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

Tarnow

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.

“Tak.”
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 us...do 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 us...do not let us die in vain"..