A Small Tragedy

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The only relatively clear remaining photograph of Abramek, showing him as a toddler with his parents.

MARZENIA (The Dream)

By Abramek Koplowicz

(Translated by Sarah Honig)

When I will be 20 years old,

In a motorized bird I’ll sit,

And to the reaches of space I’ll rise.

I will fly, I will float to the beautiful faraway world

And skywards I will soar.

The cloud my sister will be

The wind is brother to me.

I will fly, I will float over rivers and seas.

I will marvel at the Euphrates and Nile.

I will gaze at the Sphinx and Pyramids

In the goddess Isis’ ancient land.

I will glide over the mighty Niagara Falls,

And soak up the warmth of the Sahara’s sun.

Over the cloud-covered Tibetan peaks willI ascend,

Above the mysterious magic land of the Hindus.

And when extricated from the sun’s heat,

I will take wing to the Arctic north,

And I will whir above the giant Kangaroo Isle,

And then over the ruins of Pompeii.

From there I’ll set my sights to the Holy Land,

Where our Covenant was given.

I will even reach illustrious Homer’s country,

And will be so amazed by the beauty of this world.

To the heavens I will take off.

The cloud my sister will be;

The wind is brother to me.

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These verses were recited to Pope Francis when he visited Yad Vashem this week. He was also given a replica of a painting by the underage poet, an inmate of the Lodz Ghetto. He shook hands with several Holocaust survivors, including Abramek’s stepbrother Eliezer Gyrnfeld.

Sarah Honig was the first to publish Abramek’s story back on July 7, 1989 in the Jerusalem Post. Here is the feature exactly as it appeared then:

A SMALL TRAGEDY

At 13, Abramek was writing bright and beautiful poetry, far in advance of his years. He, and his words, came to an end in Auschwitz. By chance, some small memory of him was salvaged.

What child doesn’t, at some point in time, indulge in day-dreams of flying, of satisfying an as-yet unjaded curiosity to see and explore the wonders of the world?

Yet not every child is talented enough to put these dreams into writing, as the 13-year-old author of this poem has done so eloquently. Even more amazing is the fact that this youngster could dream at all – for his own world was far from beautiful, and the precocious young poet never lived to be 20. His dreams were extinguished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

This bright, hopeful poem came into the world in the most incongruous setting imaginable – in Poland’s Lodz Ghetto sometime during 1943, along with other verses penned in that dark year. The writer, who speaks of Isis and Homer, could at most have had two years of formal schooling. World War II burst into his life when he was a mere nine years old; from the age of 10, he had to do slave-labor to earn his meager ration of food. Yet despite suffering, hunger and privation, his mind was not defeated. He somehow managed to read, to study, to imagine.

He was Abraham Koplowicz, known to all as “Abramek,” blond and graced with those very features which Hitler’s race theories espoused as the epitome of Aryanism. But since Abramek was Jewish, he was eventually deprived of life and very nearly disappeared into the abyss of oblivion, like so many Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust. It was by chance that some small memory of him was salvaged.

The man who saved Abramek’s name from obliteration was someone who didn’t know him in person, but whom fate would later turn into Abramek’s step-brother. He is Eliezer “Lolek” Grynfeld, today a retired comptroller at the Ta’as munitions industries in Israel and a volunteer lecturer on the Holocaust. Grynfeld lives in an idyllic little house in Holon, surrounded by the lush greenery and flowers of a well-tended garden.

The pastoral present notwithstanding, Grynfeld’s youth was lost in the same Lodz Ghetto where Abramek’s childhood was cut short.

Both Lolek and Abramek were only children of middle-class Jewish families in Lodz, a city of 750,000 in central Poland. Jews made up one-third of the population there, as did Germans. The latter had been invited there by the Czarist rulers to help establish a textile industry, which quickly became a focus of competition and hostility between Jews and Germans. Because of the dominant Jewish role in that industry, Lodz had one of the most proletarian Jewish populations in Poland at the time.

The Lodz Ghetto, with 165,000 Jews incarcerated in a disease-ridden, four-square-kilometer area, was unique. The local Judenrat set up a system of ghetto industries, run by forced Jewish labor, to serve the German army in return for scant food rations. By 1943, 119 such factories were in operation, employing about 90 percent of the Jews. The necessity of keeping these factories staffed meant that the ghetto was spared from annihilation until most of Poland’s other Jewish communities had already been wiped out – until the final “mopping up” operations at the end of 1944. It was then that Abramek Koplowicz and his family were sent to Auschwitz, in the last transport to that death camp from Lodz.

Until that time, the boy’s father, Mendel Koplowicz, labored at a workshop producing cardboard boxes for the Germans. An ordained rabbi, he became a confirmed atheist after reading many secular philosophy books. Abramek worked at a shoe-making workshop, occasionally showing up at his father’s workshop to entertain the laborers by reciting poetry and satirical skits in verse. The handsome boy delighted his listeners, who unanimously agreed that he was a genius. One of those who heard him was Haya Grynfeld, Lolek’s mother and Mendel Koplowicz’s co-worker.

When the Koplowicz family was taken to Auschwitz, the mother, Yochet Gittel, was immediately sent to the gas chamber. The father and 14-year-old Abramek were sent to forced labor. But as he left for work, Mendel Koplowicz left his son in the barrack in order to protect him from the ordeal. Upon his return, he found it empty. The Germans had come and sent all those inside to death.

Lolek Grynfeld and his family lasted in Lodz even longer. The Germans rounded them up only in October 1944, by which time they no longer deported their victims to Auschwitz. Thus, Lolek – who was a bit older than Abramek –ended up in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and his mother in Ravensbruck. His father was killed early on in the German bombardments; Lolek did his work quota at a ghetto hospital until it was liquidated in 1942.

At war’s end, having miraculously escaped death at Sachsenhausen, he was taken on one of the infamous German death marches: “On the fifth night of the ordeal,” Grynfeld recalls, “they locked us up in an old stable. Several of us conspired to escape. I tripped one of the guards and the others finished him off with their wooden clogs.” Thus, after several hair-raising encounters with the Germans, Grynfeld and his mother managed to survive and both returned to Poland.

In 1946, Mendel Koplowicz wed Haya Grynfeld. In 1956 the family, which by now included Lolek’s own wife and their two children, Hava and Adam, came to Israel. Grynfeld describes his stepfather as “a taciturn man. It was rare to ever hear him mention the son he lost. I knew that he had gone back to their Ghetto home in Lodz after the war and that in the attic he had found a painting Abramek had done. It was of an old Jew in a tallit (prayer shawl) in front of the holy ark. It was realistic and far beyond what could be expected of a little boy.

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Abraham (Abramek) Koplowicz (1930-1944) Prayer, c.1943

“My stepfather framed it and it hung in his bedroom for years. But he never mentioned finding anything else in that attic. He didn’t like to talk about Abramek. He was racked with guilt for having left the boy in the barrack. He wanted to spare the child, and didn’t know that other fathers smuggled children under their coats just so they would be with them. There is no guarantee that Abramek would have survived, but his father ate himself up.”

When his stepfather got ill later in life, Grynfeld nursed, fed, washed and shaved him. The only time the old man expressed emotion was when he heard that his stepson had suffered a heart attack. He then sobbed uncontrollably. Mendel Koplowicz died at the age of 83 in 1983; his wife, several years later.

When Grynfeld finally brought himself to go through the couple’s things, he discovered an old Polish school composition book. The carefully-illustrated title page declared that it belonged to A. Koplowicz. The title itself was Utwory-Wlasne (Polish for “private creations”). At the bottom of the page, over an ink drawing of barricaded dark buildings, was the inscription “Litzmannstadt [the German name for Lodz] Ghetto.” The year 1943 was designated in large numerals.

Grynfeld realized then that when the old man had gone back to the Lodz attic, he had found more than one painting.

“My stepfather was so closed up that he didn’t even divulge the secret of the notebook to my mother. It hurt him too much to talk about Abramek. Imagine my astonishment when I turned the pages, which were literally falling apart. In places the handwriting has begun to fade.

“It’s hard to explain to non-Polish speakers how marvelous these poems are. The rhyme and rhythm, the imagery, the play on sound is amazing, and not only considering the fact that the poet was a child. It’s excellent poetry regardless of the writer’s age. Experts on Polish literature who saw the verses were very impressed indeed,” Grynfeld says.

He himself translated one poem into Hebrew – Marzenia (The Dream), and I translated it into English.

“My Hebrew rendition is so inferior to the Polish original though,” Grynfeld cautions, adding that he is looking for a volunteer who will translate the other poems from Polish so that they can be published. Meanwhile, he has handed the original crumbling book over to Yad Vashem, along with the painting and the only relatively clear photo left of Abramek. It was taken in better days, when he was a toddler, showing him with his parents and his hobby horse. There is one more, very faded, picture of Abramek as a tiny baby.

“That is all that is left of a Jewish child. I think this [story] embodies our tragedy. Who knows what minds, what geniuses, what promise to humanity the Germans annihilated?

“I must go back to the Polish language to emphasize the beauty of these verses,” says Grynfeld. “It’s beyond me how a boy who could have only been in school between ages seven and nine, could possibly have picked up such a rich Polish. How he could have written so well, how he could have known so much and observed so keenly?”

Despite the backdrop of the Holocaust, Abramek’s eight poems and the two satirical playlets in rhyme don’t seem to portray any overt horror.

Some poems like “The Dream” are examples of outright escapism; others offer a tongue-in-cheek, yet realistic depiction of the daily hardship.

In one poem, Abramek describes the atmosphere in the shoemaking workshop, the harmonic syncopation of the hammers, the foxtrot whistled by the overseer, the jokes, gossip and philosophical homilies bandied about. He also writes about malnutrition, “for despite the watery soup, hunger pangs don’t cease.” There are little details noted, like inducements for higher productivity and punishment for slackness. And Abramek praises the laborers’ output, but stresses: “we all know who it’s for. Only time will tell if we can ever be forgiven for this work that we do.”

Another vignette about daily ghetto life is offered in a satirical sketch in verse on the distribution of clothes to the ghetto dwellers, who stand on line for tattered handouts, spreading sarcastic rumors about the distribution of ham, crates of butter and even geese. Finally, Abramek writes, the queue is dispersed. There are no clothes given out that day.

There are other poems which are partly fiction but whose content can also be seen as metaphorically portraying Abramek’s reality.

Grynfeld recites in Polish a poem called “Wind.” The language, the musical effect of the cadence of the verse – even to someone who doesn’t understand the language – is stunning. Freely translating, Grynfeld says the poem is about an ill wind which runs amok through the landscape. Breathless, it spreads havoc and terror in every nook and cranny, sparing not even the song bird, the field mice or the tots huddling around their grandfather.

Elsewhere, Abramek describes the beggar who wanders the streets asking for a morsel of food till, on a cold winter night, “he reclines in an alley, falls asleep and returns his soul to God.” Grynfeld says that given the daily reality of the Lodz Ghetto, Abramek no doubt saw many real models for his depiction.

The musicality of Abramek’s verse is also easily audible in “Zager,” a poem about a clock in which he comments that: ” … sometimes a mere second can seem to last an eternity, but when you need it, it flees and flies away and only this clock, it stands there at the wall, indifferently ticking as it always did before.”

In “The Offering,” a ballad about a Jewish lad named Berale who is conscripted into battle, Abramek describes the tearful, fearful parting from the doting parents, then the din of the fight, which is breathlessly reflected in the rhythm of the poetry. Caught up in the ecstasy of warfare, Berale feels a bayonet thrust through his chest. He falls, is trampled upon and dies with his parents’ names on his lips. The parents, who receive no word about his fate, never find consolation.

“In a way,” muses Grynfeld, “Abramek perhaps presaged what was to happen to him and his father. He, like Berale, was the offering, and the father could never find any solace. It was hard to get the father to talk about the boy and almost impossible to broach the subject. So much so, that I never really knew exactly how old Abramek was.”

This riddle was finally solved when the Lodz Olim Society in Israel, for whom Grynfeld serves as secretary, purchased the Lodz Ghetto records that were discovered by Polish authorities after the war.

“The Poles had the unabashed audacity to demand payment for the microfiche of the original papers. They extorted a lot of money from us. The records consist of long, detailed lists of all ghetto-dwellers, their addresses, dates of birth and occupations and, in many cases, their dates of deportation to the death camps. It was there that I discovered Abramek.” Grynfeld adds that many people left no trace of their existence on this planet aside from the mention of their names on this list.

“I knew my stepfather and his family lived on 9 Siegfried Street and on the lists indeed I found ‘Koplowicz, Abraham, resident at that address, occupation: pupil,’ and his date of birth, February 18, 1930.’ There is no deportation date, which means that Abramek was on the last transport to Auschwitz.”

Grynfeld has made sure that Abramek’s name appears elsewhere as well. On Mendel Koplowicz’s tombstone, he added: “In memory of his son Abramek, who perished in the Holocaust, may God avenge his blood.”

= = = = = = = = =

ONE OF THE most shocking aspects of the Holocaust is the cold, bureaucratic administration of death.

Most victims didn’t meet their end in a fit of rage and fury, in the heat of battle, or by the chance explosion of a bomb: they were all targeted and listed carefully, all sentenced to death. Careful alphabetical records of all the ghetto-dwellers were kept, listing their sex, occupation, ghetto and pre-war address. Because the records were alphabetical, families are not even listed together. People were simply inventoried.

No one was exempt and no one escaped from this inventory – not even Mojzesz (Moshe) Natan Koplowicz. He was born on February 6, 1944 and his occupation is listed as Kind Neugeb, the German annotation for “baby, newborn.” He had an address – 64 Sulzf St. On the last column, reserved for notes, is a terse entry: gest (German abbreviation for “died”) 18.2.44. This, in effect, sums up little Mojzezs Natan’s entire 12-day life.

The “notes” column mixes German and Polish abbreviations and thus the death of a ghetto resident is sometimes recorded with gest or with its Polish equivalent, zmarl. Likewise, a change of address can appear as the German abbreviation ABG or as the Polish WYM.

When the entry Ausg appears, it means that the person in question had been deported to a death camp. Every detail is duly noted because everything had to be strictly kept in order, and each ghetto inmate had to be accounted for.

The “occupation” column helps color in part of the identity of the people listed. There are many who were simply kind (“small child”). Others, like Abramek (see line 47), were Schueler (“pupil”). There are also lots of people listed as housewives, tailors, dressmakers, bookbinders, etc.

Some names appear several times, because the handwriting on the original Lodz Ghetto list was not always clear. When it was processed later in Israel, it was decided that the computer printout would feature all possible versions to enable people to find all traces of lost loved ones.

5 thoughts on “A Small Tragedy

  1. Thank you for this beautiful, heartbreaking, bitter account. What will stay with us for the rest of our lives, is the knowledge of how much was lost to the world with this child, and all the others- The horror, the cruelty, the evil- never to be forgotten. But oh, the genius, the sensitivity, the wisdom, the creativity–never to be realized. Everyone alive, Jew or non-Jew, suffers because of what the word lost.
    Marcella Wachtel

  2. My grandfather was from Lithuania, and the reality of the Holocaust was occasionally brought home to me, when he talked of those he left behind. But for this story of Abramek Koplowicz, a young genius swallowed by Nazi barbarity, there are no words. Did he fulfill his life’s purpose? Is Hashem really perfect? One wonders….

  3. Pingback: Eerbetoon aan Abramek Koplowicz - Dit is Derks

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