Barbara Asendrych, born in (?)
Who am I really?
Interviewed by Ewa Koźmińska-Frejlak
EWA KOŹMIŃSKA-FREJLAK: How did you find out about your Jewish origin?
BARBARA ASENDRYCH: I should start by saying that after my father’s death, my mom became very active. She established foreign correspondence, and packages started arriving (I never learned from whom or why). These packages helped me a lot. They included some food supplements, and I was recovering from surgery for cancer. Later, when my mom moved in with me, it started worrying me a little. Every day, my mother waited for letters. She would go somewhere to collect them but she refused to explain it further. As a result, she had a stroke.
Can you see a link between her illness and this correspondence?
I can. After the stroke, my mom started behaving strangely. She lost her speech but from time to time she would say something, often puzzling things, such as “I think I’m also your mama….” I attributed all this to her illness. She died after five and a half weeks. I had to put her affairs in order. However, I wasn’t in the habit of opening her mail. Even after her death, it felt wrong to touch it…
How old were you at the time?
Forty-three. I had to inform people that my mom had passed away. After her funeral, I took her notebook and, whether I knew a given person or not, I sent out letters with the same information that my mom, Leokadia Pieniążek, died on this and this day. On New Year’s Eve, I got the first call, from Sweden. It was an acquaintance of my mom’s, an elderly lady. Now she’s 94. She said to me: “You don’t know me but I know you. You’re Jewish. Lodzia (my mom) didn’t want to tell you this, your father was a doctor…” She got scared that something might happen to me and finished off the conversation with a promise that she would write me a letter. I was stunned. Eight days later I got a letter from her. She apologized for that phone call and described everything she knew.
A few days later another letter came—from Belgium. Again, that I was Jewish. They even gave my parents’ names. It came as a shock to me. I did have a Jewish friend, and another acquaintance, but me? I knew nothing about Jews. I imagined that all Jewish women have black, curly hair. I wasn’t like that. I had dark hair but not black. Where did this come from? How to handle it? Letters started coming in more often. I was trying to process it. I had to reply to them. I asked a lot of stupid questions. I asked: What do I do with this now? They didn’t know. I believed and doubted all this at the same time. Maybe someone made a mistake? Maybe it wasn’t true. I wondered how I would live now. Who was I really? I had no family, either Jewish or Polish, because my mom didn’t have any relatives. Everyone had died during the war. I felt very lonely with all this. I waited anxiously for the letters. But for them everything was obvious: I was Jewish because they had known about this for a long time. It was with them that my mom had corresponded…
And who were “they”? How did they know about you?
I suppose from my mom’s stories. Maria Wiltgren (the one who called me first) had to leave Poland after 1968. Before she left Poland, she spent nine years in prison. She was charged with talking Polish children into leaving for Israel. My mom and Maria had known each other for a very long time. They would meet at my aunt’s. When she looked at me, Maria would supposedly tell them that I must be a Jewish child, which caused great outrage. However, before she left, my mother (the one who raised me) told her everything: that I was the daughter of Dr. Zajdler, that she took me in when she was a young girl. My mom wanted Maria to find my family, maybe in Israel, maybe somewhere else. Maria put up notices but there was no response. Nevertheless, this is how others found out about me. My mom requested that no one, God forbid, should tell me anything. I think that on the one hand, she wanted to find someone from my family.
Maybe it would help me, maybe it would help her. On the other, she didn’t want them to take me away altogether. I don’t know where this fear came from, because when she started the search I had already been married for ten years so no one could take me anywhere. Maybe she just feared rejection… I got a xerox copy of the letter from Israel (the one that my mom had written to explain the search), in which she gave all the details of how I had ended up with her.
She supposedly had given birth to a child that died and that’s why they gave me to her. It’s not true. My mom never had any children. She was infertile and was getting treatment. I know that, because even though all the health records about her treatments had vanished, and she got a lot of treatments, a discharge from the hospital at Płocka Street where she got treatment for infertility was preserved.
You found it among the papers after your mom’s death…
Yes. She could never have children, this was the diagnosis. So she couldn’t have had me or any other child. She took me in. She was very clever about it. Neither her mother nor father knew about this. When I was several months old, she left me at my grandmother’s, and she went somewhere. She had some business to run…
What year was this?
I don’t know. I was searching for information about my Jewish family through various channels, and I got lucky. I knew I had a godmother in Żelechów. At some point, actually by accident, I ended up there. I went to see the progress on the construction of the fence around the cemetery in Łaskarzew, which was funded by a friend of mine, Zygmunt Warszawer, a kosher butcher. He thought that we must have come from the same region because my mother’s maiden name was Szapiro, like his uncle’s.
We went together to Łaskarzew, and later to Żelechów. We found a wealthy mansion there, where a banquet awaited Zygmunt. At the table, I asked the host if she knew Mrs. Pleskot, who was supposedly my godmother. It turned out that she was the mother of her teacher, whom she called immediately. She asked: “Guess who I’m talking to right now?” And she replied: “I think Basia from Warsaw.” What crazy intuition! After all, she didn’t know me, had never seen me! It turned out that my godmother had died but her daughter—that teacher—and her husband lived across from there. I was at their place in fifteen minutes.
Gienia Pleskot was only a year younger than my mother. She thought it was impossible that I was born in 1943. She remembered my christening. She claimed that the first to arrive was Nejman (my mom’s friend from the time of the occupation), who was from Żelechów, and later my mom with the child (that is, me) in her arms. The christening was atypical. Usually, there is a man and a woman. Here there was only my mom, Mrs. Pleskot, and no one else. Gienia really wanted to go to the christening because it was supposed to be an attraction. She remembers the ghetto from that period. That’s important, because it’s a fact that the ghetto in Żelechów was liquidated in September of 1942! Meanwhile, I was supposedly born in December 1943—this can’t be my date of birth! What’s more, my birth certificate wasn’t issued until 1950, right before I went to school. My mom not only changed my date of birth but also my name. This was after my mom got married to Pieniążek, so officially my name was Jadwiga Pieniążek. One moment I was Basia Burzyńska (my grandparents’ name), the next”—Jadwiga Pieniążek. I couldn’t get used to that, so when I was called on at school with this name I didn’t react. I went along with all the lies, even those I knew about. Ever since I can remember, I had this horrible fear that I’d be thrown out of the house, that I wouldn’t be accepted. I feared rejection. Whatever my mom told me, I always believed her until the day she died. Maybe not so much believed as pretended I believed, I took it at face value. I was a very obedient child. I didn’t want to be this way but, just in case,
I didn’t talk back and did what I was told to do. Right after their wedding, we all lived at 20 Chłodna Street. That’s important, because my birth parents had previously lived on Chłodna. First, at 5/7 Chłodna—there is no trace of this house (it was in the ghetto territory), and later at 20 Chłodna. In 1949 we moved to Górczewska Street. My mom was trying to convince me that Ryszard Pieniążek was my papa, while I knew very well that between 1939 and 1946 Pieniążek was in a Stalag because they kept talking about it at home, so he and my mom couldn’t really… Maybe my mom thought I was kind of stupid, that I couldn’t connect the facts? I didn’t comment. I had been to their wedding, I remember perfectly. There are pictures from that period (my head is down in the pictures). “Papa” it was; after all, he supported me, so I couldn’t even call him anything else. Only once I broke out of character. Right after the wedding, Father was sitting and tearing up his bachelor photos (luckily, he didn’t tear up the ones from the German occupation. They were later evidence to obtain veteran benefits). I came up to him and asked: “What are you doing, Sir?” Scandal! How could I have even said “Sir”? “I am your papa!” From that point on, I knew that he was “Papa”—not “Father,” not “Dad,” but “Papa.”
I was supposed to talk about searching for identity… I figured out that since I was Jewish, I had to learn some language. I wasn’t sure where and with whom I should establish contact. I was afraid that if I went to some organization—I didn’t even know how to call it then—they would throw me out, that no one would want to speak to me. I called the JHI [Jewish Historical Institute—trans. note], which I found in a telephone book. If it was a Jewish Institute, why not call them? It was 1987. Małgosia Bonikowska wasn’t working there yet because things would have gone differently then. I asked them to help me find my parents. They said that everything had been burned, that there would be no trace. It bothered me a lot, it was horrible. I resented that my mom never told me anything. Maybe it would have been easier, maybe she would have helped me. She always thought she was smarter than me… After some time, Zbyszek Targielski came to me. He worked in the municipal government. He was asking if he could help me. He couldn’t, but thanks to that I found out that there was a municipality and TSKŻ [the Cultural and Social Association of Jews in Poland—trans. note]. Grażyna Pawlak came later.
I wanted to learn about the Jewish tradition and religion. It wasn’t that I had to believe in something or convert to anything. Aside from a short period, I have never been very religious despite the fact that my mom really wanted me to go to church. Róża Rozmaryn helped me. She took me to a Saturday service at a synagogue. I remember we were standing in the women’s gallery upstairs, and I looked at the praying men, and I had a feeling like I had seen it before. I don’t know how. I hadn’t seen it in any movie, I hadn’t seen Austeria then. It all felt close to me in a way. Later there were Shabbats, so full of warmth and understanding, organized by Michael Schudrich. Once I also went to Rychwałd with my whole family. I went there to prayers, I enjoyed it a lot. But I never wanted to be accused of playing a Jew. That I would play and then it would pass.
Life does its own thing. Now I live in the countryside and I’m afraid that someone will find out that I’m Jewish. Even my closest neighbors can’t know that, I wouldn’t have a life. It’s so sad but what can I do? I’m too weak now to fight it, I don’t have the energy. I can no longer go to the Association. The travel is too much, so I only keep in touch via the phone.
Let us return to the chronological order. After you found out that you had another, Jewish, mother, did you look back and notice things that contradicted the previous knowledge?
Yes, of course. Starting with the physical appearance, my mom was tall and attractive, a sort of wheat blonde. I was petite and dark. My mom had blue eyes, was confident. She would always say how much alike we were, that we had everything the same: some mark on the leg, blood type, everything. I wasn’t looking into that, I couldn’t really contradict my mother or she would scream at me. When mom was in the hospital, I was surprised to find out that her blood type was B and mine O. So it wasn’t true. I didn’t hold that against her. Maybe she really wanted to be a mother, maybe she didn’t know how to? I think that she might have been too young: when she took me in, she was 18. She didn’t really know how to raise children back then. It was mostly my grandmother, who lived near us all her life, who took care of me. She watched me to make sure that no harm came my way, but it was always my mom who was the smartest, the most beautiful. She treated me like I was dumb or silly. She kept telling me obvious things. When she got upset with me, she’d call me Rojza. Why Rojza, I can’t say. I didn’t connect it to anything at the time. After the war, my grandmother made some extra money doing laundry for people. It was a lot of fun for me. I would stand by the washtub, use a washboard. I liked to splash around. I even helped grandma wring the laundry, and she’d say, “Oh, you’re wringing it like a Jew!” At our house, if you did something differently, you did it like a Jew. I did everything like a Jew. Like a Jew this, like a Jew that, meaning wrong, I thought. Only later it came to me that maybe they knew what they were saying.
One time after the war, somebody called Frania visited us. I came home from school and she was there. (Some “Frania” was supposedly my babysitter during the occupation but how was this possible if my grandmother was raising me? Who could afford to hire a babysitter?). She was a strange woman, much older than my mom, maybe simply more weathered. She had a dark complexion and black hair. She was short and slender and looked at me in a funny way. My mom told me to go to the kitchen and fix myself something to eat. She closed the door to their room, although she’d never done it before. We had a tiny apartment, a studio. At some point, I felt dizzy. I’d often faint. I called my mom and this woman came in. I don’t know what they were talking about but I never saw her again. Another time, my mom and I entered some store. My mom bumped into a friend whom she described to me as my wet nurse. Wet nurse? Someone else nursed me, not my mother? Not my mother because she didn’t have any milk.
My mom told me once about Gostynin. She had been there at some point. I mentioned that to my daughter-in-law, to which she responded by telling me something she’d never told me before. That year when my mom died, my daughter-in-law, my son, my granddaughter, and my mom went on holiday. They were coming back through Gostynin. A rock hit the wheel and broke the windshield. My mom went into hysterics in the car. She was screaming about the war, that they were going to be shot. My daughter-in-law tried to calm her down. My mom supposedly started talking about some child. My daughter-in-law asked if she meant me. I had always been an only child.—No, I’m not talking about Basia, it’s about another child. I took this child in.—What did you do with it? There was no response, only screams. It was awful. Finally, they found a garage and when they left Gostynin, my mom finally calmed down, although she continued to mention some child that she had taken in… Mom had never had an outburst like that. She’d always been rational.
So I started thinking about Gostynin. I decided to go there. I mentioned this to Inka Sobolewska. It turned out that she had a friend who was born in Gostynin. She had lived there before the war, so she’d be happy to go with us and use the occasion to visit the graves of her parents. We went. I didn’t expect much from this visit, but it was nice. According to Inka’s friend (the one who was born in Gostynin), the Germans had some strange plans for Gostynin. They were bringing in Jews and deporting Poles. There was supposed to be a ghetto there. The territory was fenced in and they were going to collect all the Jews here, and deport Poles. It wasn’t successful, and after a while the local population began to settle back in.
We walked around the town. We went to the old Jewish cemetery, where there is now an estate of detached houses with backyards. People planted different things. There is no trace of the cemetery. While Inka’s friend. Krysia, was walking us around and we were crossing a bridge over some water, I had a feeling like I had been there before. “There used to be dunes,” I started saying, across from here, in front of this forest. There was so much sand, beautiful yellow sand. And over there, that brick house used to be a mill. This bridge wasn’t here, nor was the water.” And I was right! It turned out that there used to be a mill but they tore it down. I was also right about the sand and the forest. The water is new there. It’s just an artificial lake […]
We had to find out more. Inka’s friend suggested that we talk to a lawyer, Mr. Kujawa. He was a very old man who could tell us more about the history of the house. We went to his office. I asked about the Zajdlers, if he had heard that name. He supposedly went to school with some Zajdler but he spent the war in the East, where he had gone with his wife to wait out the war, so he basically didn’t know much about what was going on in Gostynin. When he came back, though, there were no more Jews in the town. Right after that, the lawyer got alarmed that I was there to collect something. I explained that no, I didn’t even know if my family had anything. That all I cared about was that name. He didn’t help us very much.
Did you manage to find out anything more about your family?
I followed Ruta Sakowska’s advice and went to the Medical Library in Ujazdów. It turned out that I wasn’t in luck because at that moment, they were organizing the files and hadn’t gotten to the letter Z yet. I wanted to give up. All this started to scare me, but she found my father. She said: “Zajdler, Seweryn, 1898, a doctor, defended his thesis in 1934, lived at 20 Chłodna Street. That’s all I know.” She said, “Maybe we’ll look further. I’ll show you the picture. They were usually attached to the files.” A few months later, I had a severe heart attack, and after that, heart surgery. I spent a lot of time in the hospital and I had time to think: “What’s the point of this search? Some blurry memory, I’ll see a face and will end up having another heart attack?” Bieta Ficowska found me a psychiatrist because she believed that I couldn’t handle this problem on my own. She took care of me and explained that at some point I had to stop looking, that there was no point. All parents pass away in their own time. I should accept that my parents are simply gone. I’m trying to, but there’s curiosity. I need to leave something behind to my kids, pass down who my parents were (although I’m not sure if they are so eager to know…).
Did your family help with this search?
My daughter-in-law did, a lot. She started by checking what really happened with my christening. According to what my mom said, I received all my sacraments at St. Wojciech church in Wola: I was baptized there, had my communion and wedding (which she also arranged for me, by the way). So Icalledtheparishtoaskiftheyhadmybirthcertificate. Itturnedoutthatthey did”—from 1953, issued two days before my Communion! I wanted to see it… I said that I was a Jewish child and I wanted to know if I had been christened there. With the vicar’s consent, a nun showed me this birth certificate. It had the signature of the current vicar who officiated at my wedding when he was a young priest. If my christening took place in 1943, he couldn’t have been a priest at that time. He was simply too young. It reminded me that right before my Communion, my mom was behaving strangely. I remember taking the last exam on Friday. I was elated because I got an A+. My mom was in the sacristy. When she came back, I wanted to show her my mark, how amazing I was. but she was very upset. We went home and she wouldn’t even talk to me. Probably the priest made a fuss about writing out the birth certificate and there were only two days left until the Communion… But she wouldn’t give up and after all I did pass the exam!
And what happened with the old birth certificate?
The old birth certificate vanished.
Before you learned about your Jewish origin, did you have any opinions about Jewish issues?
No. In primary school, I had a friend who left the country. She even wrote me several times but my mom quickly put an end to this correspondence. In 1968 my son was very sick. I knew they were beating up students but I didn’t have it in me to take a stand on this issue. I was too busy with my son’s illness. All these issues, our familial, domestic, issues, kept me away from outside matters. I wasn’t a part of it but I knew what was going on. Of course, I was outraged.
Did you manage to establish the circumstances under which you were trans- ferred to your Polish mother?
In the letter I mentioned, my mom wrote that she had been admitted to the hospital. She purposely didn’t mention the town. She said she had had me by herself, that her husband was with the partisans… She probably wanted to touch up her resumé a bit. She wasn’t married at the time. She was a young girl. She wasn’t admitted to any hospital. She didn’t give birth to any child. Along with me, she got a watch, so probably money, too… At that point, it got her back on her feet. It allowed her to become a bit more independent. She could manage her own life and not depend on her mother, who anyway couldn’t help her very much because she’d always been poor and timid and wasn’t very resourceful. My mom probably thought that it wasn’t elegant to write about money, that she took me in because it was profitable. But profit was always in the back of her mind.