Ilonka Fajnberg, born in 1939
I Found My Roots
I constantly invoke in my memory my family home, the small bed with netting, and above it, in a silver frame, a large portrait of a smiling child with two small teeth showing in front. During the day the house empties, quiets down, and during the evening it fills with people. There are no other children there, and Mama is always with me. She plays with me, holds my little hand, does not let me out of her sight Suddenly, everything changes, I hear, “Mama is sick, very sick. You must not enter her bedroom.” Yet, each morning I quietly sneak in there through the dining room and, unnoticed, run up to her bed, slip in under the covers, and snuggle up to her. Only by her side do I feel calm and safe.
One morning, as usual after waking up, I run into Mama’s room and see an empty, made-up bed. I am in despair. I begin to sob loudly. A tall man picks me up, takes me in his arms, embraces me, and comforts me, “Don’t cry, Mama went to the countryside. You will go to her. I will go, too. We will all go there.” In the evening, at dusk, he stands me up on a stool dressed in a fur jacket and says, “Remember, your name is Marysia Kołakowska. Repeat—Marysia Kołakowska.”
Afterward there were other places, other homes, faces unknown to me. In one of them, while falling asleep, I hear a woman’s voice, “Poor child.
Everyone has perished.” Later, whenever these words came back to me, and it was often, I would lose faith in the possibility of finding my dear ones.
In the spring of 1943 I found myself in the Sisters of Charity convent in Kamionek. From that time on, my guardian was the mother superior in this convent, Sister Maria Pietkiewicz, a woman of great heart, which she, however, tried not to show. She was stiff and unapproachable and aroused fear and respect, not only among the girls in her care.
At the convent I was the only fully orphaned child, left without even an extended family. It was very sad for me when families took the other children on Sundays and holidays, and I had to remain alone. When I grew up a bit, I complained about this to Mother Superior, and she became angry, “What do you mean you have no family; we’re your family!” And that’s how it was left.
After the war ended, many families wanted to adopt children. I remember well a conversation with a nice couple who were on their way to the United States. They told me that there was a big war in which we all got lost, but that they were very happy that they had finally found me. I believed their every word, but Mother Superior absolutely refused to hand me over, despite having been favorably inclined initially. She said she would not give me up to anyone. This is when I began to feel that I was somebody important to her and maybe even loved. Indeed, she really did care for me, dressed me up in secondhand clothing from UNRRA aid packages and liked to take me to town. Passersby would stop in the street and say, “What a lovely child . . . like a doll.” She was very proud of me, but in the convent she instructed the staff not to praise me like that. She worried that I would become conceited. I remember also that she would not allow me to hang around in the kitchen with the laywomen.
UNRRA – United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.
Sometimes in the convent they would organize religious plays or Christmas pageants, and I was cast as the Virgin Mary. She used to say that that is how she imagined the Blessed Virgin, who, she instructed me, had also spent time around the temple as a young girl. Mother Superior, always occupied a small room in the basement behind the refectory. The kitchen, pantry, dining rooms, dressing rooms, as well as the servants’ quarters were all nearby. When I grew up somewhat, Mother Superior moved me from the dormitory and arranged a corner in the dining room for me to sleep in, separated from the tables by a large Danzig wardrobe. In this way I was now constantly near my guardian. She entrusted me with taking care of the pantry. My duties included cleaning and making sandwiches for the children living in the dormitory. When I began to mature, Mother Superior began to worry whether the girls returning from vacation might initiate me in the matter of sex. This was because one of the girls brought back a photo from the seaside; she was dressed only in a swimsuit, and boys were also visible in the picture. The photograph was considered evidence of depravity, and the girl was expelled from the dormitory. Mother Superior kept questioning me about my conversations with the other girls and was very satisfied when it turned out that we had not talked about “those” subjects.
When I turned eight I was placed in Sister Stefania’s class. This sister showed a great dislike toward the girls from the dormitory, and especially toward me. During the three years during which she was my teacher, I experienced a lot of unpleasantness and humiliation. When she entered the classroom, I hunched down into my school bench, trying to become invisible to her, but to no avail. She kept sending me to Mother Superior, complaining, for instance, that I was wearing too short a skirt and was demoralizing the other children, or that I did not bring some school paraphernalia such as an eraser or a crayon, even though the rest of the class might not have them either. She often threw me out of the classroom. I felt so lonely, humiliated, and helpless that I often prayed fervently to God to take me to him, as he had earlier taken my parents. I recall with great bitterness one of her punishments, being left alone in a dark vestibule. When everyone had forgotten about me, I spent the night sobbing, snuggled up to our friendly dog on its mat.
After finishing elementary school, I was invited by a classmate to spend the vacation with her at her grandmother’s house. The grandmother gave us plenty of freedom, so we pranced about in forests and meadows.
I had not known such scenery, because I had never gone out of the convent. I remember this vacation as the most beautiful moment of my childhood.
Happy as I was about the convent school being shut down , the closing of the dormitory terrified me. I was afraid of being sent to an orphanage, to total strangers. I was then fourteen and longed very much for my dear ones, even though I had hardly known them. I was sure that if any of them had survived, they would have found me. This is why I viewed with increasing resignation a characteristic birthmark on my left leg, which I imagined could have been readily used to identify me. It was gradually fading and getting smaller and smaller. When I could finally go outside the confines of the convent, I contacted the Polish Red Cross, but nobody was looking for a Marysia Kołakowska.
…“convent school being shut down” – in 1948–52 the state authorities closed down nearly all schools and other institutions operated by nuns. (Author’s note)
After the convent school was taken over by the state and the dormitory closed, Mother Superior, lost her position and understood that she would no longer be able to help me. She agreed to have me adopted by a family who had two boys and wanted to also have a girl. They took me to their home for Sundays and holidays, and I was thrilled. I waited impatiently for the weekends. I made friends with the boys and their father, whom I called “uncle”. They liked me and showed me much warmth. But my relationship with the mother of the boys did not blossom, as she saw me not as a daughter, but as a rival for the affection of her maturing sons and her husband. It was inevitable that this family and I would part. After that I felt even more lonely.
Shortly afterward I was accepted to study at the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL) and left Warsaw. Like most of the KUL students, I lived in a student dormitory. This was the happiest time of my life, a time of wonderful friendships that have survived to this day. I was flattered by attention from the boys, their compliments and adoration. However, when they confessed their love for me and proposed marriage, I was terrified. The convent upbringing, the isolation from family life, and the lack of support from close relatives made me fear marriage.
The man I chose was, like myself, very lonely. He never imposed on me, but I always felt his presence. I believed that I could help him, that I was indispensable to him. His patience and gentleness gave me courage, and in the end, I decided to start a family, but all this happened many years later. After finishing my studies, I returned to Warsaw. I went to see my guardian, who was living in the little room, very familiar to me, behind the refectory. She had held up bravely, walked proudly and straight, even though she had to increasingly rely on a man’s black umbrella substituting for a cane. Her face showed previously unseen fatigue and a certain gentleness. At that time she showed me more affection than before. One day she began to unburden herself and to recall the former days. She judged herself very severely, finally saying, “God will never forgive me for this.” I was so surprised that I did not ask why she thought so.
Many years later, after Mother Superior’s, death, I visited a nun with whom I had made friends. I was married by then and had an adolescent son. I confessed that I had wanted very much to have been placed in some family and that I did not understand why my guardian had opposed this. Then, after a long pause, the nun told me the story of my life and Mother Superior’s dilemma. She knew that I was a child from the ghetto. My father had been an educated man and my mother a strikingly beautiful woman who died young. They had only one child. Mother Superior made the nun swear on the cross that she would never tell the secret to me or to anyone else. “I am telling you about this to ease your resentment toward her,” the nun said. “You have no idea how much she loved you. During the war she risked her life for you. Later she couldn’t part with you. She thought the convent would become your home forever. You don’t even know how happy you made her by finishing Catholic University. You were the most important person to her after God.”
Several years after that conversation, I contacted the Association of Children of the Holocaust in Poland. I never suspected that this would lead to improbable things, bordering on miracles. My life was to change.
At one of the first gatherings in Śródborów in 1993, I met a cousin on my father’s side, Halina Anita Janowska, who is the author of many excellent books, including My Guardian Demon and Crossword Puzzle. She and her sister, whom I also met, told me about my family history.
My father, Józef Fajnberg, was a well-known lawyer in Łódź before the war. A year before the war, he married a twenty-one-year-old girl, Henryka Gutstadt, who was known in Łódź for her beauty. Their wedding was a huge social event. A year later I came into the world.
When the Germans entered Łódź, the persecution of Jews began. Father was badly beaten in the street. An awareness of the deadly danger made him decide to escape. I was then a few-weeks-old newborn baby, and for that reason, my mother could not accompany her husband. She left for Warsaw with her parents, where they perished in the ghetto, whereas Father and his younger brother went to Lwów, where he intended to bring his whole family. Father and his brother were arrested by the NKVD (Soviet secret police). They were exiled to Kazakhstan for their refusal to take on Soviet citizenship. There they worked as loggers cutting down trees in the forest. When the Anders Army was being formed, they both wanted to join, but the assembly point was too far, the freezing temperature reached minus thirty degrees centigrade, and they owned only one pair of shoes. So only the younger brother became a soldier; he was evacuated with the army to Iran and then to Palestine. He stayed there and became a well-known architect.
The Anders Army, also known as the Polish Second Corps, was an army of Poles under the command of General Władysław Anders. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin, in order to get the cooperation of the Allies, agreed to release Poles who had been exiled to Siberia during the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland (1939–41) and allowed them to form this army. The Anders Army left the Soviet Union and went to Iran, Iraq, and then to Palestine, where it became part of the British Eighth Army. It took part in the Italian campaign, including the famous Battle of Monte Cassino.
At the first opportunity my father returned to Łódź, but he found that his family was no longer there. He learned that his wife had died and his daughter had been placed in a convent. He tried to find his lost daughter for many years afterward. He placed advertisements in the press and on the radio. He offered a very large reward to anyone with information about the location of Ilonka Fajnberg. In response, he received hundreds of letters. He chose the most likely cases and personally contacted the people indicated. During one of those travels, he met his second wife and started taking care of the girl she was bringing up, who is my age. He died in 1969.
I feel great bitterness and sadness at the thought that my father was living in Poland and, despite such great efforts, never found me. I only have a photograph of him and a portrait of my beautiful mother. I am convinced that if she had survived the war, she would have found me somehow.
I met my relatives from Israel. I became closest with Professor Jakub Goldberg and his wonderful wife. The professor often comes to Poland and a few years ago received an honorary doctorate from the University of Warsaw. I also recently met a charming person who lives in Paris, who in reading Hanna Krall’s book Evidence of Existence recognized me as the little girl who had lived in the same apartment building in the ghetto. She wrote, “I remember your mother, as if it were yesterday. A stunningly beautiful young woman with her tiny daughter, Ilonka. She was slender, had dark, beautiful hair and absolutely fantastic eyes. The people in the ghetto were dressed modestly, but your mother had a natural elegance that attracted attention. I remember how she used to push you in a stroller, how she held your hand. You looked like a real doll; you had blond curly hair and your mother’s radiant smile ”
After the war my father asked her for help in finding his daughter, because she was the only person living who had known the child in the final period before his wife’s death. It was, as she wrote, “the goal of his life”. Father, after his return from Kazakhstan, found out that his wife had died but had left a message that she had sent the child to the Aryan side. Whenever someone responded to the advertisements placed by my father and wrote that a Jewish girl had been hidden somewhere, the woman would go with him there. Unfortunately, all the trips ended in failure. The woman herself left in 1947. Our meeting in Paris was very moving and unforgettable.
Since I learned about my family, I have experienced many joyful and emotion-filled moments. I would like to particularly thank my wonderful friend Renata, as well as Inka, and many others, for their initiative and assistance in finding my relatives. I am very happy that I have met so many dear and warm people.
Renata, Inka – Renata Zajdman and Joanna Sobolewska-Pyz.