The Brodeckis recently downsized their home. The contents of their sprawling four-bedroom American Dream dwelling in Richmond are now crammed into a one-bedroom apartment at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville.
Photos in mismatched frames cover every inch of the walls and shelves in jagged rows. There are the relics from lost childhoods in Poland, of a teenage Zosia behind barbed wire in a Nazi concentration camp, of friends who perished in the Holocaust, of the young couple in the displacement camp in Germany where Zosia and Bolek met soon after the war ended.
Then there are the images of the life that came after, the multigenerational story that almost never was: the expensive professional head shot of Bolek, 94, that he commissioned when he became an actor after retiring as a small-business owner, the prized photo of Zosia meeting President Obama, the portraits of the couple’s four children, the granddaughters, the great-grandchild.
Zosia, 88, uses a cane to lift herself out of her leather recliner, then points to a frame on the wall.
“Let me introduce you to my parents,” she says. They stare out from the photograph, frozen at age 30, her younger brother, Lolek, just a boy. The last time Zosia saw them, she was 12, before being forced into a cattle car with other Jewish Polish children.
“My mother told me, ‘You are going to live, and you are going to tell the story,’ ” she says.
More than 70 years later, the Brodeckis are still doing that. Stories like theirs, of horrors witnessed and atrocities endured, are increasingly important as the number of U.S. survivors dwindles, from 127,300 in 2010 to a projected 67,100 in 2020, according to the Claims Conference, an organization that seeks justice for Holocaust survivors. On Thursday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the survivors’ memories are showcased to ensure that future generations will not forget the genocide and allow history to repeat.
Zosia closes her eyes, hands to her face, struggling as she recalls witnessing the dismembering of bodies. “But the children, what they did to the children,” she says. “I saw so much, I still don’t even know how to express myself.”
Zosia, whose maiden name is Piekarska, survived five German concentration camps during the war. She worked at an ammunition factory at the last one, meticulously weighing gunpowder until her skin turned red. At one point, boils covered much of her emaciated body, and she grew sick. The others in the concentration camp drained her boils with razor blades so she would appear healthy and the Nazis wouldn’t kill her. A young Dutch laborer snuck her extra food, which she attributes to her survival.
“Can you forget something like that?” she asks.
This is a refrain Zosia repeats often when she describes what she calls the “kindness of others,” which perhaps stands out all the more given her experience of human cruelty.
She says it after describing the people who gave her extra bread crumbs in the concentration camp, and the neighbors years later in America who offered to babysit her children in exchange for a piece of candy so she and her husband could enjoy a night out.
After the war, Zosia returned to Poland, where she learned that her father's candy factory was destroyed and that her family was gone, with the exception of a few cousins and family friends. There was nothing there for her, so she moved to Germany to a large refugee camp.
It was there she met Bolek, a Polish Holocaust survivor and police officer at the refugee camp six years her senior.
A suitor had followed Zosia back from a dance one night, put a knife on her table and demanded she marry him. She called the police, and Bolek arrived. Except he wouldn’t leave, and he asked if they could become friends. She had no family, knew no one else and saw no reason to refuse the offer.
Three months later, they were married. Zosia was still underage when they wed, so she found a family to adopt her, who then signed her away to marry Bolek.
Bolek’s eyebrows still raise, boasting of his seduction, when his wife recounts their meeting story 70 years later.
At first, the young couple spoke together only of their lives before the war, trading memories of their brief childhoods, not the Holocaust. They knew what the other went through, so there was no need to make each other relive it.
The numbers — 98539 — tattooed on Bolek’s left forearm told Zosia that he survived Auschwitz, one of the deadliest Nazi extermination camps. His tattoo did not reveal that he survived eight concentration camps and a death march transporting captives between concentration camps intended to kill as many people as possible along the way. Four-hundred people began the march, he said, but only 100 survived to the end. When he became weak, his friends dragged him so the Nazis wouldn’t kill or leave him for dead.
The tattoo on his arm that transformed him into a mere number in the eyes of his captors doesn’t say that he got typhus during the war, then tied a belt around his neck and attempted suicide. He was lying on the floor when he regained consciousness.
“I don’t know. It’s just in you,” Bolek says, trying to explain why he survived the Holocaust. “It’s the nature of a person.”
Back then, they didn’t talk about these nightmares, which they still have trouble believing actually happened. But together at the refugee camp, Bolek and Zosia dreamed about America. She loved Hollywood and wanted to meet Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple. In 1949, they immigrated to the United States, settling in Richmond, where they took up ballroom dancing and he later hit the disco clubs. Bolek’s head still moves flirtatiously in rhythm from side to side as he talks about his disco days.
“I loved everything about America,” Zosia says. “I live in the best country. My dreams came true.”
Their eldest child, Joseph, was born in the refugee camp. Joseph Brodecki, now 69, led the international fundraising efforts to build the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and was a presidential appointee to the museum’s council.
Their second child, Maria, was “made in Germany and born in the United States,” Bolek says. He worked in electronics and in 1962 opened a successful television and electronics store. She doled out business cards throughout the city to jump-start sales. Their family expanded with two more children, Roma and Deborah.
“We met the nicest people,” Zosia says, her pink-painted lips amplifying her youthful excitement.
The Brodeckis are mostly confined to recliners in their living room these days, but the couple hasn’t stopped cracking pithy jokes. Especially Bolek — ask him about the Holocaust, and he’ll pull out one in his arsenal of hundreds.
“Why you got to start with the jokes,” Zosia says in her slight Polish accent. “We are talking about more important stuff.”
“If I’m not going to laugh, I’m going to cry,” he says.
Bolek’s favorite jokes these days is telling about the time he met the actor James Woods while an extra on the set of a movie. In the late 1970s, Woods starred in a NBC miniseries called “Holocaust.”
“I was in Holocaust, too,” Bolek told the actor when they met.
Woods looked at him incredulously.
“Yeah, I was in the original cast,” retorted Bolek.
The couple met Jack Lemmon once, and a picture of the actor adorns their wall. They have a 14-year-old rescue Poodle-mix named Ginger Rogers who still scampers around their one-bedroom apartment.
“Jack Lemmon, he is a great man. But he has a mouth, ay-yay-yay, like he’s in the Navy,” says Zosia. “I fall in love with all men.”
They talk about the Holocaust to preserve the memory but are more likely to point to a photo on their wall and tell the story behind it.
There’s the portrait of Zosia’s father — a “wonderful man” — that she snuck inside her shoe before entering a concentration camp. And 70 years later, in the spring of 2009, came the snapshot from a Holocaust event at the Capitol, where she met President Obama, whom she says she “loves.” Instead of a sterile handshake, she hugged him.
“You know, I never met a person I didn’t like,” she says. “There’s kindness everywhere.”