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 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
World Society of Czestochowa Jews reunion 370
(photo credit: 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 Dlugosz Academy.
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.
My 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 Gora.
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 Polish apple.
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 Jerusalem.
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 experience.
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 survivors.
All of these visits were emotionally moving, but not on as personal a level as the Czestochowa reunion, which was almost a homecoming.
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.
Also 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 center.
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 did not.
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 everyone.
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.
Each and 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 down.
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 monument.
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 the front.
“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.
Noa 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.
Her 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 Hasag.
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 gave birth.
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 and shot.
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 population.
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.
Another 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 orchestra.
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 Czestochowa.
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.