Leslie Listwa of East Brunswick, the son of Holocaust survivors, has made it his life’s mission to educate others about the scars left on its victims.
“What we need is for the next generation to carry the scar,” said Listwa, a board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and East Brunswick Jewish Center. “A scar reminds you about the wounds of the past. We should not let that scar fade. We should wear it proudly.”
With that mission in mind, Listwa recently went to Poland as part of a team leading young people from New England on the March of the Living, which brings students to Poland and Israel to study the history and lessons of the Holocaust.
What made it an even more poignant experience was traveling with his father back to Auschwitz, where 87-year-old Siegmund Listwa was an inmate and where other family members died.
In the week-long stay in Poland, father and son went with the teens to death and labor camps, killing fields, and mass graves in Majdanek, Belzec, Plaszow, and Zbilitowski.
Particularly moving were stops at Auschwitz — where Siegmund spoke to the teens in front of a cattle car like the one used to transport him and his family to the camp — and at Block One, where he was interned in harsh surroundings and suffered beatings.
The group also visited sites of former yeshivas and synagogues, including the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva and Ramuh Synagogue.
“It was a beautiful experience to watch the teens bring these holy places back to life with the sound of prayers, singing, and dancing,” said Leslie, who also visited his mother’s hometown of Zamosc.
(The Listwas did not accompany the marchers to Israel.) “I had the opportunity to give a short lecture in front of the synagogue where my grandfather once prayed and tell my mother’s story.”
Marlene Listwa’s family fled to Russia and were sent to a Siberian labor camp, later escaping to Uzbekistan. After the war they returned to Poland before being smuggled into West Germany. They later immigrated to the United States. The older Listwas live in New Haven, Conn.
Siegmund was just 14 in 1940 when he was sent from his hometown of Stanislaw to the Posen concentration camp as a slave laborer and then two years later to Birkenau. From there he and his brother, Bereck, were sent to Auschwitz and were forced on a death march in 1945. They were liberated by American soldiers and came to the United States together. Bereck died last year; the rest of their family died in Birkenau’s gas chambers or in the Lodz Ghetto.
The trip brought the enormity of the persecution and extermination of Poland’s Jews even more into focus for Leslie and produced unforgettable moments.
“For the kids it was a very upsetting experience,” he said. “The beauty of the March of the Living is that it builds Jewish identity by seeing the scope and size of the death camps; seeing the huge ash pots, walking through the showers was very tough. Being a child of survivors on both sides, I had heard the stories, but seeing those smokestacks and chimneys go on and on, I wasn’t prepared for that.”
His father also shared a story from when he was 17 and a slave laborer mining coal. Those who died at night were thrown into the latrine. When the Jewish prisoners would see the bodies, they would reach down and close their eyes. One night Siegmund closed the eyes of a boy his own age, only to have them pop open and stare at him “pleading not to be forgotten.”
“To this day my father is haunted by those eyes,” said Leslie, who added that his father’s stories are “good ones because we’re here to tell them, but there are six million who aren’t here to tell them.”