The Rockaway Irregular
This past summer, walking on the beach,I ran into an old friend. "What are you up to?"I said,to him, making the usual small talk, and he said he was working on a project to help an elderly Holocaust survivor, living in Brooklyn, publish her memoirs. "It's a really powerful story," he said. "The woman hid for two years,buried alive in a manmade cave under the noses of the Nazis."I'd hit a dry spell onone of my own projects and, figuring I needed achange of pace,said maybe I could help. Ibarely had the words out of my mouth when he said "great" and so I got the manuscript handed to me a few days later. It was about 120 typewritten pages and I promptly put it aside, getting back to my own writing, forgetting about the promise I'd made.
A few weeks later my friend called and asked aboutprogress. I kind of put him off, but when I told my wife in passing that the lady who had written the material wasin her mid-nineties, my wife said I ought to be ashamed. "How can you let it sit," she demanded, "when the lady is so old?You promised to help so what are you waiting for?"
Suitably chastened I picked the manuscript up again and began the tedious job of editing.The story was simply told but, after a time, it began to weigh on me as I read howthe Manaster family, of Orelec, in Poland, lost everythingin the face ofNazi terror during World War II. Jafa Wallach, theninety-five year old author, describes in gruesome detail how her family wasrounded up and interned. Oneparticularly harrowing morning, when the Nazi guards went on a shooting spree in the camp in whichshe and many of her family members were being held, killing hundreds of younggirls in a sewing factory, Wallach herself only narrowly survived. She told her husband, Natan,they had to get out.
The couple had a little four-year old girl. Before going into the camp, they had arranged with a non-Jewish Pole,a friend of the family, to spirit the child away. Jozef Zwonarz, a localmechanic working now for the Nazi occupiers, used to come to the gates of the Lesko camp to give the Wallach's messages about little Rena, assuring them she was safe. Now they told him they had to find a way out, too, and Zwonarz assured them he'd do what he could. Shortly thereafter hereturned with a plan.
Because camp inmates at that time could still commute to and from outside work assignments, Jafaand Natan Wallach got work passes and secretly met Zwonarz in town. He took them to his workshop, situated betweenGestapo headquarters and the Ukrainian police station, and, with the aid of Jafa's two brothers, who also made it out,feverishly dug a holelarge enough to accommodate all of them under his cellar floor.But it wasn't much of a hole. They couldn't stand upor stretch out. Zwonarz gave them one plank of wood for a table and one small cot and ran aconnection to thepowerlines in the nearby streetto provideenoughelectricity for alight bulb andhotplate.
On the day before the Nazis permanently locked down the Lesko work camp, preparatory to shipping its last inhabitants out for extermination, Wallach and her companions left for the last time to meet Zwonarz and he sealed them into their living grave. Dependent onhim for their very survival now, they got by on thefew scraps of foodand little water he could pilfer each day. He never told his wife or anyone else of their presence. As the war raged above them and the clothes rotted off their bodies from the damp underground conditions, they struggled to hang onto life, hunkered down on their knees and barely speaking to one another for fear of being overheard by the workers who came in and out above them almost daily.
Zwonarz saved their lives at great risk to his own. And his small network of family and friends saved the life of little Rena, their daughter, deep in the forest, far from thesight of the ever present Gestapo.When the Soviets finally fought their way back into Poland, as the Nazi lines collapsed before the onslaught of the Red Army, and as the dailyartillery bombardments began to undermine the foundations of the house where they were hidden, their cave walls began to collapse.Wallach, her husband, two brothers and a sister emerged from their hole emaciated,bodies shrunken,limbs atrophied.Although most of their family members were lost to the Nazi holocaustat Belzec and other death camps, the Wallachs and the Manaster siblings lived to reclaim the child who had also miraculously survived.
That child, Rena Wallach Bernstein,now a mature woman, still recalls the lifeshe led deep within the nearby forest in the careof a Polish forest watchman, a relative of Zwonarz who, at least once, had to wrestle with himself over whetherto kill her or not, fearingdiscovery by the Nazis. The manuscript, as Iedited it, had me in its grip. More thanonce tears filled my eyes and my throat caught. I was barely ableto believe, and yet unable to disbelieve,the conditionsand eventsthese people hadendured.
Each dayI arose from my desk thinking of the horrorsof cowering there under the earth, unable to lift one's head or breatheunfetid air or see the sun's light. When I finished the editing, Ijustslumped back in my chair, staring, thinking of what I'd read, of those who had survived and those who hadn't. I had no close relativesof my ownin Europe when the Holocaust happened. My paternal grandmother had left onebrother behind in Russia when she came to America in the early 1900's but she had long since lost touch with him. He was just a distant memorybyWorld War II. But these people . . . suddenly it was as though I had lived through it with them.
Indeed, when I finally came to the end of the manuscript I found the greatest surprise of all. I hadn't known itwhen I began but Yafa Wallach, her husband, Dr. Natan Wallach,and Rena had actually livedless than four miles from my own home inRockaway when I was growing up. In 1947 the Wallachs had made their way out of war-ravaged Europe and settled here in the community of Arverne where Dr. Wallachpracticed medicine until 1963. They'd beenneighbors though I hadn't known it. While I had no known relatives of my own who had been trapped in the Holocaust,suddenly it seemed asthough I did.
Jozef Zwonarz, the man who saved them, died in Poland in 1984 after falling on hard times after the war years. Dr. Wallachwas blinded in a freak auto accident in 1976and lost his ability to practice medicine or to pursue his great love, philosophy. He had to live out the rest of his life in darkness, tended by the woman with whom he had shared so much pain in thoseyears. In 1959 Jafa Wallach wrote it all down in a manuscriptshekepthidden away for her own reasons. Butin 2006,she and her daughter, Rena Wallach Bernstein, decided it was time.
It wasgut-wrenching and harrowing for me as Iedited this book. ButI'm not sorry I did, or that I ran into my friend last summer as I was walking aimlessly along the beach on a hot summer's day. I wouldn't have had the chance toliveall these months with the Wallachs and Manasters otherwise,and to see, firsthand, whatsome will do to their fellow human beings . . . orto what lengths otherswill go to save them. Wallach's book, BITTERFREEDOM , is due out this April from Hermitage Publishing with a foreword by me.Pick it up, read it and see what I mean.