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[Page 157]

Visiting Ancestors' Graves in Brzezin in 1960

brz157.jpg -   Rhoda Hendrik-Karpatkin

by Rhoda Hendrik-Karpatkin

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

Brzezin! My father's birthplace has always evoked in me a feeling of romance and enthusiasm. My father, e”h [oleva sholem––may he rest in peace], never tired of talking about Brzezin. Very early in my life I developed a longing to see this Polish town Brzezin and its people. I fantasized about Brzezin as if it were in an enchanted fairy tale. Is it a shtot, a shtetl, or a dorf [a city, a town, or a village]? When my husband and I made our first trip to Europe in 1960, it was natural that we should also add Poland to our travel plans––first, in order to visit the part of Europe that had spawned and nourished Yiddish culture in all its forms and that was so savagely destroyed by the Nazis, and secondly, and primarily, to see the town of my longing, the very town where my ancestors had lived. But I was heartsick seeing what had become of such an important Jewish cultural and population center. Just as with all the other Jewish cities and towns, Brzezin lay in ruins, in ashes.

Brzezin! Just a two-hour trip from modern Warsaw––but today, it is an entire century behind.

We traveled from Warsaw to Lodz on an electric express train. On the train we met a Polish officer, about forty years old, a polite and fine person. He told us horrible things that had happened in the recent past; his father and brother, professors, had been murdered in Auschwitz, and his mother and her sister had been stabbed to death by the Nazis for listening to the forbidden English radio. We heard many such similar stories from Poles and Jews.

In Lodz, the officer took us to the address of the Jewish community, which is an official branch of the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland[1] . There, the secretary, S. Web, befriended us and accompanied us all over. It was he who arranged our trip to Brzezin. We got a luxury automobile (a Russian limousine) with a chauffeur. After a side detour from the main route, we came to a modest summer colony for Jewish children outside Lodz, and accompanied by the director of the colony, we arrived in Brzezin. All at once we fell back into the nineteenth century.

Of course we had heard that many hundreds of cities and towns were now free of Jews. Here, Hitler had won the war, a full one hundred percent. But a choking painful feeling came over us when we saw that Brzezin, my father's birthplace, was no more. We lost Brzezin doubly––first, the pulsating Jewish life was cut down, and second, because of that, our life-long dream also vanished.

Not having found any living Jews, we decided to look for the Jews who had had the good fortune to die a natural death––in the Brzeziner cemetery.

Sholem Aleichem said that the pride of Kasrilevke was its betsakvores [cemetery], whose half-wrecked matseves [gravestones] dramatized the history of an entire people. Here, in the Brzeziner cemetery, the murderers had not allowed even the dead to rest in their eternal sleep. Certainly the bare field, where the cemetery had been, is even more tragic because of the fallen gravestones, which could have told the history of a people who had lived on that very soil. The Nazis and Poles tore out the gravestones and paved the sidewalks with them; the earth was plowed, everything that was sacred to us is dishonored and made unclean. Yet the history-rich Warsaw cemetery, on the border of the Warsaw ghetto, remained almost untouched.

Also the Lodz cemetery was not desecrated, although it is not properly looked after because of the small number of surviving Jews. There the only thing that stands out are the spires of the monument of the great Poznanski.[2] But the Brzeziner cemetery no longer exists. Our Polish guides remembered something about a small mound with a stick inserted in it to symbolize the slaughtered Jewish population. Even now old bones can be found lying around the plowed field. Today only the memories that are so deeply engraved in the hearts of the surviving Brzeziner Jews have survived––the only remembrance of the former Jewish Brzezin.

In our pain and sorrow we tried to find out something about my family, the Hendrykowski family. Taking into account the young age at which my father, e"h [may he rest in peace], left Brzezin, we turned to older people, who would be the most likely to know something about them.

 

brz158a.jpg -   Once the cemetery of Brzezin stood here . . .
Once the cemetery of Brzezin stood here . . . the mound that is visible in the picture is a mass grave for the collected skulls that were found after the great destruction . .
The picture was taken in 1960 by the author of this article, grandchild of Lajbel Hendrykowski and daughter of Jechiel Hendriks

 

They pointed out to us a small house. Our Lodz guide and translator explained our mission and then took us into a peeling, poor peasant hut. There lived an old man––probably more than eighty years old––with a long yellowish beard. He lay curled up in bed. He was certainly talkative, yes, he remembered my family well and even saw some of them in the Lodz ghetto. He recounted how he was forced by the Nazis to carry sick and old Jews to Lodz with his horse and wagon. This very old man pointed out where our house stood on Kosciuszko Street (Lodz Street), over the bridge.

And indeed it was actually a substantial, two-story brick house––20 Kosciuszko Street––which stood on the street corner. The year 1906 was engraved on a brick, and on the brick wall a tablet was mounted with the name “Hendrykowski, Eli” (my father's older brother). This was just a relic and a reminder of another era in Brzezin. In the neighboring home were four women––one barefoot––and they remembered the extinct Hendrykowski family. They looked at us curiously and without warmth. Across the street a thin, barefoot youngster of about ten looked at us with baffled wonder.

This very spot was actually my family's Brzezin––an old house with deep holes like pock marks from bombs and shrapnel. The town suffered badly during the murderous fighting, when the Russian army chased the Nazis and surrounded them near Lodz. The entire surrounding area was darkened like the swollen legs of the women who stood about.

Over the outmoded, crooked, cobblestone streets, weary people were dragging themselves with horse and wagon. The wheels were wrapped in heavy iron hoops (our automobile was the only one of its kind to be seen). Bent-over women were carrying heavy bundles of hay on their backs. Present-day Brzezin was one hundred years back in time; they were thrown back to a time before the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. In truth, we did see one newly-built house of red brick; this was the medical clinic. One of our group was among the first to need help and actually got immediate and friendly medical attention there.

 

brz158b.jpg -   The Hendrykowski house on Lodz Street which remained intact
The Hendrykowski house on Lodz Street which remained intact

 

A Jewish historian, whom we met in Warsaw, informed us that before 1939, Brzezin was an industrial city, one of the great tailoring centers in Poland; intellectual and communal life existed there. There was a cultured youth of various Zionist and socialist ideologies, a middle class, workers, and sports organizations. Today, Brzezin is dead; there is no industry there, no culture, no development. It is a primitive agricultural village. Present-day Brzezin, with its six thousand souls, poor and backward, is not even a reflection of its former close-to-twenty-thousand, a dynamic and prosperous town.

The Jewish population gave Brzezin life, vigor, and culture. With their diligence, entrepreneurship, and hard work, Jews made the town great and famous. Those who murdered the Jews, at the same time, wiped out the life and existence of the town of Brzezin.

My father's Brzezin is gone forever, but a rich legacy remains. The intellectual and cultural movement, the respect for learning and for human improvement, the zeal for justice––the eternal Jewish words––were imparted to Jewish children wherever they settled. The children and grandchildren of Brzeziner Jews brought with them this very spiritual baggage to America and Israel and everywhere they went. The publication of this monumental sefer [book], where our most loved and dearest ones are made eternal, is another ring in the golden chain that gives koved [honor] to all the generations of Brzeziner Jews. I strongly hope that the younger generations emanating from Brzezin will also continue to put to use all that was worthwhile and exalted in Brzeziner Jewish life.

 

brz159.jpg -   An election meeting near the 'besmedresh'
An election meeting near the besmedresh
[house of study], most likely in the year 1921,
during the vote for the Sejm [parliament]

 


  1. Towarzystwo Spoleczno-Kulturalne Zydow––TSKZ. Return
  2. Wealthy Jewish industrialist in Lodz. Return

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