His only memory of his father was the day he disappeared. More than 50 years later, Dr. John Mann went to Auschwitz in hopes of learning something more.

A VOYAGE OF THE HEART

August 06, 1998|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN STAFF

Dr. John Mann's journey of remembrance brought him at last to the Wall of Death at Auschwitz, a forbidding place, pocked and weathered, a dead-end between two grim barracks, a place where thousands died.

He put on his yarmulke, walked alone to the wall and said the prayer for the dead, El Male Rahamim, "God full of compassion." He prayed for his father.

Prisoners who had escaped, or broken the Kafkaesque regulations of the Auschwitz death camp, or just displeased the guards, were brought naked to this killing place for summary execution.

Mann's father, Aron Mankowski, was shot before this wall sometime in the night hours of June 18 and 19, 1942.

Mann arrived at this haunted place June 11, just about a week before the 56th anniversary of his father's death. He wept as he recited the prayer that has been offered for the Jewish dead after pogroms and massacres in Eastern Europe since the time of the Crusades. He wept again as he wrote in the diary he kept of this voyage of the heart. He relates what he was told at Auschwitz.

"[The prisoner] was undressed completely and walked through the iron gate, down three steps into the death courtyard. The courtyard is a rectangular area between the women's Barracks and Barracks 11. The windows of the women's Barracks were covered so that the women could not watch the execution.

"At the end of the courtyard there is a stark black wall where a prisoner stood before being shot in the back of the neck at point blank range by a German officer."

"I think that's exactly what happened to my father," Mann says, discussing his trip during a conversation at his handsome home on Springlake Way. He's an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and practices internal medicine at the Hopkins Green Spring Station campus.

At the start of his journey, Mann had written in his diary: "I do not know what to expect. The exact purpose is unclear to me."

He hoped at least to bring back some understanding of their heritage to his daughters, Gilda and Stacie. The idea of making sense of the past had grown stronger over the last few years.

Two years ago, Mann and his wife, Risa, a pathologist who is a professor of oncology at Hopkins, had returned to the small French village where he and his brother, Oscar, their mother, Hindel, and an uncle, aunt and cousins survived the German occupation of France -- aided by peasant farmers and protected by the underground resistance movement.

This summer, he walked the streets in the town of Dombrowitz, where his mother had lived until she was 22, the town from which a host of his uncles and aunts and cousins were transported to their deaths. They are pictured in a Holocaust memorial book about Dombrowitz, a somber and doomed family of East European Jews.

He continued his pilgrimage to the cul de sac where his father was killed. Memorial flowers now bloom at the foot of the shooting wall; beyond the wall, trees grow green in June.

"I need to rediscover my father," Mann's diary reads. "I think that my only memory of my father is seeing him getting dressed on the day he was arrested."

Earliest memories

He would have been about 5 years old that day. He was born in November 1936 in Paris. His father and mother had left Poland in the early 1930s and were married in Paris. His older brother Oscar was born there in 1934.

"I don't think I had ever seen my father in his underwear before," he says. "I remember seeing a very pale man getting dressed."

The family lived then in an apartment in Paris. His father was a businessman who sold clothes in the markets of suburban villages. Their world came apart when the Germans invaded France in May 1940. Paris fell in June.

"My earliest recollection," Mann says, "is that my father had a truck and that we all left Paris and went somewhere trying to get away from the Germans. But unfortunately we kept getting news from Paris that everything was great. So we went back.

"My mother says we kept getting letters: 'The Germans are fine. Business is good. Life is normal.' "

Back in Paris, the Germans made everyone register, he recalls. "We wore the yellow star. In late 1941, they were arresting men, presumably to go to labor camps. My father must have been suspicious because he, and the man we were subletting from, went to hide on the roof.

"Unfortunately the concierge told the French police that they were there. My father was arrested."

He never saw his father again.

To Auschwitz

Aron Mankowski was taken to Drancy, the infamous deportation center for most of the Jews of Paris. Mann learned from the International Tracing Service of the Red Cross that his father arrived in Auschwitz on March 27, 1942. He was shot less than three months later.

Mann believes he knows the name of the judge who condemned his father: Rudolf Milner. Milner was arrested after the war. He was judged not guilty of war crimes, Mann learned, because he was a "legal judge" following the laws of the time.

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