Holocaust survivor sees own childhood in film
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer
|Adrien Brody starred in "The Pianist," which told of an upper-class Jew forced into a ghetto during the Holocaust.
The harrowing film tells the story of a Jew forced from an upper-class home into the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust. That is also Burstyn's story. Then a boy, Burstyn lived in the ghetto during that time.
"I lost my entire family," said Burstyn, 73, a Canadian who spends his winters in Hawai'i.
Of the hundreds of Polish Burstyns, he is the only one left. After the war, he returned to his hometown to gather up pictures of relatives. They sit, boxed, in his home in Edmonton, Alberta, earthly reminders of the family ghosts.
The story of his immediate family is the Holocaust in microcosm: His two older brothers were among the first tagged to go to Treblinka to build the concentration camps. Though he and his parents never heard from them again, Burstyn guesses they lasted about six months, working to construct the gas chambers that the Nazis later used to exterminate the two young men and their father.
His mother died in the ghetto, crippled by the grief of losing her two oldest children and sickened from starvation. The last time he saw his father, a politician and the owner of the largest bakery in Otwock, was April 19, 1942.
Burstyn was 10 in 1939 when his family was forced from its home in the riverside resort town of Otwock (pronounced ot-WOS-k), on the outskirts of Warsaw, and into the cramped ghetto with 400,000 other Jews.
In one scene of "The Pianist," the title character, played by Adrien Brody, pulls a young boy out from under the wall that separated the Jewish side from the Aryan side. The child had been stealing food to bring into the ghetto, and when pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman hears his wails for help, he tries to tug the boy's upper body as an unseen someone on the other side of the wall pulls at the boy's legs. When the boy finally is pulled free, he is dead.
"That could have been me!" said Burstyn, who lived in the ghetto until age 11, when he escaped to the Gentile world.
It's hard to imagine the now-tanned and energetic Burstyn, who insists you call him Issy when he welcomes you with a hug at his Waikiki condo, as small and scared.
But that's what he was when he met up with the Zawadzka family in a village about 19 miles away. There, he could pass for a local boy and herd cows on the family farm. He hid in the forest when his presence threatened the family, catching rabbits when he could, and stealing food from other farms. Friends from the village would also bring him food.
A treacherous journey
"Getting in was impossible," Burstyn said, because he had to get past the Gestapo, the Polish and then the Jewish police.
About half the time, the food he carried with him on his back was taken away before he reached his family.
It's the memory of his father that is most vivid, today. He remembers the last night, when his Orthodox Jewish father, Shlama, looked at him, gave him a blessing in Hebrew and told him, "I don't want you to stay overnight."
The deportation of Jews to the death camps was about to begin. That spring and summer, nearly 300,000 Jews who hadn't already died in the ghetto were herded into cattle cars.
They would never be seen again.
That began the long period in which Burstyn pretended to be a Gentile, wearing shepherd's clothes, speaking Polish and denying his faith to police who raided the village.
Once, he was out hunting for mushrooms when a Polish policeman, out with a Gestapo, zeroed in on him.
"You, you there," the policeman said. "What are you doing?"
He showed him the mushrooms in his bag, and said he lived in the village.
"What's your name? Are you Jewish?"
Here, Burstyn said angels must have put words into his mouth. He spat at the policeman and said:
"How dare you accuse me! You want proof I'm not Jewish? Here, I'll show you ..."
He started to unbutton his pants.
The Gestapo at this point was convinced by his bluff and slapped the Polish policeman.
"What are you doing? Can't you see the boy is willing to show he's not circumcised?" The two left him alone.
He is proud of the remarkable Jewish uprising at the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, when Jews took up a rebellion to repel the Germans. In "The Pianist," Szpilman sees the uprising from a flat where he is hiding, across from a hospital taken over by the Germans.
Burstyn said he helped smuggle in ammunition before the uprising, although he was stuck on the Gentile side when the uprising took place.
As he talks, Burstyn stares hard into a listener's eyes. He tells of one particular long night in the forest, when he was cold, hungry and cripplingly lonesome.
He missed his brothers.
He missed his mother.
He missed his father.
He looked at a rabbit, hopping in the distance, and heard dogs barking.
"I wished I was them," he says, tears welling in his blue eyes. "They were free. I was envying the rabbits. I was envying the dogs.
"There were children who were sleeping in a warm bed, and what had we done to be treated this way?
"Here I was, on the cold ground, filled with lice.
"To be all alone, at age 12."