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Xavier Piatka

8 July, 1919 – 25 July, 1998

Birth name: Israel Jutan

Husband of Chayela Rosenthal

Writer – Journalist – Advertising Agency – Newspaper Editor – Philatelist – Public Relations

Holocaust Survivor

FAMILY BACKGROUND

Xavier Piat-ka was born in Vilna (Vilnius) , Poland on the 8th July, 1919. His name at birth was Israel Jutan. He was the son of a prominent Doctor, Zacharius / Zacharyas Jutan and Russian Jewess, Vava/Basya Goldman. Zacharius Jutan was also a highly regarded city councilor and well respected in the community for his involvement with civic affairs. In addition to his official roles with the World Association of Jewish War Invalids, Widows and Orphans and as Honorary President of the Volunteer Firemen of Vilna, Zacharius worked as a sales representative for a medical supply company. His active professional life and volunteer positions kept him busy with fundraising and travel, and meant he was often away on business. He was an extremely generous man who financially helped two orphaned children in the community as well as family members who were struggling and in debt.

Xavier’s grandparents were the very religious, Jewish orthodox, domineering businessman, Reuven Jutan (who owned three inns on the outskirts of Vilna and a twelve-room hotel in Biskupia Street, in the city center) and the sweet, kind Ethel (Stichman) Jutan. Reuven was one of twelve brothers. Israel/Xavier was the only child of Zacharius!

CHILDHOOD IN VILNA

While he was a good goalkeeper and won 100m running sprints regularly, young Israel Jutan was more interested in reading and writing. By age 12 he had already written many short stories and by age 16 was editor of his school newspaper. He had his Bar Mitzvah in the great Garbaska (Shuster) synagogue where his father was the “gabbe. Xavier also wrote articles and short stories for a Polish daily newspaper called Kurjer Wilenski.

Vilna, (formerly named Wilno, now known as Vilnius) in Xavier’s early years, was a place where Jews and other people of all kinds of faith, lived as one, in harmony alongside, each other. It was a haven of enlightenment, of learning and rich Yiddish and Jewish culture and was often called ‘The Jerusalem of Lithuania” and during the early 1920’s of Xavier’s youth, Jewish life in Vilna was flourishing, rich, and vibrant.

As a child, Xavier used to love playing in the beautiful botanical park and gardens just below Gediminas Hill, he would excitedly wait for the noon trumpet sounds to chime from the belltower in the town square, and have fun adventures with his shoolboy friends were had in the old castle at the top of the hill. He spent many afternoons at his father’s surgery doing homework and enjoyed his summer visits to their family ‘dacha’ (vacation house) in Charmy Boor. Soon after his parents got divorced, Xavier’s father married an older woman, a pediatrician, Rachel Tunkel, and Xavier would visit his mother in Paris as often as he could. In his teens, Xavier began to collect stamps and had become an active member of a Zionist-Revisionist organisation, Masada. During an extended stay with his mother in France in his late teens, Xavier studied journalism at École Supérieure de Journalisme  university college in Paris.

By age 17, Xavier had already received a scholarship to go and study medicine in New York’s Columbia University, but he chose not to go, as he still was not sure he even wanted to be a doctor – that was his father’s dream for him. Xavier had Zionistic dreams and so applied for and was accepted into, Haifa Technical College. Unfortunately, when he was to leave for Palestine in 1938, he did not go for he felt he could not leave his ailing father who had just recently suffered an attack of angina pectoris. After WWII, Xavier was able to retrieve his matriculating school records from the Haifa college – his only original documents remaining after the war.

In June of 1939, during a visit with his mother in Paris, Xavier received papers from the Polish Army to return home as the country was preparing for war. Upon his return, Xavier’s father secured him a job with the army in the communications department as Xavier was fluent in several languages, including English. His job was as translator and radio monitor, translating from Russian, German, English and French the messages coming through on the air. And teaching English to fellow workers and Commandants. It was an easy job….until the war started on 1st September, 1939.

SEPTEMBER 1939

German troops swept through Poland, occupying half of it and on the 17th September, Poland collapsed because Russia occupied the other half of Poland, including Vilnius/Vilna. A Russian officer was stationed in his Father’s house, taking over two big rooms and Xavier then went to stay in the home of his then girlfriend Malka’s parents. At the time, the university’s Polish daily newspaper needed a reporter, preferably Jewish, and Xavier was hired for the job. He was assigned to do university stories about sport and cultural events, like cinema, art and theatre performances. For the first time there were interesting performances at the City Hall, sponsored by Soviet authorities. It was there, that Xavier first saw Chayela Rozental, a young teenage girl, performing on the stage, playing the part of a young worker who does her job with a good spirit, is happy with her work and sings a Yiddish song about it. She did so well, it became a hit song – the song was written by her brother Leyb Rozental. Xavier wrote an excellent review and after the show, inspired, joined a Russian performing arts society where he too performed in the odd Russian or Yiddish production.

By January 1940 there were over 14,000 Polish Jews in Lithuanian-occupied Vilna and under Russian communist rule, cultural life was being revived. There was big excitement about the upcoming music festival in Moscow, in which all the ethnic groups from the conquered territories, would be represented, and Xavier wrote a story for the newspaper, Youth Truth, about that same young Jewish girl, Chayela Rozental, who had been chosen by the Vilna Cultural Association to represent Vilna. She was to sing at the International Festival of Folklore Music and Dance, to be held in Moscow in July 1941.

Xavier continued to write for various newspapers under his birth name Israel Jutan until a good friend told him it sounded too Jewish and that he should change his name in order to gain more acceptance and work. And so he chose the exotic French name of an author he admired, Xavier, and chose his last name as Piatka. It is pronounced Piontka in Polish, but written as Piatka (with a comma under the letter a) and it represented the number five, which was the highest and best grade achievable in school. With his nom de plume, Xavier was given a reporter’s card, an important credential for any working writer. That together with his ability to speak several languages, including English, served him well.

WAR BEGINS

In the third week of June, 1941, Xavier heard the unusual sound of bombing. German Stukkas, low-flying airplanes were over the city and bombing factories and military barracks. One bomb fell near the Green Bridge, close to his home. A tremendous panic broke out in the town. Russian soldiers were rushing everywhere – the Soviet Red Army all on the road, fleeing Vilna and heading back to Russia. The telephones stopped working. People were scurrying about in the streets. Xavier and some of his friends from Masada gathered some belongings, and joined the march of people evacuating the city toward Minsk – a steady stream of hundreds of people on horses, on foot, and on bicycles. 

Desperate to escape the terror of the advancing Germans, people had appeared from everywhere, carrying peklach, parcels, packages, bags, and luggage, all schlepping their belongings on their backs, donkeys, baby carriages, wheelbarrows, makeshift carts, and bicycles. Herding together, they moved as a unit, surging forward alongside the Russian soldiers huddling in their military vehicles. Every so often, when they heard the low, whining rumble of the approaching German airplanes, they would dash off the road to take cover in the fields. Like monster mosquitoes, the enemy planes swooped down toward them, dropping their bombs on the roads behind and in front of them. But no one dared stop moving forward. Even at night, they kept on walking. After a day and a half of nonstop walking, the fleeing group saw an alarming sight up the road. Hordes of people were staggering toward them. Soon enough, they learned the bad news from those haggard strangers: The Germans were ahead of them. Trapped in the middle, there was nothing for them to do but turn around and walk back. By the time Xavier and his friends returned to Vilna, the Germans had settled in and taken command.  All plans changed with the Nazi Germany occupation of Vilna on June 27, 1941.

A week later, the first of many draconian anti-Jewish proclamations restricted movements for all Jews. They were forbidden to walk on the pavements (sidewalks). Jews had to walk in the cobbled streets and in public, had to wear a visible yellow Star of David upon their clothing. The Lithuanian police and their Polish helpers used to catch Jews, taking them off the streets or out of their homes and force them to work. For a while Xavier went to work 40km out of town packing peat for Polish peasants who needed labourers.

EINZATZKOMMANDOS

Throughout the summer of 1941, the Nazis put into effect their ruthless mass-eradication program, seizing thousands of Jews in their homes or on their way to work, ordering some to pack a small suitcase of essentials, under the guise of being sent off to work. Those Jews were never seen again.   The finest of Jewish men of distinction — the rabbi, the president of the committee, the banker, the chief doctor, all important people, leaders of the community—were taken in the first days.  At first, the Germans demanded that Jews hand over all their valuables, as ransom to free the hostages….  Nazis announced that they would kill the men if they didn’t receive a certain amount of gold, silver and money for their release.   The Vilna Jews responded rapidly to the orders of the surrender of goods. Obediently, they stood in long lines in front of the office of the Jewish Committee, waiting to give generously of their accumulated treasured valuables—heirlooms, silver candelabra, rings, jewelry—anything to save the lives of their leaders. In the end, they were simply robbed.   

The family members of those taken away, assumed their loved ones had been shipped off to the east to work. In reality, many had been taken to what once used to be a vacation resort area outside Vilna to Ponary Forest, which had now been turned by the Germans into a mass killing field. There, the Jews were forced to undress and then were shot execution style, their bodies falling into huge, gaping round pits.   The men they thought they could save with their carefully collected, sentiment-laden, handcrafted possessions of gold and silver were murdered in cold blood with machine-made bullets of lead.

THE VILNA GHETTO

In September of 1941, six small streets in the middle of the Jewish part of town were surrounded by a high wall, that became the Vilna Ghetto – with Lithuanian police and SS-men guarding the entrance at Rudnicka Street. Two ghettos were established, one larger and one smaller, for skilled and unskilled workers respectively.

When the German announcement came that all Jews must leave their homes and take up residence in the ghetto, Xavier entered the gate on Rudnicka Street, and entered the first apartment house on the right side of the street. Already people were there in the yard with whatever bundles they could carry, occupying rooms on the ground and first floors. Xavier went to a second floor room, about thirty by twenty square feet, that he would share with Malta and about twelve others and often more. The SS and Lithuanian police occupied the shop on the ground floor turning it into their guardroom at the gate. Zacharius was able to get a room in the same building on the ground floor.

The mattresses and cushions, were placed upright against the walls during the day. In the beginning there was no electric power for cooking and no wood or coal for the stoves for heating until the busy ghetto administration, known as the Judenratarranged for more wood supplies to prevent people from further dismantling windows, fences, and doors to use as firewood. Within one month, the occupants of the small ghetto had been murdered. People from the larger ghetto were then permitted to take some of the possessions they left behind. Xavier was allocated a bunk and a small mattress for which he built a stand containing shelves to store utensils and clothes.

Food was scarce. A public kitchen was established where people could get a few rations, some soup, and hot water/tea. Usually the first meal was at midday. The Judenrat could barely provide adequate food for their workers to stay alive. Those who worked outside the ghetto were given some soup and a piece of bread by their employers. In due time, home restaurants were established, where for a certain sum of money one could even have a party of ten for dinner or a simcha, a celebration for a special occasion. This was thanks to the shtarkeh, appropriately named “the strong ones.” They were the fearless, street-smart, business-minded men who obtained contraband by dealing and negotiating with their former Polish neighbors and by bribing German soldiers. The shtarkeh arranged for supplies to be snuck in and out of sewers and secret places, to bring in more food and other products necessary for survival.

There was no radio contact permitted with the outside world. For a while Xavier and his father were assigned different work projects outside of the ghetto walls, lucky to have work permits (“shein“) which often saved lives as those not able to work or in possession of a shein, were taken away and murdered. Xavier soon realised that it was safer to work and stay inside the ghetto as German soldiers were looking for and rounding up as many Jews as they could…. and taking them away – many never to return .

In the Autumn of 1941, on Yom Kippur – the holiest of Fast days – the Day of Atonement – a sudden Aktion took place. While the Jews were praying, German trucks entered the ghetto and a group pf SS men, whose trained mission was murder, brutally dragged people from their homes and prayer meetings, aggressively shoving them toward the ghetto gates at the end of Rudnicka Street. People realizing that the German soldiers had come to take them away, probably to their death, they frantically began to look for places to hide. Secret passages, prepared in advance, were quickly opened and closed again when filled. Xavier managed to escape from the street where he had been caught in a group. He ran swiftly to the block where they lived, to join his father and 15 others already crammed in the attic of their building, their previously designated hideout. Squeezed together in silence, daring not to move. Through the thin walls, they heard the heavy boot steps of the Germans shouting at the elderly ladies screaming in the rooms below, dragging and throwing them down the stairs…. to their death. A mother hiding with them in the attic nearly choked her two-year-old daughter, pressing her hand tightly over the child’s mouth to prevent her from making a sound. Some time later, a knock came, then another, on the wall leading to their hiding place. Fear that they had been betrayed gripped them, causing Zacharius to suffer an angina attack – doubled over in silence. Thankfully it was a neighbor to announce that those Einzatzgruppen SS men had left the Ghetto. On that one autumn day in 1941, the Nazis took away over five thousand people from the Vilna Ghetto.

A few days after that Yom Kippur, one of the survivors of the massacre managed to make his way back to the ghetto. He told a tale no one wanted to believe was true. Describing how they were driven to Ponar Forest, outside Vilna, he recounted how the Nazis and their Lithuanian assistants taunted and beat the men, women and children during their forced march towards the pits. He spoke about all of them being subdued, and ordered on the spot to undress and stand naked in front of one another. Standing at the rim of a gaping pit, they were shot by several Nazi machine gunners, their bodies tumbling down into the large hole in the earth that now became a mass, open grave. Further waves of bodies covered those already murdered on the same spot, until the hole filled up with dead bodies. The last group of remaining Jews were given shovels and ordered to cover the mass graves with the sandy soil before they too were shot at dawn, their bodies left on top of the pile of corpses. This man, although wounded in his thigh, had survived by throwing himself in the pit after the first shot was fired. He lay there, pretending to be dead, while the drunken SS men and Lithuanian soldiers inspected the results of their day’s shooting. After lying under the heaped corpses and soil for many dreadful hours, he managed to crawl out from under the pile of bodies during the night and make his way out of the forest to a nearby village. There, a local woman was compassionate and brave enough to give him shelter, treating his wounds and arranging for him to reach a group of Jewish laborers on their daily assignment in the fields. Slipping in amongst them, he had pretended to be one of the laborers returning in their group to the ghetto.

It was Jacob Gens, who saved Zacharius, who when sent on an underground expedition to buy saccharine needed at the ghetto hospital, was spotted by a Lithuanian policeman who arrested him and sent him off to the infamous Lukiski prison, known as a one-way ticket to death. Jacob Gens, learning about the prominent doctor’s imprisonment from another Lithuanian policeman, went immediately to the prison, traced someone he knew from his past affiliation with the army, and paid the necessary bribe to get Zacharius out of prison and back to the ghetto. In the prison, the Lithuanian policemen had beaten him savagely with a metal chair, causing him to be hospitalized for two weeks.

Xavier and Zacharias survived the two years in the Vilna Ghetto that included escaping death during more aktions.

LABOUR CAMPS

In September of 1943, after the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated, Xavier was sent by train to Estonia, as one of many “volunteers” forced to work in the labour camps. In Vivikonna, Xavier and 100s of others laid railway lines, in the harsh, icy winds of Tundra winter… One day during an “apell” / roll-call, a German SS soldier called for someone who could write in German. People pointed to Xavier, who was forced to step forward. And so Xavier began working as a “Schreiber”/ writer indoors, in the camp’s offices transcribing figures all day.

Xavier later was moved to camp in Port Kunda, where the indescribably cruel and evil Commandant Klee was in charge… where beatings, degradation, humiliation and torture were suffered by all under his rule. The majority of the prisoners at Kunda worked at a cement-making factory and some worked in the mines alongside Estonian labourers who were mostly Communists, taken as prisoners at the time of the Nazi Occupation. Klee was thankfully replaced after a while by Herr Bekker who was far less evil.

Four days before Port Kunda would be liberated, new SS men in uniforms arrived, ordered the prisoners to take food for two days, marched them toward the railway station and packed them into the train trucks which brought them into Tallin, the capital of Estonia. Within two days, Xavier and his fellow prisoners had then been put on a big boat and shipped off to Danzig. This boat was commissioned to bring all the Jewish labour forces to the SS-extermination death camp, Stutthof, in East Prussia. On the boat, Xavier reunited with his father once again… Zacharius had just been evacuated from Camp Klooga and placed on this boat heading for Gdansk/Danzig.

STUTTHOF – Extermination Camp

From the port of Danzig, Xavier was placed on a barge that brought him through the lakes to the concentration camp, Stutthof.

Xavier, already separated from his father, was assigned to Barracks 12, and given a number – he was “Haftling 10052”.  He and his fellow Jewish prisoners  were to wear the yellow triangle at all times demarcating they were Jewish. The  communists had red patches, Jehovah’s Witnesses had violet and homosexuals had blue.    Xavier was to share his one narrow bunk “bed” with another large Jewish man, Rachmiel Malenker, a quiet but strong man who became Xavier’s best friend and protector, saving his life more than once.  

In roll call “appell” one day, Xavier was briefly united with his father once again, when together they survived another death selection by passing the challenging ‘tests’ of fitness, running as fast as possible to the demarcated line on SS orders. Xavier and those other fit men were regularly forced to march for hours through mud and forest to distant destinations, like the quarry where hard labour was thrust upon them.  Xavier’s lean body struggled when he was to carry heavy rocks and stones from one place to another….. and back again, and then those stones were to be cut with hammers.  Bodies ached, hands were calloused and bleeding… and so many of his fellow, once fit, prisoners, fell to the ground from exhaustion, or stumbled and were brutally kicked or killed for not doing their job fast enough.    No one was protected from the fierce guard dogs and their mean German guards, most of them ex-convicts, to whom killing came easily as most were previously convicted murderers.  These guards who delighted in spitting at, prodding and beating with their rifles, the Jews and who set their fierce guard dogs upon them.    

 After a while, in agony and close to breaking down and giving in to death, Xavier, thought up a plan that would have him and Malenker assigned to “inside” labour.    Xavier approached the Kapo and “volunteered” to clean up their foul smelling toilets “pissoir”, something the Kapo could be proud of when his German superiors came by, and convinced him that he and Malenker, a professional painter, knew how to do this and all they needed was tar.  The Kapo agreed, ordered the tar and Xavier and Malenker had their newly assigned job, which was done well enough to impress the Kapo who went on to give them ‘better jobs’, like carrying and delivering bread from the kitchen to the yard in front of the barracks daily.   Xavier and Malenker were regularly assigned many latrines to tar and clean, and were rewarded with extra pieces of bread from time to time for good work. That same Kapo, saved their lives too, when he hurriedly ran to find Xavier and Malenker one day and ordered them to hide in the attic immediately. Moments later they heard commotion in the yard as the  SS  had suddenly arrived with trucks and announced over loudspeakers that everyone come out of the barracks and stand in the yard.  It was another “aktion” and 5000 prisoners were removed from the camp and taken to unknown destinations.  Those who were working out at the quarries were spared, but all who remained behind at the camp were taken away in trucks…. and killed.

Xavier’s father, Zacharius, was permitted to move freely between barracks as he had Red Cross Doctor “status”. Xavier therefore managed to see him from time to time, before his dad was sent off to a medical unit in Königsberg. Xavier realized that he and Malenker should also try to be sent away to work elsewhere and when a team came in and during a roll call “appell” requested that they needed skilled welders and electricians to work in the harbor at Danzig, Xavier and Malenker stepped forward!  Within three days, Xavier and Malenker were on a train headed for Danzig with 12 other men, for a new line of work.    

CAMP BURGRABBEN

Their new barracks and living conditions at labour camp Brugrabben, 12 km from Danzig (Gdansk) harbour, were better.  There were nearly 250 Jews working with more than 25,000 other prisoners of war from all nations,  but mostly Russians and a small train transported them to and from their work  in the habour daily .   Xavier’s job was now repairing damaged German U-boats in the dry dock.  His German overseer was a socialist who hated the Nazis and so advised them to keep the welding repair work “thin” so that the U-boats would be retuned regularly for repair, thus keeping his boys safe on land, as opposed to dying at sea.   

One night an SS guard barged into the barracks and ordered Xavier and three other “lazy Jews” to do a job for him with a promise of reward.   They were to trudge an hour in the snow up a hill and sneak onto a German farm and dig through the ice and snow, barehanded, and steal potatoes.  Xavier dug up 35 potatoes that he gave to the guard and in return, he was given five potatoes.  Upon their return to the barracks, the gate guards, who were tipped off,  began yelling loudly for all to hear that they were filthy Jewish thieves.  The guards ordered all four men to the ground and searched their clothes and pockets, finding all hidden potatoes.  One of the guards kept yelling insults and laughing while he beat Xavier’s  back with his rifle, pushing his neck and face down into the dirty snow-covered soil with his heavy army boot one moment and then kicking his right hip, deep and hard., the next.   Finally, starving and bloody from the beatings, they were holed up for punishment in the solitary confinement cell.  In the morning the SS guard released them and sent them back to their daily “jobs” of welding submarines.   Throughout Xavier’s life after the war, pain from these back beatings would flare up as a constant reminder of these horrific years.  

Years of unpredictability, torture, pain, starvation, on the move from place to place, carrying only a tin and a spoon hanging off a string belt around their waists, freezing against their already frigid bellies…  A breakfast of a stale piece of bread or toast and watered down coffee….  Lunch, a thin watery cabbage soup… Those shoes … good fitting, strong and thick were most important.   All the while witnessing humiliation, degradation, beatings, suffering and death,  bodies falling, failing, dying or being shot in front of their eyes.    Being forced to carry dead bodies to pits and mass graves, unimaginably exhausting and days long death marches in deepest winter snow with icy wind racing through the paper thin striped fabric that served as clothing.

One Februray day in 1945, new SS guards came to the camp and called all the Burgrabben prisoners to assemble in their 5 rows in the yard for the “Appell’.  After an unusually long roll call, the prisoners were told that the camp was being evacuated and,  after being ordered to bring their tin, fork, spoon and blanket, all were marched out of the camp under the direction of the SS officers….heading North West…. towards the Baltic Sea.  

After some eight hours of forced marching they reached the outskirts of a village where the SS-men pushed them into a church and locked the front doors.  After a few hours of sleep, the prisoners were awakened in the dead of the night and forced to continue marching, “hidden’ from regular villagers’ eyes, many prisoners falling, dying, along the way…  In the morning they reached and were were locked into an empty school. Some rations were slipped in by villagers through the back doors, watery soup was served.

After midday the march resumed with German rifle butts prodding and poking and SS officers yelling “faster faster” in German .  Xavier’s feet, through wrapped in newspapers inside his hard wooden shoes, to keep his feet warm, still froze and his legs were numb, but Malenker was at his side encouraging him with motivating whispers and supporting him with his strong arms.  Four days and four nights of marching….until they reached an abandoned camp, Camp Ruben / Rieben– surrounded by barbed wire fencing. 

CAMP RUBEN / RIEBEN

The SS men ordered the prisoners to go inside buildings and remove gold from the teeth of dead bodies….. and then to burn the bodies.  After that, all were told to stay inside the buildings, where they slept on the cold concrete floors …..and where they all remained for the next few days.  Exhaustion, anxiety, pain, hunger and uncertainty, led to unrest, and fighting amongst the prisoners. One Jew boy stole rations from another, and before the SS man was about to shoot them both, Xavier intervened, slapping the boy so hard he fell. Xavier picked him up and shoved him into another room, saving him from being shot for sure.   That night Xavier fell gravely ill. He later learned that that camp had been diseased with Typhoid, which killed all the previous inmates.  Malenker forced Xavier to eat snow and nursed him through the awful fevers, despite Xavier’s expressed wish to die. 

Soviet planes and bombing were heard overhead and the SS were preparing to leave the camp.  Malenker prepared an escape by secretly digging a hole under the barbed wire fence and breaking a window in their barracks. In the middle of the night, Malenker covered a now wildly hallucinating Xavier with a blanket, pushed him through the small broken back window and dragged him through that hole in the fence, he had made earlier. This was March, 1945.

Carrying Xavier on his shoulder,  Malenker ran through the forest till he reached an old farmhouse. He barged in through the door, and ordered the old frightened German couple to find some strong alcohol and a bed for Xavier. With the schnaps, he washed down Xavier’s body to rid him of lice.  A few days later Xavier awoke in a warm comfortable bed, like in a dream. It was then that Malenker told him that on 8 March, the Red Army had entered the camp they escaped from, to find most dead, but upon learning they were Jews, killed them all off too.   Malenker had saved his life! Malenker also arranged for a horse and carriage to bring Xavier to a nearby town of Lembork to see a Doctor, where they learned that the Germans had finally been defeated.    Along the way, they met some former camp inmates and decided to band  together going forward for a while.   Building their strength and finding lost family and friends became a priority as they celebrated ‘victory’ and freedom. Liberation for Xavier was dated by him as 9th March, 1945.

POST LIBERATION – 1945   LEMBORK to BYDGOSZCZ

Driving around Lembork they came upon a deserted double storey house and moved in.  They later learned of some Vilna girls who had been released from a nearby camp and were living in a house nearby.  Looking forward to reuniting with fellow Vilna neighbours and also believing they might need protection  from the rough and drunken Russian liberators who were accosting and raping vulnerable women, the boys set off to visit the ladies.   Despite the girls, being skin and bones with matted hair, Xavier immediately recognized one of the them  – the young singer he wrote about, Chayela Rosenthal.   He introduced himself as having written about her, and suggested that she and her sister, Mary, and friend come to stay in their house where they would be safer.   A few days later Malenker left to seek out his wife whom he believed was still alive. He was believed to have been arrested by the Russian Army, but many years later, Xavier was relieved to learn that he had reunited with his wife and was living in Israel.   

Soon after Xavier had found the now nineteen year old Chayela again, she became ill with Typhus and the now immune Xavier, nursed her back to health and into love.     After Victory Day on 5th May, they all discussed where they would go to start new lives, as they had no home to return to. Xavier and Chayela agreed to find a place where they could live, just the two of them and start to build their new future together.

While still in Lembork, Xavier had befriended a good Jewish Russian officer who helped him secure a job with the new Polish administration of Lembork,  where Xavier now helped with the registration of refugees and incoming Poles, who wanted to get houses from German families.  He helped many refugees by issuing new papers for them, falsifying their “birth place” towns so to avoid conscription into the Russian army.

A few months later, Xavier went with Chayela to visit her sister Mary. who had moved with her friend to Lodz. Along the way, they stopped in Bydgoszcz, an old Polish town.  A Jewish committee had recently been formed and were announcing over the radio that they were calling for artists, actors and singers to audition for an entertainment – theatre group.  While Chayela was auditioning at the radio station, Xavier went for a walk and bumped into his old “Vilna Truth” newspaper editor, Malinowski.   Tears and stories were shared and Malinowski arranged to give Xavier back his name, identity, registration papers, and a job as a roving reporter for the “Wolna Polska” (A Free Poland) newspaper published for the Polish population and freely distributed by the Red Army.   

Malinowski  organized official documentation, a union card and papers in his name, Xavier (Ksawery) Piatka, with a photograph and journalist status, bearing his signature and rank.  These papers, stating his birthplace as Warsaw, were officially registered in the courts and this also protected them from being forced to return to Vilna where he would have been drafted to fight with the Russian army.  The official name change also helped protect him from the antisemitic outbursts whilst working for a communist newspaper.    And it was Xavier (“Ksawery Piontka” from Warsaw) who married Chayela early that year in this town of Bydgoszcz.   Chayela, had joined the Jewish State Theatre group, and traveled around Poland, and Europe performing for refugees in displaced persons camps. Xavier, with his official Polish uniform and documents, worked on assignment in Wroclaw (Breslau) where Chayela, also performed.

JELENIA GORA – 1945

Xavier also worked in Legnica and in the Autumn of 1945, was transferred to Hirschberg, Jelenia Gora – a beautiful tourist destination town at the foot of Snieszka Mountain, near Cieplice (meaning Warmbath), which had a spa/health sanatorium, where he was treated with hot mud baths and physiotherapy for his painful back.    Xavier soon became editor of the local communist newspaper there,  Trybuna Dolnoslaska.  He could finally afford to buy a three roomed apartment, a car, a piano, radio, heaters, electric kitchen appliances, Encyclopedia Brittanica and could afford a housemaid for cleaning.   

Mary, now married to Vilna born actor, Meilach Karpinowitz, also came to live in the same apartment building as Xavier and Chayela in Jelena Gore.  The Germans, now forced to wear white armbands, were forced to leave the town and many old Vilna Jews and other groups of Jews mingled and established communities  before leaving for Palestine or other destinations. Xavier, through his work, had made border authority and police contacts that assisted him in helping friends like Hillel Saidel, later a member of the Israeli Parliament, Ted Szeres, a partisan from the Vilna ghetto and forests and Israel Bekker, a theatre director, leave the country, illegally, heading for Palestine.    

The famous American Yiddish film actress, Molly Picon visited Poland in 1946 and saw Chayela on stage in the play “Grine Felde“. Recognizing Chayela’s talent, Molly promised to help her get out of Poland. Soon Chayela was invited to travel to Warsaw to meet the famous impressario, Sol Hurok. Molly had organized official letters that Xavier could take to the American Embassy and a military plane was arranged to transport Chayela and Xavier to Warsaw where Chayela performed ghetto songs for the audience of Sol Hurok, his secretary and American Ambassador and other dignitaries from the American Joint Committee officials. The successful reception led to secure the relevant papers and official passports to allow Xavier and Chayela to legally go to Paris, France. Though safe passage was granted, it still needed to appear as if they would be returning to Poland.   So, contacting his journalist friends in Warsaw,  Xavier explained that he was going to search  for his mother in France and convinced them that he should serve the Polish Press Agency by reporting on the forthcoming UNESCO conference in Paris – thus securing a legitimate reason for ‘temporarily’ leaving Poland.   And so, leaving all his newly acquired many expensive possessions notorised as bequeathed to his sister-in-law, Mary, including the piano, Xavier and Chayela left Poland….. for “two weeks”. Xavier, with two suitcases of clothes, a camera and his typewriter…. and Chayela travelling on the same train using the papers that permitted her to leave in order to fulfill her new performing contract in Paris.

PARIS 1948 – 1951

Once in Paris, Xavier was able to remain there legitimately with the help of an old school friend from Vilna he met at the Polish Embassy. Pavel Krubitsch, helped secure a job for Xavier as a cultural reporter for the Polish Daily publication, “Gazeta Polska”  which was sponsored by the government, printed by the Imprimerie Richards in Bellevue, and owned by a Jewish immigrant from Lodz.  

CHAYELA IN THEATRE

In Paris, Chayela first performed in the Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique, and as a member of the local Jewish Theatre group, toured Germany and Europe, performing in the Jewish Displaced Persons camps with Sheftel Zak and others. Chayela landed a long nightly contract in the Jewish Nightclub, “Habibi” and was soon performing on French TV with Edith Piaf, in theatre with Danny Kaye, Dave Cash and on radio too.  When Chayela was away on tour, or entertaining at night, Xavier earned extra money as an English speaking tourist guide for foreigners.  In 1948, Chayela performed in Israel, visiting her sister who had moved there. 

1950 – SOUTH AFRICA

 In 1950,  Chayela was engaged by African Consolidated Theatres’ agent, Sarah Sylvia, to perform a season of Yiddish Theatre in South Africa.   A month later, Chayela returned from the tour, raving about the beauty of Cape Town and its friendly people, and assured Xavier she could arrange a job for him in South Africa, insisting they should move there. And so, they packed their bags and left, for London to visit Xavier’s cousins along the way, before boarding “The Bloemfontein Castle” ship for South Africa. Ready to start their new life in the beautiful paradise that was Cape Town, where the jewish Mayoress Gradner secured a job for Xavier as a printer for The Cape Times daily newspaper.   

WORK IN CAPE TOWN

When I arrived with my wife in Cape Town, in May of 1951, I was greeted by kind Jewish families, hosted, taken for drives, shown scenery, was introduced to others, and given work. I found myself not treated as an unnecessary burden of refugee status like a displaced object. A feeling of great thankfulness overcame me and I gave myself a word of honour, a promise to do what I could to be worth the confidence given to me on my arrival.”     

It was hard starting over with nothing, but Xavier was not afraid of hard work. During the days, he worked as a salesman for a printing shop in Parow, Premier Printing, owned by Israel Krupenia, a Vilna Landsman. He was also entering names and phone numbers for a Telephone Directory, but he needed more stimulation and more money. At night he worked as a linotype operator at the local Afrikaans newspaper, and on Saturdays from 5am – 2pm, did bookkeeping for a butcher shop in District Six. In the extra hours, he did fish deliveries on weekends and was sometime a tour guide for the Russian whalers docking in port.

Xavier also went to night school at the Cape Technion to learn the Afrikaans language, after which he approached the editor of the Afrikaans newspaper, “Die Burger” to consider further employment as a journalist. Xavier excelled at print layout and soon became editor of “Die Jongspan” the children’s supplement to Die Burger. Longing to return to real journalism in English too, he presented his World Union and French Union Journalist cards to the editor of the “The Cape Times” newspaper, pleading with him to get him work as a journalist. By July he had his first major article about Bastille Day, appearing on the front page of “The Cape Times” newspaper. He also soon became the leading columnist on Philately in “The Cape Argus” newspaper. After a few years Xavier started his own one-man Advertising agency, Piat Promotions, while still writing articles on various topics for newspapers and doing entertainment industry ( stage and film) reviews. Xavier’s successful publicity work in promoting Danny Kaye’s visit to Cape Town, and his expertise in the marketing and entertainment management field, led to many contracts with African Consolidated Theatre Group and with other entertainment industry clients and, through John Clark, sales promotion and marketing contracts with cinemas and film groups too. During the time of Apartheid, Xavier also helped to bring the performers of Colour into the starlight with “The Eon Group“, “African Follies” and more.

FAMILY LIFE

At first, Xavier and Chayela lived in Bellville, then Vredehoek, where their daughters were born. Naava (Naomi Vivian) was born in 1952. Within a few years Xavier moved his family to the desirable seaside suburb of Sea Point where their second daughter, Zola (Zahava Lona) was born in 1959. His daughters were his greatest joy and he was a very devoted and engaging father. Alongside his parenting duties, various professional careers and hobbies, he also managed the performing career of his wife. By 1963 Xavier was able to buy his first house in Fresnaye.

CONTRIBUTION TO JEWISH LIFE IN SOUTH AFRICA

In keeping his promise to be of service to his friends and community he quickly became known and respected for his journalism through weekly publications of his philatelic “Stamp Column” and other regular articles published in the South African local newspapers, as well as his theatre and film reviews. Through his work with “Piat Promotions“, his Advertising Agency, he regularly promoted many local Jewish owned businesses in many publications. He was also managing editor of the “South African Jewish Timesnewspaper. He became a beloved private coach to prospective stamp collectors of all ages. He was involved in founding the award winning and internationally recognised “Cape Society for Palestine and Israel Philately” (CASPIP) organisation and was the editor of its monthly newspaper. For many years, Xavier wrote the popular weekly columns about stamps in the daily newspapers. He also founded the Africa Friendship Club, a pen-pal organization that united people from all over the world who would share stories about their countries and exchange stamps. Xavier spent many years as an active member and secretary of Cape Town’s Bnai Brith Bar Kochba lodge and as editor of its quarterly news bulletin, travelling to world congresses and later becoming National Vice President of the organization.   As one of the founders, and a life-long devoted member of the She’erith Hapletha, – a group where Holocaust survivors regularly came together to share their stories, get support and more, formed in 1952, – Xavier and his wife hosted many of these gatherings and educational events in their home. His suggestion to erect a Holocaust memorial monument in the Cape Town Jewish cemetery, and his fundraising efforts resulted in the installation of such in 1990. Realizing the importance of recording history so no one forgets the holocaust, Xavier conceived the idea to record the holocaust testimonials of the local survivors and his perseverance on this project, with the help of Myra Osrin, resulted in the printing and release of the book “IN SACRED MEMORY”, edited by Gwynne Schrire. in 1995. Xavier was an integral contributing part of creating, and was an honorable member of, the internationally highly respected Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre opened just a few years before he passed away in 1998. For many years, around The Day of Remembrance (Yom Ha Shoah), Xavier wrote and published articles about the Holocaust in the local newspapers, to keep the memories alive and the lessons of evil remembered.

A NEW LIFE WELL LIVED

Xavier was a people’s person. He loved and was fascinated by people’s life stories. He befriended everyone and treated them all as equals. Whether a Dr or Professor, or deliveryman or a homeless beggar in the street, all were greeted and treated the same. With respect, tolerance, interest and kindness. People were always welcome in his home to dine, stay over, party… gay, straight, transgender, black, white, coloured – local and foreign! He always made time to help and support others in need, emotionally and financially, friends, family, organizations and strangers.

Despite the recurring and often debilitating back pain resulting from Nazi beatings, Xavier was still able to enjoy his favourite pleasures of spending time in the sun, on the beach and swimming in the ocean, doing light mountain walks, rescuing birds, playing with his dogs and visiting his children and grandchildren in the USA in his later years.

He survived heart bypass surgery in his 60’s and, at age 79, not long after his brain surgery following a stroke, he traveled to Boston, USA for one last time where he attended a few more summer courses at Harvard University, completed writing and sharing his memoirs and spent quality time with his children and grandchildren. He passed away on a sunny Saturday morning, 25th July, 1998, in his daughter’s pretty garden by the pool – his favourite place to be.

FORGIVE – BUT DON’T FORGET

When asked about how he felt about the Germans after everything he went through, after surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, he would say: “Forgive, but don’t forget!”

I don’t hate anyone, not even those who hurt me. I see how hate is the evil cause of so much pain and anti-Semtism and cruelty to so many“- Xavier taught his children to not even use the word “hate”. He had come to understand that ultimately, one is better off letting go of hate, and desire for vengeance. Revenge, he had seen, was merely the seed of more violence and the cause of more agony. Forgiveness, coming from compassion and profound awareness, paved the way to true freedom. “People must still be held accountable for their wrongdoings,” he would say. “Don’t get me wrong. It does not mean I condone the evil that was done to me and to others. No! What I am saying is, if we can, if we are able, we must forgive. It only hurts us more to hold onto past grievances. Better to put the pain of the past away, and work to make a better future.” 

“I am thankful that I was given my years and years of life to give service to others…. to help others…. and that is very important to me. …That I was loved and was able to give love.”

THE DEATH OF XAVIER’S PARENTS

Xavier learned that his mother, Vava ( Vasa/ Basya), who was living in Paris at the time the war started, had lived for a while on false papers as a non-Jewish White Russian woman, helped by Russians she had befriended. She joined underground movements and helped Jewish families but was one day caught by the French Police and shipped to Auschwitz, where she was immediately sent to the gas chambers and killed. In 1985 Xavier received a letter from the Klarsfeld Foundation stating: “Vasa Sor, born February 28, 1897, in Kronstadt, was deported from France on convoy sixty-nine on March 7, 1944. The convoy of 689 women, 812 men, and 178 children was sent to Auschwitz. One hundred and ten men and about eighty women were selected for work. The rest were gassed on arrival. Only fourteen women survived at the end of the war.” In 1943, Vava had joined underground movements that helped Jewish families but was eventually caught by the French Police and shipped to Auschwitz, where she was immediately sent to the gas chambers and killed.

Xavier also learned later that his father, Zacharias, had died in Panemunde Camp, near Königsberg. Xavier’s step-mother, Rachel Tunkel was also killed in the camps. When telling his life stories, Xavier wept as he lamented that his daughters never “got to know or feel the love of their grandparents…

EXTENDED FAMILY…

Xavier’s great-grandmother was Gitl, and married to Zacharye-Matys Yutan/Jutan, who had struck a deal with the police chief to register his twelve sons under different surnames, taking advantage of the law stating that if a family had only one son, he would not be eligible for military conscription. Thus, he saved his boys, including Xavier’s grandfather, Reuven (Wolf-Reuben), from the certain cruel fate of being a tormented Jew in the Tzar’s rigorous army. Most of Reuven’s younger brothers immigrated to different parts of the world, taking their surnames of Jutan, Utin, Utan, Yutan, Levy, Cohan, Cohen, Kaufman, and Katzeff with them. The majority of others and their families were killed by the Nazis.

PUBLICATIONS

Xavier’s life stories, war recollections, poems and educational articles were published in numerous publications, including in the books of Sir Martin Gilbert and he can be heard given over six and a half hours of testimony in Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation film archives. These can be viewed below. Over the years Xavier shared all his memoirs with his children, many of which are included in the book “NO GOODBYES – A Father Daughter Memoir of Love, War and Resurrection”, written by Naava Piatka.

XAVIER TELLS HIS LIFE STORY ON VIDEO

Click on each of these four videos below to see and hear Xavier talk about his life stories and experiences.

PHOTOS

For additional photos / press releases/ documents to those below, please visit : https://chayela.weebly.com/xavier-piatka

Click on any photo to enlarge image or text.

For more photos please click here to visit : https://chayela.weebly.com/xavier-piatka

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LINKS to other References and Writings about Xavier Piatka

https://www.capesajbd.org/yom-hashoah-vehagevurah-a-history/

https://www.ctholocaust.co.za/survivor-testimony/xavier-piatka/

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