The Back Road: Was Winston Churchill right?

The Back Road: Was Winston Churchill right?

By Andrew Malekoff

At least once or twice a year, I comb through old folders, family albums, shopping bags and shoe boxes stuffed with photos, letters, postcards and such —— much of which I retrieved after my mom and dad died in the mid-1990s.

While I often think about making more space at home, I cannot seem to discard most of these sentimental objects. Instead, I organize and re-organize and I selectively share photos and other items with the younger generation in my family, telling them stories along the way. To my surprise, they enjoy learning about their family. Of course, I can use my phone camera and simply send them photos, which I do. However, I believe that it is holding the object and talking about it that sparks a connection.

I recently gave my niece Kate my mom’s eighth-grade graduation book. It is not the typical graduation yearbook, but a much smaller leather-bound album, probably about 6-by-4 inches in size. There are no photos. It is filled with handwritten memories with a few doodles here and there. Mostly there are congratulations and good wishes from high school from friends, teachers, and family.

The first thing Kate remarked on was the beautiful penmanship and most literate inscriptions by my mom’s classmates. She said, “These kids were in eighth grade?” I remembered that Kate had told me that she wished she had known her grandmother as she was a very young child when she died. This was a way of helping her to do just that, using an historical artifact as a sort of “talking stick” to foster conversation about family history.

In one of my recent rummaging ventures, I came across an envelope that was mailed to the United States from Tarnow, Poland. It was stamped Nov. 22, 1940, and addressed to my maternal grandfather, Harry Goldberger, who emigrated from Poland to the U.S. in the early 1900s. My grandfather owned the Pride of Newark bar and grill, which was in Newark, N.J., from the 1940s to the 1970s.

It was startling to see swastikas on the postage stamps, as well as an insignia representing the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), the High Command of armed forces of Nazi Germany, which technically had oversight over the German Army and the Luftwaffe. Nevertheless, Hitler manipulated military branch leadership, pitting one against the other, a divide-and-conquer strategy that put most military decisions in his own hands.

I felt the need to learn more, so I did some digging. As you know, World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. The U.S. did not join the war effort until after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The letter to my grandfather from Poland arrived in New Jersey a year after the invasion, at which time the Nazis had already eradicated the boundaries of Poland and were preparing for the genocide that took the lives of 3 million Polish Jews —— half of all Jews killed during the Holocaust.

Soon after the German occupation of Tarnow on Sept. 8, 1939, harassment of Jews was started and Nazi units torched most of the city’s synagogues on Sept. 9 and placed Jews into forced labor.

There were about 25,000 Jews in Tarnow when deportations to killing centers commenced. By September 1943, the 10,000 Jews who survived the ghetto were deported. Seven thousand were transported to Auschwitz, where thousands were killed in gas chambers each day. Another 3,000 were sent to the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow. Thousands more were killed there, mostly by shooting.

By the end of 1943, Tarnow was declared by the Nazis “free of Jews.” The overwhelming majority of Tarnow Jews had been murdered. Among the hundreds who returned to Tarnow after liberation, most left to escape antisemitic attacks by locals.

Finding this envelope left me with many questions, especially since there was no letter inside. I couldn’t have the conversation I had with my niece Kate, as the generation before me was almost all gone or knew little about this envelope or who mailed it. Was my grandfather from Tarnow? Who mailed the letter? A cousin? Great uncle or aunt? Were they deported to the camps? Were they put into forced labor? Tortured? Shot? Gassed? Incinerated? Did they survive?

Looking back a few years earlier, Hitler was installed as chancellor in 1933. After German President Paul von Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler combined the chancellorship and presidency under his new title of führer. Although führer means “leader” in German, if you search the meaning today, you might find “ruthless, tyrannical dictator” as Hitler gave the word a new meaning.

As the German economy improved, popular support for Hitler increased, and a cult of führer worship was advanced by his propagandists. The Holocaust was well underway seven years later when the envelope from Tarnow was stamped.

Is it just a cliché or was Winston Churchill right when he said in a 1948 speech to the British House of Commons, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it?” Can you imagine the damage that a modern-day führer could do in just a few short years? Someone with a cult of personality following who believes he can operate above the law, with unlimited power and total control of the military?

I can.

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