Remembering Shalom Lindenbaum

30th January 2019 marked the first anniversary of the passing of Shalom Lindenbaum (1926–2018), literary scholar, researcher at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, an expert on the works of Uri Tzvi Grunberg and Bruno Schulz, a translator of Polish poetry into Hebrew and a survivor of the Death March from Auschwitz. A lover of life, Polish women, food and music. Joanna Król recalls his story.

Shalom Lindenbaum was born on 1st August 1926 in Przytyk. His father, Josef, was a dental technician. His mother, Dwora, (commonly called “Wisdom” in the town), ran a shop. His parents raised Shalom and his sister an a spirit of Zionism.

“Poland is not my country”, he stated in 2011, during an interview with the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It was only after many years after the War that, in Israel, he was encouraged by his lecturers to discover the Polish language and Polish romantic literature. “I didn’t grow up with the Polish language”, he said. At home, they spoke Hebrew.

The Pogrom in Przytyk – 9th March 1936

In Przytyk, he remembered the immense poverty. His five-member family lived in a single room with a kitchen. On Saturdays, Mrs Kącikowa lit the stove for them. For her help on Shabbat, they paid her with a challah. 

“She brought three-fours challahs in her apron, so that the children were fed. Przytyk lies near Radom, which was well-known for its unemployment, even today […] Before the War, there was a saying: ’The toilet is closed because not much is eaten”.

Shalom described the relations between Poles and Jews in Przytyk as very bad. Jews did not go to school on Saturday, but by Monday they had to have their homework done. He was nine-years-old when the dramatic pogrom against the Jews broke out. As he stated, it was not calssic pogrom, because it was the Jews who started shooting first and attacked with knives. After the pogrom, the Jews boycotted the Polish peasants, but not allowing into the town to the market.

“And the country women wanted to sell their eggs. It was thanks to those women that the boycott was broken”.

Przytyk–Starachowice–Auschwitz

The War broke out. “Of the five of us, there were three. That’s very rare. All of us could have easily been sent to Treblinka”, recalled Shalom. His family suffered through a series of forced labour camps, the final one in Starachowice. They ended up in Oświęcim. They were separated. His sister stayed with his mother, he remained with his father. That was in July 1944. “Again, I was lucky. They were looking for blacksmiths in Brzezinek. Finally, we ended on the ramp as painters”. He recalls his first moments in the camp as traumatic.

“They shaved off our hair – from everywhere – even the anus and, with women, the vagina. Later, they smeared us with Lysol several times. I was wounded but, I was so tense, I didn’t feel it. I couldn’t bend over to pick up my cap. I had it smeared all over my chest. I had to go to hospital”.

Surprisingly, he survived all that. He remembers contacts with Polish communists and that the kapo of the kitchen was also a communist, but a German political prisoner. Shalom did not engage in long conversations with them. They served potatoes every few days. On Christmas Eve, they served baked rabbit. He could light Channukah candles.         

On 18th January 1945, the Germans evacuated the camp. They left in the direction of Gliwice. “We were given a slice of bread. Everyone had to take one blanket with them […] We walked for three days. Of the 2,500 people, I don’t know that even 120 remained. People dropped like flies. Whoever couldn’t keep up was shot. People ate snow”.

Escape From the Death March 

They reach the village of Wilcza. It was in those surroundings that Shalom and his father escaped from the column of prisoners. It was -20oC and they were dressed only in their striped uniforms. “Suddenly, a woman (the late Kalabiś) appears, taking food to her husband in the mine and asks, ’For the love of God, where are you going?”. That scene reappears in each subsequent cinversatio  and email with  Shalom. Rozalia Kalabiś, a Śląsk woman, saved their lives. She took them to a friend’s house, where her friend’s daughter took them in – Dorota Kuc (née Froehlich) who, many years later, was honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Shalom’s sister and mother ended up ini Bergen-Belsen. His mother died of exhaustion after the camp was liberated, but she aware that her son had survived.

“Know that I was alive, my mother said to  my sister, ’Shalom is alive. He is now free and I ask that he say Kaddish”.

Shalom carefully studied the evacuation route from Oświęcim. With his finger, he points to Wilcza. “In the end, not everyone treats their fellow man as an animal. There are still decent people  in the world who treat their fell man as a creation of God”, he wrote to Mrs Kalabiś, twenty years after the War, thanking her for her help. As an actof gratitute, he bought a rosary for her in Nazareth. At her request, she wasa buried with that rosary. Read Shalom Lindenbaum’s account of the Death March »

Shalom left Poland in July 1945:

“I left penniless. I dragged myself around for hundreds of kilometres, across borders and countries. I was badly injured in Italy and then interned in an English camp in Cyprus […] I then came to Eretz Israel: looking for a job, being without any profession, the underground, the 1948 war, release after two years. Again, I had to look for a job and even a girl. To establish and support a family, to graduate from high school, because I wanted to study and yet I hadn’t even graduated from elementary school”.

In Haifa, he worked as a porter. For years, before entering university, he worked as a bank clerk.

Polish Literature

His studio full of books is the most important part of his partment in Ramat Gan.

A large part of them in Polish. Shalom read and corresponded in Polish. He published in “Tygodnik Powszechny” and “Midrasz”, and went to conferences in Poland. He translated into Hebrew, among others Reading the ashes of Jerzy Ficowski. He dedicated the translation to his saviors.

 

The interview with Shalom was recorded by Karolina Dzięciołowska, Jasia Goldhar and Jadwiga Rytlowa in 2011. After the discussion, he offered us a salad (its important ingredients were pomegranate juice and shuk – a spice “good for potency”, he chuckled). We listened to Shostakovich loudly. I remember that time as one of the most important of my life. 

In October 2013, he came to Warsaw for the Jewish Film Festival. He was one of the heroes of our film “Ocaleni” (The Rescued). he came as a special guest. We went for a walk. At the Katzenelson monument, German tourists took a photo for us. “Are you lonely, child”, he asked. We parted company in the evening. He escorted me to the tram. “I have a large bed”, he joked. “You can stay with me”. He was over 85 and I was still not yet 30, but he still managed to support me when I stumbled on the pavement.

He spoke most beautifully about Polish literature, keeping books in his arms, on which he kept his Auschwitz number until the end. He was dressed in a blue, soft sweater. It was Schulz, mystycism, Mickiewicz and Słowacki, surrounded by “pretty women” from Warsaw’s Polish studies circle. 

Shalomie, it’s a great pity that we now miss you so much.


Bibliography

Jan Dolewicz, Śladem krwi, Katowice 1995.
Karolina Dzięciołowska, Janina Goldhar, Joanna Król, Jadwiga Rytlowa, Wywiad z Shalomem Lindenbaumem, Ramat Gan 2011. From the collection of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Karolina Dzięciołowska, Joanna Król, Ocaleni, produced in 2013, length: 56’ [accessed online 01/02/2019]. 
Janina Goldhar, Bilet życia Shaloma Lindenbauma, Portal Polscy Sprawiedliwi, 15 czerwca 2011.
Joanna Król i Shalom Lindenbaum, private correspondence, 2011–2017.
Shalom Lindenbaum, Schulz’s Messianic Vision and its Mystical Undercurrents, [accessed online 01/02/2019].