Friday, February 15, 2008

From one mountain town to another

My parents were born in New York; it was their parents who came to America. I am two generations removed from any first hand living experience in Przemysl. I can study and learn, look at old photos, even walk the streets and imagine - but I'll always be filtering through American eyes. It's just a place, an abstraction of a part of my family's history that is gone forever, a parable not to be forgotten but not fully remembered.

That is why the email that came in from a Jewish woman who grew up in Przemysl is so precious to me: live, first-person testimony; not easy to find in 2008. As we sit today, the number of living Jews from Przemysl is unknown. Dozens? A hundred? What we do know is that you can count the current Jewish residents of our little town on two hands, at the very most.

Here is Alexandra's story:
Thank you very much for sharing with me all your Przemysl websites. I admit that I got "lost" traveling through time, visiting my little town and seeing it again through a lens of so many loving eyes. I was delighted to see a picture of my friend, Julek Glettner, and learn about the beautiful memorial held in Oct. of 2006. The memories captured in the photographs and stories about families like yours make my heart ache.
My family moved to Przemysl from Lodz in 1957 when I was 4 years old (the year this photograph was taken.) My father, David Rozenberg, opened a private business -- allowed under the socialist rule to supplement government-controlled industries. It was a small store with men and women’s clothing, shoes and such, called Galanteria. Located on Jagielonska Street, it provided for a very comfortable life.

As I mentioned in my earlier email, for years we resided on Tarnowskiego Street # 3, same location as the former Jewish Orphanage. I must admit I did not know of the building’s former use until I looked at one of the websites and noticed a picture of my old home. You can imagine my reaction! When I lived there, there was no information displayed or noted on the building’s past and certainly no one talked about it.

In that same building, there was a “make due” synagogue; a couple of rooms, benches etc. and when I was a child my father would take me with him when he attended services. I remember it smelled musty, but I liked being there; there was something magical and special about that place.

As much as I remember of my childhood, in those days life as a Jew in Przemysl was petty uneventful. There couldn’t have been more then 20 Jewish families.

At home, we celebrated Jewish holidays and relished our Jewish traditions more then our religion. We shared those traditions with friends, many of whom were Roman Catholic. Everyone knew we were Jewish and I don’t recall too many instances of blatant anti-Semitic behavior until the mid to late 1960s when the Polish economy (again!) took a turn for the worse and the government needed a tried and true scapegoat.

I was always very proud of being a Jew and felt great disdain for anyone who thought it a hindrance, although I must admit that the sheer force of anti-Semitism in 1967 (and beyond) was astounding. I could not imagine such level of latent hatred - I am sure you are very familiar with that period in Eastern Europe.

Along with thousands of other Jews, we left our homeland at the strong "invitation" of the Communist Party Secretary, Mr. Gomulka, "for all the undesirables (read, Jews) to leave Poland now." Although our family left Przemysl “willingly,” there were several instances of direct pressure by the government to “persuade us” to leave. My sister, who is 3 years older, was in her first year of studies at the Jagiellonska University in Krakow. She began receiving disturbing and frequent visits from the Polish Secret Police pressuring her to infiltrate the student underground and report on their activities. At first she ignored it, but when she and our family were threatened, we all applied for our passports/exit travel documents, triggering a stunningly quick – 3-month- departure process.

We had to resign our Polish citizenship and left on September 29th, 1969, traveling by train to Vienna where we stayed for 4 months before coming to New York in January of 1970. I was almost 17 and my sister 20.

During the initial years here I tried not to dwell on the searing pain I felt for having to leave my life behind; all that I knew to be real and all that I cherished was gone. My school and my friends, my first is still a blur, and only now do I allow me the emotional space to reflect upon it. Being rejected at a tender age of 16, having your friends ,or at least people you thought were your friends, turn away from you, having a "dirty Jew" written on your classroom desk are but a few of many painful images.

The one memory that is most deeply etched in my mind is that of a banner strung-up across Slawaskiego Street reading: "Zionists, go back to Israel!" At the time I wondered: “Was this meant for me?”

Not unlike millions before us, we made our life here in America. I remain grateful to this beautiful country for embracing us and for allowing us to call it home.

Both my sister and I finished school in America. I have a graduate degree and my sister is an MD and a practicing psychiatrist with a wonderful family living in New York. Unfortunately, our parents passed away, my mother Anna in 1987 and my father just a couple of years ago.

Unlike my sister, I never acclimated to life in a big city and instead went searching for a place more reminiscent of Przemysl - my small mountain town. I fell in love with Colorado and decided to raise my children there. I am very fortunate to have found a rewarding career as the CEO of a college foundation.

I hope that this snapshot of my life gives you a bit of a perspective on the last Exodus of Jews from Poland. Thank you for allowing me to share my story with you. It is a healing process. I will be delighted to hear from you and to continue our conversation.
If you'd like to get in touch with Alexandra, email me and I will forward to her.

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