Gothenburg, July 2012
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As a dedication to the Jewish people of Nieswiez, JewishGen is
preserving the memories by collating and compiling information
which tells stories of pre-war Nieswiez. In addition to this, I,
Henryk Cechanski (born Chaim Cechanowicz), would like to share my
life from pre-war Nieswiez, my home and my first return in August
2009, after 64 years.
I was part of a very large and loving family. In my immediate family there was my beloved Yacha, Itka and Neach and I was the eldest. My mother was Chana Cechanowicz (nee Chana Birg) and my father was Michal Cechanowicz. My aunties and uncles from the Birg family were Baska, Lily, Tevi and Yisroel. Lily left for England prior to the war and established a beautiful and large family there. My father also had a very large family with five brothers. The brothers were Feitel, Yankel, Yisroel, Yesef and one I sadly can no longer remember. Yesef’s daughter Ada Cechanowicz, departed prior to the war, settled and married in Israel (married name was Cohen) and I was able to meet with her and her daughters on numerous occasions during my visits to Israel. I also remember my grandparents Yankel and Rysia Cechanowicz and Abraham and Chava Birg.
Consequently, the number of uncles, aunts and cousins made the family very large. Attached is a photo showing some members of the family prior to the war at a family gathering.
Life before the war was difficult yet fun at the same time and our home was filled with love and Yiddishkeit. My father worked very hard to make ends meet. He was in the wheat and cattle trading business as well as growing vegetables on land leased from Count Radziwil, in order to sell vegetables at the market.
At home my family spoke Yiddish and we learnt Polish at school. I was in school until the ninth grade and also spent time with my friends in the Jewish youth movements. Some of my friends from these times left for Palestine and I was lucky enough to meet some of them again in Israel.
It is sad to say that from such an extensive family, including family members not mentioned, with the exception of my aunt Lily, cousin Ada and myself, all were exterminated by the Nazis. My beloved family along with hundreds of other families from Nieswiez were forced to dig large graves before being shot. It is also unimaginable that these killing fields were situated just a few hundred meters from where my home was.
I was the only member of my family who survived and doing so by
escaping from the Polish side of the border into Russia (USSR)
prior to the Nazis destroying my town and killing the Jews. I hid
in the woods for two long months between August and September
1941. After living in the woods, I began working in different
places in order to survive. Initially I dug trenches and did
excruciating physical work in factories.
My journey of survival took me as far away as Almaty in Kazakhstan and Tashkent. In Kazakhstan I picked up work in factories and mines, whilst in Tashkent I sold and traded tobacco, sugar and salt for bread and clothes. Life was extremely difficult and unsafe. One was never sure who to trust, where the next meal would come from or when it would all end. I was also alone and had no idea what had happened to my family.
During this time, I discovered that the Polish army was being formed in Russia (USSR) and I made the decision to enlist. Unfortunately, in order for no one to find out I was Jewish I had no choice but to change my name from Chaim Cechanowich to Henryk Cechanski. After completing my military training, I joined the front line fighting the Germans on the Soviet front until I was injured in the shoulder by a rifle bullet during the Warsaw offensive. After 6 months in hospital in Baku, Azerbaijan I was released and was able to re-join the Polish army unit back in Warsaw. On my return from Baku, I travelled via Nieswiez where I found out about the slaughter of my family and the rest of the Nieswiez Jews. My home had also already been taken over by a Belarusian family. My heart was shattered and the only thing I could do was to close this chapter of my life and move on - alone.
I remained in the Polish military after the war until 1954, when I was forced to leave due to government sponsored anti-Semitism. Life continued; working hard and providing for my family until a second wave of government sanctioned anti-Semitism arose in 1968. However, this time the government gave my family (wife, two sons and one daughter) three months to pack our belongings and leave the country for good. We settled in Sweden and rebuilt our lives again. It was difficult to leave our home after so many years, learn a new language, adapt to new customs and people, however, the most important thing was that we were all together, safe, happy and healthy.
Nowadays, I reminisce about the happier times in Nieswiez with my beloved family. Although, I will never forget the darker times as they are a part of me.
In 2008 I made the emotional decision to return to Nieswiez
together with my son Michael and daughter-in-law, Maria. During
our 2 week journey, we also visited Minsk to view war archives of
Jewish communities and found a number of our family members on the
list of thousands of Polish and Belarusian Jews who perished at
the hands of the Nazis.
During our four day stay in Nieswiez, we strolled around the city which brought back memories of street names, where the market was, my school, the neighbours, the synagogue, shops and many other places. We also did some sightseeing in today’s Nieswiez and the beautiful palace of Count Radziwil. My town has changed with it, becoming larger, new buildings being built, new street names, however, on the other hand, certain areas have not been touched. By chance, we met a Polish lady who was very knowledgeable about Nieswiez and the past history. She also recalled a lot of names of people whom I knew in the pre-war times.
A moment which I will always treasure is when the people who live in my house were kind enough to let us enter. It was difficult to restrain my emotions when I stepped into my “home” after over 60 years. It was similar to stepping back in time, by walking around and showing Michael and Maria all the rooms. It was very overwhelming indeed.
In addition to seeing all these places and my house, we were shown three locations in the town, where executions took place. Commemorative plaques have been placed in these areas and an additional plaque in the local cemetery (some photos from our visit to Nieswiez are attached).
Making the difficult and emotional journey back “home” and telling my personal story is a small tribute in memory of all the Jews who were murdered for the simple fact that they were who they were - Jewish.
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