Livestream of the ‘Unforgotten’ Event About Renia Spiegel’s Diary


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I’m counting down the minutes before I tune into this event at the Smithsonian Institute today:

80 Years after Kristallnacht: Diarists of the Holocaust

This is Renia, who was murdered on the streets of occupied Przemyśl at the age of 18 in 1942. She left behind a diary that through some miracle found its way to her family in New York.


Renia in Skole in the 1930s (Courtesy of the Bellak family)

I grew up calling Renia’s sister “Aunt Elizabeth,” but she never mentioned her sister until a few years ago. Encouraged by her daughter Alexandra, they started looking for someone to translate the diary from Polish to English, and Elizabeth started talking about her hidden past. It’s an extraordinary story about two extraordinary sisters. Both Elizabeth and Alexandra will share their stories at 1 PM eastern time today, November 8, 2018.


It’s time to stop giving attention to “Ethnicity” and genetic admixture



I don’t know if anyone else was surprised by their revised DNA report following Ancestry’s update. Here is an interesting reaction, which points out the problem with any claims about ethnic origin based on such genetic tests.

An American Genealogy

[One quick note: As always, we receive no financial benefit or consideration for any product or service we review/recommend/discuss here. Everything we discuss is our opinion alone, and we talk about it because we use it.]

Ancestry has made a lot of noise recently when they updated their Ethnicity estimates, and the now intensified debate about the “accuracy of DNA tests” and the confusion among the general public makes it clear: as a community of serious researchers, we need to be the voice of reason when it comes genetic admixture and call it out for dubiously valuable, largely inaccurate parlor trick that it is. Here’s why:

Ethnicity cannot be tested for. Ever.

Ethnicity is a social construct. Period. If we look at any test, any genealogical tree or other determination it will not build a social link to ones ancestral background. Michael hasn’t been to Ireland, but I have, and…

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Would You Live in the Ghetto?

The Stare (Old) Podgórze district of Kraków, nestled between the Vistula River and the hilltop Bednarski Park, has experienced an incredible resurgence over the past several years. What used to be a neglected part of the city, with crumbling townhouses and drunks who congregated in the town square, has become the home of restaurants, cafes, galleries, and museums. A new pedestrian bridge links Podgórze to the heart of Kazimierz; the rhythm of footsteps over the pedestrian walkway causes sculptures suspended from wires to totter like the acrobats that are depicted.


Old Podgórze is also the place the Nazi governor Hans Frank selected for the Krakow Jewish ghetto on March 3, 1941. “Within two weeks, 18,000 Jews were ordered to move to 320 buildings, whose ‘Aryan’ residents had previously been forced to vacate.” [1] Presumably, the district was selected because of its distance from the center of town, further isolated on the other side of the river. By March 20, Podgórze was closed off by a high brick wall; whether the symbolism was intentional or not, the undulating curves along the top edge evoked Jewish headstones stacked side by side. The ghetto shrank in 1942, when residents were taken to their death in camps like Bełżec, and was completely liquidated on March 13-14, 1943. The ghetto existed just two years, but the fact that it existed at all in this very place clashes uncomfortably with the district’s rebirth.

I have written about Podgórze before, and about the way the district captivated me. In fact, I’ve sometimes remarked that if I were to buy an apartment in Krakow, I would want it to be in Podgórze. But that was before I knew what happened there during World War II, before I started to explore my Jewish heritage, before historical markers brought difficult history back into the public sphere, and before the phantom walls of the ghetto became part of my inner map of the district. When I visited Krakow earlier this summer, I decided to rent an apartment in Podgórze to get a better feel for the place. Could I live there, knowing what I now know?

I found a place right in the heart of what used to be the ghetto, in a newly renovated building right beside a ruin, and across the street from the iconic red brick mikvah building that now houses one of the city’s most prestigious art galleries.


I took long runs past St. Joseph’s Church on the Podgórze Market Square, over the hills of Bednarski Park, and through the narrow streets.


I visited the remaining fragments of ghetto wall. A short section on Lwowska Street includes a plaque on which is written in Hebrew and Polish: “Here they lived, suffered, and died at the hands of Hitler’s torturers; from here they were taken on their last road to the death camps.” A larger section separates a school yard from the park; I came upon a group of Israeli teenagers whose armed guards asked me what I was doing there. I came to see the wall, I replied. I watched for a bit as their animated tour guide seemed to be reenacting the experiences of ghetto captives.


I waited for trams at Ghetto Heroes Square, sitting on the chairs that are part of the memorial to those who waited at this very spot to be transported on that final road to their deaths.


Could I be witness to this on a daily basis? Maybe if I lived in Podgórze, but outside the borders of the ghetto? But that seems no better—to put myself in the position of those who watched from outside the walls.

So my love of this space—a quiet corner just a short walk from the heart of the city—battles with the discomfort of flashes of a painful history.

Could I live there? Could you?

[1] Potel, Jean-Yves. 2010 Koniec Niewinności: Polska Wobec Swojej Żydowskiej Przeszłości. Translated by Julia Chimiak. Krakow: Znak. P. 128.

What if…

Just about every time I come to Warsaw I take a pilgrimage to this spot.

The view down to where my mother used to live, when Kościelna Street continued straight at the bottom of the stairs.

My mind turns inward to the way I remember it in my imagination, based on my mother’s stories and archival photos. Back then, these stairs led to a neighborhood of narrow streets where old cottages sat beside brick businesses, and where my grandfather built my grandmother a three story villa behind a cast iron fence.

When I visited today, I pictured roads instead of pathways. With buildings on either side. The villa would have been straight down and on the left, just after the path that runs perpendicular.

For some reason I started to wonder what my mother’s life would have been like if there hadn’t been any war. Would she have married her first love, a priest? Or would he have decided to honor his vows to the church? No doubt, she would not have waited to have children. I imagine her with four, including the daughter that was born instead of me, only 10 years earlier. No need to wait through the war, dozens of surgeries, migration, and illness to start a family. Would she have resigned from her dream of becoming a doctor, or found a way to balance her home and work responsibilities? Maybe she would have lived with her active young family in the villa, where her mother could help.

And the daughter that was born instead of me would no doubt be a grandmother, with a grandchild the same age as my son.

Without the Nazi invasion, Poland’s Jews would not have been murdered, and the Soviets would not have imposed 45 years of state socialism. Instead of being destroyed, Warsaw would have continued to grow, its Jewish population an important component of the city’s economic and cultural vitality. Poles would have had to figure out how to live within a country full of diversity, where the Polish nation could not be defined as ethnically pure or exclusively Catholic.

Would my family still have hidden their Jewish heritage in such a Poland? I wonder. What do you think?

Restoring Peace and Justice in America


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The new National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama on April 26, 2018. It stands as a reminder of the many acts of discrimination against African Americans over the course of American history, and in particular memorializes over 4400 documented lynchings that occurred between 1877 and 1950.


National Peace and Justice Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama

800 rectangular iron blocks hang several layers deep in rows around a square. Each block contains the name of a county and state where lynching occurred, as well as the names of the victims and the dates they were lynched. Some contain the name of just one victim, others contain dozens.

My husband, son, and I visited the memorial last week. The monument looms large atop an elevated earth mound. We walked past a sculpture of life-sized bronze figures in chains, and up the path from the entrance. The wall to our right got shorter as we climbed to the level of the memorial.


The wall to our right got shorter as we climbed to the level of the memorial.

We should have been climbing out of slavery and into freedom, but instead were confronted by the sea of iron blocks. The first ones we approached were set on the ground. At six feet tall, they approximate the height of a person. At the next corner of the monument, a path leads downward.


The blocks in the first row are marked with counties in Alabama, each deeper row listing counties in other states and their victims. We couldn’t figure out how the inscriptions are ordered, so we asked one of the guards. He explained the blocks are arranged alphabetically by state and county in a spiral that starts in the outside row, goes all the way around the square, and then continues through each successive row ending with the most interior blocks.

As we walked downward, the blocks became suspended from iron poles. By the time we reached the bottom, they loomed above us, eerily echoing the hanging victims they document.

On either side of this below-ground passage, signs describe the circumstances in which people were lynched—for frightening a white child, or asking a white man for money they were owed, or for “standing around” in a white neighborhood.

On the lawn outside the monument, we walked by a second set of blocks, twins of the ones hanging in the memorial. Laid on their side as they are, they resemble coffins. The intent is for counties to claim the block with their name on it and to each set up their own memorial site. Over time, as such monuments proliferate, more and more gaps will appear in the blocks resting on the lawn. In effect, the memorial will become a network of sites mapping the places where lynching occurred.

Clearly, parallels can be made between the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and sites throughout the world memorializing the Holocaust. Rather than commemorating moments of national pride, they compel us to remember our failures. It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t born when these events took place. I’m an American, and proud to be one. And it is because of that sense of connection to my nation that I feel a sense of responsibility for what happened in my country, for the injustices that Americans perpetrated against other Americans. Even if I weren’t American, if it weren’t a failing of my nation, of people with whom I share a national affiliation, I would feel guilty—as a human being. Like I feel guilty that the Holocaust ever happened. It was a failure of humanity, of empathy that is only conceivable in its monumental horror because it actually occurred.

But no.

That’s not the entire truth. The fact is that, as a person of Jewish descent, I identify with the group that was victimized in the Holocaust. As a person of European descent, however, my group was responsible for the victimization of people of African descent. This shift in perception, from victim to victimizer, is a difficult one.

And the harm caused by racial bias and discrimination continues.


“Raise Up,” sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas at the Peace and Justice Memorial. Represents continued racial bias and discrimination by the criminal justice system.

Several blocks from the Peace and Justice Memorial, the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum further highlights racial injustice in the United States. One exhibition has left me with a nagging feeling of distress, maybe because of uneasy associations with current conflicts about the highest courts in both the US and in Poland.

A single illuminated display summarizes all of the US Supreme Court’s rulings that address racial justice issues. Alongside the decisions most often discussed and celebrated, like expanding the right to vote and defending equal access to education, are many more that maintained or reinstitutionalized discriminatory practices. I didn’t know how complicit the Supreme Court has been in perpetuating injustice, but there it was made visible right in front of me.

For a brief period right after the Civil War, African Americans gained the right to vote and were elected into political offices. But then, Jim Crow laws imposed poll taxes and literacy tests that kept them from voting, and enforced segregation in businesses, buses, and public institutions. With one decision after another, the Supreme Court upheld such discriminatory practices, and whittled away at the rights of freed people of color. The 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling, in which the Supreme Court defended the constitutionality of segregation as long as African Americans had “separate but equal” facilities, is only the most well-known of many decisions upholding segregation and discrimination.

We like to see ourselves in a positive light. We identify more with Brown vs. The Board of Education than we do with Plessy vs. Ferguson. We celebrate the Civil Rights Movement, but shy away from a deeper acknowledgement of the harm inflicted by slavery, discrimination, and deeply entrenched biases. There is still a lot we need to come to terms with. I’m glad to see this new museum and memorial taking steps in that direction, and that they are in my adopted state of Alabama.

Learning about Jewish Religion and Culture in Leszno


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“Why should we learn about Judaism?” Mirosława Maćkowiak asked, gazing kindly at my son’s 5th grade class. The twenty-five ten-year-olds sat in chairs in the Jewish Gallery of the Leszno Regional Museum, which is housed in the former synagogue. I hurried to translate Maćkowiak’s question; the language of instruction at the International School of Poznan is English, and only some of the students speak Polish. Maćkowiak, the curator of the Museum’s Jewish collection, answered her own question: We should learn about Judaism because Jesus was a Jew. He celebrated all the Jewish holidays, followed all the Jewish laws, and dressed like a Jew. It’s important to know about the older religion from which Christians came. Judaism is that older religion.


ISOP students heading to the museum in Leszno, 2015.

Ian’s teacher, Ms. Ania grew up in Leszno, which is about 50 miles south of Poznan. Blond, with the perky beauty of a cheerleader, she is perhaps the only Pole I have ever met who openly declares herself an atheist. She developed a special interest in Judaism after getting to know some Jewish people in London. She lived on a kibbutz in Israel, where she absolutely loved the country and the people. When she returned to Poland, she made a point of learning more about its Jewish history. She brings her students to Leszno every year so they can see artifacts that once were part of the Jewish life that filled the city. She said there isn’t really an equivalent space in Poznan, where the historic synagogue housed a public swimming pool for years, and closed to the public in 2012.

Ania and Mirosława have known each other for years, but each has a very different perspective on religion. Both are positively oriented toward Judaism, and celebrate the historic cultural and religious diversity of Poland, but Mirosława also makes the assumption that the Polish nation is Catholic, and so legitimizes Judaism for her young Polish audience by linking it to the origins of Christianity. Segments of the Catholic Church promote the perspective that Jews are “older brothers in faith, as I witnessed during Judaism Day, which has been a holiday of the Polish Catholic Church since 1997.

During our visit, Ania kept reminding Mirosława that her students were not there to study Judaism from a Catholic theological perspective. “Not all of my students are Catholic,” she insisted. When Ania took a turn translating, she distanced herself from statements framed in a Christian perspective by prefacing them “According to Ms. Mirosława.”

Jewish memory work in Leszno shows us a few things about what can be done with Jewish heritage in Poland. In Leszno, important tangible heritage survived the war, providing a foundation for building public awareness about the history of Leszno’s Jewish population. Additionally, a local institution, the Leszno Regional Museum (Muzeum Okręgowe w Lesznie), became active in historical preservation right after the fall of communism, making Leszno one of the first communities in Poland to renovate Jewish structures, mount Jewish-themed exhibitions, and organize related public events. A central cornerstone of museum activity includes programs for school children, such as the one attended by my son’s class.

Leszno is a regional center with a population of about 64,000. More than a century of Prussian rule contributed to German cultural influences, and in the mid-19th century, the Jewish population began to emigrate to other German cities. By 1923 the last Leszno rabbi departed and was not replaced; only 160 Jews remained in Leszno. When Leszno was absorbed into Hitler’s Third Reich, the few remaining Jews were forced to move to places further east and then became victims of the Holocaust.

Besides the synagogue, several other buildings remain of the city’s Jewish past: a mortuary building where bodies were prepared for burial, now the public library; a mikvah; and multiple houses within the narrow, winding streets of the Jewish district. Little remains of the cemetery, on which socialist-era concrete apartments were built in the 1970s. Some tombstones have returned, however, rediscovered in farmyards and under roads, and now wait in a pile outside the mortuary building until someone gathers the funds and the initiative to create a lapidarium.

The Leszno Regional Museum’s impressive collection of Jewish sacred and everyday objects are mostly on loan from other regional museums. They are arranged in wood-framed glass display cases, each containing objects associated with a religious holiday. A laminated sheet on top of each case describes the historical and religious significance of the holiday, typical activities and meals, as well as characteristic objects associated with the holiday. For instance, one case contains artifacts relevant to Hanukah, mostly nine-candle menorahs called hanukiahs. The written description explains Hanukah, the Holiday of Lights, is “the eight-day holiday commemorating the triumph of Judah Maccabee against the Syrian army in 165 BC….” and explains, “Each day a successive candle is lit.” Words like “hanukiah,” “gelt,” and “dreidel” are written in bold, followed by their definition and their significance for the holiday.

Another case labeled “Shabbat table” contains silver cups, goblets, spice towers, candlesticks, a tray, and a knife, all arranged atop a white linen cloth. Two loaves of challah covered with a white cloth complete the display. The information sheet says, “Shabbat (rest) is the most important weekly Jewish holiday, in which there is an obligatory restriction on doing any kind of work. It begins on Friday at sunset and ends on Saturday at dusk. It is a joyful holiday.” It goes on to describe how candles are lit by a woman, while the father of the family says a prayer called kaddish (written in bold). Further, it explains that herbs are placed in the spice tower (bessamin, the Hebrew word is written in bold) and lit on fire. It describes typical Shabbat food, including challah, chicken soup, and the single-dish meal for Saturday dinner called cholent (again, this term is in bold).

The texts signal continuity over change. Jewish culture is portrayed as something that does not modernize. But this emphasis on normative customs also relegates Jewish culture to the past. The objects on display are old, most dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. While many of the objects, such as hanukiahs and Shabbat goblets, have contemporary equivalents that remain part of standard Jewish cultural and religious practice, other objects on display are artifacts of a former era. For instance, one of particular interest to the ten-year-olds on my son’s fieldtrip was a massive copper barrel set on the floor in a corner. Mirosława Maćkowiak explained that it would have been placed at the entrance of a mortuary building or some other place where it was customary for Jews to wash their hands. She pointed to two two-handled containers tacked to the wall above the barrel, and said they would have been used to scoop out and pour the water. She related this practice to the importance of cleanliness in the Jewish tradition.

Maćkowiak made similar generalizations about the value Jews placed on education, their kosher dietary practices, as well as the kinds of activities restricted on the Sabbath, such as cooking or turning lights on or off. She made no mention of the fact that many contemporary Jews dispense with these practices, nor did she discuss historical variation among Jewish populations. Even though Mirosława Maćkowiak talked about Judaism as a living religion, still practiced by millions of people worldwide, the static portrayal within the museum exhibition reflects the absence of Jews within contemporary Polish society.

My son’s class, when given the opportunity, gazed at the articles in the display cases with curiosity. Of far greater interest to them, however, was the hands-on demonstration by Maćkowiak in front of a two-meter tall display case intended as the focal point of the room. She explained that this was meant to evoke the most sacred part of a synagogue—the Aron haKodesh, where the Torah scrolls are stored. She pointed out the parochet hanging on the wall to the right of the case, explaining elaborately embroidered curtains such as this would cover the front of the wooden Torah cabinet. She pointed out the items in the case, including a silver crown set atop a fabric Torah cover, as well as some Torah scrolls wound around wooden dowels. Then she put on white archivist gloves, and took out a silver yad with a pointing end shaped like a tiny hand with its index finger extended, and demonstrated how such pointers were used to read the Torah from right to left without touching the parchment.

My son’s class was not the traditional school group. Their teacher brought them as part of a unit on world religions, where the emphasis was on cultural and religious diversity. By contrast, most school trips are initiated by religion teachers.

In most cases, religion is taught by Catholic clergy during the regular school day. This is an artifact of a law passed in 1991 in reaction to the Communist rejection of religion. As a reassertion of the centrality of religion for the Polish nation, religious education in schools became standard. Over the years, many have complained to me about it, but very few go to the trouble of filing the necessary paperwork to have their children attend “ethics” classes instead. After all, 90% of Poles identify as Catholic, and children risk ostracization if they are singled out like that.

Notably, this law passed at the same time that Jewish heritage work came out of the shadows and spurred public projects like the one that established the Jewish exhibition in Leszno. Poland is a complicated place, and relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Polish culture and history are a fundamental knot at the center of that complexity.

Jewish Genealogists in Warsaw



For the first time, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) will hold their annual conference in Poland. From my perspective the timing couldn’t be better. It’s a chance for Jewish genealogists to visit the land where so many Jewish ancestors lived, and to highlight the incredible work that has been done in Poland to reassemble Jewish history and culture in towns and cities all over the country. None of this erases the horror of the Holocaust, but the conference promises to be a space for Poles and Jews to meet in a spirit of dialog and reconciliation. The Polish co-hosts, the Jewish Historical Institute and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, have been at the forefront of such efforts. They deserve international recognition and support for all they have done, and all there remains to do.

The conference will be in Warsaw from August 5-10. The first hotel filled up so quickly, they added a second, and now a third to the list. In fact, I read somewhere that already more people have registered this year than ever before.

I will have two presentations at the conference. I  tried to think of topics related to my areas of expertise that would also be of relevance to genealogists. This is what I came up with:

The Past in the Present: How the Polish Partitions Shape Jewish Heritage Work Today (a 1 hour presentation)

Returning to the towns and cities of our Jewish ancestors in Poland, we are likely to feel haunted by the absence of Jewish life. And yet, if we know where to look, residents of communities throughout Poland have worked tirelessly to bring Jewish history, heritage, and memory back into the public sphere, in the form of monuments, memorials, and culture festivals. This work is influenced by the legacy of the ruling empires—Russian, Prussian, and Austrian—that partitioned Poland from the end of the 18th century until World War I. Within each partition, the particular character of leadership shaped Jewish communities, which in turn contributed to the different ways in which the Holocaust was carried out. The legacy of the partitions continues to influence Jewish heritage work today—as well as the kinds of records and local allies available to genealogists. The presentation offers insights into finding local resources relevant to genealogical work.


Pulling Stories Out of Silence: Uncovering my Hidden Jewish-Polish Heritage ( a 25 minute presentation)

I had been visiting Poland for 20 years before I realized that if I really want to know about my family’s Polish heritage, I needed to delve into the big secret in the family: that my grandmother was born Jewish. Since 2011, I have tracked down family photographs, collected memories from relatives, searched archives for family records, and traveled to the towns and cities of my ancestors. Not only have I traced my ancestors back to the 18th century, I have also, more importantly, found my living relatives—in the US, Israel, Switzerland, and Canada. Through my personal story, I explore the complex relationship between Jews and Catholics in Poland before and during World War II, and how it carried over into my family’s life in the US. I also offer clues about the resources available online and in Poland for anyone who wants to trace their Polish-Jewish ancestry.


Source: : Map shows the administrative subdivisions (gubernia) of Congress Poland from 1867-1918.

The first presentation dovetails with the ethnography I’m writing about Jewish heritage work in towns and small cities, provisionally titled Memory in Fragments: Reassembling Jewish Life in Poland. The project asks what can be done with the fragments of Jewish heritage that remain, sometimes hidden and sometimes in plain sight? And what value does such memory work have? I have learned that the legacy of the Polish partitions continues to  shape the various regions of Poland in ways that also influence what is left of Jewish culture, and how local communities mobilize to commemorate and preserve Jewish memory. Genealogists will find it useful to know the history of the Polish partitions because it influences the language in which records were kept, the migration patterns of Jewish populations into and out of various regions, the impact of the Holocaust, and the memories and silences that contributed to the preservation or destruction of Jewish heritage after the war.

The second presentation recounts my more personal journey of discovery about my Polish Jewish family, which I am documenting in what I call a family memoir provisionally titled, Do Not Open: A Family Memoir of Hidden Jewish Ancestry.

The conference website includes a statement, Why Our Jewish Genealogy Conference is Coming to Warsaw. In it, conference co-chair Robinn Magid writes, “We believe in continuing dialogue between people of different perspectives and in supporting the Jewish Community of Poland today.” Especially now, as nativism, tribalism, and nationalism have been overtaking public discourse, such dialog and support are crucial for advancing an alternate narrative of mutual respect and hopefully, reconciliation.

Imagined conversations with unknown ancestors

Gazing at old photos, I imagine having conversations with my ancestors. Photos are deceptive that way. They appear so immediate, so full of meaning. And yet, these are relatives I never met. I don’t even know who they are. Take a look at this handsome fellow:


Mama called him “przystojniak,” “handsome guy.” But who is he?

When I showed this photograph to my mother in 2011, when she could only communicate in single words, she exclaimed, “przystojniak!” In Polish that means “handsome fellow,” or if I want to believe Google Translate, “hunk.” Mom would never have called someone a “hunk,” so I’m sticking with “handsome fellow.”

When I asked mom who the handsome guy was, though, she didn’t know.

I wonder if it might be one of her mother’s brothers, perhaps Abraham/Jon Piwko who came to the US long before mama was born. It would help if I could pinpoint the year in which the photo was taken. His clothes provide some hints–the short, wide tie, the jacket pocket, and the cuffed pants. Still, I don’t know enough about historical fashion to figure it out.

If this is Abraham, it was taken when he was young, maybe even before he left Poland in 1906. The carved stone bench looks more European than American, but who knows? It’s also striking that his feet are not on the ground, but rather on a round pillow. By 1908, when this photo was taken Abraham wore a mustache without a beard:

BerthaPiwkoNathanPaulineEwa c1908

The Pifko brothers around 1908, New York. Front from left: Philip, Abraham, Paulina, Ewa, Bertha, Nathan. Back from left: Raphael Kolski, Sam and Max Alexander

Looking back and forth between the two photographs, I can’t tell if it’s the same person or not.

These photos were in the envelope my grandmother labelled “Do Not Open.” She didn’t want us to know about our family history because she didn’t want us to know our ancestors were Jewish.

One other photo in that envelope depicts a young girl. She stares at the camera with assurance, a charming smile revealing her dimples. Long curled locks reach down to her waist. She holds a telephone to her ear, tilting her head down toward the hand-held earpiece. A cousin has identified her as Abraham’s daughter Paulina Piwko, the older girl in the group photo above.


Again, clues to the date of the photo should be in the clothing–the white lace-up boots worn with knee-high stockings held up with garters, the pleated white dress reaching just above the knee, with a frilled collar and pleated short sleeves. Again, I don’t know enough to be able to read these clues and pinpoint the date the photo was taken. If this is Paulina, she would have been a little older than in the group photo. If she is 10 in this photo, it was taken around 1913.

My cousin Krysia has remarked on how much this looks like our grandmother. And I agree. Babcia also had dimples, thick, long hair, and the kind of charm that seems to radiate from the girl in the picture. If it were Babcia, that would mean this photo was taken around 1904. Candlestick phones like this were in use from around 1890-1940, so that clue doesn’t narrow things down enough to confirm or rule out either possibility.

Still, my cousin, a descendant of Abraham, knows this photo and recognized it as his great aunt Paulina. Why would he have seen a picture of my grandmother? Why would it have been among the photos that were passed down in his line?

Here’s a fantasy explanation–one I have no evidence for outside of the photographs themselves. Could the photos of the handsome fellow and the charming girl have been taken at the same time? Might the siblings have wanted photos of each other when the older brother went away the America, never to return? It’s a long shot, but it would make a good story.

Pavement of Memory


“We recover history…we record history.”

That is what the Jewish Community of Poznan wrote when they announced a new memorial, “Pavement of Memory,” built with fragments of Jewish tombstones that were recovered during roadwork in Poznan.

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“Pavement of Memory” composed with fragments of matzevot (Jewish Tombstones), Poznan                            Source: Janusz Marciniak

When the road crew dug up the old pavement, they noticed some stones with strange writing on them. Realizing the letters were in Hebrew, they contacted the Jewish Community. The fragments are too small to make out names or details about whose tombstones they were, but at least they have returned to the cemetery where they belong. All over Poland, fragments like this are being found, out of place, reinforcing road beds, bridge foundations, and lake beds. They were harvested during the terror of the Nazi occupation, and sometimes afterwards under state socialism. With only ghosts to look over them, Jewish cemeteries became a source for scarce building materials.

The extraordinary thing is that when public spaces are designated as repositories of Jewish memory and culture, objects return to them. As cemeteries are cleaned up, fenced, and marked, tombstones come back. In some cases, it’s as if people have known for a long time about these objects. They felt they were out of place and it has sat uneasily on their minds. They are relieved to finally know where these objects should go. In others, as with this road project, people are surprised to find these fragments, but they feel a sense of obligation to honor the memory of the past. To put things back into place.

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“Pavement of Memory” at the memorial site in a corner of Poznan’s Jewish cemetery.

These fragments are back home on a wall in the corner of the Poznan Jewish Cemetery.

“Pavement of Memory” was designed by Janusz Marciniak, who also designed the memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Piła and did a series of installations in the Poznan synagogue when it still housed a swimming pool. Janusz’s design is simple and powerful, honoring the integrity of each fragment by hanging them in three rows of ten. And yet together, like a mosaic, they make a unified statement.

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Detail of macevot fragments in Pavement of Memory

The words on the memorial plaque, in Polish, Hebrew and English, read:

Był czas, kiedy z macew robiono bruk. Czas, w którym najdosłowniej rozbijano, deptano i kaleczono pamięć o ludziach pochowanych pod macewami. Niektóre z kamiennych okruchów tej pamięci przetrwały i dziś ta pamięć łączy się z wdzięcznością dla wszystkich, którzy przyczynili się do jej ocalenia. „Z owocu swoich ust nasycony będzie człowiek dobrem, a odpłacone mu będzie według tego, co zrobity jego rece” (Prz 12, 14).

הייתה עת שבה עשו ממצבות אבני מדרכת, עת שבה היו באופן ממשי מנתצים, רומסים ופוצעים את זכרם של האנשים הטמונים מתחת למצבות. אחדים מהשברים של אבני הזיכרון

אותן הזיכרון מתאחד שרדו, וכיום עם הכרת טובה לכל אלה שתרמו להצלתו. “מפְרִי פי־אישׁ יִשְׂבַּע־טוֹב וּגְמוּל יְדֵי־אָדָם יָשִׁיב לוֹ” (משלי י”נ יד).

There was a time when matzevot [Jewish tombstones] were used for pavement; a time when the memory of the people buried under the matzevot was most literally broken, trampled, and maimed. Some remnants have survived and today this memory is connected with the gratitude to those who contributed to its rescue. “A man shall be satisfied with good by the fruit of his mouth, and the doings of a man’s hands shall be rendered unto him” (Prov. 12:14).

6_Jewish Cemetery in Poznan.JPG

Bird on an old boulder tombstone in the corner of the Poznan Jewish Cemetery that has been designated as a memorial site.