I met Jacob Muller in Nowy Sacz, my father’s hometown. My brother and I had planned to accompany him there in 1986. The prospect didn’t excite us but it pleased him enormously and it pleased us enormously to honor his long-held wish.
A month before the date of departure, our robust, energetic 71-year-old father suddenly died. Fourteen years later, I went to Cracow, to present a paper at a Holocaust Conference at the Jagellonian University and visit Nowy Sacz. His untimely death had left a great lacunae in our lives.
He had always been deliberately reticent about the Holocaust. I had expected to learn about his experience on the journey. The most I could hope for now was a glimmer of the Chasidic world which formed this descendant of Rabbi Chaim Aryeh Halberstam, aka the Divrei Chaim, aka The Sondzer, founder of the Bobov Dynasty.
The internet was still in its infancy and information about Nowy Sacz was scarce. I had a demanding job, a husband, children, a home and various other obligations, the prime one as my mother’s primary caregiver. There simply wasn’t enough time to spend traveling to archives to learn about a provincial Polish city.
I spoke to colleagues who were familiar with Sondz, as Jews referred to Nowy Sacz. Its once substantial Jewish population had been nearly eradicated. There was little left for me to see and I could do it in a day. A historian of Jewish-Polish history who led tours recommended Artur, a driver-guide.
I arrived in Poland two days before the conference. Artur would meet me the following morning and drive me about 70 pastoral miles, passing road signs for Auschwitz to reach Nowy Sacz. My two main objectives were: a visit to the Jewish cemetery and one to City Hall. The conference was scheduled for the following day and I would take the first flight home after it ended.
Had I not journeyed to the cemetery that day in a fruitless effort to find my grandmother’s grave, I never would have known about Jacub Muller. I wish I had. I would have planned the trip differently, extending my stay in Nowy Sacz to learn more about it and him as well. He was one of the few Jews to survive the war. Now he talks to students and others about Jewish life there and the war. He maintains a small synagogue for visitors, which he built in the courtyard of the apartment building where he lives. Chasidic Jews who come on pilgrimages to the Sondzer’s burial place pray and eat there.
The gatekeeper at the cemetery told us she was expecting him and the Polish students and teachers he was educating. Studying the Holocaust was a requirement for admittance into the European Union, which Poland was eager to enter. She advised us we might find at the Jewish museum, formerly the largest synagogue in the city. We drove the short distance and did.
We entered the building. He was there, an elderly man surrounded by young students and their teachers. In Yiddish, I introduced myself to him. His face whitened and his blue eyes filled with tears.
Did he know my family? Of course! He and my youngest uncle were playmates. He knew the whole mishpacha. We agreed to meet later, after he returned from the cemetery, and we returned from City Hall.
We hurried through the museum, which had a large exhibition of Polish-Jewish WWI veterans. My grandfather had fought in that war, but it would have taken me more time than we had to pick him from among thousands of uniformed men. We were in a rush to get to the records in City Hall and get back to meet with Mr. Muller.
The clerks behind the counter inside the once imposing but now shabby building proved surprisingly receptive. They responded eagerly to my guide, who had turned on the charm. Using my father’s birth record, we were able to guesstimate and find the marriage records of my grandparents and great-grandparents.
Had we had more time, we would have found the birth records of my aunts and uncles and many other documents relating to the family. But we’d been given a rare and unexpected opportunity and I didn’t want to be late for our appointment. It was also lunchtime and I knew Artur expected to eat.
We met Mr. Muller and I invited him to be my guest for lunch. We walked to a nice, modern hotel on the river. The dining room was empty and we ordered fish lunches. Mr. Muller agreed to have tea, and because I insisted, a pastry, which he hardly touched. The food looked much better than it tasted and we didn’t dally, eager to get on with the tour.
It began near the hotel. Mr. Muller told us that the Nazis lined up rows of Jews from the ghetto in age order. Closest to the riverbank were the youngest. On the other side of the Dunayets River, which is quite narrow at this point, German soldiers manned machine guns pointed at the Jews. If the head of the family had urged resistance, the children would immediately have been killed. Who, in those circumstances, would resist?
This round-up took three days. One can only imagine the agony the Jews endured before they suffered the deportation to Belzec, a camp built expressly for extermination. This was not the first selection; it came at the end of months and years of brutal degradation in the ghetto.
Jacob Muller also told us about the cruel and sadistic commander of the ghetto. His name was Heinrich Hamann and he liked to boast, “I am not like the Bible Haman. He wanted to annihilate the living Jews. I will annihilate both the living and the dead.” He was the one who destroyed the cemetery, obliterating my grandmother’s grave.
Mr. Muller walked us through the streets, pointing out where my family and relatives lived. A building across from City Hall had housed my grandfather’s business. Mr. Miller called him a reisen soycher (an astute and successful businessman.) Who knew? I had intuited that the family was not poor but my father was not boastful. What I learned from Mr. Muller heightened my awareness of the immense depth and scope of what my father and other Jewish survivors of Nowy Sacz had lost.
In fact, Hamann nearly accomplished his goal. But “nearly” is the difference between life and death. Jacob Muller lived to tell the tale. Hamann was tried and executed, albeit not directly for his egregious war crimes.
Like most war criminals in post-war Europe, he fled the scenes of his crimes, changed his identity and became a fugitive to avoid arrest. He took a job as a waiter. It was not as humiliating as having to lead a steed on which a Jew sat in royal attire, through streets lined with jeering crowds. It was disgraceful enough for a member of the self-styled master race who had held a position of great authority. Eventually the pervert and sociopath with delusions of grandeur became enraged at a restaurant patron, drew his gun and shot the hapless man.
What did his victim say or do to deserve death? Hamann, like Haman, was irrational. Their hatred of Jews was based on greed, ignorance, intolerance and fear. They perceived a threat where there was none. This form of paranoia is, perhaps, the very essence of antisemitism.
Heinrich Hamann was far more destructive than Haman, but ultimately, his past caught up with him. He, too, met an ignominious death. Jacub Muller survived to relate the story to others, who tell it to others. Bobover Hasidim are thriving throughout the world. In Netanya, on Friday afternoons before the start of Shabbat, Bobovers drive a joymobile along the Mediterranean shore to usher Shabbat in with music.
It will be difficult for Jews to be merry this Purim in view of the suffering in Ukraine. But we can take hope in the knowledge that although many Hamans have arisen throughout our long history, so have many Mordechais and Mullers, thwarting their evil designs. That Ukrainians elected a Jewish president is utterly miraculous. May the miracles continue.
Barbara Wind is a writer, speaker and Holocaust related independent scholar, curator and consultant.