That map got me thinking

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Looking at the map showing the movement of Polish forces against Nazi invaders right through the land of my ancestors, I imagine the shock they must have felt. From one day to the next, they became strangers in their native place. By comparison the disruption we’ve endured for the past nine months due to COVID seems far more manageable. As I walk past the “for sale” signs on businesses in Northport’s sleepy downtown, I envision post-World War II Warsaw, the national capitol reduced to a seemingly endless expanse of rubble. Things are falling apart right now, but at least for the time being we’re not at war. We’re not being forced out of our homes and crammed into substandard shacks across town. We haven’t been stripped of our citizenship or our right to work or to go to school. For all the tragedy and disfunction around us today, we have reasonable hope that vaccines will allow us to resume our normal lives in a few more months. In another year at most.

This map of the Nazi invasion of Poland got me thinking about the losses due to COVID

I thought about these things as I tried to walk my way out of a headache this morning. One consequence of being my mother’s daughter is that a part of me is always ready for the possibility that everything will fall apart, as it did for her when her junior year in France was preempted by Nazi’s overrunning her country, when her city was bombed street by street, when her surgeries left her more scarred than she had been beforehand, when a stupid accident killed her first born.

I’ve been lucky. But also, I keep expecting my luck to run out. On one hand, this makes me appreciate what I have. I don’t take it for granted because a part of me anticipates its loss. I’m reminded of a common response to challenges among my friends in Poland in the early 1990s as they struggled to adjust to the world transforming around them; they would say, “We need to be grateful for what we have.” That really resonated with me as I struggled with loneliness as the only non-native in the small town I lived in while doing fieldwork for my dissertation.

And it continues to resonate with me. Any time things don’t go my way or I struggle with loss, I remind myself, “trzeba się cieszyć z tym co my mamy.” The words flow through me in Polish and make my sadness and frustration easier to bear. I think being my mother’s daughter also taught me how to deal with loss. You don’t retreat from the emotions. You feel them, as hard as they may be. Loss doesn’t erase the good things about what is lost, either. Grief connects you with what you’re missing, whether it be a place or an event or a person. Living with grief means what’s been lost is still in your life.

Right now, I feel the loss of so much—of sociability, of travel, of normal interactions with students inside a classroom unmediated by masks and computer screens. But I’m also grateful for what I have. And for what I used to have.

1939 Battle for Central Poland

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While going through photos, I came across this map from the Muzeum Uzbrojenia in Poznan showing the movement of the Polish army (shown in red) through central Poland when the Nazis invaded in September 1939 :

Red arrows show movements of Polish armed forces through central Poland in September 1939

It’s a little hard for me to read, but I believe Poland had a stronghold in the Kutno region and for a few days they held back the Nazis (shown in blue).

This region is exactly where my family came from. My great grandmother was born in Żychlin and eventually settled with her husband and children in Włocławek. They would have been long gone when the war started, but some of my grandmother’s siblings were still living in Włocławek. Here’s another layer of memory I need to integrate into my family story. How profoundly destabilizing it must have been for them to watch as the Polish forces fell and they became foreigners in their own country.

Skierniewice Map Translations and More

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A few readers have helped me translate the Skierniewice map I posted recently. Thank you Pnina, Ellen, Wendy, Marion, Mark, Roberta, and the reader els! It’s taken me a while to figure out Photoshop, but here is the hand-drawn map with English translations:

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Hand-drawn map of Skierniewice with English translations

I found the map in the Atlas of Memory Maps virtual exhibit, but a reader located a better resolution digital copy in its original source, the Skierniewice Memorial Book by Sefer Skernievitz, available in the New York Public Library Digital Collections. (Thanks els who shared this link with me).

Even with all the help I received, figuring this map out has been tricky. I cross-referenced what translators told me with the current Google map of the city, as well as this map of Skierniewice from 1915, from the website Mapster (again, thanks els for the info):

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Detail of 1915 Skierniewice Map. Blue lines indicate the boundaries of the hand-drawn map

As best I can tell, the hand-drawn map distorts some dimensions and locations. It draws the river parallel to the downtown blocks, when in fact, the river veers off from the downtown grid at an angle, so it’s much further away toward the southwest than the northwest (see the blue lines on the map). Considering the map in the Yizkor book was drawn from memory, it’s no surprise such inessential details would be distorted. Have you ever tried drawing a map of a place you used to live? It must have been even harder when you didn’t see it on a digital map all the time.

The word labeled “barrack” in the lower left was a tricky one. My cousin Pnina, who remembers some Yiddish from her childhood, translated it as “Kasharen. ” Roberta confirmed that “Kosharn” means “barracks.” I also found an article in a regional newspaper about the demolition of the last barrack buildings in March 2020. They were located in this same part of the city, between the river and the downtown area on 1 Maja Street. Other landmarks that still exist include the Archbishop’s Palace (Pałac Prymasowski) to the north, as well as the Market Square and Senator Street.

I’m still not sure of the location on these maps of the synagogue building that survived and currently houses a plumbing supply store. Based on the street grid, it appears to be the Torah Study Place on the Yizkor map. But what about that building on the 1915 map that appears to be shaped like connected large and small circles and positioned right inside the intersection? I’ve labeled it “synagogue?,” and similarly Pnina suggested the building in that position on the Yizkor map, labelled with a Star of David, might be a synagogue. I wonder though. Might this have been the mikvah? After all, it’s on what’s labelled Mikvah Street, and Virtual Shtetl also says the mikvah was on this street (its contemporary name is Okrzei Street).

UPDATE: My cousin Pnina told me today that the building I labeled “synagogue?” on the first map was definitely a synagogue. The small box in the lower left of that block has a Star of David and above it is written “The Shil,” which means “the synagogue” in Yiddish. So could that mean that the intersection was altered after the war so the synagogue ended up on the opposite side of the street? She also says that the “Torah study place” was probably a school, not a synagogue. If anyone reading this knows anything that might clarify things, please let me know!

Memory Map Exhibition includes Skierniewice, the Piwkos’ Hometown

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The Atlas of Memory Maps exhibit features maps drafted by non-experts in an effort to preserve the memory of their hometowns, which had been destroyed or radically transformed during and after World War II. Most were published in Yizkor books, memorial books compiled by Jewish survivors. The exhibition is mostly in Polish, but includes some English-language information. The maps contain notations in Yiddish or Hebrew. This virtual exhibition by Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre Center includes maps from Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Moldavia and Slovakia.

I found a map of Skierniewice among over 150 included in the exhibition. My grandfather Hil Majer Piwko was born in there in 1854, as were his siblings Jankel Wolf (1857), Urysz (c. 1861), Dawid (1862, d. 1865), Nusen Dawid (1866), Chawa (c. 1871), and Fajga (c. 1878). It’s where Hil Majer brought his bride Hinda Walfisz in 1873, and where they started their own family. It’s also where his parents were buried (Cywia Rajch in 1862 and Chaim Josef in 1912), and probably his stepmothers, too.

Here is the map from the exhibition:

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Map of prewar Skierniewice drawn from memory by an unknown author

Comparing it with a contemporary map, it’s hard to figure out exactly how they match up. Maybe someone who can read Yiddish can help me by translating the words on the map. Please leave me a comment if you do! I think the rivers on each map are the same, and the space marked with crosses in the bottom center of the prewar map may be the green space marked “Church of St. Stanislaus” in the bottom right of the contemporary map.

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Map of contemporary Skierniewice. The site of the synagogue is marked with a black dot surrounded by a grey circle. Source: Google Maps

I’ve been to Skierniewice twice, with my cousin Krysia in 2013 and with my cousin Bob in 2018. Little remains of the town’s Jewish heritage.

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With cousin Bob, the former synagogue in the background–it’s now an electrical supply store

The synagogue, though the exterior is well maintained, now houses an electrical supply store. On the road running parallel to the river, a few tombstones have survived in the old Jewish cemetery, but they are in what is currently the backyard of a private residence. I wonder if this cemetery was included on the prewar map? The newer Jewish cemetery contains  many more surviving tombstones as well as commemorative markers outlining the history of the town’s Jewish population. It is located beyond the bottom edges of these maps, off a dirt road a short ride south of town.

 

Located in Lublin, Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre is one of the oldest and most active Jewish heritage organizations in Poland. About its origins, Tomasz Pietrasiewicz writes:

The changes brought about by the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 initiated the process of regaining Memory by the Polish society, and Lublin was among many Polish cities which had to face their forgotten past.

When we began our activities at the Grodzka Gate [which historically separated the Jewish and Catholic districts of the city] in the early 1990s, we knew nothing about the history of Jews in Lublin. We were not aware that the enormous empty space on one side of the Gate conceals the Memory of the Jewish Quarter. We did not realize that the Gate leads to the non-existent town, the Jewish Atlantis.There is a huge parking area, lawns and new roads where there used to be houses, synagogues and streets. A large part of this area, including the foundations of the former Jewish houses, was buried under a concrete cover, and the memory of those who lived here was hidden as well. You cannot  understand Lublin’s history without these empty spaces near the Gate. For the NN Theatre, they have become a natural setting for artistic actions, Mysteries of Memory, which uncover the memory of the past while mourning the victims of the Holocaust. (from “History of Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre“).

More information about the exhibition and Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre can be found at the following websites:

Jewish Heritage Europe

Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre Center

 

Trip to Jewish Central Poland in 2022

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It turns out I’m not the only one who dreams of doing Jewish heritage work in the land of my ancestors. The Association of Descendants of Jewish Central Poland has just gained nonprofit status and welcomes members.

It started at the initiative of Leon Zamosc, who reached out to others on JewishGen seeking information about ancestors from the region around Kutno and Włocławek. As the message from the founders explains:

The concept of a regional organization of descendants developed out of an initiative to visit the districts of Wloclawek, Gostynin, and Kutno in order to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the destruction of the region’s Jewish communities during the Shoah. About 60 JewishGen researchers responded to the initial invitation, including 16 who volunteered as consultants for the planning of the Spring 2022 trip. In those early exchanges, some participants proposed the creation of a more permanent organization that would allow us to develop other activities related to the cultural heritage of the region’s shtetls. After studying the options, a subcommittee of 9 participants suggested ideas for possible activities and recommended the establishment of the ADJCP – Association of Descendants of Jewish Central Poland.

On the 2022 trip, we’ll participate in memorial activities at the Chełmno Death Camp. We will also learn about the history and culture of Jewish residents of the region, spending time in the larger cities of Włocławek, Kutno, and Gostynin. In additon, participants will have the opportunity to participate in small group excursions to the smaller cities and towns where their ancestors lived. We hope to contribute to a heritage project while we are there.

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Our Story in MyHeritage Blog

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Now, the English-language MyHeritage blog has a story about us: Hidden Photo Reveals a Secret Past and Reunites a Family, written by Talya Ladell.

The article also contains cool colorized photos. You can compare the black and white originals with the color copies by dragging the cursor over the image.

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Babcia Halina in Florida during the 1950s. Colorized photo

Cousins Reunited by a Photo and a Family Tree

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I met my cousin Pini Doron in 2013 when I found his family tree online and wrote to ask if we might be related. He asked for proof, so I sent him the photo in the header of this blog, which he recognized from his own copy. He wrote back “welcome to the family” and ever since I have felt embraced by my extended family in Israel, with Pini at the heart of it. The photo, which includes both of our grandmothers, confirmed that we are cousins.

Last week, we were contacted by Nitay Elboym, who writes for the MyHeritage Hebrew-language blog. He decided to write about our family in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a story of connections and separations that span a century.

You can find it in Hebrew at the Internet news service YNet:

אחרי 70 שנות נתק: גילה בארה”ב בני משפחה שנעלמו לאחר השואה

I’ve attached the text in English. I used Google Translate and then edited it. This is the article that appeared in the MyHeritage blog. The YNet version only has minor differences.

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Colorized photo of the family from about 1916. Marysia’s grandmother is sitting on the left and Pini’s grandmother is standing on the right

Thanks to a photo and a family tree: a Holocaust survivor son has found family members who disappeared

 By Nitay Elboym

April 21, 2020

74-year-old Pini Doron of Hod Hasharon is a longtime MyHeritage user who built a family tree for many years dating back to 1800. Pini thought he had already finished his search, when he received a message with an old family picture. This time, he realized immediately, it was an extraordinary discovery.

“I get a lot of inquiries from people who think they’re related to me,” Pini says. “I am usually skeptical of my relation to them, so I politely ask everyone to explain how we are connected. In this case too, when I received the message, I responded that I would love to know what our family relationship is,” he recalls.

“Actually, at that time, I was pretty much at the beginning of my family history research,” recalls Marysia Galbraith, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, USA. “I was looking for bits of information wherever possible. But when I saw Pini’s family tree on MyHeritage, I knew it was about me, I just didn’t know how. In short, I had no idea how to prove to him how I was related to his family tree, so I just sent the only picture I had. Besides my grandmother, I didn’t know who the people were. Then he answered me ‘Welcome to family.’ His reply almost made me cry. ”

Operation Rescue

The Piwko family lived in the town of Wloclawek, Poland. At the outbreak of World War II, Pini’s grandparents – Pinchas Kolski and his wife Rachel (nee Piwko) – and their two children, Mirka and Samek, were left there while Pini’s father was saved because he and his two brothers were sent to Israel before the war to work the family lands in Kfar Ata. “Because their city of residence was close to Warsaw, they were transferred to the Warsaw ghetto right at the beginning of the war, around 1940,” Pini says. “In the ghetto, Samek was murdered, and my grandfather died of illness. So my grandmother and her daughter Mirka were left alone, looking for a way to survive.”

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Mirka and Rachel Kolski at Pinchas Kolski’s grave in the Warsaw Ghetto

Meanwhile, Rachel’s sister, Halina, lived in relative safety outside the Warsaw ghetto, because after divorcing her first Jewish husband, she remarried a Christian man named Zygmunt Bereda. “Rachel and Halina’s father were not ready to hear about this relationship. So, when she married a Christian, he sat shiva on her,” said Pini. “Her sisters tried from time to time to keep in touch, but because of their father, the connection got weaker.” Halina and Rachel’s father, who passed away around 1930, could not have imagined that it was precisely the person who, because of his religious identity, he rejected, would save not only his daughters, but also his other descendants.

When Halina told Zygmunt that her sister was in the ghetto alone with her daughter, he decided to come to their aid despite the risk involved. “Zygmunt was a very successful businessman with a lot of property. In addition, he probably had many connections, which opened doors to him that were closed to others,” explains Marysia. “He used these connections to forge documents for Rachel and her sister, which allowed them to escape the ghetto.”

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Halina Bereda, Marysia’s grandmother. She and her Christian husband saved the family

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Zygmunt Bereda. A Polish Christian who saved the family of his Jewish wife

But the matter did not end here. Zygmunt and Halina protected the two after they left the ghetto and hid them in buildings they owned throughout the war. At the same time, they were able to forge additional documents that allowed them to leave Poland to Switzerland, and from there, in 1949, the two immigrated to Israel.

“Years of disconnection ended thanks to a surviving photo and family tree on the MyHeritage website. Ever since we started chatting, I have found that Marysia isn’t only a wonderful person, she is also a thoughtful researcher,” says Pini. “She has set up a blog where she writes personally and collects her interesting findings. Everything she does is well organized, backed up by documents, and she knows how to find almost everything. She even studied Polish, which probably helps her a lot in genealogical research.”

The wheel turns over

At the end of the war, Warsaw was devastated by the bombings. The many businesses and houses that Zygmunt owned were also destroyed. He and Halina lost their property and had no place to live. The rescuers now needed help, and the one who came to their aid was the former wife of Samek, Rachel’s son who died in the Holocaust. After the war Halina and her daughter Maria, Marysia’s mother, immigrated to the United States and settled there.

“The truth was kept from us,” says Marysia, who has grown up as a Christian all her life. “For years, family members have been whispering about being Jewish, but never really getting into it. I have spent a long time trying to figure out why my mother and grandmother hid their Jewish heritage and why they were not in contact with Rachel. I think the trauma of the Holocaust left a deep scar on my grandmother. She thought, “If they don’t know, then it won’t hurt them.” That’s probably why they didn’t keep in touch with Rachel and her descendants in Israel.”

Since the family tree has linked Pini to Marysia the two speak regularly, and they have also met in Israel and in Poland with other family members. “When we went to the graves of our families, the sight was unusual. On one side of the cemetery wall are Jews with a rabbi, and on the other side are Christians with a priest,” Pini recalls. “But what is important? In the end, we are human beings and destiny connected us together.”

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During the roots journey to Poland. Pini stands to the left and beside him Marysia

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Pini’s Tree showing the family connection between Pini and Marysia

The image that led to the discovery – now in color

To revive the old image that made the exciting discovery, the company’s investigators used the MyHeritage In Color ™ auto-coloring tool and sent the result to Pini and Marysia. “It’s wonderful,” says Marysia. “I’m going to share the colorized picture with my family, including my 90-year-old aunt who will be especially happy.”

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Colorized photo of the family from about 1916

Inheritance

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Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love takes a deep dive into the meaning of family and identity, and how our genealogical heritage shapes who we are. The way we are raised clearly matters, but so does biological inheritance. Shapiro knew and cherished the Jewish culture of the family she grew up with. She only learned about her non-Jewish genetic paternity when, at the age of 50, she took a DNA test.

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Dani Shapiro’s book reminds me how powerful language can be. She focuses less on what happens than how it affects her, giving voice to her inner thoughts and feelings. It’s a good reminder for me, as a social scientist preoccupied with documentation of social worlds. Sometimes it’s better to provide fewer details, taking the time to plumb their deeper meanings.

As much as she embraced and was embraced by her family, Shapiro writes about the feeling of not quite fitting in. She would gaze at her father’s face and not see herself reflected in his dark hair, eyes, and complexion. Only when she met her blue-eyed, pink-cheeked biological father did she have that moment of recognition. Although she was raised in a household where her Jewish credentials were never in question, her physical appearance made her feel pressured to prove her Jewishness—by reciting Hebrew prayers, by referencing her kosher upbringing.

This isn’t to say that all Jews need to look a certain way. That’s not Shapiro’s point, and it’s not mine. But I do understand the urge to find yourself in the features of your parents.

Through it all, Shapiro never questioned the story of her heritage that was told to her, even when her mother let slip that her parents struggled to conceive and so they sought help for fertility issues. Even when her half-sister told her it was common practice at the time of her conception to mix the sperm of the husband with that of a sperm donor to increase the chances of pregnancy. Even when a poet stared at her and concluded, “You’re not Jewish.” She never doubted her origins, even when she looked in the mirror and saw her own blond hair, blue eyes, and pink and white skin.

What resonates the most strongly with my own experiences is that failure to know, even when you kind of do know. Shapiro’s mother knew how her daughter was conceived. She must have had some idea that her daughter’s biological paternity might be in question, but she nevertheless provided doctors with her husband’s family medical history and worried Dani might have inherited health issues from them. Similar things happened in my family. In fact, I did this kind of thing myself, when for instance I did not even consider my Jewish heritage while researching all the genetic diseases I should watch for while pregnant with my son. I had learned that my grandmother’s family was Jewish when I was in my 20s, but it didn’t really enter my consciousness as an expectant mother in my 30s. That’s how strong my identification was with my mom’s adopted Polish Catholic heritage.

Shapiro refers to the psychoanalytic concept of “unthought known,” experiences that are indescribable in words but that nevertheless influence thoughts and behavior later in life. The concept refers to awareness derived from early, preverbal childhood experiences, so it’s not an exact match to what I’m describing. But certain aspects apply. Even though I “knew” the secret of my mom’s family origin, I chose not to include it in my self-identity. I excluded it from the way I thought about myself, and also how I presented myself to others. I’m sure my mom did the same. She identified as a Catholic Pole and refused her Jewish heritage. She felt offended if anyone ever alluded to it. For her, and I guess for me too, who we were supposed to be was more real than who we actually were, who we actually came from.

Except that growing up, I felt something was hidden. Here my experiences come closer to the psychoanalytic meaning of unthought known. I felt the silences in my family history, and the feeling of displacement they produced. Shapiro’s story is a little different, because she fully embraced the Jewish heritage of her family, confident in her deep roots in that community. So for her, learning that her biological father was not Jewish led to a sense of loss and of disconnection. For me, by contrast, learning about my Jewish family has filled the empty spaces in my own family story. I know who I came from, which helps me know who I am. I’ve been embraced by my complex, heterogeneous extended family.

The Odyssey of a Polish Jew

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Roman Szydłowski grew up in an affluent assimilated Jewish family in prewar Tarnów, a medium-sized city southeast of Krakow. His “Recollections,” published under the name The War Began in Tarnów, breezily describe the many relatives and acquaintances who populated his youth, though it is jarring how many of their lives were cut short by wartime assaults against Jews.

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The War Began in Tarnów, by Roman Szydłowski

Szydłowski’s book reminds me that Poland is a small country, in the sense that citizens who travel in elite circles know each other, or know of each other. A person raised in a family like Szydłowski’s rubbed shoulders with famous actors, writers, and politicians. Simultaneously, World War II lurks on the edges, and at times overtakes Szydłowski’s narrative, as for example when he describes the explosions at the Tarnów train station, an act of German sabotage that happened on August 23, 1939, a week before the official invasion of Poland began.

The book is interesting for its intimate portrait of everyday life before, during, and immediately after World War II, but it does so from the particular lens of the moment in which it was written: 1982, when Poland was under martial law following the suppression of the Solidarity Movement that had sought to reform the state socialist system. Szydłowski was 63 years old and looking back on his life as he approached retirement. That time and place might explain the glaring absences in his otherwise vivid, detailed, and immediate recollections.

Born Roman Szancer in 1918, the author grew up in comfort in a large apartment at the center of Tarnów. His family owned an enormous mill which his great grandfather established in the early 1800s. It is notable how little Judaism figured in his early life story—it was a factor but hardly a defining one. His first recollection of anti-Jewish sentiment involved one of his classmates who called him “you Jew” in a way that sounded like a slur. Roman couldn’t understanding why being Jewish would be an insult, but he replied in kind, “you Catholic.” When their teacher found out, he made them stop, threatening them with corporal punishment. Later, Roman and the other boy became good friends.

The Szancer family took pride in their unaccented Polish and their assimilation, not only into Polish culture, but also into elite European culture more broadly. As a child, Roman visited relatives in Germany and Austria. His grandmother, a cousin of Austrian philosopher Martin Buber, was the only one in the family who spoke Polish with a strong accent; they had to talk to her in German.

Roman portrays himself as a proud defender of Poland. About the rise of Hitler in Germany, he writes “We feared for the future of Poland, though none of us anticipated that our country, which we considered stable, would soon be pillaged by the Third Reich” (p. 60-1). Szydłowski mentions just a few instances when his early life was touched by prejudice. The first girl he fell in love with was Catholic, and “there were those who couldn’t reconcile with the fact that ‘that Jew goes out with such a pretty Polish girl’,” so they spread rumors that broke them up (p. 74). A few years later at the Jagiellonian University, Jews were separated from the Catholic students and confined to the so-called “ghetto benches.” This didn’t affect Roman directly because he had what people called “a good look.” In other words, he didn’t have the stereotypical features or mannerisms associated with Jews and so could sit wherever he wanted. He makes a point of saying that only the leftist students objected to the “Aryan paragraph” restricting Jews from student organizations; the majority of the student body voted in favor of the restrictions.

Another incident illustrates how distant Roman felt from traditional Jewish life. He describes a Hassidic wedding he attended in the summer of 1939 in a mostly Jewish town. The residents dressed differently than he was used to seeing in the towns around Tarnów, in round hats with small rims, shorter jackets and their pants tucked into manure-covered shoes. About the wedding he writes, “I’m left with an impression of something very colorful, but so far away and foreign as if I found myself suddenly on a distant continent” (p. 125).

Szydłowski’s wartime experiences read like an adventure story, making startling shifts from descriptions of carefree youthful high jinx to hair-raising brushes with death. Because he had connections, he was able to drive east ahead of the invading German army and find refuge with relatives near Lviv (part of Poland before the war, the Soviet Union after 1939, and Ukraine today). He describes his apprehension by Soviet authorities, deportation to the Far East, and eventful return to Lviv, one chance encounter leading to another that eventually got him back to relative safety.

After Hitler broke the German-Soviet nonaggression pact, he witnessed the most horrific events of his own wartime experiences. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered in Lviv, their blood running through the streets. He returned to Tarnów, where he moved freely, neither wearing the Star of David nor staying in the ghetto as dictated by the Nazi occupiers. By December 1941, he settled in Warsaw, where he changed his last name to Szydłowski, thus gaining the protection of a Polish surname. He writes breathlessly about the richness of the culture in the city, where he attended classical concerts, theatre productions, and university classes. All of these activities occurred “underground,” without the knowledge or sanction of the occupying forces.

He explains, “Warsaw during those years was a city impossible to describe. Terrifying contrasts collided at every corner. Luxury alongside poverty, tragedy next to debauchery, death and delight, everything compounded to the maximum. People lived as if in a trance, unsure of tomorrow. Everyone knew they could die soon, so they wanted to get the most out of life” (p. 155). After being arrested under suspicion of conspiracy, and imprisoned in Pawlak Prison, Szydłowski was mysteriously released. He made a quick retreat to the countryside near Krakow, where his “most carefree period of occupied life began” (p. 162). He spent the summer at the ancestral palace of a gentry family who treated him like an esteemed guest. The refuge was an illusion, he admits. A year later, months after he had moved on, German police came and shot the whole family.

What might explain the absences in Szyłowski’s narrative? Why doesn’t he mention the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, even though he was living in Warsaw at the time? He lived in the “Aryan” part of the city under his assumed name, but he must have witnessed the armed revolt mounted by the last remaining Jews in the ghetto. The fighting continued for 28 days until most of the partisans were either killed or took their own lives. Why doesn’t he discuss the massive scale of the Holocaust? He makes no mention of the millions who died, nor any details about the death camps. He does not address the nearly complete absence of a Jewish population in Poland after the war. The annihilation of Poland’s Jews only peaks out in the many biographies of family and acquaintances that ended with them murdered by military police or Germans.

Szydłowski’s recollections also elide any direct criticism of communism. He simply gives a matter-of-fact description of the arrival of Soviet troops after the Germans retreated , without addressing the heavy hand the Soviet Union played in shaping the postwar state-socialist republic. He writes directly about joining the Communist Party in 1946, but only indirectly about his disillusionment and retreat from the party just a few years later. Throughout his narrative, he acknowledges his socialist leanings, as well as the socialist and communist affiliations of his friends, but he also makes a point of emphasizing his disinterest in politics.

Szydłowski ran out of time to finish writing about his 35-year career as a theatre critic and journalist. He died in 1983.

What a difficult way to walk through life, carrying so many ghosts in your memories. And yet, Szydłowski speaks with the voice of an optimist.

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Remains of the Szancer mill, June 2019

George Bereday and His Vision of Education

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I was happy to receive a package from Poland yesterday–a surprise post-holiday gift? In fact, it was a book by Justyna Wojniak titled Szkoła – Polityka – Prawo: George Zygmunt Fijałkowsky-Bereday i Jego Wizja Edukacji (School, Politics, Law: George Z. F. Bereday and His Vision of Education).

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School, Politics, Law: George Z. F. Bereday and His Vision of Education by Justyna Wojniak

The author contacted me a year ago to talk about my mother and her brother for her doctoral dissertation about my uncle George Bereday, who was instrumental in establishing the discipline of Comparative Education. Most of the book focuses on Bereday’s scholarly work on the idea of equal education for all, methods for comparing educational systems in different countries, as well as his concerns about equal rights and social justice generally. I will read the whole book eventually, but the first chapter is most relevant to my search for family heritage. Wojniak cites this blog in the chapter about my uncle’s childhood and early life in Poland, and even discusses my mom’s service in the Polish Underground Army during World War II. It’s great to see my work being put to use, and translated into Polish for Polish speakers to read.

I was also amazed to find a photo on page 28 of my babcia with a young George/Jurek on one side and a young Maria/my Mama on the other. They are all smiling, and Babcia holds both children by the hand. It’s winter–they are wrapped up in warm coats, hats, gloves, and boots, walking along a gravel road with barren trees in the background. I would guess my mom is about six years old and Uncle George about eight, which would make it around 1928 or 1929. Based on the time and rural setting, my guess is it was taken at Dębinki, the estate outside of Warsaw where they lived from about 1928-1934. Mama always said those were the happiest years of her life.

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George/Jerzy, Halina/my Babcia, and Maria/my Mama Bereda in Poland around 1928 or 1929.

I have never seen this photo before. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a photo of my mother as a child. And even more surprisingly, the source of the photo is my own cousin Krysia! We’ve been in touch, and I’m counting on her to send me a better copy than this one.