Maria Kowalska, born in 1939
Did anyone know my parents?
I was born on December 26, 1939, in Vilnius to a family of lawyers, as the first and only child of Jakub Abramowicz Fajnsztejn and Chana Nasielewna Fajnsztejn née Zusmanowicz. I was named Masza. My father was born in Vilnius on February 27, 1908. He earned his law degree from Stefan Batory University in Vilnius. We lived in an upmarket district of affluent Jews at 15 Zawalna Street (telephone number 1273). The apartment building is still there. My grandparents—Abram Fajnsztejn Danielewicz and Ida Fajnsztejn Szebsielew—also lived there. They had an office that offered application and translation services. A Polish woman, Stanisława Butkiewicz, was hired as my nanny.
In June 1941 we were put in the Vilnius ghetto. My mama, forced to work outside the ghetto’s territory and anticipating death, took me to an arranged place and handed me over to my nanny. The German who was convoying Jews turned his back. That was in October 1941. My beloved nanny gave me her last name and slightly altered my date of birth. From that point on, I became Marysia Butkiewicz born on May 12, 1939, in Vilnius. I was very sick after my stay in the ghetto. I had lice and scabs all over my body. My nanny put a lot of effort into getting me back on my feet. I had to get used to my new name quickly. We did a lot of hiding and fleeing, first at my nanny’s brother’s in Vilnius, later at her cousin’s in Niemenczyn near Vilnius, where we stayed until the end of the war. I remember getting up in the middle of the night, lying flat on my back in the forest, the Germans riding their motorcycles through the forest. Woken up from a deep sleep, I had to know my name and how to make the sign of the cross and say my prayers. At any moment, I had to prove that I wasn’t Jewish, although it was hard because I had curly black hair. My entire family perished in Ponary, near Vilnius.
After the war, in 1946, my nanny and I set out for Poland in a cattle car with cows, horses, chickens, and dogs. There were several families in each car. It was very crowded and very hot. I got a severe nose bleed. Everyone around me was helping to make it stop. We were assigned to Węgorzewo in the Olsztyn region. The town had been completely destroyed. The only houses were on the outskirts, and we moved into one of them. We got food from PUR (State Repatriation Office): soup, herring, really good bread…
I remember the first Christmas tree. My nanny got the tree and we made a chain out of the old German wallpaper. Two candles in metal candlesticks lit up the whole tree. We put a star on top and hung up on the branches a few pieces of candy and three cookies baked by my nanny. We couldn’t touch it until February 2. With each passing year, our Christmas trees became more lavish, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a more beautiful tree than the first one. I stared at it for hours, caressing the branches. Fire burned in the tile stove and a kerosene lamp stood on the table. The room was so warm and cozy that I didn’t want to go to bed. I didn’t want to sleep because I often had nightmares at night about fleeing, being cold, and that other world I never wanted to go back to. Sadly, I still have these nightmares to this day.
I often got sick. I was a weak and anemic child, so my nanny would teach me reading and writing at home. I started school in 1947 and I think I was the smallest child in my class. But I was such a good student that after grade one it was decided that I would skip to grade three. Learning was my joy, I did extremely well at school. I passed my matura exam in 1957 and I immediately started working in accounting, which has been my occupation all my life. For my first wage (I remember—it was 600 zloty), I bought my nanny colorful fabric for a dress, paid the seamstress, and put the rest in our shared fund “for life.” My nanny showed the dress around to all the neighbors. We were both very happy. In 1957, at the age of 19, I got married and left with my nanny for Żagań, where my husband lived. I have three children and four grandchildren. My nanny helped raise all my children. In 1981 we moved to Zielona Góra. My children grew up. My nanny stayed with me until the end of her days, that is, 1990. After her death, in 1992 she was awarded the medal of “The Righteous Among the Nations.” In July 2003 my husband passed away. After that, it was just me. I dream of hearing from someone who knew my parents, maybe studied with them, maybe met them and could tell me something about them. Someone from my mother’s family has probably gone to the United States but I’m not in touch with anybody. ziElona góra, 2003
After sixty-five years
What happened in 2006 could be considered a coincidence, the hand of Providence, or simply a miracle. In June 2006 I signed up for a trip to Israel, which was scheduled to take place from October 27 to November 7, 2006. The night before the trip, I got a phone call.
A young person named Marianna Hoszowska from Warsaw asked: “Am I speaking to Maria Kowalska?”
“Yes, you are.”
“Are you Masza Fajnsztejn?” “Yes.”
“Were you looking for family members on the Internet?”
“No, because my whole family was in the ghetto and they perished in Ponary near Vilnius. I’m only looking for the people who knew my parents and could tell me something about them.”
“So you don’t want to search for your family?” The young person sounded a little disappointed.
“But I don’t have anyone to search for because they are all gone.” “Well, I can tell you that you have an aunt. She lives in Haifa.”
I was dumbfounded. We compared all the data, concluding that Dina Fajnsztejn Szulowicz was my aunt. She had filed documents at Yad Vashem, describing when and how the members of our family had perished.
“Are you planning to visit Warsaw any time soon?” Marianna Hoszowska asked.
“Why, tomorrow I’ll be in Warsaw because I’m going on a trip to Israel!”
“Great, let’s meet at Central Station. I’ll bring more information about your aunt.”
The next day we met in Warsaw. It turned out that my aunt had died but she had a daughter. At that point, we didn’t know anything about her. I gave Marianna the address of my son’s website in Poland.
I’m in the middle of my trip. We move around cities in Israel. A friend lent me his mobile phone, on which I get texts that my aunt’s daughter and grandson have been found. He is an IT specialist and wants to liaise with my family in Poland. His name is Ohad Izrael. We’re by the Dead Sea. It’s very late in the evening. I answer a phone call from a woman from Israel who reconnects families. She’s speaking English. My friend is translating that they’ve found my uncle, who lives near Tel Aviv, and my aunt, who lives in Haifa, and they both want to speak to me at this moment. Of course, they speak Polish.
My uncle is calling.
“Is this Maria Kowalska?” “Yes, speaking.”
“Are you Masza Fajnsztejn?” “Yes.”
“Hello, dear Maszeńka, this is Daniel Fajnsztejn.”
Tears were shed on both ends of the receiver. I don’t remember what we talked about. My uncle wanted to tell me what had happened in sixty- five years in one sentence while I asked him questions about sixty-five years of being apart. The last time my uncle saw me was in the ghetto and I was 2 years old. The next day, he came by the Dead Sea. At the hotel, he was told that I’d gone out to the beach and would be back in the evening. My uncle didn’t wait but started walking down to the shore and looked for the tour from Poland. “Masza Kowalska, are you here?” he asked. He found us. He came with his daughter. When we greeted each other, I was in a haze. I had tears streaming down my face but they were tears of joy. We talked well into the evening. I was going back home in two days.
The day before my departure, my uncle organized a family reunion in the hotel in Tel Aviv. It was attended by my Aunt Lea, her daughter, my uncle with his son and daughters, sons-in-law, Aunt Dina’s grandson (who connected all these elements across Israel) with his wife and child—around thirty people in all. In one moment, I became a person with a very large family. After the war, throughout my life, I didn’t have any family members. I wouldn’t use the words: mama, papa, uncle, aunt. And now I had a family. I regained a wonderful big family. My joy was unimaginable… All the trip participants supported me and were there for me.
I’m back at home. My aunt and uncle call me on the phone and invite me to visit. We have sixty-five years to catch up on.
From the editor
Masza Fajnsztejn’s relatives survived the Holocaust. After the war they left for Israel. They continued to look for Masza, but in vain. They couldn’t have known that she used a different name. Her nanny, who rescued her, gave Masza her last name, hence Masza Fajnsztejn did not appear in any documents. There was only Maria Kowalska née Butkiewicz. It was not until 2003, when the Association of Children of the Holocaust put up a message on the Internet about the search for the Fajnsztejn family, that a student of cultural studies took an active interest in the case and the greatest wish of Maria Kowalska came true. She found her family.