On April 12, 1941, at the age of 14, the German police invaded and evacuated my village of Grebien, Poland. The police went to our houses and ransacked our family’s homes, tore up the floors, and destroyed furniture trying to find any kind of hidden weapons or any evidence at all so they would have an excuse to execute us. They took away our family farm. The Germans applied forced deportation for work and sent my father, brother, sister and I to separate labor camps in Germany.
I was sent to work on several agricultural farms in Germany. We were forced to work six days a week, 10-12 hour days, often even on Sundays. The work was exhausting.
Every day we were given a small bowl of soup to eat in the fields. This was the only meal for the day.
Our barrack had eight women in it. Our barrack was heavily infested with bed bugs. Every Pole was required to have the letter “P” sown on their clothing identifying them as Polish.
I met my husband Tadeus, also a slave laborer in Germany in about 1945. After the war, I remained in Displaced Person camps in Germany until 1949 when we finally immigrated to the US from Germany.
Irena Grondys Czernal was born in November of 1925 in Grebien, Poland. Today, she lives in Duluth, Minnesota and is 87 years old. After a recent request to speak with her about her experience during the Holocaust, her daughter and friend of mine, Donna Neveau, said that her mother was unable to share her stories with me due to the emotional effects it has on her at this age.
Thankfully, many second generation survivors, like Neveau, have taken up the charge of sharing their parents’ harrowing stories from atrocities committed during the Second World War. This passage of Irena’s first-hand accounts was recorded and saved by Neveau in an attempt to preserve her mother’s descriptions of her experience during the Second World War.
Sitting and talking to Neveau, it is surprising to note just how comfortable she seems to be discussing her experience with parents who had both been victims of the Nazi regime during the Second World War.
In fact, growing up, Neveau never felt like it was a big deal that her mother and father were both Holocaust survivors.
“Most of the Polish families in Duluth, they were all from slave labor camps,” Neveau said.
Between 1939 and 1945 at least 1.5 million Polish citizens were transported to the Reich for labor, most were teenage boys and girls.
Neveau explained that when she was growing up, there were three distinctly large populations of Germans, French, and Poles that had all immigrated to Duluth after the war ended, most of which had in some way experienced the Third Reich’s wrath.
In fact, she remembers that there were three Catholic churches, one for each group of immigrants, all within a mile of each other. Overtime, however, the churches decided to consolidate into one church. Neveau still goes to the Holy Family Catholic Church in Duluth.
Seventeen years ago, Neveau made a trip with her mother to Poland to the very same village Irena grew up in and was taken from at the age of 14.
“One thing that affected me the most during the trip was when we were in the village where she was born and raised. My mother was dressed very nicely and carrying flowers. Everyone knew she was coming so they’d all peek behind their curtains and watch as we passed. A woman came out of her house, pointed to a hole in the corner of her property, and asked my mother if she remembered hiding from the Germans in that hole,” Neveau said.
Later in the village, Irena took Neveau to the cemetery where she hid behind the tombstones from the Nazis.
It wasn’t difficult to notice the emotional impact this trip had on Neveau, and rightly so. This trip had been the first time she had the chance to meet most of her family from her mother’s side.
“Forty-years-old and finally getting to meet my aunts, uncles and cousins,” Neveau said .
Irena, herself, hadn’t had the chance to see her brothers and sisters much since they were separated and sent to labor camps.
When Irena finally got to see her brother, Joe, again years after the war during a visit to Poland, Neveau admitted that her mother barely knew him since he was only 1-year-old when the Germans came.
Irena’s mother, however, was not so lucky. Early in the war, she was killed by Germans after lying to them about the whereabouts of her husband.
“They saw footprints and they just killed her,” Neveau said.
As previously mentioned, it is difficult for Irena to relive the difficult memories of her past which is why even Neveau struggles to keep her mother’s stories straight.
Neveau recalled a night in which she witnessed the extreme trauma her mother experiences from time to time due to her difficult past. It was a night not long after the death of Neveau’s father and Neveau had taken Irena to a concert at Denfeld High School. The concert had been an anniversary event commemorating the end of the Second World War.
“I had to take her out,” Neveau said. “She was reliving the whole thing. She said she could hear bombs going off.”
Holocaust survivors in Duluth
Specifically in the Duluth area, many efforts are being made to commemorate those that suffered during the Second World War in addition to efforts in educating the public about the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.
Many of those involved have different areas of involvement within the community, different approaches and sometimes even different perspectives on what we should be focusing on. However, they all seem to share one common sentiment: never again.
In response to the growing concern about future awareness of the Holocaust once all first-hand accounts have passed on, Dr. Alexis Pogorelskin, one of the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) History Professors who specializes in Holocaust history believes this natural progression of time only appears to open up greater need from second generations’ desire to continue awareness.
“We have these really critical resources that the second generation has come of age is trying to preserve and remember. We have to rely on energy and commitment of subsequent generations,” Pogorelskin said.
Not only is Dr. Pogorelskin a history professor at UMD but she is also the director of the campus’ Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. While the center does many things specifically for education concerning the Holocaust, the center also tries to balance its focus in between other genocide and human rights issues such as homelessness in Minnesota, Native American Sterilization, and the Armenian Genocide in addition to the Second World War Holocaust.
However, she did say that the reality of it is that even with educational programs like the center, people will make of it what they choose.
Holocaust Awareness at UMD
Dr. Deborah Petersen-Perlman, a professor of communication at UMD, has voluntarily invested a great deal of her efforts into the Baeumler-Kaplan Holocaust Memorial Lecture Series, a non-profit organization on the UMD campus whose mission is to provide regular events that look at the Holocaust with guest speakers, film showings, discussions, etc.
“I’ve always been drawn to the story of the Holocaust and been baffled that it could have happened,” Petersen-Perlman said.
Dr. Petersen-Perlman has now been the director of the Baeumler-Kaplan Holocaust Commemoration for 14 years. For her, this isn’t just an issue about the Holocaust but about educating the public on genocide.
“It’s important to say look, we didn’t learn. We’re stupid,” Petersen-Perlman said. “We have to keep calling out these questions and these injustices.”
According to Petersen-Perlman, an outlet she and the other committee members have found very effective in reaching people has been using various media outlets such as film and books.
“It’s a challenge to bring history to life,” Petersen-Perlman said. “Film is a really wonderful medium”.
The films, she says, allow for greater expression of the human experience to those that did not experience it themselves, which will soon account for everyone.
However, according to Dr. Petersen-Perlman, Holocaust survivors’ did not always feel welcome to share their stories.
“For the most part throughout my childhood and youth, we did not have survivors talking,” Petersen-Perlman said. “They did not feel well received.”
“Plus,” she added, “Who wants to go through that again?”
Sharing Holocaust stories
Dr. Karl Bahm, a professor of European History at the University of Wisconsin Superior, also did not appear as concerned with the passing on of the survivors.
“A lot of people are really concerned about this but there is nothing unusual about this,” Bahm said. “Every living event recedes from living memory.”
According to Bahm, a lot has already been done to preserve these testimonies. One of the largest projects that has worked to save these stories is the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation which was founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994 after his experience doing ‘Shindler’s List’. This project has collected roughly 52,000 video testimonies of people who experienced the Holocaust in 32 languages which makes it the largest archive of its kind in the world.
Instead, Bahm believes that what we need from the memory will change over time.
His concern lies with the issue of how people remember the Holocaust and why the Holocaust receives so much more attention than other human rights events from the past. For instance, as he described, the very concern about the loss of Holocaust survivors is not shared with other events such as the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights movement. No one is wondering what will happen once Vietnam veterans are gone, and this concerns him.
This is why Dr. Bahm asks in his class, why are we as a people so obsessed with the Holocaust? What do we want from this memory?
“We want that moralistic play of good versus evil,” Bahm said.
As found in the Minnesota Historical Society’s website, Star Tribune film critic Colin Covert and historian David Itzkowitz have explored this same subject of evolving memories only they look at this change as a result of Hollywood’s portrayals of the Holocaust in movies which incorporate Bahm’s description of the alluring “play of good versus evil”.
At the end of Bahm’s class, after his students have learned all about different types of commemorations that have been done for the Holocaust and other events, they are asked to create their own memorial based on what they have learned. This allows the students to critically examine what and how they think the Holocaust should be remembered.
Bahm also confirmed Petersen-Perlman’s memory of the victims’ apprehension to speak out in the past. According to Bahm, society did not want to hear about these people’s experiences.
“There weren’t any real histories written about the Holocaust until the 1960s,” Bahm said.
In fact, the actual separation of the Holocaust as an attack against human rights from World War II did not emerge until the 1960s.
Keeping family history alive
While for most of us, the idea of having parents who had survived the Holocaust seems daunting and nearly unfathomable. Neveau displays no great difficulty in facing her family’s history.
“For me, it’s such a common and every day thing,” Neveau said. “You talk about it, and then that’s all.”
Neveau admits that the traditional Polish celebrations she grew up with are happening less and less within the shrinking Polish community in Duluth.
However, in honor of her lineage, Neveau still encourages her grandchildren to continue participating in the traditional Polish festivities.
In fact, last Saturday, April 28, her grandchildren Addison and Griffin both dressed in traditional clothing to celebrate a Polish Majowka, or May-day celebration, at the Holy Family Catholic Church.