Who will remember the evil that one man can’t forget?
For more than a half-century, East Toledoan Mitchell Garwolinski has carried the images of the Holocaust. Images such as a young mother and her infant being murdered by a Nazi guard, the bleached bones of massacred children rising from the sinking sand, guard dogs devouring a starving Jew whose only crime was to reach for scraps of food left in the dog dishes and the image of himself as a young boy driving a wooden stick through the eye of a Nazi guard during his first escape from a concentration camp.
Between the ages of 7 to 13, Garwolinski was shot, beat, tortured, imprisoned in concentration camps and strapped to a gurney as a subject for gruesome medical experiments. His family was torn apart, mother and brother sent to one concentration camp, his father to another and Mitch to a third. The fact that he survived is a testament to his faith in God and his will to live. But, the price Garwolinski paid for his survival and the violence he inflicted on others still live with him today at age 72.
This concern to leave testimony to the evil men do drove Garwolinski to team up with author Bob Hoffman to write Silent Screams of a Survivor, his book about the atrocities he lived through as a young boy.
Throughout the war, young Mitch’s faith and moral code were tested on a daily basis. Is hunger a rationale for stealing? Is saving a life a rationale for lying? Can you kill to stop a rape? And, how can you love your neighbor when he inflicts terror all around you?
These moral dilemmas are difficult enough for a mature adult to ponder, but Garwolinski was forced to make such judgments when he should have been kicking a soccer ball or going to school. To survive, he became a proficient thief, a liar, and a messenger for the Polish Underground. And, he committed acts of violence that haunt him today. Had he been caught doing any of these things, and there were many close calls, he would have been killed.
When these memories of terror refused to fade with the years, Garwolinski went to a psychiatrist in the early 1990s. There, he found relief. “Everything was sort of bottled up inside of me. After she heard my story, well after she dragged it out of me, she suggested I write a book,” he said.
Following those sessions, Garwolinski wrote a journal returning to Poland three times to confer with his aunt and a childhood friend. But, his book may never have been published until he met Bob Hoffman, a teacher and author in Muskegon, Michigan. Hoffman flushed out the story and contacted Acorn Publishing of Battle Creek which published the book.
Hoffman saw Garwolinski had an important contribution to make to World War II history. “So often we want to see things in terms of big things. And, you know Mitch wasn’t a big thing. His family was small potatoes, but in the end that’s really what most of us are, so his story becomes everyone’s story,” Hoffman said.
Silent Screams is just that, a personal recollection, not an historical document. Garwolinski and Hoffman take you from one unbelievable peril to another at a breath-taking pace. It seems every time Mitch escapes or is reunited with family members he is ripped away again and forced to endure unspeakable acts of torture including medical experiments. While the book reads like a suspense novel, the details of this real-life story are still fresh in Mitch’s mind.
“I remember everything as if it happened yesterday,” he says. To help you understand how he can remember events that took place more than a half-century ago, read the following passage. A young Mitch is standing a short distance away from a train of prisoners in which a mother has just pushed her small infant through a crack in the floor board and placed the baby on the ground. Why she did this Garwolinski doesn’t know, perhaps she held a mistaken hope that some one would find the baby and take care of it.
But, there was no hope.
A German soldier saw the baby and moved toward it, drawing the mother’s attention as she stepped down from the train, injuring her leg. As the guard moved towards the baby, the mother moved towards the guard:
“I could see the panic and hatred in her eyes. The soldier’s upper lip twitched as he walked close to the infant, lowered his rifle to the baby’s head, looked the other way, and squeezed the trigger.
“The mother’s scream ripped from her heart as she limped pitifully toward the soldier. As the seconds passed, I could tell she was cursing him as strongly as I have ever heard anyone curse another. As I stared, I realized that she looked like she was on the verge of death as she staggered toward her dead baby,
“Helplessly, with tears streaming, she told the soldier that his time was coming. With no expression whatsoever, the soldier raised his weapon to her head and pulled the trigger again and again.
“With each retort of the rifle, an involuntary spasm rocked my body. These visions are still with me. I cannot erase them from my consciousness. They have become part of me, and damn them for that. In that moment I learned that hate is not always a bad word. Sometimes, hate is necessary to understand that which cannot be understood without the benefit of this lens to sharpen our focus.”
You can see why Mitch Garwolinski cannot forget. Nor, could he scream or express outrage for fear of being murdered. So, as he witnessed hundreds of similar atrocities the screams remained silent only roaring in his head. The Nazis not only robbed him of his childhood but the persistent visions of terror have stayed with him all his life.
Mitch and his family survived six years of war but he could not escape war. While Mitch was born in Poland, his father was an American citizen working for the United States government there and that made Mitch a U.S. citizen. A few years after his family relocated to the U.S., Mitch was drafted by the Army. He served with distinction as a medic in the Korean War.
Therapy has helped Mitch open up. And, receiving small settlements from the German compensation program for his forced labor and medical experiments has given him a small degree of satisfaction to know that the Germans recognize their evil. But, it is in talking to church groups and high school students that Mitch finds the most satisfaction. He, as one witness to the depravity of man, can be a witness for humanity. He is another voice in a band of Holocaust survivors diminished each day by advancing age. These survivors can teach us the human cost of conquest much more than a history book. They enlighten the world of the evil men can do when that evil is met with silence. It is in doing this that Mitch Garwolinski hopes there will always be someone left who will not forget.
This book will disturb you, but you will be inspired to know not everyone stood by silently. The Polish families depicted gave what little they had to their neighbors, hid Jews when they knew death was the price to do so and resisted evil with what little resources they had.