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