.....Monopol was, and still is today, a tobacco factory and a warehouse. The Bulgarian fascists had converted it into a concentration camp. The idea was to collect the Jews from across Macedonia into one location and then transport them to labor camps or extermination camps. It was supply-chain management at its most efficient, and the Nazis were certainly efficient…..
Upon arrival, my parents, my grandparents, and I, obedient to the officers’ commands, entered the building where we were to live. Inside, rows upon rows of horizontal wooden shelves were pushed against the walls where tobacco was normally spread out to dry. The slabs carried the smell of decay. They stretched from floor to ceiling and were spaced three feet apart. But there was no tobacco. We were the tobacco.
Each family was assigned one bunk or wooden slab….. Anna, (my aunt) and her two children, Yitzhak, six, and Yoshko, four. Yitzhak had been blind from birth and could only feel and hear what was happening. Leon, his father and my father’s brother, was not there yet.
Leon had hidden in the attic at home to try to save himself. When the Bulgarian soldiers came to the house to validate that everyone had left, he watched through a crack in the attic floor as they captured his wife and two sobbing children. Anna glanced up toward the attic as she and the children were dragged away. Her eyes locked with his, but Leon did not come down.
We were crammed into those tiny cells along with the 7,144 other Jews from across Macedonia. One slab, of course, was too narrow to accommodate a large family. Many slept in the damp corridors.....
My overriding memory from this place was that we were all constantly hungry. I cried a lot and begged for food. Our only meal, served once a day, was a white bean soup with a great deal of water and not many beans. The bell would ring, and like hungry animals we would rush from our cells and wait. There was no complaining. It took hours to move up the line, and when we finally reached the server, it took just minutes to drink the soup. My grandmother, my nona, spooned me her portion. She was starving, visibly wasting away; nevertheless, she would give me her ration. Eat, eat, Iziko, I’m too old anyway,” she would whisper, quieting my fears, holding me in a loving embrace…..
It was the hunger that made me forget where I was and the dangers of that place. One day, I noticed what appeared to be goldfish darting around in the water of the little fountain that belonged to the owner of the tobacco factory. Food, I thought. I dashed there to try to catch the fish, but when I reached the fountain, a Bulgarian soldier appeared out of nowhere. He was angry. Without a second thought he lifted his rifle butt and slammed me in the the face near my left eye. The force of the blow left me cross-eyed, and by the war’s end it was too late to heal the damage. I lost the use of that eye…..
Ten days after we had arrived, the order came: more than two thousand of the prisoners in the camp were to board a train. This was the first shipment.
From the little window of the converted warehouse, I saw the Bulgarian soldiers loading my grandparents Gentil and Mushon Kalderon, my aunt Hermosa, and my uncles Haim, Rako, and Yosef onto the train. Before I could even cry out to them, my father’s sisters, Lea and Hanna, filed by with their husbands and their children. Kathi (I believe she was eight) and Matika with her husband, Aaron, were pushed forward into the train’s cattle cars by soldiers with the butts of their guns, disregarding the cries of the children. Altogether, one hundred and three of my relatives, the near entirety of my extended family, were herded onto that train.
I believe my beloved nona knew, as she was lifted aboard that cattle car, that it was death that awaited her and her children—the same children she had stopped from fleeing to America.
I can still see her waving at me from the train. Behind her, peering over her shoulder, is my uncle Yosef. My uncle Rako, who used to pull my ears playfully, is beside him, rising on his toes behind my grandfather…..
And then, suddenly, I see my father. As a medic, he was assigned to help people onto the train. Slowly..…, he slides the heavy door of the cattle cars shut, and the train pulls away… The moment that door closed on my beloved grandmother, my grandfather, my cousins and uncles, the door to my heart closed, too…To love. To intimacy. To attachment. What if I were to open my heart to someone and then lose her? It has only been recently, more than 65 years later and after 20 years of therapy, that I have learned to open myself and to acknowledge my own fear of love. And of death…..
During the war, and for years afterwards, we had no word from the family. We did not know what happened to them or where they had been sent. I always hoped they would show up one day. Instinctively, from time to time, around dusk, I would glance out the window to see if perhaps they were approaching our home…
….. when the Holocaust Museum was opened in Jerusalem. There the archives told the story of the fate of the Jews of Macedonia, along with the Jews of Trachea in Northern Greece: They had all perished in Treblinka.
It was a place I had long avoided, perhaps because I did not want to know more. It was only in 2011, when I was invited to lecture in Warsaw, Poland, that I made the trip to Treblinka. Being that close I summoned the courage to face what happened and went there to recite the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for my grandparents and my uncles, aunts, and cousins.
On my visit, I discovered how they died. I assumed then that everyone had been gassed, just like in Auschwitz. I was wrong. The Jews were given no food or water during the six-day trip from Skopje. Many died before reaching the camp. Those still alive were taken immediately from the train directly to the gas chamber. But the gas employed at Treblinka was carbon monoxide. Instead of dying, most of the survivors only became unconscious. Still alive, they were removed from the chamber and flipped one atop another, each body placed across the one below it, like logs. Gasoline was poured over all the bodies and ignited. They burned for hours until all were dead.
When I visited Treblinka in 2011, the fire pits and the earth around them were still black with ashes. I picked up one pebble, black from that fire set so many years ago, carried it home, and said goodbye to my family forever…
(The war is over )
My father, ever the survivor, adapted almost effortlessly to our new surroundings. Practically overnight, he found a new identity: he was a liberating soldier. He joined the Communist Partisans to search for Germans in hiding. It was not communism that attracted him. The undertaking was a means of getting us the food and resources we needed…
One day he found a German soldier hiding in a container typically used to store flour. Approaching cautiously, he opened it and discovered a young man peering up at him, scared to death… My father and the German stared at each other. I do not know what thoughts went through my father’s mind. Was he thinking of Monopol and of all our relatives shipped off in those cattle cars? Was it the years of fleeing and hiding, of being uprooted? He did not tell us what he did to the German soldier. I suspected my father had killed him, and I started crying uncontrollably. True, the Nazis had treated us as though we were less than human. They killed my grandparents, my uncles, and cousins — all my relatives. But I felt sorry for that soldier. I remembered the twelve-year-old courier and the overturned motorbike. Maybe this soldier was just an older kid sent to war, his mother waiting for him to come back.....