Archive for Radomsko

Evidence

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Poland with tags , , , , , , , on January 8, 2011 by Louise Steinman

Evidence.  Means ‘sign’ or ‘proof’. ‘Statements of witnesses.’

Last fall I heard a thought-provoking talk– sponsored by the Casden Institute at USC — by Daniel Mendelsohn, author of THE LOST: Searching for Six of Six Million.  Mendelsohn spoke about the “problem of the witness” and as well, “the problem of the historian.”    How are those who give testimony about traumatic events affected by their own conscious or unconscious agenda? The testimony in the Yizkor (memory) books, written after the war, are charged by the ragged emotions of the times. One would think the “historian” would be far more objective than the witness. But Mendelsohn revealed how the historian can be tainted by his or her own way of seeing the world.

Mendelsohn finally discovered where his great-uncle and his daughter had hidden in their family’s town during the war; he’d actually possessed the crucial clue for the five years of his search. However,  he’d misinterpreted a single word all that time. His grandfather spoke of their relatives hiding in a castle. But his grandfather had a Yiddish accent and the word he used was the Yiddish word kesle, a box. A hole in the ground. A bunker.  Mendelsohn believed some fairytale about the faraway family hiding in a castle. The truth was much grimmer.

I thought of this recently when studying the photo of the house on Rolna Street, the last known address of my relatives in Radomsko.  I found this address for my great-aunt Fayge Konardska Wilhelm and her husband Fayvel Wilhelm  on a 1939 registration list compiled by the Germans. When I first encountered the house several years ago, my companion noted her surprise at “how big and pretty” it was. I too was surprised; but I  liked the idea that my relatives lived in such a big and pretty house.

I saw what I wanted to see. I wanted to believe that the house on Rolna Street was where my lost relatives lived a “normal” life: waking up in the morning to go to work, putting the teakettle on the stove, thinking about a picnic on the banks of the river, or a trip across town to visit aged parents.

Then, on a writing retreat, I sat down to draw the house on Rolna Street from the photograph, feeling its contours  through my pencil. Those two big columns in the front were downright sepulchral. That’s what tipped me off. This was not the house they actually lived in.

House on Rolna, sketch

The Polish occupants of this house were forced to move out when the Germans established the Radomsko ghetto.  This house on Rolna was the terrifying limbo where  Fayvel and Fayge were incarcerated  with other families before deportation to hell.

There was another address in Radomsko for the Wilhelms, which my cousin Laura discovered in her mother’s 1935 day book. I’d misplaced it and since it was sent snail mail, it wasn’t in my computer.I took a copy of that handwritten address with me to Radomsko last month, but to my chagrin, nobody there could dicipher the address, even longtime residents.

……….

A few weeks ago, in Warsaw, I visited the Muzeum Tekniki at the Palace of Culture, the gargantuan gaudy Soviet high-rise that was Stalin’s unwanted“gift” to the people of Poland. There were rooms of old telephones, washing machines, old uniforms of miners– all untouched since the 70’s  What particularly intrigued me was the forensics exhibit.

My favorite tableau was this mysterious investigator in the space suit, examining the scene of the crime, frozen forever in the  act of collecting evidence.  Did what he thought he was going to find influence what he actually saw, and how he saw it?  Yes… beyond a reasonable doubt.

Forensics Display, Muzeum Tekniki, Warsaw

What We Carry in a Name

Posted in Poland with tags , , , , on December 27, 2010 by Louise Steinman

What does one carry in a name? The custom, among Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, to name a child after a deceased family member is meant to keep the name and the memory of that person alive. It is supposed to forge a bond between the soul of the named and the soul of the namesake. It’s also a way of reminding us that we come from an inhabited past.

My brother Larry, my cousins Louis and Linda and I are all named after my mother’s father, Layzor (Louis) Weiskopf.  Louis was a carpenter by trade (his hometown NowoRadomsk was known for fine furniture, the Thonet-Mundus Factory made bentwood chairs for export). In evoking the memory the town, landsmen often recall the piney scent of lumber mills, and carpenters’ shops.

Louis Weiskopf, the son of a rebbe, was a devout, good-humored Jew who davened (prayed) every morning in the traditional tefillin. Uncle Al told me that Louis’ reputation with his landsmen was based on his being ashtarker, a “strong man.” Louis volunteered to wrestle with the strong man when the circus came to Nowo Radomsk. I imagined my grandfather stepping into the ring to face his opponent—perhaps even the famous Ironman —  in a crowded canvas tent while his friends cheered.

provincial circus, Poland, 1920's?

In New York, Louis sold newspapers under the El and occasionally ran numbers for the gangsters “who schmeered him” according to my Uncle Al Weiskopf (who is one hundred and two years old and remembers a helluva lot.)

Louis, his wife Sure (Sarah) Konarska Weiskopf, and her widowed sister Ruchla (Rose) and Rose’s young daughter Rivke emigrated to the United States in 1906 aboard the Furnessia, a Scottish freighter.  They were young and hopeful.  Here is a photo of them with their firstborn.

Louis and Sarah Weiskopf with their firstborn, Simon, NYC c.1908

Not until I was in my late twenties did my mother confess there was second, unofficial source for my naming. I was then living in New York City,  in search of the next chapter to my life.  My mother– a combustible package of energy and passion and feeling and warmth– came to visit, to offer support and to fill my bare larder with provisions that chill winter.  One afternoon we went together to the Metropolitan Museum. As we strolled the galleries, she told me that—growing up in the tenements—she liked to think of the Met as her own private palace. She confided that she also named me for a sculpture of a young girl she admired on those long-ago visits to the museum.

There was no such sculpture on display, but a museum curator was able to find in the museum’s archives a  photo of this mystery girl, the work of a late 19th century American woman sculptor named Evelyn Beatrice Longman. (Later known for sculpting Lincoln’s hands for the Lincoln memorial and the “Genius of Electricity” nude for the AT&T headquarters in Manhattan.)

I was delighted to be the namesake of this unblemished marble, this white—no doubt Gentile– American girl with her half-smile, snub nose, and upswept hair. It was easier to relate to her than the Polish Jewish grandfather I’d never met, the man whose weary, knobby face I’d seen in a few black-and-white photos. New world innocence was so much more appealing than Old World weariness. Here is the young marble sculpture Louise who caught my mother’s eye so many years before I was born.

"Louise" by Evelyn Beatrice Longman

 

It would take many  more years until I visited the town of my grandfather’s birth, walked the banks of the little Radomka River where the circus set up its canvas tents when it came to town. It would take more years until I gained an appreciation for Louis’ sacrifices, his devotion to family, his willingness to take risks (a watermelon farm in Bay Minette, Alabama!) even if they didn’t pan out.

Louis died on my mother’s birthday in 1945, while my father was away at war in the Philippines. She wrote to him about her father’s death: Oh! He was a stubborn man! He even died a stubborn death. He was a simple man—he asked and received very little in life. How he loved children. How he adored his grandchildren. Until the very last, he prayed for your homecoming. He did so want to see you again.  I’ll always remember the relationship between my father and mother. Theirs was a love of years—a love of toil and constant struggle…”

Here are my grandparents, Louis and Sarah Weiskopf, not long before my grandfather Louis died. I raise a toast to them as 2010 draws to a close. Thank you Louis and Sarah, for crossing the Atlantic on the Furnessia, for your love of toil and constant struggle, and for my gifted mother Anne whom we all miss terribly.

Louis Weiskopf and Sarah Konarska Weiskopf Brooklyn, 1944

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The house on Rolna

Posted in Poland with tags , , , on December 19, 2010 by Louise Steinman

Back in Los Angeles in the wake of my return from Poland, I discover a strategy for jetlag. Late at night, sleep elusive, I fly to Radomsko via Google Earth, sipping tea as the glowing globe rotates on its axis and the image on my screen zooms in on the little town between Czestochowa and Lodz.

With a click of the mouse I am standing in front of the abandoned Thonet-Mundus factory, the forlorn train station, the Zamaszek Hotel where I listened to a rescuer tell me his story. Another click and I am standing in front of the house on Rolna Street, the last known address in the Radomsko ghetto for my great-aunt, Fayga Konarska Wilhelm, and her husband.

It took several visits to Radomsko over the years until I finally found someone—an old woman– at home on Rolna Street. It was in the spring of 2008. She was weeding in her garden behind the house. There was a dilapidated greenhouse and an old appletree in her yard. When my friends gently questioned her in Polish, she gestured with her weeding claw, like a bewildered bird. Her grandfather built the house, during the war it was requisitioned by the Germans, her family forced to move. Several Jewish families were billeted here. She didn’t know their names.

I glanced inside an open side door to the house. Slanted light struck the small kitchen table covered with a plastic plaid tablecloth and mottled the bare wood floor. A sink stacked with dishes was in shadow.

Rain falling in Los Angeles,  soaking our garden, the apple and orange trees behind our house in Silver Lake.  I fall asleep in the winter dark afternoon, dreaming of Poland.

The house on Rolna Street

A Rescuer

Posted in Poland with tags , , on December 12, 2010 by Louise Steinman

He carefully sketches out the dimensions of the bunker in my little black notebook: the trapdoor in the kitchen, the second door to the potato cellar. Five Jewish souls hidden under their roof, under their floor.

I let the tape recorder run and jot down phrases as they are translated. He is a forceful storyteller, using his strong hands to demonstrate, occasionally using a cup or a spoon on the table to demonstrate where something happened, how close he came to disaster.

He was nine years old when the SS came to arrest his father in the middle of the night. They took him away in his pajamas. “Thus ended the big partisan action in our little town, and then we were orphans.” He became the man of the house, entrusted with procuring enough food for seven on rations for three. A small boy with a large sack of potatoes could arouse suspicion. He tells me about certain bakers who gave him loaves of bread containing messages from the Home Army. Memories of bullets whizzing by his head, hitting trees as he ran through the woods.

I listen to his story, which he has never told in one sitting. His grandson also listens. For two decades, he’s been coaxing this story out of his grandfather, his teacher. The grandson is the one who’s convinced his grandfather to finally tell the tale he’s been carrying for so many years.

All my attempts to question the ‘why’ of the risk he and his mother assumed are ignored, do not register. Someone needed their help; they responded. The walls of the hotel dining room are painted bright pink; the color warms our faces on this freezing day. Heavy snow falls outside the windows, blanketing the streets of Radomsko, my grandparents’ town.

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