Cemetery with weeds
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Journey to the Past: August 1994

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An Unfinished Story

Fifty years ago, on August 1, 1944, the citizens of Warsaw rose up against their German oppressors. Fifty years ago, 63 days and 100,000 civilian casualties later, on October 2, 1944, the rebellion was over. And Himmler’s order that “… Warsaw must be wiped out from the face of the earth…” was initiated. 

Building and tree in Pruszkow: Warsaw walked though here.

Thousands of civilians not killed during the bombing raids were driven out of the city, to detention camp Pruszków, some 10 miles southwest of Warsaw. There, a massive selection took place: young, strong Poles were shipped to Germany for forced labor, others were deported to Auschwitz. Some, mostly women, children and the ill, remained, their fate to be determined. Among the latter group was I, then a four-year-old, together with my mother. My father claimed ill with dysentery and laid in the “hospital” tent. 

After a while, women with small children were released. My mother saw a local electric train. We entered and took a seat. Then we waited and waited and waited. Bombing was still heavy, electricity was random, so these trains stood more than moved. My father and some other “ill” men escaped during a transfer to a nearby hospital and entered the same train.

We stayed on this train until the end of the line and went searching for shelter among the small villages. We were still “hiding on the surface” as Poles. Mother and Father had two IDs as non-Jews under different names. We eventually found a farmer who took us in and gave us shelter until liberation.

Who was this farmer who took us into his two-room farmhouse without indoor plumbing or electricity? He, his wife and two daughters shared this tiny home and his meager supply of food with us. He asked for no payment, just help with the farm chores.

To retrace this odyssey and the steps to better understand where I came from, I spent two weeks in Poland during the summer of 1994. It was truly a journey of discovery, a journey of finding the unexpected at every turn, a journey of such emotional proportions that they are difficult to describe.

My husband and I joined a group of 24 Baltimoreans under the leadership of Rabbi Weinreb on an amazing trip. We spent the first week visiting the “usual” Jewish places of interest.

We visited small towns and villages where in 1939, prior to World War II, 50-90% of the population had been Jewish. The only traces, if any, of these vibrant communities, centers of Jewish learning and culture for centuries, are cemeteries with a few salvaged tombstones overgrown with weeds. Many were also places of Jewish mass executions. Thousands of Jews at a time were rounded up, shot in these cemeteries and buried in mass graves — as late as January 1945, just weeks before liberation.

These tombstones are reminders of a murdered people. They are cared for by different individuals and organizations. We met an old Gentile woman who was following her mother’s tradition, supported by donations of tourists. She told us, ”My friends and neighbors are angry and resentful that I take care of the Jewish cemetery. They say, ’It just brings Jews back into town to visit.’ Some tourists might just remember that all these houses you see around you were at one time Jewish property. What is going to be after I am gone? God only knows.”

In many towns we saw dilapidated and abandoned old synagogues. Some were converted into museums, houses of culture or movie theaters. Everywhere we saw monuments and memorials made of stone, steel, granite or marble. There were plaques commemorating a former Jewish school, Yeshiva or Mikvah — silent reminders of a murdered culture.

In the archives of the Warsaw Jewish Historical Institute, I found my name and the names of my parents listed as survivors. I also found the “information” cards which my father had filled out almost 50 years ago when he, along with thousands of others, was trying to find friends or family who might still be alive.

In Lublin, I accidently came across a house which had been used by the Joint Distribution Committee to help Jewish survivors with food, clothes and shelter. My father had talked about being there in early 1945!

And, of course, we saw the death and labor camps: Treblinka, Maidanek, Auschwitz. Nothing can prepare you for those! No pictures, films, documentaries. Nothing can prepare you to be faced with a mount of human ashes with bones still visible. In Auschwitz there is a sarcophagus filled with human bones that the Germans had not had time to burn. Torture chambers that only a bestial inhuman mind could create, gas chambers and crematoriums. Nothing can prepare you to read the ledgers describing how much oil was used for a crematorium; what time a transport train had arrived from Vienna, how heavy the “load” and who the supervisor was. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of public gallows, rows of barracks with their wooden bunk “beds” where five to ten inmates had to share.

Only in Warsaw and Cracow is there a “working” synagogue where the few old Jewish remnants meet to pray with a growing number of tourists. There is even a kosher restaurant supported by an American foundation and a kosher “soup kitchen” where some old survivors can get a kosher meal for a few zlotys (Polish currency).

During my visit in 1994, much was being written about a “Jewish rebirth” in Poland. This included the Jewish theater in Warsaw, books on Jewish subjects being printed, musical groups performing Jewish music and the many plays on Jewish themes being performed to sell-out, non-Jewish audiences. 

In my opinion at the time, this Jewish “rebirth” was a rebirth without a child, without the prospect of a viable life. True, there were some stirrings among the several thousand people who were “coming out of the closet,” now that it was no longer a threat to be a Jew. There were some Gentile “parents” who, as their days become numbered because of age, cleared their conscience and uncovered the true heritage of their “children,” but all this was far from a Jewish rebirth. 

The truth was that the Jews and Judaism had become a pet study of Polish archeologists and anthropologists. They still regarded us as a dead culture. One pamphlet, issued by the Polish travel agency Orbis to promote Jewish tourism put it very plainly. It was titled: “They lived among us.”

After our group returned to the States, my husband and I stayed in Poland. We started on my personal journey of retracing my past.

Our first stop was in Tarnow, where I was born. The town of 25,000 Jews was “Judenrein” (clean of Jews), its last Jew having died in the spring of 1994. A town whose Jewish cemetery, one of the largest left in Poland, was as overgrown with weeds and in much the same condition of chaos as most of those in other communities. It was a town whose Jewish artifacts, archives and memories are being cared for by a Gentile anthropologist interested in Jewish and Gypsy cultures. He was assisted by his 17-year-old daughter, who was on her way to Israel to study for a year’s study on a kibbutz.

I found the apartment in which my parents had lived. An old woman lived there. She told me she moved in at the beginning of 1942 — just after my parents were forced to move out! I could not help wondering, Was this still my parents’ furniture? I did not dare to ask.

I found the place where my grandfather’s store had been. There, I met an old-timer who remembered “an elderly Jewish watchmaker who had a store there under the big clock (a town landmark that still hangs today) and one day he went away.” I remembered my father talking about that clock. I found the streets on which my mother had lived before her marriage and the house in the Ghetto in which all three of us had lived.  

I walked the streets of the Ghetto. The only remaining part of a once magnificent synagogue was the bimah that the Germans had not been able to destroy. I searched in vain for the grave of my grandmother who had died in 1934. Although that tombstone was standing in 1948 (my mother visited it and took a picture of it), the neglect and animosity of the post-war residents led to vandalism, destruction and theft of many tombstones. (Note: I left all vital information with some workers who eventually found the grave and restored the missing marble epitaph.)

From Tarnow, I retraced my mother’s steps as she had escaped from the Ghetto with me, a two-year old. She had lived as an Aryan in several small towns and finally ended up in Warsaw. It was here that my father managed to join us, having escaped from the Tarnow Ghetto just before its liquidation. 

After the Warsaw Uprising, we were made to march to Pruszków with thousands of others. The three of us searched for shelter due to the upcoming winter.

Wladzia, husband and Felicia.

Fifty years later, on August 10,1994, my husband and I found that farmhouse. The fact that we found it was a minor miracle. All I had was the name of the village and the name of the old farmer. It took some amount of detective work and luck to find the village, which is not even listed on any map we could find. It consisted of a few farm houses linked by dirt roads, no street names, no post office, no stores. The farm had three broken down barns and a three-room renovated farmhouse with a new kitchen (that sheltered a hatching hen from the thousands of flies in the yard). 

The farmer’s older daughter, who still lived on the farm, greeted me like a long lost relative once I identified myself. Her sister, who lived in the adjacent “big” town of 38,000, greeted me with tears, hugs and kisses. We spent a couple of hours reminiscing about our lives in those days. They talked with great admiration, respect and warmth about my parents and “our” family. “We were like one big family” they kept repeating. They had adopted me, the four-year old, as their little sister and were overcome with emotion that I had found them.

For my part, I had — and still have — very mixed feelings about that meeting. For as gracious as they had been, as warm as their welcome was now, as much as they talked about us being a “family,” sharing everything, caring for each other, I knew that all this was based on a lie. 

Even on that day in 1994, they did not know that they saved a Jewish family. All thoughts of telling them the “truth” disappeared when the husband of one of the sisters became vehemently agitated when the conversation turned to Lech Walesa, then the Polish President and the hero of Solidarity: “He is ruining the country, and it is all the Jews’ fault! They got him in his pocket, they own him. He has sold the country to the Jews!”

Following that remark, we quickly said our goodbyes and headed for the waiting cab. Wladja, the daughter, followed us and asked if we wanted to reconnect with her sister Janina. As she lived in a small town nearby, we agreed.

Janina, Felicia and Wladzia.

When we arrived at Janina’s tiny apartment and I identified myself, we were greeted with the same hugs and kisses as before. We talked for another hour or so, reminiscing how we were “one family.” I, in turn, became extremely anxious and cautious in what I said. I felt like I had turned into my mother during our time living with them, watching every word I uttered. When asked to see pictures of our grandchildren, I whispered to my husband “Do you have a photo which does not show yarmulkas?” 

As we parted, we were loaded with gifts forced upon us, promises of keeping in touch and an invitation to spend the following summer on the farm.

Please leave your comments below. 

Read more by Felicia Graber.

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  1. Felicia, Another amazing story that boggles the mind. Thank you so much for sharing your life experiences with us and our readers.

  2. Amazing story. Thank you for sharing your experiences with others. It must have been so hard for you to retrace your family’s steps.