September 20, 2018

Finding the Family He Never Knew

As a child, my father’s family was an abstraction to me.

His parents and six brothers and sisters existed mainly in sepia-toned photographs on fading and dog-eared pages of an old album. From the little I was told, they lived in a small town in Poland, where all but my father and his youngest sister died at the hands of the Nazis.

But until I ventured to that town with the help of the nonprofit Forum for Dialogue, all I knew was of their deaths. I never fully grasped their lives.

In September, I spent a day with a group of Polish junior high school students whose major project — launched last year under the Forum’s School of Dialogue program — was to study the Jewish history of Grodek, my dad’s hometown.

It turned out to be a day I’ll never forget.

Grodek is a small village in far eastern Poland where the population numbers fewer than 3,000. Back in the 1930s, it could have passed for Anatevka, the fictional hometown of Tevye, the Dairyman from the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” At one time between the world wars, Jews comprised nearly 75 percent of Grodek’s population. Today there are none.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland, what was left of the Jewish community vanished one morning. At 5 a.m. Nov. 1, 1942, horse-drawn carriages took those who had survived the initial Nazi onslaught to the nearby city of Bialystok.

There, they were herded into trains headed for the notorious Treblinka death camp, where the Germans learned how to industrialize murder with brutal efficiency. They killed a staggering 900,000 Jews and 200,000 Gypsies in only 15 months.

Two years ago, my wife, Lee, and I made our first trip to Poland, joining with others in a Forum study tour that took us all over the country.

We visited large cities and small towns. We spoke with ordinary people, school kids, academics and top officials. We saw the Warsaw Ghetto and what had been the Jewish quarter in Krakow. In a solemn and emotional ceremony, we said Kaddish for all the souls lost to Nazi genocide at the frightening Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps.

We even ventured off alone to Grodek in hopes of learning something of my family’s fate. We discovered that the street names had been changed and houses renumbered since the war. We were shown the boundaries of its ghetto and located the town’s abandoned and neglected Jewish cemetery. It’s the only enduring reminder of its Jewish past.

But we learned little of my family’s life.

My trip back to Grodek in September was different.

Despite Poland’s reputation for having been indifferent, or worse, to the fate of Jews during the war, the students I met were genuinely enthusiastic about honoring the town’s Jewish past.

The day began with a ceremony, led by the mayor, to honor a Jewish physician who was a beloved mainstay of Grodek in the 1930s and was murdered by the Nazis. Two students spoke eloquently about what Dr. Lew Cukierman meant to the community. I was given the honor of briefly speaking to the crowd, which included many adults and the entire student body.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland, what was left of the Jewish community vanished one morning.

From here, the students led me on a journey through the streets of Grodek to paint a picture of what life was like before and during the war. They not only told these stories but also acted them out — wearing clothing from the era and wielding implements used in daily life. At one stop, they even prepared food like that served in the 1930s. The table was set in front of a former restaurant where my family almost certainly had gathered for meals.

Other stops included the boundaries of the ghetto, the location of textile mills that drove the town’s economy, the Jewish school that my family likely attended, a drugstore that had been run by a Jewish pharmacist and the outdoor market where residents bargained for their groceries and other daily needs.

Along the way, I chatted with noted Polish contemporary artist and local activist Leon Tarasewicz, who happened to be in town and joined our tour. I had lunch with the principal and her staff of teachers.

The last stop was outside the one-time home of Josef Abramicki. He seemed like a man for all seasons. He ran a barbershop, a photography studio and directed the local Jewish drama group.

The name Abramicki rang a bell. He had been mentioned in an old letter as a close friend of the family. Among his photographs displayed by the students was a dark portrait of an actor in his Yiddish theater. To my amazement, she turned out to be Chaya, one of my aunts.

As I walked the dirt backstreets of this town, I felt the family’s presence.

Back in the classroom later in the day, the students asked me questions about Jewish life in the United States. I asked them more about their project.

I also shared with them the story of my only surviving aunt. She had escaped the Nazis by fleeing into the forest that surrounds Grodek. There, she joined with Russian partisans in guerrilla warfare against the Nazis and was wounded in battle. In 1958, she returned to Grodek. In a brief account of her life written for Yad Vashem, she declared: “I am the last Jewish girl of our town.”

After hearing the story, one student openly wept.

For these youngsters to care so deeply about people very different from themselves who died generations before they were born is truly remarkable.

It gives hope that someday we might rid ourselves of the kind of prejudice that sparked the Nazi genocide, killing 6 million Jews — most of whom lived in Poland. It also attests to the power and importance of programs like the Forum’s, which has dedicated itself to forging connections between contemporary Poland and the Jewish people.

I know I’ll return to this town. I now feel bonded to it as if it were my own.

And, of course, in a different reality, it could have been just that.


Leo Wolinsky, a Los Angeles journalist, has served as managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and editor of Daily Variety.