Our Jewish Roots Tour 1990. By Gerald Sanders
On August 6, 1990 we began what turned out to be the most fascinating experience of our lives. My late wife, Joan, and I journeyed to find our roots in Poland as members of an organized group. Joan had anticipated the trip with unbridled enthusiasm, since the idea of traveling to Poland first occurred to her about five years earlier. I was more than a little skeptical, and had all the preconceived notions that most of the American Jewish community holds concerning Poland…." Why go there? It's only a graveyard of our ancestors." "You are not going to find anything of genealogical value, the Germans destroyed it all." "The Poles were the worst of the world's anti - Semites…. " The accommodations and the food will be unacceptable."
From the standpoint of genealogy the trip was a great success. Our tour organizer had done her work well, by preparing the Polish archivists, and they were ready for our arrival.
Do not misled into believing that all Jewish records are gone. Certainly certain records have been lost to fires over the years, and obviously to the Germans. However the vast majority of records seem to exist and to be in exceptionally fine condition. The trick is to determine which archives house them.
Our group left New York on LOT, the Polish airline, exactly on schedule. The flight was perfect. Kosher food was available to those who requested it, and we arrived in Warsaw on time after a non stop flight that most agreed was about the most comfortable they had ever experienced
Following is shortened version of the account of our journey and I will skim through the highlights and concentrate on the main cities we visited and the shtetlach of interest to members of the Kolbuszowa Region Research Group
We arrived in Warsaw and spent two days visiting sights of Jewish interest such as the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, Mila 18, The Ghetto Memorial, Umschlagplatz, the Nozykow Synagogue and the vast Gentsha Cemetery. The Cemetery is extremely large with a great many gravestones completely legible. It was under the care of Boleslaw Szenicer who was doing a monumental job cataloging. We witnessed a stone cutter restoring some damaged stones, and were very impressed with the magnitude of this project. The cemetery is in relatively good condition and one member of our group was able to find the graves of family members.
After dinner at our hotel we were privileged to hear a program prepared by Piotr Kadlick, a man then in his thirties, who is part Jewish. Piotr is part of a group of children of mixed marriages who wish to be Jewish, but were rejected by the orthodox community as goyim.
The genealogical part of our trip started the next day with stops at the Jewish Historical Institute and the Warsaw State Archives. The Jewish Historical Institute is adjacent to the location of the former Great Synagogue of Warsaw, presently the site of a brand-new glass faced office building. It was one of the few buildings not completely destroyed by the Germans when they leveled the city, and it housed an interesting museum, archival records of Polish towns and Holocaust survivor records. The records were made available to our group and many family names were found on the survivors lists.
The State Archives are in a beautiful renovated building in the Old Town Square of Warsaw. The Old Town was also destroyed by the Germans but has been magnificently restored. The Jewish records dating from the sixteenth century are part of the inventory here.
We left Warsaw and traveled southeast to Lublin stopping for lunch at the outdoor market in Garwolin where we were able to purchase bread, cheese, fruit and the ever present lody, Polish ice cream served in a cone. About 45 minutes from Lublin we made a detour to Konskowola and stopped for an hour while one of the members of our group reacquainted himself with the small village he left as a teenager in 1938. This was a touching reunion and set the mood for finding one's roots in the Regional archive in Lublin
Before the war, Lublin was very much a Jewish city. What remains today is not even a shadow of its former vitality and importance as a center of Jewish learning. The famed Yeshiva is now a medical school with all signs of its former importance gone save for a bronze monument. However, the outlines of the Mezzuzzot, removed years ago, can clearly be seen on interior door posts. The old Jewish cemetery, with graves dating back to the sixteenth century, is a fascinating shamble. Overgrown with vegetation and ravaged by time, war and vandals, much should be done to restore it to a place of honor. The new Jewish cemetery, currently being renovated, is a monument to the former population of the city. There is no synagogue in use in Lublin, a city a city within walking distance of the infamous Maidanek Concentration Camp.
Here in Lublin we had never to be forgotten Shabat dinner followed by singing and dancing.
No trip to Poland is complete without a visit to Maidanek and Auschwitz. The horror that our people experienced in those places can never be fully described or understood. The next time one hears a German saying that "we didn't know", don't believe him. Maidanek alone had 7.000 German guards at any given time, and they had families who knew what they were doing!
On a day trip from Lublin we hired a car with an English speaking guide and drove south to Grebow, a small town in Galicia. Andrzej, our guide, a Christian Lithuanian, from Vilna, who speaks and reads Hebrew, is one of the most knowledgeable people either of us had ever met concerning the most minute aspects of Judaism. Andrzej treated us to a wonderful trip through the ancient towns of Kazomierz Dolni and Sandomierz, back and forth across the Vistula River, on our way to Grebow.
Grebow is a typical little Polish town that we all visualize from "Fiddler on the Roof". It has a single road with small wooden homes on each side each with its own well for water and a yard with chickens scurrying about pecking the soil. It is the shtetl where my maternal grandfather, Max POMERANTZ and his family were born. My grandfather came to the United States in 1901, alone, at the age of 19.
Grebow had a synagogue and a mikvah and used the Rozwadow cemetery, approximately four miles distant. Andrzej found an elderly man who remembered many Jewish families who lived here before the war, but not the Pomerantz's. He showed us the site of the former synagogue which was burned by the Germans (the Poles say the Germans did it, but we'll never know the truth…), and informed us that the Mikva was located here as well. The synagogue was, of course, orthodox, and the women prayed upstairs. This information was given by the elderly Polish man. He knew from mikvas, and that the women prayed upstairs, amazing, isn't it?
I learned, from my cousins, who lived in Grebow until 1921, and from a Holocaust survivor from Grebow, that there was relatively little anti-Semitism in this small town where Jews were a minority. This was also voiced by the townspeople we met. We were invited into the home of an elderly woman who showed us the bill of sale proving the ownership of her home. It was purchased by Naftali Fortgang, of Brooklyn New York, in 1949. Upon our return we spent an afternoon with Mr. Fortgang. While serving us tea and cookies, he told us of selling the family home in the late 1940's, and that he had spent the war working in several labor camps in Galicia.
We are convinced that Grebow has not changed physically in the past 100 years, with the exception of a paved street, electricity and the installation of new windows in each home…something we noticed in each town we visited.
From Grebow we drove about four miles to the neighboring town of Rozwadow where more of the POMERANTZ family lived, to find the cemetery used by both towns. We finally found the place where the cemetery had been before the War. It is now completely devoid of gravestones and has a complex of railroad lines running through the property.
We saw no motorized vehicles in either town…just the ever present horse and wagons used for everything from farm to work, to delivery, to family transportation.
After 4 days in Lublin the group boarded the bus for an interesting drive through the Polish countryside to Krakow. We passed through some of the richest farmland in the world and began to understand one of the reasons Hitler wanted to take Poland. Our guide explained that the soil in this part of the country is known as loess, a very rich type of loam that produces incredible crops. This area is truly the "vegetable garden" of Europe and was capable of feeding a good part of the German population. Coupled with the industrialized part of the country, Poland could serve his purposes well.
Krakow is a beautiful city, much like Paris, and virtually unscarred by war. The Jewish population in 1939 was approximately 65,000 (25% of the entire populace). Jews have lived here since the second half of the thirteenth century, and had established themselves as an integral part of the city, suffering from intermittent bouts of anti-Semitism, but always remaining with a flourishing culture. The Nazis ended this in 1940 with the formation of the ghetto and the subsequent annihilation of almost all Jews from Krakow.
There are three remaining synagogues in Krakow: the Remuh, dating back to 1553, has been beautifully renovated and is currently in use; the Templ, a Reform synagogue, dating back to 1862, is used infrequently and the Old Synagogue, built in the second half of the fifteenth century, which is now the Museum of History and Culture of the Jews.
The number of Jews in Krakow in 1990 was about 300. They were mostly elderly and, for the most part, very poor. Our group brought gifts for them, which we distributed at the Remuh Synagogue.
Genealogical resources which we visited in Krakow include the Polish State Archives, the Krakow City Archives and the Jewish division of the Jagiellonian University. Once again, members of our group were able to find records of births', marriages and deaths. At the Polish State Archives we discovered a large collection of Holocaust materials which included: detailed biographical questionnaires from the Krakow Ghetto, Nazi propaganda material and an original photo album depicting Jewish transportation to the Krakow Ghetto.
We traveled back to Warsaw stopping several times along the way to get a better idea of the country. Virtually every town has a monument to its former Jewish inhabitants. These monuments were erected by survivors in memory of their lost families.
After arriving in Warsaw most of our group returned home. We remained, continuing touring the towns and places of interest to us. We traveled as far north as Mlawa, and as far east as the Russian border at Terespol/Brest Litovsk.
Aside from a short trip to Chopin's home in at Zelazowa Wola, where we heard a marvelous outdoor recital, our trip to Poland came to a close. It was a wonderful experience, heart wrenching for a good part of the time, but continuously educational and enlightening.
There are no Jews remaining in our ancestral towns.
For the serious genealogist with Polish roots it is almost mandatory to travel to Poland to do on sight research.
[Photos that accompany this travelogue can be seen underPhotos and Postcards]
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