I cannot write the story of Roman Lesniak without beginning with some personal reflections. that many of us share. When Tom Brokaw coined the term “the greatest generation” he was writing for the most part about the millions of brave service men and women who risked all and destroyed the most heinous tyrannies in history. To those like me, the children of survivors of the European Holocaust , we were brought up with another term. Though we certainly considered our survivor parents the “greatest generation,” we, their descendants, also have a generational appelation. We are the “second generation.” Not “children of...” The reason is that we are here only through curious and tragic twists of fate. We are the continuing part of our parents generation that was so ruthlessly slaughtered. We are not apart from them. We are not only a physical extension of them but a psychological one having absorbed by second nature the experiences they lived. We are branded by those trials of fire. Our view of the world is forever shaped through the prism of the Holocaust. We have a sixth sense of betrayal and of danger and of loss. We are connected to both the survivors and to the martyrs. We have an innate pessimism and caution — perhaps just realism — that mankind will never cross the Jordan. We can never forget that what was arguably the most cultured and civilized nation in the west descended into a butcherous barbarism in a few short years. We know it can happen anywhere if it happened there. So when there is an opportunity to tell the stories of survivors, it is a special privilege as well as part of our duty of memory and witness. That’s what led to me organize the first Holocaust symposium in Montreal outside of fhe Jewish community when I was in law school, and what leads me to write as many of these memoirs as I can. It’s what we owe.
The life of the Lesniaks
The story of Roman Lesniak is particularly poignant. His original family name was Goldberger. He changed it to his mother’s maiden name when he returned to his native Cracow after the war and was told things might be easier if he had a less Jewish sounding name. A Schindler’s List survivor, the drama and narrow escapes enthrall and enlighten not only about the state of this world but also about the nature of man. And Roman Lesniak’s connection to Schindler after the war is the stuff of legend. This is a man of grit, courage and bold resolve. As much as any, this story of survival and revival is a testament to the battle cry of the Commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Mordechai Anilewicz to“Resist the reality.” For Roman Lesniak did not merely survive, but thrived, raised up a family and became one of Montreal’s master builders not only contributing to the community but literally building one.
As with many of his contemporaries, his life was not supposed to turn out this way. He still describes Cracow with pride today as the seat of the Jewish intelligentsia in Poland before rhe war. His family had a comfortable life. His father Yitzhak — a decorated officer in World War I — was a successful contractor and specialized in sheet metals and machinery. Yitzchak brought a young Roman into the business while his son was still in his teens in 1938. Then it all came to a vicious and grinding halt on Sept. 1, 1939 with the Nazi Blitzkrieg against Poland that sparked the Second World War. On September 6 Nazi troops entered Cracow and began the occupation.
Blitzkrieg and occupation
Crakow was in the southwestern tip of Poland very close to the border and just miles from heavy concentrations of Nazi troops in the Sudentenland and Slovakia.bordering that part of Poland. The Nazi occupation quickly imposed compulsory registrations — including that of Jews, particularly males for work details — as well as confiscations of personal property and businesses. As Britain, France and the Soviet Union were in a state of war with Nazi Germany, the Soviets invaded Poland on Sept. 17, 1939 occupying the half of the country east of the Curzon Line. Krakow was in the west and under Nazi domination.
I asked Roman if his family considered attempting to escape. His answer was that of so many I have interviewed. “Escape where,” he asked. “We were surrounded on all sides. And the city was imprisoned in five days.” Life continued with a certain degree of stability for a time for the Lesniak family at their apartment at 33 Cracowska St. In the heavily Jewish Kazimiercz quarter of the city. All that came to a heart-wrenching end on March 15, 1941.
The Ghetto and “Judenrein”
The Nazis established a Jewish Ghetto on the other side of the Vistula River. In a city of some 300,000 — of whom some 75, 000 were Jews — 20,000 Jews were forced into an area that could hold only 6,000. The Nazis prioritized those Jews with work skills that could be exploited. Roman and his father and his brother Steven had those skills. The evacuation order was immediate. Everything was left behind. Members of the Lesniak family took perhaps one small suitcase each. Roman remembers that they took some silver, including Shabbat candlesticks, and some pictures. But little else. The journey into the abyss had begun.
Roman recounts that the rest of the Jews of Cracow — some 55,000 — were never heard from or seen again. As the Nazis were concentrating the Ghetto with 20,000, the rest of Cracow’s Jews were herded into cattle cars at the train station and sent to the death camps of Treblinka and Belzec. Roman recalled that on March 14, 1941, Hans Frank, the notorious Nazi Governor-General of Poland later hanged at Nuremberg, declared that Cracow was “Judenrein” — “clean” of Jews.
Working to survive
From 1941-1942 the Lesniaks lived in cramped quarters in the Ghetto in small lodgings with a dozen other people. Never enough to eat. Never enough water. Few medicines. Just staying clean was a Herculean task. But Roman and his father and brother were skilled craftsman and the Nazis put them to work first in a radiator factory then in a body shop. Roman said several times in our talks that, “My brother and I never left each other’s sides.”
This relatively stable period came to a quick end on August 10 1942. The Nazis ordered an “Aktion” — a round up in the Ghetto to meet a new quota to ship Jews out. It was Roman’s birthday and he wanted to have a walk and a coffee with his mother. He did not go to work early with his brother and father. His sister stayed in the apartment. As Roman and his mother started down the street, Nazi soldiers surrounded them and pulled his mother away from him. Through the screaming and the tears and the raised Nazi rifles, Roman was kept apart and told he was still useful as a worker. But his mother, being overweight and weak, would be taken. Roman never saw her again. She perished in Treblinka. I asked Roman how one survives that experience. He said that after the tears, one still had to survive.
Two months after, the Lesniak men were sent to work in an aircraft factory in Rakowice some 12 miles from Cracow. Roman’s sister was sent to an aunt in the Ghetto. The factory had 80 male workers and 40 women. They lived in barracks. Roman and Steve worked in the body shop. This assignment lasted from Oct.1942 to Sept. 1943.
Please see part two of the Lesniak story, “Schindler’s List” in next week’s edition.