Nazi soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto. One of our devotee’s war time experiences brought her to the Vaishnava path many years later.
Although I was born ten years after the Second World War ended, all through my childhood I was exposed to adult conversations about it. It was still very much fresh in people’s memories, and in many cases their lives had been defined by the incidents and mass movements of population that took place then.
The years have gone by and the war has receded, consigned to ‘history’ to be replaced by fresh wars on other continents. We are left with many black and white photographs which, in our age of coloured moving images, only serve to push this particular war into the distant past.
In the grand scale of things though, it was only yesterday; and for some people who lived through it, the horror of it is still all too real. Their mental images are not black and white, but full colour – with smells, sounds, tastes and intense feelings.
The other day I was a guest at a Holocaust Memorial event. The chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, was the chief guest, yet even he deferred to an old woman, Trude Levi, who spoke with great passion about her experiences as a child prisoner at the Auschwitz extermination camp. She described the horrors of the train journey as if it were yesterday, and spoke with the conviction that only one who has lived through it can actually have.
It must have been my day for reflection on these issues. I returned to the Bhaktivedanta Manor temple and asked our oldest resident, Mother Kulangana dasi, 71, if she had any strong memories from her childhood in Warsaw, Poland. She doesn’t talk about it very often, but on this occasion she did.
“I used to go to school on a tram,” she began, “we had to go through the Jewish ghetto on the tram. People were starving there, and the authorities had whitewashed the windows so that we wouldn’t be able to see out.”
“But we were children and we wanted to see out. I opened the window and saw that one little girl was very hungry. So I gave her my sandwich.”
Towards the end of the war, when most of the Warsaw Jews had been shipped out or killed, the Nazis turned again on the Polish: “We were arrested by the Gestapo and we had to leave our house with our luggage. There were so many of us all walking in a long line. So many children too. There was a train nearby and people were getting on. They said that the train was going to a big prison camp. My father had brought one cow with him, and when the leader of the Gestapo saw that my father was a farmer he told him: ‘Oh, you are a farmer, you are already producing something valuable for the soldiers, you can go’ and so we were not put on the train.”
Mother Kulangana’s escape as a seven year-old child unfortunately did not mean that she was spared some of the more horrible sights of war. When she came to Krishna consciousness she said that she had seen the real face of the material world and wanted another type of life.
Her service for Krishna still revolves around cows and milk. She is well known for making the most delicious – and probably the biggest – milk sweets in the Hare Krishna movement. She takes the fresh milk from the Manor’s cows and lovingly cooks it for several hours to make sandesh, burfi, rubri, and pera of all different kinds. They are offered every morning to the Deities and she likes nothing better than to distribute them to devotees afterwards.
(Below: Mother Kulangana)