Sorrow remembered in 'Shtetl' Painful past: Local Holocaust survivor's wrenching story of loss and charity is told in three-hour film on MPT.

April 17, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Jack Rubin has had more than half a century to let his hate fester, to let the memory of 21 months hiding in the Polish woods turn him bitter and resentful. But he's not interested.

He'll tell you the stories when asked, about the Germans who killed his parents at Treblinka, about the Poles who betrayed the rest of his family to the Nazis, about the freezing cold, the starvation, the bitter heartbreak that most people can only imagine.

Talking, he'll remind you, is the best way to make people remember, the surest way to refute the Nazi apologists who insist the Holocaust was a myth, that the suffering of European Jews during World War II has been overblown.

"How can they think we made this up?" asks the Pikesville resident, more shocked than angry.

But ask him if he feels bitter toward the people who mangled his life back in 1940s Poland, and he pauses. Maybe he's trying to translate those thoughts from his native Hebrew, make sure the words that come out in his heavily accented English are the right ones. Maybe he pauses to reflect on what his family would want him to say, the family of whom he is the only surviving member. He wants to say the right thing.

And the worst the 82-year-old Mr. Rubin will say, whether he's sitting in the wholesale clothing store he opened on Baltimore Street nearly 25 years ago or in the Pikesville condominium he shares with his second wife, Sonia, is that his feelings are "mixed." Far better, he believes, to dwell on the families that helped him, people like the Kozlowskis, who let him hide in their stable, fed him, gave him water to drink and never demanded nor expected a penny.

Part of Jack Rubin's story is told in "Shtetl," an extraordinary three-hour film airing at 8 tonight on MPT, Channels 22 and 67. Taking its title from the Hebrew word for a small village, "Shtetl" is primarily the story of two men. Nathan Kaplan is a Chicagoan who goes back to his ancestral home of Bransk, Poland, on what he hopes will be a joyous homecoming to the land of his parents' birth, only to discover that anti-Semitism still has a grip on the community.

"Shtetl" also tells the story of Zbyszek Romaniuk, an amateur historian who tries to unearth Bransk's Jewish heritage -- often literally, since markers from the Jewish graveyard were rounded up during the war and later used to build sidewalks or as millstones on people's farms. For his troubles, Mr. Romaniuk is labeled a traitor by many of his neighbors.

Jack Rubin is one of about 50 Bransk Jews who survived World War II -- out of a population of 3,500. Mr. Rubin believes about 15 are alive today; he and his wife are two of them.

The film follows Mr. Rubin as he journeys back to Bransk, where he helped his parents run a geese farm before the war. Several people he meets remember the teen-ager known by his Jewish name of Yankel, or by his nickname of Jankel gesiarz, "Yankel the gooseman."

Most emotional are the reunions and the quiet walks outside his parents' old home. The high-water mark comes when he embraces the only surviving son of Mr. Kozlowski.

The Kozlowskis are the only reason Mr. Rubin has returned to Poland three times since the war. He has remained in touch with the family, and still sends them money every month, trying to repay the kindness -- kindness that could have extracted a terrible price, as any Pole who was found harboring Jews would be shot on sight by the Germans. "He never asked us for any money, never asked us for anything," Mr. Rubin says.

Such kindnesses were rare during the war. Stories of the degradations and tragedies he was forced to endure are truly horrific. Relating them does not come easy for Mr. Rubin. He pauses often, and sometimes has to stop and steel himself before going on.

It's easy to see why.

In "Shtetl," he tells of borrowing a sled to take him and 13 others, including his brother, sister-in-law and niece, to the relative safety of a ghetto in Bialystok, 50 kilometers away, where they could at least survive the winter. But a Pole they encountered along the way betrayed them to the Germans. Jack Rubin was the only one of the 14 to escape; the others were shot dead on the road.

Listen to Jack Rubin talk about his parents. Watch as his eyes lock into the listener's, demanding that his words be listened to and remembered.

The Russians had overtaken Bransk in the war's opening days. But in June 1941, the Germans turned on their erstwhile allies. The following day, Bransk came under Nazi occupation.

One night, almost 15 months later, Mr. Rubin's brother knocked on the window with bad news: The Germans were getting ready to round up everyone from the Bransk ghetto and ship them off to the Treblinka death camps -- this despite earlier promises that families would be kept together and safe.

"We knew about Treblinka," Mr. Rubin says, "but nobody knew exactly what was over there. Everything was rumors. But we knew one thing: It was bad."

So he and his brother lit out for the woods. His parents, too old to run, opted to stay in the ghetto.

"I said, 'Father, they're taking out all the small towns, all the Jewish people. What do you want to do? We're all going to escape to the woods.' But he said, 'I'm already too old. I'll go back to the ghetto.' Then my mother tells him, 'Give him the money that you've got.' How could I take the money? I said no, maybe it's just a scare. Then she says, 'Come, I'm going to kiss you goodbye.' "

That was the last time he saw them. Mr. Rubin steadies himself against a table, fighting back tears.

Even the good stories have terrible endings. He tells of how his sister-in-law was forced to leave her infant daughter with a farm family. Hearing the girl was about to be turned over to the Germans, Jack and his brother worked out a daring rescue. It worked, and the family was re-united.

That night, the four family members set out with 10 others on the ill-fated sled for Bialystok.

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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