A Warm Reunion

Friday, August 13, 1999
Staff Writer
Abraham Gordon, a good Jew from Poland, has a favorite Christmas tradition. Each year on Dec. 25 he tells the story of the cast iron stove. It’s a tale with a happy ending — about the family that saved Gordon and his family from the Nazis.On Christmas Eve, 1943, the youngest son in the Ziemczonek family — Catholics who lived on a farm in the part of Poland that became Byelorussia in 1939 — carried the heavy stove to the cave in the forest where the Gordons were hiding. The stove kept young Abraham, his sister and parents alive through the winter.“On Christmas night I’m telling that story,” says Abraham Gordon, now 65, a Sheepshead Bay resident for 31 years. He’s been married for 45 years. “For 45 years,” says his wife, Hada, “I’ve heard that story.”Abraham Gordon, who left his homeland after World War II and settled in Israel in 1948, lost track of the Ziemczonek (pronounced Zem-CHON-ek) family. Nine years old while in hiding, he didn’t remember the heroic family’s name. He didn’t remember exactly where they lived. But he never forgot what they did — and he never stopped wanting to find them.He located the Ziemczoneks this summer.   “My search is over,” says Gordon, a maintenance mechanic at a chocolate factory. He’s talked on the phone to Flerian Ziemczonek, the stove-carrier, who still lives in Belarus, the country’s post-communist name. They have exchanged letters in Russian.And Gordon is nominating the entire family — Bronislav and Stanislava, the parents, and Stanislav, the oldest son, have died — for designation as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem. The Jerusalem-based Holocaust memorial center reserves that honor for non-Jews who risked their lives, without payment, to shelter Jews from the Nazis.“I felt I owed them,” Gordon says in his living room, his voice cracking, showing a visitor family photos sent by Flerian.   “They deserve this.”“They risked everything,” he says.The Gordons entered the Ziemczoneks’ life in November, 1942, when the Nazis liquidated the ghetto in Dunilowicze, a shtetl of a few thousand Jews and Catholics. Abraham hid with his family in the ruins of the ghetto for six days, escaping one night, walking a few hours through dark fields and orchards to the Ziemczonek farm.Jacob Gordon, Abraham’s father, who owned a small grocery store, had “good relations” with Bronislav Ziemczonek, then 60 to 70 years old.   “We knocked on the window,” Abraham Gordon says. Bronislav looked out. “He took us into his barn.”The Gordons remained there a few weeks, while Jacob and Bronislav’s two sons dug out a cave in a hilltop at the edge of a forest a few miles away. Finally, Bronislav led the Jewish family to the cave, to safety.For a half year, members of the Ziemczonek family brought food, clothes and blankets to the hidden Jews.“They did it because they were good people,” Gordon says. “It was not safe.” If a Pole was discovered rescuing Jews, the entire family would be killed.And, in late December, Flerian brought the wood-burning stove. “It was very cold. There was snow above the knees,” Gordon says.A Pole, suspicious, asked Flerian, then 15, what he was doing with the stove.   “I’m going to make some vodka,” the teen explained.The four Ziemczonek children, aware of the penalty for shielding Jews, “didn’t tell anybody” about the four in the cave.In the middle of 1944, Bronislav told the Gordons he had heard that other Jews had escaped to another forest, where they were living in comparative safety under the protection of partisans. He took the family to that forest, hiding them on his horse-drawn cart under piles of hay.In a few months the Russian Army liberated the region.   Moving from Poland to Austria to Italy and finally Israel, the Gordons frequently thought about the family that had saved them. But they could not contact the Ziemczoneks. Byelorussia was part of the Soviet Union, under Communist rule, closed off from the West. “You could not send even a letter,” Gordon says.   When communism crumbled a decade ago, he tried to find the Ziemczonek family. He would ask “every place I used to go to, every time I met somebody” with roots in the area of eastern Poland-western Belarus. No leads.And he wasn’t sure if Ziemczonek was the name of the family or their village. All he knew was the name of their farm — “Haravadka.”Finally, a year ago, Gordon went to a brit, where he got into a conversation with Morris Schuster, a travel agent who is president of the United Association of East European Jewry. He introduced Gordon to Sonya Levine, an emigre from Belarus whose brother still lives there.T   he brother took up the search.Levine called Gordon this spring. “They found a Ziemczonek.” It was Flerian’s son.“I cried — from happiness,” Hada Gordon says. “They gave him [Abraham] 57 years to live.”Abraham Gordon wrote Flerian, who still lives near his childhood home. “I wanted to make sure it was them.” Flerian’s return letter came back “with all the details. He told me my mother’s name. He told me my sister’s name.” And he told “that he brought the stove.”   Gordon offered to help Flerian, whose family is “very poor now.”“ ‘What can I do for you, what do you need?’ I asked him many times. He said, ‘Nothing. We have everything we need.’ ”“I thanked him,” Gordon says. “He said, ‘Don’t thank me. I did what a person’s supposed to do.’ ”Flerian’s two sisters, Bronislava and Veronica, are also still alive, Gordon discovered.   “Now at least I’m praying for them — they should have long life,” he says. For nearly six decades, “I didn’t know the names.”With the names of the six Ziemczoneks and other historical facts, Gordon is nominating them for the honor by Yad Vashem. “I want the names to be there.”Gordon hasn’t told Flerian what he is doing.Flerian, in poor health, has invited the Gordons to a reunion in Belarus. “The cave exists to this day,” Flerian boasts. “We will show you.”Gordon is reluctant to go. The republic, one of the poorest in the former Soviet Union, is beset with robbers. “It’s very unsafe to go by yourself,” he says.Gordon spends his free time filling out forms for Yad Vashem.And come Christmas, he’ll tell his story again.