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:


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:


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.

My cousin’s book: The Scribe of Siena



I set out to learn about my family’s past, but I also found my living relatives. My cousins are an engaging and accomplished group of people. I would want to know them even if we weren’t related.


The Scribe of Sienna by Melodie Winawer

My cousin Melodie Winawer is one of them. She lives in Brooklyn with her spouse and three kids. She is a both a medical doctor and professor, and she just published her first historical novel called The Scribe of Siena. Reviewers compare it  to Outlander, one of my guilty pleasures. A work of historical fiction, the novel involves time travel, and a romance between a strong 21st century woman and a 14th century Italian man. Melodie also uses her medical background to accurately depict illness and healing.

I just got my copy and can’t wait to read it!

Sholem Asch: A Yiddish Playwright Ahead of His Time


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Kutno’s native son Sholem Asch is in the news a hundred years after writing a play that deals with issues that remain controversial today. His work also shatters a lot of assumptions about Jewish life in Poland in the early 20th century–Written in Yiddish, it features a brothel, a Torah scroll, and love between two women. Asch’s play God of Vengeance was written in Yiddish in 1907 and first produced in Berlin in 1910. I found an electronic version of the 1918 English translation (you can follow the hotlink above). In the play, Yekel, who lives with his family above the brothel he owns, tries to improve his family’s status by commissioning a Torah scroll and marrying his daughter Rifkele to a Yeshiva student. Instead, the young daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes and in a pivotal scene, they kiss. The play highlights the tension between piety, reflected in the Holy Scroll that is supposed to bring respectability to the family and the economic and sensual attraction of the brothel downstairs, as well as observations about women’s empowerment and oppression.

The play has been getting attention recently because of Paula Vogel’s Broadway play Indecent, a play about a Yiddish play that was ahead of its time (as the NPR report about Indecent is titled). Vogel’s play centers around the 1923 staging of God of Vengeance in New York’s Apollo Theater (also on Broadway), notable because the whole cast, the producer, and one of the theatre owners were arrested and eventually convicted of indecency. The play had been controversial where it had been staged throughout Europe, but it also received critical acclaim.

The popularity of Indecent has led to renewed interest in Asch and his play, which was recently produced at LaMaMa Experimental Theater in the East Village (In God of Vengeance, a Nice Jewish Family Lives Above a Brothel).


From left, Eleanor Reissa, Shayna Schmidt and Shane Baker as Orthodox Jewish parents and their marriageable young daughter in Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” at La MaMa. Credit Richard Termine for The New York Times



More Jewish Heritage Work in Kutno


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This is part II about heritage work in Kutno. The first is Jewish History of Kutno.

While in Kutno, I visited the Society of Friends of Kutno (Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Ziemi Kutnowski). The organization has been active since the early 1970s, and has put out an annual periodical about local history and customs for about 20 years. Most issues of the publication contain an article about Jews. In 2016, these articles were compiled in a book along with other historical materials about Kutno’s Jews, including Holocaust witness reports and photographs, and a list of people who lived in the Kutno ghetto.

okladka zarys historii

Outline of the History of Kutno Area Jews, published by the Friends of Kutno

The chairwoman of the Friends of Kutno Bożena Gajewska is an energetic and upbeat woman. She accepted the position because of her interest in local history and her desire to promote that history among local residents. She isn’t paid for this; she volunteers for the organization after getting off work. The Friends of Kutno have their office in a historic wooden villa that was recently renovated by the city. Most of their funding comes from grants. Over the years, they have placed historical markers where the synagogue, Jewish cemetery, and ghetto used to be. Other recent projects related to Jewish culture include field trips for local residents to the Polin Museum in Warsaw, to a production of a Sholem Asch play at the Yiddish Theatre in Warsaw, and to the Chełmno Extermination Camp, where Kutno Jews were transported when the ghetto was liquidated. Kutno was selected as a site where the Museum on Wheels (a traveling branch of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews) would visit; this happened in August 2016.


Marker reads, “In this place the 18th century synagogue stood. It was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, evidence of the hatred of one human to another, and to his works.”

Pani Bożena says she’s noticed that orientations toward Jews have improved since the Polin Museum has opened. Thanks to the Museum, you can talk about Jews, whereas before, the word “Jew” had negative connotations, and was even used as an insult. This made people unsure what to call practitioners of the Jewish faith. Polin has helped to rehabilitate the term. While this may seem like a manifestation of the particularly fraught relationship between Poles and Jews, Mark Oppenheimer just published an opinion piece in the New York Times (Sunday, April 23, 2017, “Reclaiming ‘Jew’”) in which he notes that it’s the same in the US. “Jew” is almost never used as a noun; rather, the adjective “Jewish” is used, as in “Jewish people” or “I’m Jewish” (never “I’m a Jew”). Oppenheimer quotes the comedian Louis C. K. who called “Jew” a funny word “because ‘Jew’ is the only word that is the polite thing to call a group of people and a slur for the same group.”

The Polin Museum has also contributed to a surge of activity related to Jewish history and culture throughout Poland. This has led some townspeople to complain to the Friends of Kutno, “Why is everything always about Jews?” Bożena says she reminds these people that the Friends are interested in all aspects of regional history, and Jews were a part of that history. They address plenty of other topics, as well. For example, they recently published the biography of a native son who was an ultra nationalist during the period when the majority of Kutno residents were Jews (I can’t remember his name but maybe someone reading this can remind me).

Pani Bożena drove me to see some historical sites around town. The Jewish cemetery is on a hill overlooking a neighborhood of concrete apartment buildings. The hillside is covered with tall grass and wildflowers, and crisscrossed by dirt tracks where people walk their dogs, kids play, and people hang out. Many leave their trash behind. The Friends of Kutno recently put up signs around the cemetery that say “Here is the resting place of Kutno Jews, who settled in the city from the beginning of the 16th century. The cemetery located on this hill was established in 1793. Jews were buried here until March 1943. Please maintain its solemnity.” Below this historical information is the reminder, “Keep in mind as you go into this vast expanse that this is a cemetery; people are buried here, you walk on their graves, even though there are no longer tombstones…” Further, the sign states the cemetery is a registered monument and thus legally protected, and any vandalism is subject to a sentence of imprisonment. Nevertheless, within just a few months, four out of six such signs were vandalized. The metal poles were snapped at ground level. Bożena condemned the destruction, but also minimized it as the work of thoughtless hooligans (as opposed to a deliberately antisemitic act). In September, the poles were replaced and the signs stand once again.

We passed people with dogs as we walked to the top of the hill to an older monument. It contains the same historical information as the new metal signs in Polish and Hebrew (but not the reminders about proper behavior and legal issues), and is shaped like two adjoining tombstones. Heading back down the hill, past some children playing, we saw the bases of some grave markers peaking out of the grass. Many tombstones were recovered and are stored at the Kutno Museum.

Bożena dreams of building a fence around the cemetery so there will be a more substantial barrier against further vandalism. They have received all the necessary approvals, but are in need of funding.

From the cemetery, we went on to the site of the ghetto, which is outside the center of town on the grounds of a former sugar factory. The factory was used by various industries after the war, but now is closed. The buildings, some dating from the late 19th century, stand behind a high fence and a guard patrols the site. Historic markers tell the story of the ghetto. A granite plaque reads:

Here on the terrain of the former Konstancja Sugar Factory

Germans established a ghetto for the Jewish population of Kutno and the surrounding area.

After its liquidation in 1942, the surviving Jews perished in the camp at Chelmno.

Honoring their memory, the People of Kutno.

Kutno, April 1993

A more recent sign contains a bit more historical information in both Polish and English (if you want to read it, click on the photo below to enlarge it).

Bożena told me that over 8000 people lived in the ghetto from 1940-1942. Those who got there first occupied all the most obvious places, so later arrivals had to build shacks from scrap wood, or find ways of populating balconies and any other inhabitable space throughout the large factory hall. In 1942, they were all transported to the camp at Chełmno by train (the tracks are right across the street from the factory) and by truck.

Thinking about the people I met in Kutno (and elsewhere), one thing I am trying to sort out is why Christian Poles get involved in Jewish heritage projects. Not surprisingly, the reasons are varied. One is interested in historical artifacts; he has no political agenda. Another of my companions tried to place this history into a more pro-Polish framework. He explained that the Nazis forced Christian townspeople to do horrible things as part of a strategy to damage relations between Poles and Jews. “All people really want is to live in peace (Chcą w spokoju żyć)”, he continued, “Poland is in the heart of Europe, a pretty terrain that has historically been attacked from all sides.” Others feel personally drawn to Jewish culture. One of my acquaintances in Kutno believes she has Jewish heritage. She seems to understand my quest for my own family history. “It’s important to know where you’re from,” she told me. She hasn’t found anything as concrete as my family photograph (the one I use at the top of the blog) to confirm her feeling that she has Jewish roots. All she can point to are allusions in family stories she remembers from childhood, and sometimes people have told her she looks Jewish. But anyone she could have asked has passed away.

But what’s clear from my visits to Kutno is that fragments of Jewish history remain, and some have been marked as such thanks to the efforts of a small group of residents who think it is important to include the stories of Kutno’s Jews in the history of their town.

Healing Collective Trauma: Jewish Heritage Work in Poland


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Healing Collective Trauma: Jewish Heritage Work in Poland is the title of the paper I presented at the Society for Psychological Anthropology Meeting in New Orleans on March 12. Here is the abstract I submitted:

The legacy of the Holocaust weighs heavily on Polish communities that were witness to unspeakable events. The paper examines how collective and personal trauma and recovery are intertwined, particularly in relation to Jewish heritage work in Poland. It emphasizes the affective engagement of heritage workers, most of whom are Catholic Poles, working on local projects intended to bring the history and culture of the community’s absent Jews back into the public sphere. Person-centered ethnography helps to reveal how participants talk about the work they do in relation to notions of self and society, and associated personal and social meanings. It further reveals their particular narratives about past and present relationships between Catholics and Jews in Poland, which they often pose as a challenge to the silences of the socialist era and the present-day reemergence of xenophobic nationalism. As members of the post-memory generation—they grew up with stories about former Jewish residents and the destruction of their communities, but they did not actually experience these events themselves—heritage workers are able to work towards reconciliation in ways that older generations could not. They have coming-of-age stories associated with the moment historical events became real to them, and their emotional distress about the past became the force that compelled them to do something about it in the present. Their personal narratives suggest motivation stems from the convergence of attachment to their native place, a sense of responsibility to those who are no longer present, and a desire to realize a more inclusive community that accepts past and present diversity within the Polish polity.

The paper starts with the story of Piotr Pojasek, who grew up in an old farmhouse near Wronki. From childhood, he knew that the curb on his street had been made out of Jewish tombstones during the Nazi occupation, but it was only as an adult that he really realized how wrong that was. And once he became engaged emotionally and morally, he knew he had to do something about it. It took many years, but in 2014, the lapidarium of the tombstones was completed. Applying the categories of memory as defined by Aleida Assmann, I use this case to explore how individual memories can shape social memory, and in turn national and cultural (collective) memory. The point is that individual connections to the past, as Piotr had through the uneasy presence of the tombstones outside his front door and the stories his father told him, are what compelled action. By collecting and sharing historical evidence and the stories of witnesses, social memory about the impact of the Holocaust grew, and developed a resonance for others. Eventually, a large coalition of local, national, and even international sponsors succeeded in building a public monument that revives and perpetuates collective memory of the Jews who lived there, of the inhuman circumstances of their death, and of the Polish citizens who recognize this as an important part of the history of their community.

Commonly, scholarship on collective memory focuses on public symbols and commemorative spaces, and has little to say about the transmission of meaning on the individual level. In my work, I am trying to show the relevance of individual memory workers and their personal engagement with the past as well as their local community. They are the ones who can bring things together, forging personal, affective links that make others care about far distant people and events.