Bearing witness to the fate of my Polish family

After years of looking for Shoah answers, I realized I had to put my feet on the ground in Poland. So I joined the Ramah Israel Institute’s Poland Journey For Adults program that took place at the end of July 2019.

It occurred to me that by seeing my place of origin, Chmielnik, I might be able to learn more about myself and the generations before me. I’m grateful that the Ramah Israel Institute was more than willing to change the tour’s schedule to honor my request that we visit the restored Chmielnik Synagogue and nearby Jewish cemetery. This included a search for a quilt my mother Shelley Parrish made for the synagogue commemorating her visit 11 years ago before its restoration.

The synagogue has now been restored as a museum. Countless other synagogues have crumbled or been converted to other purposes, leaving little trace of Jewish heritage. The Chmielnik synagogue was reconstructed to ensure Jewish life there will never be forgotten. 

From my mother’s genealogy mission in 2008, she was able to chart six generations. I returned as a representative of the fifth generation of the Berlin family. The commonly heard phrase, “We didn’t talk about it after the war,” has made it difficult for me to learn anything about my place of origin. However, I understand why my great-grandfather “Papa Sam” (second generation) did not prefer to speak of the family since he lost his parents, eight siblings, uncles, aunts and countless nephews and nieces at Treblinka. He was the only family member who survived the Holocaust because he had left Chmielnik before the war to seek a different life. It had to have been a painful internal struggle losing his entire family.

On Oct. 6, 1942, our family, among the other estimated 9,000 Jews living in Chmielnik, were gathered to the town square to be transported to Treblinka, a death camp designed to systematically implement the Nazis’ Final Solution. The goal was to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Prior to our group visiting Chmielnik, we spent part of the afternoon at Treblinka. There we saw different memorials, including an awe-inspiring display of 17,000 large stones representing more than 800,000 Jews murdered at the death camp. Hundreds of the stones carry the name of villages whose Jews were sent to Treblinka. Chmielnik is one them.

I found that stone and then moved my fingers over and in the engraved letters. The moment brought a reality that the stem of my place of origin truly existed but was stolen away from me. I will never meet the hundreds of family members that I might have had. I envisioned them attending the synagogue, talking with neighbors, and I wondered what Shabbat together might have been like. I lit a yahrzeit candle, placed a rock on top of the stone, and so bore witness to their existence. Doing this brought great sadness. 

Later, however, while visiting the Chmielnik Synagogue, I found the quilt my mother had made.  Quilts are held together by stitches and used for warmth. I joyfully felt a spiritual connection with my family. I felt warmth after an emotionally challenged visit at Treblinka. Wrapped in the quilt, I felt an empty space inside me fill in missing pieces. The generational connection brought some peace to my loss. Forever, I will now have a better understanding of who I am and where I came from. 

Greg Parrish is a clinical social worker in Milwaukee. Parrish is actively involved in the Jewish community including his synagogue, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the George Weinstein Fellowship.