How an art exhibition provided the backdrop for the reunion of the Tutko family from Turobin.
By SHULA KOPF
Her mother’s funeral took place two days earlier, but Anna Tutko was resolute in her plan to travel to Krakow.She woke up early in her home in Turobin, a small town in eastern Poland, and drove to the nearest city to catch the 6 a.m. train that stops in every station along the way – a six-hour journey. Her two grown children, Kamil and Katarzyna, accompanied her.The reason for the urgent overnight trip is surprising – the opening of an art exhibition at Krakow’s Jewish Community Center by an Israeli artist, Shulamit Kopf.That’s me.More than 100 people attended the exhibition “Moscow to Berlin,” which opened the annual Jewish Culture festival this June. A few made a special effort to travel from far. Each one of them is a unique story. A thousand years of Jewish presence in Poland left a residue of memories, phantoms, whispers.The key to the Tutkos’ story is the name Kopf.Until two years ago, Anna had never heard of the name even though for hundreds of years, generations of the Kopf family had lived in Turobin, population about 1,000. And why would she? She was born after the war. She had never met a Jew. There is not a single Jew living in Turobin, not even a sign indicating that once Jews constituted 75 percent of the town’s population. The synagogue was replaced by a small shopping center. Tombstones with Hebrew writing were used by the Germans to pave sidewalks. The Jewish dead lie in an unmarked field covered by wheat in summer and a blanket of snow in winter.Two years ago I called the Tutko family out of the blue.My husband, Zeev, and I had signed up for a group tour to Poland with my husband’s cousin Lea Hirsch and her son, Amit. I noticed Lublin on the itinerary, and suggested we skip Lublin, hire a car and driver, and visit Turobin, the Kopfs’ ancestral town, an hour’s drive away.Lea said she dreams of finding in Turobin the family of the man who hid her mother in his barn for two years. When the teenage Genia Kopf emerged at war’s end from the hole in the ground, it took her time to adjust to the light and she could barely walk.There were two clues to begin the search. Lea remembered the man’s name, Antony Tetlak, and that he had no children.I speak Polish. I’m a reporter. I can do this.A call to the civil registry in town produced a cold brush-off. A call to the mayor’s secretary, the same.“Do you have a local newspaper?” I asked.I called the editor of Turobinski Dominik, the local parish magazine published quarterly. An elderly woman answered.“And why is Pani [Madame] asking for my son-in-law?” she asked, using the polite form in Polish when speaking to strangers. I explained about Genia Kopf and briefly told her story.“Yes, those were terrible times,” she sighed. “Terrible things happened.”“Can I tell you a secret?” she continued in a hushed voice.“Prosze Pani,” I replied politely.“My grandmother was Jewish. I was an eight-month-old baby when we were put on a list to be deported, but at the last minute someone erased our names. Can you believe they would deport an eight-month-old baby?” she asked, her voice indignant.”Yes, I believe it,” I answered. “There were many such babies.”A few weeks later the editor found the grandnephew of Genia’s savior, and to make it even more intriguing, he lives across the street.So when I called Krzysztof Tutko, he was prepared. His wife, Anna, works in the City Hall, and she had already heard someone from Israel is looking for them.They hosted us with the exuberant warmth one would expect from long-lost family.Whispers had passed down in the family about the strange, loner great-uncle who had hidden a Jewish girl during the war. They didn’t know details – he never talked. Genia had consented to two recorded interviews before she passed away in 2011, so I was able to fill them in.“Don’t go,” her mother warned her.Genia, her mother and five siblings had been carted away on October 15, 1943, to the town of Izbica situated on a rail line leading to the Belzec death camp. They were crowded into a synagogue. Genia, always curious, wanted to go out and look.A German soldier confronted her. She raised her arms. When he began chasing someone else, she dropped to the ground pretending to be dead. She could see the Jews being taken from the synagogue, including her own family. When it was dark, she crawled through the barbed wire fence and began walking 38 kilometers to Turobin. It was dark a day later when she entered Antony Tetlak’s barn. He was a neighbor, a farmer who felt comfortable around Jews, even knew some Yiddish. He had been kind to the family when Genia’s father, Leib, died of typhus in the 1940 winter epidemic.Tetlak found her that morning hiding in a haystack.“What am I going to do with you?” he asked with frustration. Germans had searched the premises the day after the deportation looking for Jews.“Just kill me,” Genia said. “I don’t know why I ran away. They took away my family. I’m all alone now. Just kill me.”“I will not kill you,” was his reply. “Only He who gave you your soul will take it.”Over the next few days he dug a hole in his one-horse barn, fetched a feather blanket and a pillow from the Kopf’s abandoned house, and padded the hiding place.There was no room to stand, or sit upright, only to lay down, fall asleep and pray to never wake up. Genia’s clothes were wet from the tears she shed. She thought a lot about her mother.Several years after the war Genia immigrated to Israel, where she met a fellow Turobian, Israel Zimerman. They married, and had two daughters and four grandchildren. Genia and her husband passed away, but today 13 people are alive thanks to Tetlak’s selfless act.His humane generosity was recognized last December in a ceremony in Lublin, where the Tutko family received in his name the Yad Vashem honor of Righteous Among the Nations. Lea’s family traveled to Lublin for the ceremony.The very close connection between our family and the Tutkos might explain why Anna felt compelled to travel all the way to Krakow for the opening of my exhibition, despite the circumstances of her mother’s death. She feels the connection so closely, as do we. In Krakow she gave a big hug to Genia’s granddaughter, Orit Hirsch-Matsioulas, who came for the exhibition from Israel.The Hagemejers from WarsawHer reason for keeping her maiden name when she married after World War II was purely pragmatic. The sole survivor of a large family, Eva Kracowska reasoned that perhaps a school friend or two may have survived and might be able to find her.She had no idea that 67 years later her decision would pay off, and she would discover an entire family in Poland on her paternal side that she hadn’t known existed.Eva was a cousin of my cousin, and in the lexicon of radically reduced post-war Jewish-Polish families – mishpacha.A math teacher in the Tichon Hadash High School in Tel Aviv, Kracowska was active in the Organization of Former Jewish Residents of Bialystok and its Surroundings. She was one of the few surviving members of the Bialystok underground that gave the Germans a fight on the morning of August 16, 1943, when the Germans surrounded the ghetto. The 17-year-old Kracowska was positioned at a combat spot near the Smolna Street wall with about 80 young men and women having among them some 20 rifles, Molotov bottles and a few improvised grenades. “I have not enough words to describe the hell that erupted,” she said in testimony she gave after the war. “Among the Germans, I saw a number of soldiers killed and others wounded. On the other hand, there were almost no Jewish defenders left.”Kracowska managed to hide in the ghetto for two months after the liquidation, and then escaped to the forest where she joined a partisan group.In 2008, Kracowska traveled to Bialystok to attend the 65th commemoration of the ghetto uprising. In an interview she gave to a Polish national newspaper, the sprightly 82-year-old mentioned her childhood address in Bialystok – Lipowa 17.The day the story was published, a woman in Gdansk, a port city on Poland’s Baltic coast, glanced through the newspaper when the name Kracowska jumped out of the page. Barely containing her excitement, she called her cousin Krzysztof Hagemejer, a senior specialist working in an international organization in Geneva.Their grandmother was the former Ida Kracowska from Bialystok. Over a hundred years ago she had converted to Catholicism to marry their grandfather, Hagemejer, a Pole of German origin. They had three children: two girls and a boy, Krzysztof’s father. After his father’s death, Krzysztof found a postcard from Bialystok dated 1919 with the same address as the one mentioned in the newspaper – Lipowa 17.“You can’t imagine how we have been longing over the years to locate someone from our grandmother’s family,” he says. “I knew Eva had to be a relative.”He wrote her a letter but never received a response.Five years went by.Hagemejer made it a habit to occasionally glance at the Bialystok web page, and five years later in the spring of 2013, he happened to notice that Eva Kracowska was invited to speak at the upcoming 70th anniversary commemoration of the ghetto uprising.This time he wrote to the municipality.Eva received an email in her Ramat Gan home from a friend who works in the Bialystok City Hall.“I told my friend to erase the email since I don’t have any family in Poland and certainly not Catholic,” Eva told me several years ago.That night she awoke with a jolt unable to go back to sleep. It occurred to her it could be a descendant of her Aunt Ida, her father’s younger sister whom she had never met. The family had ostracized Ida after her conversion to Catholicism. She fretted that the email might have been erased and paced in her apartment waiting for an appropriate hour to call.The Hagemejer family assembled in Warsaw that August to meet their long-lost cousin, and accompanied her to Bialystok for the commemoration ceremony. They learned that Eva’s father, Dr. Samuel Kracowski, was Ida’s brother.“It was a lot of joy having this new family especially since we started to like each other quite a lot,” says Hagemejer.Hagemejer and his wife, Ania, have been coming to Israel for Passover and Rosh Hashanah for the past six years, even after Eva passed away a year and a half ago. They began studying Hebrew, and Krzysztof is a proud member of Poland’s B’nai B’rith organization. By extension and preference, they have also become my family. So it was natural that they would get on the Warsaw-to-Krakow train and attend the opening.Johanna from BytomMy exhibition “Moscow to Berlin” tells the story of my mother’s march with the Polish army from the Soviet Union to Berlin. During her World War II military service, my mother wrote letters to her parents and brother exiled deep in Russia. She was a firsthand eyewitness to history, among the first Jews to enter Poland behind the retreating German army. At first she was reluctant to tell her parents the truth about Poland’s Jews. She wrote her first letter on the subject to her brother, Leonard Jung, three years her junior:“In this whole wide world, just the four of us are left. The rest of our family has been murdered in the cruelest way. We belong to that remnant of 3.5 million who are still alive. I will not be able to live here in the future. To walk on the ruins of what was once most treasured, on the cemetery of our relatives, a person would need to be heartless. Don’t have any delusions or visions of a faraway fatherland. This is the grave of our people. We don’t have a place here. Take my words seriously to your heart. Meantime, our parents don’t know the whole truth yet.”My mother later wrote that should they decide to repatriate to Poland, they must renounce any connection to the Jewish people, in other words, pretend to be ethnic Poles.Those are the very words my uncle took seriously to his heart.After my mother and grandmother left Poland in the early 1950s for Israel, he remained, changed his name to a Slavic-sounding name and blended in to Polish society in Bytom, a medium size city in southern Poland where he was a successful, well-respected lawyer.In the 1960s he married a woman of German descent and soon after, a little baby girl was born, Johanna.My uncle divorced his wife almost immediately after – I heard my mother saying something about the wife having baptized the baby against my uncle’s wishes. During the time of the divorce, the wife sent my mother an angry letter with an antisemitic trope. My uncle cut off all connection with his ex-wife – he paid child support all through the years, but claimed the little girl was not his child. He was insistent. He didn’t like to talk about the subject.He remarried a wonderful, warm and loving woman, Barbara, and swore to her that Johanna was not his child. He had no other children.He and Johanna lived in the same city, Bytom, all those years, but he never came to see her, not even on her birthday. He never took her for ice-cream or saw her in a school play. As an adult she sent him an invitation to her wedding. He declined.After he passed away in 2010, I felt free to look for Johanna.She was happy to hear from me. She knew her father (she considered him her father) had a sister and two nieces. We spoke at length. We became friends on Facebook and exchanged emails. We met during one of my trips to Poland, and I brought photographs of my (our?) grandparents and other family and introduced them to her. Johanna was a lawyer like her father. They once appeared in court on opposite sides. She won. She is a strong woman who does not seem broken by my uncle’s abandonment. She was puzzled by his rejection, saying she read somewhere that Jews generally make dedicated parents.My sister, who also met Johanna, decided Johanna has our grandmother’s nose.But I’m a journalist and I want to know the truth. Is Johanna my cousin?For the next trip to Poland I ordered a DNA kit. I had already taken the test with the same company. It’s a delicate subject, and I thought that if it didn’t feel right, I would take the kit back home, no harm done.My sister and I met Johanna at our hotel and we spoke for hours. I brought up the DNA test at the opportune moment and Johanna immediately agreed.The results came in: Johanna is 50% Ashkenazi Jew, and 100% my first cousin.“I never had any doubts that he was my father,” she said.I satisfied my curiosity on one aspect of the story, but the other I will never know. Why did my uncle choose to deny his child who lived just a few kilometers from him? Did he really believe she was not his child?The only theory I can come up with is that he found his wife to be an antisemite, and knew the only way to cut all connection to her was to also cut any links to his daughter. Maybe there was another reason.There is much pain in this story. My uncle had a grandson who lived in the same city, whom he never met. There are bizarre entanglements. Johanna’s maternal grandfather was a soldier in the Nazi Wehrmacht.Johanna came from Bytom to the opening of the exhibition with her husband and teenage son. During my presentation I showed photographs, including those of her father as a young child in Krakow before the war, and as a young adult during the exile in Russia. Since there wasn’t time to talk privately during the opening, Johanna made the trip again to Krakow two days later. We went to a café.She said she regretted not having met my mother, her aunt, before she passed away in 2014.Johanna bought me a gift, a bracelet with the inscription “Family is a circle of love.”I happened to be wearing an antique bracelet that had belonged to my mother. I took if off my arm and gave it to Johanna.“This is for you,” I said. “From your aunt.”