It is “the Three Weeks,” the somber period on the Jewish calendar between the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha Be’av, so I guess it is only fitting that I just learned the tragic fate of a previously unknown relative of mine, who perished in the Holocaust.
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Prior to the Second World War, the small village of Kanczuga, located about halfway between the southeastern Polish cities of Rzeszow and Przemysl, was a speck on the map, home to just 3,000 people, of whom some 40 percent were Jews. Among them were members of the Freund family, those who for one reason or another hadn’t left when my own great-grandfather had made his way to America’s shores decades previously.
In 1942, the Nazis and the Polish police rounded up some 1,000 of Kanczuga’s Jews. After being herded into the main synagogue, they were marched up the hill to the town’s Jewish cemetery and methodically gunned down before being buried in a mass grave. Locals celebrated by holding a picnic and cheering the policemen on as they opened fire.
The names of those from my family who were among the victims were lost to history, as was their fate, or least that is what I thought until I met a remarkable man last week, 90-year-old Yehuda Ehrlich, the last known surviving Jew from Kanczuga in Israel.
Thanks to an introduction from my friend Jonathan Feldstein of the American Friends of Magen David Adom, whose family also hails from Kanczuga, I was welcomed into the Ehrlich home like a landsman, or a fellow countryman with roots in the same eastern European shtetl.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Mr. Ehrlich, a former school principal who trained teachers across Israel for decades, looked at me with his intense yet kindly eyes, and asked, “what can I do for you, my friend?” My voice grew faint with emotion as I detailed my Kanczuga connection and then asked him if he had known anyone by the name of Freund prior to the German occupation.
“We don’t know their first names or what became of them, and I was hoping you might remember something about them,” I said, eager to learn a new piece of information and reclaim a shred of the past from obscurity.
His mind still razor-sharp, Ehrlich didn’t even need to pause before telling me, “Yes, I remember there was a Freund family in Kanczuga.”
“I was just 14 when the war broke out in 1939, so I only remember the father. His name was Aharon, though he was known by his Yiddish nickname, Atche, and he was in his late 50s,” Ehrlich said.
And then he proceeded to tell me a story which broke my heart while also instilling in me a new sense of pride.
Aharon Freund, Ehrlich related, was among the leaders of the community, and it was around Purim 1942 that he and the others were summoned by the Gestapo chief in the nearby town of Jaroslaw to appear before him.
The Nazi beast proceeded to threaten the Jews, insisting that they produce a sizable amount of goods, including an impossibly large quantity of men’s suits, by a certain date or else face dire consequences.
“All the other Jewish leaders were silent,” Ehrlich told me. “They were of course justifiably afraid to say anything.”
But not Aharon Freund.
“He was the only one who had the courage to speak up, to tell the head of the Gestapo that the request was unreasonable and they would not comply,” Ehrlich said.
“What happened then?,” I asked, fearful of the answer I suspected was about to come.
“I heard that the Gestapo officer was incensed. He rose from his chair, took Atche and marched him downstairs to the basement, where he shot him dead on the spot,” Ehrlich told me, adding, “I don’t know what happened to the rest of his family, the Freund family.”
I sat there, stunned, trying to absorb the shock, the trauma that comes when learning the name of a relative murdered by the Germans, along with the heroic circumstances in which he died.
Aharon Freund stood up for his fellow Jews, defending them under impossible circumstances, risking his life for his people before dying Al Kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of God’s name.
Ehrlich then proceeded to tell me the story of his own life, one that saw many difficulties too arduous to fathom.
He had been hidden for two years by a Polish farmer, then assumed a false identity and was drafted after the war into the Polish NKVD.
But when his fellow agents learned he was in fact a Jew, they plotted to kill him, forcing Ehrlich to flee. He wandered throughout Europe until he reached Italy, where he boarded a ship of survivors bound for the Land of Israel.
The British Mandatory authorities intercepted the vessel at sea, and then sent Ehrlich and the others to detention at Atlit.
But this tough and determined man survived it all, built a family and a career and made a positive contribution to the building of the Jewish state.
How many more Yehuda Ehrlichs are there who can still recount what they witnessed during the dark days of the Holocaust? With each passing day, the number continues to diminish.
If you or your family was affected in some way by the inferno that consumed six million Jews, you owe it to yourself and to future generations to seek out Holocaust survivors and listen to their stories, to gather every scrap of information that you can about what befell your loved ones. If I hadn’t approached Yehuda Ehrlich, I would never have known about Aharon Freund or what he did.
Reading books and visiting Yad Vashem is important.
But there is nothing quite like sitting across the table from someone who was there and can tell you all about it.
I cannot bring Aharon “Atche” Freund back to life, but in Yehuda Ehrlich’s small living room last week, his memory and act of heroism were recovered. And now I can ensure that they will be shared with future generations.