Sunday, December 18, 2016


One woman in the foreground of the market (third from left) resembles my grandmother’s mother.

Many families all over the world can narrate accounts of their relatives who went missing in the Holocaust—to a point. Some narrators, like my maternal grandmother, would have to stop at a certain juncture, and with a shrug, with empty palms balancing even weights, painfully state, “We never heard from them again.” That phrase of resignation, which I encountered dozens of times from youth through adulthood, referred to my grandmother’s mother, Meresse Offen, and my grandmother’s young brother, David Offen, trapped in their native village, Mielec, after the German army invaded Poland. The 1939 Nazi incursion would be “the point” beyond which the narration could not continue with certainty, and the speaker would be left to repackage the grief, storing the information of the loss temporarily, until the impetus for reiteration would recall the names—Meresse and David—to the lips, to be restored by the elegiac necessities of speech.

Speculation on the plights of our relatives abounded. Some family members contended that Meresse had been shot to death after digging her own grave. They averred that David had been sent to work (and die) in a nearby Polish aircraft factory, one that the Nazis had repurposed to produce German warplanes. Two family members traveled (separately) to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where they offered conflicting testimony, one declaring the veracity of these events (shooting, aircraft factory) while the other placed question marks on the part of the form reserved for cause of death. My mother references a blurry event from her childhood, when a former neighbor from Mielec was said to have visited her household in New York, conveying information about how Meresse and David perished. I grew interested in the story, and in researching it, hoped to unearth evidence that might help us shift “the point” of knowledge toward a place of greater detail.

To some extent, this voyage becomes a tale of “Internet triumph.” Email communication with a Jewish Records Indexing researcher led me to the 1941 Nazi census of Mielec, one that listed “Meresa Offen” and “Dawid Offen” as living at “3-go Maya”, the purported site of a family lumber business. Other web sites (including that of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) contained testimonies or oral histories that established the brutality of the Nazi regime when it first occupied the small town in 1939: burning many Jews inside a ritual bath, to cite one example. Knowing, however, that my relatives had survived until the census, I sought details on how they might have fared under occupation. Many of the oral histories suggested that each household supplied a worker for the occupiers, but otherwise, many of those living in Mielec struggled beneath the twin burdens of poverty and travel restriction: few strayed far from home. 

A German soldier snapped the market photo and inscribed the back: October 2, 1940, Market in Milec.

Most of my grandmother’s family had emigrated to the United States in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II in Europe, but her parents and a younger sibling remained in the Old Country. The family, as a unit, had traveled to Vienna between World Wars, owing to political and military instability in Poland. After Germany annexed Austria as part of the Anschluss, Meresse Offen and her youngest son, David, returned to Mielec, hoping to resuscitate the family lumber business. The invasion of Poland separated husband and wife, father and son. Markus Offen, the aged patriarch, would flee Europe on one of the final passenger missions of the Italian vessel, the S.S. Rex, departing Genoa for New York City in early 1940. Official records describe him as suffering from senility, but he wasn’t senile, he was extremely distraught over having to choose between an unlikely reunion with his wife and son—and self-preservation.

A few months after weary, depressed Markus Offen reached his children in New York, a German soldier garrisoned in Mielec snapped several photographs of the village, carefully inscribing each with date and setting. Perhaps he meant to document his travels as a soldier, but he indirectly created a portrait of Jewish life that would later be discovered by a Canadian soldier after the German had been killed in battle. The Canadian soldier returned home with these (and other) photographs, eventually bequeathing them to his nephew, who, as part of the “Internet triumph”, posted them online as a photoset. Since the Wehrmacht soldier had inscribed many of his photographs “Milec”, the German spelling of Mielec, a Google search for “Milec” would reveal these wonders. I conducted such a search. Up came the photoset, which, by itself, would have been a find, but one of the photographs in particular would draw my family’s attention.

(L) Meresse Offen in later life. (R) Meresse and David Offen, hale and hearty, in earlier days.

The soldier’s market photograph features three women in the foreground, including one who stares downward, unwilling to glance at the camera. Her image compares favorably—eerily—to a family photograph of Meresse Offen, the print presumably carried to the States by her husband, Markus, having fled from persecution aboard the S.S. Rex. The wig style, the jaw-line, the frown: it might be our lost relative, my great grandmother. We can’t say for sure, of course, but the Nazi census doesn’t list many women in their sixties, and even if it isn’t her, it might as well be her, for the woman in the soldier’s snapshot as well as my great grandmother (were they not the same person) probably lived the same desolate, anguished lives under occupation. Subsequent scholarship by Rochelle Saidel, in her book Mielec, Poland: The Shtetl That Became a Nazi Concentration Camp, would authoritatively describe the end of Mielec’s Jewish population.

Even before Saidel wrote her book, it wasn’t a secret that Mielec’s Jews were deported on March 9, 1942, a bitterly cold, snowy day. But Saidel’s book probably helps us adjust “the point” where facts trail off, and speculation begins. Had the elderly Meresse Offen, useless by Nazi standards, lived to the day of the deportation, she was almost certainly shot to death, or if not shot to death, then transported to the Lublin District, before being rerouted to a death camp. (In all likelihood, she did not dig her own grave.) Had her son, David, survived until the brutally cold day in March, 1942, then he might’ve been sent to the labor camp—the airplane factory—outside Mielec, or if he wasn’t selected for slave labor, then he might’ve been transported to the Lublin District, before further transport, in all likelihood, to a death camp. Just as we can’t say whether the woman in the soldier’s photograph is my great grandmother, we can’t say exactly what happened to these two humble relatives. Still, we can shift “the point” of understanding a little bit further into the clarified light.

David Offen was a handsome fellow who perished in the Holocaust. (Worked to death, typhoid sickness, gas chamber, executed by soldier, asphyxiated in cattle car?) I wonder if he was ever “whistled out” (ordered around) as were the Jews in Paul Celan’s famous poem, “Todesfuge.” David had ten siblings, one of whom, Anna, became my grandmother. She famously toiled as a maternity ward nurse in New York, sending the vast majority of her earnings to Europe, in order to assist members of her family and her husband, Emil Ringel, to emigrate. While the Offen family did experience large-city life in Vienna, I’ve got to imagine that New York bedazzled them: the lights, vivacity, melting pot, mechanization, jazz. It was the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who declared “no him, no me,” when referring to another trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, and the same is true on my end, when thinking of my grandmother: no her, no me. I’m lucky to be alive.

Sources of information:

Oral history of Offen family
Jewish Records Indexing, 1941 Nazi Census of Mielec
Markus Offen immigrant identification card, passenger manifest for S.S. Rex
Milec (Mielec) photoset, including email communication with the owner of the photographs
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum oral histories, including one by Jack Sittsamer
Rochelle Saidel. Mielec, Poland: the Shtetl That Became a Nazi Concentration Camp
Mark Verstandig. I rest my case
Yad Vashem
Wikipedia, Mielec entry
Paul Celan, “DeathFugue”, as translated by Michael Hamburger
Dizzy Gillespie quote, regarding Louis Armstrong