University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


  • Guta Tyrangiel Benezra

    Guta Tyrangiel Benezra

    Memory, the mind's power of having present what is irrevocably past and thus absent from the senses, has always been the most plausible paradigmatic example of the mind's power to make invisible present.

    Hannah Arendt

    Oil on canvas, 60x90, Regard de l'abime. Ottawa, March 1994.

    When my memory became painting
    freed from constraints and inhibitions,
    I was finally able
    to picture my deadly past.
    Mental images
    sparked with "Dybbuk's" force,
    uncontrolled and powerful.
    Broken silence
    spoke its words
    of outrage and distress.
    Facing disbelief,
    hidden feelings
    flashed out into the light
    to unmask.

    Rachel Korman, Minks-Mazowiecki, September 1939.

    Moshe Tyrangiel, Polish Army, 1937.

    Silence condemning

    How could you speak...? What would you say?

    Rachel is still burning
    Moishe runs like a rat
    And Esther breathe out vengeance
    On your part

    For all others...
    Howling in your ears
    How could you speak
    When you want to scream
    Laugh, eat, dance
    With darkness
    In the corners of life

    Blowing out
    The screws of amnesic memory
    Bursting volcanic truth

    Of pettiness
    Witness of grief
    Of undying misery.

    Personal Legacy

    I, Guta Tyrangiel-Benezra, a child survivor of Shoa, cannot be silent when humanity is showing again its moral degeneration, turning away from dying Bosnian, African, Asian and Latin American children.

    I was "hiding" my post-Shoah memories and feelings for fifty years because I believed that "no one" was interested in my personal drama. A moral duty to speak was born out of fidelity towards my massacred family, cultural void and emptiness left by the complete destruction of Eastern Europe's Jewish society.

    I am dismayed that so many educated people in North America still ignore Shoah atrocities and either demonstrate antisemitic bias or question already established historical facts.

    Since my life story is an integral part of this collective event, I believe that it has to be told by each and every one of its victims.

    Since the beginning of my life I have lost faith in humanity. Some would ask then, why did I live for fifty years, worked, procreated and fulfilled everyday tasks? I am convinced that only the will to resist oppression kept my spirit so alive because I do not accept the final solution for my people and for any other individual or group. I refuse to let humanity be controlled by evil forces and its passive supporters, bystanders of injustice, cruelty and political cynicism I was a small, innocent child at that terrible time ... But I remember. My inner self was ready to make public my feelings about the abhorrent behaviour of Nazis and their supporters in Poland and in other parts of Europe. Thus, my poems and paintings cry out my vivid memories from the Polish ghettos and camps. This mystical force of life allowed me to depict those sorrows and laments in a form of art more powerful and universal that any factual description. It gave me the unexpected belated chance to leave this legacy of imagined "Yidishkeit" and paint memories of my lost childhood.

    I was born one day after the nazis forced my family to move to a one room appartment in a Ghetto of Minsk Mazowiecki in central Poland. One year later, in 1941, my young and freshly married parents Rachel and Moshe Tyrangiel had another child, my sister Esther. I can only imagine their desperate feelings about the future of their daughters born under such circumstances.

    On the 21st of August 1942, the Nazis liquidated the Ghetto and sent all of the Jews of Minsk Mazowiecki to Treblinka, the infamous death camp. They perished on their way to or inside the gas chambers. I learned, many years after, that this very period was the worst "traffic jam" at Treblinka and I was haunted by the fact that my grandparents Cyrla and Nahum Korman were there at that time.

    My parents escaped this fatal day, by hiding in the surrounding villages.In spite of their efforts, the only refuge which they found was a working camp called "Kopernicus" where the danger seemed less immediate. They managed to hide us, drugged in the attics of this building where 500 remaining Jews of Minsk¥Mazowiecki were kept as working slaves. The children were forbidden to be there.

    With the help of a polish priest and a notary, my parents saved us from almost certain death by entrusting us to Christian families, outside the working camp. In a closed wicker basket, I was thrown out of the wired walls into the hands of some righteous gentiles, into the living cruel world of fire and famine. Hoping for help in his efforts to reunite his family and find a safe place, my father joined some relatives in the Warsaw Ghetto.

    On the 10th of January 1943, the Gestapo set fire to the Kopernicus camp and burned alive all of its inhabitants. My mother was immolated on that day. The life of my father was taken away during the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto at the begining of April 1943.

    From the moment of separation with my parents in October 1942, I was under the care of a Christian couple, named Joseph and Bronislawa Jaszczuk, under the false name of Genowefa Filipiak, as their niece.

    My Polish protectors were obliged to run away and hide from their Catholic neighbour's denunciations. They left their home in Minsk Mazowiecki to preserve our life from the bestiality of German occupiers and their collaborators. They wandered in the woods with all their belongings carrying on their shoulders a terrified Jewish baby.

    They were no heroes but simple, decent human beings. And I survived the abyss. But I do not know what happened to my little sister Esther, hidden somewhere else. Her unknown fate still burns as a fire in my dreams, I still hope that she is alive but unaware of these events.

    In post-war Poland, there was barely enough food for sustenance. Survivors were obsessed with horrible memories, trying to cope with the death of six million Poles (half of whom were Jews) and to accommodate their new Communist masters.

    I was left in Poland by my uncle Meir, the only other survivor of my large family, who emigrated to Israel immediately after the war. For fifteen more years, I lived among the post-war Poles, in a place where Jewish life was destroyed and my Jewishness had to be hidden in order to survive against the odds of Nazism Communism and Anti¥Semitism.

    Deep seated historical love and hate relationship between Poles, who saved my life, and the Jews, who were forced out of their devastated homeland, left me scared. Unprotected. I was subjected to many humiliations and lived a double identity personae, suffering from these unresolved dilemmas.

    The strength of my ancestral links allowed me to return to my Jewish roots. The journey began when at twenty I visited my distant relatives in Metz, a city of Eastern France. The actual contact with my Jewish family was disaster. They were unable to distance themselves from their prejudices against the Poles. To understand my emotional and social situation was beyond their intellectual and human capacity. They were as intolerant as Polish anti-semites I knew so well. Unable to welcome "a Shikse" and to express their gratitude to my adoptive father Joseph Jaszczuk, still living in Poland at that time.

    Despite this first, discouraging encounter with my Jewish relatives, the sound of hassidic music heard at neighboring Jewish home, deeply touched my heart. Mysteriously familiar, it reminded me of the fate of my parents and I cried all day when deciding against all reason, that my place was among the Jews.

    This apparently irrational move is understandable in the context of my previous condition as a damned Jewish child, guilty of surviving the hell, stranger among strangers.

    Until that time, I had turned away from knowing the details of the destruction of Jews in Poland and elsewhere, trying to ignore their fate. It was too hard for a young girl to understand the meaning of these past events and to remain sound of mind.

    Therefore, I tried to live like every other Polish girl of my age, but I was not spared the humiliations of being a "dirty Jew." I did not know real Jews, but only mythical, caricatural ones.

    France freed me temporarily from my troubled past and suddenly I obtained a new status as "a Jew with a right to life." this new dignity was intoxicating. Thus, I was without a past, warmly received by the Jewish Community in Strasbourg, as well as my adoptive father, Joseph Jaszczuk who joined me there with their help. I succeeded in my studies at the Faculty of law, married a Jew, have two Jewish daughters and even a granddaughter, Kim Esther Abitbol.

    Hidden for such a long time, I still live in my complex world filled with unanswered questions about human nature. I resent those who refuse to know, and use their ignorance as an excuse for continuing their opulent and often irresponsible life. I believe that we are all responsible for the injustice being committed in front of our eyes and if we use the excuse of our impotence towards warlords and sadists, our passive behavior will guarantee their continued success.

    This is why, when on the 26th day of October 1992, exactly fifty years to the day, after my escape from Jewish fate and without prior experience, I painted the first image coming directly from my repressed memory I knew the time had come to assume my Jewish heritage through my newly discovered gift of painting and poetical writing in all languages in which I lived. Therefore this art work born out of my undying memory, is dedicated to my Jewish and Polish parents and friends.

    (Click on image to enlarge.)

    Top. Guta with Meir Tyrangiel and Jozef Jaszczuk, Lodz 1947, Poland.

    Top. Watercolor on paper 60x50, Double identity personae, Ottawa, December 1992.

    Top. Watercolor on paper 30x50, on paper Train of extermination, October 26, 1992.

    Top. Oil on canvas, 80x60, The abyss I, Ottawa, December 1993.

    The complaint of humiliation

    And the world
    Turned upside down
    Humans changed
    Into animals

    And the cruelest
    Among them
    Took charge...

    And the justice enslaved
    Twisted its blind head

    The train of extermination
    Vibrates with grief

    The complaint of humiliation

    Bleeding and streaming

    The tears wrapped
    In desperate soul
    Buried the memory

    The unspeakable truth
    Of lost innocence
    And mortified childhood

    Full of dreams
    Dust and void
    They were blamed
    For their fate

    Frightful memory
    pounding on the bottom
    preserved its way

    Sounds of music wandered
    Hardening its play

    Bleeding cord
    Endured by freezing rains
    Sang with solemn voice
    Its true content

    From the foot of the hill
    Hawk looks at the sky
    Where eagle is chanting its pride

    Horror reaches the peak
    Leaving ugliness on earth

    No swans
    Or ducklings swim
    On its deserted lakes

    Tears, dust
    And foul air

    Adapted from Polish, March 1993

    | Next