A poignant trip back in time to Piotrokov

A flight to the city where the Nazis built their first ghetto in Poland inevitably recalls its Holocaust-era history.

Piotrokov 311 (photo credit: Shmuel Ben Eliezer/The Synagogues of Europe)
Piotrokov 311
(photo credit: Shmuel Ben Eliezer/The Synagogues of Europe)
PIOTROKOV, Poland – This is not a place that Poland’s tourist agencies would necessarily recommend.
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 Poland.
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 center.
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.
This is 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 them.”
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 says emphatically.
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 available.
“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 murdered.
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 computer.
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 deliveries.
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.
It enabled 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 store.
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.
Traison’s family 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 consciousness.
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 Traison.
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.
It 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 physiotherapy.
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 ghetto area.
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 building.
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.
Shabbat was 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.
The 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.
Krakow gave 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 “pseudo-Jewish” character.
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 visiting groups.
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 are not.
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 me.”
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.
Another Chabadnik, a Cohen, blessed the bride before the ceremony.
There were 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 canopy.
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 here.”
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 festival’s history.
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 authorities.
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.