All my life I was told by Grandma Regina that she lost her entire family in the Holocaust. Grandma, my mother’s mother, was from Warsaw. She escaped the slaughter by coming to the United States at the turn of the century.
Before the Holocaust, in Poland, Jews were the largest minority in the country. Early on, in Poland’s major cities, Jews and Poles shared a common language. Life was peaceable. Families between Jews and Poles got along well and socialized together. There was some antisemitism, but Jews were part of Poland, and Polish culture was, in part, Jewish.
Then things started to change at the turn of the century. Even though Jews had been living in Poland since at least the Middle Ages, when Crusaders moved through Europe in the thirteenth century, Jewish refugees sought safety in Poland.
Poland was partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria at the end of the eighteenth century when sentiments changed. most Polish Jews found themselves living under Russian rule with Russia in control of vast areas of Poland. Russia then imposed restrictions on Jewish life, and instigated geographic and professional rules that confined Jews to the Pale of Settlement, a western region of Imperial Russia with varying borders that existed from 1791 to 1917, in which permanent residency by Jews and was not allowed beyond those borders. Most Jews were still excluded from residency in a number of cities within the Pale as well.
What drove grandma out were the pogroms, horrific massacres, violence and slaughter of Jewish residence. There were fewer and fewer opportunities to emigrate and she was not about to wait till things got worse.
She begged her family to do the same. They didn’t take her advice and follow her to the United States. They said everything will be fine and that the Poles would not allow anything to happen to them as they were their friends. On the eve of World War II, three and a half million Jews, or about ten percent of the population, lived in Poland, a large percentage of Jews in any European country.
The Poles turned out not to be their friends. When the Nazis set their sights on Poland, they sought to destroy all that was there and build it up again as a colonial homeland for Germans. In the process, the Nazis built most of their concentration death camps in Poland. They organized a railway that took Jews and other prisoners from their homelands to be murdered in occupied Poland.
The Grandma that I knew was highly sensitive to anything that could appear not to go her way. She was sure many incidents in her life were due to antisemitism. She never talked about her husband and we knew nothing about his circumstances, or whether he came to states. He just didn’t exist. No one asked about him and nothing was volunteered.
I got to know a bit about my grandmother as my mother volunteered me to help Grandma collect donations for City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles, something she supported.
I was required to go door to door with Grandma and ask for donations. Grandma needed my help as she could no longer walk up steps so she waited on the sidewalk.
Some of her neighbors knew my grandmother and would wave hello from their front door as grandma would wait on the sidewalk. If no one answered the door, however, she was sure they were hiding behind their curtains and saw her outside, or if someone would not donate, in either case, she would yell at them from the sidewalk and declare those people “deadbeats” or “Goddamn anti-Semites” for everyone to hear. This would take place every year with me knocking on doors in her neighborhood and Grandma declaring whether the neighbors were good people or “Goddamn anti-Semites.”
When Grandma Regina died, I stood over her grave, my belly swollen with my son, Joshua, who was born not long after.
It was 21 years later walking the streets of Warsaw with my son Josh that Grandma Regina’s life took on a new meaning for me and for Josh who never knew her.
We were there because Josh decided to study Russian in college. I think it had something to do with his Eastern European roots and he was fascinated with Slavic languages.
After two years of Russian in college, he had the opportunity to take a summer program in Russia to perfect his language skills. He chose to go to a language institute in St. Petersburg rather the program in Moscow. In St. Petersburg, the students lived with a Russian family and travel into the city by subway each day. In Moscow, all foreign students live in a dormitory together. He said that in Moscow it would be like school like in the states. He’d go to class and then speak English when he would get back to the dorm.
Josh was placed with a lovely family, Tatiana and Igor Arkhangelski, who lived in the suburbs of St. Petersburg. Tatiana restored old art and Igor was an aviation mechanic. They had one daughter who became an architect.
After Josh’s program was over, I flew over to see him and travel around a bit. I made reservations in a nearby hotel, but then Josh called me to say the family had invited me to stay in their apartment while they would go the countryside and stayed in their summer cottage called a Dacha. When I first met Tatiana, she apologized to me that Josh was thin and wanted me to know they did feed him. Josh was a typical young man at 6’ and tall and lean. I assured her I was not concerned and that I knew she was feeding him well.
Once we settled in they would come back to their apartment every three days, cook up a storm and invite their friends and neighbors to come and meet the Americans!
This went on for over a week. They were fun and friendly dinners with the food flowing out of their kitchen. Every meal began with a bowl of Borsht, followed by two kinds of meats, four root vegetables, bread and then a fruit tort. And a lot of vodka and wine.
After such a warm and lovely time, it was difficult to say goodbye. We said a tearful farewell to these lovely people. Igor packed us into his tiny car and dropped us at the rail station. New adventures awaited us as we took off to travel through the Baltics to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Following that journey, we flew to Warsaw. I wanted to see where my grandmother came from.
After we got settled in at our hotel, we wandered around the city. We saw the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the Winter Palace and the Hermitage.
Josh had already been traveling with his college buddy, Eoghan, prior to his language program and spent several days in Krakow.
On a lazy morning after a large breakfast, we visited the Old Town Market Place which is one of the oldest parts of Warsaw and was blown to pieces by the Germans following the Warsaw Uprising. This town market place was reconstructed to what it was before after the war ended.
As we sauntered down the street Josh stopped and dug into his backpack.
“Hey mom, I have this address from grandma. It has these names and addresses of some relatives she thinks live in Warsaw. She said she found it in her mother’s stuff after she died.”
He said he put it in his address book really didn’t think much of it at the time.
I laughed. “Josh, no one is left of her family. Everyone was killed by the Nazi’s,” I said with authority.
“Well let’s just see if we can find it anyway.”
OK. Why not. We didn’t have anything else on our agenda.
We pulled out our city map and plotted our approach. The names on the paper were Januz and Joseph Anuszewicz, the same last name as Regina’s before she married. Clearly these people had been relatives.
We did find an apartment building with the same address. We pushed the buttons and asked if Joseph or Januz lived there, but the clarity was terrible and we couldn’t understand what they were saying.
When we returned to our hotel later, we asked the concierge if she could find a phone number that matched the name and address? She said the switchboard was closed at night and come back in the morning, which we did.
The next morning the concierge was able to match a phone number and called but there was no answer.
A bit disappointed but not surprised, we set out for our day of sightseeing. When we returned, I stopped by the desk again and Josh went up to our room. When she called again, this time someone answered and identified himself as Joseph Anuszewicz.
To be sure it was a relative with this name I asked the concierge to ask the man if the name Regina Anuszewicz Bloom meant anything to him?
Does he speak Russian?
Could we come to see him?
No, stay at the hotel and he will come to see us.
I was shocked and excited and trying to stay realistic that this person may not be a relative of my grandmothers.
As we had dinner before we returned to the hotel, we waited in our room for what seemed like forever, but it was only one hour when the concierge called us and said:
“The man is here. He says to have your son come down with you.”
The ride in the elevator also seemed long, but when the doors opened to the lobby and people were milling about, an elderly man stood by a wall, watching people step out of the elevator. I scanned the crowd unsure who I was looking for. After the crowd thinned, my eyes fell on one person. Someone who I would have recognized anywhere. It was clear he belonged in my family. I smiled and he just looked back at me.
I walked towards him and said, “Are you Joseph?”
He didn’t answer. He just stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled a small photograph, pointed to the picture and looked at me.
I pulled Josh close to translate for me.
I pointed to each person in the photograph of my cousin’s wedding.
“That’s Regina, that’s my Aunt Jo, Aunt Rose and my mother, all Regina’s daughters. That’s me and that is my brother,” as I continued to identify everyone in the photograph.
We both stood there, tears dripping down my face and Joseph’s eyes wet.
Joseph had his arm around Josh and said to him in Russian:
“What happened to Regina? The letters stopped 20 years ago. We kept writing but never heard anything back?”
It was 20 years ago that she died and no one wrote about what happened.
Joseph had called his daughter Aleksandra Minor before he came over and left her an urgent message to come to this hotel. He called her mainly because she is fluent in English and of course Polish. She worked for Proctor and Gamble as a scientist, so between Josh’s limited Polish, good Russian and Aleksandra’s English, we were able to communicate with each other.
The four of us spent hours talking about our lives and I shared what I knew about my grandmother.
What I did learn is that Joseph and his younger brother, Januz, are my mother’s first cousins, the sons of one of grandma’s brothers.
They were the only survivors. Other siblings fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and died.
Joseph survived the war by serving as a colonel in the Red Army, a common name for the Russian National Military Forces that existed from 1918 to 1946 and Januz, age 12 at the time, went high up into the Ural Mountains and worked at a mine.
I also learned something few people know. When the trains came to pick up Jews, they were told they were going to a work camp for a while and to send postcards to the family so they won’t worry about them as a way to dispel suspicion about the death camps.
As it was summer, many of the relatives were off on a holiday, but Joseph managed to gather his daughter, her husband and their daughter, Joseph’s brother Januz and other relatives to visit and share family stories.
We sat in Joseph’s living room surrounded by nieces, nephews and his brother.
Josh became one of our translators which was exhausting me told me after. However, he remained a good sport through it all. He said Joseph was difficult to follow sometimes.
“It was pretty difficult, but having spoken Russian daily for the past few weeks helped. If I remember correctly, though, he was jumping between Russian, Polish, and German (or maybe Yiddish) because he was so excited. But of course, we wanted to communicate which made things better.”
Aleksandra, whose nickname is Ola, also helped in the translating process, had traveled to the United States for work was instrumental in helping her relatives understand the Polish perspective and sensitivity of being a Polish Jew in the U.S.
Josh’s connections to Polish Jewish roots were now a reality for him. It was normal to me to have a European grandmother to identify my lineage. But Joshua’s grandmother, my mother, was a modern woman with a career. My grandma made Matzah balls from scratch and her own horseradish. My mother bought her matzah balls and horseradish at the store Manischewitz.
“It was amazing,” Josh said. “Again, in the moment I think it was all kind of a blur. But once it was clear what had actually happened, and how haphazard and unplanned and really unlikely it was, I think that made it really incredible.”
“The entire experience means a lot,” he said. “Sometimes I feel guilty for not having stayed in contact with them (I know you did, at least for a while). It’s definitely a great story that I’ve told many times over the years and people are always really amazed. Those with Jewish families from Eastern Europe even more so.”
“As you said the other day, Mom, your generation grew up a little closer to our immigrant history through your grandparents, but for the most part mine just had bits and pieces and the stuff they made us learn in Hebrew school (when we would have preferred being out on our bikes). Because of this experience, though, I had the opportunity to reconnect that just a little bit, and I think it’s really affected my own personal feelings around ancestry.
“Meeting these people, sort of relatives, gives a better sense of who I am and where I came from,” Josh told me.
My brother and I had a keen awareness of relatives lost. Our parents had books in our home about the war and in particular, about Poland.
While finding these relatives was a gift for me, the real gift came from Josh’s appreciation of his lineage and his sense of being proud of his heritage.