One day in 1947, the Jewish Committee of Lodz, Poland, told Auschwitz survivor Abraham Siedlecki and his bride, Siberian Gulag survivor Chana Frajlich, that their application had been approved.
Their new apartment was in move-in condition.
It was on Pietrkowska Street — the charming main drag of Lodz, which, during the war, had been renamed Adolf Hitler Street, and had been outside the Lodz Ghetto. This new living space had been the headquarters of a newspaper during the war, and now it was empty and available. Or so my parents thought.
When they arrived at the apartment, they found a squatter. Stunned to see my father, a former boxer, the squatter froze in panic. Within moments Dad realized that this guy was a Nazi in hiding — hoping to do what? Escape to the West? Go home to Germany? Continue living in this apartment, unnoticed?
My father was not acquainted with anger management. This encounter gave Dad the opportunity to unleash all his rage on this former oppressor, who now could not escape Dad’s blows.
“Please, I’ll give you anything I have — money — please!” the Nazi begged.
“I don’t want your money. I don’t want your personal things. What’s in the bag?” Dad asked, noticing a small package among the Nazi’s possessions.
My parents were stunned to see that the Nazi had meticulously sequestered a few well-chosen Jewish items. He had a neatly preserved “Jude” — a yellow star worn by Jewish ghetto prisoners. He also was hiding a tallit, a ritual prayer shawl, that was carefully folded in a black satin pouch, hand-sewn in the shape of the biblical Tablets of Moses. There also was a timeworn Jewish prayer book, a machzor, used only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
One final left hook to the jaw, and the Nazi fled the apartment, leaving the package of Jewish items behind.
Why the Nazi held on to these items was the subject of much speculation by my parents. The items went with my parents. First the items stayed with them in Lodz for four years under postwar Communism, then they all had a six-week layover in Paris while waiting for passage to Israel, then four years in Israel, and then to Peterborough for a few weeks, and finally, to Toronto, where the items made a move several times, from downtown apartments until ultimately settling in the city’s Bathurst Manor enclave. They first lived on Clanton Park Road, where I recall seeing them for the first time when I was about 5 years old. When I turned 6 we all moved to a newer section of the Manor, to Sandale Gardens — the items and we three human beings.
It was during this period that I recall Mom placing all the items in a plastic bakery bag that had contained pita bread. They would stay in Mom’s top dresser drawer for 40 years.
From time to time, we would take them out, spread them out on the bed, and wonder aloud, What was a Nazi doing with these things? Was he going to save them as mementos? Did he intend to make money by selling them, after the Jews were extinct? Was he secretly a Jew, or did he have Jewish blood? Who was the owner? Was the owner elderly or infirm? Did the Nazi rob him?
Speak to us, Oh, Items. Speak to us. We implore you to speak. Tell us who you are, where you came from, and what happened to your owner!
During those years, Mom said she would donate the items to Yad Vashem, but for some reason, despite our numerous trips to Israel, it never came to pass. We kept putting it off.
When Mom died and it was time to sell my parents’ home in Toronto, I relocated the items to my own home in Teaneck, where they remained in the plastic pita bakery bag, in the darkened bottom corner of our study. I placed them with some late-19th century Jewish liturgical volumes, safe from sunlight and humidity. From time to time I would take them out, and show them to my daughters, asking the same questions. By now it was a ritual. Who was that guy? Why did he do it? What about the person who owned these things? What was his fate?
After my husband died and our home was sold, the items took two more trips with me. First we went to a very sunny apartment in Edgewater, on the Hudson River. To protect them, the items stayed in the mover’s box for two years. And then, finally, when I rebuilt my life with my new partner, the items came into a new curio cabinet, in my study in Englewood.
The items seemed frightened and huddled together, awaiting their fate, wondering what was going to happen next. They had been together since at least 1947, when they entered my parent’s lives. They never had been away from each other. I felt their anguish — or perhaps these items, now much less inanimate to me than in the distant past, were absorbing my anguish.
One of the items would come into active duty as a significant part of a Jewish ritual.
Last summer my daughter got married at her grandmother’s farm in rural Pennsylvania. She and her husband designed an authentic traditional wedding as would have taken place in a Polish shtetl, complete with a klezmer band. For the first time in nearly 70 years, the items would be separated: The prayer shawl was summoned to be the wedding canopy. I packed it up and brought it to Pennsylvania to be used on what might have been the rainiest, wettest day of the entire summer.
A few months later, in a snowstorm that lasted nine hours, I drove it back from Toronto to New Jersey, and returned it to its rightful place alongside the book and the star, tucked safely into the pita bag, and replaced it in my curio cabinet, under lock and key.
They were getting tired. I was getting tired. How long could I continue to shlep around these precious, historical artifacts — these witnesses — without risking damage, or worse? I considered where to donate them. Israel? The United States? Canada?
Not a bad idea. Both of my parents always had told me stories about Polish people whom they knew — friends, neighbors, business partners. What ultimately landed my father on his path to Auschwitz was arrest by a Jewish police officer in the Lodz Ghetto in 1942, after he was caught smuggling with his non-Jewish Polish partners on the German side of the ghetto. My mother’s brother and my mother were turned in by Jews in Siberia. Mom’s brother died of tuberculosis in a gulag at 18. Everything got transferred to me.
Several months ago, the University of Haifa announced its superstar lineup of honorary Ph.D. conferees in what would truly be a banner year for academia. Amongst the honorees was Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a luminary in the world of Jewish-Polish studies. The curator of the core exhibit of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a landsman from Toronto who, like me, grew up in Bathurst Manor — the Holocaust survivor enclave a few miles north of downtown Toronto — she is known to her army of adherents simply as “BKG.”
I reached out to offer BKG my congratulations. From the minute we heard each other’s shared Canadian accent, a friendship formed. Soon we were talking about Poland, and I felt it coming over me: Was it possible that the items would be going back to Poland, land of their origin? Would I be skipping over handing them to a Holocaust institution in Israel in favor of a Polish history museum?
Yes. Yes, I would.
It was not a hard decision to make. My daughters and I collectively reached the conclusion that it was the right home for these items, which for at least half a century (judging by the wear and tear on the little machzor) had enjoyed and celebrated ritual life in Poland, the land that had been the cradle of at least 70 percent of Jewish civilization for 1,000 years. In Poland the items would be displayed and counted as part of a community of witnesses, a kehilla of artifacts whose narrative arc is drenched in the history of the country’s Jewish life.
The items would take one more journey before returning to Poland. They would stop in Israel, where I’d be spending a few days at the University of Haifa board of governors meetings. They were tucked away safely in my big leather backpack, which remained on my lap for the entire 12-hour flight. And, God, they felt so heavy.
I brought them to the University of Haifa, to visit Dr. Marcos Silber, senior lecturer at the university’s internationally renowned Department of Jewish History. He was overcome with emotion. I let him touch the items. I sprawled them out over a table in his office as we spoke.
It was good. It was giving me closure. It was making me comfortable with my decision.
My next stop was Poland. The morning of my departure I packed up the items, and they flew, once again on my lap, the short trip from Israel to Warsaw. The items felt even heavier than before. I was feeling a profound sense of loss at the thought of not having them with me for the first time in my entire life.
The next day, June 27, my daughter and I engaged in a humble and informal act of charity at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. In the presence of BKG I handed off the little plastic bag of items to the archivist. I filled out a few forms. Together we all beheld the magnitude of the items.
It was not until I saw the reaction of other people to the items that I realized how important this moment was. I suddenly felt lighter. I was certain that this was the right decision.
BKG told me that these items were especially meaningful because the collection did not contain many artifacts from the Nazi era. She told us that the Jude star would become part of the core exhibit. I only requested that we could borrow the ritual prayer shawl for my younger daughter’s wedding, thus completing the circle.
Some people leave and never say goodbye. Some people say goodbye and never leave. Maybe there’s a third kind of people — the kind who do both.
Lynda Kraar of Englewood is a writer, musician, and philanthropic consultant.