Reflections on the Past and Present in Częstochowa

The avenue looking down from the Jasna Góra Monastery

On October 4-13 I traveled with HHC board member Hagit Limor and her University of Cincinnati students as they conducted a project about Hagit’s father Moniek Limor, who was from Częstochowa, Poland. In addition to following Moniek’s experiences, I also found myself reflecting on the several Cincinnatians who were also originally from or were in Częstochowa during the war. The article is about their experiences in the context of Częstochowa in 2019. There are other Częstochowa survivors who made Cincinnati or the Tri-State their home that I did not include, but hope to tell their stories in the future.

-Jodi Elowitz, Director of Education

Traveling in Czestochowa, one is struck by the beauty of the Jasna Góra Monastery which is home to the Black Madonna. The enshrined Madonna is a beacon of hope to those who come from all over the world to pray for her healing powers. From the top of the monastery you can look straight down the Aleja Najświętszej Maryi Panny (Avenue of the Blessed Virgin Mary) which is the main street of Częstochowa, to the Church of Holy Zigmunt. There is no doubt you are in a Catholic city. Walking behind the church, one will see the old market square, where the Jewish quarter was, once home to most of the Jewish population.  Today the square is under construction as part of a city revitalization project. Along the streets are independently owned restaurants and shops. The avenue was once home to Sara Dorfgang, her little sister Ruth, brother Moshe, sisters Hella and Pola and her father Aaron. Their mother, Carka, is remembered for her kindness, always making sure people had a place to go on the Sabbath, or food to eat. Not too far from the Dorfgangs lived the Kantors, who also lived on the main avenue, not far from the church.

If you walk further down along the Warta river you will come upon a memorial to the Jews of Częstochowa who were deported to Treblinka. No one was meant to return from Treblinka, but there were a few who escaped and warned of the horrors that awaited Jews sent there. All that remains of the deportation area is a dilapidated house wrapped in a mural of shadows. The day we visited, there was a cold wind and bright sun. It was the anniversary of the 1942 deportations.

Memorial at the Deportation Site

The Germans occupied Częstochowa on September 3, 1939, and immediately began a reign of terror that would last until January 16, 1945, when the Soviet Army liberated the town. The Church of Holy Zigmunt was where Ray Kantor and a group of Jews were kept during a massacre known as Bloody Monday. After the initial occupation, a Judenrat was formed and then the large ghetto was sealed. Between September 22 and October 7, 1942, forty thousand Jews were marched to the train platform to be deported to Treblinka. This is what happened to Paula (Blicblum) Knobler’s father, Szychmsio, mother, Leah, and her sister Rachel. Luckily, she was able to live with her brother Simon and his new wife Sarah Dorfgang, and her family.

Church of Holy Zigmunt

Those who remained were sent to the small ghetto or to work at the HASAG, a German-owned munitions factory. The HASAG is where the Dorfgang family found themselves living in a hallway making rooms out of cardboard. At first, they were there without their youngest Ruth, as they had hidden her with a Polish family. After her identity was discovered by the antisemitic son-in-law of the family, she was snuck into the HASAG, hidden from view so that she would not be counted, as she technically did not exist. Sara was with her new husband Simon Blicblum and his sister Paula. On January 15, workers from the factory were forced on trains; not everyone reported, some of those who did were sent to Buchenwald. The next day, those who remained behind were liberated by the Soviets.  The HASAG today is home to many companies; visitors are not encouraged inside the gates, and the only reminder of what it once was is on a memorial plaque on a wall of an old gutted factory building. The building stands outside the gates across the street from people’s homes. 

It was a long trip to Buchenwald, with no food, or water. Conditions in the camp were horrible. Ray Kantor, who was at Buchenwald, remembered the harsh conditions, how he was like a skeleton he was so thin: “’Hope is eternal.’ I knew the end was coming, whether they would let us live, that I did not know.” Buchenwald is a stark reminder of the brutality of the Nazi concentration camp system. It is hidden in a beautiful forest area where today people hike and cycle. In the camp, stones that formed the bear cage of the zoo remain across from the barbed wire fences separating the prisoners from the guards and the commandant. Towers overlook the perimeter, the time on the clock of the main gate tower reads 3:15, the time the camp was liberated. The words on the gate, Jedem das Seine (“to each his own” or “to each what he deserves”) greeted each prisoner and then liberator when they entered the camp.

No one could believe what they saw there; no one had words. Herb Allen, an African American solider, who is pictured with his unit in a famous photograph taken out behind the crematorium, rarely spoke about it. Standing there in the cold in 2019 there was no meaning that could be gleaned from the empty spaces, the silences etched into the ground you walk upon. Past and present merge and time suspends but meaning does not come upon request.

Returning to Cincinnati, I had a much different perspective on the lives of Ray Kantor, Ruth (Dorfgang) Levine, Sara (Dorfgang) Blicblum and Simon Blicblum, Paula (Blicblum) Knobler, and Herb Allen.  It was an honor to learn of their lives and their journeys, and to continue to give voice to what they experienced for generations to come.