Survivor dedicated to educating Poles about camps

It is the rare Holocaust survivor who chooses to revisit — again and again — the sites where such painful memories took place: Auschwitz, Plaszow, Mauthausen. But Bernard Offen finds it to be a positive experience.

"It's a process of healing," he said.

Now, each time Offen goes, he takes with him people who have never before visited a concentration camp. "More people want to see it and know more about it," he said.

When he's not in Poland, Offen, 73, lives in a redwood forest community called Camp Meeker, near Occidental. But lately, he's been spending more and more time in his native country, always buying one-way tickets since he never knows his return date.

Offen was born in Krakow. He and his two older brothers were the only family members, out of 57, to survive the war.

Over the years, Offen has made three documentaries about his family during the Holocaust. But now he has turned his efforts more toward educating the youngest generation of Poles about what took place on their soil.

On his last visit, he stayed eight months in Krakow — "'Schindler's List' territory," he calls it — referring to the story of the German industrialist who saved Jews working in his factory and whose story was told in first a novel and then the movie of the same name.

Offen is the founder of Krakowski Club Dialogo Bernarda Offena, which translates into the Bernard Offen Dialogue Club of Krakow. Through the club, he has trained 37 young Poles — most of them university graduates — about what took place in the camps nearby, including Plaszow. Now they can serve as guides.

"These projects are about recognizing the Krakow ghetto in a respectable way," he said. "Much has been forgotten by the local Krakow population."

Pointing out that the Plaszow camp is within the Krakow city limits, Offen said that it was often used as a holding camp before prisoners were deported to Auschwitz. Some 8,000 people were killed there, he said, including some of his own family.

"That is not known to the local population," he said. Offen also goes into the Krakow schools, where he shows his movies and speaks with students. He also leads them on tours through the Krakow ghetto and Plaszow.

"Most of them are shocked because they did not know this was right here, but the younger population is open to hearing about it. They don't have the baggage that their parents or especially their grandparents have."

Offen first began going back to Krakow in 1981. After he had done just a small amount of work in this area, groups began calling him to lead them through the camps. While he would often lead tourists, he thought he could make a larger impact on the young generation of Poles. And slowly, word about him got out.

Finally, the camp was legally recognized by the Polish government as a place of resistance and martyrdom, said Offen.

"There is a great deal of interest," he said. "The local politicians in the Krakow administration had been pushing it for a number of years. It's a shame on them to be in denial of the ghetto and Plaszow camp, so I've been a needle in their side, picking their conscience."

While monuments at death camps in Poland often mention the martyrs who died there with no mention of Jews, Offen said his native country has come a long away in recent years.

"I've been going there since pre-Solidarity, in 1981," he said, referring to the movement that ended communism. "So I've seen all the changes. There is a lot of openness and a great deal of changes have happened."

Offen also recently finished writing a guidebook to the Krakow ghetto and Plaszow camp, and is looking for a publisher.

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."