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< Echoes of Memory

Impressions of Contemporary Polish Jewish Life

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by Halina Yasharoff Peabody

On October 14, 2018, I attended the Generation After Fall Tea at Beth El Synagogue in Bethesda. The speaker was Emanuel Thorne, professor of Economics at Brooklyn College. He represented Generation After on a “unique” study trip in June 2018 sponsored by the Polish Embassy in Washington, DC. He shared his impressions of contemporary Polish Jewish life, the complex issues emerging, his experiences with the Jewish and Polish leadership, and future prospects. He told the audience that he was impressed with the various Jewish activities in present-day Poland and overall friendly atmosphere toward the Jews.

The Polish government believes that the Poles were victims just as the Jews were, and the Germans are the only culprits in killing 3 million Jews in Poland, without Polish collusion.

I was a child when World War II started in September 1939 and wish to document the incidents that I witnessed as a 13-year-old, after the Germans lost the war and left Poland. These incidents were a continuation of the experiences that occurred during the occupation, but without the Germans.

On the last days of the war, a bomb exploded over our house and I was wounded and taken to the hospital in Jarosław. I was happy that we were no longer occupied, and the first thing I wanted to do was to say my real name. My mother, sister, and I were under assumed identities as Catholics. But I was warned by Mother that I couldn’t reveal my real name because it was not safe. There was a pogrom (anti-Jewish riot), and Jews who came out of hiding were often murdered by the Poles.

Our place was completely destroyed by the bomb, and a neighbor took in my mother and sister. She told my mother that she was only sorry about one thing: that Hitler didn’t finish his job (meaning that there were some Jews who had survived). My sister, who was only five years old and did not know she was Jewish, was asked by neighbors: “You can say now that you are Jewish, right?" And my sister, who thought she was Catholic, said: “Look at me, do I have horns, do I have a tail?” 

When we tracked down my father, who had been a prisoner in Russia, he immediately arranged for us to leave Poland. This meant that we had to move to Krakow where the Jewish Agency operated. We had to get lodgings and wait until arrangements could be made. When we tried to rent a room, we were asked if we were Polish (meaning not Jewish). We had to say yes and keep the false identities again.

Eventually, we were housed with a group of other survivors in Szczecin from where we were to be driven across the border into Germany. The arrangement, agreed to by the Russians, was that a few of us were taken by a truck, and with a couple of bottles of vodka, we bribed the guards, one Polish and one Russian, and they let us through the border. We were then put on a train to Berlin. One night before it was our turn, the Polish Milicja (“Citizens’ Militia”) tried to raid our house and we stood and screamed for hours to get attention, before they finally left.

This was the situation in which we left Poland. Since then, I have visited there: on the 50th commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and for the March of the Living to visit Auschwitz and other camps, to honor the people we lost. It is very painful to visit your childhood home where we were part of a small few who survived. I visited the Polish Embassy in Washington a few times during the previous administration and hoped that with education, the next generation would be able to learn that some of their grandparents did not always help the Jews, but rather helped the Germans. Otherwise, how could three million Jews have been murdered on Polish soil?

Hearing the professor, who had been wined and dined by the Polish government, say that the relations between the Poles and Jews today are so good unnerved me. The government showed the visitor only what they wanted him to see to demonstrate how they love the Jews, but they do not mention Polish collusion during the Holocaust. This omission sends the wrong message to people who have not lived in Poland and do not know the dark side. They do not wish to teach young people the truth so the history gets distorted.

I know there were some Polish people who helped Jews at the risk of their own lives, and I am thankful for that. But that is only part of the story.

The Germans who were the perpetrators acknowledged, apologized, and keep apologizing—as they should—for what was done. The Poles do not.

© 2019, Halina Yasharoff Peabody. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   echoes of memory, volume 12halina yasharoff peabody

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