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Pilgrimage to Poland: A search for family history amid the history of the Holocaust
The Pizers have always cared about family. From large picnics with cousins – out to thirds and fourths – to all those stories about the old country, the subject has always intrigued me. So, my wife, Ann, agreed to indulge me on a voyage of discovery.
Our son lives in Switzerland, so we decided to combine a trip to visit him with an expedition to find the family’s origin in two small cities in Poland. As we planned the trip, I knew the name “Pizer” derived from “Przedecki,” a reference to a person from the town of Przedecz. In the mid-19th century, the Czar decreed that all his subjects must have surnames. My great-great-grandfather chose Przedecki. That name didn’t last long, however, once family members began to leave Poland around the turn of the 20th century. When Modcha’s son moved for a short time to England to seek a better living, he took the first three letters – Prz – threw in some vowels and shook until ready. Out came the name Pizer, adopted by all who followed him out of Poland. There are no longer any Przedeckis in Poland. Those who stayed in Europe did not survive Hitler’s concentration camps. So during our trip we were looking at the site of the family’s existence, not at family.
The journey to Poland wasn’t easy. We took an overnight flight from Boston to Munich, and changed planes before heading to Krakow, Poland. We had an hour of sleep, sitting up, over a 32-hour span. We did, however, have as much food and drink as we could handle, and the crew served it with a smile. Compare that to the experiences of my Great-great-uncle Uncle Aaron, who came to the United States to earn money so he could bring other family members back her with him. On his trip to Poland to do just that, he was robbed, forcing him to return to the United States alone to earn yet more money, before returning multiple times to bring his relatives America. In comparison, our trip was pretty easy.
Once in Poland, we immediately experienced the friendliness of Poles. Clearing customs consisted of finding our luggage and walking out the “Nothing to Declare” door without anyone caring very much. The European Union makes travel simple. A smiling gentleman in the information booth directed us to ATM and we were flush with zlotys, Polish money.
Out we went in search of the number 208 bus, which was suggested by our book on Poland as the most direct way into Krakow. We asked a middle-aged airport worker for help and he used all of his English to direct us to the blue bus shelter, over there, and then called after us to say that he really meant red. During our visit, his confusion began to make sense: The older the Pole, the less English. But whatever their age, Poles were friendly. When we got to the right bus shelter, there was a schedule posted (in Polish, of course). We were trying to make sense of the Polish abbreviations for the days of the week, when a young woman, likely in her mid-20s, asked if she could help. What a happy moment; this might actually work. She told us where to get off the bus, and our first hurdle in Poland was cleared.
Krakow is a rather prosperous city. It served for centuries as the capital of Poland, and we gawked at the buildings on our way to the hotel and again for a few hours after depositing our luggage.
After catching up on our sleep, we started our first full day in Poland with a visit to the Wawel, the area that includes the king’s palace and the archbishop’s cathedral. Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, was Archbishop of Krakow and is venerated throughout the country, but particularly at the cathedral. Grand as the castle and cathedral are, they are mostly reconstructions. Poland has been conquered at one time or another by many of its powerful neighbors: Germany, Austria, Russia and Sweden. Under Austrian rule, the grand palace was used as both apartments and as a hospital, was denuded of its treasures and was poorly maintained. The Poles restored the buildings as a statement of national pride.
On any visit to a European city, it’s impossible to ignore the destruction of Jewish culture during World War II. It quickly became obvious that Krakow is no exception. A short walk from the Wawel lies Kazimierz, for centuries the site of Krakow’s Jewish ghetto. At least six synagogues dot the area, and two cemeteries provide reminders of the size of the Jewish community – 65,000 of whom the Nazis sent to death camps.
While learning about such horror proved emotional, sitting in a café, sipping a cappuccino and taking in the buildings surrounding this marketplace reminded me that generations of Jews had done the same thing, until the unexplainable evil of the Nazis’ “final solution.” We walked by the alley where Steven Spielberg filmed the scene in Schindler’s List in which the Germans rounded up Jews in an arcaded apartment building. The contrast between that image and our walking freely around an area where tens of thousands of humans lived well with the insanity of their end was enough to bring tears.
Others who’ve made similar journeys warned us we had to leaven the depressing times with something special. So, after dinner we discovered a magnificent church about halfway to Kazimerz and treated ourselves to a string quintet concert of Mozart and Bach et al. Such beauty did, indeed, bring some ease to our minds.
The next day would be the toughest. Bright and early after breakfast, we set out for the train station. We purchased our tickets and traveled about 90 minutes to Oswiecim, or as the Germans renamed it when they dismembered Poland in 1939 – Auschwitz. Alighting from the train, we made the 20-inute walk from the center of the town to the infamous concentration camp, attached ourselves to a group with a guide, and quickly found ourselves at the infamous gate with the ironically picturesque sign: “Arbeit Macht Frei” or Work Brings Freedom.
The Germans used this deserted Polish army camp, originally, to house political prisoners, especially Poles and Russians, then transformed it from a mean-spirited slave-labor camp into a place to bring and kill prisoners, by 1942 mostly Jewish. The killing began on the whims of SS officers to cow the prisoners, then hanging, starving, and shooting increasing numbers.
We saw where these atrocities occurred.
In the early days, the methodical Germans photographed prisoners as they entered the camp and issued death certificates (with imaginative causes of death). By 1943, the number of murders exceeded even their record keeping skills. Photographs were replaced by numerical tattoos, and death certificates went by the wayside.
In 1942, the Nazis decided to liquidate European Jewry. Auschwitz, with its neat rows of buildings and small crematory, quickly became insufficient to handle the masses (numbering in the millions) who would follow. So, the Germans constructed an annex to Auschwitz on the site of the village of Brzezinka or, in German, Birkenau. This death camp lay on an open plain more than a mile in length and nearly as wide, first with brick and then shoddy wooden structures to hold the incoming prisoners. Railroad tracks ran down the middle with elongated sidings where thr prisons, mostly Jews, were processed – 1 to 1.5 million in total. About 75 percent were sent directly to the gas chambers and crematoria, the other 25 percent to the slave labor camps.
This I took personally.
Almost certainly, in 1944, all of my relatives who had remained in Poland were gassed and burned at Birkenau. At their peak the Nazis killed the equivalent of the 9/11 death toll every hour, every day, day after day.
Although the incomprehensible number of deaths is by far the most horrifying aspect of Birkenau and Auschwitz, the coldness of the murderers is accentuated by the Nazis’ treatment of their victims, even after death. At Auschwitz we saw vast piles of eyeglasses, shoes of every description, from work boots to sandals, even shaving razors, all taken from the people killed. The Germans recycled these personal items, so these piles were only those left behind when the Germans fled the camp before the liberating Russian army, offering an inkling of the immensity of the death toll. The next, separated pile contained thousands of prosthetic limbs and, finally, there was the display of human hair, yards long, yards deep, some of it baled for shipment to processing plants that would have used it in textile production.
Anger began to morph into numbness.
More than a million people visit Auschwitz each year, and the day we visited it was moderately crowded. Our guide asked us to stay together as a group, to keep to the left, to refrain from talking in certain areas. I marveled at how obediently we all walked into former gas chambers, single file.
The next day began another great adventure, a visit to the small city where both of my paternal grandparents lived. We picked up our rental car, opened our Google map directions and set off. Our fourth turn was imperfect, and the second exit off the rondo, their word for rotary, was, well, not the one we took. But we finally found our way out of Krakow and onto a superhighway. We found Polish roads to be of high quality. The largest have a speed limit equivalent to 80 mph, which is largely ignored. The Poles have not yet discovered the concept of Route 128 – going around large cities. We crept through Czestochowa and Lodz but, finally, 400 kilometers into the trip, we approached Klodawa. We stopped to take a picture of the first sign we saw with “Klodawa” on it. We appreciated a several-mile stretch of thin road lined on each side with trees, though they were aging with holes in the formation of these arboreal sentinels.
We arrived in Klodawa armed with some basic information: the address of my grandfather’s home and the fact that my grandmother’s was nextdoor. We also knew both homes were located on the market square. A cousin thought the street was called Rynek, but we figured out in Krakow, even with our rudimentary Polish, that rynek means market(place). My father had heard from his mother that her family had lived at 6 Plac Wolnosci.
Klodawa is a city of 5,000 to 6,000 people, with a large salt factory on the outskirts of town. Nonetheless, the main road took us directly to the central square.
We were looking for symbolism, and we found it.
In the middle of what had been the marketplace we found a monument to the 22 Klodawa soldiers who died in World War II, but no mention of the 1,300 Jews from the city rounded up and taken to Birkenau for execution. About 25 percent of the town, a group with a presence in this community for five centuries, and no evidence they ever existed.
As the afternoon turned to evening, we stopped to take photographs of the monument and attracted the attention of one of the dozen men lounging around the square. When he began speaking to us in Polish, we thanked him for his attention, told him that we spoke only English, and waited for him to allow us on our way. We suspect we simply presented an antidote to boredom, and he stayed with us, talking away. When he saw the buildings we were filming, he must have concluded we were Jewish, since those buildings had been part of the Jewish quarter before the war. Then he pointed down the street saying, “Kino, Synagoga.” We’d read a rumor that after the war Klodawa had converted the synagogue into a theatre, and here was the evidence.
After checking out the theatre/synagogue, we returned to the square to compare old pictures with the current buildings to determine which had belonged to my family. After a couple of false starts, we figured it out, and Ann took my picture in front of the former Przedecki home. It’s now a residence on the second and third floors with an appliance store on the first.
The shop owners came out to ask what we were doing. The wife spoke a few words of English. We believe she thought we wanted to buy the building. She seemed OK with that, but when we told her my grandmother once lived there, she said, “Ah, Babka,” and gave us a big smile. Relief on both sides; we had communicated.
Overall, it was an odd feeling. My family members had lived there for at least a century and perhaps more. They had done business with the ancestors of the people we saw. They had survived years of anti-Jewish riots, and now their presence was almost forgotten and definitely not noted.
We looked for the Jewish cemetery. We had the location on a map and the assurance that nothing was left to mark its place. The building for preparing the dead had been demolished. The gravestones had been employed as foundation stones for a postwar school. We think the area is now part of a new subdivision, but it’s certainly another piece of the vanished past.
We then drove about 9 kilometers to our final stop of the day in the smaller city of Przedecz, important to the Pizer family because Mordechai Przedecki had chosen his name from his city of residence before moving to the larger community of Klodawa. We noted that although Przedecz was only a quarter the size of Klodawa, it has a huge central church and again we found ourselves subjects of interest for a brigade of lounging older men.
During our 60 kilometer drive to Lodz and our hotel, we discussed what we had seen and experienced concerning our past, which lead our thoughts full circle to the future. We wished for a cell phone connection (Polish phones worked fine but ours connected only occasionally) because our daughter was learning that day the gender of our first grandchild, due in September.
As we headed to Lodz, with directions to our hotel in hand, construction between the highway and downtown provided some extra challenges. As we passed streets, I would call them out, and my excellent navigator would ask me to spell them. Getting lost seems funnier in recollection than it did at the time. But we were finally rewarded with a charming 19th century hotel and a charming waiter who had visited the U.S. on a school exchange and was anxious to use his excellent English with two tired Americans.
The next morning we only got a little lost leaving Lodz, and after two hours of driving entered the mid-size city of Czestochowa. I’d heard of the shrine of the Black Madonna and wanted to see it. After creeping through a kilometer of Polish traffic, we found our way up a hill to a lovely church surrounded by a vast sea of souvenir booths. Our curiosity satisfied, we finished the journey back to Krakow.
We had left Krakow by car. How hard could it be to return? Our map didn’t always show the one-way streets or serious traffic jams, but Ann’s stellar navigating – with me spelling out the long street names; how hard can it be at 2 kilometers per hour – brought us to our destination.
The rest of our trip required a two-part flight to Switzerland, complete with a cancellation. But with our son and his girlfriend awaiting us at the other end to show us around Luzern and Zurich, it was more pleasure than adventure. Switzerland is organized, wealthy, picturesque, clean, expensive – and wonderful. Our family day trip to a waterfall on the Rhine was symbolic only of joy.
Nine days after leaving Plymouth we headed home to digest a journey into our family’s past, their triumphs and catastrophes, and delightful anticipation of our family’s future