Trip to Poland is “back to the fu­ture”

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Henry Sre­brnik Henry Sre­brnik, a Pol­ish cit­i­zen, is a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

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.

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