My father was trapped by fear and saddled with bitterness throughout his adult life. Handsome and determined, he survived the Holocaust solely by his wits and strength.  With a false identity, he managed to make his way to the states. He educated himself, married a beautiful nineteen year old and had three accomplished children. Because he never forgot the deprivation and struggles of his youth in Poland and lived as though the Nazis could return at any moment, he suffered and caused suffering until the day he died.

As her father’s health was declining, Karen Kaplan began to realize that she hadn’t yet overcome a chaotic childhood filled with physical abuse, medical deprivation and paranoia. She began to understand that she must make a decision to either continue the lineage of victimhood, resentment and hatred or move forward with compassion and forgiveness toward her father and towards the phantom ghosts that have continued to haunt many in her tribe.

Karen’s decision to forgive her father led her to visit Poland, once home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities. She saw the death camp of Auschwitz and the desolate Jewish neighborhoods of Krakow, Warsaw and Bialystok. Finally in Rajgród, she happened upon an old woman who remembered her grandmother and was able to tell stories about life in her father’s village. As she stood outside her father’s childhood home on the very spot where he witnessed the barbaric murder of his mother and sisters, something happened to Karen. She began sobbing, and didn’t stop until she realized that she needed to completely change her way of thinking.  Her compelling argument to forgive Hitler and all who collaborated to murder six million Jews including her father’s family, forces the reader to consider forgiveness as a necessary step towards healing.

Those who are unhappy often continue to search for ways to become less angry, bitter or depressed and simply desire to live whole and productive lives. This memoir offers hope to those who have suffered a lifetime of holding on to the painful memories of the past.


My Father’s Eulogy

God doesn’t give you the people you want. God gives you the people you need–to help you, to hurt you, to love you, to leave you, and to make you into the person you were meant to be. 

My father, Avrum Jankel Szteinsapir, was born on May 21, 1921, and grew up with his family on a duck farm in the village of Rajgród (pronounced “Rye grod”), Poland, roughly forty five miles northwest of Bialystok. His father, Chaim Shlomo, died in January 1927 at the age of fifty-two from a stomach ailment– when my dad was only six years old. His mother, Beila, who was born in Jenova, Poland, had married Chaim Shlomo in 1913 in Rajgród. When her husband died, she was left to tend to the family farm and home with my father and the rest of her children.

Gitel (Tova), my father’s eldest sibling, moved to Bialystok in 1927, and then moved to Lodz from 1933 until 1939 preparing on Hachsharah (a training program for Jews who wished to settle in Palestine). Tova was a chalutzah, part of the Zionist pioneer movement, and went to settle in Palestine (long before there was a state of Israel).  Avrum’s other siblings included Chaya Esther, Leah, (married with a baby) and Josephine, nicknamed Yoshpe.  The youngest child was Yehuda Leizer, Avrum’s younger brother, who died when he was two years old. I was named after Chaya Esther and Leah, the two older sisters, both of whom died in the Holocaust.

As a young boy, my father went to Cheder to study Torah, the Talmud, Jewish law, and history. He learned Hebrew in school, spoke Yiddish and Polish at home, and was also fluent in Russian and German. Later in life, when he came to the United States, he learned English and Spanish. His Spanish pronunciations sounded a bit odd since he always spoke Spanish with his Polish accent. Other than being in Hebrew school, he spent the rest of his time working on the family farm. Extra help was needed to operate and manage the farm, so my grandmother, Beila, hired two Ukrainian workers.

Life was becoming increasingly violent for the Jews in Poland in the 1930s. Pogroms and riots against the Jews broke out in the bigger cities, and often the violence spiraled into the nearby smaller villages.  World War II began when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939.  On June 22, 1941 several townspeople of Rajgród, headed by the two Ukrainian workers my grandmother had hired, came to murder my father’s family. When my son Noah interviewed my father a few years ago, about his life in Poland, my father described how he witnessed the death of his mother, and two of his sisters, he broke down and wept, something I saw him do only twice in my life. As he recalled this gruesome story, he described how his mother, Beila, pleaded with the murderers to kill her quickly.  But they were without a shred of mercy, forcing her to suffer a long and drawn-out death. Yoshpe, Leah and her family were also tortured and brutally murdered by the mob.  My father managed to hide as he witnessed this unimaginable horror, but he witnessed it from his hiding place.

Eventually, my father learned that Chaya Esther had died in 1942 when she was sent to Treblinka. Tova, the one sibling who immigrated to Palestine, was the only survivor from his entire family. With no one else alive in his household, he was forced to flee into the forests of Eastern Europe, where he lived during the war years. Food was always scarce, and living conditions in the forest were deplorable. He had to kill Germans and Poles to survive.  He would always remind me not to complain about the bitter cold weather during winters in Chicago. He was forced to survive the brutal winters in the forests of Poland sleeping outside on a bed of snow. At one point during those treacherous years, he was taken in by a family from Hamburg, Germany, who hid him for a while from the Nazis. They fed him and clothed him and took care of his physical needs.

During this period, he found a Polish passport and used it for identification. The passport had the identity of a younger man whose name was Aryeh Kaplan. So by assuming this identity, he was able to pass himself off as too young to be sent off to fight on the Russian front. His life was spared and so he decided to retain the Arie Kaplan identity; in fact he continued to use that name throughout his life.

World War II ended in May 1945, but not before almost three and a half million Polish Jews, the largest Jewish community of Europe, had been murdered. My father was unsure of where to begin a new life.  He knew that malaria was rampant in Palestine and another impending war against the Jews was almost certain. So my father left Germany, along with hundreds of thousands of other European emigrants, and immigrated into the United States, settling in Chicago in 1951.  He met my beloved mother, Harriet Kaplan, (may God continue to bless her soul), at a Jewish Dance on the west side of Chicago. They married in 1954 and had three children. My oldest brother, Howard, (may God rest his soul) was born in 1956, Barry was born in 1958 and I was born in 1962.

Once settled in Chicago, my father studied at the College of Jewish Studies and received a Hebrew teaching certificate in 1952. My father worked for synagogues, reading Torah and teaching Hebrew school throughout his lifetime. He continued to read Torah well into his early eighties–until he could no longer walk to synagogue. He attended Roosevelt University and received a Bachelors of Art degree in 1955. In 1968 he became a certified social worker for the State of Illinois, where he spent much of his time allocating welfare funds to the poor. He was also involved with a Holocaust organization trying to raise money to build a monument in Chicago in memory of the six million Jews that perished in the war.

When we were very young, we moved to the Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago because my father wanted to raise his family in a Jewish neighborhood where we could walk to synagogue to attend holiday and Shabbat services. We all attended public school for a while, but he decided that, after his sons were coming home from public school singing Christmas carols, he would send his three children to private Orthodox Day school for elementary and secondary education.

In August 1991, my beloved brother, Rabbi Howard Kaplan, was found dead in his apartment in Cliffside Park, NJ, where he resided with his wife and two young children Judith and Michael (three years and eight months old respectively). My father shed tears as he recited the Kaddish at Howard’s grave site.

In August 1997, my beloved mother, Harriet Kaplan, passed away from uterine cancer. So my dad spent his remaining years living with Beba Landau in the uptown area of Chicago, where she tirelessly helped care for my father, especially during these last few years of his life.

These final couple of weeks of my father’s life were filled with intense pain and suffering. It was a long and drawn out death. The doctors and the staff in the ICU were shocked to see him live well beyond their expectation, to see him fight to survive to the bitter end. But he was accustomed to this way of living.

My dad and his family were victims of torture and persecution; in a way it was a trademark of my family heritage. My father spent years tracing his family ancestry, and he discovered that we come from a direct lineage of Rabbis dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. In the late 1400s, Spanish Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from their country. Many migrated east and eventually, after many generations, ended up in Eastern Europe. Suffering has always seemed to follow the Jews of Europe throughout these last five hundred years; generation upon generation of torture and murder.  Generations of fear plagued my family and my people.  This energetic imprint of terror and mass killings has permeated the lifeline of my family’s and my culture’s fabric of life.

I was born into a family that carried the negative energy of fear and darkness. I am also of the first generation of Jews born out of the Holocaust. I have identified myself as a child of a survivor, and I have felt an extremely heavy burden placed on me; the burden of ensuring that I continue to keep the Jewish people alive and keep alive the horrific memories of the Holocaust that have been part of my family and people.

“We will not let Hitler win, nor allow any other anti-Semite to exterminate our people! Never again! We must follow the ancient laws and observances of our people so that we can continue to flourish and repopulate the lost six million. We must never forget how the world treated us. We must survive!”

These were the predominant thoughts and themes during my childhood in my household, and the same ideology was reinforced in my private Hebrew day school education. This fear of of extermination and struggle for survival have passed in my family from generation to generation–like cellular DNA. This fear of eradication permeated my daily existence; it is a fear that children of Holocaust survivors always understand and feel.

Living life with a Holocaust survivor in my family was intense and difficult. My father was burdened with this fear and bitterness throughout his life. He hardened his heart and vowed to never let go of that pain. He never left those gruesome years in Poland behind, and he and my family suffered immensely for it. The fear conquered his mind, body, and spirit. He lived life as if he were still running in the forests like a frightened animal hunted by its predator. This veil was cast over our family. I carried this fear as if I were expecting someone lurking in the background, waiting to seize me so that I could be the next victim of violence, just like the Jews who were rounded up and taken to the slaughterhouses of Europe.

My dad was filled with rage, hatred, and revenge against the whole world. He endured too much pain in his lifetime, a life that no one should ever have to experience. So his life experiences tainted his soul. I recognize that carrying this fear has not served me, protected me, or benefited me in any way—certainly not healed me. It pollutes my mind, body, and spirit, leaving me to live with fear, bitterness, and sadness for my family and my people.

But now I am taking a new pathway to make healthy changes for myself, my family, and our future generations.  I am healing from all this bitterness and lifting the veil of these thought forms that haunt us. These family memories do not need to control me anymore. I only wish that my father would have learned to forgive the people of his past so that he could have healed from all the trauma in his lifetime.

I believe that life is meant to be lived fully, filled with compassion, peace, joy, forgiveness, and especially love. This was a concept that was unattainable for my father. In a way, my father, his family, and all the prior generations sacrificed themselves to being victims of hatred and violence so that I can benefit from understanding the true gift of life, so that I can learn the true lessons and purpose of my life and appreciate life to the fullest. Therefore, I am deeply indebted to my father, his family, and all my ancestors for sacrificing their lives over these past five hundred years.

To my father, Arie, as your neshamah (soul) leaves this earth plane and travels to the ethereal plane, as your soul frees itself from the constraints of this physical world, I pray that God speeds the healing of your soul. I pray that all the fear, anger, and bitterness that have cast a shadow of darkness on your soul be lifted so that you can move forward with peace, joy, and love.

Yevarechecha adonai veyishmerecha.
May God bless you and protect you.

Ya’er adonai panav elecha veyichunecha.
May God’s face give light to you and be gracious to you.

Yisa adonai panav elecha veyasem lecha shalom.
May God’s face be lifted toward you and bestow upon you peace.

Remember, God doesn’t give us the people we want; God gives us the people we need–to help us, to hurt us, to leave us, to love us, and to make us into the people we  were meant to be.

Leave a Reply

  • Rook Reviews

    January 2016     Herbert Quelle,  German Consul General “Karen Kaplan’s memoir “Descendants of Rajgród”  has moved me deeply. The author permits an intimate insight into her soul and the psychological burden that she has carried along as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She freely shares her family story, especially the difficult relationship with her ...more

    View All

  • Navigation