Un­cov­ered — my fam­ily’s hid­den past

Wro­claw is re­mak­ing it­self as a mod­ern city, but Robin Lustig still dis­cov­ers traces of his mother and grand­fa­ther among the gen­tri­fied streets

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS -

IN A far cor­ner of the “new” Jewish cemetery (opened 1902) in the Pol­ish city of Wrocław, Piotr Go­tow­icki is hack­ing away at the thick ivy that has grown over a grave­stone.

It is not just any old grave­stone, as Piotr knows full well. He has con­sulted the record book, de­tail­ing where each of the cemetery’s 12,000 bod­ies has been buried. And as the grave­stone is un­cov­ered, so is the name en­graved on its sur­face — “Ge­org Cohn, 13.12.1887-13.4.1938”.

Ge­org was my mother’s adored fa­ther, who died of a heart at­tack two weeks be­fore her 17th birth­day. My mother, his only child, em­i­grated to Bri­tain the fol­low­ing year; his wife, Ilse, was de­ported and shot in Kau­nas, Lithua­nia by the SS in 1941.

So the grave must have lain un­tended and for­got­ten for more than 70 years. And now, three days af­ter hon­our­ing my grand­mother Ilse at the scene of her death, here I am in the cemetery, hon­our­ing her hus­band, my grand­fa­ther. This is truly a jour­ney back to my fam­ily roots.

My mother never re­turned to her home town. When she left in 1939, it was called Bres­lau and was in Ger­many, with Ger­man in­hab­i­tants. Since 1945, the city has been called Wrocław, it is in Poland and its in­hab­i­tants are Pol­ish.

Is any­thing left of its pre­vi­ous iden­tity? There are still a few beau­ti­ful old build­ings, the ones that were not de­stroyed when the Soviet army pul­verised the city at the end of the Sec­ond World War, and on some of the build­ings you can see the faded Ger­man let­ter­ing iden­ti­fy­ing their pre­vi­ous own­ers.

But oth­er­wise, no, this is a Pol­ish city with a strong Pol­ish iden­tity. The Ger­mans who used to live here were ex­pelled at the end of the war, and their place taken by Poles from, among other places, Lviv, which had been Pol­ish be­fore the war, but which was handed over to Ukraine, ie the Soviet Union, in 1945.

In her mem­oirs, my mother re­mem- bered Bres­lau as “very dirty, with big houses”. She de­scribed her child­hood home as “a very large flat, with a huge bal­cony”, over­look­ing a park.

Itracked­downt­head­dress,on­ly­todis­cover that the street has van­ished, along with all its grand, turn-of-the-cen­tury apart­ment blocks. But old pho­to­graphs re­veal that it was lined with ch­est­nut trees, and yes, the trees are still there. So are the trams that run along the main boule­vard at the end of the street. But I also dis­cover some­thing that I sus­pect my mother’s par­ents never told her. The ad­dress she lived at be­tween 1933 and 1939 be­came a home of last re­sort for an in­creas­ing num­ber of Bres­lau’s Jews as their prop­erty was con­fis­cated by the Nazis. At the cemetery, Piotr Go­tow­icki tells me that he has the burial records of a great many peo­ple for whom the ad­dress was their last reg­is­tered place of res­i­dence.

My mother al­ways thought that her par­ents moved there be­cause it was in a bet­ter part of town — the truth may be that it was the only place they could go.

At the of­fices of the city ar­chives, I fill out a form de­tail­ing the names of my Bres­lau fore­bears. When I re­turn a cou­ple of hours later, they have dug out and pho­to­copied my grand­par­ents’ mar­riage cer­tifi­cate — Novem­ber 8 1913, which means my grand­mother was just 16 years old on her wed­ding day — my mother’s birth cer­tifi­cate, and my grand­fa­ther’s death cer­tifi­cate. All in cop­per­plate Ger­man script, which makes them hard to read. But I had never ex­pected that the records still ex­isted, let alone that it would prove so easy to track them down.

There is one other place I want to visit while I am in Wrocław, the Schiess­werder, or entertainment palace cum beer gar­den to which my grand­mother was taken af­ter her ar­rest by the Gestapo in Novem­ber 1941. But it too has gone, and in its place is the ugli­est coal-fired power sta­tion you can imag­ine.

Nearby there is a street lined with di­lap­i­dated ten­e­ment build­ings; soon they will be gen­tri­fied and sold, pre­sum­ably, to bright young Pol­ish de­sign­ers or ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tives.

And so old Bres­lau con­tin­ues to give way to new Wrocław. I can­not help won­der­ing what my mother would have made of it. Robin Lustig is a jour­nal­ist and broad­caster. More about his project, “In the Foot­steps of Our Fam­i­lies’, can be found at www.wan­der­ingscribes.com

Robin Lustig at the over­grown grave of his grand­fa­ther Ge­org in Wro­claw’s Jewish cemetery

The apart­ment block where the au­thor’s mother lived no longer stands, but ch­est­nut trees still line the pave­ment

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