“I can see my Zayda. I can see Ruth. I am happy.” Today began at Zofiowka, a hospital for mentally ill Jews built in 1908. In 1939, just months before the Nazis built a Ghetto in Otwock, a group of 65 Jewish children from Zbaszyn and other Polish towns slept here. Two weeks later they headed North an escaped Europe. My Zayda, his brother Siegfried, and his sister Ruth were among these 65.
Today, the building looks as though it hasn’t been thought about since the War. It is missing windows, walls, and is covered in graffiti.
We slowly walked around the building behind my Zayda. As we turned the corner in the back, I saw a swastica painted on the plaster. I immediately froze and grabbed my cousin’s arm. We were in the middle of the woods, at an abandoned building. Seeing the swastica filled me with anger. I didn’t want my Zayda to see it. I didn’t want my sister to see it. Without thinking I grabbed the loose plaster from the wall and pulled it down, shattering it on the ground. I walked away, my fists shaking, covered in blood. I felt no satisfaction and wished the quiet and peace could return to the building.
As we continued, my Zayda was shaky, seeing the place for the first time in 76 years. Those of you that know my Zayda won’t be surprised to hear that it took less than 5 minutes before he started climbing into a window trying to avoid nails and pieces of glass. I quickly followed him in to the dark, empty building. As I went to take my flashlight out he stopped me. “This is how my blind Zayda would have seen it.” I waited a moment, but as we stumbled on debris and walked further into the depths of the building, not knowing what was ahead, I turned on my light. The rooms were littered with dust, empty cans, and graffiti. My Zayda continued walking, unsteady, as he remembered the final time he saw his Zayda. One of the final times he saw Ruth.
We headed back outside, and my Zayda grew stronger. For the first time since we arrived, he smiled. For the last 76 years he has felt guilty that he lived and Ruth did not. As a young adult he blamed himself, thinking that he should have given her his spot on the boat and went back to Europe to stop the Holocaust.
Ruth was murdered as a teenager and my Zayda has never let her age in his mind. As he stood on the grounds where he spent his last few weeks with Ruth, he let her grow older and let go of his guilt. “Ruth would be 90 today. And I know she is smiling down on me and this family.”