The Encore

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Charity Tillemann-Dick is a cousin by marriage, married to my second cousin Yonathan, and she has just published her memoir, The Encore, about her incredible journey as an opera singer who underwent lung replacement surgery—twice. I can’t wait to read this book.

This is a story about survival–a different kind of survival than I usually focus on in this blog but important nevertheless.

Cover of Tillemann-Dick's book The Encore

This is from The Encore‘s website:

“The remarkable true story of acclaimed opera singer Charity Tillemann-Dick, who received not one but two double lung transplants and went from struggling to draw a single breath to singing at the most prestigious venues in the world.

“Charity Tillemann-Dick was a vivacious young American soprano studying at the celebrated Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest when she received devastating news: her lungs were failing, her heart was three and a half sizes too big, and she would die within five years. Inexplicably, despite her fatal pulmonary condition, she could still sing. Medical experts advised Charity to abandon her musical dreams, but if her time was running out, she wanted to spend it doing what she loved.

“In just three years, she endured two double lung transplants. Teetering between life and death, she slowly learned to breathe, walk, talk, eat, and sing again. With new lungs and fierce determination, she eventually fell in love, rebuilt her career, and reclaimed her life. Over a decade after her diagnosis, she has a chart-topping album, performs around the globe, and is a leading voice for organ donation.

“Weaving Charity’s extraordinary tale of triumph with those of opera’s greatest heroines, The Encore illuminates the indomitable human spirit. It’s the story of confronting devastating challenges with love: the intimate love of a mother for her daughter, a man for a woman, a doctor for her craft, and a singer for her music. Ultimately, grace from God and strangers enabled the work of love to save one young woman’s breath and allowed her to reclaim her life.”

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Finding Family at the Jewish Historical Institute

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When my cousin Krysia and I first started searching for our Jewish roots, we barely knew where to start. Our Aunt Pat, a genealogist, had shared an impressive record of names, places, and even stories. Obsessive Internet searches yielded limited results–things like a notice in the Canadian Jewish Review from October 1963 that listed my grandmother’s sister Maria Weglinska among the out-of-town guests at Rochelle Pifko’s bat mitzvah in Toronto. Pifko/Piwko was my grandmother and her sister’s maiden name. But how were they related to these Canadian Pifkos?

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Notice in the Canadian Jewish Review on October 18, 1963 about Rochelle Pifko’s bat mitzvah.

How could we push beyond these tidbits? What more could we learn about our family?

Thanks to the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI, Żydowski Instytut Historyczny) in Warsaw we made some breakthroughs that have helped us piece together our family tree. Krysia’s husband Steve stopped in during a business trip to Warsaw and met Anna Przybyszewska-Drozd at the genealogical division of the JHI. She did a preliminary search on JewishGen, and found references to vital records of some of our ancestors. A few months later, Krysia and I went on our first roots trip to Poland. We still had no idea what we were doing so we stopped in at the JHI, meeting with Anna’s associate Aleksandra (Ola) Dybkowska-Grefkowicz who stayed after hours to help us with our search. She prefaced everything with her usual caution, “Don’t be disappointed if you don’t find anything” because so many records were destroyed and most Holocaust deaths were not recorded. Then, she showed us how to make use of the records in JewishGen and the databases of  the Polish National Archives, and suggested other places we could search for records.

I learned enough at that meeting to make some breakthroughs. I discovered my Zurich cousins through the Family Finder database on JewishGen, and shortly after my Israeli cousins through myHeritage.

On successive trips to Warsaw, Anna and Ola helped me learn more about my grandfather Jakob Rotblit. I was speaking with Ola about his automobile dealership in Gdansk when Anna walked in. A look of recognition flashed across her face; she pulled a book off the shelf about Jewish business owners in Gdansk between the World Wars. Sure enough, Jakob Rotblit was listed with information about his Ford dealership and with details about his wife and his parents. Another time, I mentioned that my mother and grandmother are on the list of Jewish survivors who registered after World War II ended. With a satisfied smile, Ola told me that the original registration cards are in the JHI archive. I walked upstairs to the archive and was able to hold those cards in my hand. The archivist showed me how the earliest records, from 1945, were handwritten on the backs of cut up prewar accounting records. Paper was scarce, so they used what they could find. By 1946, information was filled in on larger, pre-printed cards made especially for this purpose.

Once again, just a few months ago, the genealogical division helped me with my search. Anna e-mailed me that a woman, Ellen, had contacted her to find out about her Piwko ancestors. Anna thought we were related and asked if she could share my contact information with her. Of course I agreed, and since then Ellen and I have been in ongoing communication. She is an avid genealogist who turns out to be my 3rd cousin. Her great grandfather was my great grandfather Hiel Majer Piwko’s younger brother Urish. I knew nothing about him, maybe in part because he moved to Canada in the 1880s.

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3rd Cousins in Krakow, Poland in June 2017

Ellen and I had the extraordinary good fortune to be in Poland at the same time this June. She was on a once in a lifetime Jewish history tour of Eastern Europe with Professor Stephen Berk. Although I didn’t know anything about her or her great grandfather, I had an inkling about her branch of the family from that notice I found years ago about my Auntie Nunia’s (Maria Weglinska) visit to Toronto in 1963. Rochelle Pifko, the girl whose bat mitzvah she attended, was Ellen’s cousin and another descendent of Urish. So another mystery is solved. Some contact was maintained between my great aunt and her uncle who migrated to Canada shortly after she was born. And when Nunia/Maria came to the US in the 1950s, she renewed that connection and even visited. Ellen remembers when Nunia came to Canada some years later for another family event.

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Here’s a post from a heritage seeker on a similar quest to my own. She attended the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Radom ghetto, which took place in Radom last month.

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After a few weeks of decompression, I am finally able to sort through some of my feelings about last month’s commemoration ceremony in Radom.  At times solemn, while at other times celebratory, the event was a reflection of how present day Catholic Poles choose to confront Poland’s complicated relationship between Christians and Jews.

Poland’s internal and external struggles to reconcile its past were highlighted by the incongruity of a klezmer band playing music at the entrance of the Jewish cemetery, and by the reverence demonstrated when a Holocaust Survivor spoke about his fond pre-War memories, followed by a concert of a well-known Polish performer.  While one can say that this combination of somber commemoration and entertaining celebration reflects the merger of past and present, not all of us are ready for the journey.  Poland’s past has a long way to travel before it catches up to present day Jewry.  At…

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AK Verification, Part III

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NOTE: This overview of my recent discoveries at the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust, Studium Polskiej Podziemniej (SPP) got so long I am publishing it in three separate posts. Here is part III. During the German occupation of Poland during World War II, the Polish Underground Army worked in secret to resist, sabotage, and fight against the Nazis. Another name for the Polish forces is “AK,” short for “Armia Krajowa,” or “Home Army.” I talk about the soldiers as “the partisans;” in Polish sources they are also called “konspiracja,” “the conspiracy.”

Sorry it’s taken a while for me to get to part III. The semester has begun which means I’ve been very busy.

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Pencil sketch of Maria Bereday from the 1950s, signed Ditri. Friends tell me she looks like a spy.

All of the questions the archivist Krystyna asked me about the names Mama went by paid off because she found another file; the envelope was mislabeled “Maria Fijułkowska.” Inside was a six-page report, relacja, Mama had written titled, “Outline of Courier Work.”

Initially, neither Krystyna nor I found this file because not only was “Bereda” missing, but Fijałkowska was also misspelled. Krystyna wrote “Fijałkowska” on a new envelope; I don’t know why she didn’t also add the Bereda, even after I pointed out that Mama’s full name was hand-written in large letters along the left margin of the document’s first page. Around World War II, the family usually used the name Bereda-Fijałkowska. Mama told me they added the Fijałkowski/a, which was grandpa Bereda’s mother’s maiden name and a name associated with the Polish gentry, because of Babcia’s social aspirations.

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Mama’s name (Bereda-Fijałkowska) and pseudonym “Renata” in the margins of her typewritten report.

Mama’s report matches up with some of the stories she told me, and confirms some of what she did during the occupation. It also gives more details about the way her courier unit “Zadra,” was organized, and how couriers carried out their duties. The report is dry and factual. It contains no specifics about her emotional engagement or personal thoughts. A historian might find it interesting for what it reveals about the operations of the Underground conspiracy. I keep trying to look beyond the words to find the person behind them.

She writes, that “Zadra” started out very small, and because the work wasn’t systematized, the couriers were on call at all times. “By the end of 1942,” she writes, “the number of couriers stabilized at 15, and that group became close and experienced, and worked together for a long time without changing members.” This all changed in the fall of 1943 when the occupier, okupant, limited train travel to Germans only. Overnight, the courier corps dropped from 60 to just six who spoke German well and had German papers. “The work for these couriers during this time was nonstop,” she continues, “The number of trips for each courier came to 10-12 per month, depending on the route.” My mother doesn’t state it in the report, but she must have been one of the couriers who carried out missions during this time. Some of her most vivid stories were about traveling in the train cars with an assumed identity as a “volksdeutch,” a half-German whose father was fighting for the Reich on the Eastern front.

After about two months, the courier corps were reorganized and expanded, with more reserve couriers brought into regular service. In the half year before the Warsaw Uprising, the number of couriers in her unit approached 40, and overall reached 100.

The duties of the couriers included delivering coded and uncoded orders hidden in ordinary objects such as candles or paint, special messages that had to be handed to specific commanders, and large sums of money (1/4-12 million zloties in 500 zloty bills). Some missions involved carrying the messages brought by paratroopers they called “ptaszki,” “little birds.” This is the code name for the cichociemni, the officers who parachuted in from the West carrying money and messages from the Polish Government in Exile.

The report includes an example of a special mission Mama undertook at the end of 1943. Instead of being briefed by her usual commander “Wanda”, “Beata,” the head of communication with the west, did it. “Wanda” gave her a special coded message she had to hand directly to the chief of staff or the commander of the Radom District. This was to occur in private with no witnesses. Mama also had to memorize and deliver the oral message, “The commanders of the divisions and subdivisions of “Burza” require complete secrecy in the event of the invasion of the Russians.” Burza, Tempest, was the code name for the Warsaw Uprising.

Because the chief of staff wasn’t available on the day Mama arrived, she had to spend the night at a safe house. The next day, she delivered the messages to Chief of Staff “Rawicz” [his real name was Jan Stencel or Stenzel], but had to spend another two days before “Rawicz” returned from the forest, where the partisans were hiding out, with the required response for the Central Command in Warsaw.

Reading this sparked another memory for me. I think it was a big deal for Mama to stay away from home for so long, especially because her father didn’t know she was in the Underground. Her mother did know, though, and they hatched an alibi about a visit to Mama’s fiance’s family. Or maybe this is the story she told the authorities on the train to explain why she was returning several days late. Hopefully, my brothers remember this story, too, and can confirm one of these versions.

The documents from the Studium Polski Podziemnej in London have been a lynch pin that holds together information from a variety of sources. While I was there, I also found a citation for Communication, Sabotage, and Diversion: Women in the Home Army, Łączność, Sabotaż, Dywersja: Kobiety w Armii Krajowej, published in 1985. The book was written in Polish but published in London. I found a copy of it at an online used bookstore whose brick and mortar shop is in Warsaw. I called, and sure enough they had it in the shop, so I picked it up while I was in Warsaw. It contains the recollections of the head of the Women’s division of Central Command (VK) Janina Karasiówna, the oficer who confirmed Mama’s verification file. Another chapter contains the report of Natalia Żukowska who was the assistant commander of Mama’s courier unit; Mama identifies her by her pseudonym “Klara.” From Żukowska’s report, I learned that “Zadra” was the name used by the couriers who had been working with the unit for the longest, but in 1943 the name was changed to “Dworzec Zachodni.” Reviewing Mama’s documents, I see now that she identified her unit as Zadra-Dworzec Zachodni in one place. She underlined it, too. Until I read this book, I had thought Dworzec Zachodni, which means Western Station, referred to Zadra’s location, not an alternative cryptonym. And then there’s this: the names of the 15 couriers, including “Renata.” That’s Mama’s pseudonym; her last name is misidentified as “Brodzka” instead of “Bereda,” but Natalia writes, “Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to decrypt all of the last names” (p. 118).

Mama was proud of her service for her country, but she was also painfully aware of the cost of war. She called herself a pacifist and the war solidified her abhorrence of armed conflict. I remember her asking, “Are there times when fighting is necessary?” I could tell from her voice that she wanted to believe all conflicts can be resolved peaceably. But her experience had taught her otherwise.

AK Verification: Part II

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NOTE: This overview of my recent discoveries at the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust, Studium Polskiej Podziemniej (SPP) got so long I am publishing it in three separate posts. Here is part II. During the German occupation of Poland during World War II, the Polish Underground Army worked in secret to resist, sabotage, and fight against the Nazis. Another name for the Polish forces is “AK,” short for “Armia Krajowa,” or “Home Army.” I talk about the soldiers as “the partisans;” in Polish sources they are also called “konspiracja,” “the conspiracy.”

 

The file at the archive of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust, Studium Polski Podziemnej (SPP), contained the same verification questionnaire I had from my mother’s papers and so much more. On the envelope itself is the following identifying information:

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Information on the envelope containing Mama’s papers at the SPP

I ‘ve learned how to decipher all of this. Here’s what it means:

Cadet Bereda-Fijałkowska Maria

2.785/46 [record #]     “Renata” [her pseudonym]

   26. VI 1922 Wilno [birth date and place of birth]

 

            Central Command division V/Women “Zadra” courier

Uprising: after the fall of the Wola district of Warsaw

                                    “Koło” Group-liaison officer [the names of her units]

The documents inside the envelope confirm Mama’s service and rank in the AK [Home Army], as well as her receipt of the Cross of Bravery. She submitted her questionnaire on March 9, 1946, her commanding officer confirmed her claims on April 15th of the same year, and the official report was completed the next day on April 16. The final report says the head of the Polish Army himself, General Bór-Komorowski, confirmed her receipt of the Cross of Bravery. Here is what looks like his signature on the document:

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General Bór Komorowski’s signature verifying Mama’s service in the Polish Home Army. It looks like he wrote “Stwierdzam (I confirm)  16/IV 46” above his signature. Note the “gn” for “generał.”

Mama started military training in middle school, gimnasium, at the Klementyna Hoffman School in the mid-1930s. She continued training in high school, liceum, and entered the Underground in June 1941, right after finishing high school. She took courses on how to be a courier, the organization of the Underground and of the German military, as well as marksmanship, topography, and first aid. She was in “Zadra” Group, part of the women’s courier corps in the 5th Division of the Central Command. She delivered encoded communications, money, and oral messages on the routes between Warsaw and Krakow, Radom and Skarżysko-Kamienna. In these latter two places, she acted as a go-between for the partisans in the surrounding forests and Central Command in Warsaw. From 1942-4, she also worked as an instructor training other women to serve in the Underground.

When the Warsaw Uprising began on August 1, 1944, she was with her unit “Zadra” in Wola, a district to the northwest of downtown. A handwritten note on her typed questionnaire says “wounded on route from Wola to the Old City.” The handwriting is different from Mama’s distinctive, almost calligraphic style, so somebody else must have added it after Mama submitted her answers.

The archivist Krystyna Zatylna said that the heaviest fighting in the first days of the Uprising was in Wola. Mama was lucky to have survived. By August 8, 40,000 civilians died in Wola.

The Home Army regrouped in the Old City. Mama got separated from her unit and joined “Koło” group. She is referred to here as a “liaison,” “lączniczka,” rather than “courier,” “kurierka.” Both terms refer to people entrusted with delivering critical information. Initially, however, she worked as a medic on Długa Street. When the Germans pushed the partisans out of the Old City, they escaped to the City Center, Śródmieście, via the sewers.

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Document dated September 9, 1944 that allowed “Renata” to travel through the City Center during the Warsaw Uprising.

The file contains two papers dated from the Uprising. No doubt Mama brought them with her to London to help corroborate her report. These tattered notes—physical proof of her service—must have been very precious to her. The first, on a third of a piece of paper that has deep creases from having been folded many times, is dated September 9, 1944. It states:

I assert that cadet Renata is a liaison of “Koło” Group. The conditions of her service require movement within the region between Savior Square and Napoleon Square.

The note is signed by the Chief of Staff of “Koło” Group, Major Krynicki. The document contains a round stamp with a crowned eagle in the middle surrounded by the words “Motorized Transport Brigade, “Brygada Dyspozycyjna Zmotoryzowana.” Mama must have shown this note at barricades on the streets so the AK soldiers would let her pass. Savior Square and Napoleon Square are in the City Center, which means she retreated through the sewers before September 9. I can, however, imagine her dodging Nazi bullets as she ran across the barricaded Jerusalem Street carrying messages from Napoleon Square to Savior Square. These names would sound good in a poem. Too bad I’m not a poet.

The second paper dates from October 3, 1944, the last day of the Uprising. Signed by Colonel Bolesław Kołodziejski, the commander of “Koło” Group, it is titled, “Provisional certificate (to be exchanged after the war for official recognition).” The text reads:

I confirm that “Renata Lewandowska” was decorated for her activity during the Uprising from August 1 to October 3 1944 with the Cross of Bravery for the first time.

Based on: the personal confirmation of the head of the Warsaw Corps of the A.K. Brigadier General Montera and his assistant Colonel Wachowski, as told to the commander of “Koło” Group during the last days of the Uprising.

“Montera” was the code name for General Antoni Chruściel, who led the Home Army (AK) in Warsaw during the Uprising. Kołodziejski was also a code name. Elsewhere in the documents, Mama writes that his real name was Zygmunt Trzaska-Reliszko.

Mama writes that she was promoted twice; in September 1944 she became a cadet, plutonowy podchorązy and in October she was promoted again to ensign, podporucznik. It looks as though the Verification Commission could only confirm the first promotion. A handwritten note on Mama’s questionnaire says they weren’t able to contact her commanding officer from “Koło” Group to verify the second promotion.

Also in the file are two statements written by the commander of the women’s branch of the 5th division of Central Command (V.K. KG) Major Janina Karaś, dated April 15, 1946. In them Karaś, also known as Karasiówna, confirmed that Mama earned the rank of cadet in “Koło” Group, and was also granted the Cross of Bravery for her service. Clearly, the Verification Commission contacted Karaś to corroborate Mama’s claims on her questionnaire. One of Karaś’s statements reads:

As the chief of the V.K. [5th Women’s] Central Command I certify that in the course of her service as a courier, “Renata” Maria Bereda Fijałkowska distinguished herself on the route Warsaw-Krakow and Warsaw-Skarzysko-Radom with bravery and decision to take risks. Traveling with German false papers she carried money, mail, and oral orders /for example related to the order for [Operation] Tempest. She earned the Cross of Bravery for her service.

Operation Tempest, “Burza,” was the code name for the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising. In other words, some of the messages Mama carried between Central Command and the partisans in the forest involved critical details about the Polish Underground’s battle to free the capital city from German occupation. I’m reminded of something the archivist at the Warsaw Uprising Museum kept repeating when I showed him Mama’s verification questionnaire two years ago: “She must have been very high in the conspiracy.” He couldn’t find the exact connection, but I believe I have it right here.

Krystyna Zatylna helped me put the pieces together. The forests around Radom are where the so-called “cichociemni,” “the quiet unseen” soldiers parachuted in from the West, bringing messages and money from the Polish Government in Exile for the leaders of the Underground in Poland. I believe Mama was given these items from the cichociemni and carried them back to Central Command in Warsaw. It fits with stories she sometimes told, and it fits with the seven-page report she filed with her verification papers. And that will be the subject of the third part of this blog post.

AK Verification, Part I

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NOTE: This overview of my recent discoveries at the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust, Studium Polskiej Podziemniej (SPP) got so long I will publish it in three separate posts over the next few days. Here is part I. During the German occupation of Poland during World War II, the Polish Underground Army worked in secret to resist, sabotage, and fight against the Nazis. Another name for the Polish forces is “AK,” short for “Armia Krajowa,” or “Home Army.” I talk about the soldiers as “the partisans;” in Polish sources they are also called “konspiracja,” “the conspiracy.”

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Mama in Poland

 

The extraordinary story of my mother’s service in the Polish Underground can be hard to reconcile with the person I knew. Mama would hide when strangers visited the house because she was afraid they would stare at her scars. How could she have carried secret messages to the partisans in the forest or talked calmly with Nazi officers on the German-only trains right under signs that read, “Danger! The Enemy is Listening!”? And yet, as her daughter I also knew her strength and persistence, especially when matters of principal were involved.

I couldn’t find much specific information about my mother at the Warsaw Uprising Museum or the Polish National Archive of New Records in Warsaw. Next, I turned to the Studium Polski Podziemnej (SSP), Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London. But when the archivist responded they have no record of Maria Bereda in their indexes, a part of me wondered if Mama could have fabricated her whole story.

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Logo of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust (SPP)

But that made no sense. My mother didn’t lie. She struggled with guilt even when she tried to tell the smallest untruth. Instead, she would avoid certain subjects, and would keep silent when people came to their own incorrect conclusions about them. That’s why for instance I thought she was the same age as my dad when I was a child. My oldest brother inferred it from the sequence of their birthdays—Dad’s was on March 1 and Mom’s was a few months later on June 26—and Mama didn’t bother to correct us.

Mama didn’t like talking about her past, but the story about how she was verified after the war was one she was more willing to tell. She had to go to London to do it because wartime records were scattered and incomplete. During the war, the Underground Army didn’t have the infrastructure to maintain centralized records. Often, lists of personnel and promotions were memorized or scribbled on any available scrap of paper. Also, to prevent the Nazis from infiltrating the underground forces, details of separate units were kept from each other. Most partisans only knew about those serving directly above and below them, and even members of the same unit referred to each other by code name. All of these were strategies for insuring that if someone was caught or compromised, they would have minimal information to share and so could inflict a minimum of damage to the organization. Also, few records remained after Warsaw was bombed to the ground following the Warsaw Uprising. The Central Verification Commission was in London, where the Polish Government in Exile had been throughout the war.

Mama travelled from Poland to London in March 1946. She wanted to be sure that an official record would exist to mark her participation in the war, and she wanted to get the Cross of Bravery she had been granted but never received. At the Commission, she reported on her training, her unit, her superior officers, and her activities. When she told me this story many years later, she was very proud of her ability to recall all these details from memory, things that could only be known by someone who actually served in the Underground.  The commission checked everything for accuracy before the verification was confirmed.

I already had a copy of the “Special Questionnaire” Mama had filled out as part of this process; I had found it in her papers. At minimum, I should have been able to find the original at the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust (SPP), which houses the archive of the Verification Commission. Fortunately during a recent trip to London, some focused digging at the SPP turned up a treasure trove of documents. Already in our e-mail correspondence, the SPP archivist Krystyna Zatylna had seemed confident that something would turn up if we looked harder. She eventually found Mama’s records where they had been mislabeled and misfiled.

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Headquarters of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust at 11 Leopold Road, Ealing, London. Photo from studium.org.uk website.

According to their website, “The Polish Underground Movement (1939-1945) Study Trust (PUMST), was founded in London in 1947. It is a research and academic institution, which contains historical material on the Polish Underground State (the Underground Administration and the Polish Home Army – Armia Krajowa) during the Second World War.” Included among their materials, the verification papers sit on high shelves right in the reading room in accordion folders shelved alphabetically. Personal files are arranged alphabetically inside the folders, each in a separate manila envelope.

The first folder Krystyna pulled out for me contained last names starting with “Br” instead of “Be.” My heart fell when I didn’t find Mama’s records. But then Krystyna climbed up a wooden ladder and found the folder with the “Be” names. There it was: an envelope labeled Maria Bereda-Fijałkowska. For a time, Mama used this hyphenated name, tacking on the maiden name of her grandmother.

Krystyna explained that much of the work at the archive has been done by volunteers so there are a lot of mistakes. She also asked me a lot of questions. Was Mama’s name always hyphenated? Did she use any other names? Did she ever go by Fijałkowska? Was she ever married? She also asked the names of my mother’s units. I rattled off what I knew: she belonged to “Zadra” in the Women’s 5th Division of the Central Command stationed in the Wola District of Warsaw; shortly after the Warsaw Uprising began, she joined “Koło” Group, and served in the Old City–Stare Miasto and City Center–Śródmieście Districts . I also gave her the names of Mama’s superior officers. It was as if I was being verified myself.

To be continued…

The Next Generation Visits Poland

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I’m just back from a roots trip to Warsaw, Poland with twelve relatives including six children. Here are most of the kids on the steps at Kościelna Street. These are the ones their grandmother would take everyday when she walked to and from the Bereda home at the bottom of the hill.

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The next generation in Poland: grandchildren of Maria: Ian and Bessie (lower steps) and of George: Sammy, Ziggy, and Mo (upper steps). My brother Chris is on the left.

It’s extraordinary that we could agree upon a date and make the journey. I’ll write more about it soon.

Jewish Warsaw in the Shadow of Skyscrapers

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I discovered Jewish Warsaw tucked between streets I’ve walked dozens of times. My first surprise was that the apartment I rented in an ugly green socialist-era tower is literally around the corner from Plac Grzybowski (Grzybowski Square), where Jewish life survived into the communist era.

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6th floor view of Plac Grzybowski. From the left, a socialist era apartment, All Saints’ Church, modern skyscraper, (at the center) green space, with the site of Jewish Theater behind it and the roof of the Gmina Żydowska behind that, (bottom right) back of building with Charlotte Menora Cafe.

I’ll say more about Plac Grzybowski in a minute, but I was even more surprised when, while mapping out a running route, I saw that I was also just a block away from Nożyk Synagogue, the only synagogue in Warsaw that survived the war. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never been there before, nor is this the first time I’ve been so close and didn’t even realize it. When my best friend from childhood Kim visited with her father in November 2014, we stayed at a hotel on Grzybowska Street, and were it not for the newer building across the street, we could have seen the synagogue from the hotel entrance. Kim and her family introduced me to Passover Seders, and bagels with lox and cream cheese, and I’m sure they would have loved to see the synagogue. In my defense, the synagogue sits in the green space at the center of the block, with tall buildings all around it. It’s easy to miss. The street access to the synagogue looks like the entrance to a parking lot, and from Grzybowska Street, the only access is via pedestrian walkways.

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My friend Kim with her father Sandy and my son Ian in Saski Park, Grzybowska Street in the background, November 2014

This isn’t the first time I have seen a synagogue tucked within the central courtyard of a city block. I wonder what the historic reasons were for that. Regardless, I imagine that in the difficult years after the Holocaust, this location offered the synagogue some protection; only people looking for it would find it. This is also where the Gmina Żydowska—the Association of Jewish Communities—has its offices. I should have come here before.

Built in 1902, the synagogue is a solid stone rectangle with arch-topped windows all around. Above the front door, two arch-topped tablets contain the Ten Commandments, and above them is a Star of David. The building survived World War II because the Nazis used it as a warehouse. Jews returned to worship there after the War, and at present, it remains the main synagogue of Warsaw, home to the Orthodox community. The offices of the Gmina Żydowska fill a modern addition across the back of the building.

Both times I walked by the synagogue, a few men were inside praying. More people walked by briskly, probably residents of surrounding buildings. Along the edge of the parking area, large information boards contain headlines like “We, the Jews of Warsaw,” “About the community,” and “Kosher…what does it mean?”

All the pieces fit together from my 6th floor balcony. I can see the metal roof of the synagogue’s modern addition. I also look down at the corner of Charlotte Menora in Plac Grzybowski; this is one of four Charlotte Cafes in Poland. They all specialize in French pastries, but this one also includes Jewish offerings such as bagels and rugelach. My friend Beata took me there last summer. She also pointed out the center of the square that has been converted into a shaggy grassland and wildflower garden. Pathways lined with benches lead down to a central fountain. This novel use of space started out as an art installation by Joanna Rajkowska called “Dotleniacz,” which in English means “Oxegenator;” The project was later reworked into its present, more permanent form.  Beata also showed me Próżna Street, the only street in the ghetto where the original buildings weren’t destroyed in the systematic bombing after the Ghetto Uprising in 1943. On one side of the street, the townhouses have been painstakingly restored. On the other, netting covers the buildings to prevent pedestrians from being harmed by falling elements of the crumbling façade. One of the renovated buildings is home to the Austrian Cultural Forum. Some of my Polish friends say they feel uncomfortable about this because of Austrian support for the Nazis.

Grzybowski Square is actually shaped more like a triangle. Charlotte Menora and the intersection with Próżna Street are on one long side. At the second long side, a pile of debris peaks above a barrier fence where the Jewish Theater was torn down last year. This theatre continued to operate all through the communist period, offering performances in Yiddish. Posters on the fence announce that the theater will be rebuilt, along with the TSKŻ, which stands for Towarzystwo Społeczno – Kulturalne Żydów, The Social and Cultural Association of Jews. Sophie, whom I met because she shares the last name of my great grandmother, lived in Warsaw until 1968. Her face lit up as she recalled going to youth activities at the TSKŻ. But she, like most of Poland’s remaining Jews, left in 1968 when the government waged a campaign against Jews. That’s also when many of the TSKŻ branches closed. In Warsaw, the organization hobbled along until after the end of communism, and has since been growing once again.

At the third, shorter side of the triangle stands the All Saints Church, where Christian Poland asserts itself even in this Jewish part of town. I’ve read that the church was right along the border of the ghetto, and it was where converts to Catholicism living in the ghetto would come to pray. More recently, symbols of Polish nationalism have been placed across the front of the church. Numerous plaques commemorate Home Army soldiers who fought against the Nazi occupation and in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. These soldiers belonged to companies with names like “Buttress,” and “Brave,” and had wartime pseudonyms such as “Goliath,” “Fisherman,” and “Rooster.” A sculpture of Pope John Paul II stands on the steps leading up to the church, and a monument honoring the Home Army soldiers who produced weapons for the partisans is in the park across the street.

Plac Grzybowski is virtually unrecognizable from the first time I saw it. Marta, a family friend from Warsaw, pointed out the Jewish theatre to me in what I remember as a wide, crowded, dirty intersection with no central green space. It might have been 1990 or 1991, or maybe even 1986. Marta also painted a picture for me of how the square looked still earlier in time, before the war, when the streets were filled with Jews, many of them orthodox men with long beards and black coats, and women wearing wigs or kerchiefs.

The view from my window encapsulates this city–a mishmash of old and new, Catholic and Jewish, nationalism and subversion. Add to this the layers of memory every place contains, along with the energy of a capital city, and you can feel the beating heart of Warsaw.

Remembering Maria R. B. Galbraith

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Some people have asked me to post the remembrance I shared at the funeral. The service was held under a tent in the backyard, the place Mama sometimes called her church. Mama used to follow the shade, sitting in chairs strategically placed throughout the garden. Sometimes she would meditate to her mantra, the word “ocean.”

Krysia Bereday Burnham, the daughter of Mama’s brother George, officiated. It was perfect. Krysia wove together elements of the Christian rite with personal reflections, always sensitive to Mama’s unique form of faith. She wore her black robe and a green quilted stole she had been given when she was ordained last summer. “Green to match the garden,” she told me. You could feel the special bond she had with Mama. Krysia has told me that the same empathy that fueled Mama’s pursuit of psychology guided her own call to ministry.

My Aunt Maria at Hawk's Nest Point

At Hawk’s Nest Point, Fishers Island, visiting Krysia. Photo by Krysia Burnham.

My remembrance from the service:

I suspect that many of you here experienced a moment in your life when you were struggling emotionally, and my mama’s laser-like focus fell on you, and she seemed to know exactly what you were thinking and feeling, even before you did yourself. Maria had the gift of empathy. She knew how to listen uncritically, and she helped and healed many of us.

Maria was born in Warsaw, Poland on June 26, 1922 during the exciting but unsettled period between the world wars. In many ways she lived a charmed life in villas and manor houses, with nursemaids and tutors, and her own pony named Dolly. But she also felt the strains of her mother’s religious conversion and divorce that distanced her from some family. Raised on the literature of Polish romantic poets and the history of Poles’ struggle for independence, she became an ardent Polish patriot.

At the age of sixteen, she spent a year at a convent school in Belgium, and she was preparing to continue high school in Paris when World War II broke out. While finishing high school in Warsaw, she also joined the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation.

Although her teachers hoped she would study literature at University and develop her talents as a writer, Maria decided instead to pursue medicine. She wanted to become a psychiatrist so she could help people, particularly those experiencing psychological or emotional distress.

Maria was deeply involved in the resistance to free her country. As a courier, she delivered messages to the partisans hiding in the countryside. She took advantage of her appearance as an innocent, shy young woman with sad eyes, as well as her fluency in German, and traveled under the assumed name Elisabeth Hoffman. With papers claiming she had a German father, she could travel in the train cars reserved for German officers, listening to their conversations and even talking with them in an effort to learn more. When the Warsaw Uprising began on August 1, 1944, Maria employed her medical training and served as a medic for the wounded. When the Old City was overrun, she escaped with her unit through the sewers to the City Center, where she continued to treat the injured until the end of the Uprising. Maria received a Cross of Bravery for her service.

After the war, the family started to rebuild their life in the ruins of Warsaw, but it quickly became clear that Soviet powers were determined to maintain their hold on Poland, and there was no place for business owners and former resistance fighters in the new communist system. Taking advantage of a medical visa to treat her wartime injuries, Maria and her mother left Poland for good in December 1946.

In the US, Maria began what she called her second life. Initially, she continued her medical studies as a resident under the mentorship of Dr. Stanley Cobb at Massachusetts General Hospital, but then shifted her focus from psychiatry to psychology. While studying for her master’s degree in developmental psychology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, she met her mother’s neighbor Wiley Galbraith. Intrigued that such an intelligent and good-looking man could be so shy, they started dating and eventually married. Together, they established a home on Long Island where they raised their four children.

Being a wife and mother satisfied Mama’s most essential life goals. She placed the needs of her family above her own, making sure we were safe, happy, and free to determine our own paths in life. But she was always drawn to the life of the mind and the work of helping others. When the four of us grew more independent, she returned to her studies at Teachers College, traveling by train weekly to take one course at a time. Her steady persistence paid off when in 1983 she completed her Ed.M. in Counseling Psychology, her third graduate degree.

Though she was uneasy around strangers, Mama was fiercely loyal to the people she knew and loved. She counseled many in their time of need, including many of my brothers’ and my friends when they were struggling with the inevitable challenges of growing up. Everybody touched by her uncritical empathy loved Maria back. Even after we left home, our friends continued to visit her.

Being Maria’s child, especially her daughter, wasn’t always easy. But no one had a stronger influence on shaping the person I am than she did. Mama had her way of urging me to pursue my education, to be a good person, and not to give up on myself. I remember calling her once at a particularly difficult moment in graduate school to tell her “I want to quit.” She didn’t try to persuade me otherwise. All she said was, “Oh…” But that was enough to make clear that she wanted me to persist, she believed I could do it, and she loved me no matter what.

With all of us kids finally out of the house, my parents renewed their common interests in classical music, gardening, and the arts. They enjoyed visiting us, and we had memorable, noisy, and sometimes contentious family reunions in LA, Austin, Alabama, and even Poland.

Mama spent her final years living quietly at home, under the loving care of Chris and Shih Han, and her inexhaustible companion Krystyna. As the grip of life’s traumas finally slipped away, she became quiet, radiating love toward her many visitors. Part of a bustling and growing household, she took special joy in the visits of her grandchildren. Her room was Bessie and Charlie’s favorite place to play, or to just sit a while. And she always lit up when she saw her other grandsons.

These are the traits that defined her: she was resilient yet fragile, forceful yet timid. She was generous and devoted to her friends and family. She was so emotionally attuned that there was no way of hiding anything from her, even when we tried.

Mama had just about convinced us all she was immortal when she slipped away quietly and peacefully, within sight of her beloved garden. She was deeply loved and will be missed by all of us who were touched by her goodness and comforted by her sensitive guidance.

Go in peace, Mamusiu. We’ll remember you every time we walk in this garden—your sanctuary, every time we’re transported by a work of art, and every time we look into your grandchildren’s eyes.