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George Saltzberg, Walter's son


Saltzberg family in Poland 1932, Walter as infant


Passover 2011 (R to L) Walter Saltzberg, George Saltzberg, Tim Swift, Peter Jablonski


Yad Vashem ceremony 2008 honouring Peter (L to R) Peter Jablonski, George Saltzberg, Walter Saltzberg, George Mandlebaum

 


EDITOR'S PICK: GEORGE SALTZBERG, THE SON OF A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR, CARES FOR HIS FATHER'S RESCUER: I HOPE MY STORY INSPIRES OTHERS TO FIND THEIR OWN LINKS WITH THE PAST

by Rhonda J. Prepes, P. Eng., June 22, 2011

 In loving memory of Peter Jablonski (Nachman Fryszberg) z'l who passed away July 17, 2011.

This is a true story about survival, kindness, inspiration and hope.

As a  boy Walter Saltzberg was able to survive the Holocaust with the help of a young man, Peter Jablonski. During a desperate time, Peter unselfishly went out of his way to ensure Walter’s safety, good health and survival. After the war, each went their separate way.

Walter was able to come to Canada because of the generousity of a family friend in New York who recognized Walter in a Yiddish newspaper article about children in a Polish orphanage. Walter had a family and today lives comfortably in Winnipeg.

Many years later after coming to Canada and re-building his life in Winnipeg, Walter found the man who saved his life - Peter. It turned out that Peter and his wife, who now live in Toronto, did not have any children.  Never forgetting what Peter did to save him, Walter and his family seized the opportunity to repay Peter’s kindness a generation later. Walter’s son George and his partner who live in Toronto take care of the now aged Peter and his wife, treating them like honoured and respected family.

This story is also about George's search for links to his past. For years, George had  wanted to find  the Yiddish newspaper article he had heard about that brought about Walter’s emigration to Canada. George contacted the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and asked their help in the monumental task of locating this article. As luck would have it, he was put in touch with the one person who recognized that article and knew exactly where it could be found. This YIVO archivist had just seen this article months before and saved a copy of it because she thought it might be important, and because her grandmother had worked at the orphanage that Walter had lived at. George now has a small piece of his father’s past. He hopes his story will inspire others to look for links to their own past.

PART ONE – SURVIVAL BY KINDNESS

George Saltzberg, son of  Holocaust survivor Walter Saltzberg  has found the last piece of information he was searching for regarding his father’s past. He wants everyone to know how satisfying it is to finally have this information and how relatively easy it was to find.

I first wrote about Walter Saltzberg’s experience during the Holocaust in the Winnipeg Jewish Review last April 2010, but this  article will present more in depth details of this fascinating case of generousity, compassion, and human kindness in the middle of the war and how it lead to the opportunity to repay this kindness a generation later..

While his parents and brother perished in the Holocaust, Walter Saltzberg managed to evade death repeatedly.

Walter (Wacek, in Polish) lived in Warsaw, Poland with his parents and his brother who was six years older than him in a nice large apartment before the onset of the Second World War.

When the war broke out on September 1, 1939, Walter was eight years old. When the Warsaw ghetto was built in November 1940, the Saltzberg apartment was just inside on Leszno Street which was the largest street in the ghetto, so they didn’t have to move. The family was obliged to take in people from other parts of Poland. The once spacious apartment now housed three separate families in each of the bedrooms.

His parents and brother had papers which allowed them to “work” as slave labourers in a German factory that made typewriters and adding machines such that they were considered to be useful to the German war machine. They were concerned about Walter’s well-being as the Germans had begun to deport the elderly and the young from the ghetto to the camps. Walter was forced to spend his days hiding behind a wall while his family went to work.

A Polish family friend, Dr. Kazimierz Weckowski, then smuggled Walter out of the ghetto and took him into his home and hid him for two years. Walter did not have any books, radio, or TV. Walter last saw his parents and brother in the spring of 1942 when he was 11 years old.

After the building where he was hiding was bombed, Walter walked two blocks to find another place to hide - another apartment building where the Polish Underground were hiding Jewish people in the basement and they took him in.

Here, during the Warsaw uprising of August 1944, Walter met a young man about ten years older than himself, named Peter Jablonski, who began taking care of him. Without knowing it at the time, Peter Jablonski  would end up playing an extremely vital role in Walter’s life.

Peter was born Nachman Fryszberg, but changed his name with the help of the Polish Underground to pass as a gentile.

This second building Walter was living in was bombed in the fall of 1944 and Walter was one of the only survivors. He was buried up to his head under rubble with a cut and broken leg. As Walter begged for help, Peter and others dug him out and carried him to safety to another building. Peter agreed to hide Walter if he could remain quiet. So with a broken leg that Peter tied off with part of his shirt, Peter led Walter through a trap door in the floor. Walter traversed down a ladder by himself with a broken and bleeding leg. They proceeded down a narrow twisted hallway into a small hiding space. Walter lived there for five months with Peter and three others. Two of them were Jews and the third’s family had converted to Christianity two generations before, but Hitler went back several generations when he determined who was a Jew and who was not.

Peter used urine to disinfect Walter’s wound and was the only one of the five in hiding that left every couple of nights to look for food. They survived on a meager ration of food that Peter was able to find in an abandoned building (a sack of rotten onions). Walter received no medical attention for his leg and was barely able to move. The break and wound eventually healed, although his leg was twisted and shortened.

He relied on Peter for food and for protection from the others they were hiding with. The others did not welcome the young boy with a broken leg because they worried that he would cry out at night and alert the Germans. One night Peter returned from looking for food and found them choking Walter. He told them if they harmed him they would never eat again as he would no longer look for food for them. The agreement reached was that the rations would be split 4 ways instead of 5 and that Peter would share his portion with Walter.

Recalling that time in hiding, Walter says, “During the five months that we were hiding, I was dreaming about having a full glass of water. Every day was daily terror. Every single day, we anticipated that we would be found. We lived by night. During the day, we lay there silently trembling expecting to be discovered. But, somehow we were not.”

Walter was 14 years old when he came out of hiding with Peter in January 1945.  After the war, with Peter’s help, Walter ended up in a Jewish orphanage outside of Warsaw in Otwock, Poland and went through an unsuccessful operation on his leg in a Russian military hospital in Otwock. He was later sent to Sweden to undergo another operation on his leg, this one somewhat successful.

While living in the Jewish orphanage in Otwock, Poland, Walter wondered what his future held. Serendipitously, American reporters had arrived at the orphanage after the war to interview the children about their experiences.  After a story about Walter and other orphans appeared in a New York Jewish newspaper, a friend of his parents recognized Walter’s name and arranged for him to come to Winnipeg in 1947, where he had distant relatives. This American family friend, Meyer Schwartzapel, also played a pivotal role in Walter’s life.

Walter arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax on Dec 2, 1947 with only a grade two education. In Winnipeg, Walter obtained a higher education, married, had children and became a very well respected Bridge Engineer.

PART TWO – REPAYING KINDESS

While living comfortably in Canada for about ten years, Walter wondered what had become of Peter. In 1958, while on a business trip to Toronto, Walter opened the phone book and called all the Jablonskis listed until he found Peter.

Peter and his wife Sabina had gone to Israel after the war. They came to Canada around 1953 to visit Sabina’s sister and never left. They never had children. All of Peter’s immediate family had been killed in the Holocaust.

Peter had also saved his cousin George Mandlebaum by smuggling him out of the ghetto when he was seven and handing him to a stranger to be adopted by Christians. After the war, Peter and Sabina found him and brought him to live with them for some time until they sent him to live with other relatives in the U.S.

Currently both Peter and Sabina are in a nursing home in Toronto. Peter, now over 90 years old, has cancer and Sabina has Alzheimer’s. Sabina’s niece, Barbara Wojtas, now cares for the couple as do George Saltzberg, Walter’s son, and Tim, George’s partner.

A full generation later, Peter’s kindness and compassion offered to Walter in the midst of terrible dire circumstances is repaid  as George, Walter’s son, looks after and offers support to the Peter and his wife Sabina.

“Peter is like the grandfather that I never had. He is a remarkable human being and an inspiration. He has taught me that people always have the ability to choose to do good deeds (mitzvot) even in dark times,” says George.

“We often ask him why he did what he did. Why did he burden himself by caring for and hiding a kid with a broken leg?”

“Peter replies that it was just what he had to do. He didn’t really think about it. He found a 13 year old boy that had survived the war up until that point and he had to take care of him beyond that point.”

“It is impossible to say thank you to Peter for what he did to save my father. It has really been a gift for my partner and I to help take care of him and Sabina at this stage of their lives.”

George and his partner, Tim Swift, now celebrate the Jewish holidays with Peter and Sabina. Last October, George and Tim organized a 90th birthday party for Peter. Walter and George Mandlebaum, the two who owe their lives to Peter were part of the celebration. Three years ago, George nominated Peter to be honoured as a survivor who contributed to Ontario and Canada at a ceremony at the Ontario legislature by Yad Vashem and the Government of Ontario.

Walter just had a memorial placed for Dr. Kazimierz Weckowski, the man who took Walter into his home and hid him for two years, at the  Asper Campus in Winnipeg. Dr. Kazimierz Weckowski is also honoured as the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

PART THREE – THE MISSING PIECE

For years George Saltzberg, Walter’s son, wondered about the article written in a New York Jewish newspaper that prompted the American family friend to arrange for Walter to leave Poland and get to Canada in 1946.

After having returned from Israel where family and friends discussed how Walter had come to Canada, George was inspired to search for this piece of information.

He contacted the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and explained his request.

Rivka Schiller, Archivist at YIVO, was instrumental in assisting George. First, she discovered that Joanna Michlic had written two articles about Walter Saltzberg.  Professor Joanna Beata Michlic generously shared excerpts from her articles with George Saltzberg:

 

JEWISH CHILDREN IN NAZI-OCCUPIED POLAND: SURVIVAL AND POLISH-JEWISH RELATIONS DURING THE HOLOCAUST AS REFLECTED IN EARLY POSTWAR RECOLLECTIONS (2008) by JOANNA BEATA MICHLIC

 

“For example, Walter Saltzberg, born to a wealthy middle-class family in Warsaw on January 12, 1931, recalls that after the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising on August 1, 1944, he left his rescuers’ apartment in the city. However, he was unable to run because of his long-term hiding in a motionless position. This contributed to his accident during the Uprising — he was wounded and broke his leg. Thanks to the help of another Jewish boy, Piotr (Peter) Jablonski, Saltzberg was transported to a hideout in a burnt-out building at 2 Malczewskiego Street in the Mokotow neighborhood of Warsaw. Saltzberg and other Jewish fugitives remained in hiding there for three months, until the beginning of the winter. Jablonski shared food with the helpless Saltzberg, and also protected him from the other fugitives who, at one point, decided to kill Saltzberg out of fear that his open wound would attract the attention of local dogs and, in turn, unwanted individuals. After they left the hideout some time at the beginning of 1945, Jablonski looked after Saltzberg for another few months, until the boy was placed in the Jewish Children’s Home in Otwock.”

 

Professor Joanna Beata Michlic also offered an issue of Yad Vashem Studies (2009) no. 37 in which she had an opening article about  a Jewish Children's Home in Otwock, where Walter Saltzberg had been a resident.

 

One day later, George received an email from Rivka Schiller. Rivka had taken a special interest in helping George since her grandmother was also a survivor, who had been in the Warsaw ghetto and had worked for a few months at the Otwock orphanage.

 

Schiller suggested searching in the 1946 Yiddish newspapers, like the “Forverts” (Yiddish Forward). But she mentioned that it was not indexed, and since it was formerly a daily newspaper, this would necessitate having to check every single day's issue over the course of some two years, or so. That was assuming, of course, that the article had in fact been written up in the Forverts. However, Schiller added that she kept at home several articles that she found over the years relating to this orphanage and promised to check them to see if, by any chance, any of them contained the story about Walter.

Miraculously, Schiller located the article from the “Forverts” which George was searching for.

“I must say that the odds here are totally amazing.  I happened to run across this piece only a few months ago, totally by chance, while doing some research.  I made a point of printing this off because I thought it might be important, and because my grandmother -- a survivor from Warsaw -- worked in the Otwock orphanage,” says Schiller. 

And finally on May 31, 2011, only six days after his original request, Schiller sent George Saltzberg the article from the "Forverts" from January 24, 1946 that referred to the Otwock orphanage and his father, then Wacek Zalcberg. 

 

The Yiddish story relates the account of how Wacek was in a "hole in the ground" in the sewers near the Warsaw ghetto.  His leg was injured and he was hidden in this space for six months.  During this period, Wacek was together with other Jews, several of whom wanted to kill him -- due to the fact that his constant moaning put all of them at great risk of being caught by the nearby Germans.  Fortunately, there was at least one individual there who looked out for him and wouldn't permit anything bad to happen to him. 

Following the war, he was left crippled because his bones had grown the wrong way during the war. He somehow made his way to the Otwock orphanage and was operated on by a Swedish surgeon.  Unfortunately, the operation did not significantly improve his condition, so as of the writing of this article; the goal was to take Wacek to Stockholm for a follow-up operation.  The article remarks that Wacek is a good student and that he is good natured and hopeful about the future.

The article mentioned that the boys at the orphanage were beginning to play soccer except for one (Wacek) who couldn’t play because of his broken leg.

George Saltzberg had found what he was looking for ---a small piece of his father’s past.

George was impressed that everyone he dealt with during the search was so attentive and responded so quickly, especially Rivka Schiller from YIVO.

He says, “The article I was searching for was found because Rivka was not just a brilliant archivist, but because she wanted to help me and had a personal interest in this orphanage as her grandmother had worked there.”

“It was really a miracle that I found Rivka. If it was anyone else I would have been told that it was impossible to locate that article.”

“She made it her personal mission to connect us with this important link that indeed changed my father’s life and mine as well.  It is clear that this is more than a job as an archivist to her as she was just as excited as Dad and I were to find this article.”

Schiller was able to speak by phone to Walter last month, June 2011.

Schiller says, “As it turns out, there is a somewhat personal element for me in this story, since my grandmother -- also a native of Warsaw, who unfortunately passed away in 1999 -- worked at the Otwock orphanage, not long after she had been liberated.  Based on my conversation with Walter, I was able to determine that he and my grandmother overlapped at the orphanage.  I only wish my grandmother were alive now, so I could ask her more questions about her time at the orphanage, and put her on the phone with Walter.”   

 
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