Joanna Sobolewska-Pyz, born in 1939
Searching for Traces
My first memories go back to the moment when I met my new parents. It was in the apartment of Mrs. Wanda Niczowa. When they entered, I was sitting on the floor, playing. “This is your mama and your papa,” said Mrs. Niczowa. I was very pleased; my new mama was lovely, all made up and colorful. I liked Father, too, though not quite as much.
Wanda Bruno-Niczowa was a Polish language teacher who conducted secret classes during the occupation. She hid me and the child of her cousins (she used “impeccable” Aryan papers for herself). (Author’s note)
Mrs. Niczowa dressed me in a large hat and an oversize jacket, and in this funny outfit, I got into a horse-drawn cart with them. Nineteen years later, my father, in a letter to my Israeli family, described these events as follows:
It was 1943—the harshest period of the occupation. The Germans were liquidating the ghetto; there were roundups in the city, horrible reports about arrests and people being burned alive in the ghetto. Over the ghetto hung black smoke. All of Warsaw was tense and depressed. People suddenly became kind; they wanted to help the unfortunates who didn’t know what the next day would bring. This is when a waterworks and sewer maintenance man showed up at my office and told me that while cleaning sewers in the ghetto, they had found a little girl, a few years old, and carried her out in a coal basket.
A few days later, a typist from my office told my wife that there was a very pretty little girl at the home of her teacher, Mrs. Niczowa, who was available to be taken in by someone. We thought that it might be the same child. My wife got excited about this, because we were a childless couple. Mrs. Niczowa lived on Krasiński Street. Public transportation was disrupted by the liquidation of the ghetto. It was restored a few days later, but only by horse-drawn carts that kept a certain distance from the ghetto. On May 2, my wife and I set out to visit friends in Żoliborz for Zygmunt’s name day celebration, and on the way, we stopped at Mrs. Niczowa’s to have a look at Inka. She was a very pretty little girl with platinum blond hair and blue eyes. My wife liked her a lot, and we decided we would pick her up on our way back from the party.
Name day celebration – Poles celebrate “name days” rather than birthdays. The name day is the feast day of the saint a person is named after.
Since the atmosphere at the name day celebration was rather gloomy, we left early and went to get Inka. We were worried that she would cry and raise suspicions, especially since she was dressed so horribly—in an old hat and an elderly woman’s old jacket. When we sat on one of the five benches on the cart, the other people began looking at us suspiciously, because our clothes were so different from what Inka was wearing. Only if she had cried could it have been worse, but fortunately, she did not cry. For the sake of appearances in front of these people, my wife and I began talking and complaining about our cousins from the countryside who had sent Inka to the doctor in such awful clothes. Most likely this little scene didn’t fool anyone, but fortunately, there were no mean-spirited people there.
Going around the ghetto through side streets, we sat on that cart as if on burning coals. A small group of people standing on one of the streets leading into the ghetto was pointing at something. A three-story house in the ghetto was burning, and people were throwing themselves from the balconies. We saw a woman jump from a window with a child. We could hear the shouting of the Germans and Ukrainians down below.
Finally, we got to Miodowa Street, where our nerve-racking trip ended and where there were already streetcars and [bicycle-powered] rickshaws. I caught one of them, and, taking side streets, we made our way to 8 Wilcza Street. Inka did not cry. We didn’t encounter any Germans on the way. Getting into the elevator, we breathed easier. In the apartment were my two young nieces, who gave Inka a bath, and my wife, together with a friend, set about sewing a dress for her. In one of the photographs I am sending you, Inka is wearing precisely that dress.
After some time, we started worrying again. A neighbor from one floor below stared intently at Inka on the staircase. We were afraid that she might suspect something. Such a suspicion, in the absence of an alibi, could mean a death sentence for the whole family or, at best, costly blackmail. Thus, we had to think about getting proper documents. My wife went to see Mrs. Niczowa so that she could go through the formality of handing Inka over to the Father Baudouin Children’s Home. We later picked her up from there, based on Declaration Number 331/43, dated June 28, 1943. This wasn’t a document that would guarantee safety, but at least it gave us the possibility of explaining ourselves.
I have described for you, though in fragments, what we lived through then, and what Warsaw was experiencing, in order to show how often these matters are poorly understood today… I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to visit us in Poland. We would welcome you as our guests during your stay here. Respectfully yours,
Walerian Sobolewski. Warsaw, August 28, 1962.
So much for my father’s letter. I myself remember little from those years, barely a few scenes. I remember the moment we entered my parents’ apartment on Wilcza Street. My father’s niece, Halka, welcomed us. “Oh, what a pretty little girl!” she said. These words pleased me greatly. Evidently, I was vain right from birth. Recalling that time, I can’t fathom how it is possible that I can’t remember anything at all from my days in the ghetto. It is a complete blank. My life began on Wilcza Street, or perhaps a moment earlier, on the floor at Mrs. Niczowa’s.
In the winter of 1943, Father was put in Pawiak prison as a hostage. Every day families of prisoners scanned the lists of those who had been executed, posted on the walls. On one of the lists appeared the name Stanisław Sobolewski. Upon learning this news, Mother fainted in the apartment and fell on a burning carbide lamp. I began screaming and ran out on the stairwell. I can’t remember whether Mama came to by herself or whether one of the neighbor helped her. In any case, there was no fire, although it was a close call.
In her despair, Mama forgot that she was the only one who called Father “Stach” [Stanisław]. Even though he celebrated his name day on May 8, Stanisław was his middle name. The tragic news referred to someone else. A few months later, Father returned.
May 8 is the feast day of Saint Stanisław.
As a child, I particularly liked it when the sirens wailed. We would then go down from the fifth floor to the caretaker’s apartment in the basement. It was a great attraction for me and the other children in the building. Unaware of the danger, we were happy that, despite the late hour (air raids happened mostly at night), we could meet and play by the little stove with a fire burning in it.
Thus passed, as far as I can remember, the years associated with Pawiak prison, fear about Father’s fate, and the wailing of sirens. At the end of July 1944, the entire family—including Lalka, our beloved spitz—moved to Milanówek. This is how Mama described the beginning of the trip. “We barely caught the last EKD train. Stach was running, holding Inka under one arm and Lalka under the other. Halka and I ran after him, choking with laughter at the sight of the two bouncing balls under his arms.” She meant my head and Lalka’s tail—both equally shaggy. Meanwhile, the last car of the train was being shot at, because the Warsaw Uprising had started.
EKD train – the EKD (Elektryczna Kolej Dojazdowa) is an electric commuter train.
In Milanówek we were taken in by my parents’ friends, the Michałowicz family. I felt good there and used to play in the garden. One summer day I decided to accomplish a great athletic feat, to jump down from as many as three steps leading up to the porch. I easily jumped down from one, then with some trepidation from two, and finally—with great fear, but also with a great feeling of achievement—all the way from the third. I was completely absorbed in play when I suddenly saw a German gendarme in front of me. I had heard so many horrible things about Germans that I was stricken with fear.
Crying loudly, I ran back inside the house. Not knowing where Mama was, I ran upstairs. Then I heard her voice. Instead of coming back downstairs, I stuck my head between the posts of the handrail and started screaming, “Mama! Germans!” My head got stuck between the posts, and the German tried to free me. Mama tried to calm me down, but I jerked around and tugged. Everyone ran out onto the stairs. Someone suggested getting an ax or a saw. I was afraid they meant for my head. Fortunately, my head was somehow freed without those tools. Then the gendarme picked me up and asked me to give him a kiss. He took a candy bar out of his pocket and gave it to me. I tried to break free, but Mama told me, “Give the gentleman a kiss. He says he left a little daughter like you at home.” I pecked the air next to his cheek and ate the chocolate later. It tasted very good.
For a time we moved to a village near Mszczonów. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was easier to get food there or perhaps my parents were afraid of a Volksdeutsche family who had just moved into “our” house. For a long time, I thought Volksdeutsche was a family name.
Towards the end of the occupation we returned to Milanówek, and it turned out that this Volksdeutsche family was the most decent family under the sun. They obtained meat, marmalade, and coal for us. They shared everything they themselves had and invited me for meals; I played with their children. When, during a roundup, Father ended up in the town square with a group of people to be deported, the Volksdeutsche family we knew took him out of there. Many people in Milanówek benefited from their assistance.
I remember how Mother despaired when this family fled west to escape from the Bolsheviks. They ran away at the last moment, and Mother was afraid that they might not make it. Born in Ufa in the Ural Mountains, Mother had lived through the Russian Revolution, and she simply didn’t know whom to fear more, the Germans or the Russians.
I couldn’t understand her strange behavior. When Russian soldiers showed up, she would treat them to lepioszki and talk to them merrily in Russian, but after they left she would sob, shaking with fear. Perhaps she was afraid that they would discover that she was a “White Russian.”
Lepioszki are Russian-style cheese blintzes.
“White Russians” were Russians who supported the czar rather than the “Reds” during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
From the final weeks of the war, I remember the rumbling of artillery, the sound of bombs, and the glow over the city. We could see Warsaw burning all the way from Milanówek. Father decided to check whether our house at 8 Wilcza Street still existed. It turned out that out of a seven-story building with four wings, only one apartment got burned—and that was ours. My parents talked about it a lot, because it didn’t look as if it happened by chance. The apartment was located on the fifth floor of an inner section. They suspected that it had been set on fire deliberately. We were left without a roof over our heads. Father decided that we would take another apartment in the same building, also on the fifth floor, but in front. Before the war it had belonged to Dr. Gutner and his family. I don’t know what happened to them. The apartment was ruined, full of rubble, with no glass in the windows. There were a few pieces of damaged furniture there, and our entire furnishings consisted of one singed piano stool.
The destroyed city made a great playground for children. In the surrounding rubble, one could find unbelievable treasures, such as a chair leg, a broken doll, a tureen with a broken handle, a candle, a bead, a postcard, or a photograph. Afraid that we’d come across unexploded shells in the ruins, our parents would not allow us to play there—but nothing scared us away. The ruins were everywhere; even my way to school led through rubble.
Life was slowly getting back to normal. Father decided to reactivate his prewar business, a hydrotechnical installation firm. Mother, opposed to this idea, said, “Stach, you don’t know the Bolsheviks. The worst job with the state is better than the best private business.” And that’s how it really was. The Stalinist era had a tragic impact on the fate of my family.
Without going into details, I will just say that Father was accused of economic sabotage and at first sentenced to death and confiscation of property. Due to a reprieve, the sentence was changed to life in prison. Eventually, thanks to two amnesties, he was able to leave prison after six years. Before that happened, however, Mama and I would stand by the prison gate every Sunday—first on Rakowiecka Street then at Gęsiówka—waiting for a short visit with him.
Gęsiówka was a prison on what was then Gęsia Street (now Mordechaj Anielewicz Street).
Father was not idle in prison; he worked on technical projects and trained young people in his trade. Some then joked that studies in sanitary engineering had been moved to Gęsiówka. Many of those young people later finished regular studies and found employment in Warsaw’s best architectural construction firms, one of which was started by my father.
Meanwhile, we were forced to share our apartment on Wilcza Street with other tenants. Father had bought a plot of land in Anin already before the war, and right after the war, he began building a house there. Now, the authorities gave Mother an ultimatum: She could either move out of Wilcza to Anin, or they would confiscate the land in Anin together with the unfinished building.
Father, who was still in prison at the time, insisted that she not give away the land in Anin. And so we moved into the unfinished house, which was very cold and damp. It cost Mother much effort and money to make it habitable. Mama fell ill in Anin. Because she didn’t speak Polish well, she had to do physical labor. She commuted to Warsaw, where she got a job in a laundry. Working conditions were a nightmare there—inside the temperature reached 50°C [122°F]—and Mother had a bad heart and high blood pressure.
Father came back in 1954. He was cleared of charges in 1956. Mother died in 1958. She did not survive the next heart attack, even though she was not yet sixty years old. I sat by her side in the hospital on Stępińska Street during her last night. She said to me then, “Don’t count on anyone.
You’re my little daughter, and only mine.” She died before my eyes, and for a long time afterward, I did not realize that these were her last words. I did not grasp their real meaning. I understood that I was Mama’s illegitimate child, the fruit of a great and, most likely, forbidden love affair. This kind of piquant detail of our family history appealed to me.
When Father and I were left alone, we didn’t get along very well. He wanted me to take care of the house, but I was studying for my matriculation exams and preparing for university. Besides, I was a pretty unruly, socially active girl, talkative and restless. I very much liked doing things that were forbidden—for instance, smoking cigarettes (in fact, preferably the ones Father kept in his drawer). So, when during one of our arguments, he said, “You don’t know what you owe me,” I replied, “I know that I am not your daughter. I am my mama’s illegitimate child.” “You’re neither my daughter nor Mama’s daughter. You’re a Jewish child rescued from the ghetto,” Father said. It was an awful moment for both of us. I took a cigarette out of my school bag and lit up in his presence for the first time. He lit one, too. At first we were silent, and then he told me as much as he knew. Although Mrs. Niczowa’s name was mentioned, the possibility of getting in touch with her did not enter my head. It was only while I was at university that Witold Jedlicki, a teaching assistant in sociology with whom I was friendly, gave me the idea.
I found Mrs. Niczowa in 1961. She described to me at length, quite vividly, how a Polish policeman had brought me to her, lice-infested, dirty, and in a terrible state. This was on April 18, 1943. Mrs. Niczowa knew me well, because even earlier, as she told me, my mother had brought me to her house, leaving the ghetto through the sewers. It was then that I learned that my parents were called Halina, née Zylberbart, and Tadeusz Grynszpan. Mrs. Niczowa knew only that they had gone to Umschlagplatz and that I was left behind. However, she didn’t know what had happened to me from that time until the moment I was brought to her place.
But what still remains unclear to me is the connection between what my adopted father described in his aforementioned letter to my relatives in Israel and the Polish policeman who “delivered” me to Mrs. Niczowa, hiding me under his jacket like a kitten. Another unanswered question is how this policeman knew to whom he should take me.
Mrs. Niczowa had been friends with my mother’s parents. My grandparents—Marian Zylberbart and Rozalia Ewelina, née Gesundheit—were physicians who worked, among other places, in sanitariums in Otwock. Thanks to Mrs. Niczowa, I also found out that I am related to the wife of Adam Czerniaków—Felicja, née Zwayer. As a result of the conversation with Mrs. Niczowa, I began remembering events from the past that were related to what she had been talking about, but which until then I had not understood properly or at all.
Adam Czerniaków was the head of the Judenrat [Jewish Council] in Warsaw. He committed suicide in July 1942 rather than carry out orders to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto.
And thus I remembered that when I was a little girl, I heard our neighbor say in Russian, “It seems to me that your Inotchka is Yevreika.” These words were said to my mama by Mrs. Tkachenko, mother-in-law of Professor Aleksander Gieysztor. My adopted mother came from an aristocratic Russian family, and both ladies loved to converse in Russian. Mother might have been a little taken aback by these words, and perhaps that’s why I remembered them so well. Many years later, when I began learning Russian in school, I found the words “Yevrei, Yevreika—Jew, Jewess” in a dictionary, but that still didn’t mean anything to me.
Almost every year I spent my vacations with my uncle who was a parish priest in a village near Białystok. Another girl my age also came to that same village to visit her grandparents, and we used to spend whole days together. We also used to play with the country children. There were times when the boys would yell after me, “Cross yourself!” “What’s that all about?” I’d ask. They answered with silly expressions and pointed looks.
The priest’s housekeeper once told me (I don’t remember the context), “A mother is not the one who gives birth but the one who brings you up.” I was a little girl and did not understand what she was talking about. My vacation friend, with whom I stay in close touch to this day, told me that everyone in the village knew that I was a Jewish child, adopted by the priest’s family.
Did people know about this in my high school? I don’t know, but in Anin, like in that village, everyone knew each other and a lot about each other. One of my friends once told me that her mother had said, “Inka looks very much like a Jew.” Was that by chance? To me it meant only that I must be very ugly.
I found my Jewish family at the beginning of the 1960s. I turned to the Israeli Embassy with a request that they place my ad and my photo in some well-read newspaper in Israel. The ad, and especially the part about my being a relative of the wife of Adam Czerniaków, caught the attention of my cousin, Bolek Prusak. Here are some fragments of his letter to me. “I left for Israel already in 1935. In her last letter of August 25, 1939, my mother informed me, ‘On July 31, Hala gave birth to a daughter; she is doing well and so is the child; her name is Joanna.’ Here in Israel you also have your mother’s cousin, Bronka Diamant, née Milner. Your grandmother and her mother were sisters. In Warsaw, we had a house at 57 Nowolipie Street, and that’s where the whole family lived… I hope that after these explanations, you will not have any doubt that, thanks to your ad, you have found your family. Dear Joasia, write back right away; after all, we don’t know anything about you. How did you survive that period? What are you doing now? I hope you would like to come to Israel to join the family. Your mother and I lived like siblings for many years, and today I feel as if I have known you all your life.”
Bolek and Bronka invited me to Israel right away, but time after time the Polish authorities refused to issue me a passport. I finally managed to get there illegally in 1974. I received a passport to go to Sweden, and from there, with an Israeli visa not stamped into my passport, I arrived to see my family. I was welcomed with exceptional warmth. To them, I was a child of their loved ones, with whom they had spent their childhood and youth. At first they seemed like strangers to me, but we quickly established warm and close ties.
I went to Israel again in 1994. That trip has special meaning, because unfortunately, both Bolek and Bronka died a short time later. To this day I keep in close touch with Bolek’s wife and Bronka’s daughter, Zosia, and her husband, Amiram. Zosia and I differ in age by the time span of the war—I was born at the beginning and Zosia at the end. After the war, Zosia and her mother, upon returning from the Soviet Union, lived in an apartment complex in central Warsaw. I lived close by on Wilcza Street with my parents. We might have passed each other in the street without realizing we were family.
In Israel, thanks to the flourishing spread of news by word of mouth, I unexpectedly came across a trace of my father’s half sister who now lives in England. I got in touch with her and then visited her in London, where my miraculously discovered Aunt Marysia welcomed me very warmly, together with her daughter and son-in-law. To her own amazement, my aunt, who considered herself a reticent person, just talked, talked, and talked; until that time, she had had no opportunity to talk about her family. Wartime trauma had caused her to hide her origins, even from her own daughter. The subject of our unending conversations was the daily life of the Grynszpans. It was a very large family, and a particularly interesting and colorful figure was my grandfather, Herman Grynszpan, a man exceptionally unconventional for those times—a freethinker, philosopher, and lover of women (not necessarily in a Platonic way). He perished in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942.
It was only from Aunt Marysia that I learned that my father’s mother and sister escaped from the ghetto, were in hiding in Warsaw, and died almost at the same time, in the mid 1960s. They were buried in Bródno Cemetery. I live not far away and visit their graves quite often.
Bródno Cemetery is a Catholic cemetery in Warsaw.
My adopted father died in 1965. His family—his second wife and three of his siblings—decided to deprive me of my inheritance. They petitioned the court to annul my birth certificate, in which I appeared as a child born to Anastazja and Walerian Sobolewski. The petitioners thought that if they proved that my identity was different than that entered into the documents and that I was neither the natural nor formally adopted daughter of my parents, then they would inherit the house in Anin. Their incompetent lawyer did not know that a petition for the annulment of a birth certificate can only be made by the person involved or the person’s parents. They lost the case. This whole matter affected my relationship with my father’s family, which had been fairly decent until then. What bothered me the most was the fact that they sought to justify their petition to invalidate the birth certificate in a way that was dishonest and indecent. Among other things, they wrote that after my father explained to me my family history, “all emotional ties between the defendant of this case and her adoptive father were broken.” They wrote further that “the defendant does not at all consider herself to be Polish. She openly acknowledges her Jewish origins and—through the Israeli Embassy—has been trying to find her close family in Israel. On every occasion she stresses her separate ethnicity.”
In my article, “Children of the Holocaust,” written thirty-three years later, I answered their accusations in this way—“The problem of identity deserves attention. It is especially important and painful to people who discovered their Jewish roots late in life. I am one of these people myself. I found out about my origins when I was eighteen years old. I was raised in a Polish family. When I say “parents,” I mean my “second” parents, because I didn’t know any others. At the same time, I am investigating traces of that other world. I know a great deal about my Jewish family. I discovered my more distant, and probably the only surviving, relatives in Israel. I search for people who can tell me anything at all about my relatives. I explore archives. The fate of people who died in the Holocaust, as well as of those who survived, has been the subject of my interest for decades, and I can definitely say that there is little that matters to me as much. At the same time, I do not feel any connection with the Jewish religion or culture, with which I am not familiar, and have no desire to learn more about. I am rooted in Polish culture and tradition and feel connected to everything that relates to them. However, I believe it would be improper for me not to admit to my Jewish origins, especially in the face of anti-Semitic behavior, precisely because my relatives were murdered only because they were Jews. For me it is a matter of honor. In truth, my Jewish identity is mainly a tribute to those who died.”
“In my article”… – in Tematy żydowskie [Jewish topics], edited by Elżbieta and Robert Traba (Olsztyn: Wspólnota Kulturowa “Borussia,” 1999); also in Kronika Stowarzyszenia “Dzieci Holocaustu” [Chronicles of Children of the Holocaust],
In another part of the article I wrote: “The Association (of the Children of the Holocaust) tries to help its members find their families. Everyone searches—those who have already found out something about themselves, those who have already found someone from their family, as well as those who hope that a miracle will happen and they will find someone close to them.”
My life story is filled with both miraculous discoveries and unexpected results of my searches. In the Otwock Archive there is a prewar registration book, and in it, among other things, is my mother’s year of birth. In the Central Medical Library, I found a work by Witold Trybowicz entitled, History of Otwock as a Health Spa, that includes much information about my grandparents, Rozalia and Marian Zylberbart. In the Jewish Historical Institute, there is a Register of Account Holders of the Postal Savings Bank. My grandfather, Henryk Grynszpan, is listed under number 166. I finally saw how my last name was spelled. In the Institute I also found a “List of Non-Aryan Doctors,” prepared by the Warsaw-Białystok Medical Society. It includes my grandmother’s name. Just the existence of such a list, dated May 1, 1940, is of itself very interesting. In the 1925 guidebook, entitled Otwock Spa, the last name on the list of doctors practicing in Otwock is my grandfather’s: “Dr. M. Zylberbart, 32A Warszawska Street. Diseases of the ear, nose, and throat. Office hours 5:00–7:00 P.M.”
Prewar registration book – a Księga Meldunkowa/Księga Ludności is a municipal registration book containing census-like data about all members of a household.
Central Medical Library [Główna Biblioteka Lekarska] is located in Warsaw.
It would be impossible to name all the people or enumerate all the documents that have permitted me to at least partially re-create this lost world, but I can’t leave out something that happened to me very recently. Quite by chance, I happened to be at a meeting of the Association of the Friends of Otwock and the Otwock Region. I asked one of the older men there about my family. It turned out that he remembered my grandfather but couldn’t tell me anything about my grandmother or mother. However, he promised to help me, and he kept his word. He put me in touch with his acquaintance, Mrs. Anna P., who, in her personal collection, had a photo of her mother’s class in gymnasium. My mother and my father’s sister are also in this photograph. On the back of the photo there are a few signatures and among them, Hala Zylberbart and Krysia Grynszpan. The photo was made in the second half of the 1920s. It shows a picturesque group of about thirty male and female students in front of the Municipal Coeducational Gymnasium in Otwock, and among them is a serious-looking teenager wearing glasses. This is what sets her apart. Nobody else is wearing glasses, even the teachers. It’s difficult to describe how touched I was when I saw that photo.
Writing a biography is conducive to summing up. I can definitely say that I was born under a lucky star, and incomparably more good things than bad have happened to me in my life. Just the fact that I am alive is of itself good fortune. Along the way, from the beginning, I met nice people. First, someone saved my life and then surrounded me with care. Then, I got everything a child could get from her parents—love, care, and family warmth. I had warm ties with my father’s siblings and their children for many years. I got much that was good from them in my childhood.
My present household consists of my husband, Julek, my son, Wojtek, and two cats—Mysia and Malusia. My husband is the person closest to me; I can depend on him in every situation. He supports me in my searches and knows more about Judaism than many experts in the field. I also have the warm support of my husband’s family. My in-laws, regrettably no longer alive, always treated me with great fondness and warmhearted interest.
At the university and at work I was generally surrounded by friendly and interesting people. I have many devoted friends and the conviction that this, also, worked out well for me in every respect.