Chapel Hill News

John Wurzelmann: Gift of the wooden spoon

By John Wurzelmann

On a summer day, my elderly father is dandling my 6-year-old son on his knees. He is smiling broadly.
On a summer day, my elderly father is dandling my 6-year-old son on his knees. He is smiling broadly. courtesy of John Wurzelmann

Love is like a wooden spoon. I’ll explain what I mean.

When my father died five years ago, I started to read more about the Holocaust. My father did not speak much about his past. It was not a matter of pride. Perhaps he had “survivor’s guilt.”

His father had told him to run, and he ran. It was the last time he saw him. His family disappeared, perhaps into the smoke of the chimneys of Sobibor, or murdered in the streets of the Wlodowa ghetto, or in the woods of the slave labor camp at Adampol. Perhaps he was ashamed for the sake of humanity. Perhaps he had killed.

So I read books, like “War of the Doomed,” that told the story of the Jews who fought in the forests of Poland, and watched documentaries and old news reels. I was looking for my father’s name or face. There were only so many thousand Jews who escaped this way. Then last June using Google, I found his name, spelled “Wurcelman.”

There was a website that listed the names of the partisans who fought in the Parcziew forest. A teenage Jewish web auteur, Aaron, had read dozens of books, and was compiling the histories of those who survived. I sent him an email, and asked him how he had found my father’s name. It was in a book written by a 90- year-old survivor who lived in Australia. Aaron, suggested I write him, that he would be happy to hear from me.

So I contacted the old man, whose name was now Henry Steele, changed from the original Chaim Aisen. I called him on the phone and told him that I was the son of Ludwig Wurzelmann. He said, “I have been looking for Ludwik for 70 years.” He sent me a copy of the book he wrote.

Aisen had escaped from the Nazis in Hrubieszów and had come to the town of Adampol, running for his life, where my grandfather, Jacob, was the administrator of a labor camp. Imagine the character played by Ben Kingsley in the movie “Schindler’s List.” “… a Jew in his forties, and a very pleasant sort of man … He gently asked us where we were from and why we had wandered so far from home. … He accepted us for work at Adampol. … After the dangerous existence of the past month, settling in Adampol was like finding a quiet harbor after being in a small boat in a very stormy sea. … We had a wooden bunk with some straw to sleep on, a bowl of soup … a piece of bread twice a day, and a stay of execution.”

Aisen became my father’s close friend. Within months, an escape plan devised by my father’s cousin, Moishe Lichtenberg, was in place. “I’ll tell you,” Ludwik answered, “because you’re my friend. But you must promise not to tell anybody. He is going to organize a partisan group and go into the forest.”

And they escaped.

“When I lay down, I held the rifle tightly against my body, cradling the barrel between my legs and using the rifle butt for a pillow. … When I awoke, my comrades were already eating. I walked up to Moishe Peshales and he gave me a bowl of thick soup and a wooden spoon … ‘After you’ve eaten,’ he told me, ‘stick the spoon into the top of your knee-boot, because you’ll not get another one.’”

And that’s why I say that love is like a wooden spoon. It is a gift that is given to us, that helps to sustain us during hard times.

I have a photo from decades later. On a summer day, my elderly father is dandling my 6-year-old son, on his knees. He is smiling broadly. Crow’s feet wrinkle at the corners of his eyes. Bouncing in the air, arms and legs akimbo, my son is laughing as if riding a magic carpet. This is the gift of the wooden spoon.  

John Wurzelmann is a physician who has lived in Chapel Hill for over 25 years.