What really happened is hard to reconstruct. I’ve asked my brothers, my cousins, my aunts, and each tells the story a little differently. Still, the general outline remains the same. I will call Babcia Halina because that’s the name she used in the US (I’ll discuss the fluidity of names in another post). Halina was a rebel. One of the youngest in her family, she resisted the constraints imposed on her by her conservative father. She even ran away and moved in with an older sister in Warsaw. My cousin Krysia remembers that the main reason Halina left was because her father would not let her go to college. In Warsaw, she attended university. Still, Halina’s parents persuaded her to marry an older man who was a friend of the family. It was an arranged marriage, not a love match, and the two turned out to have very different characters. I think she found him stodgy and conservative.
Halina was already the mother of two small children when she met Zygmunt on a train. Well, one cousin heard she was on a tram not a train. But everyone else says it was a train; some say she was on her way to her country estate, or to visit relatives, or maybe to visit friends. But anyway, they met. It was an instant attraction, and by the end of the journey, Zygmunt told her, “I see you weeping on my grave.” That’s what Chris remembers he said, and I like it better than my version.
Zygmunt Bereda was a wealthy businessman, a wheeler-dealer, a man of big passions, and a Catholic. He became part of Halina’s social circle. Maybe he turned out to be a neighbor of the friend she went to visit; maybe he was a business partner of her husband (again, different people explain it differently). They ended up divorcing their spouses and running off together (though perhaps this happened in the opposite order). Halina became a Catholic. Uncle George and my mom were baptized. They took steps to bury their Jewish heritage. They all took the name Bereda and had false papers made that changed Halina’s maiden name from Piwko to Barylska, and Mama’s birthplace from Warsaw to Wilno (Vilnius). Zygmunt and Halina’s son, Uncle Sig, was born in 1927. They hid the truth well, leaving my generation to find out by accident.
Babcia’s conversion was not just pragmatic. She embraced Catholicism with her heart and soul. She performed a kind of mystical faith. She believed in blessings and visions. She kept the cross and the Madonna on her walls. I get the sense she had retreated from Judaism long before her love affair provided an opportunity and a reason to become Christian.
Of course there were many other reasons she might have preferred to be Catholic in Interwar Poland. Anti-Semitism made it a bad time to be a Jew. And then, during the Nazi occupation, being Jewish would have been a death sentence. But those are subjects for another post.