A bittersweet return to Poland
Reunion of Czestochowa Jews and descendants allows 'Post' reporter to delve into her family’s Polish history.
World Society of Czestochowa Jews reunion Photo: Courtesy
Most people, especially Jews, have multiple identities. If we live in Israel,
but were not born here, we are often dual- or triple-nationals, holding
citizenship in our lands of birth or those in which we were raised, Israel, and
in the case of those born in Europe or of European parentage, also in the EU.
Other aspects of our identities lie in political affiliations and in whether we
are secular, traditional or religiously observant, and to which countries we
trace our roots or the nomadic past of our ancestors. All these parts of the
identity puzzle could be discerned at the Fourth Reunion of the World Society of
Czestochowa Jews and their Descendants, which took place in Czestochowa, Poland,
during the intermediate days of Succot.
Among the close to 200
participants, most of whom came from either the United States or Israel, but
also from France, England, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Australia,
there were also those who had lived for many years in the US and settled in
Israel afterwards, and some who had lived in Israel for many years and are now
living in the US. In fact one of the aspects of the reunion was an international
academic conference on identity versus stereotypes: Poles and Jews at the Jan
Both my parents came from Czestochowa. They grew up
there, married there, and were it not for an anti-Semitic incident for which my
father’s retaliation would have surely landed him in prison, had he been found
out, I too might have been born in Czestochowa instead of Melbourne, Australia.
Or I might not have been born at all, because my parents, like so many of their
relatives and co-religionists, would have been sent to Treblinka.
mother never encountered any anti-Semitism in Poland. She was aware of it, but
it never touched her personally, and so she did not have that antagonism toward
Poland so common among Jews of Polish background.
On the contrary, she
felt tremendous nostalgia for Poland, and when I was a child she sang to me in
Polish, told me Polish fairy tales and repeatedly told me about the beauty of
her city and its surroundings, especially the amazing sight of Catholic pilgrims
“walking” on their knees to the Church of the Black Madonna on the Jasna
My paternal grandmother died before the war, so unlike her husband,
most of her children and grandchildren, my mother’s parents and two of their
children, she has a grave. The first time I went to Czestochowa, in the final
stages of Communist rule, it was difficult to obtain a visa on an Israeli
passport or even an Australian passport. But I had a photograph of my
grandmother’s grave which I took with me to the Polish representative office
that was located in Ramat Gan prior to the renewal of full diplomatic relations
between Poland and Israel.
Initially, my request for a visa was denied,
but when I produced the photo and explained that this was all I had left from my
father’s family, the visa problem disappeared.
On that first journey to
Poland, I took with me a stone from Jerusalem to place on my grandmother’s
grave, and before returning to Israel, I remembered how my mother in moments of
yearning for the Poland of her youth would say how much she would give for a
So I went to the market in Warsaw before my return flight,
bought the most expensive apples, which were not starchy and half rotten like
the cheaper varieties, and placed one on my mother’s grave in
My recent visit, in line with the reunion, was not like any of
my previous visits, when I had been either on my own or with a friend or
acquaintance. Being part of a large group was a completely different
I had been on group tours to other parts of Poland before,
once with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, with presidents Chaim Herzog, Moshe
Katsav and Shimon Peres and on two occasions with groups of Holocaust
All of these visits were emotionally moving, but not on as
personal a level as the Czestochowa reunion, which was almost a
Indeed, for Sigmund Rolat, a frequent visitor to Czestochowa,
each and every visit is a homecoming. A teenage Holocaust survivor who was
witness to and victim of Nazi brutality, Rolat went to the United States soon
after the war, and did not return to Poland till 1967, at which time he also
brought his children.
Rolat does not harbor any hatred for Poland. Until
the Nazi invasion of September, 1939, he had lived a very good life in harmony
with non-Jewish neighbors. He chose to remember that period, which in a sense
became the compass for his future activities.
Over the years, especially
during the past 20-plus years following Poland’s freedom from the Communist
yoke, Rolat, who is the president of The World Society of Czestochowa Jews and
their Descendants, has been heavily involved in bringing Jewish culture back to
Poland in general and Czestochowa in particular.
IN Czestochowa, where he
has been granted honorary citizenship, he is treated like royalty. Municipal
dignitaries and heads of academic institutions greet him as if he were a king.
An extremely wealthy individual, Rolat made a large chunk of his fortune as the
Levi Strauss of Poland at a time when Polish youth would give an arm and a leg
for a pair of jeans. Rolat managed to get lots of denim into Poland. From
textiles he branched into real estate and from there into international finance
– and all the rest is history.
Rolat says that money is merely a means to
an end. He has bank-rolled numerous Jewish cultural projects in Poland,
and some of these have in turn given impetus to local councils and to state
bodies to finance similar projects.
Aside from the many projects that he
has underwritten in Czestochowa, Rolat is chairman of the North American Council
of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
The museum is due to open on
the site of the Warsaw Ghetto in April, 2013, in tandem with the 70th
anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Rolat is also an enthusiastic
supporter of the annual Krakow Jewish Festival, whose founder Janusz Makuch was
among the guests at Rolat’s table at the opening banquet of the Czestochowa
reunion, as was Golda Tencer, the director of the Shalom Foundation which each
year organizes a multi-cultural Shalom Aleichem Festival in Warsaw.
present was Bente Kahan, a Norwegian folk singer of Yiddish and Hebrew melodies,
who while doing a gig in Wroclaw a few years back fell in love with the city,
decided to live there, and since settling has restored the historic White Stork
Synagogue, which serves both as a place of worship and community-cum-cultural
Kahan’s activities are to a large extent supported by the Wroclaw
municipality. The community center maintains a kosher kitchen from which it
provides food for Wroclaw’s Jewish poor as well as for Jewish travelers who
observe the dietary laws. Kahan, by the way, is a childhood friend of
Jerusalem-based Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former government minister who still
serves as chief rabbi of Norway.
Another participant who feels as much at
home in Poland as he does in Tel Aviv is sculptor Samuel Willenberg, one of the
very few survivors of the notorious Treblinka death camp. Born in Czestochowa,
Willenberg, 89, together with Rolat’s father Henryk Rosenblat, initiated a
revolt in Treblinka in which prisoners who literally had nothing to lose, rose
up against their guards. Willenberg survived the fighting and escaped. Rosenblat
Though shot in the leg during the fighting, Willenberg somehow
managed to reach the Polish resistance army, which he joined, never making a
secret of the fact that he was Jewish. In fact, because he was Jewish, he was
able in 1944 to save the lives of Alina Kerson and her cousin who had posed as
young frauleins and had been sheltered by a Volksdeutsche woman. The girls did
not look anything like stereotyped images of Jewish females, and it was only
after Willenberg vouched for the fact that they were Jewish that they did not
suffer at the hands of the resistance fighters. Willenberg recorded the incident
in his book Surviving Treblinka.
Kerson, who now lives in San Francisco,
purchased the book, saw the reference and in 1993, both she and her husband
wrote letters of appreciation to Willenberg. Only a few days before the reunion,
she had contacted Willenberg again to tell him that she was coming with her two
sons. For Willenberg it was almost like stepping back into the past, and
throughout the reunion he kept introducing Kerson to anyone and
Willenberg and his wife Ada, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto,
visit Poland frequently. He fought side by side with non-Jews and she was
rescued by non-Jews, so neither is negatively disposed to Poland, where they
feel very much at home even though they have lived in Israel since 1950. When
they were younger, they frequently escorted kibbutz youth groups as well as
groups of Israeli school children to Poland.
THE “broken wall” monument
on the site of the Umschlagplatz, from which thousands of Czestochowa Jews
murdered in the Holocaust were transported to Treblinka, was designed by
Willenberg, who according to Rolat selected every brick himself. The memorial
ceremony at the monument, replete with Polish military honor guard and municipal
representatives from the mayor downwards, was extraordinarily moving because
every single participant in the reunion lit a memorial candle.
every one of us had lost close or distant relatives in the Holocaust, and coming
together from different parts of the world, this was one of the few places in
which we could light candles of memory which were simultaneously candles of hope
– flickering lights that proved that the Nazis had failed to exterminate the
Jewish people, because we, the descendants of victims of the Holocaust were
there to rekindle the flame of continuity.
Ironically, less than 200
hundred meters from the monument is the huge shopping mall constructed by
Israeli real estate developer Motti Zisser, whose Plaza Centers, a subsidiary of
Elbit Imaging, is listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange. Zisser, the son of Polish
Holocaust survivors, was among the Israeli business pioneers who began building
hotels and shopping malls in Eastern Europe as Communist rule began winding
The mall in Czestochowa is one of several that Plaza Centers has
built in Poland. Despite the fact that Israelis are obsessive shoppers, none of
us went inside. We were too overcome by the memorial service at the
Another highly emotional experience was at the Hasag Pelzery
ammunitions factory, where so many of our relatives had worked as slave laborers
recycling spent German artillery shells and making bullets to be shipped back to
“My grandmother was here,” said a young Israeli woman whose
name I didn’t catch. “She always talked about it, and my mind absorbed it, but I
couldn’t feel what it was like. I had to come here in order to feel it, to
understand what she experienced.” Her grandmother died 10 years ago.
Sharf, another young Israeli, recalled having come to Hasag 11 years ago with
her high school class. At that time she had asked her grandparents who lived in
Holon and who had worked as slave laborers what it was like.
grandfather had written her a poem about how looking back, he could not believe
that they had dared to dream amid the horror that was part of their everyday
lives. Sometimes, when they were able to briefly sneak out of the barracks at
night to stand for moment under a moonlit sky with its winking stars, they felt
the taste of freedom, but then they looked across at the Ukrainian guard, and
the dream was immediately spoiled.
Mody Givon, usually an Israeli tour
guide, has taken countless groups to Poland. He also has his roots in
Czestochowa, but never previously explored them. This time, he was one of us,
seeking the hook on which to hang his own personal history. But having visited
Hasag so many times in the past, he could not resist telling us about the last
wills and testaments that had been written on the walls by men and women who
could no longer endure the misery and who knew they were soon destined for death
one way or the other.
In almost every case, the will was written as a
farewell letter to a spouse or a child, telling them how much the writers loved
them, but simply lacked the strength or resolve to continue living. One of the
survivors in our group, Zev Orbach, his whole body shaking as he recalled one of
the most traumatic periods in his life, spoke about life both inside and outside
He pointed to a distant gate through which he had snuck out 70
years ago to steal potatoes so that his sisters and sister-in-law could have
something to eat. His brother David had been sent to Treblinka. His sister Henia
had been married during the war and was pregnant when taken to Hasag, where she
The next day the German guard came and told her that she
couldn’t stay there with the baby, and took them both to the Slowa Hospital,
from where they and other mothers and newborn babies were taken to the cemetery
As a boy, said Orbach, he had witnessed women digging their own
graves near the Polonia Hotel – “and then they were shot.” Despite the long
passage of time, the visit for survivors who had not been there since the war
was an emotional jolt. They were visibly transported back in time. Their body
language spoke volumes. It was as if the atrocities were still taking place
before their eyes.
And yet not everything was disturbing. Czestochowa,
with its verdant parks, many pockets of urban greenery, broad streets with wide
sidewalks and pleasing mix of modernity with the quaint architecture of
yesteryear is indeed a beautiful city, with a polite and helpful
THE Poles of Czestochowa spared no effort in making us
welcome. The cynics amongst us said that the only reason for this was that they
wanted more Jewish visitors so that they could earn more Jewish money. But there
were others among us who felt that the Poles were sincere, and more than one of
the Polish dignitaries told us that Jewish life had been part of Polish life – a
kind of symbiosis.
Its disappearance was as if something had been
amputated from the nation, and they wanted to do whatever possible to restore it
by at least reviving Jewish culture and drawing inspiration from it. We
saw quite a lot of evidence of that.
The reunion was not without its
uplifting moments. For instance at the Jewish cemetery, several people
found the graves of forebears and their joy was boundless. Here were relatives
who hadn’t gone to the gas chambers but had died natural deaths.
uplifting moment was the renaming of the Czestochowa Philharmonic Orchestra to
the Bronislaw Huberman Philharmonic Orchestra. There was a certain ambivalence
in that the orchestra’s home has for some time been in what used to be the New
Synagogue. But there were not enough Jews living in Czestochowa after the war to
keep the synagogue operational and it was eventually taken over by the
Bronislaw Huberman, the brilliant violinist who founded the
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, was born in Czestochowa, which is why the
orchestra now bears his name. It is somehow fitting that if the orchestra has to
play in what used to be the synagogue, and which has been tastefully renovated
to suit the needs of a concert hall, that it does so under the rubric of a great
Jewish musician whose talent brought immeasurable pride to
It would be wonderful if the IPO could play in the Huberman
Philharmonic Auditorium on December 19 of this year in celebration of the 130th
anniversary of Huberman’s birth – but the IPO has very full schedule and on that
date it will be playing in the Philoclassica Series at Tel Aviv University’s
Smolarz auditorium. Perhaps it can arrange to play in Czestochowa in
June, 2017, on the 70th anniversary of Huberman’s death.