Trip to Poland is “back to the future”
Later this month we will be travelling to Poland. It remains one of the most religious countries in Europe. There are Catholic shrines everywhere, and main streets and airports are named for the late John Paul II, the Polish pope.
I was born in the city of Czestochowa, site of a well-known Catholic pilgrimage site, the Jasna Gora Monastery, with its famed icon of the Black Madonna. It was July of 1945.
Czestochowa had become one of the most industrialized cities in newly independent Poland after the First World War. In 1925, 136 factories including 17 big textile plants operated in the city.
When the German Army arrived on Sept. 3, 1939, Jews comprised approximately onefifth of a population of 138,000. By the end of the War, fewer than 5,000 survived.
My parents, native Jewish Czestochowers, were married in 1942, in the Czestochowa ghetto; the rabbi who married them was shot later that same day.
Though they lost their entire families in the Holocaust, they survived, after becoming prisoners in the Hugo Schneider Aktiengesellschaft (HASAG) Pelcery slave labour camp in Czestochowa, established by the Nazis in what had been a textile factory.
It became a massive munitions plant that, ironically, produced small arms for the Nazis, until its prisoners were liberated by the Russians in midJanuary1945.
My mother was by then three months pregnant. I often wondered how that happened, since I was conceived in October 1944, but never asked. I only found out when listening to a tape recording she made in 1995 for the Shoah Foundation.
Even the married people in the camp lived in separate barracks. However, the women’s barrack that my mother slept in was so full of bedbugs and lice that the German taskmasters allowed the married women to go to their husbands for one night while the building was disinfected.
It was, she said, the only time before the liberation that they slept together. Had the Red Army tarried by just a few weeks, her pregnancy would have become evident, and she would have been immediately killed, especially as the SS itself took over HASAG from its civilian administration in December 1944.
My parents, with me in tow, left Poland as soon as they could and we spent two years in a displaced persons (DP) camp in Germany before coming to Canada in 1948.
I’ve only been back to Poland once, in 1977, when it was a Communist state, and I visited, apart from Czestochowa, the Auschwitz death camp, Lodz, and Warsaw.
Back then it was, for a Jewish visitor, a virtual wilderness. There were no tourist brochures or guidebooks, and information about the Holocaust was almost non-existent. In Czestochowa, no one even knew where the old Jewish cemetery was located – though I eventually found it.
Upon my return, I wrote a series of very pessimistic articles for a newspaper about the remnants of Jewish life in Poland, with titles like “1,000 Years of Jewish History Face Pitiful End” and “Polish Jewry in Final Death Throes.”
But no one can predict the future. The end of Communist rule in Poland after 1989 has seen the re-emergence of a vibrant Jewish life in the country.
It is, of course, nothing like the pre-1939 community, when more than three million Jews lived in the country. Today only some 20,000 Jews call Poland home.
Still, there are now functioning synagogues with rabbis, an annual Jewish Cultural Festival in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz in Kracow, Warsaw’s amazing Museum of the History of Polish Jews, with a core exhibition comprises eight galleries, covering 43,000 square feet, and there are even tours of Jewish sites in Czestochowa.
Czestochowa today has a population of more than 231,000; fewer than 50 self-identify as Jewish.