Quest of a Lifetime
A recent trip to Poland reveals a chilling tale of murder and salvation.
Roni Lerner, owner of a Tel Aviv high-tech company, went to Poland to say Kaddish on the blood-drenched soil where his relatives had been murdered. But what began as a tour, similar to those taken by many descendents of Holocaust survivors, evolved into a heart-stopping drama.
"All I knew was that my grandfather, Reb Yona Lerner, had perished in Majdanek. And that my grandmother and five of her children had been murdered by Poles."
In Poland, Roni visited the sites that are usually visited by Holocaust survivor descendents: he said Kaddish in Majdanek, lit candles at the Yizkor tent in Auschwitz, and was ready to return to Israel. Then he decided to visit the National Holocaust Commemoration Museum in Warsaw.
"I introduced myself as the son of Yitzchak Lerner. The clerk said, ‘We have a document of two of your father's testimonies. Why don't you take a copy?'"
Lerner took the pages, written in Polish. "I returned home, sent the pages for translation into Hebrew, and got them back a few days later."
He began reading, profoundly affected by his father's handwritten account. One of the two testimonies was the story of Yitzchak Lerner's personal salvation, which caused him to return to observing mitzvot; the other was the full story of how his family had been murdered, including the names of the Polish perpetrators.
"My father had often told us parts of the story. But much of what was written in that testimony, I'd never heard."
FOR 10,000 ZLOTY
Yitzchak Lerner, z"l, until his passing, a longtime resident of Moshav Chibat Zion, near Kfar HaRoeh, had been raised in a Torah-observant home in Poland, but after being conscripted to the army and being promoted to officer, he had distanced himself from religious practices. At the war's start, he decided to move from his hometown of Komarowka to the capital, Warsaw, where he took up residence under an assumed non-Jewish identity. There he married Esther Rivak, a widow with a young daughter. They entrusted the child to a friend named Pyotr Kopciuk, who promised to guard her carefully.
The young couple then began looking for an apartment where they could hide out in Warsaw. Kopciuk, hoping to take control of Esther's mother's home, first murdered the child, then looked for someone to murder Esther and her new husband, too. He hired Mlynarczyk Pranczysak, a friend of Yitzchak's from the Polish army, to murder the couple.
Mlynarczyk located the small basement apartment where Yitzchak and Esther were hiding, and asked Yitzchak if he could stay the night. Esther slept in one room, while Yitzchak and his friend occupied the other. "I noticed that Mlynarczyk was going to sleep in his clothes," Yitzchak writes in the testimony. "When I asked him about this, he answered that he had to get up very early in the morning. Then I noticed that he wasn't sleeping at all. Rather, he sat and smoked cigarettes. When I questioned him about this, he explained that he was afraid the Germans would come that night. I was puzzled as to why he thought they were coming specifically that night and began to sense that something bad was going to happen."
During the night, Yitzchak awoke. "I saw his hand aimed at my head. As I sat up, I heard the first shot. Because I was in a sitting position, it merely grazed the back of my head." Lerner jumped on Mlynarczyk, trying to wrest the revolver from him. He called out to Esther, but Mlynarczyk told him, "You can call her all you want! I killed her already!"
After covering me with dirt and potato leaves, he left me for dead.
During the fierce fight, Lerner was shot five times and eventually lost consciousness. "When I woke up, I saw him breathing heavily. ‘Why did you shoot me?' I asked.
"‘You're going to die anyway,' he shrugged. ‘You've been shot five times. So I don't mind telling you. Pyotr killed Esther's daughter. He asked me to murder you and Esther so he could get her mother's house. At first, I refused because we're friends and I felt bad about it. But then he started threatening that he'd send someone else to do it. He's paying me 10,000 zloty. Since someone else would get the money for murdering you anyway, it was a shame to lose out. So I agreed.'"
Then he asked Yitzchak for a favor: "I can't bury you both. Esther's dead already. So please, run to one of the nearby streets and die over there. Whoever will find you in the morning will see that you're Jewish and certainly bury you in the Jewish cemetery."
"I told him that I couldn't get up," Yitzchak writes. "He grabbed me roughly by the arm and I lost consciousness again. Sure that I was dead, he dragged me out of the basement to a nearby potato field, dug a pit, and threw me in. After covering me with dirt and potato leaves, he left me for dead."
IN THE GRAVE
"It was freezing cold, but that's how my consciousness was restored. When I awoke in the morning, the first thing I thought was that I was dead and buried, and I was viewing everything from Above. Suddenly, I realized that I couldn't feel my entire left side, which had been injured by the bullets that had riddled my upper body. I pinched my left hand with my right, and the pain of the pinch calmed me. Slowly, I came to the conclusion that, despite my extensive injuries, my entire body was intact. And that though I was in a grave, I'd been buried alive and covered with dirt and potato leaves. The air that had entered the grave through the leaves is what had allowed me to survive.
"I tried to stand, but I was too weak to haul myself out of the grave. I looked up towards the Heavens and asked God to give me strength. I prayed that He help me this time, and vowed to serve Him for the rest of my life. Suddenly, as if in direct response to my prayers, I was miraculously infused with a burst of strength that enabled me to extricate myself from the grave and stand on my two feet despite my injuries. My body was caked in blood and dirt, but I was alive and in one piece. I decided to go to the home of a widow of a Polish officer I knew." (Officers' widows hated the Germans and didn't turn Jews in to the Nazis.)
Yitzchak managed to reach the widow's house, where he had to argue with the guard to grant him entry. The guard agreed to ask the widow if she wanted to see him, and after hearing his name she instructed the guard to admit him, then called a doctor to treat him.
After the liberation of Warsaw, Yitzchak fulfilled his promise: He became observant, married Hinda, a religious woman, and they moved to Israel, to Moshav Chibat Zion, where their son, Roni, was born. There, Reb Yitzchak worked in a bakery as he had done, along with his father, before the war.
"He never missed davening with a minyan," Roni says about his father. "Every Shabbat he would go to a Torah class, and every Friday night he would tell us this story so we shouldn't forget it and to show us from where he drew the strength to go on living."
Yitzchak's second testimony revealed how the extended Lerner family was murdered in cold blood.
After the war, Yitzchak returned to his hometown, only to discover the bitter truth that none of his family had survived. He did extensive research to discover how they had been murdered, pieced together the puzzle, and gave the story to the Warsaw Holocaust Museum.
Yitzchak's second testimony revealed how the extended Lerner family was murdered in cold blood. The Lerners were a typical Jewish family who lived in Mezeritch, where Reb Yona Lerner owned a bakery that provided him with ample livelihood. When World War II broke out, the situation of the Jews deteriorated rapidly. At first the bakery still operated under Reb Yona's direction, but anonymous anti-Semites who couldn't bear the fact that a Jew was running an independent business, and who wanted the bakery for themselves, complained to the German authorities.
To get around this problem, Reb Yona contacted Anthony Mazurak, a truly righteous gentile who managed the mail distribution in the area, and offered him fifty percent of the bakery's profits if he'd register it under his name. The contract was signed, and Mazurak faithfully fulfilled his part of the deal. Then the bakery's main flour supplier, Jan Ozdowski, offered to provide the Lerner family with a hiding place when the Germans would arrive.
"In my town of Komarowka, nothing will happen to you," Ozdowski promised. The family immediately agreed, even offering to pay for the construction of the bunker in the Ozdowski yard. They had no idea that they were preparing their own graves.
On November 30, 1942, the Jews of Mezeritch were deported to Majdanek. Yona and Gitel Lerner managed to escape with their daughters Chana and Miriam and sons, Dovid, Tzvi, and Chaim, who were between thirteen and twenty-two years old. They headed straight for the village of Komarowka, where they hid in the prepared bunker, along with two boys from Warsaw whose fathers were from the wealthy Zefrin and Pomerantz families. The entire operation was very expensive.
During their entire time in the bunker, the family communicated by mail with their oldest son, Yitzchak, who was hiding in Warsaw and living near Anthony Mazurak, the righteous gentile in whose name the bakery was registered.
Soon after, Yona Lerner was caught by the Gestapo and sent to Majdanek, where he met his death.
Ozdowski frequently sent messengers to Mazurak for money and food to sustain the rest of the Lerners. But when the visits became more frequent and Ozdowski began coming himself, Mazurak became suspicious. During one visit, in addition to large sums of money, Ozdowski also took over 200 pounds of sugar, over 200 pounds of flour, 4,000 cigarettes (though no one in the family smoked), clothes, linens, tablecloths, gold and silver items, a new sewing machine, and more. The family remained in this hiding place for six months, during which time Ozdowski and his friends plundered enormous sums of money from them. But all this didn't satisfy their greed.
On the night of October 30, 1943, Jan and four other farmers summoned the family and demanded to know who else had access to their money and valuables. The shaken family said that they'd already given over all their money. The thugs grabbed the two older sons, beat them viciously, and killed them in cold blood. They then killed the younger son and continued interrogating Miriam. When she defiantly told them that she wouldn't cooperate with murderers, they tortured her to death as well. They then murdered everyone else, tossed all the bodies into a ditch in the yard and covered it with trash.
"This is where my father's testimony ends, what he learned about his family's murder, by collecting information from other people," says Roni Lerner.
IN THE MURDERER'S HOME
When Lerner finished reading the testimonies, he resolved to begin a search, with the goal of photographing and documenting the places where his family had been murdered and buried. He decided to produce a documentary about his family's story that would serve as an everlasting memorial to them. He contacted a friend, Gilad Tokatly, who was a producer and director, and hired him for the job.
"Before filming such a documentary, one must do research," Gilad Tokatly explained. He and Lerner hired Polish-speaking investigators, who went to the town to discover the location of the hiding place and site where the Lerner family was murdered. The investigators posed as representatives of a Warsaw research institute that was studying the relationships of Jews and Poles during World War II.
"Don't go into that house! There are dangerous people there who have done terrible things that are forbidden to talk about!"
"They went from house to house with the municipal council secretary and heard many stories. One day, an old lady pointed to the house next door to her and said, ‘Don't go into that house! There are dangerous people there, who have done terrible things that are forbidden to talk about! They could still be dangerous to this day.' It was the home of the Ozdowski family, in whose yard the Lerner family had been tortured and murdered.
When they came to this house, Roni joined them. He was introduced to the family as a foreign historian who was researching the subject. Jan Ozdowski was no longer alive, but his oldest son, who had been an eyewitness to the murder, was home. He gave a detailed account of how the family was murdered, not knowing that he was telling the story to a grandson.
"I was trembling," Roni says. "My blood was boiling in fury. He showed us the bunker where the family had hidden. I asked him to show me where they were buried, but he told me a bizarre story: ‘From the minute we buried the family in the yard, ghosts and spirits haunted our house. Doors and windows opened and closed on their own, strong winds blew through the house, and at night we would wake up to bloodcurdling shrieks from the yard. We decided that we had no choice but to transfer the bodies to the local Catholic cemetery for a decent burial, which is what we did.'"
Roni Lerner returned to Israel. He had accumulated enough material to produce the documentary, and had even arranged with Ozdowski, the son, that he would reenact for the cameras the murder that he'd witnessed.
While in Israel, Roni received word that one of the murderers, Jozef Radczuk, was still alive; he was 92 years old. "We decided to return to Poland, to visit Radczuk at home and hear his testimony on the act that he committed." One week later, Lerner was back in the Polish village, this time with a filming crew. "We decided to present ourselves as Warsaw movie producers who were making a film about the heroes who hid Jews in their homes," says Lerner. "The meeting with Jozef Radczuk, who lived just outside the village, was arranged and he easily agreed to be interviewed by the Polish crew."
How does one prepare oneself to meet his family's murderer?
"It was awful. Of course I was very emotional, but the first thing I took upon myself was to try not to harm the man. There is a Judge and there is Justice in this world and I didn't have to take things into my own hands." Roni Lerner, Gilad Tokatly, and the camera crew set off for the meeting with the murderer in his home. "He's very old, but still, I had to restrain myself from physically harming him," says Lerner, his voice trembling. The murderer repeated the story of the Lerner family --not knowing that the person sitting beside him was none other than the grandson of "Yeineh," Reb Yona Lerner.
"He kept using the term ‘they.' As if ‘they' did the murder while he was the ‘good guy' who opposed it. I didn't believe him. In my eyes, he was a common murderer, who according to my father's testimony, still visited the families who were holding my grandfather's money and valuables, holding a picture of Miriam, Hy"d, as if she had sent him to ask for her money. In this way, he continued to plunder the family's possessions for a long time after they were gone."
"I have no weapons," Roni told the old man. "We aren't murderers like you."
And then came the moment of truth. "Do you know that the person sitting here is Yeineh's grandson?" the Polish researcher asked.
The old man was stunned. Quiet reigned for a moment, as he absorbed this bombshell. Then he began to look afraid, as if he thought that the grandson had come to take revenge.
"I have no weapons," Roni told the old man. "We aren't murderers like you."
These words were the best revenge. "The man approached me, maybe in a desperate effort to pacify me, and tried to touch me with his bloodstained hands. I refused his bear hug. But more than anything, I wanted to know where my family was buried."
The old man repeated the story of the ghosts that had plagued the Ozdowski family, after which they'd decided to transfer the remains of the eight bodies, in two caskets, to the town's Catholic cemetery.
"As we headed towards the village, I asked Radczuk how exactly the family was buried. He answered that he didn't know because he'd been outside the cemetery gate. I didn't believe him, and asked him a trick question: ‘How deep were they buried?'
"‘About your height,' he answered. I asked him how he knew that, if he'd been outside the cemetery during the burial. Then he admitted that he was the one who had buried them. He both murdered them and moved their bodies from place to place."
At the moment of that realization, Roni came to a determined resolution to do two things: to bring this murderer to justice and to bring these members of his family to a proper Jewish burial.
"Back home in Israel, I contacted numerous legal authorities in the Polish government." About a month ago, Lerner was informed that Poland was opening a murder investigation against Jozef Radczuk. Roni also asked the rabbinical court in Netanya for guidance on how to bring the remains of the eight murder victims to Israel for burial. The rabbis ruled that two rabbis had to be present when the bodies were exhumed. Roni asked Rabbi Chaim Tubolsky, his Rav from Yeshivah and Rabbi of Chibat Zion, where his father had lived and where his mother still lives, to accompany him on the journey.
In Poland, the group was joined by Chevra Kadisha member Alexander Wasovich, by Rabbi Zalman Abersin of Warsaw, and by representatives of Poland's prosecuting team. They arrived at the Catholic cemetery and began digging at the site indicated by Radczuk. Curious villagers looked on. "People here used to tell the story," one commented.
"All the Lerner family's good Polish friends turned out to be base murderers, willing to commit the most heinous acts for a paltry few zloty."
Apparently, the old man had made a mistake in the location. They dug in the entire vicinity but came up with nothing. "We performed tearful memorial ceremonies at numerous locations, but we returned home without the bodies," Roni concludes.
In recent weeks, Roni has hired a company that specializes in biophysical tests that can discover bones with a special radar device. Their searches turned up an object with the dimensions of two caskets, less than two miles from the location pinpointed by the old man. According to Polish law, Roni must now wait for a certain amount of time after approval of his request to the local municipality for a permit to dig there, in case anyone objects. Assuming that there are no objections, Roni Lerner plans to return to Poland with a delegation, exhume the bodies and bury them on Moshav Chibat Zion near his father's grave. Only then will there be closure.
This article originally appeared in © Mishpacha Magazine 2006