Diary of a Journey to Lodz, Auschwitz and Krakow, 1998

by
Howard L. Rosen (Hersz Lajb Rudek)

This page is dedicated to the memory of Howard L. Rosen z"l who passed away on May 29, 2000 (24 Iyyar 5760) while on a trip to Israel. May his memory be a blessing.

October 6, 1998

Arrival

Yesterday I flew with my cousin Thomas Breheny from Manchester, England to Warsaw, Poland. Tom lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. We were met at the airport by my researcher and friend, Petje Schroder, who drove us to Lodz. 

Lodz is the city where my Mom, Dad and all my grandparents were born; coming here for a visit was something I've wanted to do for many years. It is the second largest city in Poland with a population of 750,000. In 1939 the Jewish population was 35% of this total.

Today we visited the new Jewish cemetery in Lodz.  It has been in use since about 1892. It is a large cemetery and fairly well maintained. There is a full-time Polish attendant who reads enough Hebrew to decipher the names on the headstones. There are additional burial records at the Lodz Jewish Center and as well at the Organization of Former Residents of Lodz in Israel, in Tel Aviv. I said the Prayer from the Memorial Service for the Deceased at the graves of my great-grandfather, Hersz Mordchajewicz vel Ajnenbaum (1820-1900)  and my great-grandmother, Yenta (Zychlinska) Mordchajewicz (1841-1901).

The grave of my great-grandfather, Hersz Mordchajewicz, in the Lodz cemetery

The grave of Dworha Blima Wajs in the Lodz cemetery

We had to do a lot of tramping through an overgrown cemetery but it was well worth it. We were also able to find the graves of Hersz' first child, Mordka Mordchajewicz vel Ajnenbaum (1844-1933), his last child, David Lajb Mordchajewicz (1872-1930) and the grave of his mother's cousin, Dworha Blima Wajs (1907-1928), the daughter of Mom's uncle, Chaim Icek Wajs.

We celebrated Sukkoth at the Lodz Jewish Community Center. They had a Sukkah but we ate inside because it was too cold for the old people to eat outside. We had a meal exactly like my grandmother made, soup, chicken and lots of mashed potatoes, and it was wonderful.

We also visited Aleksandrow Lodzki. Aleksandrow Lodzki is a small town about ten miles from Lodz where another great-grandmother, Ruchla Leah (Gorzewski) Rudek (1828-1894) and her sister, Estera (Gorzewski) Mordchajewicz (1826-1867), Hersz' first wife, were born.

The cemetery has been completely leveled; there aren't any markers from the pre-war. The only structure there was a monument erected for Rabbi Yarachmiel Yitchok Yakov Danziger (1853-1910). When I told Petje I had family from here, she told me that there was a famous rabbi buried here, and religious Jews came from Antwerp and New York to pray at his grave. My cousin, Willie Nussbaum, researched and found that this Rabbi, better known as the "Aleksanderer Rov" was one of the most renowned Chasidim of Europe. His last direct descendant was killed in the Holocaust. There is a schtebel in Boro Park where his followers congregate.

In the next few days we'll be visiting Zdunska Wola and Lask for more research on the Weiss and Mordchajewicz families, and then off to Krakow and Auschwitz.

 

October 8, 1998

Brzeziny and Lask

My plan for yesterday was to go to Lask, but I got an e-mail from my cousin in Florida, Harold Rosenblum, suggesting we visit Brzeziny where some of our family lived. I hadn't planned to go there, but yesterday when Petje showed up I told her the first order of business was Brzeziny. It's located about ten miles east of Lodz. It was an overwhelming experience. There has been a Jewish presence there since the Sixteenth century and the population was 50% Jewish in 1939.

Our first stop there was the U.S.C., the local Bureau of Records. All birth, death and marriage records are kept there for 100 years, after which, they are turned over to the Archives in another city. The only record we found after an hour of searching was Cousin Morris Rozman's birth. He had a habit of fibbing about his age, but now we know he was born in 1899.

From there we went to the Jewish cemetery. It has been completely destroyed, with a few broken headstones scattered around. The Brzeziny Survivors Group in Tel Aviv have erected a beautiful but stark monument there, but it has been scribbled over with anti-Semitic slogans.

We went to a museum in town, which has sewing machines and irons used in the garment industry, the principal business in Brzeziny. Outside the museum were perhaps thirty broken headstones from the Jewish cemetery. They were found in the German Police Headquarters and it doesn't take much imagination to figure out what they were used for. The curator told us they would be used in a memorial monument erected by the survivors.

From the museum it was only a short walk into a park with a lovely lake fed by a small river. Across the river was a small bridge made of headstones from the cemetery. Petje said it is not clear if it was built by the Germans during the occupation or by the Poles afterward. Petje told me that no one in the local government would talk about it.

From Brzeziny we drove to Lask, about twenty miles southwest of Lodz. The population contained a large percentage of Jews there in 1939. My great-grandfather, Shia Rudek (1836-1909), was born there. His father, Isaac (b. 1806), his grandfather, Shia Leyzer (b. 1762) and his great-grandfather Leyzer (b. ca. 1735), were all born there and are probably buried there.

We walked to a small park where there had been an open-air market run by Jewish merchants and tradesman for 200 or more years. Completely ringing the square were small stores that Petje told me were all once operated by Jews. Walking around the square we found one doorway with a cut in the masonry, which by height and angle was obviously where the mezuzah was placed. Today there probably aren't any Jews there.

We went to the cemetery located in a lovely wooded area.  All the tombstones but one were lying on the ground. They were not broken and many had beautiful carvings. The one standing had been re-erected, but with the carving facing away from the grave. Someone had left two Yahrzeit candles there. We lit them and I recited the Prayer for the Deceased. Another emotion filled day for me in Poland.

The only standing tombstone in the Lask cemetery

 

October 11, 1998

Last Day in Lodz

I have some additional thoughts today, our last day in Lodz. Yesterday, Petje took me to a location in Lodz where the Weiss (Wajs) family, my mother's side, lived. The building no longer stands. It was one block from where there were fish markets. My grandfather Max Weiss (Mortka Wajs) and his younger brother, Shlomo, owned and operated fish stores in Paterson, New Jersey, when they emigrated from Lodz. It gave me a pretty good clue to their occupation in Poland. My great-grandfather, Hersz Lajb Wajs (1852-1917), who I am named after, and my great-grandmother, Rela (Abromowitz) Wajs (1848-1910), were born and died here.

Selling  fish  in the Lodz market

Shlomo's children told me of the many Jewish families who would buy a live carp on Monday and keep it in the bathtub until Friday so the gefillte fish would be fresh for Shabbas. (If you would like to know more about this custom, I recommend a children's book written by a dear friend, Barbara Cohen, about 30 years ago, A Carp in the Bathtub).

We found the address where our cousin Paula Bialek, a Holocaust survivor, lived and I took pictures to show her and her children. I had hoped Paula would join us on this trip, but she told me she would not return to Poland.

We walked through a huge open-air market where Lodzers come to buy produce, meat, fish and clothing. The egg merchants sell eggs by the dozen or, for an additional price, by the "Mendel." When I asked what a Mendel was, I was told that it is 15 eggs, but no one seems to know where the term came from. My theory is that there was a Jewish merchant, Mendel, who, to be competitive, gave his customers three extra eggs when they bought a dozen.

Eggs sold by the "Mendel" in the Lodz market

One afternoon, we stepped into the lobby of the Grand Hotel, around the corner from the Savoy where we are staying. An elder (my age) gentleman, who asked if I were a "Yid," greeted me. When I acknowledged I was, he insisted that I hear his story. He was well dressed, with a well-worn book of names and addresses of friends (acquaintances) from all over the world. Some were from Paterson and Fairlawn, my territory. I was frustrated by my inability in our conversation to get answers to some of my questions. He did talk about his son in the Chicago area and his grandchildren in Israel. I asked him why he stayed in Poland. He said that he did live with his son for a while, did not get on with his daughter-in-law and decided (or was asked) to leave. At that point he returned to Lodz. He was terribly lonely and his only life seemed to be sitting in the lobby of the hotel, cornering "Yids" to talk to. I finally pulled myself away, feeling very blue.

When we were in Zdunska Wola I made a mistake in not visiting the Jewish cemetery. I believe my great-grandfather, Heyman Noskowitz (1845-19??) and my great-grandmother, Hinda Levine Noskowitz (18??-19??), were born there, but I cannot document it. I had already been to the cemeteries in Lodz and Aleksandrow Lodzki and subsequently those in Brzeziny and Lask. Fellow genealogists have asked me if the cemeteries in their ancestral cities were researchable. I cannot answer for Zdunska Wola, but, as I have previously stated, all the others but Lodz have been destroyed.

Tonight Tom & I have been invited to dinner with Petje and her friend Andrej at their home. Tomorrow morning, we go, with great trepidation, to Krakow and Auschwitz.

 

October 12, 1998

Auschwitz

Gate at Auschwitz: "Arbeit Macht Frei"

I cried this afternoon in Auschwitz; this was not in my game plan.

My emotions started churning when I walked through the gate with the sign overhead, "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Makes You Free"). I've seen pictures of the sign many times, but walking under it, as so many of my family did, was different and very difficult..

I put on my yarmulke, which had been given out at my father's eightieth birthday in 1979. I could have worn my hat, but I didn't want anyone to doubt I was a Jew.

After a short walk, we came to a huge mound of earth with a chimney sticking out of the top. Descending a stairway brought us into the gas chamber. There were holes in the ceiling where canisters of gas were dropped on the unsuspecting prisoners. We walked into the next room where the ovens consumed the bodies.

There was a conveyor belt, used to carry the bodies into the oven. On the belt had been placed bouquets of flowers and some lighted Yahrzeit candles.

I started to recite the Prayer for the Deceased for the RUDEK (ROSEN), WAJS (WEISS), MORDCHAJEWICZ, NOSKOWITZ and GORZEWSKI family members who died there. Halfway through, I started sobbing and I couldn't continue. After a while, I was able to finish the prayer. I looked around and saw my cousin Tom also crying.

After exiting the gas/oven chambers we continued through rows of prison barracks. A number of them were utilized for displays of what the poor souls went through. (Any descriptions will have to wait until I can put it into some sort of perspective.)

Crematoria at Auschwitz

I'm glad we were there on a weekday. There were a great number of buses full of Polish school children, ages fourteen to seventeen. I understand the Polish government mandates all teenage children must visit the camp. (Judy told me one of her pupils this semester recounted her experiences as a teenager, 6 years ago, in Poland on her class visit to Auschwitz.)

In addition to many Polish adults, we encountered a group of Norwegians, and another group of Japanese. There also was a busload of German youths, seventeen- and eighteen-years old.

Tomorrow morning, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

October 14, 1998

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Yesterday's visit through the Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was different from Monday's tour through Auschwitz. First of all, there were no tears. Maybe I used them all up in the crematorium at the older camp.

I must admit that I have never been clear about the differences between the two camps. Auschwitz had utilized existing military barracks built before the war. The Germans added a gas chamber and crematorium. There were approximately 70,000 prisoners exterminated there, about two-thirds of them were Jewish.

This camp has been made into a museum. A modern building has been built with a long exhibition hall. There is also a cafeteria and some small shops selling books and film.

Numerous barracks have been converted to exhibitions of pictures of the prisoners and their possessions. There was one with large piles of eyeglasses, human hair, shoes and luggage. The most overwhelming for me was a case with discarded infants' and children's clothing and another case of children's shoes.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was built on a vast tract of vacant land about two miles from the older camp. Its only purpose was to increase the capacity for extermination. There were some brick buildings, which were eventually used for the women prisoners. Then, separated by rows of barbed wire and railroad tracks, there were a huge number of wooden buildings where the men were kept. The Germans, before their retreat from the area, destroyed most of these buildings.

Railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Destroyed gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau

I entered the camp by walking along the railroad tracks that were used by the trains pulling the freight cars with their load of human cargo.  Unlike the older camp, no amenities have been added except a few Port-o-Johns. In the buildings still standing were triple bunks, each layer holding six or seven human beings. It was impossible for me to imagine the degradation and human suffering encountered there. Approximately two million innocent persons were exterminated; an overwhelming high percentage were Jewish.

Prisoners' bunks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The only way to get to the magnificent memorial, built next to the gas chambers/crematoria, was to walk through the whole camp. There were four of these chambers with plans to build one more. The Germans blew up the chambers before retreating, maybe to convince the world they didn't exist.

My Cousin Tom and I lit Yahrzeit candles at the monument and I recited the Prayer for the Deceased for my RUDEK (ROSEN), WAJS (WEISS), MORDCHAJEWICZ, NOSKOWITZ and GORZEWSKI families.

My cup runneth over.

Right: Massive memorial at the rear of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Its plaque reads:

FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN, MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE.

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU

1940 - 1945

October 15, 1998

Krakow and Warsaw

Yesterday, in Krakow, we found some street vendors selling an unusual bread product. It was circular in shape and had a hole in the middle. There were three varieties: plain, sesame and poppy seed. The Poles called it "BAJGEL." Tom thought that it had possibilities as an import to the States, maybe even serving it with cream cheese. I assured him it would never work.

We had a beautiful day in Krakow, sunny and mild, the first day we had in Poland free of rain. We spent the day exploring the city on foot, primarily in the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. King Kazimier opened this section, once an independent city, to Jews in 1335. It was eventually merged into Krakow. I was completely ignorant of the huge Jewish presence here in the pre-war era.

We visited at least seven synagogues within a relatively small area. Some were in very poor condition, but workmen were there doing restoration. One was called "Temple Synagogue." We went inside and moved carefully around the scaffolding. It was beautiful. I was assured it was a Reform Temple, but there was a balcony where the women had to sit. I guess "Reform" in Poland could only go so far.

Another building we visited was the "Isaac Synagogue" on Isaac Street. While it is still being restored, it is open to the public, with occasional services on Saturdays and holidays. A few blocks away was "Remuh Synagogue," a small, old building, with services every Friday evening and Saturday morning. One old gentleman assured me there is always a minion. On the side of this building was the "Old Cemetery." At first glance, it seemed in good repair, but a visiting Jew from Sweden told me it had been vandalized and restored. More than likely, the head stones are not in their original places. In addition, fragments of head stones were being used to make an unusual, but beautiful, wall around the cemetery. (I doubt if anyone has catalogued the graves.)

From there we went to the "New Cemetery," in use since about 1850, and still used for burials today. It is much larger than the older one. However I'm not sure all the stones are in their original locations. Someone seems to be cataloging them, but I was not able to learn whom. There were numbers painted on the sides of the stones, which seemed to designate location. (I would assume it is possible to do research there.) I didn't get any further, as none of my family came from this area.

There was an open square in Kazimierz with at least one Kosher restaurant and a number with Jewish style food.  This was too good an opportunity to miss. We returned for dinner and dined on gefillte fish, pickled herring and carp for appetizers, and duck with side dishes of kugel and kishka. I could hear my Bubbie Raisa telling me to "Ess, tatalah." I had to be rolled back to the hotel.

 

Left: Kosher restaurant in Krakow

As emotionally depressing and exhausting as the previous days have been, Wednesday left us feeling pretty good. Because we had taken an extra day in Krakow, we only have an overnight in Warsaw. It is an entirely different city than I encountered on an earlier visit in 1959. We spent some time this afternoon with Yale J. Reisner, Director of Research and Archives for The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. He is extremely articulate and most knowledgeable about the Jewish presence in Poland today.

We really needed one more day in Warsaw but we've run short of time and energy. My eleven days in Poland far exceeded my expectations. The time was short on research but long on uniting myself with my RUDEK (ROSEN), WAJS (WEISS), MORDCHAJEWICZ, NOSKOWITZ and GORZEWSKI forebears.
 

Howard L. Rosen z"l, 1998

 

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