Text: Inge Franken and Sophie N.
On Wednesday 7th February Karina, Sophie from the John Lennon College and I left the Hauptbahnhof-Berlin at 6.30 a.m. on our way to Pysznica, Stalowa Wola, Sokolow Malapolski, hoping to find traces of father and brother Süssmann. These places are mentioned in a few documents which Tosca has about her father and brother. We could not imagine that there were no traces at all left of their existence.
When we at last arrived in Lublin after 8 hours travel, we were welcomed firstly by snow and then by our „tour guide“ Gregorz. I had imagined him to be different, but it turned out very quickly that we were very lucky to have him and not only because he had a heated car. He drove us directly to our hotel on the edge of town. Karina and I shared a double room. After we had unpacked we met again to discuss the situation.
We decided to meet again next morning at 9 to drive to Stalowa Wola, because that is where we suspected the death camp in which Aron and Jacob were last heard of had been. We used the rest of the evening to walk through the very slippery inner city.
Gregorz picked us up after breakfast next morning and we drove to the local museum in Stalowa Wola in the hope of picking up some information about the camp.
It soon became clear to me that there would definitely not be any old people in the area around Stalowa Wola who had lived there in the forties. The population was completely exchanged after the end of World War 2: The Jews had been murdered, the Ukrainians driven out and Poles living in what was now the Ukraine, were resettled in the deserted places.
As not many people in Poland speak German, English or Russian (yes, Karina speaks Russian), our good friend Gregorz also became our interpreter, although this did not help much because there was hardly any information about the camp available. No one knew where it had been, let alone did anyone have a list of the inmates. The only thing we received were a few eye-witness reports, which, however, were in Polish. Oh yes, and the nice woman in the museum presented us with a book about Polish Jews. After that we went to the exhibition in the upper part of the museum.
In the exhibition there was even a small corner about the former Jewish inhabitants, but no original exhibits. They had been brought from elsewhere.
We then went to what was the approximate locality of the camp and were very astonished when we arrived. I had expected anything: ancient sheds with memorial plaques or an exhibition, but none of this existed. It was a village with numbers of one-family houses, one could almost say it was idyllic. There were no signs of what had happened there only a few decades ago.
There had been a metal factory in Stalowa Wola. The Hermann-Göring-Werke from Braunschweig had produced steel there for arms and tanks. A camp was set up for Polish workers and Jewish prisoners a fair way from the factory. The Polish workers were given better food than the Jews. Sometimes the Jews asked for the left-overs, but the Poles preferred to throw it away rather than give it to them. The SS were unbelievably brutal. A survivor, Maks Resler, writes in his report: „The Gestapoman Novak boasted in front of us: we were given 1839 Jews and killed them like dogs.“ Today one-family houses stand on the former camp, but we know: „Every spot there is a grave“.
We tried to speak to people in the old houses, but no one could tell us anything. The ghetto camp in Stalowa Wola existed until 21st July 1942, then the inhabitants were either taken to another ghetto in Debica or were murdered in Belzec. But both camps were closed at the end of July. (For information about the camps, see Gudrun Schwarz, Die nationalsozialistischen Lager, 1996.) From where did Aron try to escape? How long was he able to hold out? We found no answers to these questions.
From Stalowa Wola we drove to Pysznica which is where the parents married and the family lived for a while. Also, Aron and his father fled there after they had been released from Sachsenhausen in 1940.
There were many old houses which Gregorz recognised as having belonged to Jews, with small shops on the ground floor. Everything was in decay and the streets were either flooded with water or covered in mud.
I found it difficult to imagine that „our family“ had lived there. We drove past an old synagogue and I thought: „That is probably the synagogue in which the Süßmanns got married“, and I found this so sad that I wanted to attach a huge poster to the front of the building: The Süßmanns married here. They were killed by the Nazis. Never forget!!!
We found a fenced-in, closed Jewish memorial that commemorated the mass graves in Pysznica from the years 1942 and 1943. The year 1948 is engraved on one stone. What does that mean?
When we discovered the memorial I climbed over the fence to take a closer look at the stones and took some photos and at the same time pushed the thought away that I was probably walking over a mass grave…
The third stop on this day was Sokolov Mtp. Tosca mentioned that this had been the last place where her father had lived and it is said that he was killed there. The camp existed from 1st April to 7th July 1942. On 7th July those still alive were deported to Belzec and gassed immediately. There was a big building that had once been a synagogue. Today it is the village theater. There is no sign on the building of what it had once been. We also found an old cemetery. Many of the grave-stones had been thrown over, were crumbling and covered in weeds. All the inscriptions were in Hebrew and hardly decipherable. Karina could not stand the destruction in this cemetery, so we left very soon.
In contrast to Karina, I liked this cemetery. It was in such a decayed state with moss growing over the beautifully decorated grave-stones and when the sun went down, a beautiful light fell on the graves. I had the feeling that the people buried here had really found peace.
We arrived back at the hotel around 8 p.m. after a short break for food and drink at a restaurant. Karina recognised it. She had stopped there once before during a bus trip in the Ukraine. Karina did not want to join us on the next day for the trip to Belzec. She had had enough horrific impressions on that day together with her experiences in Sachsenhausen.
As Karina could not stay there alone and my boots were still completely wet from the day before, I stayed with her in Lublin. Gregorz drove us to the city centre and we spent the day sight-seeing and shopping.
On Friday morning I went to Belzec with Gregorz on my own. As we approached the Polish-Ukrainian border, we found only a very small sign showing the direction of the memorial placed at the beginning of the street leading to there. One can still see the railway station, the train tracks, everything is still in use. The memorial is only 4 years old. It is a huge field of ash that was put over the mass graves. On that cold winter day, the black ash was visible through the snow at only a few places. There is a description of how the prisoners were transported to the ovens on a path at the edge of the road, but this was very slippery and covered in snow, so I could not get close enough to read the places and dates. Gregorz and I were the only visitors on that midday. There was an impressive amount of information on the lower part, but I could not read it all. I had such a headache that we had to leave.
On the drive back we stopped at the beautiful 400 year-old city of Zamosc, saw the house where Rosa Luxemburg was born and houses where other well-known writers lived. We were back at the hotel around 5 p.m. I quickly got the girls out of their rooms.
„In farewell“ Gregorz showed us the beautiful city of Lublin, that we had, up to then, not seen anything of. And not only that. He also showed us his favourite restaurant in the old city. We immediately went inside and spent a pleasant last evening there.
To sum up I can say that we may not have found any concrete information about „our family“, but the journey was well worth while. I, at least, have learned much about Poland and above all about the effects of National Socialism on Poland, and in Gregorz we have met another nice person in this world, whom we can always ask for advice (if the subject is Poland). So, many thanks again to Gregorz…
Where did we find Jacob and Aron Süssmann? What did we find of them?
They had disappeared into nowhere.