Sunday, April 02, 2006

A great story that shows that justice for victims of the Shoah should always be sought

In 1943, at the height of World War II and the systematic annihilation of European Jewry, Gitl Lerner, a 45-year-old Jewish woman, hid with five of her children in the home of a Polish farmer. The six managed to escape a transport to the Majdanek death camp and found shelter along with two Jewish youths. On the night of October 30, Polish farmers in the area stabbed Lerner and the five children to death. Sixty years later Roni Lerner, an Israeli businessman and Gitl's grandson, set out to track down his family's murderers. In the course of his investigation, Lerner, pretending to be a historian, met the sole surviving murderer and uncovered the horrific case, which the prosecution in Poland has now reopened as a result. Under Polish law, there is no statute of limitations on murders committed during World War II or the country's Communist era. However, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, who assisted Lerner in his contacts with the Polish prosecution, says that despite admirable Polish willingness to bring criminals to trial, the proceedings drag on and convictions have been exceedingly few, in view of the number of suspects still alive.
With the help of an Israeli film crew and local researchers, Lerner managed to locate the last remaining suspect in the murder. The suspect, Joseph Radchuk, a 92-year-old farmer, led Lerner and his people to the place where the victims were buried 60 years ago. Lerner is going to Poland today at the head of a delegation to exhume the skeletons and bring them for burial in Israel, alongside his father's grave. "I won't leave my family members in that cursed land of Poland," he said before departing Israel. Researchers from Poland's Institute for National Commemoration (IPN) are slated to meet with Lerner tomorrow and to be present for the exhumation of the victims' remains, if found, at the Catholic cemetery in Pashgalini. The eight victims are Gitl and her five children (Miriam, 22; Hannah, 20; David, 17; Zvi, 15; and Haim, 13) and two young Jewish men known only by their surnames: Zefrin and Pomerantz. They were stabbed to death at their hideout in the small village of Pashgalini, near the family's hometown of Komarovka in eastern Poland, not far from the city Lublin. The family arrived at the hideout in April 1943, after a Polish farmer named Jan Sadovski found it for them. While the family was in hiding, Lerner's father, Yitzhak, was living in Warsaw under an assumed identity. He heard of his family's murder from a Polish friend who lived in the village. In November 1944, after the Red Army had conquered the area from the Germans, Lerner went to the village to investigate. His testimony, preserved in the Jewish archives in Warsaw, states that the murder was perpetrated by Sadovski and four other farmers - one of them being Joseph Radchuk. The testimony stated that the murder had been committed to steal the Lerner family's possessions and those of their two friends, who were wealthy people. Lerner Sr. met with Radchuk, who said he had witnessed the murder and admitted taking many of the family's possessions. Lerner Sr. filed several complaints with the Soviet authorities, but later learned that aside from Sadovski, who was tried and executed, nothing was done to his accomplices. After the war Lerner Sr. fled to Sweden and from there immigrated to Israel. He remarried, to a Holocaust survivor from a neighboring town in Poland and lived with her in Moshav Hibbat Zion. Lerner began investigating his family's tragedy in July 2003, when he accompanied his daughter's school trip to Poland and tracked down his father's testimony at the archives in Warsaw. On returning to Israel, Lerner decided to commemorate his father's life with a book and a documentary film, and headed back to Poland. He kept Israel's ambassador, David Peleg, and his deputy, Yosef Levy, apprised of all his movements there. He also made contact with the local Jewish community and Monica Kravchuk, chair of the Jewish heritage foundation in Poland. Research led to the home of the Ozdovski family, on whose land the Lerners' hideout had been located. The family, whose father apparently participated in the murder, said that the bodies were initially buried near the hideout, but were moved a year later to an unknown location because neighbors complained the place had become haunted. Lerner says that during an unannounced visit to the family's home, he spotted a Singer sewing machine that had belonged to his family and was mentioned in his father's testimony. Last October the researchers located Radchuk, who showed them where the bodies were reburied at the edge of the Catholic cemetery in Pashgalini. If the skeletons are found there, they will be flown to Israel on Tuesday and the funeral will take place in Hibbat Zion at the end of the week.

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