Thursday, January 28, 2016

Grandson of Polish Righteous Among the Nations Accepted Honor on their Behalf

When the Warsaw ghetto was established in October 1940, Mieczyslaw Ferster, a Jewish engineer who happened to be tall and blond, was begged by his friends not to report to the German occupying authorities. Stating that he would "go where his people will go," Mieczyslaw, his wife Janina (née Totenberg) and their five-year-old daughter Elizabeth entered the ghetto: two years later Mieczyslaw died, most likely from typhoid fever.


Left alone, Janina and Elizabeth managed to survive a few more months, partially thanks to money and packages sent to them by Janina's brother, Roman (Romek) Totenberg, a violinist who had left Poland in 1928 to study in Germany and France, and had then immigrated to the US. When a fellow Polish musician who owned a kiosk just outside of the ghetto heard that Roman's sister was incarcerated inside, he arranged for her photo to be placed on the ID card of a Polish worker allowed to enter the ghetto. Thus, one evening in July 1942, just before the "Great Deportation" of Jews in the ghetto to the Treblinka death camp, Janina walked out clutching her fake ID card, with little Elizabeth following behind, her blond hair and blue eyes belying the stereotyped "Jewish" features expected by the ghetto guards.

Maryla and Walery Zbijewski on a
prewar skiing vacation
with Mieczyslaw and Janina Ferster
Right away, Janina went to the home of her prewar acquaintances – Tadeusz and Eugenia Kucharski. The Kucharskis kindly took them in; the neighbors were told that Janina was the wife of a Polish officer stationed in the UK. When the Russians bombed the nearby railroad tracks in September 1942, the building in which they were staying suffered great damage. Janina decided to take Elizabeth to stay with her old friends, Maryla and Walery Zbijewski, who lived with their two children near the Vistula River. Janina wandered from place to place, supporting herself by selling the valuables she had left with another family before entering the ghetto.


Janina and Elizabeth spent the remainder of the war staying at the homes of various families in the countryside for a few days at a time, not revealing their Jewish origins. After the war, Janina became close to Pawel Kruk, a former neighbor, and they moved in with him. Pawel eventually adopted Elizabeth, and she took his surname.

In 1958, Elizabeth's uncle Roman came to visit his sister and niece in Warsaw. While Janina chose to stay with Pawel in Poland, Roman managed to arrange a student visa for Elizabeth, who studied biochemistry at NYU. In 1963, Elizabeth married Sherwin Wilk, and they had two children – Renata Janina and Susan Fanny – and two grandchildren.


With the help of documentation provided by Elizabeth Wilk, Yad Vashem was able to extend the title of Righteous Among the Nations to the two couples that rescued Janina and Elizabeth Ferster during the war: Tadeusz and Eugenia Kucharski, and Maryla and Walery Zbijewski. While the Kucharskis passed away with no known relatives, the Zbijewskis' grandson Wojciech, today lives in Baltimore. Wojciech accepted the medal and certificate of honor on behalf of his late grandparents at a special ceremony held on 27 January, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Restoration of Wartime Diary Reveals Life in the Warsaw Ghetto

Recently, Yad Vashem was honored to host Wlodek Tabaczynski and his daughter Zosia, who had come to see the incredible restoration work carried out on the wartime diary of Wlodek's father, Stefan (né Alfred Zielony).

Stefan Tabaczynski (né Alfred Zielony) and his wife Irena,
who rescued him during WWII
Alfred Zielony was born in 1897 in Warsaw, the youngest child in a Jewish family. His father and one of his brothers died before WWII, and another brother, Bernard, immigrated to Israel in 1921. The rest of the family remained in Warsaw, and were duly incarcerated by the Nazis in the ghetto. It was there that one of Alfred's sisters, Balbina, died of typhus. In August 1942, his wife and child were deported to Treblinka along with his mother, where they were murdered. Two other siblings were also murdered, and Alfred was left alone, hiding in the ghetto. After the ghetto was liquidated, a friend of his, Irena, who had worked in the family business before the war, managed to smuggle him to safety. At the war's end, Alfred changed his name to Stefan Tabaczynski and married Irena. Stefan/Alfred passed away in 1956, when Wlodek was just two years old.

Stefan/Alfred Tabaczynski with his son, Wlodek
In the 1950s, Alexander (Alex) Zielony, the son of Bernard (who had come to Israel before the war), visited Washington for government business. On his way back to Israel, Alex decided to take a detour via Warsaw and visit his aunt, Irena, and his two cousins, Wlodek and Andrzej. During the trip, Irena showed Alex the crumbling remains of a diary her late husband had written during his time in hiding. The diary had been severely damaged by fire and water during the Polish uprising.

In 2006, Wlodek came on his first trip to Israel and, at his cousin Alex's request, brought the diary with him. Alex immediately suggested giving the diary to Yad Vashem, in the hope that restoration experts could help the family save the deteriorating pages and even decipher some of Alfred's testimony.

 "The diary was in terrible shape," recounts Yad Vashem's Archives Director Dr. Haim Gertner. "It was little more than a mass of singed and crumbling papers. We treated it with immense care and expertise at our Paper Restoration Laboratory, first carefully separating the pages and then restoring and preserving each page as far as was possible. After years of painstaking labor, the diary now comprises twelve complete and four partial pages – although because of the difficult state in which they arrived, they are barely legible. While certain words and even parts of sentences – all written in Polish or German – can be made out, it was near impossible to understand the general context.

Alfred Zielony's diary: "Little more than a mass of
singed and crumbling papers"
Even employing the most advanced methods of handwriting reconstruction, police identification lab equipment and the help of antiques and other experts in Israel and abroad, we were still unable to decipher the diary, or even say with certainty when during the war or where it was written. Nevertheless, we were extremely satisfied that at least the diary itself had been saved." 

Last week, Wlodek Tabaczynski and his daughter Zosia came to Israel to celebrate the 100th birthday of Wlodek's cousin Alex. Dr. Gertner showed Wlodek Yad Vashem's online Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names, within seconds calling up all 18 Pages of Testimony Alex Zielony had filled out in 2008 for individual members of his family who were murdered during the Shoah. Seeing all of this information recorded for posterity was very important for Wlodek – a project manager – and  Zosia, who is a teacher.

Left to right: Archives Division Director Dr. Haim Gertner,
Zosia Tabaczynski, Wlodek Tabaczynski and Varda Gross,
Director of the Restoration Laboratory at Yad Vashem
 looking at restored pages from Wlodek's
father's diary, written in the Warsaw ghetto
However, Wlodek was visibly moved when he was shown the diary and was able to see its pages for the first time. He recalled how his father had studied law and then practiced journalism – eventually heading the Polish Society of Journalists (PAP) after the war. "He loved to write," he explained, and asked to touch the actual pages of the diary. "I can't help it," he said. "It's just like touching my father again."

 In his home, Wlodek has a separate page that Alfred wrote, on which he recorded the names of all his family members that died – when, how and where – in succinct notes. At the end of the list, Alfred wrote: "…but I could write tomes about how I survived."

Stefan/Alfred and Irena Tabaczynski with their
two young sons, Wlodek and Andrzej

As Wlodek was familiar with his father's challenging handwriting, he was able to make out a few lines from the diary. For example, there is a description of how those Jews living in the ghetto who had work certificates would gather early each morning at the checkpoint at the ghetto gates, and return in the evening, bringing with them whatever food they had managed to bargain or buy to smuggle back into the ghetto. "But the officers usually took this food away," recalled Alfred – leaving the despondent men to return empty-handed to their starving families. "For the first time, we realized that this diary was most likely written in the Warsaw ghetto itself, and describes daily life there," said Dr. Gertner.

 Wlodek ended his visit by pledging to devote his time to deciphering as much of the diary as he can – bringing Yad Vashem closer than ever to untangling the content of this rare piece of   documentary testimony about life in the Warsaw ghetto.