By Regina Senko Hanchak
Holocaust is a word that conjures up images of barbed wire, brutal targeting of Jewish people and terrible suffering. Anti-Semitism is abhorrent.
My parents were World War II survivors. My father lived through Auschwitz and Mauthausen-Gussen concentration camp. My mother and her family were victims of pacification, where villages were emptied for German resettlement. They were sent to Majdanek concentration camp and then slave labor on a German farm.
My parents were not Jewish, they were targeted because they were Poles. Prior to the invasion of Poland, Hitler ordered his commanders to “kill without pity all men, women and children of Polish descent or language.”
Buffalo and the surrounding area became home for many who survived German concentration camps, Soviet gulags and slave labor. Your neighbor with the accent may have been a courier for the Polish underground, fought in the Warsaw Uprising, drove an ammunition truck in the Battle of Monte Casino or piloted planes for the Polish Air Force in exile.
I learned World War II history from personal accounts of family and friends. When I spoke up in my high school history class about my parents being in concentration camps, my classmates doubted me. “Only Jews were in concentration camps.”
Many have since passed away. There are questions I regret not asking. I do know that at age 17 my dad was arrested and jailed in Lublin prison, where he was brutally beaten, hung up by his feet. The SS wanted to know, among other things, where the Jews were hidden in town. He was unrecognizable when he was dragged back to his cell. He was sentenced to hard labor in the camps. In a severely weakened state he was liberated by the American GIs.
In the middle of the night, in bed clothes and barefoot, my mom and her family stood with guns pointed at them while they watched their home being burned down. There was shouting and shooting.
In the village some were beaten and killed. A Jewish family was shot. My family, along with the rest of the village, was herded to a local church for the night and then to trains for transport to Majdanek.
When writing about her mother’s experience in slave labor, local author Sophie Hodorowicz Knab explains that many who suffered felt, “If I don’t talk about it, it won’t hurt as much.”
This is what the Holocaust means to me. Three million Polish Jews and 3 million Christian Poles died during the reign of terror brought by World War II. My thoughts are of my parents and other victims and survivors of that horrible time. We must speak for those who could not.
Regina Senko Hanchak is a retired professor from Erie Community College and a member of the Polish American Congress.