reads: “In memory of the Jewish Community of Broztek its Rabbi’s, Teachers, Shopkeepers and Artisans and all families. In memory of the 500 Jewish Men, Women, and children of Broztek murdered by the Germans in 1942 in the Podzamcze forest, in Belzec Death Camp and other unknown places.” After this ceremony lead by the Head Rabbi of Poland we proceeded to walk through the town to the cemetery. As I approached the site I was shocked by what I saw. Hundreds of people from the community, both young and old came to attend this very historical moment. Speeches were made by the Rabbi, Priest of Broztek and mayor saying how important of a day this was. When the cemetery gates were opened for the first time in over 65 years we walked in to see the headstones that were put back together. We were amazed to see that one of the headstones was that of my Great Grandfather. Also there were 3 brand new headstones that were being unveiled that day, and one was for my Grandfather, Israel Schonwetter. It meant the world to me to hear Kaddish being said for my father’s father. My father always taught me to be strong and stand up for what I believe in. Knowing that my Grandfather, the person I am named after, died for something he believed in makes me proud. Later that afternoon my sister and I went up to the Mayor and thanked him for this memorable day. He said, “Don’t thank me, this has to be done and I am just sorry it has taken so long.” We learned that up until this point the children never learned about the Holocaust in school and now the town has instated into their school curriculum required classes to teach the children about the Holocaust and the truths about what happened in their own country. To hear these words spoken and know that the future generations will learn about the real history of the war makes me feel that there is still hope and the hell that my father, aunt, Grandmother and millions of other Jews experienced will not be forgotten.
Two years ago my father returned to Poland for a third time. I unfortunately was not able to attend. The same Professor from Oxford organized a group of people to attend another ceremony this time the site was in the Podzamcze forest. Historians found at the site a rock engraved by an anonymous person saying: “In the memory of 260 Jews. Men, women and children from Broztek and surrounding areas buried in this mass grave on August 12, 1942.”
My younger son Jared is named after both of my father’s parents. My husband and I would always be amazed how fearless a child he is. We would always say he is “tough as nails and has no fear”. I would always give the credit to his namesakes. “He takes after Baba and my Grandpa” I would tell my husband! But not until my parents came back from their last trip from Poland did I really realize how true my jokes had been. When my parents showed me the picture of the rock my heart sank. The date on the rock, the date my Grandfather died, was the same day that Jared was born 62 years later. All I could do was cry!
My Grandmother passed away in 2002 at the age of 94. She lived independently until the day she died and lived a happy life surrounded by her children, 5 Grandchildren, and at the time 5 Great Grandchildren with the 6th on the way. From one woman’s survival her legacy now has 11 Great Grandchildren. She never spoke of her age and consequently my father does not like to speak of his. I never understood why until just recently I heard a new story from my father that I never knew before. He said that Baba, that is actually what I called my Grandmother, never believed in birthdays because every day they survived the war felt like a new birthday. We were all very lucky to have her and every day we still celebrate her 94 years.
As my boys get older I see the joy my father has to be able to experience things with his grandchildren that he never had the opportunity to do. As children we don’t realize how fortunate we are but being an adult and having my own children, my father’s life is that much more significant to me. Simple things like learning how to swim or riding a bike my father never learned to do. But the love he has and joy I have watching my father watch his grandsons grow into men naturally and not forced through fear and terror is something precious that only a child of a Survivor can appreciate. So you ask me what is it like being a child of a survivor? It is something that I live with every day as my father lives with being a Survivor every day. It is something that we know no differently. His life has affected the way I was raised and the way I will raise my children. Of course we all wish these atrocities never happened. But it Did! And because of that I am Proud to be Mark Schonwetter’s daughter and I am Proud to be a Jew!
Photos courtesy of Robert A. Cumins