den A Book Brings the Holocaust Close to Home
Maxine Hicks for The New York Times
Harold Charych, left, and Arthur Charych, who inherited a book on the Holocaust that will be in an exhibition.
By AILEEN JACOBSON
Published: January 28, 2009
DURING their childhoods, Arthur and Harold Charych — known as Artie and Hal — would often sneak looks at the black-covered volume, filled with gruesome photographs, that their parents kept in a hutch in their living room in New Jersey.
“Oh, my God, it was so shocking,” Harold Charych recalled recently as he and his older brother carefully turned the fragile pages of the book, “Extermination of Polish Jews: Album of Pictures.”
In 1991, after their father’s death, Arthur Charych carried the tattered 136-page book to his own house in Setauket. There it remained for some 15 years, untouched but not erased from their memories, said the brothers, engineers who are now 61 and 56.
The graphic book shows Jews being humiliated and tortured, as well as bodies of those who had been killed, in photos that an introduction says were mostly taken by German soldiers who wanted “ ‘charming’ keepsakes.” It was published in December 1945 in Lodz, Poland, by the Central Jewish Historical Committee in Poland. Their copy, the brothers said, was acquired in Lodz by their parents, Holocaust survivors who had met earlier that year.
In this country, the parents, Alex and Henia, took the book out when friends — most of them also survivors — came to visit, the brothers said. The grown-ups sat at the kitchen table, telling stories in Yiddish and poring over the book as though it were a family album, they said. The boys lingered nearby. “They thought we couldn’t understand Yiddish, but we could,” Harold Charych said.
Arthur Charych said their father never talked to them about the Holocaust. “The only information we had was when we listened in on their conversations,” said Mr. Charych, explaining that this was how they learned about their father’s years in Dachau, the German concentration camp. Their mother sometimes told them about her life during the war, working in Siberia.
The book would probably still be languishing in Arthur Charych’s basement, the brothers said, if Harold Charych, who lives in Poquott, had not had dinner more than a year ago with a neighbor, Steven Schrier, and told him about the book.
Mr. Schrier, who is the executive director of the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding, asked to see it. He said he discovered through research how rare it was, and now the book is a focal point of an exhibition mounted by Mr. Schrier and Steven Klipstein, the center’s curator, at its home on the Ammerman Campus of Suffolk County Community College in Selden.
Mr. Schrier had copies of many of the book’s more than 250 photographs enlarged. The exhibition, “The Occupation of Poland and the Extermination of Polish Jews,” runs through Feb. 27 and includes 22 framed photos, a slide show of others, the book (under Plexiglas) and a photo of the family’s mother, then Henia Lin, with her parents and four siblings.
At 14, Henia left Poland to study in Russia, a week before the war started in 1939. When she returned at age 20, she learned that her family had perished in Auschwitz. All that was left of her former home was a boulder. “She sat on that boulder and cried,” Harold Charych said.
Their father, the brothers said, was a gregarious risk-taker who had been a singer and stand-up comic. His personality, and luck, helped him survive, they said.
When he arrived in Dachau, along with his brother, Alex Charych claimed to be a sheet metal worker. He wasn’t, but the Nazis needed sheet metal workers, Harold Charych said. By selling metal outside the camp, Mr. Charych could get extra food. Just before the war’s end, the Nazis took the inmates on a forced march. When Mr. Charych’s brother collapsed, Arthur Charych said, a guard shot him.
Alex and Henia met in Warsaw and lived in Lodz before emigrating to the United States when Arthur was almost 12 and Harold, 7. In Lodz, they said, their father continued to work with metal, making containers with false bottoms, suitable for smuggling.
In Guttenberg, N.J., where they settled, Mr. Charych worked as a roofer and his wife ran a launderette that the family owned. They had another child, Deborah, now 44 and living in California. At some point — they are not sure when — the brothers discovered that their father had had a wife and three children in his hometown, Vilna, Lithuania, who had all been killed.
The parents’ behavior, not discussing the Holocaust experiences with their children, is not uncommon, said Irving Roth, 79, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald who lives in Williston Park and will speak at a reception for the exhibition at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Flecker Memorial Gallery on the campus here. It is less common never to mention a murdered family, Mr. Roth said, but understandable.
“Who are we to criticize?” he said.