From Generation to Generation


By:  Robyn Sassen
© 2000

In this story the tales lie palimpsestically over one another through time, history and history retold through lived memory.   

Ethel Penn tells me a story which her mother told her.  Some of it has been lost through the difficulty of articulating pain and translating it into words and into English.  Some has been lost through memory and how emotions colour or fade it.  I am using Ethel’s story as a veil through which I hope to understand how the Holocaust redefined ‘home’ for one woman.

A mild mannered woman in her 40s, Ethel has lived all her life in South Africa.  Fully  integrated into local Jewish culture, she has raised three sons in adherence with traditional orthodox Judaism.  In August 1998, she took a journey of two lifetimes.  She retraced the route her mother took over 50 years before in pre-empting a miracle. 

Ethel and her sister, Eileen Fridman, who lives in Israel, joined a  Belorussian tour and revisited the village of Mir, where their mother was born and grew into young womanhood.  Ethel’s mother lives with Eileen but was too frail to join the reunion.  The tour group comprised transgenerational survivors, living in different continents,  but originating from Mir.

Ethel’s initial taste of contemporary Belorussia was tinctured with fear.  When she arrived, the airport was in darkness, and her South African passport was pondered over in bureaucratic curiosity.

She strove be objective.  Much of commercial Belorussia is characterized by a pastiche of cultures and a proliferation of MacDonald’s outlets amidst old and new architecture.  For Ethel, Mir too, is multi-layered.  Its landscape is  beautiful, yet its history, terrible and heroic. 

I consulted Greenbaum’s concise history of Lithuanian Jewry to learn more about Mir.  I found it sobering to discover that once the centre of an active and vibrant Jewish community, Mir is a tiny dot on the map, just within the Memel border – something that, unless one knew where to look and what to look for, could be easily bypassed. 

Jews had thrived in Mir since the 17th century, forming a majority of the population.  Secular Jews in Mir were active in the economy; many others earned livings as artisans.  The Yeshiva was established there in 1815. 

Many in Ethel’s tour group had to face the voids that remained of their childhood homes, but the original home of Cila Kapelowicz (now Zakheim) Ethel’s mother still stands.   

56 Zawalna Street

Over fifty years ago, 56 Zawalna Street, Mir, was Cila’s haven.  She lived there with her father and 2 brothers.  Today it bears testament to the ravages of time and war.  Structurally unaltered, it is inhabited by 2 elderly Polish women, eking out a primitive existence.  With the electrification of the area, the postmodern reality of a television set has become indispensable.  Interestingly, filth plays less of a culturally determining role:  an outside water pump still replaces running water.  Uncomfortable with the history of the place, and in contradiction to the codes of kashrut, and emotional traditions of shtetl culture with which Cila had been raised, pigs are now a dietary mainstay, for milk as well as for meat.   The apparent haphazardness of life in Mir, without the structures imposed on time, also struck Ethel as being anachronistic.  Like any other shtetl in Europe, in Mir, “[e]ach part of life … was governed by a highly elaborate and precise body of religious principles and rules” (Hoffman 1997, 97).

Cila was born in 1921.  In mid-1941, when anti-Semitism became rife in Mir, she was taken under the protection of her Catholic employer, Sonya Yermolowicz who lived close by.  This gesture, as explained by Cila through Ethel, was not because she was a great lover of humanity, or of Jews as such, nor because she was a great political transgressor, but more simply, and more complexly, because she let her personal instincts to look out for another outweigh political or religious biases.  Had Sonya been discovered to be hiding a Jew, she would have faced immediate execution.

On 22 June, the Germans invaded Russia.  Cila remembers that it was then when the concept of her home as inviolable began to be corroded.  The Germans began separating Jewish residential space from non-Jewish areas, creating a ghetto.  Russian collaborators forcefully removed Jews from the houses declared out-of-bounds. 

On 9 November 1941, Jews were haphazardly rounded up.  1500 were peremptorily executed.  On her tour, Ethel visited the area where these Jews were shot;  it is a flea market today.  Cila recalls “[t]he deceased were buried in two mass graves, one on either side of the town of Mir which the Christians dug on the instructions of the Germans” (Zakheim n.d.).  Sonya had saved Cila from this fate by hiding her amidst straw in her home.  Ethel met Sonya.  She told her that she had loved Cila, and that saving one or two Jews made her feel that she was doing a “good deed”.  She could neither accept nor understand what was happening in Europe.

In May of 1942, Cila was among the remaining 805 Jews in Mir who were “cattled” into the fortress-like Mirski Castle on the outskirts of Mir.  It had been built to house 400 people and was one of the last remnants of Mir’s aristocratic past.  By the 1940s it was in a state of dereliction and ruin, but had been “contemporised” by the Nazis with barbed wire.  Pending a decision from higher authority, the Mir Jews were imprisoned in this building for 4 months, dying of infection, disease and arbitrary murder.    Ethel visited this structure which is currently being restored and converted to a museum.

At this point in Cila’s life, a war anomaly presented himself, changing her future irrevocably.[i]  Born in Krakow in 1922, Oswald Rufeisen is described variously as Jewish Christian, heroic monk, Israeli Nazi, pacifist resistance fighter, Jewish priest, and placid 20-year-old who as a German officer enabled Jews to escape Holocaust predicaments.[ii]

As a child, he was a member of a non-religious, non-socialist Zionist youth movement.  Goals to emigrate to the then Palestine were thwarted by the onset of the War which saw Oswald lose his parents and reconstitute his ideals.  They fled eastwards, but in 1941 Oswald was arrested.  By then, he had matriculated in Vilna and was accomplished as a shoemaker.  He quickly understood the advantages of hiding his Jewishness and at the first opportunity, passed himself off as a “displaced Christian of mixed German-Polish parentage” (Rabinovich 1998).  Through his facility with languages and his unassuming manner, he encountered miracles which enabled him to move in rank and anonymity, saving innocent Jews from certain death, and eventually forming part of the nexus of German authority as an interpreter and trusted administrative assistant, privy to almost all the secrets of the senior German official, Reinhold Hein. 

Cila’s memory fluctuates on the point of her knowledge of Oswald’s Jewish identity.  In an interview with Tec she says that although “we did not know he was a Jew” they understood he was a good man who wouldn’t lower himself to gratuitous murder or violence (1990, 131).  However in an interview with her son-in-law (Zakheim, n.d.) Cila remembers “[h]e came regularly to the ghetto and he told the boys what was important.  We knew he was a Jew.”  This could probably be understood in the context of subliminal knowledge and in the face of the traumas to which Cila was subjected.  This aspect of memory relates to the way in which memory and legend overlap.

But it also relates to the historical context outlined by Eva Hoffman.  The Polish aftermath of the Holocaust was characterised by a “wider pathology of silence” (1997, 3).  This mindset became amnesiac by nature:  “it was undoubtedly caused by the extremely disturbing nature of what needed to be remembered” (1997,3).

Retaining the secret of his Jewish identity, through luck and a degree of synchronicity, Oswald was one day seated at his desk at police headquarters in Mir when an electrician from the ghetto arrived to implement some repairs.  Miraculously, Rufeisen recognised Dov Reznik[iii] as one of his peers Vilna. Rufeisen secretly met with Reznik again, confirmed his own identity and agreed to mediate between the police’s secret  decisions and the Jews in the castle.  Thus he was able to inform the Jews of the imminence of their destruction and the necessity of their immediate escape.  He supplied them with arms, maps and, in time, the projected date of their destruction:  13 August 1942.  Feelings were mixed.  Chaos reigned over the emotions of the ghetto prisoners.  Many felt that this was a trap, which necessitated Rufeisen’s revealing his Jewish identity to members of the Judenrat in charge of the ghetto just before the destined Aktion.  Nechama Tec interviewed Cila on her memories of these incidents:

On Saturday, I went into the courtyard and saw that people were getting ready for departure.  I did not know a thing.  No one told me.  Before that, we have heard that the Judenrat was arguing with the young people whether the ghetto will be liquidated or not.

Even as some were getting ready to leave, there were those who doubted that there will be an Aktion … No one explained to us a thing.  Nothing was clear.  But I sensed that there will be an end.  I knew it in my bones … All over it was Judenrein and we knew that we had to leave if we wanted to avoid death.  I did not know that Oswald arranged it, only that around us people were being executed and that our end was coming.[iv]

That evening, Rabbi Szulman walked among the crowd saying leave if you like.  Then I heard that people will be escaping on the 9th of August, Sunday night.  I knew that death was close by, so I decided to run away with some boys and girls.  I escaped in order not to give myself up, to avoid death (Tec 1990,  145).[v]

Words belie the enormity of her decision.  In taking this step, in effect, Cila was making a clean break from everything that she had known and acknowledged as her own, thus far in her young life.

Many observant Jews considered that taking events into their own hands would subvert the need for a miracle.  They stayed on in the ghetto in fervent prayer.

By escaping, Cila may have preempted a miracle, but having witnessed all that she did altered her understanding of the concept of God.  Many years later she raised her children to adhere to traditional Jewish practices, but experienced difficulty with these beliefs and value systems herself.  She cannot reconcile herself with God’s apparent absence in the Holocaust, but she remains committed to the Jewish ethic and does not attempt to sway the belief systems of her children and grandchildren, all of whom are today active members of orthodox Jewish circles.

Oswald subverted Nazi attention from the ghetto through a fabricated report of a large partisan band expected to pass through the outer reaches of the area.  This was relatively easy because of the unreliability of partisan sources and the unpredictability of their whereabouts. 

On the night of 9 August 1942, Cila, together with about 300 young people, jumped through a second floor window to the frost-covered ground, and ran, barefoot and lightly clothed, into the forests of Poland in the opposite direction to where the police were.[vi]  Cila doesn’t specify a forest by name, but recalls “first a small forest then a large one” (Zakheim n.d.).[vii]  She lost her way.  All alone, she fled back to Sonya who told her that some of her fellow escapees had also lost their way, and in fear and disorientation had returned to the ghetto (Tec 1990, 147).  She also learned that everyone in the ghetto on 13 August 1942 had been annihilated.  Feeling terrified and betrayed at this horrendous news, she fled back into the forest, where she found her brother, sister-in-law and friends.  Cila stayed with them, leaving briefly one day to run errands.  When she returned, she found them murdered. 

Eventually she joined a group of 6 young Jewish partisans.  For nearly 2 years, they stayed in the forest, surviving on plants and sleeping in a hole in the ground, hidden during the day and out, foraging for an existence, at night.[viii]

Ethel found the exact location of this hole.  The prospect of a young woman in her early 20s sharing such basic living space with 6 strangers and through European winters, is difficult for me to give credibility from the comfort of a much removed and much more sheltered background.  This was, however probably one of the key adjustments that caused Cila to recast her life.

Cila’s circumstances rendered her one of the hapless individuals inescapably caught in  time and culture.  The terror of living in secrecy speaks of enormous psychological torment, to which, amazingly, she did not succumb.  The war’s intervention caused her to very aggressively recast her entire existence, to be able to anticipate a future.

Cila’s decision not to assimilate but to preserve her identity in spite of the pain that it had inflicted upon her, was characteristic of Polish Jews.  “[T]hey wanted … to preserve their identity intact and unaltered, to remain loyal to the teachings of their ancestors and keep the thread of continuity unbroken” (Hoffman 1997, 46).

It is a sad tale of never being able to refind the home where one belongs, not because it no longer exists, but because the seeker is now something that the home no longer recognizes.  This tale can have few possible endings: a loss of faith;  a reconstruction of identity;  or a reneging from that home’s values.  Cila articulated all three.

Cila’s story continued in a family camp at Bielski which was set up for partisan refugees.  Tec comments on the idiosyncrasies of this camp and other similar ones.  Not only did they have to face ruthless partisans coming from all different war-torn quarters of the forests, but they also had to deal with internal problems and “charismatic leadership” (1995, 185).  By 1944 the Bielski otriad consisted of 1200 people who had been displaced by the war.  This camp environment was like a home in itself.  Rufeisen comments on it :

I admired how in the forest they were able to create a “Shtetl”, a little town, where people lived in dignity.  They all worked.  It was a town in the middle of the forest.  On both sides of the streets there were structures that contained many different workshops:  shoemakers, tailors, workshops for fixing arms, slaughter houses, mills, and others.  In this camp one could find people from Belorussia and other parts of Poland.  I have a tremendous respect for this man, Tuvia Bielski.  He created an almost normal atmosphere under abnormal conditions.  In his unit the overwhelming majority were “weaker” people:  families;  older people.  There were proportionally fewer able-bodied young men.  They belonged to the fighting group.  Their job was to defend the rest (Tec 1990, 185).

Through the Bielski camp, Cila was able to move back to Mir and find employment until 1945.  She travelled through Europe, from Poland, to Czechoslovakia, to Munich and  Landsberg, displacedly trying to find a home, until July 1947, when she moved to South Africa.   In 1987, together with her two daughters, Ethel and Eileen, and their families, Cila was finally able to revisit Father Daniel.  It was a poignant as well as an historic meeting, uniting two friends and three generations.

It was the potency of assimilation and the constant presence of anti-Semitism in its most virulent form that made Cila so profoundly aware of her roots and their value in her life.  It was also the overwhelmingly closeness of death that had forced her to “leap” beyond expectations into a completely different sphere of life. 

Having come within such close proximity to assimilation and anti-Semitism, Cila’s life perspectives had altered radically :  she could no longer come to terms with a faith in God.  Still, something very crucial and meaningful about her connection to a Jewish culture remains with her and her story. 

Today, the Jewish presence of Poland has been almost totally erased from the area.  The world famous Mir Yeshiva is now a post office.  Ethel recalls that a minyan of Jewish men is attained at most synagogal services, but that the community is aging as it is dwindling.  In many respects, the reality of demography is a very powerful force which while bringing about the demise of communities in some geographic areas, brings about the rebirth of younger, more vibrant associations, in others.  

Heller comments on how the reality of a Jewish existence in Poland is fading either through assimilation or chronology.  She remarks on how the term “Jew” hardly figures in official accounts of histories of the Holocaust’s effect on Poland. 

And yet, despite all this, the link to that past Jewish community of Poland continues to exist :  not in Poland but in Israel and also in the Jewish communities of the Western world, where numerous descendants of Polish Jews live.  That link is and will be as strong as the numbers of them who cling to a Jewish self-identity and to a proud if sad memory of the Polish community that once was (1977, 298).

Therefore, perhaps in considering the concept of a Jewish home as a contradiction or enigma, the surrounding ideas which establish the Jewish psyche and the accompanying elements of history which distinguish it from any other racial/religious culture, represents the home and the nexus from which it originates, rather than any geographical locus which can be pinpointed as such.  Rushdie comments on this :  “reality is an artifact … it does not exist until it is made, and … like any other artifact, it can be made well or badly, and that it can also, of course, be unmade” (Grass 1987, xi).


[i]  The paradoxical existence of Father Daniel begs comparison with other World War 2 victims who changed their identities in the name of survival.  These are people of the ilk of Saul Friedländer, Edith Stein, Binyamin Wilkomirski.
[ii]  I am grateful to Pawel Dorman, Ben Nachman and Jerry Hepperle who, through correspondence on the Internet advised me of the published sources available on Father Daniel.
[iii]  This individual’s name is variously recorded as Dov Rabinovitch, Berl Reznik, Dow Resnik.  
[iv]  Another Mir ghetto survivor recalls the narrative a little differently, although he may have been privy to this information by virtue of his gender, and possibly his proximity to the older members of the community in the ghetto.  He was imprisoned together with his father.   He remembers :

We tried to explain to the older Jews … that, once we younger ones had run away, if they started to hear any rumours about a final liquidation, they should try to run away to certain areas in the country that we described to them.  There were areas that Rufeisen had told us would be safest – that he himself would try to keep the German and Polish police forces away from those places once the search was underway for escaping Jews.  If they managed to do so, we said that we would try to find and help them.  If they refused to believe the rumours … there was nothing that we could do (Sutin 1995, 58).

Miraculously, Sutin’s father followed these instructions and made a home of the forest in a similar way to Cila and her friends, where he was eventually reunited with his son.

[v]  Quoted from a personal interview between Nechama Tec and Cila Zakheim in Israel, 1987.  Facts in Cila’s testimony are verified in the anthology, Mir, edited by N. Blumenthal.
[vi]  Jack Sutin recalls that they escaped in groups of five.  He describes this form of escape as necessary because running or walking out of the main entrance to the building may have made them too conspicuous.  He remembers jumping from the window into rubble and then running into a long open field with the woods at the other end (Sutin 1995 :  61).
[vii]  According to Tec’s detailed reportage of partisan life in the forest, which Rufeisen endured, the “big” forest remembered by Cila could well have been Nalibocki (1990,193).
[viii]  Many of the partisans in the forest lived in a similar makeshift home for the duration of the war.  Jack Sutin describes this type of hole in some detail :  “a shallow underground shelter, about five feet wide, ten feet long, six feet deep.  We made a cover for it out of branches and evergreens”  (1995, 61).


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Robyn Sassen is a Fine Arts graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand, currently doing post-graduate work at the University of South Africa.

While enjoying interests in the cross-pollination of Jewish and art-inspired culture, she practises as a fine artist, working with etching, drypoint and drawing with pastels on wood. The central focus of much of my work is on the predicament of being Jewish in a contemporary world and how the baggage which one historically carries around with one, reverberates into so much of one's life constantly.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.