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One last journey into the night

Israel Arbeiter had to go back — to Auschwitz where he barely survived, and Treblinka, where his parents were murdered. He went seeking peace, but found little of it.

By David Filipov
Globe Staff / June 3, 2012
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PLOCK, Poland - Israel Arbeiter crawls through an opening on the ground floor of an abandoned building and descends into the dank, garbage-strewn cellar below.

The candlesticks. Where are the candlesticks?

He had last stood in this cellar about seven decades ago with his brother, Motek. Hitler had annexed a portion of Poland into his “Greater Germany.’’ Jews were being targeted for deportation. The boys’ father told them to bury what they wanted to save, silver candlesticks and other religious items that had been in the family for generations. They put them in a bucket and covered them with earth. They would be back someday. They were sure of it.

Now, Arbeiter, who goes by Izzy, peers through the darkness.

The digging has been going on for more than two hours. Izzy’s grandson and a family friend have raked through the basement, using shovels to probe through layers of dirt, sand, broken bricks, till, and wet clay. But the candlesticks are gone. Like so much else. His home, his parents, two of his brothers.

Izzy has traveled more than 4,000 miles from his Newton home to get here. It is not his first trip back to the towns and fields where he and his family encountered a Nazi regime intent on wiping out Jewish life in Europe. But, at 87, he believes it will be his last.

On his eight-day journey from his childhood home to the sites of concentration camps in Poland and Germany, Izzy revisits his darkest moments and recounts his miraculous escapes. His story echoes the terrible odyssey endured by a generation of Holocaust survivors that is slowly dwindling.

He has come, he says, to tell their story through his own. But his trip has a personal motivation as well. He has come to reclaim a remnant of what he lost, to say a final farewell to his parents. “To make my peace with what happened,’’ Izzy puts it, although he cannot say exactly what that would be.

He encounters kindness and good will, and a sincere effort among Poles and Germans to atone for the sins of the past. But peace, no. Peace eludes him at every turn.

. . .

On April 25, the day of his 87th birthday, Izzy is walking through a forest in the eerie half-light. Everything is still. Now and again a cuckoo makes its mournful call. He passes a long row of flat, rectangular stones spaced like railroad ties. And that is what they represent - the tracks upon which cattle cars brought people to this place to die.

This is the Treblinka death camp. Between July 1942 and August 1943, the Nazi SS troops murdered an estimated 900,000 Jews here. Izzy climbs a gentle slope toward the somber memorial to the victims - a monument surrounded by 17,000 jagged granite stones that look like the teeth of some giant predator. Each represents a town, city, or country from which people were sent here.

Izzy has visited before. He moves surprisingly quickly in the darkness. He wears a pacemaker and has trouble getting in and out of a minivan, but his grip is firm, his gait is steady, and he seems to find renewed strength when he gets close to his goal. Soon, he finds the marker inscribed with the name of his hometown, Plock. He has come one last time to say goodbye to his parents and youngest brother.

He last saw them alive on Oct. 27, 1942.

“The darkest day of my life, and it is still with me,’’ Izzy says.

That was the day SS troops entered the ghetto in Starachowice, the Polish town south of Warsaw where his family had arrived from East Prussia a year earlier after being deported from Plock. In the middle of the night the Germans ordered everyone into the Starachowice marketplace.

The SS separated the people into two lines. Those who they figured would make good slaves went into one line. Those they considered unfit went into the other.

The Nazis deemed Izzy and two of his brothers robust enough for work. They put his parents and his 7-year-old brother, Josek, into the other group.

Izzy remembers the soldiers shouting and ripping babies from the arms of mothers, tearing apart husbands and wives, dragging screaming children away from their parents. He remembers running over to the column where his mother and father were standing.

“I had never been separated from my parents,’’ he explains. “But my father realized what was happening.’’ Icchak Arbeiter sent his son back to the other column.

“He told me, ‘Children, go back over there, and if you survive, remember to carry on with Jewish life and Jewish tradition.’ And those were the last words I heard from my father before they took him - and everyone in his column - off to Treblinka.’’

Izzy repeats this story all the time. Every single time, 70 years later, his voice cracks. But he does not cry.

“My parents and brother were murdered,’’ Izzy recalls. “In Auschwitz, you at least had a chance to survive. If you were brought here, you were doomed.’’

He is still standing over the Plock stone. The markers stretch into the darkness. Treblinka was not a large camp. About three dozen SS carried out the killings, accompanied by about 100 Ukrainian guards. The elderly, unaccompanied small children, and infirm, who would slow down the flow of people to the gas chambers, were taken into a building disguised as a hospital with a Red Cross flag flying overheard. They were undressed, shot, and thrown into a burning pit. The healthy were taken to the chambers and gassed. The SS constantly increased the efficiency of this ghastly killing machine. At one point they could kill 3,800 people at a time.

It is getting dark. A cuckoo calls out eight times.

“I might not be able to come back here,’’ Izzy says. His voice quivers.

Izzy walks off by himself and says Kaddish, the prayer of mourning: “. . . blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world. . .’’

He walks back down the hill in the deepening gloom.

. . .

Izzy’s childhood home - the condemned building on 3 Kwiatka Street - was in the center of the thriving Jewish quarter of Plock, a small city on the Vistula River in central Poland where about 10,000 Jews lived before World War II. His father was a tailor who ran his business out of the family’s small, two-room apartment. His mother, Hugara, took care of Izzy and his brothers - Elek, Motek, Aron, and Josek. Her basketball team, she called them. Izzy, whose childhood nickname was Srulek, still has pictures that his family had sent to relatives in the United States before the war. He is the skinny kid in the middle.

“We thought we had the good life,’’ Izzy, who grew up speaking Yiddish, says in fluent English but with a heavy accent. He recounts his stories methodically, with a straight expression, eyes forward. Izzy has a lively wit and a knack for deadpan humor, but that all fades when he talks about his past.

The candlesticks were a family heirloom, passed down to Izzy’s mother from her mother. Izzy remembers his mother lighting them on Fridays before sundown for the observance of the Sabbath.

Izzy also recalls his parents listening to the radio blaring next door and hearing news of the rise of Hitler in Germany. At first, Izzy’s father dismissed the idea that Germans would go along with Hitler’s ideas. Then, Germany occupied Poland in 1939, and Jews were forced to wear yellow stars. Izzy’s eldest brother, Elek, left Poland and headed east. The family never heard from him again.

In 1940, part of Poland, including Plock, was incorporated into Germany. That was when Icchak Arbeiter told Izzy and Motek to bury the candlesticks and the other religious items. The tenants of Izzy’s building each had a small storage space in the cellar, where they kept potatoes, beets, coal, and wood.

In February, 1941, the SS came in the middle of the night. They rousted Jews from their homes. They beat them with their rifles. And they took them away.

. . .

It is a warm day in Oswiecim, a modest town an hour’s drive east from Krakow, through countless fields of vivid yellow rapeseed lined with mistletoe-covered oak. A blue 2004 Boston Red Sox World Series cap over his thinning white hair, a white dress shirt, and slacks allow Izzy to blend in with the other foreigners who come in large tour buses from Krakow to see one of the world’s most infamous landmarks.

But when Izzy walks through the gates into the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of concentration camps, he experiences something tourists cannot.

“When I come in I automatically stop and look back to make sure the gate is still open,’’ he says.

When Izzy was sent through that gate 68 years ago, he was made to wear the striped uniform of an Auschwitz prisoner, designating him as a Jew, condemned to die sooner or later.

When his parents and little brother were sent to die at Treblinka, Izzy and his two brothers were taken to a concentration camp in Starachowice, where the sadistic commandant executed Jews at will. The SS routinely rounded up the sick and the weak and murdered them. When Izzy fell ill with typhoid, it was a death sentence. He was sent to a barracks with 86 other stricken prisoners. What happened next is a story he has been telling since he was liberated in 1945. One night, the camp’s commandant and its Gestapo chief ordered them from their bunks and shot all of them - except Izzy, who managed to escape to another barracks. There, friends were able to hide him. A female prisoner named Chanka, who was working at the kitchen where meals were prepared for Gestapo officers, was able to pass along food that helped him return to health.

In 1944, with the Soviet army approaching, the Nazis abandoned Starachowice and transferred the surviving prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Izzy walks along the now-unused rails he rode in on a cattle car. He stops at an intersection where Nazi physicians decided the fates of hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of seconds by pointing left or right.

“But we didn’t know which one was going where,’’ Izzy says. “My column was ordered to walk right here.’’

He calls it the longest walk in his life.

Izzy turns and follows that path. It is lined by tall, barbed-wire fences that contained high-voltage wires. Izzy saw prisoners throw themselves on the fences, preferring to choose their own fates.

“I was crying,’’ he recalls. “No one listened. We just kept walking all the way to the very end.’’

His group had been selected to work, not die.

Izzy takes his companions to a quiet birch grove. For a place where more than a million people were killed, Auschwitz-Birkenau is remarkably alive. Deer prance among the long rows of crumbling brick barracks. Startled pheasants fly out of the ruins of gas chambers that the Nazis destroyed so the advancing Soviet army would not find the evidence. Owls circle over fields of yellow and lavender wildflowers and dive at unseen prey.

Izzy sits down on the cool grass.

It was in this spot, he says, that men, women and children who had been selected to be gassed sat out the final moments of their lives, before their captors sent them into the chambers.

“The waiting room to be taken in and be killed,’’ Izzy calls it.

The gas chambers were where the cries of children would slowly fade to silence, where people tried to escape by clawing their way out with their fingers.

“Can your mind even imagine that concept?’’ Izzy asks.

His can. One of his jobs was to clean out toilets and cart away the waste in a covered trolley. That gave him access all over Auschwitz-Birkenau and allowed him to sneak bits of food the Nazis left behind when doomed new arrivals at the camp were stripped of everything they were carrying. The SS frequently would search Izzy, but not the trolley. So he strung a wire over the fecal matter where he could hang pieces of bread. Izzy had enough food that he could share. He was also able to leave bread on the bunk of Chanka, the girl who had helped him at Starachowice.

Izzy survived the arbitrary executions, the epidemics of typhoid, the constant cold of the unheated barracks where, he explains, there was a chimney and a stove that was never lit.

An estimated 1.1 million of the 1.3 million people sent here did not survive. They included Poles, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, people of other nationalities - and, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum, about 1 million Jews.

Few Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors come here anymore, said Jacek Lech, a Polish guide. Over the 11 years he has worked here, he says, he has met five.

As Izzy makes his way back toward the gate, he passes tourists from Israel, Germany, and the United States who have no idea that the Red Sox fan was once a prisoner.

Someone in a boisterous group of high school students from Slovakia overhears Izzy as he points out an old cattle car and tells his companions about the grim selection that took place here. The students, in bright T-shirts and sunglasses, grow silent.

“This is my number,’’ Izzy says, rolling up the sleeve to reveal the tattoo on his left arm: A.18651.

“Whoa,’’ say the students.

They listen intently as he tells them the story of the selection, the gas chambers, the crematoria.

“This was a factory for killing people,’’ he says.

Izzy tells the students that they can prevent this from happening again.

“You’re all beautiful,’’ he says. “Enjoy your life. And go home and tell your parents, your families, what you learned, what you saw here.’’

. . .

Izzy has returned to Poland and Germany several times. He testified in Nazi war crimes trials. He has visited Auschwitz and Treblinka. He has trekked to Plock and even talked to the people who once lived in his apartment. But he had never before this trip asked permission to go into their basement. Now, the building has been condemned. After a day of haggling, Polish officials send workers to break through a walled-off door so that Izzy and his companions can dig up the cellar floor. The skinny kid now has a protruding stomach and a blocky body. But he is surprisingly agile once he descends into the basement.

Izzy’s grandson, Matt Fritz, and Jon D’Allessandro, a family friend and World War II buff from Quincy who helped finance the trip, grab the shovels they have purchased in a nearby hardware store. Izzy points out the spot where the family’s storage area was once marked by wooden dividers. The cellar is lit by a video team shooting a documentary about Izzy’s life for the WWII Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to preserve the story of those who fought, and survived, the war.

Fritz and D’Allessandro start to dig. Steam comes off their bodies as they work in the bright lights.

The pit is four feet deep when Izzy calls off the digging.

“Somebody got to it before us,’’ he says.

The Polish officials shrug and shake his hand.

“They’re definitely showing me the good will,’’ Izzy says. “They went out of their way to help.’’

He walks out onto Kwiatka Street. It is a modern, bustling city street, with a bank, a store that sells upscale home furnishings, a flower shop, and cafes. Izzy takes a final look at his former home.

“I was very much disappointed,’’ he says. “I came over here and the reason was to dig up objects that belonged to my family for generations. And I did not find them.’’

. . .

Izzy is standing in a field of bright yellow rapeseed outside the villages of Hailfingen and Tailfingen, near Stuttgart, Germany. During the war, the Nazis were building an airfield here. Izzy was one of 601 Jews taken from Auschwitz to a camp in Stutthof in northern Poland. From there, they were brought to the Hailfingen-Tailfingen concentration camp in November 1944. Half the prisoners died.

“When we saw there were no gas chambers, we thought we were safe,’’ Izzy says. “But the method that was used here was starvation, which took longer than the fifteen minutes in the gas chambers.’’

To this day, family members say, Izzy always worries that there will not be enough food.

The dead bodies piled up in the concentration camp. Finally, the SS forced the prisoners to bury more than 70 Jews in a mass grave in the field next to the airstrip.

After he was liberated in April 1945, Izzy led French officers to the site. The French ordered townspeople to dig up the bodies, put them in coffins, and rebury them in the town cemetery. Germans from nearby towns were commanded to put on their best clothes and line the street to watch the procession.

The story of Hailfingen-Tailfingen faded after the war.

“We knew there was a camp here but it wasn’t in official records,’’ said Harald Roth, 61, a secondary school teacher in a nearby town. In 2002, Roth said, he and several other Germans began researching the history of the camp.

The group found records with Izzy’s name. It took them two years to find him, Roth said. They asked Izzy and other survivors to help them reconstruct the story of Hailfingen-Tailfingen. In 2010, a permanent exhibition about the camp opened in Tailfingen, and a monument was erected near the site of the mass graves in Hailfingen. Izzy spoke at the inauguration.

Now, on a sunny day in April, Izzy is here to say Kaddish again, perhaps for the last time. “. . . May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. . .’’

He shows his companions the quarry in Reusten, near the Hailfingen-Tailfingen camp, where he labored for the Germans. He points to a house where a German couple, the Roths, no relation to Harald, used to sneak food to the prisoners as they were marched to and from the quarry.

“If they had been caught, they would have been severely punished,’’ Izzy says. The couple’s daughter, whom Izzy met on a previous trip, still lives down the street. Someone alerts her, and in a few moments, Hilde Gauss arrives. “Srulek! Ooooh,’’ the 80-year-old woman cries, using Izzy’s childhood nickname.

“See?’’ Izzy’s usual deadpan breaks into a real smile. “She remembers! She remembers!’’

Not all of Izzy’s encounters in Germany go so well.

His German friends introduce him to Walter Fischer, 84, in a town near the airfield.

During the war, Fischer volunteered for service in the Hitler Youth. Fischer’s unit was trained to fly gliders, in preparation to become the next generation of Luftwaffe pilots. In 1943, at 14, Fischer was stationed at the airfield where the monument to the camp now stands.

After the war, Fischer became an electrical engineer and came to the United States. From 1959 to 1968 he worked for Sprague Electronics in North Adams, Mass., and later for IBM in upstate New York. He was offered a job in Germany and moved to the Stuttgart area in 1970.

Fischer was involved in early efforts to recognize what happened at Tailfingen and Hailfingen.

“I ran into stone walls,’’ he says. “People feared to become associated with a crime committed near their homes, but which they had nothing to do with and no chance to prevent.’’

In 1982, he helped organize a ceremony at the cemetery in Tailfingen to commemorate the burial of the victims of the concentration camp. It became a yearly tradition. At a restaurant in Tailfingen, Fischer tries to explain to Izzy that many ordinary Germans were unaware of the Holocaust.

“I would say that the average German, my parents for instance, could not imagine that a German government would ever do such crimes,’’ Fischer says.

Izzy rolls his eyes while Fischer is talking.

“That’s not true,’’ Izzy says. “The only ones that didn’t know were the ones that didn’t want to know.’’

Izzy glares at Fischer. Fischer stares down at his beer.

Later, as Izzy is walking away from the restaurant, he does not hide his disgust.

“If he speaks about himself and says that he wants to reform himself, then that’s good,’’ Izzy says. “But if he says that the majority of the people didn’t know, then that’s not true. Because that’s Holocaust denying. And I cannot accept Holocaust denying.’’

Izzy is asked what someone like Fischer, who served the Nazi regime but has done so much to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, could do to make things right.

“Nothing,’’ he says. “They cannot bring back my family.’’

The two meet one last time, the day before Izzy flies home. Fischer acknowledges that Germans like him have much to atone for. But, he says, there are other things to worry about, such as the environment.

“I wouldn’t want to be confronted every day with the Holocaust,’’ Fischer says. “I couldn’t live that way.’’

Izzy rolls his eyes.

. . .

On Izzy’s 20th birthday, on April 25, 1945, he was part of a group of prisoners on a death march from the Dautmergen camp through the Black Forest. The SS planned to bring the ones they did not shoot or starve to death to a mine and bury them there.

Again Izzy escaped death. French troops found his column. He and his fellow prisoners were liberated. Allied forces ordered German families to put them up. Izzy did not linger. One day, he took a motorcycle from a garage - “I borrowed it,’’ he says - and drove it to Stuttgart. He was detained by American military police. Once they heard his story, they gave him papers that allowed him to pass freely through checkpoints and get fuel from the US military for the motorcycle.

The Americans set up a camp in Stuttgart for people displaced years ago from their homes. There, lists of the names of prisoners from other camps were posted, to help people find friends and family. Izzy learned that his brother Aron was in a town near Munich. When Izzy went there to find him, someone else recognized Izzy and told him that his brother Motek had survived and was in Italy. In Stuttgart, Izzy also learned that the girl he knew in Starachowice and Auschwitz-Birkenau was at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany.

Izzy rode the bike to Bergen-Belsen. He talked his way past the British authorities overseeing the camp. He found Chanka.

“She was sharing shoes with four girls,’’ he says.

The next day he took her to Stuttgart. In 1946 they were married in Reusten. Harriet, their oldest daughter, was born in 1948.

The next year, the young family moved to Dorchester to live with Izzy’s aunt, whose family had left Poland at the turn of the 20th century. They learned English and changed their names: Srulek became Izzy; Chanka became Anna. He got a job in the clothing industry and later built his own business.

They had another son and a daughter. They have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Izzy and Anna, who is 86, live in a comfortable home in Newton, with a view of the swans and Canada geese that ply the Charles River. On the wall of his den hang decades of commendations and pictures with famous people. He is president of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston. He was among the founders of the group that built the Holocaust memorial in Boston. Germany awarded him the Order of Merit in 2008 for fostering German-Jewish understanding and for his efforts on behalf of Holocaust survivors. He is proud of these achievements.

He is even prouder of the three generations he and Anna have brought into the world.

It is a cool, overcast day in May. Izzy is sitting at his dining room table in Newton. Anna is next to him, leaning on her walker.

On the table stand two antique silver candlesticks. Not the ones he had hoped to find in the cellar of his childhood home in Plock, but a nearly identical set.

His relatives had brought them to United States when they emigrated from Poland. After Izzy returned from Europe empty-handed, his cousin, Rita Stulin, who lives in Newton, decided he should have her set.

So now he does.

“My intention now is happiness, joy at seeing what we have accomplished from nothing,’’ he says. “We defeated Hitler. He is dead. We have a beautiful family.

“This was my answer to my father,’’ Izzy says. “He told me to survive and to carry on the Jewish way of life. And I did.’’

A light breeze sends tiny eddies across the Charles. The only sound is the cluck of grackles and the distant honking of the geese.

Israel Arbeiter’s voice starts to crack, but he does not cry.

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