PIOTROKOV, Poland – This is not a place that Poland’s tourist agencies would
Though rich in Jewish history and leadership
before the Second World War, it is now underdeveloped and shabby looking, with
its most important claim to fame as far as contemporary Jews are concerned being
that it is the birthplace of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi and former Chief Rabbi of
Israel Yisrael Meir Lau, whose father Rabbi Moshe Haim Lau was the last rabbi of
Piotrokov; and that it was the first place in which the Nazis built a ghetto in
But Piotrokov (sometimes spelled Pietrokov) – about an hour’s
drive from Lodz in one direction and an hour away in an express train from
Czestochowa in another – is also the birthplace of a significant number of
people from the Jewish Diaspora.
This is how I came to find myself here.
Not that I have roots in Piotrokov. My family came from Czestochowa, Benzin,
Krzepice, Katowice, Sosnowiec, Lelow and Klorbuck.
However, my friend
Rena Quint, a child Holocaust survivor was born in Piotrokov, though she has
little, almost no memory of her earliest years. But when a group of first,
second and third generation Holocaust survivors with a Piotrokov background
decided to go there, she signed up and asked me and another friend, Esther
Klein, to go with her.
Esther is the daughter of Holocaust survivors from
Czestochowa. In the past, she had resisted going to Poland, and even when she
was prepared to cross the border during a trip to the Czech Republic, something
interfered with her plans and she never went. Now, because of Czestochowa’s
close proximity to Piotrokov, and because I, who had thrice before been to
Czestochowa agreed to go with her, she took the plunge.
We left Israel on
a dawn flight for Warsaw, and went directly from Chopin International Airport to
the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw’s Tlomackie Street which is housed in
what used to be the main library of Judaica and the Institute for Judaic
Studies. It was also here that historian Emanuel Ringelblum set up the legendary
Oneg Shabbat Group that recorded for posterity what was happening under the Nazi
boot. The building was part of the Warsaw Ghetto.
The JHI, which was
officially established in 1947, has exhibitions of pre-war Jewish Warsaw,
researches the history and culture of Polish Jews, hosts lectures and seminars,
publishes books and periodicals, conducts Hebrew language classes, is the
largest repository in Poland of Jewish archival material and remains of
destroyed synagogues and also runs a Jewish genealogy family heritage
It was in the latter context that we met Yale J. Reisner, an
American who has been living in Poland for 16 years, and who came there under
the auspices of the Lauder Foundation which until the end of June this year
financed the center, but is now channeling its funding into Jewish education.
Reisner helps people working on family histories and family trees. He assists
them to find the towns in which their forebears lived and even traces relatives
whose existence was previously unknown.
Even now, 65 years after the end
of the war, his office receives an average of 1,000 requests a month, often from
people who mistakenly believe that all records were destroyed.
but one of the myths circulating about Poland, he says. Another is that there
are no Jews in Poland.
“There are thousands of Jews in Poland,” Reisner
asserts. “They might want to know you and you might want to know
Over the years he’s managed to reunite mothers and daughters,
fathers and sons, siblings and cousins who lost touch with each other decades
ago and each presumed the other had died, Reisner has received many letters
stating: “I’m the sole survivor of my family and I want to tell my grandchildren
something about where I came from.”
Often, the letter writers are not
sole survivors, but they don’t know it until Reisner, through cross referencing,
puts them in contact with long lost relatives. “These things still happen,” he
As for records, yes, it’s true that many were
destroyed, but certainly not all, and from those that do exist family histories
can be pieced together. The Germans kept excellent records, aside from which
there are all kinds of records in addition to births, marriages and deaths,
notes Reisner. Jews owned property, they served in the army, they paid taxes,
they had ID cards and passports, copies of which may still exist on file. Those
who served as officers in the army received medals, and their names were
recorded. It just takes perseverance to follow whatever leads are
“We use anything we can, including records from the Mormon
data base,” he says.
We could have listened to Reisner all day, but our
next stop was Treblinka, the horrendous death camp in which so many Jews from
Piotrokov, not to mention Warsaw, Czestochowa and places elsewhere, were
There is always something heart-wrenching about Treblinka where
stones have been placed at random to represent each of the Polish Jewish
communities lost during the Second World War.
We gathered around the
Piotrokov stone and recited memorial prayers, after which each of us listed the
names of relatives whose lives had been snuffed out by the Nazis. It was a
strong emotional bonding experience, and the fact that Esther and I had no ties
to Piotrokov was completely irrelevant.
We remained for their ceremony,
then went in search of the Czestochowa stone and lit memorial candles which we
had brought from Israel.
From the grimness of Treblinka, we headed for
downtown Warsaw, which these days is brightly lit, with tall modern buildings
gracing its wide boulevards.
Warsaw, even in the grayness of the
Communist era when I made my first visit, was a beautiful city, but today, it is
breathtaking in its grandeur, with its mix of heavy old world and contemporary
glass wall architecture.
WE stayed overnight at the luxurious Westin
Hotel, which offers every comfort and where the staff is friendly and obliging,
even to the extent of specially opening the business lounge to enable use of a
Unfortunately, for reasons of kashrut, we could not eat in the
Westin’s attractive dining room, but our tour organizer Netanel Yechieli, a
young man from Efrat who looks like some ancient Biblical prophet, and who was
intense about imparting whatever knowledge he had about Piotrokov and its people
had arranged for us to eat at Kosher Delight, a glatt kosher catering
establishment in nearby Grzybowska Street run by Ger Hassid Pinhas Etzioni who
hails from Bnei Brak. Kosher Delight has no relationship to the New York
establishment of the same name, and Etzioni freely admits that he adopted the
name because of its familiarity to American Jews.
Etzioni is actually
headquartered in Lodz but caters to Jewish groups and tourists all over the
country and has branches in Krakow and Warsaw. When we arrived, the place was
packed with youth groups. Etzioni plans to open a regular kosher restaurant in
Warsaw, but if he wants to succeed, he will have to improve the quality and
variety of his cuisine.
One of his chief employees is Pawel, a former
truck driver and skin-head who discovered just over a decade ago that he was
Jewish and went from one extreme to the other, transforming himself from an
ardent, Jew-bashing anti-Semite to an orthodox Jew with peyot and large arba
kanfot that he wears over his shirt for all to see. He handles out-of-town
Even non-Jews are familiar with his story, but he is still
reluctant to publish his last name for fear that his former companions in hate
will track him down and beat him up.
We met Pawel in Warsaw and saw him
throughout our three-day stay in Piotrokov.
On the way there, Netanel
kept telling us not to expect anything like our hotel in Warsaw, and implied
that we would stay in a low-grade youth hostel. Actually, it was a comfortable
one or two star hotel. Most of us had a bathroom, and the spotlessly clean
bedroom had a television set tuned only to Polish stations. The staff, though
polite and eager to be of service, knew almost no English and I was constantly
acting as interpreter, more for the hotel staff than for the Piotrokov group
whose members came from Israel, America, England and France.
The trip had
been headlined a Shabbaton – but it was much more than that.
participants to touch base with their personal past and with their family
histories in what had once been the Jewish area.
Yechieli’s family, whose
original name was Kurlends, had been quite affluent, owning a relatively large
building for lodgers, a printing house and a candy manufacturing plant and
The lodging house has fallen into disrepair. A resident on an
upper floor refused to allow us inside, but on the ground floor, a man invited
us in to his one-room overfurnished apartment with no toilet facilities that we
could see other than a washbasin. Further down the street, a shop proprietor
whose father or grandfather had been Jewish told us that she would like the Jews
to come back to Piotrokov.
Jews settled there in 1629, but there are no
known Jews living in Piotrokov today, although there is a restored Jewish
cemetery dating back to 1793 which has been cleaned up and restored. The
restoration project was financed to a large extent by former Jewish residents
and their descendants, and primarily by Robert Dessau, who was part of our group
and his late brother, Saul.
There were three Dessau brothers who survived
the Holocaust. After the war they went to Germany and from there to the United
States where they became successful industrialists and builders. They were
particularly interested in restoring and improving the cemetery because one of
their close relatives, Dr. Hayim Barnard, who was known as the Great Tzaddik of
Piotrokov, is buried there.
They also put special structures over the
graves of other great hassidic leaders.
Our group included twin brothers
Yeshayahu and Yoel Brandwein, 82, who survived Auschwitz and Mauthausen, and now
live in Tel Aviv.
Their father had been a watchmaker in Piotrokov, and
taught his young sons the intricacies of taking watches apart and putting them
together. More than once when they were destined for death, they were taken out
by a Nazi officer and assigned to fix watches.
According to the brothers,
the Nazis were obsessive about watches, and anyone who knew how to repair them
got an extra lease on life.
There were three generations of Brandweins on
the tour, and although the second and third generation had all their lives heard
stories of Piotrokov, their reactions to everything they heard and saw were of
first-time wonder and curiosity.
The twins have phenomenal memories for
detail, and as we walked through the Jewish quarter, they literally relived
their childhood, pointing to buildings once occupied by Jews and reciting the
names of the residents, pointing to what had been a heder or a Talmud Torah or a
Jewish owned store.
Though Netanel Yechieli was our main contact before,
during and after the Shabbaton, the actual event was organized by a
Chicago-based lawyer and philanthropist Michael Traison, 64, who is a senior
partner in an international law firm with 400 partners.
roots are in Ukraine, not in Poland, but for 18 years he has devoted his
energies to the preservation of Polish-Jewish heritage, especially in places
where Jews once flourished and contributed to culture and commerce, but which
today are bereft of Jews.
This is his way of memorializing what was and
ensuring that it does not entirely disappear from public
Towards this end he organizes Shabbatons, “because I want
to create situations where we can all remember where Jewish footsteps could be
heard, and where they were silent for more than sixty years; and I want to bring
back the smell of cholent in the air.”
Each year at the Krakow Festival
of Jewish Culture, Traison – in conjunction with the Israel Embassy – honors
Polish individuals who are doing something of value to preserve the memory of
Jewish heritage in their cities, towns and villages.
Such acts include
introducing programs of Jewish culture, maintaining a Jewish cemetery, ensuring
that a former synagogue is cared for and not vandalized, introducing Jewish
books to a library, taking classes of school children through what used to be a
Jewish quarter or a ghetto, finding lost Jewish manuscripts and transferring
them to Jewish authorities… the list is endless.
“Poles are really
enthusiastic about being awarded certificates from Israel,” says
In fact during our stay in Piotrokov there was a Jewish culture
week followed by a Jewish film festival, in addition to which several Poles
attended the Shabbaton.
AFTER Piotrokov, Rena and I went to Krakow to
witness an award ceremony that was also attended by Israel Ambassador Zvi
Rav-Ner, and we were amazed by the importance attached to it by the recipients
of awards, who attired in their best finery, came from many parts of Poland with
relatives and friends.
But back to Piotrokov for the moment, or rather a
separate journey which Esther and I took to Czestochowa, which over the past
decade has become vastly transformed, into a beautiful modern city.
takes only a couple of minutes to walk from the relatively new railway station
to the long avenue that at one end leads to the old market and the area that was
the Jewish Ghetto and the other to the famed Jasna Gura sanctuary which houses
Poland’s most famous religious icon The Black Madonna.
The path to the
Jasna Gura is lined with attractive outdoor coffee shops and elegant fashion
stores. We would have loved to have stopped for coffee or to window shop, but
our guide Starek Grynbaum, whose father is Jewish, but whose mother is not, had
limited time because he was taking an exam to augment his degree in
Grynbaum who identifies as a Jew and belongs to the local
Jewish social and cultural society loves to show Israelis around Czestochowa,
especially around what used to be Jewish Czestochowa.
We wanted to pay
him, but he refused and said we could send him Israel-sloganed T-shirts instead.
We visited the building where Esther’s mother had lived and then went to the
In Garibaldi Street, not far from my grandfather’s property,
there was a sign over what used to be the mikva (ritual bath) that a Jewish
Cultural Center was to be built there thanks to the efforts of the Czestochowa
Jewish Historical Association and supported by the Marshall’s Office of
Czestochowa. The center will contain a museum, youth hostel (mainly for
participants in March of the Living), a kosher restaurant, a facility for
teaching Hebrew and Yiddish to high school students, exhibition galleries and a
music auditorium. This is somewhat ironic, because just down the street, what
used to be the main synagogue long ago became the home of the Philharmonic
orchestra, with only the original staircase remaining inside the
While Esther and I were in Czestochowa, Rena and other people
in the group with the help of researcher Jacek Bednarek, a young Pole who feels
a sense of obligation towards the Jews, were at Piotrokov’s Hall of Records
trying to find out more about their respective families. Rena discovered that
neither of her parents had been born in Piotrokov and that her father had
several siblings. It was something she had not known before, although she had
previously visited the house in which her parents had lived.
the highlight of our stay in Piotrokov. The synagogue where Rabbi Moshe Lau had
been the spiritual leader is now a public library, but for two days it reverted
to its original purpose.
The Friday night service, in part to Carlebach
melodies, was awesome. It sounded as if we had been joined by all the Jewish
ghosts of Piotrokov.
Saturday was even more emotional, because it was the
71st anniversary of the bar mitzva of Naftali Lau-Lavie, the elder brother of
the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. Lau-Lavie, who had come with his immediate family,
could envisage the congregants who had sat there when he was a boy.
Brandwein twins joined him in the bitter-sweet trip down memory lane, recalling
where his father had sat, and where other members of the community whose names
they still remembered, had taken their places Rabbi Michael Shudrich, the Chief
Rabbi of Poland had brought crates of prayer books and Bibles from Warsaw,
though most of us had brought our own from home. Still, it was somehow
comforting to know that these editions were not the remains of a dead era, but
had been printed in the new post-war, post-Communist Poland.
us a different emotional high. Along with many other Israelis, we stayed in the
delightful Rubinstein hotel, built on the foundations of a 16th century tenement
in the Kazimierz District, which does not appeal to Traison because of its
It takes a very short time to walk through the
whole of Kazimierz which has several synagogues, only two of which actually
function as such, and a third which is sometimes used for services by large
The pseudo Jewish description applies to the restaurants
with signs and menus in Yiddish or Hebrew and the many shops that specialize in
Jewish books and CDs.
Some of the bookstores are run by Jews, but most
The restaurants with their East European Jewish delicacies are
certainly not kosher, but kosher food is available at the Kosher Delight
restaurant housed on the premises of the Chabad-run Isaac Synagogue where Rabbi
Eliezer Gurary, a young Israeli is in charge.
Aside from that, there is
one Jewish hotel – the Eden, which is one minute’s walk from the Isaac synagogue
and which actually has a mikva, mezuzot on the door posts of the rooms and
provides kosher food on request. The Eden is run by Allen Haberberg, a genial
New York expatriate who hails from Manhattan and who says he got there “because
I came on a roots trip 18 years ago and they caught up with
Haberberg does good business all year round, not just during the
Jewish Culture Festival because Jewish groups, particularly hassidic groups that
come to Poland to visit the graves of great rabbis, prefer to stay in a
genuinely Jewish environment.
Rena and I had not counted on going to a
wedding in Poland. I actually went to two, because in Piotrokov I snuck into a
church when I saw the wedding party walk in and was astounded by the elaborate
interior which contained more gold than a royal palace.
IN Krakow, while
we were sitting in the “office” of Rabbi Edgar Gluck, the Chief Rabbi of Galicia
in the outdoor Eden coffee shop which is actually across the road from the
hotel, we were approached by a man whose attire indicated that he was a
Chabadnik. It was his first visit and he was looking for the Isaac Synagogue
where he was to perform a wedding later in the day. Under his arm was a large
flat parcel that looked like it might contain a painting.
It was in fact
the ketuba – the wedding contract.
Rena and I went to the wedding
thinking that we would just stay for the ceremony, but we were invited to join
the wedding feast as well. The groom was Michael Sztejnberg, the Vice President
of the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival Society, who has supported the festival
since its inception more than 20 years ago. It was a second marriage for both
him and his bride Freda.. He had lost his first wife Gina in 2001, in the tragic
9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. “We actually are married,” explained
Freda. “We just didn’t have a chuppah.”
The lacuna was corrected by Rabbi
Meir Konikov, the executive director of Chabad of Fort Lee, N.J.
Chabadnik, a Cohen, blessed the bride before the ceremony.
very few people in attendance, but Konikov seemed to have a multiple echo
chamber built into his voice as he sang the blessings under the bridal
When congratulated afterwards on this remarkable ability, he
modestly stepped back, gestured towards the walls in a helicopter motion and
said: “It wasn’t me. It was all those people who used to pray
Among the beaming guests was Janusz Makuch, the founding director
of the festival who said that this was the first “glatt kosher wedding” in the
Many of the festival’s events took place in the
Galicia Jewish Museum, which like the nearby Jewish Community Center adjacent to
the Temple Synagogue is a fairly recent addition to Krakow, as is the Galicia
Museum that was established four years earlier in 2004. The Galicia Museum
exists to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to celebrate the Jewish
culture of Polish Galicia.
In addition to its other activities and
events, the museum displays a permanent photographic exhibition ‘Traces of
Memory’ comprising photographs by the late Chris Schwartz who was its first
director. The raison d’etre of the Museum is in line with the philosophy of
Michael Traison who is one of its supporters. He is also a supporter of the
Warsaw headquartered Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in
Poland which was created in 2002 by the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland
and the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
The foundation’s main
priority is to obtain restitution of real estate that belonged to pre-war Jewish
religious communities and to manage reclaimed properties, says its CEO Monika Krawczyk, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, who wages ferocious battles to preserve and restore Jewish community property, especially monuments of religious or historic significance, to obtain restitution of real estate that belonged to pre-war Jewish religious communities; and to manage reclaimed properties.
Krawczyk, who is very close to the Lau-Lavie
family, was in Piotrokov and then continued on to Krakow.
Over the years,
she has become increasingly familiar with Jewish tradition and has even taught
herself to read Hebrew. She is also vigilantly aware of any signs of
anti-Semitism and immediately reports such manifestations to the relevant
After spending a day shopping at Krakow’s Galeria Krakowska,
reputed to be the largest shopping mall in Europe, and visiting the Schindler
Museum, we left on an early morning flight to Warsaw to return to Israel.