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The Life of Herzl Melcer aka Lt. Iwan Siemienowicz Pidlowskij

Section of granite tombstone in Kurhan Cemetery in Debno, Poland.

Section of registry in City Hall in Debno, Poland, of Soviet soldiers buried in a mass grave in Kurhan Cemetery.

Not having heard anything further by mid-December, I asked for an update, only to be informed that Iwona was still waiting for an answer from the Voivodeship Office in Szczecin.

Months passed and no further word. Finally, I wrote again for an update on March 22, 2015, and received a reply informing me that Iwona expected a reply from Szczecin by latest March 31. On that very day Iwona emailed me that no records could be found anywhere of Herzl, but that, based on the documents (mentioned above) that I had submitted to them, Herzl’s name (in the form of his Russian army name) had now been entered in the registration in place of one of the unidentified soldiers under registration number 961 at the mass grave in Debno. The mass grave is called Kurhan. Furthermore, we were informed that his name would be added on the granite tombstone of the grave by November 10, 2015.

After all the many months of waiting, and the large number of emails and phone calls, success was finally near.

In reply to my inquiry, Iwona confirmed that the religion of the soldiers is not stated anywhere.

I also received a phone call and an email on May 28 from a Henry Bernstein, a casework volunteer in an organization known as Restoring Family Links, forwarding the original letter from the Polish Red Cross dated April 13, confirming what we had already been told previously.

Since we had been informed that by November 10 Herzl’s name would be added on the tombstone, I thought it was now time to ask the Polish Red Cross to take some pictures for us. Therefore, on December 2 I made that request. Since there was no reply, I addressed an email to Henry Bernstein, who replied that my request goes beyond the scope of his organization, but that he nevertheless was forwarding my request to national headquarters, who hopefully will pass it on to the Polish Red Cross.

At the beginning of February 2016, in reply to my inquiry, Henry Bernstein said that national headquarters had forwarded my request to the Polish Red Cross on December 21 without any response as yet. National headquarters replied that the Polish Red Cross usually takes three months for benchmark requests but that it is usual to take even longer for requests that are outside of their parameters, like my request. I was asked to make a follow-up request if I have not heard anything by the end of March/early April.

While waiting for a response, I received an email from Martin telling me that he is familiar with Debno, in German Neudamm, only 25 km from Küstrin where he lives. Furthermore, he said that his father and ancestors come from Debno and that he visits that town from time to time. His mother is also from the same area, and both families “were thrown out of their homes” when the area became part of Poland at the end of the war. Here now was a possibility to have someone take photos, but first we needed a confirmation that the name had been added to the tombstone.

National headquarters wrote to Henry Bernstein on April 16 that they had not received any further word yet from the Polish Red Cross, suggesting that in the meantime I should try to make my own arrangements to have photographs taken. No permission would be required for that since the gravesite was a public place.

On May 4, Iwona of the Polish Red Cross wrote that Herzl’s name had not yet been placed on the tombstone, and that the new date was July 30. She also sent some photos of the gravesite and the website where the registry can be found with Herzl’s name added. Unfortunately, I could neither open the photos nor find the location on the website. Fortunately, Henry Bernstein was able to help with that based on his previous experience with Polish data. So now we had a copy of the registry showing the name Iwan Siemienowicz Pidlowskij, as well as photos of the gravesite but without the name as yet added.

Since the new deadline for adding Herzl’s name had been given to us as July 30, I addressed an email to Iwona on August 8, with a reminder on August 23. I also asked Henry Bernstein whether national headquarters had heard anything further, and that even if they could not arrange for a photo themselves, at least I needed a confirmation whether the name had now finally been added on the tombstone before sending someone myself to take photos of it.

While waiting for the final steps to be taken I heard from Martin on August 25, who had been in Debno, and confirmed that the name was still not shown on the gravestone.

My follow-up to Iwona on August 25 remained unanswered. I then wrote to the City of Debno directly on August 31, on the suggestion of Henry Bernstein, to see whether they could help me in this matter. Henry also said that headquarters could not help me any further.

September 4 brought us what we had been awaiting for a long time. Martin had gone back to Debno, or Neudamm as he called it, had found Herzl’s name on the tombstone, and enclosed photographs of it with his email.

On November 24, Iwona finally also sent copies of the tombstone with Herzl’s name, in the Russian army version, engraved on it. Iwona apologized for the long wait! It was not really that long, only a bit over three years, with hundreds of emails and phone calls.

We had accomplished what we set out to do. We can all be proud of the memory of Herzl, and that we were able to give closure to the family.

Thus ends the story of Herzl Melcer a.k.a. Second Lieutenant Iwan Siemienowicz Pidlowskij of the Army of the USSR, who gave his life for his adopted country to avenge the death of his grandmother and all Jews who had been killed by the Nazis.

By Norbert Strauss

 Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and has volunteered at Englewood Hospital for over 30,000 hours. He was general traffic manager and group VP at Philipp Brothers Inc., retiring in 1985. Prior to Englewood Hospital he was also a volunteer at the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Hospital for over 30 years, serving as treasurer and director. He frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.


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