Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Saturday morning, December 13. Our hotel in Jerusalem is in full Shabbos mode. The elevators are riding up and down by themselves, guests are using Shabbat keys instead of electronic door cards, the sensors and timers in the rooms are directing lights and air, the cold buffet is laid out.

We're heading for Jaffa, then Tel Aviv for a full agenda. Yotam Gur-Zeev, wonderful son of the wonderful Yoram Gur-zeev, picks us up at the hotel. We talk about music, performance art. In Jaffa we meet up with Yoram and his wife Dana, and head for St. Anthony's Church. Yoram is marvelously prepared with maps, printed photos, research.

When I first found out I was a Jew, everyone in my family was Jewish back to Moses, all their names were made up, that was shocking enough. But those were facts withheld from me. Finding out I had actually lived in Israel from age 2 to age 4 was a different order of shock. My own experience of my own life, erased. Shouldn't I have a trace of memory? Where were the photos? I had a false history of my own life as well as theirs. It was created for me, shaped for me, retold to me. I had absorbed it as my own, and retold it myself to friends and lovers. It went like this:

I was born in Zabrze in 1947, where my parents lived near the end of the war. My father had continued his private construction business defying nationalization orders and the communists were out to get him. We applied for US visas, and traveled around Europe waiting for them. We lived in Bern, Paris. Later my uncle Ziggy joined us. We lived in a rooming house on a park. We had our Giant Schnauzer Peter with us. When it seemed that US visas were not coming through, we decided to go to Canada. We moved to Genoa to wait for papers, spending several months there. Peter swam on the beach everyday in Genoa, and one day he swam out too far. Italian fisherman rescued him and took him to their village. My parents decided he would be better off there. When the visas arrived, we took an Italian liner to Halifax, then a train to Montreal.

Here's a version closer to the truth, so far as I've been able to piece it together. Like most fabrications, the story was woven with bits of truth. My parents moved to Zabrze as Polish Christians after the war. That area had been Germany in 1939 -- Zabrze was the now renamed town of Hindenburg. It was a perfect place to hide and prosper. Germans were being moved out, Poles from the east were being moved in, my father's civil engineering skills were in demand. Yes, the nationalization problem was true enough. The real impetus to leave Poland, however, was more immediate. Sometime around the winter of 1948-49, my father was out driving around with a girlfriend. He was drunk, drove the car up a wall, and killed a German woman pedestrian, seriously injuring her child. My mother took wads of cash and spread them around, the police, the victims' family, special medical care for the child. My father was successful in the town, he knew and had greased everyone, and was soon tipped off that he was about to be arrested. He went into hiding in a nearby village.

My mother immediately launched a plan to get out of Poland. There was no place to go, especially quickly, except Israel, now a full state. Her uncle Yakov Halperin, her mother's younger brother, initiated immigration proceedings from Haifa where he lived. Of the documents hidden in my mother's files that I recently discovered, a number date about March of 1949, including a "copy" of my birth certificate. My mother was putting it all together. They were living under their new Christian names in Poland, but would have to be Jews again to make Aliyah. They left Poland by train in late 1949. My uncle was with us from the start. So was Peter the Nazi-trained Giant Schnauzer. We spent spent several weeks in a transit camp on a Venetian island. My uncle and my father were in a separate camp from my mother and me. Then we went by ship to Haifa. My grandparents arrived from Poland soon after.

In Haifa, we stayed with my mother's Aunt Yetka and her son Arie Kinsbruner. They were wonderfully generous. Their small place was "one big mattress", my new-found cousin recalls. Then we all traveled to Jaffa, so the men could look for work.

The search for the first place we lived in Jaffa was the first agenda item on our Saturday itinerary. My uncle Ziggy had described our home to me last August. It was in Jaffa, near the beach, next to a Coptic church, on a roof. A big, flat roof. On the far end there was a small wooden shack. In it were two large tubs, where laundry was boiled. There was water but no toilet. There were six of us living there -- my parents, Ziggy, and my grandparents Dorka and Bernard. I was two years old.

Ziggy showed me photos of the roof. I had never seen them. In one photo he was with my grandfather Bernard, another he held a black-and-white kitten, in yet another my mother sat costumed with Arie. None showed any trace of a child. I have to assume since there are a number of photos of others on that roof I have seen since that my mother destroyed any that included me.
(Many years ago, I told my mother about an early childhood memory, and asked her where the setting was. I remembered being small, on a big flat roof, with a number of other children who were running wildly around. I was younger than they, and hung back watching. Near the edge of the roof was a pile of construction debris. One of the boys ran into it and a protruding nail pierced the top of his scalp. I remembered the blood, and adults yelling at us to stop running. My mother said, oh, yes, that was at Appleton, our first apartment in Montreal. I drove over there when I was last in Montreal and was not surprised to find a peaked roof. The memory is undoubtedly of Jaffa.)
Since last August, I had been tracking down the location. My cousin Ron Karas and I identified the church as St. Anthony's in Jaffa. It looked from contemporary photos that the church had an attached building, with a flat roof and similar parapet. We'd found it!

That Saturday morning, we talked our way onto the roof of the attached church building. No bells rang. We took some pictures and asked if anyone really old lived in the neighborhood, someone who might remember that era. We were directed to a pharmacy a block away, and were thrilled to find the ancient pharmacist behind the counter. No, no, he said, after I explained what we were doing, it's not that building, it's the one across the street, and drew us a map.

"This photo gives the best sense of the funky space and view. Our little shed was in the back corner, to the left of the cute white hut, and in front of the ingenious hot water heater."

Back we went. And there it was, flying an Armenian flag, a ramshackle architectural oddity, my first Israeli home. Up on the roof, a tiny dwelling had been built since we lived there, and our shack had been torn down. I compared buildings visible with the old photos. This was it. Bathtubs filled with flowers, an amazing view, part of a decrepit half-abandoned complex owned by the Coptic church. 1900-1977 Yitschak Avinery Street. Later that day, my cousin Arie gave me my first photo of myself in Israel, with my grandmother and the same kitten my uncle held in his photo.
A few days ago I ran across a photo of a little boy in the family collection. I had seen him before and wondered who he was. Suddenly his outfit looked like -- what -- like the one I had on in Arie's photo. The background was unrecognizable until I compared it dot by dot. There was the parapet, the skyline, the chair legs from other photos of the roof. I had never seen a photo of myself during that three-year period, from two to five, and kids change a lot at that age. The little guy was me.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Kurwa Episode

One of the many reasons why it makes sense to research collaboratively is that sometimes people will tell one person things they might not share with another.
Łukasz: When you were in Israel did you hear of the episode with the stinking whore?

Roma: No, but I'd LOVE to hear it now!

Łukasz: Jakub wanted a woman, any woman, badly. "Kuba, are you serious?" his friend asked him in Polish. "This woman stinks!"

Dragging the lady upstairs, Kuba responded, "I'm not going to smell her, I can assure you."
So, is this vignette really as bawdy as it reads? Were they in a brothel or a pub? Did he know her? Can we trust that the translated Polish was not idiomatic? Or is this story just a relic of colloquial humor between young men of the age?

Roma remembers:
Ahh, I can hear his voice now. He would always say about whoever, "Jaka kurva!" ("what a whore") He had very colorful speech.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Roma talks to Goren, a man who grew up with her parents in Przemysl, from early school through the holocaust. And most importantly, someone with a window to a lost past, to a time before the family assumed the Baran name and cloaked their Jewish origins.
Dear Lukasz,

I’m just now getting around to typing up my Josef Goren notes from last weekend. I spoke to him by phone, got his number from Mr. S. He was born in Przemysl in 1922 on Jagiellonska, and moved to Frankowskiego 3 in 1935. (My mother was across the street in Frankowskiego 2). He thinks he was in the 5th grade and my mother in the 6th. He went to the Hebrew school "Tarbut" for just 6 months with my mother, had a disagreement with one of the demanding teachers, and then transferred to the Polish government school. He was sure my mother stayed and graduated from the Tarbut, which surprised me when I read about the school online. All Hebrew classes! He called my mother "vivid, intelligent, loved to read, sharp in her answers, very sure of herself, socially popular, not deeply religious." He remembered her accordion playing. Bernard, my grandfather, he called very nice, quiet.

Goren left looking for a Polish regiment at the outbreak of war, but by the end of September 1939 he was back in Przemysl. He worked in a city office 3 days a week and attended Technikum in Lwow 3 days a week, where he stayed with a physician cousin of his father's. He met my father, but didn't know him well. When the Aktions started he went to Krakow with Christian papers. He confirmed that my father's first wife Anna Katz "Katzowna" (whose father was chief engineer of the electrical plant in Przemysl) went to Krakow in 1941 with false papers that my father had made for her, then died of meningitis there in 1943. He said Anna and Jakub were on pretty good terms, notwithstanding his lust for life (and everything else), and that she was grateful for the fine quality of the papers. Goren examined them himself and concurred.

Goren said that the sister of Mr. S was very famous in Przemysl for her beauty. Goren seemed sure that my father went to Warsaw in 1944, a fact not corroborated by Mr. S. Also in 1944-45, Goren married his wife Mania (Miriam.) After the war, his wife visited my father once in Zabrze with a friend. My mother wasn't there and I remembered that Mr. S had told me, “Your father was friendly with Goren's wife.”

Mania stayed up late playing poker with Jakub and lost $800. Goren came right down there and took his wife's place in the game, and by 3am he had my father down by $400. He seemed quite proud of it.

Apparently they visited my parents in 1954-55 in Montreal, and lost touch after that. He didn't seem to have the same loathing of my father that Mr. S did.

I'm starting to admire my father, can you believe it!?!

love, r
Lukasz confirms the "smallness" of Przemysl as he joins the newly formed Jacob fan club...
Interesting, husband of my 1st cousin twice removed, Olek Weinstock was the engineer at the electrical plant in Przemysl too. He was uncle of Maria who is at the Krakow hospital now ...

Starting to admire your father? He was fantastic guy! I liked him from the start.

L / L
Emotions well as Roma reflects on her parents, concluding that they are not better people, they are not worse ones, they are simply "more real and complex as I see them now than ever before."
Dear Lukasz,

I wish I could have known my father on his own terms. It was easy to be angry with him; he was no prize as a father in many ways. When I was a child, I saw my mother as his victim, and would defend her since she wouldn't do it herself. When I came in the room as my father was ranting, he would look up and say wryly to my mother, in Polish, "Oh, look, your lawyer's here."

I had a strange experience when he died in '88. I went with my mother to Florida to wrap up their affairs there. I was sitting on the beach listening to her speak when suddenly I became my father. For an instant I saw her humility as questionable, her victimhood manipulative and oppressive. As quickly as it came, it passed; I stopped judging my mother through my father’s eyes. But I’d seen enough so that from that moment on, I regretted the judgment of my father I had carried through his death, the child's black-and-white good-mom bad-dad caricature. My mother and father were imperfect real people, and certainly more real and complex as I see them now than ever before.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bubbe Jenta

Another few hours on the 'net, another major discovery...
Dear Lukasz,

Here's a find I'm thrilled about.

You'll recall this whole adventure started with the death in 2007 of Alinka Guzik, my father's cousin, daughter of his uncle Herz. (Another uncle was David Guzik, JDC director in Poland during the war, a part of my newly revealed heritage I'm exceedingly proud of.) My father's side of the family has remained relatively mysterious compared to my mother's. Well, here's Herz, David, Leon (emigrated to Pasadena before the war) and my grandmother Masza's mother Jente, in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, Section 100. She married Henoch Guzik.

I first learned my great grandparents' names just before my trip, when I discovered a scrap of paper with passport application annotations in David
Guzik's file at the JDC office in New York (thanks to the wonderfully generous and warm support of director Sherry Hyman). David Guzik's parents (and therefore my greatgrandparents) are noted: Jenta Pinkwasser and Henoch Guzik.

Here's the info transcribed from the stone:

grave id 22276
sex F

first name Jenta
surname Guzik

hebrew name Yenta

fathers name Moshe Yaakov

maiden name Pinkwasser

date of death (m/d/y) 2/5/1918

I can't even express what is so exciting about finding this. Part of it is the thrill of the hunt, the detective's conceit. I won't begin to admit how many hours I spend peering into Jewish haystacks in internet space. Part is the sheer concrete-ness of a gravestone, name carved for eternity. Like the tombs of the pharaohs I just saw, my great grandmother's grave represents her continued existence. Couldn't be a sharper contrast to her prior utter non-existence in my universe. And there's some deep and moving symbolism of her eternal rest there in particular, Ground Zero of loss, the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery.



Tuesday, January 6, 2009


We flew from Cairo to Tel Aviv, then took a cab to the hotel in Jerusalem. In the morning we met with a group of friends and walked around the Old City of Jerusalem. Preparations for Shabbos were everywhere, large piles of challah loaves, stores starting to close before the early winter sunset. I walked down the men's side of the Western Wall plaza by mistake, and was quickly intercepted. Spent some time sitting by the wall with the other women, and wrote a note.

The note was in the name of my paternal grandparents, aunts, their husbands and children, all murdered in Warsaw. Despite much research, I had learned next to nothing about them, including how they died. The exception was my Aunt Sabina, whose name I found the first night I searched the Yad Vashem database.

Her last months were unimaginable so I try to imagine them. Having survived through 1942, enduring what she must have, she ended up in the Zambrow transit camp, one of the worst in terms of crowding, malnutrition, disease and cold. Between January 14th and 18th, 1943, the camp was liquidated, and she was transported to Auschwitz. At Auschwitz she lived long enough to have been registered by those neat functionaries, carefully spelling her maiden name, Cytryn, and her mother's maiden name, Guzik. Five weeks later, on February 25, 1943, her death was recorded in the Auschwitz Death Registers:

Auschwitz Death Registers, The State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau
Last Name
First Name
First Name
Maiden Name
Father's First Name
Mother's First Name
Mother's Maiden Name
Date of Birth
Place of Birth
Marital Status
Spouse's First Name
Spouse's First Name
Place during the war
Place of Death
Date of Death
Type of material
List of victims from Auschwitz
Source Page number
Victims' status end WWII

I had known about some of the deaths of my father's relatives. I always said they "died in the war." Holocaust was a special term reserved for Jews. Not my family. Strange to think now, Sabina was not just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was the target.