Joe's Story of the Survival of the Riesenbach Family

The Story of the Survival of the Riesenbach Family

Joe Riesenbach

(Edited by Ruth Riesenbach, Illuminated and footnoted by Ron Riesenbach)

I was born in a small farm village, in Poland, called Markowa, on May 8, 1929. The village consisted mainly of poor farmers, where approximately 25 Jewish families lived a total of about 150 Jews. Our family consisted of six people father, mother, grandmother, myself, and two younger sisters. We were quite comfortable, economically, by the standards at that time. My parents were involved in several small businesses. We owned a small farm of approximately 20 hectares of land. We lived in a large home attached to which was a warehouse. My father dealt in livestock in the winter months, and in the spring and summer he bought fruit from orchards. My mother and grandmother ran a food and fabric and dry goods store.

The Children of the Markowa Cheder circa 1936
Children Identified to the best recollection of Jennie Riesenbach (Aug 28, 2004)
3. Pesha Globenfeld 4. Sora (or Layka) Zeilig 9. Yossel (Joe) Riesenbach 10. Dovid Baum (or Baumel) 11. Jenya (Jennie) Riesenbach 12. Mania Zeilig 14. Itka Globenfeld 17. Mania (Marion) Riesenbach

From the time I was eight years old I was given responsibilities around the house and farm. While my parents worked I was expected to make meals for myself and my two sisters, feed and clean the animals, and generally look after the house. One room in the house was set aside as a synagogue and the other Jewish families came to pray there on Sabbath and holidays. This room contained a Torah scroll and the holy scriptures. I only attended four school years, as once the Germans occupied our village, Jews were not allowed to go to school.

The Riesenbach home in Markowa photographed in the 1950s

My memories of school are not pleasant ones. There was religious discrimination by my classmates and some of the teachers. Although I was a good student, I was often harassed by teachers and students, because I was Jewish when the war broke out September 1, 1939, I was ten year old. I recall the German planes flying overhead and shooting all around. Polish soldiers on foot were hiding from the planes. After the Germans occupied our village, the real anti-Semitism began in earnest. Some distant neighbors burned down our warehouse.

Between 1939 and 1942, several different groups of Germans entered our home. The first group to arrive were office they stayed several weeks and allowed us to remain in the house. They treated us decently, when they left to go to the Russian front they parted with tears in their eye because they knew what awaited them at the Russian front the;, second group were Gestapo. They mistreated us, and stayed for about four weeks. The third group were S.S. They were very rough and made us work for them. My mother and sisters had to cook and clean, and I and my Father had to clean their equipment and boots.

During the winter months my father and I and other villagers were forced to shovel snow from the highways. We had to walk a long distance to get to the highways, as no transportation or food was provided. From the time the Germans entered our village, we were forced to give up our possessions, such as furs, blankets, and valuables. By the late spring or early Summer of 1942, our freedom ended. One afternoon, two polish police officers who had been friendly with my father, came to warn us to leave immediately from the village, because they had received orders from the Germans to round up all the Jews in the village. We immediately left our home and ran into the fields to hide. We left everything we owned behind with only the clothes we wore. The only possession we took with us was the torah scroll. For two months we hid in the fields and lived off the land. We ate whatever we could find in the ground, such as carrots, potatoes, turnips.

The Location of the Riesenbach Home in Markowa, as remembered by Joe Riesenbach.

During the day we lay in corn and potato fields. At night my mother went out looking for safe hiding place. She appealed to several families a who knew us, but none was willing to take us in[0]. Eventually, she found one who was willing: to take us for a short time. No one expected the war to last more than a few months.

The name of the family who sheltered us was called "Bar". They consisted of' a husband, wife and a 19 year old daughter. We promised to give them everything we owned after the war was over. The house was a typical European farm house, with a straw roof, as you will see in the picture. They were hard working people who barely eked out a living from their small plot of land. The wife was a tiny woman who was a devout Christian. Our good fortune was that she believed in fate - that whatever happens is the will of god. Their lives were in as much danger as ours. We stayed with them for two years and five days. While we were in hiding, Mr. Bar heard about other, families who were hiding Jews, and were discovered. They were shot by the Germans the host family together with the Jewish people.[1]

Mr. Bar was very concerned for our safety as well as his and his family's safety. He built a bunker in the root-cellar and covered it with potatoes, for us to hide in if there was a sign of danger. We hid in the cold unheated attic and bunker in the cold-storage cellar which Mr. Bar built.

We had two close calls while hiding there. One Sunday morning they went to church as usual, and the priest announced from the pulpit that two Jewish families were unaccounted for. He urged the worshippers to form groups and search every house.[2] The Bars came rushing home and quickly escorted u s down to the cellar bunker to hide, Within two hours we could hear the dogs barking viciously. There was a knock on the door and Mr. Bar 0pened it and greeted the four visitors loudly. We could hear the conversation: "are you hiding any Jews? To which he replied, "come see for yourself". They looked around the rooms, and then asked to see the cellar. There was a trap door down, which he opened and went down first. One side of the cellar had a pile of potatoes, and the other side had a pile of animal feed. Facing the stairs was a shelf which held bottles of home-brew whiskey. As he came down the stairs, he purposefully tried to distract them; and in a loud voice told them about a new recipe be tried for the liquor[3]. This started a conversation which lasted about two minutes and then they left. You can well appreciate that if any of us would have made a sound like a sneeze or a cough, we would have been discovered.

The second close-call was on April 1, 1944. The bars were working out in the field. They allowed us to come down from the attic into the living area when they were out, in order for us to stretch our bodies. Suddenly we heard the dogs barking wildly. My father peeked out from behind the curtain and saw a few men approaching the house carrying rifles. We had no time to hide so we all lay, down on the, floor near the wall so as not to be visible. We heard voices outside the door but since they thought no one was home, they left.

Joe and Ruth visit the grave of Julia and Jozef Bar, September 2000. Joe says only one word ... "Dziekuje".

In the spring of 1944, the Russian army liberated us[4]. We returned to our home, but after a matter of a few months we were driven out again by local Polish people[5]. We left Markowa and fled to the next city called Rzeszow which was about 35 km. Distant. In Rzeszow there was a Jewish organization which housed Jewish people who were leaving Poland. Within a few ds a riot broke out around our building, when local people started a rumor about the Jews in the building. They surrounded the building and began to threaten us. The polish police became involved and they too surrounded the building and made no attempt to protect us, till Word reached the Russian troops who werein the city. They came with trucks of soldiers and they dispersed the crowd. Soon after that, they put us all on a train headed for the next large city, Krakow, where a Jewish organization was supposed to meet us to assist us in crossing into Austria.

While on route between Rzeszow and Krakow, we passed another city in between, called Tarnow, the train was stopped by two polish police officers in Tarnow. They ordered every one off the train and put us in a fenced-in compound. In the compound stood a shack. They picked out a young girl, of about 20 years old and took her into the shack. We heard screaming coming from inside the shack. After about twenty minutes, she came out crying and upset. You can use your imagination as to what happened there. She was quite hysterical by now and the polish policeman screamed at her to stop crying. When she didn't stop - he shot her. This created a panic in our group and they quickly put us back on the train and allowed us to continue on to Krakow.

In Krakow we waited for about a week till a leader came from a Jewish organization to accompany us the rest of the way to Austria. Our mode of transportation was open freight cars loaded with coal which we had; to sit on top of, without shelter, exposed to the element.

On the way we passed through Czechoslovakia where we were stopped by border guards who took us off the train and disinfected us. Next was Hungary where we had to wait at the railway station for several days until there was space available for us on the next train. After that was Romania where we were placed in an empty house, with no furniture and no windows. We slept on the cold floor and remained there for many weeks. In the meantime we lost our leader and had to continue on our own, crossing the Romanian-Austrian border, crossing rivers, mountain forests -all on foot, without passports or documents. We bypassed many border guards, finally arriving, in Austria at a train station from which we traveled through the country, staying in different Displaced Persons (DP) camps, till the final destination of a city in Austria called Lintz. There we remained for over two years till we found a relative in Canada who sponsored us.

Bindermichel, Austria DP Camp, circa 1947

I arrived in Canada October 10, 1948, by ship, to Quebec city. I kissed the ground when I came on to the Canadian soil. I knew that at last I was in a free country. At first I worked at different jobs, and eventually went into business for myself. After a few years, I got married, raised a family of three children, and have been happy here since I arrived to this wonderful country. About a year-ago I celebrated the 50th year of my arrival here, and celebrated with a big party in my home, together with all my friends and relatives. I now have five grandchildren, of whom I am very proud, and I look forward to many more years in this golden land and I with god's help, I hope to continue volunteering my time to worthy causes such as this one.

But one thing has been bothering me for many years. I always wondered what happened to the other Jewish families from our village and the surrounding ones, including the city of Lancut which was only 7 km. from my home, and which had a sizeable Jewish community. Recently I found the answer to that question. A few months ago I planned a trip to Poland with my wife and other family members. Through contact with the travel agent, I was sent several information packets about Poland, and one of them was about the Jews of Lancut. The fact sheet described the events that occurred after the Germans occupied the city on September 19, 1939. The synagogue was set on Fire, and the Jews of Lancut were expelled on September 22, 1939. Most were sent into soviet territory, while others were dispersed over German-occupied territory. Those who I remained were rounded up, together with those from the surrounding villages, including my village of Markowa. On august 1, 1942, they were taken to the town of Pelkinia approximately 20 km. away from Markowa, where there was a transit camp. The elderly, the sick, the children were shot in the camp or in the Nechczioli forest, about 3 miles away. Those who were left were taken to the Ghetto in Szeniawa on September 17, 1942. By may of 1943, the Szeniawa ghetto was liquidated and its inmates, including the remnants of the Lancut community were murdered in the local cemetery. As far as I know, I and my family are the only survivors from the whole area.


Footnotes to Joe's Story, by Ron Riesenbach

[0] There are some additional details about Eta's search for safety that Eta (or perhaps Jennie) shared with my cousin Cindy. Apparently, Eta initially found refuge for Jennie and Marion with the family of Stanislaw Kielar while the rest of the family was in the fields or perhaps already in the attic of the Bar family. However, after a time Eta had a dream that the girls were in danger. She immediately retrieved the girls and reunited them with the rest of the family.

[1] According to published sources brought to my attention by Richard Tyndorf in a December 17, 2000 e-mail message, the story of the Ulma family and of the Jews they were hiding is tragic. Mr. Tyndorf writes:

  • The story of the Ulma family of Markowa, some of the several thousand Poles who were executed by the Nazis for sheltering Jews, is mentioned in numerous Polish publications about the war. They were sheltering eight Jews: the five-member Chol family from Lancut; and two Goldman sisters (Golda & Zayka), one of whom had a child. All of them - 8 Poles and 8 Jews - were killed in the execution, which is described, based on several Polish publications, in Waclaw Zajaczkowski's book Martyrs of Charity (Washington, D.C.: St. Maximilian Kolbe Foundation, 1987), p. 183, as follows:

Markowa, Lancut county, voivodship of Rzeszow. March 24, 1943. A Catholic farmer, Jozef Ulma, kept Jewish refugees in his household. Surprised by three carloads of German military police and cornered in the attic, all the Jews were shot to death. Then, in reprisal, Ulma's six children: Antoni Ulma, Barbara Ulma, Franciszek Ulma, Marian Ulma, Stanislaw Ulma and Wladyslaw Ulma, aged from 1 to 8, were put to death. Their father and pregnant wife, Mrs. Ulma, had to watch their children being killed one by one. Both parents were murdered last. All the Christians and Jews were buried in one common grave dug in the backyard. The youngest, a one-year old baby was smashed against a tree.

There is a plaque on the Markowa administrative building commemorating them. Notably, nothing is mentioned of the fact that they were hiding Jews nor is there any commemoration of the 100-150 Jews of Markowa who perished.


Sep, 2003: A Polish Historian contacted us saying that a memorial was being planned for the Ulma family.

March 24, 2004: Mr. Tyndorf has kindly forwarded to me the newspaper report of the ceremony which took place March 23 or 24th, 2004. Here is the article (in Polish).

Aug 29, 2005: Glenn and Rosalind Ramsey visited Markowa in June/05. Rosalind is the granddaughter of a 1911 emigrant from Kanczuga, Wolf Goldmann. They visited the town and researched records in Kanczuga town office. They also photographed the Ulma memorial. Here is their e-mail message to me including the photograph.

March 2016: The Museum opened in March:

May 8, 2018: Here is a Haaretz Newspaper story about the Ulma Memoria and why people are boycotting it.

[2] Janina Bar, daughter of Joezef and Julia Bar, when visited by Joe Riesenbach in September of 2000, disputed the contention that the priest encouraged the rounding up of the missing Jews.

[3] According to Janina Bar, he gave them samples.

Joe retells these incidents to a Yad Vashem researcher in this video.

[4] The exact date Markowa was liberated by the Red Army is not know. But on July 23, 1944 the town of Przemysl (50km away to the South East) was bombed and on 27 July 1944 the Russians captured that city. The city of Rzeszow (25km to the west) was liberated from Nazi occupation in early August 1944. Thus, liberation likely occurred mid-summer, not spring as my father relates. The Russian army crossed the river during or shortly after Operation Bagration. The town of Markow was likely liberated by either the First Ukrainian Front (under General Kanev) or the Forth Ukrainian Front (under General Petrov).

[5] The story of this eviction is quite remarkable. According to an audio interview with Yakel Riesenbach, Yakel had to run out of the back of his house naked steps ahead of a gang who had hammered on the front door late at night looking for him.