Home Shtetl Life Holocaust Landsmanshaftn History Photos Videos
Maps Trips Surnames Researchers Links Guest Book Contact

Kansas City Jewish Chronicle:
Last Jewish Witness to 1941 Massacre in Radzilow

Written by: Deborah Klee, Staff Writer, KCJC; Copyright Permission Granted By Rick Hellman, Editor, KCJC

Sole Survivor: KC Woman is Last Jewish Witness
To 1941 Massacre in Poland

- - - - - - - - - - - -

By: Deborah Klee

Kansas City Jewish Chronicle

Ann Walters (born Chana Finkielsztejn), passed away December 16, 2009.

Chana Finkelstein (Ann Walters)
as a child in Radzilow, Poland, 1937-38.
She was seven years old at the time
of the massacre in Radzilow in 1941.

       

"We heard the shots, and we saw that the barn was burning, so we started running," said Kansas Citian Ann Walters of the pogrom in her hometown of Radzilow, Poland. "We saw the smoke and heard the screams. It's impossible to describe those moments."


On July 7, 1941, 500 Jews - men, women and children - of the town of Radzilow were rounded up, locked in a barn, then burned or shot to death by fellow Poles. By the end of the day, 300 more would be murdered.

It is for such moments that the terms Shoah and Holocaust were coined.

Walters, who has been living in Kansas City since 1957, is now the sole survivor of the Radzilow massacre - which took the lives of every Jew in Radzilow save eight - Walters's family of six and Mojzez Dorogoj and his son, Akiwa, who were murdered when they returned to Radzilow after the war. Before the massacre, Jews had comprised about half the population of the rural town.

Radzilow is about nine miles north of the town made infamous in Jan Gross's 2001 book, "Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland." What happened in Jedwabne had happened in Radzilow three days earlier.

Seven-year-old Chana Finkelstein, as Ann Walters was known then, along with her parents, Israel and Chaya Finkelstein, and siblings, Menachem, 18, Yaffa, 13, and Sholemki, 9, escaped the carnage in Radzilow by hiding in a nearby wheat field.

As in Jedwabne, the slaughter was done entirely by Poles, not Germans, according to the testimony of Menachem Finkelstein, taken by the Jewish Historical Commission four years after the event. (The full text can be read in the Holocaust section of the Web site www.radzilow.com.)

By mid-1941, Hitler had already taken over much of Poland, but he had not yet deported the majority of its Jews to concentration camps. But the area had a history of anti-Semitic pogroms, and they were a renewed threat with the Nazi anschluss.

"At midday, a lot of Poles from the neighboring town of Wasosz came to Radzilow," wrote Finkelstein. "It was immediately known that those who came had previously killed in a horrible manner ... not sparing even women or little children. A horrible panic broke out. People understood that this was a tragic signal of destruction. Immediately all the Jews, from little children to old men, fled the town for neighboring fields and forests. No Christian let any Jew into his house or offered any help. Our family also ran in the fields and when it got dark, we hid in a field of wheat."

"On the day of the burning," recalls his youngest sister almost 60 years later, "we ran out of Radzilow. We really didn't trust anyone at the time."

The Finkelsteins' survival was aided by two things: the father's business contacts from the flour mill he owned and the family's feigned conversion to Catholicism.

"My parents promised the Poles that if we all survived, they would get paid," said Walters. And in the meantime her mother had had the foresight to stock up on fabric - hard to come by during the war - which was used to help purchase the family's safety.

"My mother was a force to be reckoned with," said Walters, smiling. "My mother would make a plan, and my father would execute the plan. They were quite a team."

Even so, the Finkelsteins had to keep moving, from family to family and place to place, because of the extreme danger involved in harboring Jews.


'Sweet Childhood'

The Finkelsteins stayed in hiding for more than 40 months after the burning of the barn. During that time, Walters said, her mother would often hold her and tell her stories. The Finkelsteins were ardent Zionists.

"She would tell me the history of the Jewish people," recalled Walters. "If I would be the only who survived, I should know who I am and go to a Jewish community and to strive to get to Palestine."

The Jewish population of Radzilow was one with long roots - the beit midrash had existed for more than 500 years, according to Chaya's testimony, on file with Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to and documentary center of the Holocaust.

Chaya and Israel Finkelstein were among the founders of a Zionist organization in Radzilow in 1917. In the poor, rural town, they created a library of 500 books, opened a reading hall with Zionist newspapers and journals, learned Hebrew and arranged for immigration to Israel. The next year, when the Poles regained independence - during World War I Russia fought Austria and Germany, often on Polish territory - the library was destroyed by the Polish military. Oppression was bad enough that many Jews emigrated to Israel or to South America.

Radzilow experienced its own in 1933 with beatings, lootings and not one window in a Jewish home remaining unbroken.

Yet Jewish life went on.

"I had a very sweet childhood," said Walters. "I was the youngest of four, and they tell me I was cute. Everybody was pampering me and played with me."

But her playmates were all Jews.

"The Poles didn't like Jewish kids," she said. The only non-Jews she knew were in public school, where the classes were mixed. Afternoons she also attended a Hebrew school that her parents had been instrumental in establishing.

When Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Russian-controlled sector of Poland in 1941, disorder increased and the situation for Jews worsened, culminating in the massacre of July 7.

"I grew up pretty fast," said Walters, whose family remained in hiding for nearly four years after the day of the burning barn and the liquidation of Radzilow's Jews.

"My mother remembers all this in amazing detail," said Dr. Giselle Wildman, Walters' daughter who lives in Overland Park with her husband, Dr. John Fasbinder, and her son, Alex Wildman. "She said that things that happen on her own skin she remembers vividly."


Net of Memory

Anna Bikont, a journalist on the staff of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's most widely circulated newspaper, is writing a book chronicling what happened in Radzilow. She visited Kansas City last month to interview the sole survivor.

Bikont didn't find out until she was 30 that her own mother had been born Jewish and had converted to Christianity years before in order to protect the family. After reading Jan Gross's book, "Neighbors," Bikont felt personally involved and started researching Radzilow.

Ann Walters reviews some of her
memorabilia relating to Radzilow.
Photo by Bob Johnson.

       

Bikont spent three days with Walters, poring over photos and reliving memories.

One might say the meeting came about as the result of the Internet.

In January this year, Dr. Wildman did a search for Radzilow on the World Wide Web.

"I was thinking, 'Maybe there's some family out there who survived by chance,' " she said.

"Then I came upon this Web site, and my jaw dropped. My mother's family's picture was there, and my mother's picture was there."

The Web site, www.radzilow.com, was created and is maintained by Jose Gutstein, a Miami lawyer whose family moved from Radzilow to Cuba in the 1920s. It features extensive articles, photos and testimonies of the people of Radzilow, including those of Chaya Finkelstein and Menachem Finkelstein. Gutstein is also in the process of translating a book by Chaya from Yiddish into English.

After Wildman contacted him, Gutstein connected the journalist, who had previously contacted him, with the survivor.

When Bikont left, said Dr. Wildman, her mother was in tears.

"For the first time someone really, really listened to her story," she explained. "There are even some people who say my mother's not a Holocaust survivor because she didn't go to the camps."


Escape From Poland

After the Nazis were defeated, in 1945 the Finkelsteins finally escaped from Poland. Because the British, who then ruled Palestine, forbade Jews from going to Eretz Yisrael, the family went to Selvino, Italy. Chana and Sholemki, the youngest two, stayed in a camp for children. Menachem and Yaffa, then teen-agers, worked with Youth Aliyah Bet - an underground movement to get Jewish children to Palestine. Parents Chaya and Israel were able to enter Palestine, in 1946, and began preparing a home in Rehovot in anticipation of their children being able to make it, as well.

When Chana was 12, she and her brother, along with hundreds of other illegal immigrants, boarded a boat bound for Palestine. The craft was intercepted by the British just off the coast. The children attempted to fight off the British with sticks, stones and bottles, to no avail.

"They took us to the camps at Cyprus," Walters said.

While there, Chana and Sholemki continued their studies with madrichim, teen-aged teachers travelling with the children who kept them in order and taught them Jewish history, general studies and Hebrew.

They wound up in pre-state Israel as the result of what Walters called "a human touch from the British."

"Kids who had parents in Israel, they allowed the kids to join their parents in Israel," she said.

Eventually, the older two children joined them as well, and the family's life approached something close to normalcy - school, home, father working in a flour mill.

In 1948, Israel's war for independence broke out. By then Menachem was in Switzerland, studying to be an architect. Sholemki became a soldier and was killed in a battle during the War of Independence.

Later, after high school, Chana joined the Israeli army for two years, rising to the rank of sergeant. Then, a few years later, she met Kansas Citian Sam Walters, who was in Israel to visit his brother, Harry. Harry Walters, a Polish-born landsman then living in Israel, was a business partner of Chana's brother, Menachem. Harry and Anne married and moved to Kansas City in 1957; a few years ago they divorced.

The descendants of Israel and Chaya Finkelstein now number 19. One of their great-grandsons, 12-year-old Alex Wildman - son of Dr. Wildman and grandson of Walters - is a sixth-grader at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy.

Dr. Wildman said she was an inquisitive child and learned her mother's life story as she grew. ("I would never have burdened her with it," said Walters.)

At the end of the Chronicle interview, Dr. Wildman turned to her mother and asked, "Do you think it could happen again?"

Walters was quiet.

"I hate to think," she said at last, "but I wouldn't rule it out. I wouldn't rule it out. We have to be vigilant," she added, "and not wait until things start to happen before we recognize what's happening and what we need to do."

Copyright 2002  

Radzilow, 1937-38
Chana's siblings
[L-R]: Sholem, Menachem and
Yaffa Finkielsztejn

Radzilow Hebrew School,
late 1930's
Chana Finkielsztejn is in the front row, 2nd from left
Sholem and Yaffa are also in
the photo (need to be identified)

Marriage Photo, 1921
Chaya and Yisrael Finkielsztejn

Finkielsztejn Family
Upon arrival in Israel, 1946
Bottom row [L-R]: Yisrael Finkielsztejn, wife Chaya (nee Wasersztejn) Finkielsztejn
and eldest son Menachem
Top row [L-R]: Chana,
Sholem, Yaffa

Return to Holocaust Section; Return to Radzilovers, Part 3; Part 15; Return to Landsmen in Israel