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Trip to Poland - September 2002

November 20, 2002
Dear Family

I’m writing to tell you all about the wonderful trip my son, Jack, and I made this fall to Poland.  The trip was Jack’s gift to me for my 70th birthday, for the specific purpose of searching for our family roots in the “old country”. I’d never considered visiting Poland, and I wasn’t aware that Jews lived there still, nor would want to, since my impressions of the country were based upon images of World War II and the Holocaust.  After traveling there, I have a quite different impression of Poland.  In most respects it is a modern country, recovered from the devastation of war and decades of Soviet rule and now experiencing improved economic, social and political prospects.  The most surprising and encouraging development in Poland is the current attempt to revitalize the vanished world of Jewish culture in many parts of the country. This renewal effort is the work of a group of dedicated Polish Jews, and of progressive Polish individuals and organizations, who value the heritage of the once vibrant Polish-Jewish civilization in that country and are committed to reestablishing a vital Jewish community life in Poland again.


Before we left for Poland, Jack and I agreed to maintain a fairly flexible itinerary in our search for family roots and to rely upon intuition to guide us day by day.  We succeeded beyond what either of us had anticipated:  we traced family history back four generations, we walked upon the cobblestone streets of the village of our ancestors, and we found the house we believe to be the Wlodawer family home, where my father was born. We followed leads as they were presented to us, and rearranged our schedule to take side trips and detours, all of which contributed to our understanding of the history of our family. Our trip was an opportunity for me to reconnect with my Polish-Jewish heritage, and to face the reality of the horrors of the Holocaust, which I had avoided much of my life.  Throughout our journey, we had a strong sense of ancestral spirits accompanying us each step of the way.

In our family, no one knew much about our ancestors and their life in Poland, partly because our grandparents, Isaac and Anna Waldofsky (as the name was interpreted upon their immigration to this country) didn’t talk much about the old country, except to say that there’d been no future for Jews in Poland.  They loved America, the “land of opportunity”, and they raised their children to be “real Americans”, to enjoy the benefits of living in freedom, and to have successful lives, unlike the way life had been for them in Poland.  From my father and my aunts, Doris, Rose and Frances, I heard stories about my grandparents’ lives: that Isaac and Anna’s marriage had been arranged when they were very young primarily to  prevent Isaac from being “conscripted” for a second term into “The Czar’s Army”; that Isaac and Anna had two sons when they still lived in Poland, the oldest, Sam, born in 1906, and Nathan, born about 1908; that Isaac had left Poland to immigrate to America in 1909, where he arrived with “a pack on his back”, worked for two years as a cobbler to earn enough money to pay for his family’s passage to the “golden land of opportunity” and that after Isaac immigrated to American, Nathan had died from complications of diphtheria or typhus.  My father, Sam, immigrated to America with his mother in 1912, as did hundreds of thousands of other Jews from Europe, during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries.

The only concrete source of information we had as a basis for our search for family traces in Poland came from a document that had been filed with Jewish agencies by my father, Sam, in 1945, after the end of the war. A copy of his letter is attached).  He wrote the letter on behalf of his parents who were seeking information about family members who’d not been heard from since before World War II in 1939.  The document gave the spelling of Isaac’s surname as Wolodower, and the name of the village where his family was “well-known and established for many generations”, as Sokolow Podlaski located in Siedlce Gubernya (province).  Names of Isaac’s five siblings, their ages, married names and occupations were listed in the document, as well as names of Isaac’s father and grandfather with their dates of death.  Two of Anna’s relatives were also being sought and were listed as missing and not heard from since 1939.

One of the first of a series of coincidences related to our trip occurred the summer of 2001 in Montclair, NJ when, by chance, Jack met Curt Fissel and his wife Ellen Friedland, documentary film-makers, who specialize in films about Poland and who sponsor trips for people who were interested in seeking information about their lost family members in Poland. The Fissels  encouraged us with plans for our upcoming trip, and they provided us with the name of their friend Karina, as the co-person in a Jewish agency in Warsaw, where we could make arrangements for the services of a guide/translator. The Fissels also loaned us copies of their videos, which contained intriguing accounts of family journeys to Poland, and references to the efforts of Polish Jews to revive the lost world of Polish Jewry.  The videos explained that Jewish citizens work with the government to reclaim formerly Jewish-owned properties, such as synagogues, schools, hospitals and cemeteries, and to restore them for the use of generations of contemporary Polish Jews.

OUR TRIP~WARSAW (Varsava)

We began our trip on September 12, 2002 when Jack and I flew from Newark to Warsaw, the capitol of Poland, on the Polish national airline, Lot. We stayed in a nice old-fashioned hotel in the heart of Warsaw and explored the city during our first days of orientation to Poland. Today, Warsaw is a relatively vibrant European city, virtually destroyed by bombing in World War II and courageously rebuilt, brick by brick, by the Polish people.  We strolled through the picturesque cobble stone streets of Old Town Warsaw, which has been lovingly restored exactly as it looked when it was first built 600 years earlier. The Old Town Square is surrounded by multi-storied homes, painted in mellow tones of gold, green, and rust, and decorated with elaborate architectural details and topped with red tile roofs.  Warsaw’s ancient city walls surround the historic district, with its narrow streets filled with  antiques shops and art galleries, its sidewalks alive with street musicians and outdoor restaurants.  A sculpture of the mermaid, Syrena, Warsaw’s heraldic emblem, stands in the center of the square. We stopped to buy perogies and beer from street vendors and one night Jack discovered a charming restaurant on the square that had once been an ancient wine cellar where we dined, surrounded by antique furnishings and oil paintings.


 Warsaw’s Old Town Square

The streets of Warsaw’s business center teem with sleek, modern imported automobiles, and the sidewalks swarm with tourists and well-dressed citizens.  Fashionable stores display windows filled with designer clothing, leather goods, furs, and precious jewelry. The city has an abundance of marvelous rococo style government buildings, churches, museums, hotels, the official residence of the President, and the University of Warsaw.  However in Warsaw there is a lot of rude architectural evidence from the decades of soviet rule which clashes with the rest of the city’s beauty and gracious buildings.  There are blocks crowded by white concrete-block, high-rise apartment buildings, and the soviet’s one attempt to design a baroque-style building is truly a monstrosity. 

Polish weather in early fall ranged from rainy and cool to delightfully warm.  Our favorite meals were rich Polish soups, delicious chewy breads, salmon, fresh trout, and Polish beer and pierogies at our favorite out-door restaurant. Our hotel served a lavish breakfast buffet each morning with an opulent array of fish, sausages, eggs, fresh fruit, baked delicacies, and very good coffee.  From the many cultural opportunities available in Warsaw, we decided to attend a concert of Chopin compositions one evening, held in a quaint Art Gallery/Concert Hall, where champagne was served at the intermission.

WARSAW GHETTO MEMORIAL

On a gray, rainy day we visited the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, which occupies several city blocks of the old Jewish district, southeast of Old Town. The main monument of the memorial is a rectangular granite stone with sculptures on both sides.  One side has a dramatic depiction of figures that represent the armed Jewish insurgents of the Ghetto Uprising of 1943. On the opposite side is a markedly different sculpture of a group of hopeless, downtrodden Jewish people, among them a rabbi holding Torah scrolls, who symbolize the millions of Jews who were forced from their homes and herded to deportation centers for extermination.  A small memorial in the shape of a manhole cover honors Warsaw Ghetto residents who survived by hiding in the sewers.  At the site of a nearby railroad line stands a bizarre memorial in the shape of a train car, crammed with black, stark crosses, and a lone gravestone with Hebrew lettering, dedicated to citizens of Warsaw deported to Siberia by the communists after the war.


Main Monument, Warsaw Ghetto

When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, the Jews of Warsaw were rounded up and forced into a section of the Jewish quarter of the city.  A high brick wall was erected around the Ghetto which had armed guards stationed at all exits to prevent escapes by Jews and to prevent the entry of outsiders. The Germans eventually relocated an estimated 450,000 to 500,000 Jews, from Poland and other countries, into the Warsaw Ghetto, an area big enough for only about one-fifth that population. 

Jewish businesses were confiscated by the Nazis, leaving the Jews in the Ghetto with no food and no source of income. The Germans’ intended to kill the Jews by any means, so they allotted only starvation rations to the ghetto prisoners. Despite desperate efforts to obtain food by smuggling it in from the outside, widespread starvation and disease prevailed, and in 1941 alone, an estimated 100,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto died of starvation.  In 1942, over-crowded conditions in the ghetto were relieved somewhat when young men and women were sent as slave labor to camps throughout Poland and approximately 265,000 men, women and children  were deported from the ghetto for extermination at Treblinka, the notorious  death camp located only about 100 miles east of Warsaw. In April 1943, the Nazis attempted a final liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, resulting in an uprising of ghetto residents, armed by the Polish Resistance movement.  The bloody rebellion lasted three weeks, with hundreds of deaths on both sides.  A group of rebels barricaded themselves into a house at Mila 18 and finally committed suicide to avoid capture. Untold numbers of insurgents died in the uprising, but it is believed that 10,000 Jews escaped into the city and the Warsaw Ghetto was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble.

PIOTR ZANDBERG

In preparation for our trip, Jack made arrangements with the Jewish agency in Warsaw for the services of Piotr Zandberg, to be our translator/ interpreter/guide in Poland. Piotr is a young Jewish man who wears a yarmulka, and who is very personable and enthusiastic about his work.  Piotr’s fluency in English, Polish, Yiddish, and Russian and his previous  experiences in the towns of Sokolow Podlaski and Siedlce helped immensely in our search. Through his expertise, we obtained copies of vital statistics records of members of our family, handwritten in Polish and Russian and stored for half a century in ancient record books in the civil registry offices in Siedlce. Eastern Poland was occupied by Russia before World War I, and Russian was the official language of the country for several generations. Piotr’s familiarity with the area and his ability to describe the pre-war village to us and to show us synagogues, the cemetary, previously Jewish-owned neighborhoods of homes, gave us greater insight into the life and culture of 19th-20th century Polish shtetls.     

SOKOLOW PODLASKI

On September 15, we drove from Warsaw to Sokolow Podlaski, the village where my father was born in 1906, and parked at a tree-shaded square in the center of the old section of town, once the site of the Jewish shtetl.  We strolled through the village streets and Piotr pointed out various buildings and homes, owned by Jews before the war, confiscated by the Nazis during the war years, later appropriated by the Polish government for the use of Polish people. Traditionally, the most important area of the shtetl, and perhaps the oldest, was the synagogue complex, consisting of a house of prayer, a house of study, a mikveh and the rabbi’s home, with cemetery, school and other Jewish-owned buildings nearby.  Most of the shtetl’s synagogue complex buildings have been converted for commercial use, and the cemetery grounds today are used as a public park.

Sokolow Podlaski is an old settlement, located about 60 miles east of Warsaw, where Jews settled as early as the 16th century and became the chief tradesmen and merchants of the village.  For many centuries, at least one-half of the total occupants of the village was composed of Jews and in 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, an estimated 4000-6000 Jews resided in the Sokolow Podlaski shtetl.  Today there are no Jewish people living in the town and no sign of Jewish life exists there. 

 Jack with me on the outskirts of town

 Piotr and me in Sokolow Podlaski

Three synagogue buildings that remain from the days of the shtetl have been reclaimed and sold for commercial use and the oldest shtetl homes appear much as they did fifty to seventy-five years ago: low, one-story structures, with narrow, weathered strips of brown wood siding and shingle roofs.  Many still bear traces of a characteristic mustard-yellow paint, and indentations on the right doorframe are signs that a mezuzzah was once attached there.

Sokolow Podlaski Market


Former Mikveh

In 1939, German planes bombed the market place of Sokolow Podlaski, and troops occupied the village.  All Jewish valuables were confiscated, and Jews were confined to a ghetto and required to wear the identifying Star of David on their clothing.  On Yom Kippur Eve, 1942, 5800 Jews of Sokolow Podlaski were driven from their homes, herded into boxcars and deported to Treblinka, for extermination in the gas chambers there.

Typical shtetl house

Most Jewish cemeteries in Poland are nonexistent today because the Nazis attempted to eradicate all signs of Jewish life by destroying cemetery walls and signs, and by having Jews from the ghetto remove gravestones from the cemetery to be used for paving projects. The Old Jewish Cemetery in Sokolow Podlaski, where generations of Jews of the shtetl, including our ancestors, is today a public park where pedestrians, bikers and dogs stroll, is considered to be desecrated holy ground, the final resting place of generations of Jews.  I picked up a round stone from the cemetery grounds, and brought it home with me, in memory of our family members that are buried there. 

The newer Jewish Cemetery is a short drive from town and is today a windswept, barren waste that is littered with trash and scrap building materials where once there were hundreds of graves with stones written in Hebrew.  Piotr’s agency is in the process of reclaiming the property, with plans to restore it with proceeds from sales of properties.  The area will be resurfaced to fill the severely washed out areas and a fence will be erected with a sign, to designate it as Jewish property.  As we walked through the weeds of the New Cemetery, Jack discovered a human bone protruding from the earth in a washed out gully and Piotr discovered another bone as well, both of which he reburied.

SIEDLCE (Shedlitz)

The administrative center for Siedlce Gubernya is the city of Siedlce, 12 miles south of Sokolow Podlaski, where many remnants of the pre-war Jewish community remain. The former Jewish residential quarter has wide streets and large, well-constructed two-story brick homes surfaced in painted stucco, with graceful iron balconies overlooking the tree-lined boulevards. Some buildings have been converted on the lower level to modern shops and painted in bright colors.  The wide residential blocks originally allowed space for each home to have a courtyard and garden, but today they are crowded back alleys with shabby welfare housing.
The business section of Siedlce has modern stores and buildings and an impressive new bank building on a corner of the main street, opposite the monstrous communist-era prison that houses 300 inmates right in the middle of the city. The streets of the town are crowded with modern, compact cars, and the narrow sidewalks bustle with shoppers, babies in strollers, kids on bikes and a multitude of parked cars.  Women in Siedlce are better dressed than in Sokolow Podlaski, and career-aged women wear western style business suits.  I noticed in Siedlce and in Warsaw that many Polish women, usually in the age bracket of 35 to 40, dye their hair various shades of red, ranging from bright orange, light or medium red, to dark henna.  The people we encountered in Siedlce, in our hotel and in stores were friendly and helpful, and many spoke passable English.  Siedlce has several upscale clothing stores, and the grocery and drug stores are stocked with American products, as well as goods from many European countries.

THE LAST JEWISH RESIDENT OF SIEDLCE

In the once exclusively Jewish sector of Siedlce, Piotr took us to visit Maria Halber, a lovely woman in her 80’s, who is the last remaining Jew alive in Siedlce.  The first thing Maria asked me when we arrived was whether I spoke Yiddish, which I regretfully admitted I was unable to do.  Maria and Piotr are old friends, and they carried on a lively conversation in Yiddish, which he translated for us from time to time.  Maria and her husband, Itzak, survived the war, married, and continued to live in Siedlce, their hometown, where they raised their children, both of whom live abroad.

Over the front door of Maria’s house at 64 Pilsudski Street is a plaque with the house number, beneath which is her name, Halber, to indicate her ownership of the residence.  Itzak survived being interned in a concentration camp during the war, and we think that Maria obtained false identification papers to pass as Polish. In later years, Itzak and Maria planned to move to Israel, but on moving day, when they got to the airport, he refused to go, saying, “it looks like rain and we can’t fly”.  Since his death, Maria has decided to remain in their home, despite her children’s wishes that she move to Canada or Israel, and she lives alone on the second floor, with a Polish woman to help in the house and to walk her dog. When we were there, she had candles in brass holders on the table, in preparation for Yom Kippur, which was the next day. Jack took a picture of her with Piotr and me, and as we left, Maria reminded him of his promise to send her a print.

Maria Halber, Piotr and me

Siedlce Back Alley

Piotr took us to the site where Siedlce’s main synagogue once stood. A large, ugly commercial building stands in its place, and beside it, nearly hidden, is a memorial stone to commemorate the time in 1942 when the SS herded hundreds of Siedlce Jews into the synagogue and set the building on fire.  From pictures of the event we learned that German soldiers and villagers stood together to watch as the fire incinerated the building and the people inside.  Another brutal incident that occurred in Siedlce during the occupation was when Nazi SS rounded up a thousand Jews and forced them into the cemetery and shot them.  It is estimated that at least 17,000 Siedlce Jews perished in the Holocaust, most of them in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

THE ARCHIVES

In the civil registry offices of Siedlce and Sokolow Podlaski, Piotr searched for vital documents related to our Wlodawer ancestors.  This effort produced surprising success: we found and copied 18 birth, marriage and death records of family members, entered in handwritten Russian, into ancient ledgers, dating from the early 1800’s to 1938. (example on cover). The first record we found was the birth certificate of Hersz-Josel Wlodawer (1861-1922), son of Aron Leib Wlodawer, (known as Uran the Shoemaker) and Elka-Beila Mandlowicz.  Hersz-Josel (or Garsh Yusel) was the father of Isaac Wlodawer, my grandfather, “Papa” to his family. Hersz-Josel married Szejndla Piekarz and had at least eight surviving children. Their sons were Alter Beniamin (b.1874), Szmul Zawel (1879-1880), Abram-Maer (b.1881), Ajzyk (Isaac or Isser, 1882-1948), and Keilman Laib (1907-1987) and daughters were Mindle (b.1885), Hannah (b.1891), Chya Leah (b.1895), and Ruchla Liba (b. 1900).

Civil Registry, Official Ledger

We found official documents relating to our cousin, Aaron Dvir, including the 1933 marriage certificate of his parents, Kielman Wlodawer, age 25 and Rajca Frydman, age 22, the birth record of his sister, Szejndla in 1934, and his own birth certificate, Hersz Aron, born in 1938.  In 1940, when he was two, Aaron’s family escaped to the Russian part of Poland, and from there was exiled to Siberia.  When they were able to leave Russia, they went to Uzbekistan, where his mother and sister became ill and died.  Aaron was placed in an orphanage in Iran, and from there went to India, Yemen and Egypt, before finally reaching Israel in 1943, when he was five.  His father, Keilman, was interned on the Island of Cyprus for many months, until 1948, when he was allowed to immigrate to Israel.  In the registry office in Sokolow Podlaski, we had certified copies made of Keilman’s and Aaron’s birth certificates, to send to Aaron, at Kibbutz Sa’ad in Israel, as a memorial gift.

SOKOLOW PODLASKI’S SHTETL

We spent parts of several days in Sokolow Podlaski to become familiar with the layout of our ancestral village.  During the war, the Jewish shtetl was divided into two ghettos, with a small park between, each section bordered by a wide main street. The main street of the south section, Ul. Dluga, is a broad avenue with small shops, where Jack and I bought very nice brass candlesticks with an inlaid mother-of-pearl Star of David, as souvenirs of “our” village.  The main street of the south part of the shtetl is lined with small, wooden stalls that serve as a fresh produce market.  This street still has its cobble stone surface, which in the days of the shtetl had an open sewage drain running down the middle. Further down the market street is the Old Cemetery, opposite which is the former synagogue complex, now occupied by small family-owned shops and an outdoor market, where Russian vendors sell cheap dry goods. Residential streets in the south section are mostly rutted, dirt lanes, where old shtetl houses, still in use, have with makeshift room additions, and sit side by side with modern homes with TV antennas and auto repair shops.  The north section of the shtetl, opposite the small central park, once had two synagogues, wide paved streets and rows of large two-story homes, each with an iron balcony above the front door. The main street of this section is named Ul. Franciszka Wiczynskego, and it borders the park and the cobble stone square which was the Jewish market place. The arched doors and windows of the larger synagogue in the north section are still visible, though the building is boarded up and used for storage. The smaller synagogue is occupied by a dress shop in the former sanctuary, and on an interior wall traces of the rail to the women’s balcony are visible, the only remaining signs of the building’s original use.

Former Rogower Street
Shoemaker's Square Sign

Corner Rogower Street and Market

My father’s 1945 letter stated that the Wlodawers, who were “well-known and established for several generations” in Sokolow Podlaski, had “lived all their lives” on Rogower Street, but we were unable to locate a street by that name in the village.  Piotr found an old Polish man who told us that the main street of the north section of town had been  Rogower Street, renamed after the war Ul Wiczynskego, where the market was located. A two-story building, whose side forms the corner of the market square is where we think the Wlodawer family lived and  se where my father was likely born.  On the market side of the building is a sign reading Szewskii Rynek, which translate as “Shoemaker’s Square”, leading us to think that the house would have had living quarters on the upper level, with a cobbler shop on the ground floor, opening into the market.  An iron balcony overlooks the street.
In Sokolow Podlaski, Piotr wore his yarmulke as we strolled about the village, taking pictures of village scenes. The Polish residents of the village showed obvious discomfort with our presence there, perhaps out of normal suspicion of strangers, but I sensed that their wariness of us was from a deeper fear. Their discomfort may have been caused by feelings of guilt about the cruel treatment of Jews in Soikolow Podlaski, or because they are aware that Jewish properties have been reclaimed and they fear the loss of their own.
Most villagers stared or scowled at us, would not meet our eyes, nor smile back when I smiled at them, and I saw a young man sneer at Piotr’s back, and make a surreptitious remark to his friends.

One day, Piotr spotted two gypsy women shopping at the market, which he said was a rare occurance.  We stopped so that Piotr could give the older woman some money.  He conversed with her in Polish for a few moments and introduced her to us as Sophia. She wore typical gypsy garb, full skirt, scarf, and jewelry and when she smiled she showed four gold front teeth. Piotr expressed his empathy and concern for gypsies, because the Poles consider them an inferior race, treat them inhumanely, and they have been marginalized in Poland and other areas of Europe,  living on the fringes of the dominant society. The Nazis persecuted and murdered over a million gypsies during the Holocaust.

Jack and me with Sophia

The villagers of Sokolow-Podlaski show unmistakable signs of having difficult lives.  Most of the women dress in ill-fitting clothes, have creased, worried faces and, when we were near them, invariably averted their eyes and hurried by.  Older men, stocky in build and dressed in nondescript clothing, usually stared at us with blank expressions from sidewalks, cars and shops.  Younger women, many very tall and thin with straight blond hair, took little notice of us, whereas the younger men seemed a bit disconcerted by our presence. Teenagers, congregating and chatting on sidewalks after school, in jeans, carrying book bags, look like American teens, the girls pretty, carefree and giggly and the boys handsome, with muscular builds, sharp features and very short, nearly bald, haircuts. Polish babies and children are beautiful and healthy, with either fine, wispy blonde hair or dark curls. Old women, as everywhere in Europe, wear black dresses and babushkas, and walk stooped over canes as they move slowly along the sidewalk.  One Sunday at noon in Sokolow Podlaski, church bells rang as services ended in the impressively large Catholic Church, located near the central park.  Hundreds of smartly outfitted parishioners poured into the square where in the garden stands a tall wooden cross with a plaque that marks the Pope’s visit to the village. 

We rode a bus from Sokolow Podlaski to Siedlce one afternoon on country roads, passing flat farmland, fields of corn, grazing black and white cattle, horses, thick groves of tall pines, oaks and beech trees and an occasional communist-era concrete plant.  Most farmhouses were old, with a few newer ones mixed in, many with tumbledown outbuildings and barns. Beside each farmhouse were stacks of firewood and hay, gathered in preparation for the coming winter. We passed horse-drawn wagons with beds shaped like boats, driven by work-hardened farmers and women in babushkas, and once we passed an open apple truck, with apples bouncing out all over the road.  From the bus window, I saw a woman sitting on the ground in the shade, having lunch with a field hand, reminding me of my childhood, when my grandmother and I rode the streetcar to town each day, to take my grandfather his lunch at his shoe-repair shop on North Main Street in Memphis. 

Piotr arranged for us to meet with a Polish archivist, Edvard Kopocka, in his office in Siedlce, in the Old Town Hall, an historic building topped by a large figure of Atlas holding the globe of the earth on his shoulders.  Edvard has written a book, entitled The Jews of Siedlce, which we purchased, and is involved in a research project about the Sokolow Podlaski ghetto. He was interested in our family search and took copies of our information about the Wlodawer family, promising to send us any information about our family that he may find in his work. Edvard explained the probable genesis of our surname Wlodawer, as having derived from the name of the town of Wlodawa in southeast Poland.  He suggested that our ancestor moved from Wlodawa and took the surname Wlodawer, meaning “of Wlodawa”, a common practice in those days, since most surnames either were related to the male’s occupation or place of origin. Edvard described the village shoemaker as being always an important and highly-skilled village artisan, making and repairing shoes and boots, and usually also fashioned leather hats, luggage and other leather accessories.

VISIT TO WLODAWA (Vwadava)

We drove two hours from Siedlce to Wlodawa, located on the Polish, Belarus and Ukraine border, on a rainy day, with Piotr’s girlfriend, Joanna, and her two-year-old son, Oskar, an adorable, blonde, blue-eyed boy with a mischievous smile.  We bought Oskar a plastic garbage truck, which he played with throughout the entire trip, working the mechanism over and over, and making engine noises.  He finally fell asleep in his car seat, the   truck in his lap and one hand touching it for the duration of his nap. 

Wlodawa is a sizeable town on the Bug River with broad streets and a crowded business district.  We drove to the old Jewish quarter to visit the Wlodawa Pojezierza Synagogue Museum, an historic structure, badly damaged in the war and for decades used only for storage during the decades of soviet rule and allowed to become very deteriorated.  In the 1980’s, the immense two-story stone building was beautifully renovated  and then restored as a Jewish museum.  Graceful arched windows, a Polish mansard roof and other architectural features enhance the majesty of the synagogue building. The interior has marble floors and lofty pillars, an arched ceiling, brass and crystal chandeliers, and an elaborate painted fresco design around the aron ha-kodesz (Ark of the Covenant). The walls of the museum are hung with an extensive array of photographs from the long Jewish history of the town, featuring interesting portraits of prominent residents during the past decades. A priceless collection of elaborate Judaica resides in glass-topped cases throughout the interior which hold : ancient torah scrolls, antique silver kiddisz (kiddush cups), szofar (shofar), swiecznik chanukowe (menorahs) and many torah pointers, many in the shape of the human hand.

Synagogue, Judaica Museum, Wlodawa

On the second floor balcony of the museum there is a recreated room depicting a typical shtetl home, handsomely furnished with authentic artifacts from the homes of Jews of Wlodawa.  On the synagogue grounds is the original house of study, which is undergoing expert interior restoration of walls covered with colorful and elaborate frescoes. These frescoes have passages of Hebrew scripture incorporated into the designs. The museum curator, Mr. Bern, is a highly conscientious Pole, dedicated to expanding and improving the museum, in order to record and preserve the rich history and culture of the once-vibrant Wlodawa Jewish community.

Wlodawa Museum

Recreated Shtetl Sitting Room

Wlodawa was bombed in September 1939, and was soon occupied by German troops.  The SS drove Jews from their homes and herded them into the great synagogue which had been desecrated and looted of holy Jewish artifacts, then they looted all Jewish shops and homes of family valuables. Segregated in the ghetto, the Jews were required to wear the “Schand Band” (band of shame), and were forbidden to work at their occupations. The able-bodied Jewish men were sent as work crews to construct the nearby death camp, Sobibor, as well as building fences that surrounded the camp and barracks for German troops.  Later the work crews were ordered to construct gas chambers that were used to kill the thousands of Jews deported from towns in the region to the camp.  At war’s end the SS sent the work crews to their deaths in the same ovens they’d constructed. 
  
SOBIBOR DEATH CAMP

From Wlodawa we drove 7 kilometers on rutted gravel roads through a dense forest to visit the death camp, Sobibor, where Jews of Wlodawa were sent for extermination.  We knew we were near the camp when we spotted the dilapidated train station, a rusty sign and train tracks, from which the Germans ran a spur to the camp to transport Jews from far and near to their deaths at Sobibor. The death camp museum is housed in a log building, which has a scale model of the camp buildings and grounds on display in the front room.  The walls of the museum are lined with photographs of camp scenes, and of the cruel faces of the Nazi camp commanders.  In one room is a display of photographs of survivors of the Sobibor prisoner uprising, beneath which are told first person accounts of their experiences in the camp, and of their escapes.  Many stories tell of the prisoner rebellion that took place toward the end of the war, when hundreds of prisoners turned on their German captors and killed many of them, then set fire to camp buildings.  Although the majority of the mutinous Jews were killed, several hundred of them escaped into the dense forest within which the camp was hidden.  After the war the Sobibor survivors left Poland to  settle in other countries and these survivors lived to tell about their experiences in Sobibor. Some stories of former prisoners related tales of having recognized a former Nazi captor in a public place in the country in which they had settled.  They reported the sighting to the authorities and many of these Nazis who were identified by their former prisoners were eventually captured and prosecuted for war crimes.

Sobibor Sign, Train Tracks

As Russian army troops neared the Polish border at the end of the war and shortly after the prisoner uprising, the Germans were ordered to level the remaining camp buildings in an effort to disguise the true purpose of the death camp.  On the grounds of Sobibor is a stark stone monolith memorial with a statue of an adult and child, portrayed by grotesque, twisted stone figures. Another monument is shaped like a huge round basin filled with tiny stones that represent the ashes of the victims.  Sobibor was operative for only one year, but the SS’s efficient extermination methods were responsible for murdering an estimated 250,000 Jews at Sobibor.

TREBLINKA DEATH CAMP

On our last day in the countryside before returning to Warsaw and our flight home, Jack and I drove to Treblinka, the death camp where Jews from Warsaw, Sokolow Podlaski, Siedlce and hundreds of other villages and towns were deported for extermination. The camp, less than 20 miles north of Sokolow Podlaski, was built in a forested area only a few miles away from Polish farming settlements. In an attempt to hide the atrocities which took place at the camp the Germans wove tree branches and greenery into barbwire fencing that completely surrounded the camp. 

From the main highway, we turned onto a bumpy cobblestone road, which lead to railroad tracks and the sign to the camp. On entering, we walked on a dirt path to a row of stones exhibiting a map of the camp, and the history of the death camp in several languages.  Further along the path, two large rectangular stones, set at a strange angle, formed the entrance to the death camp.  On one stone are engraved the Polish words, Oboz Zaglady, which translated means, “Extermination Camp”, and as we entered, I had a strong sensation that there was “no way out”. We followed a path, bordered by trees, and became aware of a long row of sculptured railroad ties that emerged from the forest, marching in a row as far ahead as we could see.  Another row of upright stones were set twenty feet apart along the path, representing the different countries from which Jews came to Treblinka.  Where the railroad ties passed between two upright stones,  trains filled with victims would have left the forest and entered the camp. 

At first, Jack and I were confused and hesitant, not sure which direction to take.  Our trepidation lasted several minutes before we decided to continue following the row of railroad ties, leading to a flat structure in the distance, which turned out to be a simulated railroad platform.  As the Jews stepped from the train onto this platform, they were ordered to enter a mock railroad station, built to confuse them, where they were ordered to undress and leave all their possessions. The women’s hair was cut off and collected, the Jews were ordered into “showers” which in truth were thirteen gas chambers. The Nazis managed to herd as many as two thousand nude people at a time into a gas chamber, where they were told to lift their arms aloft to make more room.  After filling the chamber with adults the SS officers tossed babies and small children on top of the group of adults. Carbon monoxide gas killed the victims in 10-15 minutes, after which their corpses were hauled out and dumped into mass graves. In the thirteen months of Treblinka’s operation, approximately thousands of residents of Sokolow Podlaski and Siedlce perished there.        

Treblinka Memorial Cemetery

Sokolow Podlaski Stone

Siedlce Stone

From the “train platform” we saw through the trees ahead a large stone monument of blocks of gray stone, surrounded by a field of jagged upright gravestones.  When we drew near, we could see the menorah engraved on the top of the monument, and the sign in front that read “Never Again” in several languages.  At the base of the memorial, flowers and candles were laid, and slips of paper with messages and prayers were inserted into the cracks between blocks of stone.  Around the monument 300 large rough upright stones stand, each engraved with the name of a town or village of origin of the victims. Between the large stones, hundreds of smaller stones are set, 1700 stones in all that form a silent cemetery.  We placed small stones and wild flowers from the fields upon the Sokolow Podlaski and Siedlce memorial stones in memory of our relatives, and the hundreds of thousands martyred there.

In the early stages of Treblinka’s operation, victims of the gas chambers were buried in mass graves.  At the end of the war when it was clear that the Germans were defeated, the Nazis ordered all the bodies to be dug up and burned on grates made of railroad tracks to attempt to hide the evil deeds which had taken place at the death camp.  All buildings in the camp were leveled, and a barn and farmhouse were constructed to try to disguise the true purpose of Treblinka. A monument made in the shape of a blackened metal grate and covered with lumps and globs of twisted molten metal lay in a depression in the ground to represent a crematorium where corpses were finally incinerated.

In the center of the cemetery grounds stand several large weeping willow trees that offer shade and respite from the deep, dark sadness one feels at the memorial cemetery. When Jack and I were ready to leave, we walked slowly back through the trees on the path, arm in arm, aware that we had encountered the inexplicable evil of the Nazis, in their attempt to eradicate the Jewish people and others from the face of the earth. The abstract nature of the memorial contributed to its impact: the ambiguous directions, eerie phantom tracks, and twisted, tortured stones, delivered a shocking realization of the immensity of the tragedy of the Holocaust. The confusion we felt as we followed the row of railroad ties, the overwhelming apprehension of walking through the actual stages of the extermination process, and the final deep sorrow of the silent cemetery, seemed to us to mirror the emotions the 800,000 martyrs who died there must have experienced during the last moments of their lives.  

Our visit to Treblinka was a deeply emotional and unsettling experience, one we will remember always, one which, despite it’s pain, I am very grateful to have endured.  I felt one with the spirits of those who died at Treblinka, with a deeper than ever moral outrage at the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and a renewed commitment to ensure that such a horror never happens again.  

DEPARTURE

We departed Warsaw the next day with a sense of accomplishment that I hadn’t dreamed possible only a few days earlier. We were thrilled to have found the shtetl of our ancestors, and we felt a sense of satisfaction in having paid homage to the memory of my father and our other ancestors. I am ever so grateful that Jack in his wisdom insisted we make the journey to Poland.  He had the insight to realize that I needed to make this trip, and that he and I would both benefit greatly from having done so.
I hope this account of our trip will be meaningful to you and your children, and perhaps will inspire other family members to visit Poland someday.  A number of documents attached to this letter will clarify the text.  I hope to return to Poland and to continue searching for family records, particularly those of my grandparent’s marriage, my father’s birth certificate, Pap Isaac’s record of military service, and their exit visas. I also hope to pursue the slim traces we have of my grandmother’s family whose surname was Sygielstein, who lived in a town near Sokolow Podlaski, perhaps the town of Siedlce with which we are already familiar.

My best love and blessings to each of you, as always, your cousin,
Sarah Wahl Schade

2 comments:

  1. Sarah, your memories and pictures are a treasure. I'm working on doing the same with pictures and diary of our trip to Poland last September.

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