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Holocaust Photos Still Weigh Heavy for New Yorker

A Holocaust survivor remembers his "Alexandra" a resistance fighter you'll never forget.

When Bernard Gotfryd and others like him are gone, who will tell the stories?

He still has the photos -- all but one:

  • Black-and-white shots of men and women hanging from piano wire.
  • Jews swinging from their necks from nooses.
  • People being marched off to extermination camps.
  • Machine-gunned bodies heaped in piles, slaughtered for merely being Jewish.

He pulled them out at the Wednesday, 70 years after they were taken: Grisly proof the Holocaust was real. When he was just a teen in 1940 German-occupied Poland, these pictures were more than mere history. They represented proof of Nazi genocide. Gotfryd had to tell the world.

He found a way. Her name was Alexandra, and theirs is a love story for the ages.

It is a fitting tale for Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Day of Remembrance Thursday set aside to recall 6 million souls who perished in the Holocaust. Survivors like Gotfryd are speaking everywhere this week to bear witness to Nazi atrocities.

The temple's congregation recited 500 names contained in its Book of Remembrance. All of the dead had some connection to the generations that followed and built a spiritual home in Plainview.

Gotfryd, of Queens, is 88: sharp and articulate. Still, like the other and , he is getting on in years. When they're all gone, who will offer their heart wrenching, yet essential testimony?

Gotfryd could not speak about Alexandra when he addressed the congregation. At the mention of her name he stopped abruptly, overcome. He composed himself, apologized and moved on. He couldn't talk about her. Not there, not then.

But after the service I asked him about her.

She was "beautiful," he began.

"I can still remember the smell of her cheeks," he said, "like a flower; God: I was overwhelmed by her."

He was a teenager; she a little older, "like a woman," he said. She approached him at closing time in the photo shop. She confided a secret that could get both of them tortured and killed. She was with the Polish Resistance and needed his help.

The Nazis were taking photographs of their brutal handiwork. They were using Gotfryd's shop in Radom, Poland, to develop the film and print the pictures. The Nazis were big on record keeping. The Resistance was good at making them pay for it.

Gotfryd and Alexandra -- she used three last names; he was never sure of the real one -- worked well together. Their meetings would take place just after dusk, when Gotfryd was alone, closing up the shop. He would make copies of the prints, passing the duplicates to Alexandra.

She would steal away in the night after their meetings, passing the prints on to others in the Polish underground. Information got out; some lives were saved. Some of these photos are archived at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

Some are undoubtedly the ones Alexandra smuggled out of Gotfryd's shop.

"Sometimes I wouldn't see her for a week, two weeks. Then, she'd appear," he said. "Each time I looked at her I felt the urge to wrap my arms around her."

"We had a relationship, this way, for two, three years."

He looked up at me as he said it, but I knew he could see her, even now, 70 years later, still beautiful. His eyes gleamed and that told the rest. He loved her. He still does.

Eventually he was dragged away to the death camps. He refused to die. He was liberated in May 1945, and began looking for family members. One by one he found them. Then he went looking for Alexandra.

He found her sister, Joana. Upon seeing him, she made the Sign of the Cross. Alexandra and Joana were Roman Catholics, and Alexandra always believed her Bernard would make it through the war. On Joana's mantle was a photo Gotfryd had taken with his "Brownie" camera years before, a portrait of Alexandra and her younger sister.

In 1943, Alexandra joined other Resistance fighters to launch the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She was inside the walls, re-supplying ammunition, when a German dive-bomber incinerated her hiding place. She died there with all the others.

Ironically, there's one photograph that Gotfryd doesn't have. Joana promised to send a copy of Alexandra's picture to Gotfryd, the one he shot, but it never arrived. Her image now lives only in the photographer's memory.

"She was my first love," he said. "I would give my arm for her."

He went on to become a world-class photographer. He's the author of "Anton the Dove Fancier and Other Tales of the Holocaust." He would marry and become a father and grandfather. He buried his dear wife, Gina, six years ago. They were married for more than 50 years.

The righteous may ask how mankind is capable of perpetrating the horrors of the Holocaust. Even men of faith fumble to find an answer: How could a benevolent God stand idle in the face of such unimaginable evil?

They might look for an answer in Bernard Gotfryd's eyes. There, love shimmers across seven decades. The Nazis took his beautiful Alexandra but they did not obliterate her memory. She is not forgotten. She is still beautiful, in every way.

It is the same for 500 names in the Plainview temple's Book of Remembrance. They are still loved.

Who will tell these stories next year and in all the years to come?

The answer must be: "We will."

leapinglaughter April 20, 2012 at 12:23 AM
:: shivers:: Beautifully told.
Joe Dowd (Editor) April 20, 2012 at 04:55 AM
Thank you. His story and his life should inspire us all.
Jason Molinet April 20, 2012 at 07:02 PM
Hopefully, you kept this story alive for years to come.
R Miller April 21, 2012 at 01:24 PM
This is something that should be taught in every school to prevent something as this horrible from ever happening again.
Joe Dowd (Editor) April 22, 2012 at 05:58 AM
Agreed, Scott: Everyone must know these stories.
Howard G. August 24, 2012 at 02:17 PM
Mr. Dowd, I only now just found this article. It contains some details that were unbeknownst to me before, and I have been listening to my father's stories since I was five years old. My older child has heard and read them many times, and I have every intention of passing them on to my younger child (when she is old enough to cope psychologically), and to her peers. Thank you for writing about my father so eloquently. ~ Howard Gotfryd

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