Birthday dinner at Bollywood in Pleasantville
sunrise 4/19/09, Westport, NY

Reading Kazimierz Sakowicz

On my 47th birthday, I read Ponary Diary 1941-1943: A Bystander's Account of a Mass Murder by Kazimierz Sakowicz, ed. Yitzhak Arad (Yale University Press, 2005). I first picked up the book last week, at Lyrical Ballad in Saratoga Springs, because I am descended of Sakwitzses who emigrated from Riesigk, a tiny town in Germany near Dessau to Comfort, Texas, in the 19th century. 

When my parents and I visited Riesigk after the German currency conversion but before German reunification, we noticed in the graveyards that there were various spellings of the family last name, and that there was almost no one of any variation of that last name after World War II. So I was curious about someone with a last name spelled "Sakowicz." tells me that it is a Polish surname: patronymic from the personal name Sak, a reduced form of Isaak (see Isaac).

My great grandfather Sakwitz was born in in Reisigk in 1871 and arrived in the US in 1881; he later worked for the railroads. When we visited Reisigk in the 1990s, we asked why there were few Sakwitz graves in the village cemetery after Word War II. We were told that the adult males of the surname were sent to the Russian front and did not come back.

The historical importance of Sakowicz's book is that it is a bystander diary chronicling the mass murder of about 60,000 people, mostly Lithuanian Jews. Kazimierz Sakowicz seems to have worked at the train station in Paneriai (in Polish, callled Ponary), Lithuania, near where the mass murders took place under Nazi occupation. On July 11, 1941, he began to record what he saw in very brief, very plain journal entries. 

They typically read like this:

November 25

Trucks, women children, a few men. A total of nine trucks. At the entrance to the gate they tried to jump. Beaten.

He records tens of thousands of murders. Before the war, he had been a newspaper owner in a city nearby. It's not clear what he intended to do with the records he was keeping. He may have been a member of the Polish underground.

What I found especially striking about it was the narrative voice. The diary is laconic, with very little in the way of editorializing. One of the most important things it documents is the massacre on April 4th, 1943, during which 4,000 people were killed in Ponary. In it is a passage that for me forms the core of the book.

The Lithuanians throw the clothing onto a pile; suddenly one of the Lithuanians pulls out a child from under the clothing and throws him into the pit; again a child, and again another. In the same way -- into the pit. One the the Lithuanians stands over the pit and shoots at these children, as we can see.
What is this? The desperate mothers thought that in this way "they had saved" the lives of the children, hiding under the clothing. Evidently, they expected that when the clothing was collected the children hidden in that way might be saved. Unfortunately. (p. 73)

In this stark, terse prose it becomes evident that those going to their deaths have more faith in the basic humanity of the Lithuanians of Ponary  (and in the Nazis) than does our narrator. He has already seen tens of thousands die. In only a few cases was he able to find out their names.

What is hard to discover or understand from his narratives is how Ponary came to acquiesce to becoming a massive waste dump for human remains. The effect on the town is not subtle:

July and August 1943
That Myszka [a small dog whose name means "little mouse" and who is referred to elsewhere as the "vampire dog"] digs up corpses does not surprise anyone because they buried them badly (it's a waste of time to bury them deep). In general everything is only just covered, even when they were killed last year. So there is a horrible stench at the base. Everywhere one can see pieces of discarded clothing, men's, children's, women's, various bits of the wardrobe, underwear, women's slippers, men's caps, gloves, shirts . . . Occasionally, she brings something when she returns. One time -- it was August of 1943 -- she carried an intestine but, terrified, dropped it down before Sieniuc's plot. Children placed it on Sieniuc's fence. (p. 100-101)

Sakowitcz was shot in 1944, and his diaries were published only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.