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For many years, octogenarian Holocaust survivor Yurek Polansky has been sharing the horrific and life-scarring experiences he suffered as a teen in the Warsaw Ghetto with local high-school students, soldiers and visitors from abroad.
He long ago lost count of how many times he has revisited Poland and the sites of Nazis atrocities, where the lives of his immediate family were taken.
Having accompanied Israeli youth, teachers and special delegations to Poland for a number of decades, Polansky was recently asked to take three injured IDF veterans on a usually difficult journey to his place of birth. The three IDF invalids wanted to make a special journey in memory of the late Simcha Holtzberg, a Holocaust survivor and close friend of Polansky's, and were to be accompanied by an Israeli television film crew. Holtzberg, who became known as the "Father of the Wounded Soldiers" for his years of humanitarian work with injured soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks, died in 1994 during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of a terrorist attack on a public bus on the Haifa-Tel Aviv coastal road.
"Just the thought of going to Poland in March when the temperatures are well below freezing was enough for me to say 'no' - well, at first anyway," says Polansky, a founder member of the Hashomer Hatza'ir kibbutz Megiddo who became friendly with Holtzberg when the two survivors were invited to accompany students in l965.
"As Simcha and I go back a long way, I felt I had to join Maoziya Segal and his friends on this journey of remembrance to a great man, and so agreed. When I asked them why it had to be when it is so bitterly cold, I was told that they wanted to not only see but feel the conditions as we did back then."
"Simcha dedicated his life to establishing Holocaust libraries, assisting yeshivot in Pardess Hanna and Midrashiat Noam, and also worked hard against the normalizing of relations between Israel and Germany. At the beginning of the l960s he began caring for soldiers, and when he asked me to also visit the wounded in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, I felt I couldn't refuse," adds Polansky, whose only son Eitan was killed at the age of 21 while serving in the IDF on Mt. Hermon during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Polansky guided the IDF veterans in Warsaw, Treblinka, Lublin and Majdanek among others. In every place they held a short commemoration ceremony to honor Holtzberg, who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and spent time in various concentration camps before liberation from Bergen-Belsen.
When he was only 13, Polansky became the ghetto breadwinner for his parents, brother and sister, all of whom were eventually transported to and murdered in Nazi death camps - the tragic common fate of his large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins.
A farmer and truck driver following his aliya, Polansky has for many years been a staff member of Moreshet, the Mordechai Anielevich Memorial Holocaust Study and Research Center at Givat Haviva near Hadera. A large glass-encased model of the Warsaw Ghetto and maps showing the surrounding area are in constant use by the dapper, fair-haired survivor.
He describes how slowly but surely the Jews of the city - and outlying villages like the one where his family used to live - were rounded up and forced into the ghetto. The inhuman living conditions, overcrowding, starvation, sickness and constant dark shadow of death over every man, woman and child he describes with outwardly chilling calmness - but inwardly, unseen, there is deeply felt emotional turmoil.
Having fair hair, light skin and blue eyes allowed the barely teenaged Polansky to sneak in and out of the Ghetto by various means. Not only did he have to deal with avoiding the police and Nazis, but also young Polish ruffians waiting outside to prey on the child smugglers coming out of the ghetto. "The thugs robbed us of what little we had and beat us to pulp," he reminisces.
On one occasion he was caught by a German soldier who smashed his rifle butt into the boy's face, breaking his nose, cheek bone and teeth. "I still have problems from those injuries now, sixty years later," he says.
When his family was rounded up for transport, Polansky managed to escape through a small window and took to the ghetto sewers. For over three months he did not see the sky, a tree or daylight.
The Polanskys were a religious family, although Yurek, it would seem, was rather skeptical about religion even before the war. "When my father was taken from the room to be transported to his death he took with him all his religious objects and look what good it did him," he says bitterly.