Roman Lesniak: "Resisting the reality" - A Schindler survivor's story
I cannot write the story of Roman Lesniak without beginning with some personal reflections. that many of us share. When Tom Brokaw coined the term “the greatest generation” he was writing for the most part about the millions of brave service men and women who risked all and destroyed the most heinous tyrannies in history. To those like me, the children of survivors of the European Holocaust , we were brought up with another term. Though we certainly considered our survivor parents the “greatest generation,” we, their descendants, also have a generational appelation. We are the “second generation.” Not “children of...” The reason is that we are here only through curious and tragic twists of fate. We are the continuing part of our parents generation that was so ruthlessly slaughtered. We are not apart from them. We are not only a physical extension of them but a psychological one having absorbed by second nature the experiences they lived. We are branded by those trials of fire. Our view of the world is forever shaped through the prism of the Holocaust. We have a sixth sense of betrayal and of danger and of loss. We are connected to both the survivors and to the martyrs. We have an innate pessimism and caution — perhaps just realism — that mankind will never cross the Jordan. We can never forget that what was arguably the most cultured and civilized nation in the west descended into a butcherous barbarism in a few short years. We know it can happen anywhere if it happened there. So when there is an opportunity to tell the stories of survivors, it is a special privilege as well as part of our duty of memory and witness. That’s what led to me organize the first Holocaust symposium in Montreal outside of fhe Jewish community when I was in law school, and what leads me to write as many of these memoirs as I can. It’s what we owe.
The life of the Lesniaks
The story of Roman Lesniak is particularly poignant. His original family name was Goldberger. He changed it to his mother’s maiden name when he returned to his native Cracow after the war and was told things might be easier if he had a less Jewish sounding name. A Schindler’s List survivor, the drama and narrow escapes enthrall and enlighten not only about the state of this world but also about the nature of man. And Roman Lesniak’s connection to Schindler after the war is the stuff of legend. This is a man of grit, courage and bold resolve. As much as any, this story of survival and revival is a testament to the battle cry of the Commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Mordechai Anilewicz to“Resist the reality.” For Roman Lesniak did not merely survive, but thrived, raised up a family and became one of Montreal’s master builders not only contributing to the community but literally building one.
As with many of his contemporaries, his life was not supposed to turn out this way. He still describes Cracow with pride today as the seat of the Jewish intelligentsia in Poland before rhe war. His family had a comfortable life. His father Yitzhak — a decorated officer in World War I — was a successful contractor and specialized in sheet metals and machinery. Yitzchak brought a young Roman into the business while his son was still in his teens in 1938. Then it all came to a vicious and grinding halt on Sept. 1, 1939 with the Nazi Blitzkrieg against Poland that sparked the Second World War. On September 6 Nazi troops entered Cracow and began the occupation.
Blitzkrieg and occupation
Crakow was in the southwestern tip of Poland very close to the border and just miles from heavy concentrations of Nazi troops in the Sudentenland and Slovakia.bordering that part of Poland. The Nazi occupation quickly imposed compulsory registrations — including that of Jews, particularly males for work details — as well as confiscations of personal property and businesses. As Britain, France and the Soviet Union were in a state of war with Nazi Germany, the Soviets invaded Poland on Sept. 17, 1939 occupying the half of the country east of the Curzon Line. Krakow was in the west and under Nazi domination.
I asked Roman if his family considered attempting to escape. His answer was that of so many I have interviewed. “Escape where,” he asked. “We were surrounded on all sides. And the city was imprisoned in five days.” Life continued with a certain degree of stability for a time for the Lesniak family at their apartment at 33 Cracowska St. In the heavily Jewish Kazimiercz quarter of the city. All that came to a heart-wrenching end on March 15, 1941.
The Ghetto and “Judenrein”
The Nazis established a Jewish Ghetto on the other side of the Vistula River. In a city of some 300,000 — of whom some 75, 000 were Jews — 20,000 Jews were forced into an area that could hold only 6,000. The Nazis prioritized those Jews with work skills that could be exploited. Roman and his father and his brother Steven had those skills. The evacuation order was immediate. Everything was left behind. Members of the Lesniak family took perhaps one small suitcase each. Roman remembers that they took some silver, including Shabbat candlesticks, and some pictures. But little else. The journey into the abyss had begun.
Roman recounts that the rest of the Jews of Cracow — some 55,000 — were never heard from or seen again. As the Nazis were concentrating the Ghetto with 20,000, the rest of Cracow’s Jews were herded into cattle cars at the train station and sent to the death camps of Treblinka and Belzec. Roman recalled that on March 14, 1941, Hans Frank, the notorious Nazi Governor-General of Poland later hanged at Nuremberg, declared that Cracow was “Judenrein” — “clean” of Jews.
Working to survive
From 1941-1942 the Lesniaks lived in cramped quarters in the Ghetto in small lodgings with a dozen other people. Never enough to eat. Never enough water. Few medicines. Just staying clean was a Herculean task. But Roman and his father and brother were skilled craftsman and the Nazis put them to work first in a radiator factory then in a body shop. Roman said several times in our talks that, “My brother and I never left each other’s sides.”
This relatively stable period came to a quick end on August 10 1942. The Nazis ordered an “Aktion” — a round up in the Ghetto to meet a new quota to ship Jews out. It was Roman’s birthday and he wanted to have a walk and a coffee with his mother. He did not go to work early with his brother and father. His sister stayed in the apartment. As Roman and his mother started down the street, Nazi soldiers surrounded them and pulled his mother away from him. Through the screaming and the tears and the raised Nazi rifles, Roman was kept apart and told he was still useful as a worker. But his mother, being overweight and weak, would be taken. Roman never saw her again. She perished in Treblinka. I asked Roman how one survives that experience. He said that after the tears, one still had to survive.
Two months after, the Lesniak men were sent to work in an aircraft factory in Rakowice some 12 miles from Cracow. Roman’s sister was sent to an aunt in the Ghetto. The factory had 80 male workers and 40 women. They lived in barracks. Roman and Steve worked in the body shop. This assignment lasted from Oct.1942 to Sept. 1943.
The will to fight
During this period, Roman’s father Yitzchak got in touch with a cell of underground partisan fighters in the area. It was around Christmas 1942, Roman remembers. They were planning an attack on a local nightclub frequented by German fighters called the “Tziganskaya,” the Gypsy. It was a small cell of some eight or nine. The attack succeeded and all got away, including Roman’s father. All except one. His name was Marek. Under torture he gave up the names of the others. All were shot to death, including Roman’s father.
Liquidation, Plaszow and the Russian Advance
On March 13, 1943 the Nazis ordered the liquidation of the Cracow Ghetto. The Russians were advancing with the momentum they had gained after their victory at the Battle of Stalingrad. Everyone was herded into the Plaszow work camp near Cracow. That camp had a capacity for only 16,000, which was suddenly doubled almost overnight. Disease and hunger were rampant. It was at Plaszow that Oskar Schindler had managed to establish a sub-camp not under the authority of the SS. It was there that he protected his Jewish workers who labored in his Enamel Werk and other factories he had accumulated in and around Cracow since 1939. Schindler, a Sudeten Czech German, had been a spy working both with the Nazi party and the Abwehr intelligence service. His connections were everywhere and he had authority. He arrived with the invading Nazis but quickly saw opportunities for profit.
It was at Plaszow that Roman’s aunt and sister perished. With the Russian advance, the factory at Rakowice — where the Lesniaks had worked — was closed and the workers were sent to Plaszow. From September 1943 to October 1944, Roman and Steve worked at the Plaszow metal shop. Many German companies used Plaszow slave laborers, including some of Schindler’s concerns.
In October of 1944, while the Nazis were in some disarray. Schindler used the opportunity to strike a deal for Plaszow workers for his enterprises. Berlin agreed to give Schindler 1,100 of the Plaszow prisoners for him. But under the condition that they would all have expertise as metal workers. Schindler had his own idea about protecting “his Jews.” He sent in Yitzchak Stern (played by Ben Kingsley in the movie and who had been with Schindler almost from the first days at Enamel Werk) and Marcus Goldberg to make the list of 1,100. Schindler didn’t care if they were metal workers as long as they could work so as not to make the Nazi overseers suspicious. Of the 1,100 on the List, only 300 were metal workers.
But Nazi authorities shipped the Plaszow Jews to the nearby death camp at Gross-Rosen before Schindler could get them out. Roman speculated that it was probably because the bestial Austrian SS commandant of Plaszow, who hated Schindler almost as much as he hated Jews, would do anything to foil any plan by Schindler. Among the inmates at Gross-Rosen at the time was Simon Weisenthal. Roman recalls how they were stripped upon arrival and told they were going into “showers” for delousing. But no one knew if it was water or gas. Eight hundred people were shoved into two rooms. They could see the openings in the ceilings, now knowing what would happen. Deathly silence except for sobbing and a few muttered tears. Roman held Steven’s hand. Suddenly the shower caps opened and it was water! Roman said, “People broke out in joyous songs and prayers.” They were then given new uniforms and new numbers.
Several days later at roll-call there was Schindler! Standing at a high landing with the Nazi commandants with lists of papers in his hands. Roman said that “some prisoners felt they were seeing their deliverer. Like Moses. Schindler was very tall, perhaps 6’4”, and in his black leather coat looked all-powerful.” He was clearly arguing with the commandants to get back “his Jews.” Roman recounts that whether by bribery or authority, Schindler got “his Jews” out and to his pottery factory in Brinnitz, Czechoslovakia. First from Plaszow, now from Gross-Rosen, Roman Lesniak and his brother were saved by Schindler’s List.
When they arrived in Brinnitz in October 1944, Schindler was at the station waiting for them. Roman recounts that Brinnitz was an ammunition factory and Schindler made sure there was hot food, working showers and nobody got beaten. Schindler gave the SS orders not to come near the factory and certainly not onto the factory floor. Obersturmfuhrer Leopold was angry and Roman recounts that Schindler barked at him in German, “My Jews are not anybody’s Jews!”
Once settled in Brinnitz, Schindler realized that he had only 800 from his list. And they were all men. The other 300, all women, had been shipped to Auschwitz. Schindler travelled to Auschwitz armed with his papers. The Auschwitz commandant offered Schindler any 300 women he wanted. Schindler insisted on the names from his list. And he finally got them and had them brought to Brinnitz.
Life went on at Brinnitz as “normally” as things could in those circumstances. Went on until the 8th of May 1945, that is. Schindler called a midnight roll call. He announced the war was over. The Allies were not far away. Everyone was free to go. But as for himself and his wife, Roman recounts, Schindler showed the 1,100 two long handled German grenades. Roman recalls him saying, “One is for me, the other for my wife.” There was an immediate outcry. Roman, Steve and their fellow members of the List surrounded Schindler. Gave him civilian clothes and offered their protection and testimonies. They helped get him out of Brinnitz.
The story of Roman and his brother could go on and on. But though space is limited, some things have to be put on record. When he was free, Roman went back to Cracow and opened a small metal business. But Poland was not the place to be. By 1948, he was in Israel for four years. He served the State. Some of that service is confidential. In 1952 he and his brother came to Montreal. Within several years they opened a construction company that flourished and is now run by his son Irwin. His grandsons Jason and Michael are involved as well. His brother Steve was always his partner and as Roman says,” Everything was 50-50!” They built some of the best known residential buildings in Montreal and Miami. But for this profile, that is not the aftermath. That must go back to Oskar Schindler. The relationship forged in the crucible of Hell lasted for many years. Known to only a few, Roman was part of a small group of eight survivors who helped Schindler financially for years. Schindler was named “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in the 1960s. Oskar Schindler died on the 10th of October 1974. At his deathbed was one of the group of eight. He called Roman and told him that Schindler’s final wish was to be buried in Jerusalem. Roman jumped into action and pulled every string he could in Israel. Roman wouldn’t accept bureaucratic reality. By October 28th Schindler’s last wish was realized. He was interred in Jerusalem. And that may be the secret to Roman Lesniak. The secret to surviving the Holocaust and the secret to building a successful life from ground zero. Roman Lesniak “resists the reality.” He did then, he does now. That is his great strength and his great lesson to us all.