STOCZEK WEGROWSKI, Poland — When Sol Nayman left this village in 1939, it had a small but thriving Jewish community that coexisted harmoniously with its non-Jewish neighbors.
But not long after the departure of Nayman, who is now 87, and his family, German troops murdered the entire community, adding it to the long list of Polish municipalities where the Holocaust ended centuries of Jewish presence.
Nayman’s family fled eastward, ending up in a Soviet labor camp before they eventually settled in Canada, where Nayman became a successful businessman and co-founded the Club Monaco chain of men’s fashion stores.
But Nayman had long wondered what became of the family home and the village where he grew up and experienced his last moments of careless childhood, which was cut short by the horrendous realities of life through World War II in Eastern Europe.
Last month, Nayman finally found out when he returned to Stoczek after an 84-year absence for a visit that was also a tour de force: Nayman brought with him about 100 participants in this year’s Canadian delegation to the March of the Living commemorative event. The visit, which happened to take place on the birthday of Adolf Hitler, April 20, gave Nayman closure, he said, but also brought home the totality and scale of Polish Jewry‘s near annihilation.
“Nothing remained,” Nayman, overcome with emotion, told The Times of Israel. “The houses are gone, the dirt roads are now paved.” Gesturing at the part of the local Jewish cemetery that survived, he added: “This is all that’s left.”
Yet Jewish Stoczek also remains in Nayman’s mind, who, at 87, works as fast and crisply as the many young men and women who accompanied him to his hometown. Standing at the cemetery, he delivered an hour-long testimony to the delegation. He recounted both his family’s escape from Poland and their suffering in Russia’s prison settlements that Nayman calls part of a “parallel Holocaust.”
Of his homecoming, Nayman said: “I never thought it would happen and yet it’s happening. So, my dear March of the Living family, welcome to my town: When I left in 1939, there were about 1,200 local Jews in Stoczek. Now there’s only one. I’m the last survivor.” Nayman thanked Jonny Daniels, a British-Israeli commemoration activist, who, through Daniels’ From the Depths association, erected a monument at the cemetery in memory of Stoczek’s Jews.
“Many of them are lying in a mass grave not far from here,” Daniels noted. “This monument, shaped like a headstone, will give the rest of us an address to remember them by.” Daniels noted that the last time that Stoczek, home to fewer than 1,000 residents, had this many Jews in it was almost certainly in the 1940s.
The mayor, Zbigniew Klusek, said in a statement that the town “has not forgotten its Jewish residents, who had been always a part of it and remain a part of it even after they are gone.”
Klusek did not attend the visit by Nayman. The only locals who greeted him were the owner of the local funeral shop, who made the monument, and some boys who stopped to see the event on their way cycling home from school.
To some survivors from Stoczek, including the late Chasia Vardi, the memory of the town became indelibly marked by the imprisonment of Jews and their dispatch in 1942 to be murdered in Treblinka. (Nayman, who has a penchant for black and other shades of humor, calls it “my very own neighborhood death camp” because it is situated just 10 miles north of Stoczek.)
But Nayman, whose family fled Stoczek days before the Germans arrived there, remembers the village as the only place where he had felt safe as a child.
“We would go to synagogue on Fridays and I would make sure that I was sitting on the bima, where the rabbi would know where I am and offer me a treat at the end of davening,” Nayman recalled. Shows and theater plays would occasionally be put on at the local fire station.
Nayman’s only possession was a hand-me-down white rocking horse, he said. He would sit on it in front of the counter of the grocery shop that his doting grandmother ran in town. The only unpleasant memory Nayman has from Stoczek, he said, was when his grandmother scolded him for eating without permission a tasty slice of meat, which turned out to be pork, reserved for non-Jewish customers only, that he found in her shop. “She wasn’t so doting that afternoon,” he said.
Eight days after the Nazis invaded Poland, Nayman, his sister Mania, parents and grandmother left their home for a nearby woods on the insistence of his father, Yudel, nominally a house painter but really a polyglot whose passion was reading Yiddish books and plays but also news reports from across Europe.
Yudel’s decision to leave was unusual. When most Polish Jews hunkered down to see where the wind was blowing, Yudel led his family on a perilous journey that nearly cost the life of his wife, Sore Roize Rosenberg, who suffered from chronic and severe stomach ailments. But Sol’s grandmother returned to town to volunteer at the local hospital — and was never seen again.
Meanwhile, Yudel led his surviving family to Lublin, which was occupied by Soviet forces that invaded Poland simultaneously with the Nazis in 1939. The family was safe from Adolf Hitler’s army, but was now in the clutches of Joseph Stalin, who “realized that he had a huge slave workforce,” as Sol Nayman describes it.
The surviving Naymans were put on trains in Lublin along with approximately 250,000 Jewish refugees that the Soviet Union had essentially taken as prisoners. They were sent eastward, saving their lives from the Nazis, who would take over all of Poland in 1941. But surviving in the Soviet Union was not straightforward.
The family was housed in a shack in Syktyvkar, a labor camp in northern Russia that shares the latitude of Anchorage, Alaska, and which in winter is among the coldest spots on the surface of the Earth.
“It was a miserable period,” Nayman recalled. Hunger and cold were a constant presence, and so was death, he said. The mother of a family with whom the Naymans shared a shack died one day of a splinter in her finger, Nayman said.
“Mrs. Mita died from the infection that the splinter caused. There was no way to cure it. That was the kind of medical support that was available,” Nayman said. He got into fights frequently with locals, who bullied him because he was Jewish, he added.
The reality for hundreds of thousands of Jews who escaped Hitler’s henchmen only to suffer and often die at the hands of Stalin is often ignored or summed up in a sentence, Nayman said. “But for us, who survived it, it’s a parallel Holocaust.”
In his speech, Nayman punctuated his survival story with relatable and amusing anecdotes, as well as shocking statistics. He also had one request from his attentive listeners: To listen with open ears and hearts to survivors like him. “We’re counting on you to absorb as much as you can and to do something about it,” he said.
Nayman, who has two sons with his wife Queenie, practices what he preaches.
He has visited Poland several times, including Treblinka, yet he had never felt compelled to visit Stoczek before. What changed that was the testimony and commemoration efforts of another survivor from the town, the late Chasia Vardi.
“She was able not only to document Jewish Stoczek but to come back from Israel and find Polish activists to renovate and fence the local Jewish cemetery,” Naymnan said. “It made me do my part, as well.”
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