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Jewish History in Poland Ended
The enormity of what happened; the long Jewish history in Poland was forever severed.
When the train started to pull away from the platform of our city, my mother became hysterical. I heard a cry that was not human. To this day I have not heard a sound like it, but I understand now. My mother saw herself a deserter, leaving from her country for good; she knew she would never be returning to Poland.
After having lost so much, she was once again going to lose everything—including her identity. In her years in America, my mother's homeland never stopped being part of her very essence. Her education, heritage, her husband's grave, and the ghosts of her murdered family—these things were always at the forefront of her consciousness, a piece of her forever left to linger in Poland.
From our large extended family, only three in total ventured out of Poland before WWII. They settled in Russia, Paris and New York. The rest, during WWII, lived in Warsaw and Lodz.
Large families were typical for the generations that came before me. I am referred to as the Second Generation “2G” survivor (a child of people who lived through the Holocaust).
My mother was the last of six children. Her father, died in 1918 when she was only one year old. A simple ear infection killed him at age 36. Her oldest brother, Adek, was twelve years old when their father died. Before his death, my grandfather, Pinkus Talasowicz, held two jobs in order to support his family. He was a foreman in a small clothing factory and he also worked in a pharmacy. The owner of the textile factory took Adek under his wing and gave him his father's job. My mother was forever convinced that they all survived that first year due to this generosity. Twin sisters Pola and Sala were both eleven years when their father died. Although they were starving, their mother did not have the heart to send them to work. Sister, Anja, and brother, Sevek, were only seven and four years old, respectively at the time. The following year when the twin girls turned twelve, their mother had no choice but to send them to work. During this period of history, children from poor families, as young as nine or younger had to work. Illiteracy was common because of poverty but also during the four years of the Great War (WWI), education was interrupted.
After WWI, my grandmother, Bina Symengauz, somehow managed to survive with her six young children in a city ravaged by war, where everyone also struggled. The lack of sanitation plagued Warsaw. It contributed to the spread of tuberculosis, typhus, and dysentery. By some miracle my mother’s family was spared these illnesses. In order to survive the war, my mother slept in the cold of an open field, battled nonstop hunger, watched people dying of malaria, dysentery, typhus and exposure. She succumbed to malaria, was arrested and harassed by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. She recalled that upon seeing her brother when he came back from Stalin's labor camps, that he looked as if he was fifty-seven years old and not twenty-seven, his true age. His feet were bound with rags, held together with a rope. A few hours later, he disappeared from her forever. He was killed at the front, in Southern Russia, by German or Russian bullets. It is then that my mother wondered if it might have been better to have succumbed to these diseases than endure what they had to suffer to survive the war years.
After WWI, America under Woodrow Wilson, established soup kitchens to feed the hungry and the needy Polish people. My mother recalled how every morning, before going to work, her brother Adek, took her to get a cup of milk and a piece of bread from a soup kitchen. America also opened orphanages; my mother reminisced that many children who weren't orphans lived there because their parents couldn't care for them after the Great War. Their mother never considered sending any of her children there.
After the Great War, help came from America and in due course the Kehilla organization, a Jewish charitable organization was fully functioning. Kehilla, (congregation) was a support system that served the devastated Jewish community; it existed in every Polish city and town.
In Warsaw, Kehilla organization managed to stay in operation until October 4, 1939 when it was dissolved and replaced with the “Judenrat” by the occupying Germans. In Warsaw, the Nazis ordered the establishment of Jewish council under the leadership of Adam Czerniaków. The Judenrat was responsible for implementing all Nazis' orders in the Jewish community. Adam Czerniaków who was in charge of the Warsaw Ghetto committed suicide. He would not sign the Grand Action, the papers for the mass deportations of Jews. In the summer of 1942, three thousand Jews were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto and murdered in Treblinka. This stands for the greatest slaughter in a single city, in human history. A loss of life was greater than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The day-to-day running of the largest working Ghetto in Poland, the Lodz Ghetto, was given to Chaim Rumkowski. In order to save the working Ghetto, Rumkowski, gave up the young and old Jews to be deported. On a transport, in September of 1942, the names of my father’s mother, father and one sister were recorded. They were taken from their apartment in the Ghetto. They were murdered on arrival in Auschwitz. Chaim Rumkowski was a complex character; did he think he could save the Jews of Lodz and outsmart the Germans, like Shindler did in his factory. Shindler was a German, Chaim Rumkowski was a Jew, who at the end was also deported to Auschwitz when the Ghetto was liquidated.
The Kehilla organization was well established during the interwar years, the organization had a total trust of the Jewish community. In the end this helped the Nazis the most. People now put their trust in the Judenrat leaders. The truth is, they had no other choices.
It took a long time for the impoverished Polish people to slowly recover after World War I. The streets were overrun with wild starving dogs that lived on the scraps and bones they found in the garbage. It was also common to trip on a feral cat lurking on the dark staircases. The cats were also starved. Pouncing up in the dark stairways, they would scratch and bite anyone. Rats and mice lived between the walls and the floors. At night they came out looking for any crumbs they could find.
To help pay the rent, my grandmother rented their kitchen to a family and with time there were five people living in the kitchen. As a family of seven, they had to make do with two beds, three chairs, a large table and a dresser. Finding a place to sleep for everyone was a challenge. They slept two to a bed. At night, their mother unfolded an additional cot and my mother’s older siblings took turns sleeping on a hay-stuffed mattress that they placed on top of the table. This was the least comfortable place to sleep, but every spring, before Passover, they stuffed this mattress with fresh hay, which infused the room with its sweet smell.
My mother remembered how regardless of how little money they had; their mother saved enough to make sure they had a proper Passover (the celebration of The Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt). The siblings barely saw their mother for six weeks leading up to the holiday. She, along with the other Jewish women in their neighborhood, worked through the night in a bakery to earn a little money-making matzah. My mother remembered how they all tiptoed during the day so that my grandmother could sleep. Later in life, my mother considered my grandmother’s piety and was struck by her devotion to faith while for most days, they had almost nothing to eat.
Passover began at sunset with a traditional Seder that progressed late into the night. My mother was forced to nap in the late afternoon so that she could stay up late with the rest of the family. My mother looked forward to Passover, not just because of the religious ceremony and the extra food, but because it meant spring was coming and she wouldn't be cold all the time.
Their mother also observed strict Sabbath and celebrated all of the other Jewish holidays. At the same time, the family dressed in Western-European fashion and joined the Polish society. Warsaw was home to a great number of assimilated Jews who dressed and looked like Polish nationals. A large number of Jews, however, remained Orthodox and Yiddish-speaking and dressed according to traditional Jewish customs.
Their mother was always busy with chores and always worried how to feed them but on Sabbath night she appeared to be carefree and even happy. In the flickering light of the candle, she looked content. For my mother and her siblings, the Sabbath was hard. Their mother, insisted that they strictly observe the Sabbath rules. From the Friday evening meal until the conclusion, on Saturday night, they were not allowed to do anything, even read or write, and all foods throughout Saturday were eaten cold. Their Jewish neighborhood on Sabbath mornings was peaceful, the courtyard and the street were quiet and all shops were closed.
Winters were hard on everyone, and in Warsaw winters were especially severe. Coal was expensive and they could not afford to burn it every day. Twice a week, usually on Tuesdays and always on Fridays before the Sabbath began at sundown, my grandmother managed to burn a little coal in the stove. By Saturday morning much of its warmth was gone, but since the family was home together, they had another kind of warmth. As they sat around the table in the warm glow of the Sabbath candle, their mother looked down at the potato soup and then up at her children. She would say: “Poor but always together, like a mother bird with her newborn chicks in a nest”. After dinner, they all gathered around Mother and sang from a Jewish songbook. In their limited way, they created a loving and joyous atmosphere for the mother they loved.
Jews ended up in Europe because of a historical catastrophe. The destruction of Jerusalem and the 2nd Temple in 70 CE by the Roman Empire ended with countless Jews being born in the diaspora. The scattered Jews always believed that Jerusalem is their home. Hence the saying “Next Year in Jerusalem”. There were other occupiers, but it was the Romans who destroyed Jerusalem and the 2nd Temple, ending Jewish freedom and forcing them to scatter. Jews ended up in Rome as slaves brought by the Roman soldier; some fled to survive. The oldest Jewish community outside the Land of Israel is found in Rome; it is the oldest Jewish community in Europe. Modern genetics show that all European Jews are 70 % descendent from Middle Eastern genes of three thousand years ago and about 30% from European stock.
Over the centuries, Jews dispersed, and became Ashkenazi or Sephardim, adapting culture of Western or Southern Europe. The scattered Jews, even as citizens they were without rights, suffered discrimination, persecutions, pogroms (destruction), ending in the Holocaust.
The Polish Pope, John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) has been quoted saying that he felt most spiritual when walking in the Polish Tatary Mountains; here in nature, he felt the closest to God. After Jewish freedom ended and the Temple was destroyed, a form of Judaism that could endure without a Temple, sacrifices, or state - no matter where Jews lived in the world, came to exist. A devotion that evokes the spirituality of John Paul II.
The native Jews that stayed in the Land of Israel were called Mizrahi. They lived there without interruption, under the different occupying powers as dhimmis (paid jizya, protection tax). They were 2nd class citizens. They were never free to self-rule. Independence came finally in 1948, not after WWI, and not after the Ottoman Empire was dismantled. The Balfour Declaration by the British government supported the reestablishment of a “national political homeland of the Jewish people in Palestine”; the name given to Judea by the Romans to distance Jews from their land. Arab violence prevented the Jewish homeland to be realized. The Middle East was rearranged after WWI. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, did not exist till then, all were made up after WWI. Their right to self-determination is never questioned. However, Israel’s right to self-determination in their historic homeland is questioned still today.
Community, family, faith and education is what saved the Jews in the Diaspora. In Western Europe during 13th to 16th centuries, Jews faced persecutions and expulsions for their religion. They were blamed for Black Death, the bubonic plague, spread by rats that came on trading ships from Asia. They started traveling East, arriving in Poland slowly over the next 200 years. In the 14th century they came by an invitation of king Kazimierz the Great. The king believed that their experiences, as traders and travelers, will help the kingdom grow economically. In return, the king gave Jews his personal protection. By 1772, "officially" Poland stopped to exist for the next 123 years. Russia, Prussia & the Austro-Hungarian Empire divided up Poland, until the end of WWI, 1918. Poland’s demise happened from within. The Nobility sold-out their country to their wealthy foreign neighbors for the promise of more land. With the Versailles Treaty, the Second Polish Republic was born. Poland’s borders changed. One-third of Polish citizens were minorities; 3.3 million Jews became now Polish citizens. Over a million lived in the Eastern territories, or the Pale of Settlements, the western Russia, eastern Poland.
My mother’s Jewish community had a long history. It led a thriving creative, political and religious life in Poland. The northern part of Warsaw was the center of Jewish life with Nalewki Street being the main boulevard. Stores, street peddlers and restaurants bustled with life. Most of the Jews who lived there were poor, working-class people. They were shopkeepers, bakers, shoemakers, painters, barbers, tailors and artisans.
Schooling was put on hold during the Great War. As the war ended, there were thousands of children who needed to catch up, along with the many just starting their education. There weren't enough public schools for even half of the school-aged children in Warsaw, and although new schools were being built, construction was slow. Private schools were expensive and only the wealthy families could afford to enroll their children there.
In 1924, my mother’s brother Sevek and my mother tried in vain to register for the third and first grades, respectively. Their mother decided to send Sevek to a private, Jewish school. He needed to start his education sooner. She found a school where she would pay only what she could afford.
Sevek's school was progressive, and to my mother’s delight Sevek was learning Polish and Hebrew. With mixed feelings, my mother watched her brother go to school, leaving her behind. She was happy for him but felt sorry for herself. All she wanted was to go with him to school. But she dared not to complain. Their mother did not have enough money to send them both.
In vivid details my mother described how she homeschooled herself. Sevek, her brother, was an eager student and he willingly shared with her what he was learning. My mother was overjoyed and vowed to be like her brother. She copied everything he did and it didn't take long for her to learn the alphabet, soon she was reading from all his Polish schoolbooks. The following year my mother registered for the 2nd grade in a brand-new public-school built in her neighborhood by climbing through an open window. The registration lines were so vast that if not for the open window she would have had to miss another school year.
My mother lived in a poor neighborhood. Most families around her did not have enough money to buy the extra books that sometimes were required. Their mothers worked out a way to buy one book that the children shared. My mother studied each day with her classmates who lived in her building or on her street. This way they all helped each other, and as a result, they all excelled in their studies.
In school is where my mother found contentment. Books helped her to escape the poverty that awaited her at home and molded her young mind to became a Polish patriot. Her young mind was impressed with a nationalistic spirit. After a hundred-year history of occupation and division by Russia, Prussia, and Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland became a deeply patriotic country. Studying, memorizing and reciting the works of great, patriotic Polish writers who wrote about Poland’s demise was an important part of schools’ curriculum.
Her generation broke away from the traditions of their parents and grandparents. They looked at the world through a different set of eyes. They believed that their world to be different than that of those who came before them. My mother and family were Bundists; Polish patriots of Jewish faith who worked tirelessly to create a better world for all. Their main goal was to improve economic conditions for workers while preserving their Jewish identity, heritage, traditions, culture, language and “coexist” with non-Jews anywhere in Europe. Bund was legal - they were not interested in overthrowing the government. Most Polish Jews were Bundists. In Poland, Bund never joined the Communists even after the war. To Bund, the Communists were the enemy, the invaders. Unfortunately, Bund saw Zionism as a pipe dream. In the end, Bund proved to be a failed ideology. It mistakenly believed that Jews were safe in Europe. At the end of WWII, my mother came home to the world's largest Jewish cemetery.
Zionism and Bund came to existence in the 19th century, as a response to state sponsored Antisemitic violence, discrimination and pogroms. Each took a different path and competed for Jewish recognition. Zionist’s aim was to return to Palestine, to Jewish Ancestral Homeland. 5% of Polish Jews left for Palestine after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, after WWI and until WWII.
Warsaw, a city of 1.3 million inhabitants, and a major center of Jewish life and culture, laid in ruin at the end of WWII. Before WWII, Warsaw's Jewish population of 350,000, was the largest in both Poland and Europe, and second largest in the world, the largest being in New York City.
An amazing discovery was made at the library of congress by my friend and a child Holocaust survivor who lives in Washington DC. It is entitled Class of 1926. In 1926, 5.5 million Polish citizens, government officials, elementary through university students, teachers and other citizens, representing 20% of the population, signed what became 111 books. It is a “thank you to America on her 150 Birthday” for the aid Poland received after WWI. This also became a document of Jewish students and teachers who would perish in 15 years. For most, their names and signatures, are the only thing that survived as the only record that they ever existed.
Running away from Warsaw and family was the most difficult thing my mother have ever done. It is difficult to relay today how strong her fear of the Nazis was. She was the only one in her family who read Mein Kampf. She had no idea what racial genocide was, or that the Holocaust was about to be unleashed against Europe's Jews by Nazi Germany and their enthusiastic collaborators. She tried to convince her married siblings to escape Poland but they thought it was best to stay in Warsaw and endure the war. At that time, there existed the belief that the great German civilization would never hurt women and children. Her three older siblings had five beautiful children, ages three months to five years old. We will never know what extraordinary people they would have grown up to be and what contributions to our society they would have made.
My mother returned to Warsaw six years after the start of the war. She returned to find not one member of her family to be among the living.