Contributed by Tim Gray, chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. For more information about the foundation, visit www.wwiifoundation.org
Israel Arbeiter was 14 when the Germans took over his city of Plock, Poland on September 3, 1939. There were an estimated 10,000 Jews living in Plock (pronounced Plotsk) in 1939. You would be hard pressed to find a handful in 2012, maybe 2 or 3? Where did they all go? Treblinka death camp, Auschwitz concentration camp, hanged, shot, deported, simply murdered; all part of the Nazis effort to rid Poland and all of Europe of those not fit to be a part of the Aryan race. It would eventually be called “the Final Solution to the Jewish question”-all Jews must die. Israel Arbeiter was a Jew.
Today, on the actual day Izzy Arbeiter turned 87 years old, this resident of Massachusetts returned to Plock. His apartment, which he once shared with his parents and four other brothers, has been condemned; much like all the Jews were in Plock in 1939 as the Germans swept through eastern Europe.
The neighborhood Israel Arbeiter once called home is full of unfamiliar faces. All his old friends were rounded up in the center square of the city and killed by the SS. The barber who lived next door was sent off to a death camp, same with the butcher, the people who lived in the apartment above him were sent away and their father hanged in the public square. His old apartment windows, where this teenager once dreamed of what was to come in life, are now boarded up.
It was painful for Izzy Arbeiter to come home to Plock today. He was once happy, like all of those who lived in this small city, until the SS and Gestapo arrived. He used to play soccer with his friends or just meet them in the street to play. Nobody ever had to worry about leaving their front door unlocked or their children going down the street to meet friends. Plock was a community in the truest sense of the word. Everyone looked after one another.
Now everyone is gone. Israel Arbeiter sits on what was once the front entrance to his apartment. If he listens closely enough he can still hear the laughter of his mother or take in the smells coming from her kitchen as she would cook his favorite dinner. He hears his father come home from his job as a tailor. He would listen as his brothers would get louder and louder as they approached his street, and there they were! Those Arbeiter boys.
But this is now and that was then. Izzy’s parents were sent off to Treblinka along with his younger brother. They were gassed and cremated there. Another brother just disappeared and hasn’t been seen in 73 years. Izzy and one brother did survive, but their life in Plock would never be the same.
After visiting the place where his family was torn apart. Israel Arbeiter had a stop to make before heading back to his hotel in Warsaw. Three hours away he would pay his final visit to Treblinka to say goodbye to the ghosts of his parents and younger brother whose lives were taken at Treblinka simply because of their faith. It was dark when Izzy arrived and the visitors had long since left. Israel Arbeiter, alone with a flashlight, had the sounds of Treblinka all to himself. A bird would chirp here..a dog barked way off in the distance, but mostly there was a quiet calm. He said a prayer. It was as close as he has been to his parents and younger brother in years. At least that’s how Izzy felt. Like all those murdered at Treblika their souls still can be heard if you listen closely enough as the wind gently whispers its story through the trees. Trees that once stared down on unspeakable horrors.
Thursday Israel Arbeiter returns to Plock and his apartment one final time. He is in search of something his family left behind as the Germans started knocking on every door in the city. If he finds it, it will be the first time in 73 years he has held these items in his hands, items that were important to his family and the way they celebrated their faith. And despite what the Germans did to his family, faith is the one thing the Nazis could not take from Israel Arbeiter.
Please stay tuned as we post daily updates on Izzy Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany.
Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org