Lodz and Warsaw August September 2019: from facebook

26 August

I have just landed in Lodz from Munich, tracking the approach taken by the Nazi stukas in September 1939. The next ten days will cover the installation of a memorial plaque at the Bracka St Jewish cemetery to honour my grandfather Hersz Przedborski, of whom I knew little and now know a lot more. Many questions… I am staying in a garden studio (not) in what was a Litzmannstadt ghetto locality, just around the corner from Basarowa Street where my Jakubowicz grandparents were forced to live, and from which they lost their lives – through starvation, disease, poisoning and incineration. More to follow…

27 August

Lodz is in the throws of renovation – the trolley cars are in chaos so it’s Uber. This week of commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the August 1944 Litzmannstadt Getto liquidation has been organised mainly by the Marek Edelman Center for Dialogue. Edelman was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and one of the few survivors and stay in Poland, returning to work and live in Lodz. Now he has a centre named after him, funded by philanthropists who were survivors or descendants, set in glorious parkland. Nearby is an artificial hill on which a bronze statue of Jan Karski sits on a bench, gazing out at the mute world which refused to heed his warnings about the reality of the extermination camps – which had entered, documented and escaped from). There are pathways with stones named for victims and survivors, and trees representing survivors who have thwarted Hitler’s aim of making the city Juden Frei. One of the stones marks myself and my father, laid there by our friend Jerzy in 2004.
The gardens are currently in full bloom with roses, and celebrate life and survival in the face of evil and murder. I now have my survivor’s family ID and lanyard, and guide to the week, though I’ll be doing some of my own moving around.

I catch up with Jerzy and his daughter in law, Piotr’s wife (he is at the seaside drinking coffee on the beach he tells me ) and grand-daughter from Kalisz. We pursue the family stories and the winding roads – J. tells us about Jacques Rossi, who had been Franczisek Heyman, a relative of the Jewish line on his wife Elizbieta’s side. I have vague memories of Heyman relatives. Rossi was a communist who wrote about the gulags: anyone who knows more about him please let me know, as I am now chasing stories of the gulag in the Mari SSR in 1939-1941.

Over lunch I pursue one of my queries, was there anyone actually buried in the grave marking the Jakubowicz grandparents? Jerzy tells me it has been refurbished by his family many times: my mother used to send letters to Elzbieta’s father after the war: they were wrapped in nylon stockings which could be sold and the funds used to build the grave. But I think still it is symbolic – there is too much information on it that could only be gained well after the war, dates and places for instance. Later in the 32 deg heat we walk along the main drag Piotrowska, and I have my pic taken with a casting of the poet Tuwim whose nose is polished brass touched by those wanting to return to this place.

Later I catch up with R., who Yoav has put me in contact with. He has 6000 photos he has taken or collected of ghetto scenes and buildings, and his goal is to create an interactive map of the ghetto with photos, document, family names etc. In Lodz this is possible because the Ghetto admin was meticulous in identifying and documenting everyone they could – to ensure they maximised the exploitation of labour, and later to enable the “useless eaters” to be sent on the Szpera to their deaths at Chelmno. It is from this data available on the website JewishGen, that I found my grandparents had been expelled to Basarowa 8, flat 56. It is also the address on the few postcards from my grandparents to my father from the period January to May 1941, that he kept and I now have. I am sure this was the address. R. meets me in the heat of the afternoon and he works out how to jump the security on the gate and get us into the courtyard. The last flat is No. 48. What happened to 56? We discuss possibilities but the only one that makes sense is that some have been demolished or some smaller units amalgamated, I am sure that in 2004 when I last came here but feared to enter I could see 56 on the nameplates.

I walk through the ghetto to the Stary Rynek (old market) as the day cools, and buy a beer to sit and look across at the park. Then at the church, built for his Catholic workers by Poznanski, the creator of what is now the Manufakutra shopping complex but was then a textile mill of enormous proportions, I search for the old iron drain covers that had the star of David stamped into them. The platform round the church has a topping of badly poured macadam, which has covered everything from before. Inside the church the elderly women (I should talk about age) are gathering for the 6pm service. On the wall near the entrance there is a granite plaque with the names of Catholic religious from Lodz murdered by the Nazis, with their place of extermination. All the places are too familiar, revealing the shared fate with their Jewish neighbours. I wander back along Basarowa, where the park that used to be the execution place, and saw the hanging of many ghetto residents, is now full of children, tennis players and the calm elderly either working on their vodka bottles, smoking or knitting and chatting. So ends Day 1.

28 August

I have been on tenterhooks for months about today, when the memorial tablet for Hersz Przedborski, my mother’s father and my unknown grandfather, is secured to the wall of the Lodz Jewish cemetery. This new cemetery that dates from the 1880s is enormous; the old cemetery not far from Basarowa which opened in 1811 has all but disappeared. This one on the far end of the ghetto and easy shuffling distance to Radegast siding and the trains for Chelmno and Auschwitz, remains a monumental record of the disappeared Jewish culture of Europe. All through the war the dead of the ghetto were buried here, mostly in the so-called ghetto field (today a slightly swaying paddock of high yellow grass and small grave markers). Some found a spot elsewhere in the cemetery, often tagged in some way and not fully marked until after the war. Someone tells me of photos of the preparation hall where bodies are laid out prior to burial in simple Jewish tradition, filled to the rafters with bodies piled on each other, thousands of soles (souls) facing their Maker.

Again J’s family arrives in the black Merc, and I am rushed off in German splendour to the cemetery. In the boot the plaque lies heavily under the lid, still wrapped in its cardboard, foam and blister roll protection – the cardboard was stripped off two Wandjinan paintings from the Kimberley of those wonderful rain making spirits and used to protect the granite tablet created by Michael Binstock’s Sydney workshop. The wording had gone through many versions – one had Hersz named as the husband of two wives and the father of three children. However the wives disappeared, the two children and second wife lost in the Warsaw Ghetto are left out for another story, his parent’s names in Hebrew remain, and he has two survivors – my mother Halina Przedborska and me.

Much has changed here – the politics of the cemetery and the Jewish community of Lodz remains impenetrable to me though whoever takes on the cemetery is doing heroes’ work. However following Estelle Rozinski’s advice I had doubled down to work with Borys the son of the Jewish community chairman, and he was awaiting us with everything in hand. A slim young man with a slightly American accent, trendy round glasses, a snappy straw hat, and a rapid fire line on organising what we wanted, Borys joined us at the prepared wall, which had an oblong gouged out and cemented in preparation for the plaque. He acknowledged that the Binstock preparation – the plaque has two dowel holes in the back and screw shafts cemented into them, was new to him, but his workman Piotr gruffly nodded at it and told us to come back in half an hour.

J. leads us along the path parallel to the wall and unhesitatingly stops at the grave of my Jakubowicz grandfather, that he has been looking after ever since he married into the Szyffer family of his wife’s Jewish background, mother Julia. With Borys there, I can test my concern about what this gravestone actually covers. J. is also very pushy about getting confirmation that my grandfather is actually there. Borys looks at the grave with a practised eye, and taking lead from J.’s summary of my argument that there is no one there because there were no gravestones during the ghetto period, he reels off the likely history of the site. During the ghetto years Abram died and was buried here by someone who marked the space – maybe with a bedstead. Suddenly I realise that of course Malka was still alive, still playing indeed in her small chamber quartet, and was a vigorous and angry woman. She would have made sure that Abram would not be slung into the nameless plots on the ghetto field, but wrapped in a sheet and lowered into the muddy soil. In the horrid times after the Nazis were driven out of Lodz, the cemetery was full of returning or hidden Lodzers looking for their people. Someone probably Julia (Elzbieta’s mother) tracked him down after my father contacted her from Sydney (or maybe even Shanghai). These two grandparents are remembered in a wall plaque that echoes the words on the headstone – Abram dead and Malka “tragically murdered” . Now a couple of meters away is the other grandfather’s memorial. Sort of comforting to each other and definitely to me.

We head down Aleja Glowna, the main central pathway in the ghetto, with the aim of finding Hersz’s location if not actual grave if there is one. We have an address from the data base, but locating it can be an exercise in imaginary geoscience. He’s supposed to be in row Sz in the left lane off the main path. There’s an order number, 33 – but only some gravestones are clear enough to read their order numbers usually inscribed on the top right face in either Latin or Hebrew script. Most of the graves hereabouts are from about 1922, but Hersz died in early 1939. Borys skitters about, grabbing bits of old brick and rubbing them cross the face of unreadable tombstones. Their red dust helps the eroded inscriptions to stand out, offering names and numbers where they exist that he can check in the database and then cross reference back to the spot where Hersz should be. The numbers may be Ok but there’s no sign of Hersz and there are new graves from post 1945 everywhere. Agnieszka Tomczak who had with her husband Pawel and parents more or less run the ghetto cemetery business since the 1989 fall of communism, had sent me photos of Mayer Ber and Jakob’s graves a year ago, noting that all that existed there was the short sandstone base on which the stones had been set. She had never found Hersz’s, which had led me to deduce that there never had been one. BUT having argued myself into this I now have more data – Jakob who died after Hersz in 1939 apparently did have a stone, so Hersz may indeed have had one rather than definitely not having one because not a year had elapsed before the ghetto was closed.

We tramp back to the wall to see if the plaque is ready, when J. leads Iwona and Agnieszka off to look at the cluster of Szyffer graves, one beautifully carved with Art Deco flowers though no other graves have such adornments. I am quickly told a story of sequential marriages and thwarted loves, a sort of Neo-Roccocco soap opera.

At the wall Piotr has put up the plaque in our absence and has struck a problem – the wall is sinking slightly so a horizontal line to the horizon sits at an angle to the brick line of the wall, He has set it for the horizon and it looks out of kilter. He comes back, digs out some concrete and moves one end of the plaque up slightly, holding it in place with a couple of hammers set into the brick work. It is now parallel to neither line, and we agree that this will do. It echoes the imperfection for the Jakubowicz plaque where one of the descendants is listed as a “doughter”. In Bukhara the weavers always stuff up their work, so that there is a small blemish. Only God they believe can be perfect and for a woman or man to attempt such perfection is blasphemy.

Jerzy, Iwona and Agnieszka say goodbye – Jerzy to go home and rest, Iwona to join her Piotr at the seaside, Agnes to go to work. I accompany Borys back to the office to pay my bill and commission him to properly research and document the graves of Mayer Ber and Hersz, so I can assess what else might be done. Also I want to know what will be the price for updating and cleaning up the Jakubowicz grave. Agata in Warsaw, we share descent from Mayer Ber, emails “Beautiful” when I send her a photo of the plaque in situ.

For the next hour I wander through the enormous space, catching sight of hundreds of stacked tombstones in the shadow light of the encroaching forest. For decades nature and the communist regime had joined forces to try to squeeze the cemetery into dust. It had held out, and now inch by centimetre the community and the survivors circles were pushing back. Dozens of trees have been tagged to be cut down – by the gate a small mountain of logs lays badly stacked ready to go somewhere. It will take decades and Borys may be an old man before the whole space begins to resemble its previous appearance, cared for then by a community of over 200,000. I trip over clusters of tourists, loads of Israeli youth being led through the designated spaces – Poznanski’s tomb, the survivor pits, the rows of rabbinical and chassidic rabbis. and the crowds of doctors and lawyers. There’s a zionist leaders memorial littered with young persons shirts with messages scrawled in Hebrew, which I must admit I cannot decipher. My favourite grave may well be Jankiel Jakub Herszkowicz, ” the bard of the ghetto” who also survived and offered cynical but enlivening tunes as he played in the streets among the dying and the sick.

I catch an Uber back into town, driven by Oskar, a physiotherapist and ex-Sushi waiter. Lunch is one of the two things I should not allow myself, baked pierogi and an ice beer. Gorgeous. Then I walk the length of Piotrowska, looking at the family apartment, and pick up a jam donut (number 2 no-no). R. has stood me up but I get to buy a couple of books in a local store, “Encyclopedia of the Ghetto”(just released in English in 2017) and “Homemade recipes of Lodz Cuisine”, featuring tripe soup. An hour later I chomp down on the donut while sipping on a Starbucks ice cappuccino, extortionately priced here as elsewhere on the planet. Then a ramble back home. Thus ends Day 2.

28 August

Hersz now had an ending, but I didn’t know anything much about his beginning. Agata Tuszynska with whom I shared an ancestor in Majer Ber Przedborski, had written in her book, A Family History of Fear, about the Przedborski origins in Leczyca, an old fortified town north of Lodz. Heading north the road passed through Zgiersz and low flat fields with stands of forests between. Warning signs threatened that deer might leap out of the woods and to be aware. The town fort bears down on the road, and sits at the highest point protecting the wide town square. At the Commune office I was directed to the museum in the fort. The director Anna had an assistant guide me to the places of interest. She knew and had worked with Agata on the book. Przymek pointed out the corner house that was once, they thought, the Przedborski home, perched back across a narrow road from the edge of the square. North from that edge was the old Jewish quarter, narrow streets (including Ul.Zydowska, Jew Street) pushing towards the old synagogue and the cemetery.

The synagogue had been burnt by the Nazis soon after their invasion in September 1939, 80 years ago next week. The cemetery too had not survived the war. Its tomb stones had been used in the communist era as the base for a cobbled road. I found myself treading softly.

Now the synagogue site is a park, where people sit on benches under trees eating ice cream. There is no information marker for such a significant building, given that a photo of its burning remnant is in a number of local guides to necropolises and the Jewish community. However there are three large roundish rocks on the grass, which reminded me of the stones left by visitors to Jewish graves. Maybe they mark the site where survivors buried the burnt Torah scrolls and a visitation to that grave is thus marked. If you didn’t know you wouldn’t know, and if you did, you would. Pzrymek asserted that if people want to know history they can find it.

The car is parked just around the corner from Ul. Zydowska; the Jewish area had become the ghetto and was one of the first ghettoes to be liquidated, mostly at the nearby Chelmno site, my next port of call.

The mid Summer phenomena of rose draped statues of the Virgin Mother of God, and rosey crosses, some sort of mystical acknowledgement of the rosicrucian order and its secrets appear every few kilometres. The turnoff to Dabie winds through to the synagogue from the 1890, even more battered now than it had been when Richard and I had found it fifteen years ago. Then, as out of the past the figure of our key carrier from that first visit staggers down the street. He had admitted Richard and I to the ceiling space, to stand in awe before the glowing benediction above the altar. He pulls out his keys and we climb up the steep stairs through the padlocked door into the space above the ceiling. This time I also need to use my camera flash to reveal what is there, but it is terrible. The wall has become water logged, the plaster blowing out, great lumps on the floor. The bright ultramarine and gold are dull, the blue barely visible, the gold lettering browned and misshapen. I can scarcely stand in wonder before the name of God, which is barely legible. I nod sadly and say it’s very old. He agrees, a slight smile trying to rekindle my memory that a tip is due. I drop him 20 zloty, and leave. My emotions are so mixed – anger at the decay, acceptance of the effects of time on the decay of everything and everyone, happiness that the fragments are still in place, but a nagging worry about where this new Poland is moving. Even if there are hundreds or thousands of these relics around the country nothing will re-establish the communities for whom they had passionate meaning.

Chelmno awaits, both the killing place and the burial fields, if scattering ashes and grinding bone before throwing them in the river or tossing them into ponds or pits can be called any sort of burial. Much has changed as fame (infamy) has clearly had its effect. A huge empty new car park sits across the road. The church where the goods stolen from the victims were sorted and stacked looks like a Chistmas cake with pale blue and silver icing. The “palac” destroyed by the Nazis, has been dug out a bit and a concrete suspended walkway built cantilvered over it. It allows one to gaze down into the tunnels under the building where the victims were hounded naked along concrete floors to ramps and packed into gas trucks. My grandmother was one of them during the Great Szpera in September 1942, when the useless feeders were cleared from the Lodz Ghetto and shipped to annihilation.

Bartek, one of the officials there in the new administration offices built with European Commission grants, searches the data base on the computer. They have 5,000 names but there are probably over 40,000 bodies out there. There’s 350 or so Jakubowicz names, five of them Malka. Most are children, and none are my babcia. So there’s nothing more to be learned other than relived anguish. When we first came here it still bore the traces of the collective farm project on the site during the Communist period. Now the site is manicured and polished, whitewashed and bare, sombre but requiring massive imagination. In the new publications sold in the visitor’s centre there’s good scholarship, and especially information about how the Kulmhof project was designed as a test bed for all sorts of murderous innovations – from annihilist anthropology, to high quality theft and exploitation. But it’s so clean and perfect.

My cousins from Warsaw Anna and Jacek, have a branch of their Polin exhibition about voices of Jewish children who survived the war and its aftermath in Christian families. A surprise but a positive one for once, asserting that in the midst of this horror there were humans reaching out to those in need. At the temporary display on Chelmno a group of hot, elderly and slightly bemused German tourists are gazing at the panels, and photographing gruesome segments from the archives of the site.

In the forest the clean up has continued, The old pit and trenches and shards of bone poking through the sandy grass have all been tamed under vaste blankets of small whiteish stones. It is hot and I have had enough, more affected by the re-enlivened imaginings than I thought, and not even as disgusted by the manicure of the site as some have said I should be. The creeping comparison of church and synagogue leaves me distressed, irrationally but never less quite deeply.

Then I get monumentally lost; not even my simplistic psychology can miss the lesson in this. I turned the wrong way against the advice of my Google maps voice and its mangling of Polish road names. After forty minutes and realising the sun should have been on the other side of the road if I was going south to Zdunska Wola, the car headed south. A slight curse and a punishment of extra time with the Google maps lady.

At Zdunska Wola it is even later than I had feared, the car trapped behind two trucks and overtaken by BMW drivers accelerating through the sound barrier. on the way. But the museum director Tomas is still at the museum. He is happy (nay, wistfully willing) to spend some time showing me the secrets of Estelle’s exhibition of memory of the Jewish families of the town, many murdered at Chelmno. There are one hundred glass vials, each representing a family. They all have about an inch of darkish yellow soil in them, from Jerusalem, signifying a Jewish pre-history. Then there’s a small layer of darker soil from Zdunska Wola, reflecting the family’s time in the town. Then soil from where they are now, if they are survivors. If the family has been annihilated then there is no more sand, but rather a piece of paper inscribed I think with the Sh’ema and the names of those who are no more. Many of the vials have a multimedia back story, drawn from sources all over the world. Here’s what life had been like, and Chelmno was where most ended. One interview in Yiddish asks an old rabbi who had been hidden nd saved by Christians whether he would have done the same, positions reversed. He grimaces and says no.

Dinner at the most appropriately named restaurant, “Hades”, offers an opportunity to read my new book from Chelmno, the story of how it was established. Great scholarship in such a detailed exposition of the micro-history of terror. Nervously I drive back towards Lodz through the setting sun, the skies heavy with cloud and distant spurs of lightning. There is not an inch of this place that does not carry memories of outrage and horror. It recalls for me how Australian Aboriginal people must read the landscapes seized from them by our European ancestors seeking freedom and a new life. The Nazis offered the self-defence that Chelmno was a rapid humanitarian alternative to slow death by starvation for the Jews of the Warthegau region. In time they offered both to their victims.

Tomorrow, the day of the commemoration with all those old people baking in the sun, was supposed to be hot and dry. At home I hear the sound of big rain splats outside, as I write this. Thus ends Day 3.

29 August

The commemoration day dawns bright, no sign of rain but plenty of heat and barely a touch of breeze. At the cemetery, participants gather. The media are sorting out their places. A number of different kinds of scouts are staking out their locations, ready to offer water to the wilting crowd. My plaque to Hersz has set firm but still needs some careful touch up around the cement –Borys gets the message that I am not happy with the unfinished job. The Jakubowicz grave looks even more dilapidated, with green moss and the shadowed flickering light illuminating only fragments of the inscribed text. Jerzy has turned up as I look at the plaque and he nods in sympathy with my frustration.

Soon the crowds fill the tent space reserved for the visitors and frail. I grab a seat with Jerzy. The ceremony starts with a Polish MC and a translator echoing the words in English. We are in front of the memorial plinth to the Holocaust outside the gate to the burial area of the cemetery. There is an army honour guard, a police security detachment and a small army of Christian clergy in heavy serge robes and yamulkas. Prayers are said, a hip American rabbi tells an overlong story of respect for diversity, and Kaddish for the dead is intoned by Yehuda, a hundred year old survivor, sprightly enough and nicely turned out in suit and tie, the only who doesn’t look like he is melting.

Then ceremonial candles are lit by the dignitaries and representatives of various organisations, secular, Jewish and Christian. At the end personal candles can be lit and left: I manage to get one from the scouts and leave it here for Hersz and Abram, suggesting to myself they won’t mind sharing.

The walk to Radegast, the railway siding and now memorial site from where the trains left to Chelmno and then in the opposite direction to Auschwitz at the August 1944 liquidation., moves off, led by the honour guard and a drum and brass military band. The survivors are fifteen years older than when I first attended the ceremony, and there are far fewer of them, precious symbols for the various ideologies, which give their presence their own meanings. I amble along, too far back to become intoxicated by the drum beat at the head of the straggling column. For a while I chat to an English woman who organises a local choir that will perform a poem at ten minutes to ten on Saturday night, in preparation for the zone of silence on the eve of the commemoration of the beginning of World War II with the attacks on Poland. Lodz was an early target. I think of my Parents then and what the decisions were they had to take. My mother, employed at a local newspaper, had read the tape coming in and realised that they had to get out of Lodz. She had few illusions that this time around the Germans would be as generally civil to Jewry as they had been in 1914.

My father was torn in a way that I saw corrode his soul for the rest of his life – he would have to leave his parents and two sisters if he wanted to stay with his wife. There was no way she was going anywhere but eastwards, persuading her mother and stepfather, and their two children to leave immediately. Everyone believed that once Britain and France entered the war, it would be over by Christmas (or Chanuka). The women led the move and within weeks they had crossed the border into what soon became the Russian zone. After that is another story, but ultimately they ended up in Sydney, with the step-father dying of cancer in Shanghai. But today is not about the ones who got away, it’s about the ones who didn’t.

Radegast is a memorial museum of sorts, quite dramatic in its design. Giant tombstones carved with gothic letters of the German names of the killing sites mark one end of the area. There’s the platform and a station house now a small museum, and a long squared off concrete tunnel running back to a large concrete cube with an eternal flame inside and a tall brick chimney above. One wall has the countries of Europe from which the Nazis shipped Jews to Litzmannstadt, another the towns around Lodz that fed the ghetto and Chelmno – in German it is Kulmhof, the preferred rendition in Poland where Polish place names are now never to be associated with Nazi killing machines.

A children’s choir sings all the verses of the Polish national anthem, joined by the Polish politicians in the front row and one of the local rabbis. Then it’s the Israeli anthem, with echoes in the crowd and the rabbis again. I am always reluctant to accept the hegemony Israel claims over representation of the survivor and diaspora. A few opening speeches follow, and then survivor Marian Turski gets the mike and starts off, breaking every few minutes for an an English translation. He reads a poem, and then talks of how Auschwitz to where he was sent on the last transport soon became a normal place, once the prisoners were driven out on the death marches west in the face of the Soviet approach. Once, of course, the ghetto was a normal place when he first entered Auschwitz. He spoke of the return, the starved and fragile survivors who drifted back into Lodz in the summer of 1945, facing the hostile astonishment of the local residents that any had survived. It was thought he would only talk for five minutes or so, but he uses the half hour he has claimed to make a few points that he’s been bottling up for seventy five years. Just in case people thought it was all over and life could return to some sort of normalcy, fast forward to 1968. Once more, but this time without Nazi prodding, the polish power structure turns on its own Jews, condemning them as traitors and Zionists. Thousands more leave, including many communists who believed that after Nazism and under Socialism Jews could live as equal citizens. Not to be.

After Marian thanks everyone for letting him talk slightly longer than intended, there are more speeches from government representatives – of the President of Poland, the Prime Minister and so on. As expected they decried the Nazis, denied any Polish involvement and celebrated the Righteous Poles who saved Jews, pointing out that many millions of Poles too had suffered and died. Only the female mayor of Lodz got, truncating her planned address and saying, just listen to Marian and his plea for understanding and friendship.

Then came the battle of the wreaths, with soldiers hauling them out from behind the station house and the front row of civilians falling into step, bending their heads, and sometimes dropping to one knee to ensure the ribbon was showing the donor’s name for the cameras. Huge wreaths from the government, a small one from Germany, and even a lest we forget from Australia in green and yellow laid by the Chargé from Warsaw.

Somewhere in the sequence the honour guard fires three volleys of blanks into the sky. Throughout the non-speaking ceremony a drum beat and bugle tap out the pace. Finally there’s the last post, and the meeting dissolves. At the Kulmhof tombstone I borrow a gas igniter from a local to set the candle alight, and offer it the memory of Malka. There’s one other candle burning for Chelmno.

Lunch is in an ornate building across from the Jewish community in Pomorska Sreet, not far from the Kosciusko monument. Marian is at my table and I ask him him if there’s an English copy of his speech. He tells me there’s not even a Polish one, he adlibbed, but there is a recording and maybe a transcription will be done. I’m not holding my breath: the Minister for Culture and National Identity had not looked impressed when Marian went up to him after the ceremony to continue his harangue about the poor state of the current government’s sensitivity to diversity and community.

Then it’s a happy birthday for Yehuda, his hundredth, and a gift from the city – copies of blue prints of the floor plans of the buildings he’d lived in in Lodz before the War. He seemed a bit bemused by the large scrolls pulled out of their carry tube, flapping about his head. But the scrolls were brought by the director of urban development for the city, a history lover. I tapped him on what happened to the disappearing flats at Basarowa 8. He suggested his office might be able to solve that dilemma for me.

Along the paths of the Survivors’ Park there are stones inset along the paths bearing survivor names. I found the one Jerzy had placed with my father’s and my name on it, number 399, back in 2004. Somewhere there should be an associated tree. As evening fell the Edelman Centre was hosting a jazz concert playing music made famous by the Happy Boys, a band of survivors in 1945-6. It was wonderful – the current band of three brass, violin, double base, drums and piano, with three multilingual singers (Polish, English and Yiddish) were extraordinarily adept and very moving. Their finale “We all want a home” which ends with the line “But now we have to leave” had the crowd in tears demanding and getting a second performance. There was a sense of closure, sad but final. Thus ends Day 4.

30 August

The week of commemoration and personal pilgrimage has almost concluded. At Lodz Fabrzycka station I buy my ticket to Warsaw. The new building of glass and steel has replaced the old rail centre, where I had come to Lodz and left it before. It is nearly empty of people, as only the Warsaw line is connected and there are no trains due. A large plaza in front means that Uber drops you in the midst of the tram tracks and traffic. The old Russian church, a symbol of the city’s past as a Russian-controlled city under the Tsars reflects in the copper and glass facade of a rising office building. All around new construction fills the air with dust, heated in the sun and fumes.

It’s a few hundred meters from the station to Ul. Juliana Tuwima, the name that replaced Ul. Przejazd, where much of the family lived. Records sent to me by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw help me confirm the musical apartments that the family seemed to have played as their fortunes varied and family relationships reformed. In 1920 or so, with the new Polish Republic in ascendance and the influence of both the Prussian and Russian empires dissipated, the city proudly showed off its new Art Deco apartment blocks, similar to areas of other former Russian cities like Riga, though not so dramatic.

The Jakubowicz parents lived in Ul. Olginska, now Ul.Piramowic, where they had an apartment first in No.9, currently under renovation, and then later in No.15, a long ornate building stretching half a block. It looked across to the Russian Church and the rail station. . That was the location from which they were “resettled” to Basarowa 8 in early 1940 before the ghetto was sealed. If it were anything like the other apartments it would have been expansive and comfortable, an extreme opposite to the ghetto Basarowa warren.

When my parents were married, linking the two families, they moved together into an apartment at Ul. Przejazd 17. It’s a more modern brutalist building that at the back looks over Sienkiewicz Park. However it was across the road from where my mother’s family had lived, as she had with her stepmother and father for a while at No.20, and later No.30.

My mother’s parents divorced and both remarried in the early 1920s, leaving my twelve year old mum to move between the two new families. Early on she was in an apartment at Ul. Cegielniana 10, (now ul. Stefana Jaracza) upstairs, the fourth in a row of decreasing ornate blocs running east from Ul.Piotrowska.

Ul. Tuwima 30, currently undergoing renovation, was where my late aunt Maria and uncle Marcel were born. From there it is a short walk to Ul. Piotrowska, the main street of Lodz, the whole long expanse declared national heritage. Most of the buildings there date from the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Number 85 to which Marcel moved later and which he remembers most fondly as “home”, has an Italian Renaissance façade, the first floor housing the Lodz Business club. However just before the War the family moved to Przejazd this time No 20 on the corner. It was from those two sides of Przejazd that the family fled eighty years ago next week, abandoning their previous lives and hurling themselves into maelstrom of refugee survival.

They all, Michal Weyland and Estera, my mother and my father, Maria just back from university in Belgium, and Marcel about to start high school at the end of the summer, walked out of their buildings, locking the doors behind them, carrying a few belongings, documents, photos, and identity cards, with my mother wearing a coat with a few gold roubles sewn into the lining. My father had a small Ford, and they all piled in and drove towards the east, leaving it parked by the roadside when the petrol ran out at the beginning of the tram line into Warsaw. One of his few keepsakes was its key. Marcel tells the story in his autobiography published a couple of years ago, “The Boy on the Tricycle”. When I was last in Lodz Jerzy gave me a photo from earlier in that decade of my father with the car and friends, including my mother, on a picnic. The last photo there of my father was with my mother and his two sisters Tola and Irena – both survived the War after terrifying times.

Back at Edelman one of the staff take me to see the memorial stone, a bit perturbed that my name is on it: Jerzy had put both my father and I on the stone, but I was not a survivor. If they put all the second generation on stones the park would not have been big enough – thankfully, she said. However she pointed out the nearby tree associated with the stone, fifteen years strong and growing. Nearby a new ceremony of tree planting takes place, acknowledging a child survivor from Prague whose early years in the ghetto then had him in Auschwitz and other camps. A documentary on his extraordinary survival plays in German with Polish subtitles. For an hour the images hold me as I try to make sense of the few words I can pick out in either language.

Walking back from the Center along the road in the ghetto, the setting sun glows red off the bricks on the church. On a street corner still sprayed on an old wall and as yet not painted over, a crude star of David accompanies the word Zydzew and the letters LKS. It marks the skinhead message by Lodz Sport Club (soccer) supporters against their long time enemy Widzew Lodz, who are called “Jew” (Zyd) as a term of abuse. So ends Day 5.

31 August

Last night in Lodz. Ten pm listening to a choir sing “Ten to ten: a living memory of love through song” written in the ghetto. Silent candle vigil to commemorate all those who died, the last liquidation to Auschwitz 75 years ago. Then the silent recognition that tomorrow marks eighty years since the Nazi bombardment of Poland began and the disasters of war were unleashed. Unnerving walking back through the dark ghetto streets, graffiti in the shadows and the heat still layering everything. Was this what is was like before and during?

1-4 September Warsaw

September 1 – the beginning of Autumn and eighty years since the invasion. Warsaw is under lock-down, police cars blocking intersections and helicopters overhead. The US VP Pence is in town or soon to be, and truck loads of riot police speed by, even though most roads are empty on this hot Sunday at the end of the summer vacation.

My apartment overlooks the Warsaw Uprising monument square, which faces the High Court with Latin sayings celebrating justice inscribed on the columns. One evening it will be the location for a demonstration demanding the removal of the minister for Justice because of alleged corruption. Next door the Military church welcomes a constant stream of retired and elderly uniformed and be-medalled officers, on the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion. Warsaw old city hosts yet more tourists, sucking on icecreams while selfyfying by the Barbican. There are no longer the overwhelming array of painted mannequins of Jews with sidelocks and menorahs, though a few persist among the hand-carvers’ stalls. Posters inviting people to the Polin museum of Jewish culture and history in Poland advertise the life stories of Jews driven from Poland by the anti-Semitic campaigns of 1968.

Many Uber drivers in Warsaw are Ukrainians who have lost everything in the Russian invasion from the East in Donetsk. Shades of September 1939 and the Soviet invasion flicker into sight.

We gather at my cousin’s place, founders and creators of My Polish parents, My Jewish parents exhibition and books. Ania’s mother and uncle, smuggled from the Warsaw ghetto, survived under the protection of a Polish family and the church, her grandmother through using her wits, Ania tells me. She was unaware of her own Jewish background until her late teens; now with her husband Jacek she has become a fiercely committed advocate for recovering Jewish history in Poland. Her daughter and partner join us, telling stories of the revitalisation of the Jewish presence in Poland as similar stories of buried identities emerge.

At the same time the current government has been lambasted internationally for laws criminalising the suggestion that Poland was involved in the Holocaust. The most that can be permitted is to point to aberrations in individual behaviour, not patterns of antisemitic homicide. Otherwise Poles were also victims, helpers of Jews, and bystanders, never perpetrators in the violence that killed the Jewish population of Poland. Can we get this exhibition to Australia, they wonder?

Monday morning I walk to the Jewish Historical Institute, housed in the former Jewish community Library by where the synagogue once was; flames from the burning building next door have cut scars into its stone floor. Its main exhibition, the Ringelblum archive, was rescued from burial in basements after the liberation of Warsaw. Its thousands of pages tell the story of the ghetto, its layered destruction, and the survival of its spirit. One of its last fighters, Marek Endelman, had returned to Lodz after the war to continue practising as a doctor and lend his name to the survival centre there. Here pride of place has been accorded one of the milk urns in which documents were kept. https://www.yadvashem.org/…/video-tool…/hevt-ringelblum.html
Marcel had selected poems found here for his translated collection on Jewish Poets of the Holocaust.

Even today Warsaw is consumed by controversy over Holocaust history. A new state-sponsored museum of the Ghetto, established in what had been the children’s hospital in the ghetto (where Dr Jan Przedborski had been the lead paediatrician and lecturer in paediatrics at the secret underground medical school) has come under criticism as a whitewash for Polish crimes, with many Polish Holocaust historians refusing to participate.
https://www.theguardian.com/…/warsaw-ghetto-museum-holocaus…

Meanwhile the director of the Polin museum of the history of the Jews in Poland was not reappointed in February and had to reapply in open competition. It has been alleged that the government was punishing him for his criticism of the proposal in 2018 by the Law and Justice ruling group to criminalise allegations of Polish state collaboration in the Holocaust. His reappointment was recommended by the selection group, but he has still not been finalised.

I am here though to see Noam, who has been my great support since the search for Hersz began. Nearly every breakthrough has been a result of his uncanny ability to ferret out the details held in difficult archives, and patch them together into a plausible, evidence-based and lyrical narrative. We have wondered as my 12 year old mother shuffled between the apartments of her mother and father, each with their own new spouse and recent baby. We have found Hersz’s burial plot and that of his father, and of course, we found Agata. Now the last remnant of Hersz’s life, wife Eva and a son Jerzy, have turned up in a most poignant way. A slip of paper from the archives contains the names of a family group, apparently Eva and her two sisters, one of their husbands, and children, living together in Skolimow south of Warsaw on October 1940. Eva is seeking help to contact a Chaskiel Bauman of the Bronx in New York, with the hope he may be able to get them to the USA. Chaskiel, Noam determines, was Eva’s father, who had left for America in 1924. Soon after his departure his wife, Eva’s mother, had died. Chaskiel married twice more in the USA but had no other children. He died in 1938, out of contact with Eva who thought him still alive and maybe able to help. Eva lives in Ul. Graniczna, Boundary Street. It’s her last known presence before she disappears either into Treblinka or the Warsaw Ghetto. But where was it? And what might it reveal?

It is time to meet Agata. We arrange dinner at a stylish restaurant near the centre, something that might have been redolent of the more affluent evenings in the 1930s. We plunge into conversation, laying out details of family. We are, after all that we know, the last remnants of Majer Ber Przedborski’s clan, its wonderously successful and influential members lost nearly all in the murderous years after 1939. I tell her of my mother’s years staying with Jan Przedborski, the doctor, while she studied at University in Warsaw during the 1920s. She tells me that her mother told her many stories of that apartment, destroyed during the bombardment of Warsaw. I mention I am on the hunt for any information about the Skolimow house. I’ve been there she says, it has a shop, its known as the Shop on the Corner. It belonged to uncle Jan, who was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 after trying save his beloved child patients. We google the house name and there it is, revealed on Google maps. After the death of Hersz Eva had collected her family with Jan’s help in the health resort of Skolimow, surrounded by Wermacht officers in villas expropriated by the Nazis from Polish and Jewish owners. Then she and they were gone. Now as I discover when I visit, the house is under renovation and the new owner may have more of the story.

A few final tasks remain. When my parents lived in Shanghai between 1941 and 1946 they played key roles in the Polish Jewish community. My grandmother ran the community kitchen for the refugees, while my father was the community bank treasurer. For many years I have been bothered with the story of the eight community members who challenged the Japanese order to remove themselves as “stateless” refugees, to the Hong Kew Designated Area, the so-called “Ghetto Shanghai”. They resisted, demanding that their Polish citizenship be recognised and that they be treated as enemy civilians. They were arrested, gaoled, sickened and died under Japanese authority. They were crazily brave, suffering really as martyrs for their national identity. Today such a position is not very comfortable for any of the parties, especially in recent years when Jewish organisations and the Polish State have been in a dramatic standoff, and as antisemitism has been once more on the rise in Polish public life. Yet a memorial to these men in the Refugee Museum in Shanghai, installed by the Polish State, would be an important symbolic bridge. While they were at it, I thought, they could sort out the names of Polish Jewish residents missing from the huge bronze memorial wall in the Museum. The Polish Government Ambassador to the Jewish Diaspora met me in a small room in the government quarter of the Old City. In short order he indicated that both requests would be adopted and they would keep in touch. Exit.

Closure on so many fronts. Some stories though do remain open, but the completion of some of my own internal narratives of loss, impermanence and identity have been achieved. Will I ever go back? Ania’s desire to bring her project to Australia remains pressing – the Australian head of mission whom I had seen lay the wreath at the Ghetto ceremony in Lodz, agreed to hear out the proposal from Ania for the exhibition to come to Australia perhaps with government help. Jan, a senior figure in the Institute for Polish Affairs in Australia, seems enthusiastic about IPA playing a role in co-sponsoring the trip. There may be other sources of support. These strings digging back into the distant ground of a turbulent and traumatising past do not leave us alone. Particularly if we will not permit them to be forgotten.

September 1 – the beginning of Autumn and eighty years since the invasion. Warsaw is under lock-down, police cars blocking intersections and helicopters overhead. The US VP Pence is in town or soon to be, and truck loads of riot police speed by, even though most roads are empty on this hot Sunday at the end of the summer vacation.

My apartment overlooks the Warsaw Uprising monument square, which faces the High Court with Latin sayings celebrating justice inscribed on the columns. One evening it will be the location for a demonstration demanding the removal of the minister for Justice because of alleged corruption. Next door the Military church welcomes a constant stream of retired and elderly uniformed and be-medalled officers, on the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion. Warsaw old city hosts yet more tourists, sucking on icecreams while selfyfying by the Barbican. There are no longer the overwhelming array of painted mannequins of Jews with sidelocks and menorahs, though a few persist among the hand-carvers’ stalls. Posters inviting people to the Polin museum of Jewish culture and history in Poland advertise the life stories of Jews driven from Poland by the anti-Semitic campaigns of 1968.

Many Uber drivers in Warsaw are Ukrainians who have lost everything in the Russian invasion from the East in Donetsk. Shades of September 1939 and the Soviet invasion flicker into sight.

We gather at my cousin’s place, founders and creators of My Polish parents, My Jewish parents exhibition and books. Ania’s mother and uncle, smuggled from the Warsaw ghetto, survived under the protection of a Polish family and the church, her grandmother through using her wits, Ania tells me. She was unaware of her own Jewish background until her late teens; now with her husband Jacek she has become a fiercely committed advocate for recovering Jewish history in Poland. Her daughter and partner join us, telling stories of the revitalisation of the Jewish presence in Poland as similar stories of buried identities emerge.

At the same time the current government has been lambasted internationally for laws criminalising the suggestion that Poland was involved in the Holocaust. The most that can be permitted is to point to aberrations in individual behaviour, not patterns of antisemitic homicide. Otherwise Poles were also victims, helpers of Jews, and bystanders, never perpetrators in the violence that killed the Jewish population of Poland. Can we get this exhibition to Australia, they wonder?

Monday morning I walk to the Jewish Historical Institute, housed in the former Jewish community Library by where the synagogue once was; flames from the burning building next door have cut scars into its stone floor. Its main exhibition, the Ringelblum archive, was rescued from burial in basements after the liberation of Warsaw. Its thousands of pages tell the story of the ghetto, its layered destruction, and the survival of its spirit. One of its last fighters, Marek Endelman, had returned to Lodz after the war to continue practising as a doctor and lend his name to the survival centre there. Here pride of place has been accorded one of the milk urns in which documents were kept. https://www.yadvashem.org/…/video-tool…/hevt-ringelblum.html
Marcel had selected poems found here for his translated collection on Jewish Poets of the Holocaust.

Even today Warsaw is consumed by controversy over Holocaust history. A new state-sponsored museum of the Ghetto, established in what had been the children’s hospital in the ghetto (where Dr Jan Przedborski had been the lead paediatrician and lecturer in paediatrics at the secret underground medical school) has come under criticism as a whitewash for Polish crimes, with many Polish Holocaust historians refusing to participate.
https://www.theguardian.com/…/warsaw-ghetto-museum-holocaus…

Meanwhile the director of the Polin museum of the history of the Jews in Poland was not reappointed in February and had to reapply in open competition. It has been alleged that the government was punishing him for his criticism of the proposal in 2018 by the Law and Justice ruling group to criminalise allegations of Polish state collaboration in the Holocaust. His reappointment was recommended by the selection group, but he has still not been finalised.

I am here though to see Noam, who has been my great support since the search for Hersz began. Nearly every breakthrough has been a result of his uncanny ability to ferret out the details held in difficult archives, and patch them together into a plausible, evidence-based and lyrical narrative. We have wondered as my 12 year old mother shuffled between the apartments of her mother and father, each with their own new spouse and recent baby. We have found Hersz’s burial plot and that of his father, and of course, we found Agata. Now the last remnant of Hersz’s life, wife Eva and a son Jerzy, have turned up in a most poignant way. A slip of paper from the archives contains the names of a family group, apparently Eva and her two sisters, one of their husbands, and children, living together in Skolimow south of Warsaw on October 1940. Eva is seeking help to contact a Chaskiel Bauman of the Bronx in New York, with the hope he may be able to get them to the USA. Chaskiel, Noam determines, was Eva’s father, who had left for America in 1924. Soon after his departure his wife, Eva’s mother, had died. Chaskiel married twice more in the USA but had no other children. He died in 1938, out of contact with Eva who thought him still alive and maybe able to help. Eva lives in Ul. Graniczna, Boundary Street. It’s her last known presence before she disappears either into Treblinka or the Warsaw Ghetto. But where was it? And what might it reveal?

It is time to meet Agata. We arrange dinner at a stylish restaurant near the centre, something that might have been redolent of the more affluent evenings in the 1930s. We plunge into conversation, laying out details of family. We are, after all that we know, the last remnants of Majer Ber Przedborski’s clan, its wonderously successful and influential members lost nearly all in the murderous years after 1939. I tell her of my mother’s years staying with Jan Przedborski, the doctor, while she studied at University in Warsaw during the 1920s. She tells me that her mother told her many stories of that apartment, destroyed during the bombardment of Warsaw. I mention I am on the hunt for any information about the Skolimow house. I’ve been there she says, it has a shop, its known as the Shop on the Corner. It belonged to uncle Jan, who was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 after trying save his beloved child patients. We google the house name and there it is, revealed on Google maps. After the death of Hersz Eva had collected her family with Jan’s help in the health resort of Skolimow, surrounded by Wermacht officers in villas expropriated by the Nazis from Polish and Jewish owners. Then she and they were gone. Now as I discover when I visit, the house is under renovation and the new owner may have more of the story.

A few final tasks remain. When my parents lived in Shanghai between 1941 and 1946 they played key roles in the Polish Jewish community. My grandmother ran the community kitchen for the refugees, while my father was the community bank treasurer. For many years I have been bothered with the story of the eight community members who challenged the Japanese order to remove themselves as “stateless” refugees, to the Hong Kew Designated Area, the so-called “Ghetto Shanghai”. They resisted, demanding that their Polish citizenship be recognised and that they be treated as enemy civilians. They were arrested, gaoled, sickened and died under Japanese authority. They were crazily brave, suffering really as martyrs for their national identity. Today such a position is not very comfortable for any of the parties, especially in recent years when Jewish organisations and the Polish State have been in a dramatic standoff, and as antisemitism has been once more on the rise in Polish public life. Yet a memorial to these men in the Refugee Museum in Shanghai, installed by the Polish State, would be an important symbolic bridge. While they were at it, I thought, they could sort out the names of Polish Jewish residents missing from the huge bronze memorial wall in the Museum. The Polish Government Ambassador to the Jewish Diaspora met me in a small room in the government quarter of the Old City. In short order he indicated that both requests would be adopted and they would keep in touch. Exit.

Closure on so many fronts. Some stories though do remain open, but the completion of some of my own internal narratives of loss, impermanence and identity have been achieved. Will I ever go back? Ania’s desire to bring her project to Australia remains pressing – the Australian head of mission whom I had seen lay the wreath at the Ghetto ceremony in Lodz, agreed to hear out the proposal from Ania for the exhibition to come to Australia perhaps with government help. Jan, a senior figure in the Institute for Polish Affairs in Australia, seems enthusiastic about IPA playing a role in co-sponsoring the trip. There may be other sources of support. These strings digging back into the distant ground of a turbulent and traumatising past do not leave us alone. Particularly if we will not permit them to be forgotten.

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2 thoughts on “Lodz and Warsaw August September 2019: from facebook

  1. It is so important to understand what we are made of and feel through places our forefathers’lives because what we are is what we inherited from them. I went twice to the Jewish cemetery of lodz and there is a strong feeling being there, tombs are the silent witnesses of a past that no longer exist forever. Only the living can keep the memory of them intact so that they will never be forgotten. I was overwhelmed by the diary.

  2. A substantial and compelling story. Also useful for all, including me, to know more about the holocaust and the diaspora of victims and their families in the world, which we in countries like Indonesia know very little about it.

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