Thursday, December 13, 2012

Found Him

I’m not sure how I was expecting to feel when I finally found him.   The SS officer who saved my mother was up until now just a story, told by my (adopted) grandmother in her later years.  My grandfather wrote a short note about him in his memoirs, relaying what had happened in the prison in Radom, Poland.    I knew lots of little things about this man, but I did not know his name.  I knew my adopted grandparents went to testify in favor of this man at his trial for war crimes, and that he was subsequently not hanged.    Searching through trial records at Yale and Harvard, there was no mention of their testimonies, their voices silent.

Last week I found his name.
A historian at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C was showing me tracing documents he had been able to find on my family.   He showed me a record of an interview with my grandfather undertaken by the Military Government of Germany in July 1945.  Suddenly I noticed a name I had seen two days prior.

My grandfather Mietek never told me what happened to him in the camps. At least publicly he wanted to move forward with life and leave the hell of Poland and Germany behind him.   It was only when I was in my twenties that Zdislaw, my grandfather by birth told me a little of what happened to both of them, as they were together in the camps until just before the Americans liberated Dachau.

Now I’m looking at Mietek's life history on a cold hard piece of paper…
Places of Detention:
Radom – Prison
Radom – concentration camp
Auschwitz – concentration camp
Vaihingen - concentration camp
Dachau – concentration camp
And then suddenly, the name.  The name of the man who interrogated them in Radom prison.  The name of the man who didn’t kill them.  The man who drove some forty kilometers to find my mother, a toddler left behind when  Ala and Mietek were arrested.  The name of this strange SS officer who packed a small suitcase for her and took her to a catholic convent, who ordered the Nazi soldiers stationed at the convent and the Sisters, “don’t harm a hair on her head”.

I’d seen this name a few days ago, sent to me by a historian in Poland.   A historian I was connected to because I sat next to a woman on a flight from Warsaw to Berlin.
 All the tourist books tell you not to talk about “The War” when you travel to Germany.  On the plane I was deciding what I would say to people when they asked me what I was doing in Germany.
“Oh, I’m Nazi hunting.”   That wasn't going to cut it.
Well, that was precisely my answer after the woman in the middle seat told me she was a German PhD student, interviewing descendants of parents & grandparents who had been in the war, studying the effect on their lives, one of them a grandchild of a war criminal.

The historian in Poland sent me one name.  The only name that matched the jigsaw of pieces of information from my grandmother that I’d sent him.
Now in D.C, I’m staring at the name.

That’s him.


Why was I so elated?  How could I allow myself to feel so pleased at this discovery?

He was a Killer
Yes but he didn't kill my family
He tortured.  You heard how she described the treatment he gave to other prisoners, didn't you?
Yes, but he gave my grandmother food after her interrogation.   She was so thankful. The prisoners were starving and he gave her food.
He was a Nazi, an SS officer for God’s sake!
Yes, but he did something human.  He didn't have to.  He was trained not to.  He saved a Jewish child.
So? Does that make up for all the blood shed?
No.  No.  But, if I can just understand what made a man like this step out of his role, perhaps we can learn something.
Learn what?
I don’t know yet.   All I know is that my Babcie, my Grandmothers are watching me.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Coming home to Milanowek

Perhaps she tasted the sweet wild strawberries that grew in the field next to the old Villa?  Maybe she sat under the shade of the old apple tree with her 11 month old child, watching the feathered heads of  rye grasses bowing down pushed by winds blowing across the surrounding fields.

 This place of refuge outside Warsaw was found by a Polish friend, Mr. Talikowski. He risked his life for the family, smuggling in money and food to the Warsaw ghetto.  In his home there was always a hiding place for  Zdislaw as he moved himself dangerously  in and out of the ghetto to see his wife and child, his mother and his in-laws.

Far from the ghetto she eventually escaped, for Irena perhaps this house near Milanowek provided some comfort, especially after her parents, brother and other family were hauled off to Treblinka. 
Not for long.  One spring day in May 1943 the Gestapo came and shot her and two other women.  Someone suspected.  Someone led the Germans to the kill.

Yesterday we went back to that place.   Yes, we cried for Irena and the other women who were shot that day in May.  But, we joined together with the family who had lived in the Villa, to say thank you to them, and to start a new narrative.  We met the Granddaughter of the brave woman who hid Jews and members of the underground  (A.K) in her large home.   Raised by her Grandma in the Villa, a few months ago, she wrote about the senseless killings her Grandma told her about and posted the touching story on a Jewish history website in Poland.  She included a picture of the stone she'd placed at the bottom of the garden in 2000, marking where the women had been buried by the villagers    A few months ago, I accidentally found her story.  I told my mother about the discovery  just before we traveled to Poland.  My mother wanted to come here, to face her past, and to say thank you.   

I have another new friend now in Poland. Iwona is her name,  a new sister, bound to us by blood.
We loved her....
She welcomed my mother to her home, to my Babcia’s hiding place.
We loved hearing about the brave underground connections in the family that most likely led to Irena and Zdislaw being sent to this safe house by Mr. Talikowski.  We loved her Grandma too for her brave fighting spirit and for her willingness to risk her life to hide those who were in danger.

We look forward to a future with our new friend and her family.

Woytek, Iwona & Joasia

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mama comes home

Looking behind, she travels forward.  Many years have passed since January 1944.

 The journey to the convent seemed a long way then.  She remembered it was a German man who took her there, a stranger in a uniform, an SS soldier, possibly of high rank, sporting decorative epaulettes on his shoulders and a black cross neatly placed on his collar, his slim legs stretching  tall  in his shiny black boots . As a young child, the road to yet another place to live was endless.
Her mother had been shot.   Her father arrested.   Auntie and Uncle were screaming as they were taken away and she was left behind in her bed, with her white teddy bear.

The SS man told the Sisters they must protect the child, or they would pay with their lives.
Who was this man to give such a contradictory order for a Jewish child?

Today, a brave woman came home to Suchedniow, Poland to say thank you to the Sisters who protected and raised her during her early years.

She remembered.
Welcome arms circled her and those beside.
Godly love from holy, brave and righteous women
Who took in a dangerous child and nurtured.
Cared for her as their own, in their living quarters, separate from the older children of the orphanage.

The Sister who loved  her as a mother is no longer on this earth.
 We felt her looking down on us, smiling, watching her daughter coming home.

They told us -
You are our Family; we are your Family.

Years later she knows they gave her love and what little food they had, despite their fear.
There is no boundary between Jew, Catholic, Christian.
We are all Polish.
Abraham binds us together, forever, in a circle of love.

This reunion would not have been possible without Joanna, Zbyszek, Iza, Ilana and Dominika - my heartfelt thanks to all of you.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Book Puzzle

I am trying to cram in as much writing and research as possible before my mother arrives.  She is only here for a few days before we head off to Poland together.

This book thing is like a puzzle that doesn't have a clear ending yet.  It's like one of those balloon toys you might see at a festival or fair - you think you are making a poodle, then you twist and squeeze it a bit, and suddenly it changes shape and out pops a tail or a head, or some unknown orifice.

 Having never done this book thing before, I resort to tools I used in the business world. This morning, I created a story board with all the chunks of chapters I have already written, and all the gaps that still have to be filled.  Now I can move them around and figure out where the head and tail might be and where I need to add some fur.

As you can see, I still have a long way to go.    A good friend of mine who HAS done his before, told me, "a book will reveal itself to you as your write".   How wise she is.  I just wish it would say hello to me a little faster.      Any more words of wisdom from those of you more experienced at this than I?    Please send them my way.

Speaking of fur, yes that is my little darling curled up on her bed near my desk.  My grandmother loved her dogs too.....

P.S.  The book on my desk is "Story of a Secret State" by Jan Karski - an incredible memoir by a heroic Pole who worked in the underground and was captured, tortured and escaped.  Later he was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto and a concentration camp as part of an effort to get eye witness accounts of what was happening in Poland to the outside world, including briefings with the British government, the UN war crimes commission, and with Roosevelt.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Back to Poland we go.

In a few short weeks, my mother will arrive from Australia, and then we fly together to Poland.   It will be a trip filled with  memories of the past for her, a trip with reunions and "thank you's" for the people who saved her.  We will pay tribute to those in our family who survived and those who did not.   It will be a time of renewal and healing, and of building bridges between the past and the future.    It will be a journey of hope.

There are some who think I am mad for trying to build  bridges between peoples who have experienced hatred in its purest form.   To those I say - what other choice do we have?  Do we want to create a world for this and future generations where people can learn to respect and understand each other by learning from  mistakes made in the past?  Or, do we want to  take revenge for those mistakes and segregate ourselves from people who think different from us?   I prefer to take a glass-half-full attitude toward the human race and want to be a bridge builder.

Call me mad if you wish.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Not today

The day I left to travel to New York to see my grandfather's film at the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage, the envelope arrived.   I expected a lot and was in some ways scared to open it in case it failed to reveal the SS commander I am looking for.
I did open it and carefully laid out the prison files on the kitchen bench.  Yes, I was looking at the 1944 prison files of my grandparents. Very official looking, tidy, methodical and planned.
I looked carefully through the documents, which were written in a combination of German and Polish with some illegible script. I could see the false names under which they were arrested, crossed out later with their birth names.   I could see the dates of their arrest, the address of the saw mill in Suchedniow, and, the dates of their release into the Radom Ghetto.   I could see official looking "permission" documents to do certain things, signed by someone representing the Gestapo.   I did see various sets of signatures, but new I would need professional  help from someone specializing in the history and people of that time to match these signatures, if possible, to prosecuted war criminals.   So, I'm waiting again.....

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A few more days

The archives in Poland confirmed they have mailed the photocopied prison files..  Each day I walk to our mailbox and hold my breath before I pull down the lid, reach in  and slip out our mail, looking for a large envelope, its contents possibly revealing all, or perhaps, nothing new.  It's still not here today.

 Ironically, the US Holocaust Museum recently acquired prison files from Radom.  They searched for me and found only  the cover of "our" files with a reference number, because they were not processed as Jews, being arrested on false papers.   I found this surprising, because my Grandmother told me that the police had ways to find out if they were Jewish. She remembered during the chaos and fear of their arrests that the Polish police ordered her husband to..."be inspected" ..demanding that he drop his pants. I cannot imagine their anger and loss of hope after being on the run for four years.

So, I wait for the documents.  Each morning I climb the stairs to my writing studio carrying my espresso, Kimball my sweet dog right behind me.   She tucks into her bed or spreads out on the sofa and waits while I write.  Some days are easier than others and the words flow.  Other days I might finish one paragraph and feel as if this project will take years and years.  Some days I research and I don't write anything.
The Studio.   Dog: Kimball.  Sofa:  Ikea.

Before lunch, Kimball and I usually walk for at least an hour. I've learned you can only sit and write for so long before you need a break.   We wander the trails  beyond our house, and I think I am the luckiest person in the world to live here.   Sometimes we swim in the river, other days we visit our baby swans to see if they have shed their brown feathers and become adults, with responsibilities and places to go.

At the end of each day, my dear husband waits for me to share the days discoveries.   Sometimes he reads what I've written and gives me constructive feedback.   Mostly, he encourages me fervently to keep going, to stop worrying about work and career, to finish the important task I have started.

Friday, August 17, 2012


I'm humbled by the work of historians and archivists who painstakingly stitch together what happened in the past so we can all make sense of the future.  I couldn't undertake this project without them.    A large part of my writing day is spent searching online for answers to my hundreds of questions, trying to uncover the truth,  hunting for fragments, looking for people  I know existed -  some whose names I know, others nameless,  whose memories I must keep alive through their heroic actions.  Some I find. Others who were fathers, sisters, brothers to someone but now may only be dust  in the ground, I cannot find.  They are the forgotten ones I want to bring back.    I wished I had asked more questions when my grandparents were alive, but then , I may not have received answers.

Online I "met"  a Professor in Israel who had some intriguing information on Mietek (my grandfather by adoption) and Zdislaw (my birth grandfather who my mother discovered later in her life).  The Professor was most helpful and sent me a fragment of critical information that is leading me closer to finding the Nazi I'm looking for, the one who saved their lives and my mothers life.
The Nazi has a story, but no name, yet.   I know much about him, but so very little.  His deeds as an SS commander ranged from horrific and evil, to the  humaneness  he showed only to my family, for some reason.

 Thanks to Google, the Professor in Israel,  people she connected me to, the archives at Harvard, Yale, Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Museum and more, I may be close.   Now I wait.  And wait.   I wired money to Poland to obtain the finally found prison files.   In those files is my last hope of finding the name of the man who stopped, took a breath , and for some reason did not kill.  He chose instead to preserve and give life.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What can I do?

I listened to a podcast today of Hillary Clinton's speech at the Holocaust Museum in D.C.   It was a sober reminder of  how far we've come and how far we have to go.    "....human nature did not dramatically and profoundly change in 1945. We still struggle with evil and the terrible impulses and actions that all too often result in atrocities and violence and genocide".

Did you know that each day 1,000 women and girls are raped in Eastern Congo as part of a conscious and planned strategy to break down the population?

It's easy to watch what's happening around the world, in Syria, Southern Sudan, Congo and other places, then  flick the channel to The Big Bang Theory or whatever.  Alternatively, some of us feel so overwhelmed by what we see and wonder what little-bitty-me could possibly do that would make a difference? 
So what can we do given how busy our lives have become?

Here are few simple ideas, that don't take up much time:

  1. The US Holocaust Museum makes some great suggestions here:  Take Action
  2.  Join Amnesty International online.   Sign up for their action alerts and when you feel moved, you can add your name to a petition, or, send your own custom message.  For example, here's a link to a petition to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt to end Army abuses  
  3. Join - They describe themselves as "a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere".  You can find information on their success and impact here and here .
  4. Support with your wallet.  Pick a cause you are passionate about and plonk down your dollars.  It doesn't have to be much.  If a few hundred thousand people donate $50, we can make a big difference. 
Do you know of any other easy high impact ways to make a difference?  Please tell us in the comment section on the blog.

In a recent poll undertaken by Penn Schoen Berland, it was found that the majority of Americans believe that the US has a major role to play in preventing genocide. 

  • 69% think the US should prevent or stop genocide or mass atrocities from occurring in another part of the world.
  • 78% support the US taking military action to stop genocide or mass atrocities.
Here's Secretary Clinton's perspective on what we are doing based on her speech given at the Holocaust Museum today :

Keynote Address by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
July 24, 2012
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you very much, and it’s a tremendous honor for me to be here on this occasion for such an important conference. I want to start by thanking Sara for that introduction, but much more than that, for her life’s work. She’s been involved with the Holocaust Memorial Museum since it was just a plan on paper. And she’s been here every step of the way shepherding it to the extraordinary heights it has assumed as a learning, teaching experience for 1.7 million people every single year, the vast majority of whom are young people.
And I also want to thank Dr. James Lindsay, senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Mr. Michael Abramowitz, the director of the Committee on Conscience here at the museum. And as a point of personal privilege, let me also thank my longtime friend Mark Penn for doing this important research, and also Dr. David Hamburg, who – I don’t know if David is here, but David and I have been talking about these issues for longer than either of us care to remember, and much of his work and his thinking has been incredibly important.
Now, this gathering is yet another example of what the museum does so well. It brings us face to face with a terrible chapter in human history and it invites us to reflect on what that history tells us and how that history should guide us on our path forward. As Sara said when we were walking in this morning, human nature did not dramatically and profoundly change in 1945. We still struggle with evil and the terrible impulses and actions that all too often result in atrocities and violence and genocide. But I want to thank the Committee on Conscience for bringing attention to contemporary cases of extreme violence against civilians.
Let me begin by acknowledging that here in this museum, it’s important to note that every generation produces extremist voices denying that the Holocaust ever happened. And we must remain vigilant against those deniers and against anti-Semitism, because when heads of state and religious leaders deny the Holocaust from their bully pulpits, we cannot let their lies go unanswered. When we hear Holocaust glorification and public calls to, quote, “finish the job,” we need to make clear that violence, bigotry will not be tolerated. And, yes, when criticism of Israeli Government policies crosses over into demonization of Israel and Jews, we must push back.
Here at this museum and in the work that many of you do every day, we are countering hatred with truth. Thanks to the museum and institutions like it and scholars and academics and activists around the world, we have accurate histories. We have memorials and archives that record the stories of those who survived and those who did not. And because we know what happened, our call to action is that much clearer and compelling. Bringing that dark chapter into light helps clarify and sharpen what we mean when we say “never again.”
But despite all we have learned and accomplished in the last 70 years, “never again” remains an unmet, urgent goal. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, we have seen campaigns of harassment and violence against groups of people because of their ethnic, racial, religious, or political backgrounds, and even some which aimed at the destruction of a particular group of people, fitting the definition of genocide. The Khmer Rouge slaughtered those suspected of having a high school education or other supposed enemies. Saddam Hussein massacred Kurdish communities in northern Iraq. Entire villages in Sudan were wiped out by government-supported militias.
So in April, President Obama came to this place right here to underscore this Administration’s commitment to stopping the mass slaughter of civilians. He laid out a broad vision, declaring that fighting atrocities “must be the work of our nation and all nations.”
So today, I want to talk about our strategy for preventing and responding to these crimes and the specific steps we are taking, because we have seen the cost of inaction. In Rwanda, 800,000 people in a country of 7 million died in the 1994 genocide. I remember being in Rwanda with my husband when I was First Lady, listening to story after story from survivors about the loved ones they had lost and the horrors they had endured.
The world waited until the massacre at Srebrenica before acting in Bosnia. It took the stories of men and boys summarily executed by the hundreds in refugee camps, of women and girls dragged into fields and gang-raped by soldiers, of infants murdered because they would not stop crying. And yet we’ve also seen how decisive action can make all the difference.
Two years ago, I visited Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. When I arrived, throngs of men and women were lining the streets, clapping and waving flags and holding signs that said “Thank you America.” What the United States and our NATO allies did there more than a decade ago may not be fresh in the minds of every American, but I can assure you they certain – those memories are certainly fresh in the minds of the people of Kosovo. During that time, families lived in fear that they would be dragged from their homes, loaded onto trains and trucks to ethnically cleanse communities. If we had failed to intervene when we did, who knows how many faces would have been missing from those crowds?
So we do have a moral obligation to confront threats such as these, because they are violations of our common humanity. And as the poll you’ve just heard about shows, the American people share this commitment and believe we do have a responsibility to act. But it isn’t just the morally right thing to do. These crimes undermine stability in countries and across regions. They spark humanitarian crises and send refugees streaming across borders. They reverse economic progress and stymie growth for generations. They create bitter cycles of vengeance and retribution that can scar communities for decades.
See the rest of the speech here>>

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Dear Sir/Madam,
I am searching for an article published sometime in 1946 or 1947 about my mother.
The article was published with the attached photo and was a story about recovering this young girl from Poland after the holocaust and bringing her safely to Germany to live in Dachau.
It’s possible names mentioned in the article may have included:
Joasia or Joanna P_____ (my mother and the girl in the picture)
Zdislaw P______
Mietek D____
I would appreciate it if you were able to help me find this article, or suggest where I might find it.
Thank you in advance,
Karen K...

That was the  email (translated) I sent to the newspaper that was in print in southern Germany during and after the war.  I received their response this morning and admittedly reacted poorly to what I saw as elements of  ignorance.  Of course it was not the fault of the respondent, however since bringing myself closer emotionally to the background of my family, I find myself  often uncomfortable and dismayed.  As my goal for this project is to promote understanding between races and nations and to  eliminate hatred and intolerance, I had to do some deep breathing and think carefully before I sent  my response vs my initial reaction below.     Rest assured, I did not respond in such a fashion, but sent back  a polite thank you. I'm learning that it's easier to state my goal and much harder to feel it. 

Dear Mrs K...,
Thank you for your inquiry. Unfortunately we do not do research articles of this nature.  The option to use the online archive does not cover articles of this period.  I assume that your relative lives in Poland. you didn't read my email properly - she was rescued from Poland as she had no family left there.   Of the surviving Jews, few wanted to return to the hell hole they left.
In Warsaw there  is the German Historical Institute, where you can research online from 1992 through  today. Whether the newspaper however has the volumes back to 1945 , I do not know. 
Mmmmm...let me think about that. ...Warsaw was completely destroyed - I wonder why he might think Warsaw might have a deep collection of German newspapers from that period?
Maybe there is the option that your relative could  come to Munich and browse in the Bavarian State Library or the Institute for Contemporary History and could even search for the article. Our archive is no public archive.

Sure, no problem.  I'll just have my mother jet on over from Australia.....  

I was truly grateful for the the addresses and phone number of the state library that he provided me.   Perhaps  I shall have more luck there.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

My "new" Uncle

Basia is a gentle, caring woman who looks after the Jewish cemetery .  She lives across the road from the large fenced plot of land, a place of memory of Jews from this town  and others nearby.     When Jews from all over the world come to visit the resting place of the famous Tzadik who rests here, Basia (prounounced Baa-shah )  opens her home to them, invites them in to wash and clean themselves before they cross the road to the cemetery to pay their respects and pray.   No one paid her, no one asked her to do this, she just does.
 Basia was born in this town and barely knew her mother who died when she very young.   She was raised a Catholic by her father.   She is too young to have witnessed the horror of the  ghetto and the liquidation of 20,000 Jews, one third of the town’s population.   Similar to many other villages in Poland, the Jews were incarcerated here behind a brick wall, and forced to live and die in unthinkable conditions, while the rest of the town, although occupied by Germans, lived separately.  
In March, Basia was notified that a large group of 3000 Jews from around the world were coming to visit.  She told the town newspaper of this unusual and special event but they were apparently not interested.   

Every year, a former town resident and holocaust survivor, and one of my Uncles dearest friends, would visit this town from Sweden  to take care of the cemetery.    If  Jakub was in town when someone phoned Basia asking to be let into the cemetery (Basia has the key), he would lead the visitors to their destination, telling them the history of those memorialized here, dressed always in his suit and hat.    For years, Jakub searched for matzevah (tombstones) of local and nearby Jews and brought them to the cemetery.
 In the town today, there is barely a trace of former Jewish residents. A synagogue still stands, and there is one memorial plaque that was attached to a building only in 2008, thanks to Jakub,  honoring the 81 people who were murdered there, including Jakub’s family.   Jakub passed away in 2010, the last of 2 Jews left .  (3 if you included my Uncle, formerly of Sanok). Who will carry on the memory of the 20,000? Basia will....

Basia  looks after the Jewish cemetery.  I ask her why.   She tells me she was brought up a Catholic, but after she met Jakub  in the 90’s he told her she might be Jewish.  She didn’t believe him, but started searching and discovered that her grandparents were indeed Jewish and had survived the war after being hidden  by Poles.  As we walk, Basia tells us about the 300 Jews who were brought here by the Nazi’s and massacred at the cemetery.   She knows the details about most of the “residents”  but she talks a lot about Jakub and the work he did.   I think she misses him.   

My dear Uncle
We reach the ohel (a structure built over the grave of a prominent Jew)  of  the famous teacher whom many visit,  and stay there for a while.  My uncle is not religious, however, the day before he told me earnestly,  “If you want to understand Poland, you have to understand the history of the Jews”.   It was his idea to show me the cemetery.  Even though he did not believe in much of the religious practice, today he was teaching me more about my Jewish roots than I knew.    Basia wanted to take a photograph of us in the ohel.    My uncle initially waved his hand and said no.  As we were leaving he changed his mind and wanted us to be photographed together.

As I sit on the train back to Warsaw writing this blog post,   I wonder .. imagine if one third of the residents of the city I lived in disappeared? One third of Whangarei New Zealand,  Melbourne Australia,  or Boston?   If you lived there, you’d notice.   What would I do?  What would you do?  If someone threatened to kill you for helping a Jew as the Nazi’s did, would you help smuggle in food and supplies? Or, would we turn our heads away?  
I know what Basia would do…… 

P.S.   For some context, a relative recently contacted me about an Uncle whom I did not know.  I was still in Europe so flew back to Poland to visit him. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Was she a good girl?

After my mother's virtual re-union with the Sisters of Suchedniow (see past post), the Sister's looked for more evidence of Joasia.  You might recall that Sister Kornelia who looked after my mother, was terrified of having her photo taken.   When we met them, the Sisters told us no one had ever seen a photo of dear Sister Kornelia.   After we left them, the archives and documents were searched.  The Mother Superior forwarded us this photo of Sister Kornelia, who raised my mother for two years. 

Sister Kornelia -  bottom
Mum when she arrived at the orphanage

As well as this special treasure, they found some diary notes,  recollections of Sister Serafia Adela Rosolinska written by  Sister Wirginia Irena Fudali.  Sister Serafia Adela Rosolinska was a Sister Superior of the house of God’s Providence in Suchedniow in years 1940-1945.  

One day during heavy Jewish victimization a lady came with little, lovely girl who had dark eyes and dark hair.  All arrangements took place with Sister Superior (Sister Serafia Adela Rosolinska) with high discretion and after their conversation little Joasia was left with Sisters for many months.  We only knew one thing that she was a Jewish child which we had to hide and save, but who brought her, from where and who her parents were was a mystery to us. 
The little girl must have come from intelligent family since she was very well raised, very bright and with good conduct.  She was very charming so all Sisters loved her a lot and even sometimes compete for her favors.  Sister Superior chose one particular Sister (Kornelia Jankowska) to take care of little girl and raise her.   
 One day she was taken away from us very mysteriously, the same way she  mysteriously appeared in our home in Suchedniow. It wasn’t safe back then to know too much.  It was enough to just perform the deed of love – to help to save someone’s life.  According to Gospel one must have done it out of love, but because of the circumstances  – to perform it with high discretion.  (thank you Iza for translating)
There is some confusion as to some of the details in this description, as my mother distinctly remembers being brought to the Sisters by a German. And, my grandparents were told that the German Comander from Radom placed my mother with the Sisters. It's possible in their description, they did not wish to disclose this, or a woman accompanied the German.
For those of you who know my mother, what do you think about the description "she was well raised, very bright and with good conduct...very charming.."...?   Go for it and add a comment   on the site!

Sunday, June 10, 2012


My mum's cousin sent me some old letters this week written in 1940 from Lemberg, now Lviv in the Ukraine, where Ala and Mietek had fled from Krakow.  Lemberg was under Russian rule and they stayed  until the Germans came, then fled again.   One of the letters made me laugh given what my grandmother told me of her contracting typhoid and their survival trials in Lemberg - and made me remember my grandmothers incredible cakes.  Ala wrote  to her sister in-law Stella who had managed to escape to Melbourne Australia and continue her violin career.   
My Dear,
Your last letter gave us much happiness. I congratulate you Stell for your exceptional success -- a truly American tempo. No change with us.... I am continuing to take the hospitality course -- I'll soon be a certified Chef. Its too bad you can't taste my excellent tea cakes, cookies, etc. Warm kisses, -- Alla
(Thank you Joanna for the translation) 

Two hours late, I arrive in Tarnow and  alight to music and the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen, which is alarming given the train experience I just had, and the Auschwitz "welcome" my grandmother told me about.   This idyllic  village had been home to 25,000 Jews before the war, 50% of the population.  It then swelled to 40,000 as Jews from all over Poland sought refuge, including Ala, Mietek and my mother who had fled Lemberg.  Tarnow was "cleansed" of all Jews and  of those taken to camps only 700 survived.

Tarnow had witnessed one of the most horrific liquidations of Jews, and to their credit, the town had tactfully and tastefully created a memorial to the dead and the tragedy with a well marked narrated trail, so that inhabitants of the town would not forget, and those visiting their past could remember and connect.     My goal is to find the Catholic hospital from where my mother was rescued during the final liquidation of the Ghetto.   It had been within the Ghetto walls.

 I find the tourist office. My lonely planet guide book told me to ask for the Jewish Trail map and even gave the Polish name.  The  young man here speaks no English.  He didn’t seem to know about the Jewish trail so I try three or four other ways to explain.  He comes back with a booklet for $9USD with some Jewish sites in Tarnow.     I ask  him if he has a map of Tarnow and could he please draw the former Ghetto for me.   
"Where’s the Hospital, Spital? " I ask.
I leave with a map and an asterix marking where the hospital is.  He thinks it was a catholic hospital, but not sure if it was  there in 1943.

I watch children playing in the fountain in the square, people sitting drinking beer and chattering.  It’s a Sunday afternoon and everyone is eating ice-cream - Why shouldn't they?  Do I expect them to grieve and live in the past?  At least this town outlined in English and Polish where these egregious and horrible events occurred, .
I stumble on the old synagogue or what’s left of it.  People  are walking and pooping their dogs around it.  One other woman with a book is also following the Jewish Trail .  I wonder what her story is, but we’re both in our own worlds as we read about the horrible events that happened here.     
It’s a long walk to find the hospital. I pass through what was supposed to be the edge of the ghetto, cross a main road and see the old Jewish cemetery. It's eerily silent, walled off and home to crumbling, higgledy piggledy headstones.   I take a left down a busy road lined with communist era apartment buildings.  This is probably where most people live and come into the beautiful town to drink and eat ice cream, I think to myself.
 I stop a man in his 70’s and point to my map “Spitalnia? I’m looking for Spitalnia street".  

He has no idea, clearly he walks round here and has no need of street names.  I smell the vodka on his breath.  He waves down another passerby, a younger man in his 40’s. They both banter and argue and finally agree that I’m going in the wrong direction.  As they point and gesture trying to help me,  I realize that I should double back.   I cross the busy double lane road again and  I keep going straight.   Suddenly there’s a  building  three stories high  that has been renovated and re-clad and adjacent to the left is an ugly soviet era building with a blue canopy entrance that looks like it could be a hospital wing.  Have I found the place my mother again escaped tyranny? 
I stick out like a sore thumb. It must be clear that I'm not from around here, as an older man walks toward me; sun lined and wrinkled, maybe 75. Grey hair  is slicked back against his lined forehead.  He’s with a stocky woman in her 50’s. 
I walk toward him and hold out my map.  On it I have 1943 written next to the place the hospital is supposed to be.
“Catholic Spital?”  I ask.

I point to 1943.  “Catholic Spital 1943?”
“Tak Tak.”.  
“Ghetto Spital?”  
“Tak tak tak!”  He’s getting as excited me.  My heart is beating so fast…why?  It’s taken me all day to get here…what did I think I would find?  What were my expectations?   Did I think someone would remember what happened here?
 “Catholic?” I asked.    I got my first stare.  “Pope John Paul?”  I asked. I couldn't even remember  the name of the current pope - hopefully I had it right.

"Tak tak!"
I point to myself.  “My Mama.  My Babcia here.” I point at the hospital.  “ Nazi’s!”
I have no idea what he’s thinking.   He says something in an upbeat voice and pushes the woman at me.   She’s asking and gesturing me to follow her.  She leads me to the front door of the hospital.  The doors are tall  paneled in old wood and glass.  Did they run out THIS door?  Was it in another wing?  I tried to hear the sound of the ghetto being liquidated, the shouting -  “Nein Nein!”   “Get out!” …women screaming. 

The ghetto inhabitants had been through Aktion's before and by this stage there were only 10,000 left.  Little did they know this was the last Aktion and after this, there would be no more Jews here.  

 Directly inside is a large hallway and there is no one around.  The ceilings are tall with rounded arches.  It feels peaceful.  In front of the entrance doors are another set of tall wooden  doors with an icon of Jesus on affixed to them.  The woman is leading me to the chapel it seems.  We open the door and I see before me an altar with Jesus, and frescoes on the ceiling.  Did they hide here while they waited for Zdislaw?  How did he know where they were?  Was Mum crying or was she asleep like in the backpack?  

The woman drops quietly to her knees to my left. She kneels and crosses herself.   I reach out for the first pew directly to her right,
 a bare timber freestanding bench. I’m feeling sick again.   I sit and cover my mouth, but cannot hold back the tears. I don’t know why I’m crying.  I sob quietly and whisper “thank you”.   
I feel the woman's presence gently beside me for a minute longer, then she quietly rises, leaves and closes the door.  What must she have been thinking??  Did she have any idea what transpired outside of these doors?  Did she know that this refuge hid two Jews on the run and that one of them was my mother?

I walk outside and sit on a stair and re-read Zdislaw's  description of what transpired here.  It's very matter of fact and  hides the sounds and fear of the  carnage and blood letting I had read about on the plaques.  I can imagine that he would want to forget....Babies thrown  from buildings on the pavement. Blood literally pouring down the streets.......Just another day in the life of a Jew on the run.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Trip to Tarnow take two..

Sorry for the email glitch.
Tarnow was a 1.5 hour train trip from Krakow and I wanted to travel there to connect to another family miracle.  Peter stayed behind in Krakow.  
After 20 minutes the train stopped on the tracks.  15 minutes later it's clear something is wrong.  15 minutes turns into an hour.  The man opposite me is broadly set, smells unshowered and undeodorized, as does the young man sitting adjacent to me.  Mr. Opposite  has short dark hair, which  is spiked with gel. He's wearing a white singlet and I can see his stinky arm hair poking out wet from his pudgy arms. It's hot in the carriage but warmer outside.  He sighs long heavy annoyed sighs at least once per minute, which makes it a long hour.

 It’s clear that I’m the only non-Pole and  a tourist .  I’m the only one in sneakers – an American thing I know, but I’m comfortable for the long walk ahead, so who cares what I look like?   Soon a large yellow engine with some kind of towing equipment arrives.  Only a few people crane out the windows to see what’s going on.  I’m taking photo’s and people stare at me, the American tourist.   Another hour later and 60 sighs from Mr. Opposite, the conductor passes through again and mutters something.  People start to empty out of the train and I follow.  Because it’s clear I’m the tourist, someone  says to me,  “We take another train”.    People grab their suitcases, shopping bags and  babies.   They move to the train door and jump off the step on to the stony ground adjacent to the tracks.  I help out an older lady who is at the door after I jump down.

 Suddenly my stomach plunges vertiginously  and I suck in a sharp breath to stop throwing up.  I’m shaking.  I look out at the hundreds of people ahead of me on the tracks. 
The prior day  we were in Auschwitz, and, I have not been able to write about the experience. Now, I'm here somewhere between Krakow and Tarnow on the railway tracks, and I feel God trying to get me to  imagine my Nanna and Papa as they are coaxed out of the railway carriages at Auschwitz, out of the wooden prisons on wheels,  full mostly of dead and the dying.  They themselves are  nearly dead  from starvation and dehydration as prior to being crammed into the airless carriages they had been marched 100kms from the Ghetto in Radom as part of the liquidation.   They lose each other again when the SS form them into the formidable selection lines .  Zdislaw is also with Papa.   By 1943 many Jews knew about the gas chambers.   "Goodbye  my husband..."

Auschwitz Birkenau - Ala left  here for Ravensbruck  in 1945 (?)

It is almost sinful to compare my train trip with the horror of arriving in Auschwitz, however, the most fortuitous things  seem to happen to me every day in Poland.  It's as if my grandparents who survived and their friends and the many relatives who did not, are whispering to me.... "Don't forget not let us die in vain"..

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Trip to Tarnow

Tarnow was a 1.5 hour train trip from Krakow and I wanted to travel there to connect to another family miracle.  Peter stayed behind in Krakow.  
After 20 minutes the train stopped on the tracks.  15 minutes later it's clear something is wrong.  15 minutes turns into an hour.  The man opposite me is broadly set, smells unshowered and undeodorized, as does the young man sitting adjacent to me.  Mr. Opposite  has short dark hair, which  is spiked with gel. He's wearing a white singlet and I can see his stinky arm hair poking out wet from his pudgy arms. It's hot in the carriage but warmer outside.  He sighs long heavy annoyed sighs at least once per minute, which makes it a long hour.  
 It’s clear that I’m the only non-Pole and  a tourist .  I’m the only one in sneakers – an American thing I know, but I’m comfortable for the long walk ahead, so who cares what I look like?   Soon a large yellow engine with some kind of towing equipment arrives.  Only a few people crane out the windows to see what’s going on.  I’m taking photo’s and people stare at me, the American tourist.   Another hour later and 60 sighs from Mr. Opposite, the conductor passes through again and mutters something.  People start to empty out of the train and I follow.  Because it’s clear I’m the tourist, someone  says to me,  “We take another train”.    People grab their suitcases, shopping bags and  babies.   They move to the train door and jump off the step on to the stony ground adjacent to the tracks.  I help out an older lady who is at the door after I jump down.

Suddenly my stomach plunges vertiginously  and I suck in a sharp breath to stop throwing up.  I’m shaking.  I look out at the hundreds of people ahead of me on the tracks. 
The prior day  we were in Auschwitz, and, I have not been able to write about the experience. Now, I'm here somewhere between Krakow and Tarnow on the railway tracks, and I feel God trying to get me to  imagine my Nanna and Papa as they are coaxed out of the railway carriages at Auschwitz, out of the wooden prisons on wheels,  full mostly of dead and the dying.  They themselves are  nearly dead  from starvation and dehydration as prior to being crammed into the airless carriages they had been marched 100kms from the Ghetto in Radom as part of the liquidation.   They lose each other again when the SS form them into the formidable selection lines .  Zdislaw is also with Papa.   By 1943 many Jews knew about the gas chambers.   "Goodbye  my husband..."

Auschwitz - the Birkenau platform, from where Ala was transported to
 Ravensbruck camp  in 1945. (?)
It is almost sinful to compare my train trip with the horror of arriving in Auschwitz, however, the most fortuitous things  seem to happen to me every day in Poland.  It's as if my grandparents who survived and their friends and the many relatives who did not, are whispering to me.... "Don't forget not let us die in vain"..

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


When I asked Nana what she would want me to see if I ever visited Poland, she included Krakow on her must-do list.   Warsaw  had been completely destroyed during the war, and Krakow suffered relatively little damage.   She and Mietek lived on the outskirts of Krakow with Mietek's parents for a time after they were married , and again after the Germans entered Warsaw.  
We visited Krakow university where Mietek completed his law degree and I casually stepped into the law college building with an air of "I've been here before" so as to not raise suspicion.   I ran my hand up the balustrade of the stone staircase trying to feel the hands of the hundreds of thousands of students who had rushed to classes up the stairs, including my grandfather.  I listened to lectures outside a closed door and sat with students in a courtyard as they joked with each other and chain-smoked.  
Mietek was unable to practice law after he graduated  due to antisemitism, and  worked instead in his father's business in the heart of Krakow, just off the main square. 
Reminder dear readers that Mietek was the grandfather I knew until I learned the truth in my teens (see sidebar to the right). 
The stairs of the Law college at Krakow University

Juwenalia was in full swing in Krakow - for three days students celebrate before exams, and  are given the keys to the city by the mayor.  Beer, mirth and laughter filled the alley ways and winding cobble stoned streets and the large squares.    I imagined that Mietek must have also dressed in some wild costume and consumed copious amounts of beer as Nana had told me of his reputation  for  pranks and mischief. 


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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hello Babcia

I had tried to cram too much into my day.  In the morning I walked the old Warsaw ghetto and all the streets my relatives had mentioned, trying to imagine what it must have been like to live there before the construction of the ghetto wall and after.      No 11 Orla St was where the Mizne’s lived before and during the war.  It was here both sets of my grandparents were married - Zidslaw and Irena my grandparents by birth, and, Ala and Mietek my grandparents by adoption. (Check sidebar to the right if you’re confused).

I closed my eyes and smelled the aroma wafting from  Dworja Mizne’s cooking.  I heard her daughter Ala as a child, teasing her brother Henryk and sister Irena.        I listened for the mischievous laughter of  Mietek as he ran from the apartment teasing Ala  that he was not going to marry her.  Orla St was where Joasia my mother was born on the kitchen table.  I heard the cries of Irena in labor giving birth. 

From Orla St Zdislaw had cocooned  baby Joasia into a backpack and walked to Leszno street where he smuggled her out of the ghetto through a checkpoint gate.   I walked from Orla street  to Leszno St and tried to imagine his fear.  "What will happen if my baby wakes up?  Will she suffocate in the knapsack?   Will the sleeping drugs kill her?"  I thought about the courage he needed to face the SS and lie to them.  
In the afternoon, I took the train to  Milanowek, a 40 minute trip from central Warsaw.  It was on the way to somewhere else so I couldn’t find it listed on any platform.    I did as the locals do and jumped from platform to platform through doors of stationary trains. I found a ticket line and joined it.  In the line, I met a young man in his mid-late 20’s who spoke English. He suggested I follow him, as he was catching the train that would stop at Milanowek.       “Why are you going to Milanowek?” he asked me.  I told him the story.    

He was excited to meet a real live Jew.  I told him I wasn’t a real Jew, just Jewish by bloodline.  He was astounded at what I was doing as no one in his family talked about the past.  Wars, communism, repression, suspicion -  he wanted his grandparents to talk, but they refused his questions.    I asked him how he felt about Poland’s future, as he had been a child when communism fell.  He was not as optimistic as others I had encountered.  I nearly missed my stop as I was so engrossed in his outlook.   

The cemetery was 1.5kms from the station.  The town appeared reasonably well-to-do, wide streets were flanked with grand villas and luscious old trees.  Older homes with worn metal roofs and faded paintwork made me wonder if Irena and my mother Joasia had lived in one of those, hidden on false papers. 
 By the time I  found the cemetery there was no one was at the entrance gate.  I would have to find Irena myself, walking around thousands of graves. My mother had emailed me a photo of the headstone so I looked for tell-tale hints to give me some sense of direction.   

I walked quietly, alone and methodically through the graveyards,  After 20 minutes or so, about to give up, I found my Babcia. I sat on the corner of her tomb and whispered to her until the rays of the sun faded.  I walked around the cemetery to find  stones to place on her grave (stones are placed on Jewish graves because they last forever).  Then I kissed her goodbye. 
  Irena was buried in a catholic cemetery.  Zdislaw my grandfather had returned to Poland in the 70’s and arranged for Irena’s remains to be moved from the place she had been slain.    Also buried with her was one of the other women-most likely a catholic Pole-also killed by the Nazis.   

"We  drove to Milanowek, but the area was not as I remembered it……….  I could not find the  house in which we lived.  Just when we were ready to give up and return to Warsaw, an old woman appeared carrying two containers of milk.  I asked her if she knew the location  where three women were executed during the war.  "Yes."  She answered. "The house is right behind you!" She told me further that the Germans had forced some of the villagers to dig a grave for  the women, and they lay buried in the back yard of the house.  I thank the lady and offered  her some money.  She refused to take it saying, "Jesus would punish me if I take your  money.  You are the husband of one of them aren't you?"
"Yes", I answered. "May our Lord Jesus take care of you." I kissed her hands and we parted.   I knocked at the door and entered the house.  The owner, who I remembered well, was now old and bedridden.  She exclaimed. "Pan Zdislaw!  Where is your beautiful long hair!"   Her daughter whom I remembered as a beautiful young girl was also there.  I remembered her taking Joasia on her arm and pretending that she was her mother, placating her  whenever we traveled to Wawer to visit my aunt.  Now she had grey hair and her face was  tired.  She led us to the place where the executed women were buried.  Mrs. Gurtler fell  on her knees and started to pray". - Zdislaw Przygoda

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What's in a name?

How many of you have ever changed your names?   I don't know of  many, but perhaps you just haven't told me?
My sister was Jackie and changed her spelling to Jacqui.   My friend Victoria I think was born Victoria and didn't like it when people shortened it to Vicki. She's definitely Victoria now.

I visited the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw to learn more about my family.
"What was your grandmothers name?"  the archivist asked.
"Ala or Alicija Mizne.   Married name Dortheimer," I responded.
"No that can't be.  That's not a Jewish name" she said defiantly.
She tapped on her computer keys and then  stated flatly, "Sara.   That's her name.  Sara Mizne".

When did she change her name?  Her marriage record stated Sara.  Her name on the Holocaust survivor list said Alice.  I am still trying to find her Auschwitz and Ravensbruck records.   I am sure they won't say "Sara".

"Your great grandfather's name is Wolf, not Wladyslaw" the archivist reported again.   "They changed their names to Polish names to assimilate.  It was not good to be a Jew".  

Please let me know  in the comments section if YOU have changed your name, and tell my why. (Click through to  and  comment there)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Good Hearts

There were many good Poles who sacrificed much to save  Jews, including their own lives.  The Sisters who looked after my mother did so in fear of death. Nearly all of those in my family  who survived, did so because Poles with good hearts took risks and cared about fellow human beings.   This story of  Joasia  is best told by my grandfather:


"By this stage, I knew I had to do something to save my wife and daughter.  Life in the ghetto had become very risky, with the introduction of deportations.  My in-laws did not want to risk traveling to the Aryan side. 

 Mr Roman Talikowski, a gentleman who owned a small shop selling gloves, helped me to find living quarters on the Aryan side and a job in Warsaw.  Roman was not a wealthy merchant.  At the outbreak of the war, he had obtained some leather and gloves from my father-in-law.  Even though the total value of the goods he had obtained was not large, as long as my in-laws were alive in the ghetto, Roman provided them every month with food and money which he managed to smuggle into the ghetto.  He was an exceptionally honest and courageous individual.  My father-in-law only gave his allegiance to the wealthy, and so he gave the majority of his leather and gloves to one of his richest clients, Mr Karlowicz who owned one of the largest leather goods shops in Warsaw.  This 'gentleman'  however, offered my in-laws no help at all.  Instead he squandered the goods for himself.  It was Roman Talikowski, a solid and honest Catholic Pole, who assisted my in-laws, my wife and daughter, and myself.  He rented  a small room in a private residence not far from Milanowek, a suburb of Warsaw, for Irene and myself. 

 The day we decided to take my wife and child out of the ghetto, Roman waited for us on the other side of Leszno Street.  I bribed the leader of a group of Jewish workers who worked on the Aryan side of the ghetto.  I crossed the German checkpoint with my daughter in a rucksack on my back.  Not long before, I had given her two sleeping pills.  The doctor who had given me the pills, had warned me that she may never wake up again, but without the pills there was a danger that she may cry and so be brought to the attention of the Germans.  After crossing the checkpoint I gave out another bribe enabling us to cross to the side of the street where Roman Talikowski was waiting. 

 Our new lodging was about twenty minutes drive by electrical train from the center of Warsaw.  Roman had not only found us a place to live, but had also organized for me a new official job with a Polish contracting firm working on the construction of warehouses for the Germans at the Warsaw railway station of  "Warszawa-Gdansk".  With the help of another school friend, I was able to obtain an original  'Kennkarte' for myself and my wife.  Without this pass that displayed our photos and fingerprints, it was not possible to live in German-occupied Poland.   

I attempted again to get my in-laws out of the ghetto.  I entered the ghetto with a group of Polish bricklayers under the pretence that I was repairing the ghetto walls.  Instead, I went to speak to my father-in-law.  Despite the fact that he did not look Semitic, and that I had rented a room in a suburb of Warsaw, and that I had obtained for him the papers of a retired railway worker, he still refused to go.  I had to leave him shortly before the German imposed 9.00pm curfew.  I asked him one more time if he would leave.  He asked me for a few days to think about it. We embraced before he helped me to climb a ladder over the ghetto wall. It was the last time I ever saw my father-in-law.   - Zdislaw Przygoda
The Germans herded  Jews in the ghetto to the Umschlagsplatz for transportation to the extermination camps. 

Umschlagsplatz today - Poland Passing

Goodbye Eliash  - Majdanek Concentration Camp
Farewell Dworja – Treblinka
May God bless you Henryk – Majdanek

I think y'all may be in need of some lighter material ???   I sure am.
Here  is the beauty of the old  town of Warsaw, completely rebuilt after it was destroyed during the war and listed on the  UNESCO list of World Heritage Site's:


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