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Monday, November 28, 2022
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We Fought Like Lions: A Polish Jewish Soldier’s Odyssey Through the Holocaust: Warsaw Uprising to Nazi POW, by Gary Lelonek, M.D., CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, May 2016, $13 (soft cover).

During World War II, Jews marched into the gas chambers like lambs to the slaughter. They rarely showed any form of resistance. So goes the common misconception. Dr. Gary Lelonek wrote We Fought Like Lions, based on his grandfather’s exploits during the war, largely to dispel that myth.

Dr. Lelonek, who was born and raised in Fair Lawn where his parents have lived for over 35 years, didn’t set out to prove anything when he first embarked on his journey of discovery. He knew little of his family’s history and simply wanted to learn. So, back in 1999, he began to do research along with his brother-in-law. His grandfather had died five years before this undertaking began, and wasn’t one to share his experiences when he had the opportunity. He simply didn’t want to talk about it.

What Dr. Lelonek did know was that his grandfather had six siblings, five of whom had settled in Israel after the war, with the whereabouts of the sixth unknown. After essentially putting his search on hold for a decade, Dr. Lelonek, in 2010, contacted the International Tracing Service (ITS), housed at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, hoping his grandfather’s missing brother, Chaim Lelonek, had somehow registered with them. This could peel away some of the mystery. After a two-year silence, the first breakthrough occurred in May of 2012. He received 36 documents, ship manifests, DP Camp stops etc. on the movements of Charles Lelonek for the five-year period after the war. What astonished Dr. Lelonek was that Charles Lelonek, who the ITS thought was the missing sibling Chaim because of similar names, was actually his own grandfather. One thing led to another, and Dr. Lelonek soon hit pay dirt. He learned that in 1981, his uncle was taking a History of the Holocaust class, and had an extensive taped interview with Charles Lelonek for the project. His uncle’s copies of the tapes were in bad shape, but a duplicate had been given to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. A curator retrieved and sent the two CDs, which revealed a story recorded over 30 years earlier.

Charles Lelonek was instrumental in a decision that very well may have saved the lives of his entire family. They lived in a Polish town called Sierpc, and had occupied the same house for 250 years. It was 1939 and they were among the first sets of Jews forced to wear the yellow star. The true nature of the Nazis was not yet apparent, but they were forcibly evicted from their town to Warsaw in the period leading up to the rounding up of Jews to the ghetto. The choice was to remain in Warsaw, or take their chances by fleeing to the Soviet-occupied eastern portion of the country. Charles was uncomfortable that all Jews were told by the Nazis to gather into one central location. His persuasiveness won out. After he convinced his parents to take the dangerous journey, his father said, “I will take my tallis and tefillin and see what’s going on.” Less than a year later, they were sent to Siberia. Once Hitler attacked Russia all bets were off, and Stalin allowed the formation of the Polish People’s Army, a nationalistic division of the Russian Army whose goal was to liberate Warsaw and other eastern European cities. It was composed of both Jews and non-Jews, and it was where the 27-year-old Charles Lelonek got his start as a resistance fighter.

The book goes on to detail the areas of training the makeshift army received, the machine guns, artillery and other weaponry used, and Charles Lelonek’s description that they all felt they were fighting for the right cause and were readily willing to give their lives for it. The Polish People’s Army went on to help liberate the cities of Lublin, Kovel and Kharkov, among others, and were often involved in hand-to-hand combat. “We fought like lions,” is one of the ways Charles Lelonek described the battles. One of the more poignant moments of the book was the description of the army’s arrival into Lublin, once a great center for the Jewish people. He related how there were no Jewish people to be found. The large yeshiva and the many thriving synagogues were now a scene of desolation. “And we realized what happened to our people.” It was at this point that he learned the full story of Treblinka, Auschwitz and the other concentration camps. As he noted, “We met very, very few Jewish people.”

Dr. Lelonek began transcribing the tapes in 2012 with no initial plans to turn them into a book. However, with all the material, the documents, the first-person accounts, it became inevitable. What impacted him most was his grandfather’s description in the tapes of visiting his own parents’ graves in Israel several times. They died a month apart in 1967 and were buried in Haifa. The fact that they were able to die a natural death rather than being destroyed by their enemies, “…and (to) see the graves and the names written forever in Israel” was very moving. Dr. Lelonek noted that an added bonus for himself was being able to share the story with his grandmother, Charles Lelonek’s wife, who is in her late 90’s and knew little of this history.

Dr. Lelonek is a board certified Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist in the Emergency Department at Northwell Health/LIJ Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York. He lives in Flushing, Queens with his wife and three children. His book can be found on Amazon at this link https://www.amazon.com/We-Fought-Like-Lions-Holocaust/dp/1515181596.

Robert Isler is a marketing researcher and writer who lives in Fair Lawn. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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