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  http://findingbabcie.blogspot.com  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:


Saturday, May 19, 2012


Before I left for Poland, I made a pledge that despite what I learned, I wanted to feel positive about Poland, to embrace the future of the current generation and to connect to the Poland my grandparents knew before the war.  I wanted to understand why they loved their Krakow and Warsaw.  I’m trying hard to not just feel the dark days of Poland, but, it’s hard, it’s so hard. 

Warsaw is a work of art in a land of engineers. It oozes with all of the culture and history of a Rome or a Lisbon, but without the joyful chaos of the Italians, or the melancholy of Portugal. There are few remnants of the expected Communist gray, and everything just works.  The inner city is a stunning re-creation of all that was bulldozed and blasted flat by the Nazis, and though it is only 40 years young, its narrow streets and squares filled with cafes and musicians and promenaders, carry themselves with 400-year-old dignity, right down to the recovered cobblestones and the artful cracks in the old/new building walls. And when you want to get somewhere, there is always an ultra-modern, ultra-simple bus or tram or train just around the corner. – Peter 

Ala  took piano lessons at the Chopin school in Warsaw and played the piano well.    Every Friday evening she would go to the Symphony with her father Eliash.   Theatre was also a regular form of entertainment.   Their home was a revolving door to friends and Eliash’s business customers, and most days of the week there were guests for dinner.   At 17 Ala met her husband-to-be Mieczyslaw  “Mietek” on a cruise ship, and she fell in love with him after their first dance.   Mietek was a romantic and their courtship and marriage prior to the outbreak of war was full of love and laughter, even with the ever increasing tension of anti-Semitism and talk of war.

September 1st 1939.   
Germans. Planes. Destruction. Invasion

Zdislaw battles in the army defending Warsaw. 

No water, electricity, or gas
Empty streets
Streetcars gone
Blood on the cobblestones

19th September, Soviet armies attack from the east.  The German Army march into Warsaw, 3rd of October, 1939.

1940 Warsaw Ghetto wall built.  
Thirty percent of the city's population are forced to live in 2.4 percent of the area of the city.  Many in our family are trapped in the ghetto.

There’s a baby coming.  
A child of war.
Irena wants to have the child with her parents in the Ghetto.  
There's a treacherous voyage to Warsaw
Zdislaw smuggles Irene into the ghetto through a hole in Leszno street.

 June 17 1942. 
 Joasia is born on the kitchen table at No.11 Orla Street, home of Eliash and Dworjra.  

Orla Street after the Warsaw Uprising
(Photo credit: Ghetto Fighters House Archives)
 Jews in the ghetto dying every day of starvation -  1943
( Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Warsaw ghetto, 1941. Homeless children.
(Photo credit: Meczenstwo Walka, Zaglada Zydów Polsce 1939-1945. Poland. No. 126.)

13 Leszno St  - Auntie Berta lived here.  Building destroyed in the Warsaw Uprising.
Berta jumped from the 3rd floor of a building when she discovered  her beloved husband died in a concentration camp.
She survived  & lived in Melbourne Australia until she died. 

13 Leszno St today. Nothing. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012


After the Mother Superior heard the story of Joasia, she arranged for us to visit the convent in Suchedniow, a small village about 150 km from Warsaw.   

 We arrived at the Warsaw convent to meet Sister Honorata, Iza our new and dear friend who translated for us yesterday, and, Sister Doretta who was to be our driver.  I didn’t realize that a Toyota Corolla could do 180kmh/110mph. My knuckles were white for a full two hours while Sister Honorata prayed the rosary.  The Sister was quickly renamed “Sister Le Mans”  by Peter, and “The Flying Nun” by me.

In my mind I had pictured a large church with a steeple and a large dormitory building adjacent, and another larger building that the SS had taken over during the war as their “headquarters”.    Instead, there was a small chapel and outbuildings, plus the long dormitory which had been the orphanage and school.    We were welcomed as if we were long lost family.  The nuns embraced us then insisted we sit down to an enormous meal they had prepared.   As we sat and talked to Sisters Zofia and Maria, Sister Zofia pulled out a photo, that we learned later was taken in 1945.   In it was a small child with dark glossy hair and round brown eyes.   I knew it was Joasia, my mother.  I knew we had found the right orphanage.   The picture was nearly identical to pictures of me as a child. 

 Joasia’s beloved Sister Kornelia who had looked after her was not in the photo, as she was terrified of being photographed.  Kornelia was devastated after the war ended when Joasia was taken away by people who were not her parents.  It appears  she went to her grave yearning to know where her special child was, and if she was safe.

The orphanage and school.   Mum remembered the building when I sent her this photo!
The Chapel
Beloved Kornelia RIP.
The Suchedniow Saw Mill  
After his wife Irena was killed, Zdislaw, Joasia's father, joined the underground resistance (A.K) He arranged for false papers for Ala, Irena's sister and Mietek her husband throughout their constant escapes from cities and villages all over Poland, often with Joasia . Eventually, he was directed by the AK to manage a factory in Radom and a saw mill in Suchedniow (about 40 kms away).   Zdislaw was hiding Jews and escaped Polish prisoners of war under the warehouse floor at the mill.   After he arranged a job at the mill for Mietek, Joasia & Ala also moved to the Mill after fleeing the killings in Tarnow.  Ala told me, “We had a room with kitchen and I was cooking and baking cakes. I learned to bake in a wooden stove.  We had Joasia with us, and all the time we had visitors who worked there.  We had to invite them for dinner.  All they talked about was Jews being killed here and there. We had to listen and agree and say  - oh yes that’s so good…all the time.”   
Eventually they were arrested.  Ala told me when I interviewed her, “ I left her.  I left Joasia in an empty room…they didn’t want a child.  I left her in bed..she had a big white teddy bear…I gave her this teddy bear and went out. …    It was very difficult, because we didn’t know what would happen to us.  We thought they going to shoot us.  We asked them to shoot us in the street, we told them we would run away so they could shoot us.”

 As I was telling the Sisters Joasia’s story, they looked at me inquisitively when I mentioned the saw mill.   Iza translated for Sister Zofia.   “There was only one Saw Mill in Suchedniow, it was right across the street from us.  It’s been torn down now and only the house is standing.”     Zofia recounted the older Nuns discussing the events of people being forcefully removed from buildings during the war, and, hearing loud interrogations outside.  “Yes, there were terrible interrogations.”

 I couldn’t believe that my family were hauled like animals onto a street that I could see from the convent.   Joasia was left behind in her room as if she were a useless object, an insignificant small piece of humanity.    Her life was saved eventually, in circumstances that are nearly impossible to believe.  
Sisters Zofia & Maria say goodbye and wait for Joasia to visit.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Today we found a Babcia

If there was one single goal for this trip, it was to find the nuns who saved my mother, Joasia, during the latter part of the war.  Today we found a Babcia (grandmother).   

Sister Kornelia cared for the only Jewish child in the orphanage of 75 children as if she were her own baby.   She and the other nuns had feared for their lives as the SS or Gestapo had their headquarters in part of their building.   Joasia was placed there by an SS officer who had been interrogating her father and aunt & uncle after they were arrested in Radom, and before they were sent to Auschwitz.   This same SS officer killed and tortured many, in front of my family, so the nuns had good reason to fear him.   He had ordered that Joasia not be moved without his permission.   Why did a killer save this child?  You'll have to wait for the book......   Very few of us know what the horrors of war would make us do. 

Sister Honorata talking to my mother in Australia

Thanks to a very special person I met in Boston a few weeks ago and her friends in Poland who have worked tirelessly making phone calls and trying to piece together the puzzle, today we talked to Sisters who knew Kornelia.  Unfortunately, I was a few years too late to meet Kornelia herself, however I have no doubt that she was looking down upon as as we talked and cried. 

Day 1 of discovery

Sunday in Otwock, I met with people who knew more about my family than I did. People with a passion for the past and messengers of hope and reconciliation for today - Barbara, Jadwiga, Anna and  Zbyszek.   Barbara, the wise and gentle historian and poet, told me stories about the Przygoda family heritage in Otwock, a former spa town about an hour by train outside of Warsaw. 
  We ate cake with Zbyszek, a new friend who is opening many doors of history for my family.  Barbara showed me articles she had written about the Przygoda family and old photographs of the Sanatorium  my great great grandfather, Jozef Przygoda built in 1895. (picture below) It was the first Jewish Sanatorium to treat tuberculosis.  My great grandfather Wladyslaw had his tuberculosis practice there and my grandfather Zdislaw spent time during his childhood between Warsaw and Otwock.   Up until the  beginning of World War II, the Sanatorium was administered by the Przygoda family.   Before the war, there were 14,200 Jews in Otwock.   Today there is perhaps 1.  

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