Tuesday 16 September 2014

Double Cousin Report

Me, Danka and Gerald

During my recent trip to Poland I went to Gdansk to see my cousins Gerald and Danka. Our mothers, Marie and Lily, were sisters, born 18 months apart in London in the early 1920s.

Lily and Marie, 1923

Gerald was one of the first cousins I knew - he was born a few months after me, towards the end of World War 2. I was apparently an inquisitive child, and I am told that one of my earliest scientific enquiries was an attempt to find out how his eyes were fixed to his head. Fortunately he survived that experiment. Needless to say I did not go into a career in science.

After the War Lily went to live in Gdansk, in Poland, with her husband Longin, who was Polish, and Gerald was brought up there. His sisters Halina and Danka were born and brought up there. After Longin died, Lily came back to London, and Halina followed a few years later. 

Gerald and Danka stayed in Gdansk, and brought up their own families there. Their children move backwards and forwards between the two countries, and are fluent in both languages. At the moment they each have one child in London and one in Gdansk - a European Union in miniature.

This was my first visit to them in Gdansk, and the first time I had seen them since Lily's funeral in London nine years ago. There was much embracing, many stories were told, and much Bison Grass was drunk. I'd been finding out about our Frankenstein family, and Gerald had lots to say about his father's experiences during the 1930s and 40s; I'll be writing about some of this shortly on my family history sites: TwentyOne Seven and Poyln Roots.

Here are some more pictures from our get-together, which included Gerald's wife Ewa, and Danka's son Jędrzej. And here's some from my walks around Gdansk.

In the photo at the top, Danka, Gerald and I are all in our 60s. So here's our Mums, when they were 60-something:

Lily and Marie

Thursday 4 September 2014

Heroes of the Ghetto

Szmul Zygelbojm Square

Several hundred thousand people were forcibly crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto, and then, after 18 months of terror and starvation, all but a few were transported to their deaths. We know little about their lives in the Ghetto, nor where, when or how most of them died. There are few individual accounts, and few individual memorials.

The City of Warsaw has honoured some of the heroes of the Ghetto with memorial stones or street names, and while I was there in June a 'Garden of the Righteous' was inaugurated in one of the city's parks. This commemorates those who "had the courage to defend human dignity and truth, and help victims during totalitarian times and genocides", anywhere in the world. The first people honoured there include several who were involved in the Polish resistance to the Nazis, including in the Ghetto.

Marek Edelman

Marek Edelman was a leader of one of the sections of the Bund, the leading Jewish Socialist political party, within the Ghetto. He became leader of the Ghetto Uprising in 1943, and when that was crushed and the Nazis burned the Ghetto to the ground, he escaped through the sewers to the 'Polish' part of the city, and took part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Shortly after the War he published a memoir, The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which is one of the few first-hand accounts that survived.

Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska

Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska worked for the Polish Resistance from the age of 14, helping to identify Poles who were collaborating with the Nazis. She helped Irene Sendler rescue Jewish children from the Ghetto, and fought in the Warsaw Uprising.

Jan Karski

Jan Karski was a member of the Polish Resistance. He was sent on several secret missions to London and to the USA to inform the Polish Government in Exile, and the Allied Governments, of the situation in Poland. He was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto to see the situation at first hand, and also managed to see the holding camp for the Belzec extermination camp. His reports were presented to the Allies in a note titled 'The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland'. He had meetings with British Foreign Secretary Eden, and with US President Roosevelt. However the Allies did not appear interested, and took little or no action.

The street sign at the top is for the square named after Szmul Zygelbojm, a leader of the Bund party and its representative in the Polish Government in Exile, based in London. He managed to escape from Poland in December 1939, and spent the following years trying to persuade the Allies of the dire situation of the Jews in German-occupied Poland. When the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was crushed, in May 1943, and he learned that his wife and son had been killed there, he committed suicide in protest at the indifference of the Allies to the fate of the Jews.

One of the hidden milk-cans

Emanuel Ringelblum was a historian, specialising in the history of the Jews in Poland. In the Warsaw Ghetto he established 'Oyneg Shabbos' - 'Sabbath Delight' - a secret group dedicated to documenting what was happening to the Polish Jews. They collected thousands of documents ranging from personal accounts to scientific reports and Nazi decrees. As the destruction of the Ghetto commenced in 1943, they put the documents in milk-cans and metal boxes, and hid them in the cellars of a number of Warsaw buildings. Ringelblum managed to escape from the Ghetto with his family, but they were discovered and executed along with the Poles who had hidden them. In the years after the War some of the boxes and milk-cans were discovered, but there are still some that have never been found. 

Ringelblum's diary notes were published in English as Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto (this is only a brief extract). There is an excellent lecture on his life by Henry Abramson: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw is named after him. 

Wladyslaw Szengel - unknown poet

Wladyslaw Szengel was a poet, journalist and songwriter before the War, and he continued these activities in the Ghetto. There is an account of his life on the web-page Wladyslaw Szengel, and a few recording of his songs. See Władysław Szlengel - The Ghetto Poet for poems in Yiddish, Polish, and in English translation, including some very powerful evocations of life in the Ghetto. He was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

All of these people are undoubtedly heroes, who risked their lives time and time again, and devoted themselves to saving others and informing the world against enormous odds. There are doubtless many more, just as heroic but less well-known. But Marek Edelman regards those who were sent to the death camps - all 300,000 of them - as the real heroes:
"We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning. We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths. We knew we were going to die. Just like all the others who were sent to Treblinka.... Their death was far more heroic. We didn't know when we would take a bullet. They had to deal with certain death, stripped naked in a gas chamber or standing at the edge of a mass grave waiting for a bullet in the back of the head.... It was easier to die fighting than in a gas chamber."

Wednesday 3 September 2014

The Figurski brothers

A chilling moment on my recent visit to Warsaw. This is a memorial tree at the notorious Pawiak prison, where the Nazis held, tortured and murdered thousands of political prisoners, both Jews and non-Jews, during the course of the War. The Figurski brothers, Marian and Wladyslaw, were killed there on the day I was born.

Monday 1 September 2014

Ghetto streets

This is where you have to use your imagination. The buildings of the Warsaw Ghetto, as much of the rest of the city, were totally destroyed during the crushing of the Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising the following year. The post-War rebuilding largely retained the street plan, though many streets have been re-purposed.

This was Nalewki Street, one of the busiest commercial streets of the old town, and an important meeting-place during the time of the Ghetto. At the far end of the street was one of the Ghetto gates through which those with permits could pass in and out.

It now runs through a pleasant park, with trees, flowers and a children's playground. All that remains of pre-War Nalewki are the tramlines.

Nalewki Street as it was then, from the other end

At this junction stood another gate to the Ghetto

The photo below is Chlodna Street, site of the Footbridge of Memory, looking between the posts that mark the site of the bridge, towards what was the central area of the Ghetto. Before the War this was the heart of the Jewish quarter of Warsaw.

Near Jana Pawla Avenue there is said to be a section of the Ghetto Wall still standing. I'm not sure if this is it - there is nothing to mark it here, no plaque, no sign. The Wall enclosing the Ghetto was some 17km (11 miles) long.

See this account of the remaining section of the Wall, with photos and a precise location.

This iconic building, on the corner of Prozna Street, is one of the few that remain from the time of the Ghetto. The photos of Ghetto inhabitants on the windows are a haunting reminder of the lives that were taken.

14 Prozna Street

There is an excellent account of the history of the building, with some superb photos, which gives an insight into the Jewish community in pre-War Warsaw, and the controversies in more recent times over the building's retention and restoration.

Door-post feet at 14 Prozna Street

Warsaw Ghetto - Scrapbookpages

The Warsaw Ghetto Today - What Remains
Topography of Terror: Maps of the Warsaw Ghetto

The Footbridge of Memory

Chlodna Street ran straight through the heart of the Ghetto, but Jews were not allowed to use it. The Ghetto was thus divided in two, and in order to get from one part to the other, Jews had to use this wooden bridge. The street itself is for Gentiles, the tram too.

The walls which form the boundary of the Ghetto are some 3 metres high. The Nazis used Jewish forced labour to build them, and to build the bridge as well.

A few years ago the Poles erected this memorial to the bridge and what it symbolised. Two pairs of metal poles stand where the bridge once stood, connected by optical fibres which at night light up to project an image of the bridge across the street. 

Photos of life in the Warsaw Ghetto

Photo and map of Ghetto from the Jewish Virtual Library

The Collection Point

The Umschlagplatz - 'Collection Point' - was where the Nazis gathered the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto for deportation to the Treblinka extermination camp. From July to September 1942, some 300,000 were deported. 

Along the walls of the memorial are inscribed hundreds of Jewish names, to commemorate those who were sent to their deaths from here. The names are symbolic as no individual records were kept - this was mass murder. We believe, though we cannot be certain, that some members of our family were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto from their homes in Gombin, about 100km away. They didn't survive the War, and may well have been sent to their deaths from here.

Amongst those that perished were my great-grandfather's sister Bajla, and my grandfather's sisters Chawa and Chaja, along with several members of their respective families.

In memory of Bajla Szwarc and Chaja Wandt

In memory of Chawa Florkiewicz

The Beginning of Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto

A visit to the Warsaw Ghetto

Warsaw is a big, bustling, modern city, full of people, shops, traffic and imposing buildings. However, visiting for the first time, I found myself drawn day after day to the vestiges of the Ghetto, where the Nazis effectively imprisoned over a quarter of a million Jews during the Second World War.

The area designated as the Ghetto was a compact part of the old centre of the city, which had had a largely Jewish population for a century or so. In late 1940, the Ghetto was established by forcibly moving in Jews from other areas of Warsaw. At the same time Gentiles were moved out, and thousands more Jews were brought in from nearby towns and villages. The Ghetto quickly became overcrowded and insanitary, food was scarce, disease became rife. Jews were prevented from carrying on their trades and professions in the wider Polish society; they were not allowed to trade with Gentiles, sources of income dried up.

Then, at the end of 1942, the deportations began. Tens of thousands, eventually hundreds of thousands, were deported, some to forced labour camps, most to extermination camps. Resistance grew, and eventually surfaced in May 1943 in a full-scale uprising that took the Germans more than a month to put down. House by house, street by street, the Ghetto was destroyed, the buildings and whoever remained in them. A few managed to escape, but apart from these, a population of over 300,000 was wiped out.

It may well be possible to spend a week in Warsaw and not even be aware of this grim history, but there are many memorials, some big, some small, some obvious, such as museums and monuments, others less so, like street names or a stretch of the Ghetto wall. Some, like the line of the street that was once a crowded market-place, can only exist in your imagination.

Graffitti: The Ghetto was here

Warsaw Ghetto (Wikipedia)
Warsaw Ghetto Database
Museum of the History of Polish Jews

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, by Marek Edelman
Poems of Władysław Szlengel