Life was not kind to Baruch "Boris" Dorfman, a blind retired produce vendor who died this month at his home in Holon, aged 98. Two tragedies of his youth followed him to the end of his days and doomed him to a life filled with suffering, although he rarely let it show. “I’m not complaining, I’m just relating facts. What can you do — to each his own luck,” he said a few years ago.
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Baruch Dorfman was born in Sierpc, a town in central Poland, in 1918. He was one of eight children — four boys and four girls — born to Esther and Mendel Dorfman, who worked together as butchers in a local shop. Sierpc’s Jewish residents — in the interwar period there were around 3,000, about one-third of the total — called the town Sheps. “Many years have passed, but I’ll never forget the place where I was born. A person doesn’t forget the country, the city, the street and the number of the house where he was born,” Dorfman said.
In particular he remembered the river that traversed the city, where he used to go wading; the soccer field, where Jews and Poles played together, and the movie theater where he saw films. A sweet childhood memory that survived was the sight of his father returning home from the sweet shop dangling bags of candy from his fingers, one for each child.
He didn’t experience much anti-Semitism as a child. “Once in a while a rock was thrown at the window of a house, but we weren’t afraid to walk down the street. It wasn’t as bad as it was in the big cities.”
In 1939, soon after the outbreak of World War II, the Germans invaded Sierpc. Dorfman, who was 21 at the time, fled eastward. He never saw his parents and siblings again. “The Germans killed them all. Only I survived,” he said. “They likely died in the Warsaw Ghetto, probably of starvation,” he wrote in the pages of testimony he submitted to Yad Vashem in their memory.
He spent the war years in Russia, working as a woodchopper and as an apprentice barber. “I survived the war starving and cold, barefoot, naked and alone,” he later recounted, “but I came out of it okay physically,” he added emphatically. After the war he returned to Poland, hoping to find his family. “I came back to the shtetl. I knocked on the door of my home. Somebody asked what I wanted. I told him I just wanted to look at the walls of my family home,” he said. “I met other Jews like me who were searching for their families but found nothing.”
But bitter fate wasn’t done with him yet. On his way to another city, Dorfman decided to get off the train at Kielce and join a training kibbutz nearby. “Someone said that in two or three weeks we could immigrate to Palestine,” he explained. But just a week later, on July 4, 1946, Dorfman was caught up in a pogrom, carried out by a Polish mob in tandem with army and police forces, against a group of Holocaust survivors staying at 7 Planty Street in the city. Around 40 Jews were murdered and about 80 were injured in the violence.
“A crowd began to gather around the building, shouting that the Jews had kidnapped a Polish boy,” said Dorfman, describing the blood libel that was the pretext for the pogrom. “And then someone shouted, ‘Jew!,’ and the mob attacked me. They beat me and kicked me. Someone threw a rock at my face, I was beaten in the head, and I fell to the ground,” he added in an interview for the new Polish documentary about the Kielce pogrom, “Bogdan’s Journey.”
Dorfman’s attackers gouged out one of his eyes and seriously injured the other. “I didn’t lose consciousness. I heard one of the people loading his rifle and saying he wanted to shoot me. But someone else shouted that it was a shame to waste the bullet, since I was going to die anyway. I’d survived the war, but they broke me completely,” he later said.
This summer marked the 70th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom, one of the most traumatic events in the history of Polish Jewry. It spurred many Polish Holocaust survivors to leave the country, and remains a black spot for Poland to this day. Despite all the time that has passed, the question of responsibility for the pogrom continues to divide Polish society. In rightist circles, various conspiracy theories are touted, including one that says the Russian secret police, which operated in Soviet-occupied Poland, was behind the pogrom. Others assert that “the Jews did it to themselves.”
“This tragedy unfolded after World War II, after the atrocious experience of the Holocaust. It happened in a country which had a new power installed in it: the Communist regime,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said this summer in a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the event. “This is also a social problem, involving more than the complicity of the military and the policemen who were staging the attack here. Also ordinary people were involved in the attack. ... I leave it down to historians and sociologists to determine how it happened and why it happened, why people reacted in this particular way,” he also said in his remarks. “This story is complex. Poles have different views about it. There was a different historical and political backdrop then,” said Polish Education Minister Anna Zalewska.
Respected historians, however, say that the pogrom was carried out by anti-Semitic Poles who feared that the Jews would come back to their homes and demand the return of their stolen property; they also accused the Jews of collaborating with the hated Soviet regime. “It was an era of anti-Semitism among some groups in Poland. Wherever you went, you could find people who would beat Jews. There was hysteria,” said Dorfman. “I’m sure that today, the man who hit me with a rock would be ashamed of his actions. I’m sure of it,” he said. Another survivor of the pogrom, Miriam Mechtinger Guterman, who died in 2014, once said: “I thanked God that my parents were killed in the gas chambers and not by this vicious mob.”
Dorfman was eventually put on a truck and taken to the hospital, where he spent a year under the care of the Russian staff. When he was finally released, blind in one eye and with very limited vision in the other, he moved to Warsaw. There he met Yaakov and Luba Zilberberg, also Holocaust survivors who were trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. Yaakov had been in the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. His wrenching story was told in Gideon Greif’s book “We Wept without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz.” Luba lost an eye at the end of the war, when the Allies bombed a cargo train on which she was being transported to Germany. The Zilberbergs became Dorfman’s new family. When Israel was founded, Dorfman immigrated. He settled in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, where he was able to buy an affordable apartment thanks to his membership in the Progressive Party. The Zilberbergs followed him to Holon some time later.
Dorfman continued to work as a greengrocer until 1977, after which he became completely blind and isolated himself at home. Itzu Zilberberg, Yaakov and Luba’s son, looked after him after the deaths of Luba and Yaakov. The son saw to it that Dorfman, in his final years, received aid from the state that allowed him to hire Beverly, a Filipina caregiver. It wasn’t easy, but she managed to win his trust, and was beside him in his final moments.
Despite his hard life, Dorfman was not bitter. He did not harbor resentment or feel sorry for himself. “I don’t waste time on things. Whatever you’ve got — that’s good. If there’s bread, you eat bread. If there’s cake, you have a piece of cake,” he said not long before he died.
On his 94th birthday, a group of Polish high school students from Kielce visited him at his home. The encounter was filmed for a Polish documentary called “Shtetls.” “You ask me if I hate Poles? The thought never crossed my mind. Never, never,” he said in tears.
“He didn’t mourn the life he had, but he did feel sorry that he decided to get off the train at the Kielce station,” said Itzu Zilberberg.