Survivor, four other men in family make Poland pilgrimage

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Jason Harris was sitting in his film class last year at U.C. Davis, and was unimpressed by most of the work produced by his fellow classmates.

The 20-year-old thought he could do better. Especially since he had been making movies since he was a little boy. But first, he needed a subject.

It quickly came to him. So he called his mother. "I want to go to Poland," he told her. "And I want Grandpa to go with me."

His grandfather, Sam Feldman, is a Holocaust survivor, as is his grandmother, Celia Henick Feldman. "I grew up with it completely," said Harris, a Mill Valley resident. "I've been studying it for years and hearing my grandparents' stories."

The next thing he knew, his mother was making the trip happen — even though she herself did not want to go.

The 81-year-old Feldman of New Hyde Park, N.Y., had been back once before in the 1970s, with his son Alan of Princeton, N.J.

Once Harris and his grandfather decided to go, Feldman's son Paul of Boston decided to join them. And then Alan. And then Dr. Steven Harris, Jason's father, even though he was on the other side of the family.

So in early September, the five men flew into Warsaw from different parts of the country. Now, Harris is planning to take the footage and make his own movie, because future generations need to learn about the Holocaust.

Sam Feldman — the only survivor of his family — is originally from Wiskitki, a small town outside of Warsaw. He was incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto, and was there for the uprising. He was in a number of different concentration camps, including Majdanek.

The men set out to see those sites, as well as other sites of Jewish interest. They visited Krakow and Auschwitz. Harris' grandmother, Celia Henick Feldman, was incarcerated in the adjacent camp, Birkenau.

Harris went on the trip with preconceived notions of what he was going to find. He even hoped for a little unrest — it would make for good filming — or at least some outward expression of disdain from Poles toward his family.

"I have grown up with this built-in prejudice about Poles, and had heard that it is still really anti-Semitic there," he said. "It didn't occur to me that it would be this positive thing. When we got there, the Polish people couldn't be nicer to us."

The men wore kippot in certain places, Harris said, but they felt no animosity. And when people did stare at them, it was probably because they were carrying around video equipment — not because they are Jews.

"I don't think there was one day on the trip that one of us didn't say in the car how we couldn't believe how nice people were to us," he said.

The men attended Shabbat services in the Novyk Synagogue in Warsaw, where Feldman used to worship 60 years ago. A group of Polish students were also in attendance, and Harris was surprised to learn that their visit is a mandatory one for high school students.

While Feldman appeared unmoved throughout the trip — Harris said it would have been too difficult for him otherwise — he did become emotional when they visited the Jewish cemetery where Feldman's mother and sister, who died before the war, were buried.

Unlike the well-kept cemetery for non-Jews across the street, the Jewish one was overgrown with weeds, Harris said. The Russians had taken all the gravestones.

"Without stones, he couldn't visualize where they were buried," he said. "So he said Kaddish over this empty Jewish cemetery."

Harris and his grandfather now hope to get a commemorative monument placed in the Jewish cemetery.

When they visited the building where his grandfather had lived, they found the men there to be about the same age as Feldman. One had lived there before the war as well. They didn't know his grandfather, but treated him "like a long-lost brother," said Harris.

Another emotional moment came when his grandfather told the men about his liberation from Majdanek, from the spot where it happened.

For Harris, the trip was completely transformational: His perception about Poland was radically changed. In one place in Krakow, he saw graffiti with a Star of David, a cross and the word "tolerance."

He did see one example of anti-Semitic graffiti, in Kielce, the site of an infamous pogrom committed against returning Jews after the war. Next to the memorial plaque was the word Judenraus, German for "Jews out." But he saw that as the exception.

One day, as he was buying something in a toy store in a Warsaw shopping mall, Harris was assisted by a salesgirl about his age. It struck him that if they'd spoken each other's language, they'd probably have a lot to talk about.

"I can't hate the year 2000 Poland for something that happened a long time ago any more than they can hold me responsible for slavery in America," he said.

"For my grandparents' and parents' generation and even for me to have hatred for the Polish generation during the Holocaust is understandable," he said. "But there is a third generation of Poles, and it's wrong to perpetuate this cycle of hatred and carry it over."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."