Alexander Kimel’s “Autobiographical Notes” and Memorial Poetry

Ця сторінка також доступна українською.

Alexander Kimel; Autobiographical Notes; in: Eric J. Sterling, ed., Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust; Syracuse University Press; New York, 2005.

Alexander Kimel; “The Action in the Ghetto of Rohatyn, March 1942”; self-published and freely distributed online.

Introduction

The cover of the book

The cover of the book.

This page summarizes the autobiographical writings of Alexander Kimel, a native of Pidhaitsi who survived the WWII Jewish ghetto of Rohatyn. Kimel had a full life and career after the war, but he also reflected on his wartime experience, what he had learned, and his personal philosophy in several literary forms over several decades.

To support our research into Rohatyn’s Jewish history, here we look in particular at Kimel’s “Autobiographical Notes” as published in a compilation of essays edited by Eric J. Sterling for Syracuse University Press, “Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust”. Kimel’s notes appear with essays by other victims, journalists, historians, and educators about the practice of ghettoization and the range of experience in what was or became Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, and China. Alongside some of the analytical and survey essays, Kimel’s candid, almost brusque witness testimony, written as if scenes in a drama, strike cold and hard on first reading. Yet he also manages bitter humor, self-reflection, and a strong will to integrate the negative and positive experiences of his life in an attempt at more universal meaning.

The brief ghetto memoir is supplemented here with a poem Kimel wrote about the events of 20 March 1942, when the Jewish ghetto of Rohatyn suffered a first major aktion and most of Rohatyn’s Jewish community was killed and buried in a mass grave at the south edge of town. In addition to essays on general and specific topics, Kimel wrote poetry and at least one play, adding to his other writings intended to impart the history and experience of the Holocaust for social memory and understanding. As painful as his wartime experience was, he believed he was obliged to revive and retell it: “I have to remember and never let you forget”.

A Brief Summary of the Author’s Life

The ruined Pidhaitsi synagogue

The ruined Pidhaitsi synagogue.
Photo © 2017 Jay Osborn.

Alexander “Siko” Kimel was born in 1926 to a Jewish family in Podhajce, Poland (today Pidhaitsi in western Ukraine), about 60km southeast of Rohatyn. At the time, Podhajce was nearly 60% Jewish; vital records indicate there was an extended Kimel family in the town. The Soviet army occupied Podhajce in 1939, and in 1940 the Kimel home was requisitioned and their business nationalized; to avoid deportation to Siberia, Kimel’s parents moved with Alexander and his sister Luba to Rohatyn, perhaps to take shelter with other family there. When the German army invaded eastern Poland, and Rohatyn was occupied, Kimel was forced into the ghetto with his family and all other Jews of the town. Had Kimel’s family stayed in Pidhaitsi, their fate would have been similar.

A mezuzah trace in a Pidhaitsi door frame

A mezuzah trace in a Pidhaitsi door frame. Photo © 2017 Jay Osborn.

Kimel experienced nearly everything that befell the Rohatyn ghetto inhabitants for the next year and a half. Unlike many in the ghetto, however, he was a young and strong man, so was frequently taken on work details out of town, and while the labor was very heavy, he was fed more than people who stayed in the ghetto during the day; he believed this also helped him to survive. The terror and grief of the ghetto was extreme, not only during the several aktions: trying to aid a young Jewish woman in the late stages of pregnancy remain safe in her hiding place, Kimel’s mother contracted typhus and died; somehow the child survived the war.

The Pidhaitsi Jewish cemetery

The Pidhaitsi Jewish cemetery.
Photo @ 2017 Jay Osborn.

Other notes describe the health effects of sustained hunger, and the mental effects of long-term stress and fear. Like several other ghetto survivors, Kimel relates how self-built bunkers were essential to living through the aktions. In the notes, he also reflects on the horrible absurdity of ghetto conditions, the incessant mortal danger in attempting to find food and shelter, and on the endurance and adaptability of the human spirit when faced with extreme situations. What Kimel faced was certainly extreme: in another essay, he describes how he was one of many Jewish men who unknowingly helped to dig pits for the south mass grave in Rohatyn, then the next day was working as a carpenter for the German army when the aktion began, and after the shooting he became part of the labor detail which transferred corpses from wagons to the burial pits.

The Lopushna forest behind a high snow field

The Lopushna forest behind a high snow field in winter. Photo © 2018 Jay Osborn.

Kimel witnessed and experienced everything in the ghetto except the final liquidation. Like a few others he anticipated the destruction of the ghetto and with the help of a few Ukrainians he fled to the forests a month before the aktion, surviving with his father and sister and a small number of other Jews for more than a year in the forests outside of Lopushna and in the barn of a sympathetic Polish man in the village.

Kimel was still in Lopushna when the Soviet army forced the German army out of Rohatyn and the region in 1944. His father and sister also survived, and when the war ended, together they moved Denmark. Kimel then returned to Poland on his own, where he studied at the Wrocław Politechnika and earned a Master’s degree in electrical engineering; while there in Wrocław he also met Ewa Najnudel, who became his wife in 1956. Soon after their wedding the young couple emigrated to Israel, where they lived for two years, then emigrated to the United States in 1959 to live in the Bronx in New York City. They had two children in the early 1960s, then moved to New Jersey, where Kimel founded an independent engineering consulting firm, which he led until his retirement.

Kimel produced a large volume of writing on a wide range of topics and in various formats. One example is his unfinished two-act play “The Baby”, a fictionalized account of his experiences in the Rohatyn ghetto and in local forests in the area; readers of his autobiographical notes and other witness materials will recognize many of the people and places which he saw with his own eyes during the war.

A snapshot from Kimel's website

A screen shot from Kimel’s website.

As access to the internet evolved and grew in the 1990s, he published a selection of his past writings and added many more, organized to promote Holocaust education from sources including personal memoir, archival research, and art. His facility with the new and developing communication medium and his authentic voice as a Holocaust survivor made his internet presence influential in reaching educators, students, and the general public. Some of his essays, such as on the role of Jewish policemen in the ghettos, helped to moderate emotional post-war discussions about people in difficult and doomed situations, from direct experience. The full website is no longer active, but portions of it can be found on the Internet Archive and other digital caching services, and some of the key essays and other works are still available in other formats. The text of Kimel’s “Autobiographical Notes” continues to be used in university courses on the Holocaust and broader conflict studies.

Kimel died in early 2018 at age 91, survived by two children, five grandchildren, and his writings.

Kimel’s Memorial Poetry

Kimel wrote, spoke, and published poetry as another way to communicate his experiences and his world view, separate from essays and lectures. He published a number of poems on his website for free access and distribution. Some of his poems have become popular in high school reading, essay, and web presentation assignments, and the results of that student work are available on the web as well.

In the poems, Kimel covers some of the same themes of his essays and notes, including for example his experience in the Rohatyn ghetto and its impact on the inmates there. He also used the poetry as a kind of affirmation of his beliefs about man, as in this example from his undated poem, “The Creed of a Holocaust Survivior”, which draws on his personal experience to speak about modern genocide: I do believe, with all my heart / That God gave  man the blessing and the curse.

The following undated poem addresses the pain of recalled images and the conflict of memory, using the horror of the first major aktion in Rohatyn as subject:

THE ACTION IN THE GHETTO OF ROHATYN, MARCH 1942
Alexander Kimel

The view toward Rohatyn from the mass grave site

The view toward Rohatyn from the mass grave site, 75 years after. Photo © 2017 Jay Osborn.

Do I want to remember?
The peaceful ghetto, before the raid:
Children shaking like leaves in the wind.
Mothers searching for a piece of bread.
Shadows, on swollen legs, moving with fear.
No, I don’t want to remember, but how can I forget?

Do I want to remember, the creation of hell?
The shouts of the raiders, enjoying the hunt.
Cries of the wounded, begging for life.
Faces of mothers, carved with pain.
Hiding children, dripping with fear.
No, I don’t want to remember, but how can I forget?

Rabbi Kolesnik at the mass grave site, 75 years after

Rabbi Kolesnik at the mass grave site, 75 years after. Photo © 2017 Jay Osborn.

Do I want to remember, my fearful return?
Families vanished in the midst of the day.
The mass grave steaming with vapor of blood.
Mothers searching for children in vain.
The pain of the ghetto, cuts like a knife.
No, I don’t want to remember, but how can I forget?

Do I want to remember, the wailing of the night?
The doors kicked ajar, ripped feathers floating the air.
The night scented with snow-melting blood.
While the compassionate moon, is showing the way.
For the faceless shadows, searching for kin.
No, I don’t want to remember, but I cannot forget.

Do I want to remember this world upside down?
Where the departed are blessed with an instant death.
While the living condemned to a short wretched life,
And a long tortuous journey into unnamed place,
Converting living souls, into ashes and gas.
No. I Have to Remember and Never Let You Forget.

Elements of the Material with Value to Rohatyn Studies

As an eyewitness to and survivor of the Rohatyn ghetto and life in the forests during the German occupation, even Kimel’s brief autobiographical notes on the period are valuable. Researchers studying those themes, and especially the topic of protective bunkers will find unique material in his writings; Kimel reports on the legendary large “Sevastopol” bunker in the ghetto, documenting the rumors about the post-liquidation survival of its inmates, and the eventual discovery and flushing of the underground shelter by Germans using pumped  river water.

Very few names appear in Kimel’s memoir writing, especially in the notes in “Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust”, but in his other writing one can find a few important names for local historical research: Shmulek Barron, the “master bunker builder” in the ghetto; Budzyński, the Pole who managed Jewish properties for the Germans and made his fortune from the exchanges; Willy Bloch and Moses the Shoemaker, who worked alongside Kimel throwing corpses into the mass grave pit, and Arnold, whose face Kimel recognized on one of the corpses; the Ukrainian Danilo who lived near the outskirts of Rohatyn and who transported Kimel with his family from Rohatyn to Lopushna; the Poles Matusiak and Koeniksberg (and his daughters Janina, Urshula and Cesia) who sheltered the Kimel family in their home and barn; the Ukrainian Stepan in Lopushna who helped the Kimels dig a bunker in the forest there; the Wisniewski family who perished with their 10-year-old daughter when Mr. Wisniewski was revealed to be Jewish and his Polish wife refused to leave his side; Lonek Engelberg, a Jewish policeman from the Rohatyn ghetto who managed to survive the liquidation and hiding in the forest gave himself up to the German military in 1944 because he was too starved to go on; and in passing: the Judenrat clerk Izio Landman, and Kimel’s ghetto neighbors Sam and Chaje Hecht, Lustig, Guttman, Elke, and the children Chana, Tonka, Rachel, Mottel, Bella, and Esterka.

Kimel’s notes are also valuable as an aid to understanding the state of mind of the ghetto inhabitants, and the fluctuations even of sanity, as life progressed worse and worse. Looking back, he muses also on his own changing post-war perspectives, feelings of frustration and guilt, and other painful reflections common to the few survivors.

Additional References

Most of the information presented here is taken directly from Kimel’s autobiographical essay and from an obituary published in the Record/Herald News of Hackensack, New Jersey. Additional material comes from Kimel’s other writings as previously published on his website.

Kimel also recorded video testimony with the USC Shoah Foundation in 1996; the VHA interview code is 11145.

The United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum lists a library reference to a 217-page book written by Kimel in 1990 titled “Anatomy of Genocide”, apparently with additional biographical information, but we have not been able to locate a copy of the book anywhere else.

 


This page is part of a series on memoirs of Jewish life in Rohatyn, a component of our history of the Jewish community of Rohatyn.