Rachael Alperowitz Frydman (53 minutes)
For centuries Poland was a major European power, but in the late eighteenth century it was partitioned among Russia, Austria and Prussia (later Germany). The Polish people were strongly nationalist and fought for their freedom, but did not achieve it until 1919. The Versailles treaty created an independent Poland, but also gave it a section of Germany’s coastline so it would have an outlet to the Baltic Sea. This was called the “Polish Corridor” and, as it was inhabited mostly by Germans, it was a source of anger in Germany between the world wars. Hitler made it his first military objective to recapture the lost territory. In August 1939 he made a non-aggression pact with the Soviets, agreeing that they could take the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) if they allowed Germany to take much of Poland. As a result the Soviets looked the other way when the Nazis overran Poland and began sending its large Jewish minority to concentration camps. In the meantime, the British had promised Poland support if it were attacked; when the invasion came on September 1, 1939, Britain responded, thus beginning World War II. Within a month most of Poland was under German occupation.
A vast number of Poles, many of them not Jewish, went to Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps six million Poles (Jewish and non-Jewish) died, and millions more fled or were forcibly removed to create Lebensraum (“living space”) for the Germans. About 2.5 million Poles were transported to Germany or other Nazi-occupied areas to be used as slave labor. Poland today has still not recovered from Nazi occupation, and the Polish government (both the former Communists and the current pro-Western regimes) have purposely kept the memory of the Holocaust alive. In 1939 and 1940 most Jews were rounded up and forced into ghettos, particularly in Warsaw, Łodz and Vilnius. By 1943 most of these had gone to the death camps as the ghettos were “liquidated” one by one. Throughout the war a Polish government-in-exile functioned in London and an active resistance movement greatly aided the Allied cause within occupied Poland. More than a hundred thousand Poles fought in Allied armies. After the German attack on the USSR in June 1941, the Soviets occupied parts of Poland and rescued many Jews and other victims of the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands were transported deep into Russia for safety, but many of these were also conscripted into Russian labor battalions. At the end of the war the Russians liberated Poland and installed a Communist government there.
Topics for discussion:
1. What was it like to be a Jew in Poland before World War II?
(Several million Jews lived in Poland; they had the most active and vital Jewish community in the world, and were an important factor in the country’s life and economy. In general they were tolerated but in the Nazi era an ugly native anti-Semitism appeared – not only Germans, but Catholic Poles also victimized Jews. In contrast with Germany, most Polish Jews were farmers or small businesspeople; not so many were professionals or lived in big cities. Many thousands of them were quite poor. They were generally more religious and conservative than their German kin and not quite so well assimilated.
2. In what ways did the Russians help Jews escape the Holocaust?
(Discussion can focus on students’ preconceptions and misconceptions about the Soviets and Communism. Marxist ideology strongly condemns racism and prejudice, and many founders of the Soviet state were Jewish. But the Russians also badly needed workers for their labor battalions, and any Jewish labor they could take away from Germany would hurt the Nazi cause. To complicate matters, there is a long history of anti-Semitism in Russia, though it was never as virulent as in Germany or even Poland. Also ask the students to consider why the United States did so much less than the Russians to help Holocaust victims.)
3. Discuss this statement: Poland itself was a major casualty of World War II, and the fate of the Polish Jews was only a small part of that larger tragedy.
(Discuss the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, and Poland’s long history as a pawn in the great-power struggles of Europe. How does Poland today deal with that past?)
4. How did the Nazis decide whom to arrest and send to camps, whom to kill outright, and whom to leave free?
(Those who could contribute to the economy were left free, and some were used as slave labor, like Murray. The very old and very young, the sick or weak, and political prisoners would go to concentration camps, and probably not survive long. They were put to work until they died, or were killed when no longer useful. Rachael might have survived even if captured, as she was a strong healthy teenager capable of working.)
5. What kind of personal characteristics would you need to survive an ordeal like Rachael’s?
6. What is a premonition? Have you ever had one? What was Rachael’s brother’s premonition, and how did he act on it?
7. How did Rachael’s friends and neighbors “change” when threatened by the invaders?
(A former friend tortured Rachael’s cousin; neighbors told the Gestapo that Rachael and her mother were missing and must be hiding somewhere. Why? How do you react when your own survival may depend on compromising someone else’s survival?)
8. What motivated Rachael and her mother to survive under such nightmarish conditions?
(They had each other to live for, but there was also a desire to outwit their oppressors and survive in spite of superior strength and hatred on the other side.)
9. If you discovered the murdered body of a close friend or relative, as Rachael did, what would your reaction be?
(Would you give up on life, or would you fight even harder?)
10. After the death of her mother, what did Rachael do to survive?
(A family hid her; an infant had to be kept from crying; grenade was put into bunker, etc.)
11. Why is it important to hear about the Holocaust from an actual survivor like Rachael?
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