Visiting Poland this summer was like a homecoming
Times and Places
Though I’d never been there, at my real home in Montreal, we had been hearing about Poland since childhood. Poland was, my mother told us, the shtet’l and all the joys, and some miseries, of village life for Jews living there between the First and Second World Wars. Poland, which she left in 1938, was also tied in with the whereabouts of our missing family and the Holocaust nightmare: Where were my maternal grandparents, uncle and aunt? What happened to them? And the biggest question of all, why?
These thoughts swirled around my head this summer as we boarded a train from Warsaw for Lodz, once the bustling textile capital of Poland and the place where the uncle I never met, Wladek (Wovche) Markowicz, and his wife Bella lived. We arrived and went straight to our hotel, the art-deco Reymont, and immediately asked where we could find 50 Zavatska St. That was the swank apartment building where my uncle and aunt had lived. He had worked his way out of the shtet’l tt Zlochev and become a prosperous executive for a textile firm. He was good looking and smart, an excellent chess player, successful in business, with a fine apartment, imported furniture and live-in maid.
Nobody at the hotel had ever heard of Zavatska so, undaunted, we took a cab downtown to Piotrkowska St., the longest, car-free pedestrian mall in Poland. It is filled with outdoor cafés, bars, restaurants and pedicabs that take you from one end to the other. We happened to stumble across a man speaking in Hebrew on a cell phone. I asked this Polish-born Israeli businessman where Zavatska St. was; he called a friend, and learned the name had been changed to Adama Pruchnika. My heartbeat picked up as we boarded a pedicab and rode past the ornately decorated, 19th and early 20th century buildings that line the street. It took about 10 minutes to arrive at 50 Zavatska, now 50 Adama Pruchnika. Here at last I connected with a piece of our family’s past that in Poland is mainly ashes and dust. Like most of the Jews of Lodz, my uncle and his wife ended up in the ghetto, starved and worked to near-death or sent to the gas chambers. The façade of the faded art-deco building has seen better days, but it was somehow magnificent – an unforgettable moment for me, touching a piece of our family legacy, physically linking up with our shattered past.
Back on Piotrkowska St. it is hard to say but somehow I felt we were there for them, enjoying good food and surroundings with their memories in our hearts, a metaphor for our presence in Poland.
Lodz is a good place to visit. Piotrkowska St. is also the site of the Hollywoodish walk of Polish cinema stars, in front of the Grand Hotel. Stars on the sidewalk are for such major figures as Andrej Wajda, Roman Polanski, Agneska Hollander. Last year, the city of Lodz erected a magnificent monument adjacent to the railway tracks where nearly all of Lodg’z 223,000 Jews – 34% of the city’s population in the inter-war period – were deported to their deaths by the Germans. It includes a long concrete corridor leading to the tracks and a wonderful pictorial display of their once mighty presence in the former station. Lodz is also home to Dr. Marek Edelman, last surviving commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of April 1943. He’s officially retired, but still works at a hospital for short periods, acquaintances told us.
The other touchstone that brought us to Lodz was the prospect of visiting the fabled village called Zlotchev, my mother’s home town and that of her parents, Mordechai (Mottel) Markowicz and his wife Minda (Mindel). They were last heard from in a postcard bearing a NAZI stamp from the nearby town Zdunska Vola after Zlochev was burned in September, 1939, and the Jews herded into ghettos. Until then, life for the Jews of Zlochev, as in most of the villages and towns of central and eastern Europe, featured the strange juxtaposition of a rich social, cultural and religious life co-existing with generalized poverty, anti-Semitism and exclusion. Much of village life was centered around the square, where some Jews, including my great grandmother, had small shops. She sold pieces of leather. Others sold utensils and household goods. Farmers from the surrounding area would sell their produce in the market there.
Heading out to Zlochev in a cab, we passed the farming country lining both sides of the highway. The trip took about 90 minutes.
Once in Zlochev I looked for what was left of the square and found Koscielna, or Church St. that was part of it. Not surprisingly, there was little left that looked like it was 60 years old, except for one row of brick and stone row houses with ground-floor shops. Again, I was overcome with that feeling of touching our family’s shattered past. We shot pictures of Zlochev’s remnants. Curious merchants across the street seemed puzzled by our obsession with the old buildings, one of them shuttered. The big church is still there, as is the park nearby that my mother remembered. She lived around the corner in a rented wooden house without indoor plumbing that long ago, like its residents, had turned to ashes and dust.
We walked around, had a pierogi lunch at the restaurant, shot some more pictures, and headed back to Lodz. I felt a sense of mission accomplished, a historic moment in the life of a family. I had walked the streets of my maternal ancestors. I had breathed the air and tasted the food. I felt that “physical” connection to them.
Mottel, Mindel, Wovche and Bella, we never met, but now I know you, just a little bit better.