Paul Chandler’s father always had a story to tell. He is one of about 100 Holocaust survivors from a Polish town that had a Jewish population of around 3,000 people before World War II.
But Maurice “Morry” Chandler, now 92, never imagined that the conflagration that claimed the lives of nearly all of his family members would be brought back to him some 70 years later.
By pure chance, one of Morry’s family members spotted his smiling face as a 13-year-old boy on a home movie taken in his hometown of Nasielsk, Poland, in August 1938. The video was uploaded in 2009 to the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Since that time, a book has been written about the human connections that the three-minute video made among seven living survivors from Nasielsk. In June, Paul Chandler, counsel at Mayer Brown in Chicago, brought his daughter to the town to help clear garbage and overgrown trees from land that was once a Jewish cemetery until it was desecrated during Nazi rule.
For the Chandler family and other Holocaust survivors, what transpired a few weeks ago was part of a surreal series of events that has helped them, in some way, reconcile a loss of family. For Nasielsk, the presence of the Chandlers and others provide a human connection to an oft-forgot memory: A Jewish community once thrived there, until it was eradicated by hate.
“People want to feel connected. And it’s the connection that helps replace what’s been lost,” Chandler said. “For me, the people in Poland are the closest thing to family on my father’s side. The descendants of those people helped my father survive.”
Three Minutes in Poland
The home video shot in Nasielsk in 1938 is a testament to the novelty of video cameras at the time. As the frame pans the streets, a pack of children jostle to position their smiles in front of the camera. They likely had never seen a camera before. And many would never see one again.
The fate of the children in the video was not lost on Glenn Kurtz, an author, when he found the video of his grandparents’ trip to Nasielsk, their hometown. Feeling a responsibility to their memory, he set out in 2009 to make a historical record of the film. He wanted to answer as many questions as possible about the people in the video.
Kurtz sent it for restoration to the Holocaust Museum, which uploaded the partially colored clip to its website. After struggling to learn who the people were, Kurtz caught a break when Marcy Rosen inexplicably spotted her grandfather, Morry Chandler, in a brief two-second flicker in the video.
“Glenn, you turned my world upside down today,” Marcy wrote in an email to Kurtz.
“Marcy, you turned my world upside down today,” Kurtz replied.
Kurtz spoke with Morry on the phone the same night Marcy wrote that e-mail.
“The first thing he said was, ‘You’ve given me my childhood back,’” Kurtz said.
A Living Medium
That was the first of many spontaneous connections that ultimately led Kurtz to write, “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film,” in 2015. He found seven survivors from the town, which Kurtz has visited every year for the past six years.
Chandler has become a “living medium” to the town’s past, Kurtz said, recalling not only his family’s life as owners of a clothing shop in town, but the names and details of plenty of others in the video.
“Through this process, he became sort of this oracle who is able to tell people about their relatives whom they’d never met,” Kurtz said.
Morry also remembers his own survival story well, which his son Paul had heard growing up.
The tale included numerous escapes. First, Morry and his brother fled from Nasielsk to the Russian border. Then they returned to the Warsaw ghetto to be with their parents, who were later killed by Nazis. The brothers left the ghetto to briefly live with a Jewish family nearby. Forced to depart and split up, Morry found sanctuary at a farm in the town of GrÄ™bków, about 60 miles southeast of Nasielsk. His brother died of typhus.
Jews in GrÄ™bków were eventually forced to report to ghettos under the penalty of death. The night before Morry was to leave, one of the owners of the farm, Helena Jagodzinska, told him he wouldn’t be turning himself in. Her nephew, Stanislaw Pachnic, worked in a nearby government record office and secured for Morry a birth certificate of a Catholic boy who had died.
Helena and Morry practiced a story about his new, Catholic identity all night. They folded the birth certificate to appear worn. Then he went into the world as a hidden child.
He found another farm in Bialystok, Poland, where he stayed through the war. He eventually made it to the U.S., where he raised a family and worked as a scrap metal dealer. At 92, he still drives to work every day, Chandler said.
More recently, Jagodzinska’s daughter, now in her 70s, saw a Polish news report about Kurtz’s book and noticed a familiar face in the video—the boy who lived on their farm during the war. The two were put in touch to recount their lives together. Last month, during Chandler’s visit to Nasielsk with his daughter, a descendant of Jagodzinska met with him and offered a gift to Morry: Two towels that Helena wove as a traditional gift for her daughter’s wedding.
In July 2016, Jagodzinska and Pachnic were posthumously awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations,” a designation by the State of Israel given to non-Jews who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
“Out of all this tragedy, I’m now looking more at the positive,” Chandler said. “I’m looking at how positive it was that we met Glenn; that he wrote the book; and that we’re going back and making friendships with the local people and they’re interested in my father’s story, too. Not everybody has that. So I’ll take what I can get.”
Rehabbing Lost Memories
Chandler is hoping to change not only his own perspective on the tragedy that occurred in Nasielsk. His trip last month to help clear a Nazi-desecrated Jewish cemetery is aimed at preserving and honoring the memory of a lost community.
Kurtz helped set up the trip along with the Matzeveh Foundation, which works to reclaim and preserve Jewish cemeteries across Europe. Nazis plowed through the Nasielsk cemetery and headstones were taken and used to pave sidewalks and runways. The roughly seven-acre property (pictured at right) is now an overgrown field likened by Chandler to a jungle.
Kurtz and Chandler would like the town to recognize the boundaries of the cemetery and perhaps to help tend the land. They continue to encourage people to come forward with headstones, some of which are still being found today.
“Part of my hope is that future generations will grow up knowing something about the Jewish community that lived here,” Kurtz said. “So the prejudices of their ancestors can be met with a living connection to actual descendants of former citizens of their town.”
During the trip last month, a man from Nasielsk told the group that his mother, now 84, remembered the day when she was six that the Jews were marched out of the town. Chandler and Kurtz went and spoke with her. She recalled the Chandler’s family store and the clothes it sold. She got on the phone with Morry to recount the life they lived before tragedy came to Nasielsk.
Chandler said the connections he has made in the town are “like being welcomed back to a home.”
“It is no substitute for the loss, but I feel that it’s a healthier way of looking at this,” he said. “Relating to this in a more positive way that acknowledges the loss and catastrophe and crimes that took place. But at the same time it does what humans do best, hopefully, which is care for each other and make connections.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that there were roughly 100 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust from Nasielsk, not 75, and to clarify that the video Glenn Kurtz found was shot by his grandparents, whose hometown was Nasielsk.