In July 1944, after the Soviets liberated the small, east Polish town of Sokal, my grandparents left the pigsty where they had spent the previous 20 months hiding and walked home. Strange as it sounds today, at the time, they said, it was the most natural thing to do.
Their house was a few kilometers away and, fortunately, it was empty and still habitable despite having been ransacked in their absence. They remained there for about a year, by which time it had become painfully clear that this was not a place where they could rebuild their broken lives. Wherever they turned, memories of friends, neighbors and loved ones who were no longer alive would haunt them. And although barely a handful of Jews had survived, anti-Semitism was still strong among the local population – by then overwhelmingly Ukrainian.
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During the course of that year, my grandparents’ modest home would double up as the hub of what was left of the Jewish community. It was often the first stop on the way back to civilization for Jews emerging from the outlying forests, underground bunkers and other hideouts – the place they came for their first hot meal after the war (made with products my grandparents had grabbed from the abandoned Gestapo warehouse nearby), and to find out what had become of their loved ones and who else had survived. More often than not, the news they received was devastating.
For those who couldn’t make it there physically, my grandfather, Moshe Maltz, offered his services in writing.
He would visit the local post office regularly to gather letters addressed to the Jews in town because, as he once explained, the local mailman couldn’t be bothered to extend his services to Jews. When there was no one left alive to receive these letters, my grandfather would open them and respond himself.
In the diary he kept during that period, he describes a particularly memorable letter he found. It was written by a Jewish survivor of Sokal who had since been drafted into the Red Army. This was the address that appeared on the envelope: “Any Jew Who Has Survived.”
“I had to write him that his whole family is gone,” my grandfather recounted in his diary. “He wrote in reply, ‘Tell the murderers that I will return and make them pay for killing my family.’”
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Some 6,000 Jews lived in Sokal on the eve of World War II. Only about 30 survived. Located on the Bug River, Sokal is some 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Lviv, part of a region once known as Eastern Galicia. (At the time, it fell within the jurisdiction of Poland; today, it is part of Ukraine.)
Before the war, Jews accounted for about one-third of Sokal’s population, which was typical of many of the small towns – or shtetls – in the region.
The survivors dispersed around the globe. Some went to the United States, others to Israel, still others to Australia. In at least one case, a survivor ended up in Cuba. Not a single Jew remained in the town by the late 1940s.
But today, thanks to the internet, the Jewish community of Sokal is enjoying a revival of sorts.
Our recently created Facebook group, Jews Who Come From Sokal, has more than 50 members and is steadily growing. They include actual survivors from Sokal (to the best of our knowledge, four are still alive), their children and grandchildren, as well as descendants of Jewish families fortunate enough to have left Sokal before the war. Some of us have had the opportunity to visit the town (which only became possible in recent decades, after the fall of the Soviet empire), but most have never stepped foot there.
This online community has provided us with a place to exchange information about victims and survivors of the Holocaust, figure out if and how we’re related, and share our personal connections to a tiny town that over the course of the past 100 years has switched hands at least four times.
It has also provided a forum for sharing photos discovered in old family albums, in the hope of perhaps finally figuring out the names of the people in them and what became of them.
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Our online community was created two years ago, but the idea took root well before then. It was about 13 years ago that I began working on a documentary film about Franciszka Halamajowa – the Polish-Catholic woman who saved 15 Jews in Sokal, including eight members of my own family (among them my grandparents and father). The name of the movie was “No. 4 Street of Our Lady,” and as soon as my filmmaking partners and I began production work, we set up a website that tracked our progress and helped with fundraising. It soon became clear that anyone in the world who was interested in finding out information about Sokal, specifically its Jewish community, would land on this (now defunct) website through a quick Google search.
That’s how I initially made the acquaintance of Alan Charak from Sydney, Australia. Alan contacted me because his father, then still alive, had come from Sokal and Alan was seeking advice on planning a family trip there, having learned from the website that I had already been. Through our email correspondence, I learned that Alan’s father had worked with my great-uncle at the local train station during the Nazi occupation. Alan’s father, who had been a teenager at the time, recalled my great-uncle being very kind to him. I’ve been in touch with the Charaks off and on ever since, and last year finally had the opportunity to meet several members of the family in person.
Over the years, I’d find myself receiving more and more inquiries from people who were interested in some aspect or other of the Jewish community of Sokal. Some were seeking information on a particular person or family. Occasionally, thanks to my grandfather’s diary, I was able to be of assistance. Some would turn out to be long-lost relatives.
My growing network of Sokal landsmen would eventually include a world-famous journalist – Max Frankel, the former executive editor of The New York Times, whose mother’s family had come from the town. In an email exchange, he wrote that he had a vivid recollection of visiting Sokal when he was 6 years old.
It would also include Sharon Scharff Greenwald, who has become a lifelong friend even though I don’t get to see her often. I met Sharon for the first time when she picked me up at the airport in San Antonio, Texas, where I was to present my film at the local Jewish film festival. Her late mother had come from Sokal, too – the only one of eight children to survive.
I found I was becoming the go-to person for anyone interested in Sokal. In some strange way, it felt like I was picking up where my grandfather left off. Unfortunately, unlike him, my knowledge was very limited. I had not lived in Sokal during the war; I had no personal connection to most of the people I was being asked about; and, in many cases, I had no one to ask. A Facebook group, I realized, could provide an ideal space for collecting and sharing such information.
I began by adding everyone I knew with a Sokal connection. As word has spread, so have the number of requests to join the group (which is private).
Out of curiosity, I recently asked some of our members what triggered their interest in joining. Daniel Abraham, who lives in Brooklyn, said he hoped “to maybe establish some connection with the world that my grandparents knew, then fled a long time ago, and that my mother, who was only 3 years old when she last saw Sokal, and had little if any nostalgia for her past life yet always had a certain gleam in her eyes when she said the word ‘Sokal.’” Daniel has channeled his passion for his family history and this little town into a dedicated webpage.
Marcus Tell, an Israeli filmmaker based in Berlin, is about to complete a documentary inspired by his grandfather’s life story. His grandfather, Mordecai Shechter, who came from Sokal, managed to board a ship bound for Palestine a year before the outbreak of World War II.
Tell, who traveled to Sokal last summer to shoot the opening scene, said he joined the Facebook group “to get a wider perspective of the town before my visit there.”
Marty Lester’s great-grandfather left Sokal in 1900 for the United States, where he settled in Cleveland. All the family members left behind, aside from one – who happens to be our common cousin – were murdered during the Holocaust. Our online community, he writes, “helps create living history and is a microcosm of what is, was and could have been for so many of the small towns of Eastern Europe.”
Vered Dayan’s paternal grandparents were born and raised in Sokal. She only learned about their origins recently when her father, a child survivor from Belgium, started writing his family history. “I found everything in his story compelling and have since become addicted to genealogy, trying to find every piece of information about Sokal and its Jewish community,” writes the Israeli-based translator, whom I met at a genealogy conference. “Maybe it’s an attempt to fill a void after many years of silence.”
Sarah Pine Yastrab, the granddaughter of a Sokal survivor, grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and now lives in Woodmere, New York. Her response captures a sentiment that often comes through in my conversations with other second- and third-generation survivors.
“Growing up, Sokal wasn’t just a place, it was a concept,” she writes. “We would hear my grandfather’s stories around the Shabbat table, and though we could peek into his life before and during the war, we could never visit there. His memories of Sokal were the bitterest and the sweetest. He tried to describe the sights, the smells, the sounds and, mostly, the people, that were forever lost.
“The beauty of connecting with others who have come from that place,” she adds, “is becoming aware that what might have seemed to us like a fairy tale was in fact reality.”