Holocaust survivor from Bialystok finds long-lost family decades later

Keeping her maiden name made all the difference.

By SHULA KOPF
September 2, 2013 22:00
4 minute read.
EWA KRACOWSKA stands in front of a poster for an exhibit on Jewish life in Bialystok.

EWA KRACOWSKA 370. (photo credit: Dan Saguy)

When Holocaust survivor Ewa Kracowska was married 67 years ago, she decided to keep her maiden name – an unusual step at the time. Her motives were pragmatic rather than feminist. She reasoned that if she did so, childhood friends who survived the war could find her.

She held no hope of finding relatives, since she was sure she was the only one in the family to have survived the Nazi carnage in the Bialystok ghetto.

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Over the years, friends did locate her, but the big payoff came almost two months ago.

That was when Kracowska, 87, discovered she had an entire family in Poland on her paternal side that she hadn’t known existed.

Kracowska, who is active in the Organization of Former Jewish Residents of Bialystok and its Surroundings in Israel, was invited five years ago to speak at a ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Bialystok Ghetto Uprising. The Bialystok revolt took place on August 16, 1943, approximately four months after the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The German army had entered Bialystok two years earlier, and one of their first acts was to herd 2,000 Jews into the city’s synagogue and set it on fire. Ewa’s father, Dr. Samuel Kracowska, was among them.

Ewa, 17 at the time of the uprising, participated in it and is among its few survivors. She had managed to escape to the forests 25 kilometers away, where she joined a military partisan group.

During her visit to Bialystok for the memorial, several Polish newspapers interviewed her. She happened to mention her prewar address in Bialystok, 7 Lipowa Street.

Earlier this summer, she received a call from a friend who works in the Bialystok municipality. A certain individual, the city employee said, had come across one of the interviews and began making inquiries .

“The friend in Bialystok had gotten an email from a Polish- Catholic man who was looking for me, saying he is my family. I told her not to bother to send the mail and to erase it, since I don’t have any family in Poland and certainly not Catholic,” said Kracowska in an interview at her Ramat Gan home.

That night she awoke with a start and was unable to get back to sleep. She realized the message could be from a descendant of her Aunt Ida, her father’s younger sister. She began to worry that her friend might have already erased the email and she paced impatiently, waiting for an appropriate hour to call. She lasted only until 6 a.m., Polish time.

“Please don’t erase the email,” she urged her friend.

Kracowska got an immediate response.

Almost 100 years ago her father’s sister Ida met and fell in love with a Polish-Catholic man of aristocratic German descent while studying dentistry abroad. She converted, changed her name from Ida to Yadwiga and married Stanislaw Hagemejer in church.

Some family members, including her own mother, cut all ties with her, but Ewa’s father kept in touch with his beloved younger sister, who had since moved to Krakow with her husband and eventually had three children.

“I remember, when I was a child, I always saw a photo of two pretty girls on my father’s desk, and he explained to me that those are my two cousins, Wanda and Helena. I knew they also had an older brother but I hadn’t seen a photo of him,” recalls Kracowska.

“You can’t imagine how we have been longing over the years to locate someone from our grandmother’s family,” wrote Krzystof Hagemejer, Ida’s grandson. He knew his grandmother’s maiden name was Kracowska, and he had found among his father’s papers a letter sent from the same address Kracowska had provided in the newspaper interview.

“I knew she had to be a relative,” Hagemejer said.

It was shortly before the 70- year anniversary of the Bialystok Ghetto Uprising that the new family connection was made, and Kracowska had again been invited to participate in the ceremony, which took place this past August.

When she arrived in Warsaw with her grandson, Dan Saguy, members of her newly discovered family were eagerly waiting to meet her.

“I’m very happy to have family which is Jewish and lives in Israel,” Hagemejer said in a telephone interview from Switzerland, where he works as an economist for a United Nations organization. “I read a lot about the Holocaust, but now I see it from a different perspective when I realize that it happened to members of my family.”

He and his wife plan to visit Israel next April to meet the rest of the family.

“I felt like I had known them all my life,” Kracowska said. “It was something extraordinary. We talked nonstop. There is a change in my life. I’m less pessimistic, and now, all of a sudden, there is family.”


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