Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Catholic Woman Remembers Przemysl

I've had a fascinating back-and-forth with Renata - a Catholic woman born in Przemysl. She found me while doing research on her tree; it seems we have an intersection. The Jerzy she mentions, below, was the step son of my great uncle, Izaac (Edward) Metzger. His story, and how he came to adopt Jerzy, is outlined here.
My mother was from Przemysl, so I enjoyed reading a bit of its' history, and Anna Wojtowicz, Jerzy's wife, is a distant cousin of mine. We've both been working on our mutual family tree and her husband, Jerzy, hoped that we would find out what became of his father. While that question has not been answered, at least your article sheds some light on the subject. Thank you! I appreciate the time, effort and work that went into returning to Poland for answers and writing this.
Isaac + Family
After I responded, we talked about our connection - In 1939, Izaac Metzger went off to join the Red Army fighting the Nazis, just like his Catholic neighbor. Both men left wives and children behind in Przemysl. Isaac survived to return to Przemysl; his neighbor did not. His wife and children were gone, murdered. He ended up marrying this neighbor's widow - Aneila, adopted her young son Jerzy, and started calling himself Edward.

More from Renata:

I think people's lives are so interesting, that in many cases it IS almost like reading an intense piece of fiction. Your uncle, Isaac/Edward is a prime example. It was emotionally moving to see a picture of him with his wife and four little children, looking happy and fulfilled, and to imagine how he must've felt when he returned home from war to learn that his whole family had been eradicated. I'm amazed that he had the resiliency to start life over again with someone else, that he didn't just curl up into a bitter ball of hate and despair, as many did. Aniela was still relatively young when they married and I'm surprised they didn't have any children of their own, but nevertheless, both of them seemed to make the most of their own, horrible situations and obviously must've found comfort in sharing their mutual burdens. It sounds as though he liked his stepson, Jerzy who obviously needed a father figure. Still, a Polish/Jewish connection must've been a difficult way for both him and Aniela to live. My understanding from my mother's stories, from the era in which she lived in Poland (1919-1949) was that Jews were not generally liked in Przemysl. There was a lot of prejudice against them and probably envy as well. Some were persecuted, especially the orthodox ones that really stood out. My mother was born in Brooklyn and moved back to Poland with her parents when she was 8. She used to tell me about how tough it was to get accepted by her classmates when her parents uprooted her and took her back to the old country. Her new classmates didn't like her because she was a well-to-do American girl (in their eyes) and it was the Jewish girls, who understood ostracism, who welcomed her into their circle and helped her get up to speed in her new school and maintained warm friendships with her until everyone scattered to go to college, so she developed good relationships with Jewish people in Przemysl, but I think that was the exception.

Maybe after the war, anything went. People were just trying to survive and move forward, but prior to the war, Aniela would've had a hard time living in Przemysl, being openly married to a Jewish man, although he tried to become integrated; had a "street name," had a last name that could've just passed for German, and didn't look strikingly Jewish.
Click below to
I told Renata that Aneila had told us that Edward was imprisoned at one point in the early 60s for something political…
Jerzy + Anna
It didn't take much to get arrested in the early 60s ... just say one wrong word to your neighbor, or even to your own child who repeats it in school, and suddenly you disappeared. That was everyone's worse fear--disappearing. It happened all the time. My mother sent me to Poland, where I spent the summer of 1963 in Przemysl visiting with her family. My parents did not accompany me; they had to work. I was 12 yrs. old, and the Polish relatives kept telling me over and over and over and over .... Don't speak loudly. Don't ask questions outside of the home. Don't express opinions. People were getting arrested left, right and sideways for the least little suspicion, and here I was, a kid from NYC, no experience living in a repressive regime, and curious about everything. I used to run around Przemysl and environs with a Kodak Brownie Starmite hanging from my neck, taking pictures of anything that interested me, and it used to give the relatives fits. They were terrified that something would happen to me and what would they tell my parents?! There was no meat to be had anywhere, except for an occasional chicken. There were long lines for any type of food, and oftentimes the quota ran out long before the line did. There was no freedom. People were suspicious of everyone, even their neighbors and friends, because one word from any of them to the Milicia and you were taken in for interrogation. Poland's vast natural resources (Przemysl sits on large reserves of natural gas) were being piped over the border to Russia while Poles had to use wood to cook and coal to heat. The dollar was King back then. One dollar equaled 100 zlote, and the average worker made 1200 zl. My mother's brother was an attorney. He made 2000 zlote a month. He could've made more, but he refused to join the Communist party, so he died a poor but honorable man. An unemployed person, or an old person, got 500 zl. a month. So my mother sent them $20/mo. for my care, which at that time was lmost half of a month's rent for her and a fortune for them, but she wanted them to take me around to see Krakow, Zakopane, Czestochowa ... and that $20 paid for train trips, hotels, meals, and there was still some left over. Not anymore!! Haha!! Today Poland is a relatively free country and life is as expensive as it is in the USA, from what I hear.
More stories...
My mother used to tell me about the Jewish people in Przemysl not being able to light their own fires or cookstoves on the Sabbath, as it was considered work. So the Jewish neighbors would get everything set up the night before -- the coals, the kindling, the pot on the stove, whatever it is they needed for the Sabbath, and then she'd go over to their houses and light all their fires for them. If she didn't come, they'd be out of luck, or have to find somebody else, so whenever she did come, they'd thank her profusely for doing this for them, hoping she'd return the next week. She was amused by that custom ... kind of like the Amish, trying to find a way around their religious restrictions. They can't own a car, but it's OK for them to ride in yours. They can't have a phone in the house, so for decades they'd have to go to the neighbor's to use the phone. Now with cellphones, that restriction doesn't apply, so it was common to see an Amish woman hanging out her wash on the line while chatting on her cellphone. 

Your grandparents were fortunate to leave Poland before WWII started. My mother lived in Przemysl during the war. She didn't finally get out until 1949, although she petitioned for years, on the grounds that she was an American-born citizen. The USA wanted to pay her passage, but she couldn't get Poland to issue her the passport and visa to leave. Przemysl was a city located right in the midst of the war. One week, the Germans were coming through one way; the next week, the Russians were coming through the other way. Rulership of the city changed routinely and each entered people's houses at will and helped themselves to anything they wanted. That said, I'll leave you with a funny story.

Amazingly, during the early years of WWII, my grandmother somehow ended up with a handful of oranges, which was almost unheard of during the war. She had them sitting in a small bowl in the parlor when the Bolsheviks entered her house to have a look around. She and my mother stepped aside and said nothing. The Bolsheviks were very simple, rough people. One of them went up to the bowl of oranges and lifted one of them out, rolled it around in his hand, examined it, smelled it, and obviously had no clue what the thing was. My grandmother said to him in a low, kind voice that those were oranges. He jerked upward, embarrased, realizing that his ignorance was showing. "I know!" he bellowed back at her, and with a sweeping gesture of his hand, he added "We have the largest factory of them in Moscow!"

Renata's mother was Wanda Michniowska. Her mother's name was Maria. More stories of the past...
I remember one other story that always stuck in my head, that my mother told me about. There was a lot of anti-Semitism in Przemysl, as I suppose there must have been in other Polish cities too, but I'll stick to what I know from her.

My mother told me many stories about the hatred of Jews in Poland, and one time I asked her why there was so much hostility. She said the Jews controlled the mercantile trade and when a Pole wanted to set up shop, he couldn't find a wholesaler to sell to him because it was predominantly controlled by Jews. They also owned a lot of apartment buildings in Przemysl and charged the "goy" a different rent than they charged their own. Same thing with money-lending. Even the Catholic Church, if it needed a new roof and didn't have the money, would have to borrow from a money-lender. Some lenders were fair about their interest rates. Some were not. So there was a lot of constantly simmering resentment which oftentimes tended to play out on the streets. It was not unusual for someone walking down the street to shove a Jewish person off the sidewalk and into the gutter, or to set their dog loose on them.

Przemysl is divided by the river San and people walked across it all the time going to and from town. Because that was one point where the population was concentrated, meaning you couldn't really step out of someone's way to avoid them, an obviously Jewish person could expect some name-calling, shoving, or worse. No doubt, Jews didn't like this, but they were also resigned to it, so they decided to treat it with a sense of humor. If they were shoved off of the sidewalk, or walkway and into the street or gutter, they didn't resist, hoping to sidestep a fight, but in acquiescing the sidewalk, they used to respond with this phrase, "Ny [a Jewish way of saying the word: no], Wy macie ulice, a my mamy kamienice." It rhymes, which makes it all the more clever. Basically it means-- Well, you have the streets, but we have the apartment buildings.

Wartime in Przemysl was absolutely terrifying for everybody. The Germans were almost equal in their contempt of Jews and Poles, both of whom they considered low-lives, worthy only of servitude or extermination. The Germans were intent on detroying the Polish intelligencia. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and almost anyone else with an education, they were all taken to camps and worked to death. If you had any skills or credentials, you hid them. My mother never told anyone that she had a Master's Degree in anthropology from the University in Lwow. She took lowly jobs and kept her mouth shut.

No one was allowed to have any type of meat in their possession either. "Keine fleisch!" they would say -- no meat! Meat was only for the German army. If you had any meat, you were to turn it over to the Germans. They took all the pigs, cows, and chickens. About the only thing they left were goats because they stunk, and horses because they were useful. If you were caught with meat, the penalty was nothing short of death. One day, an old man got some meat from somewhere, probably a dead horse, and he decided he was going to cook it up for himself. He closed the windows, but the tasty smell of his meal rose up through the chimney and alerted one of the sentry posted on the street corners. The neighbors could smell it too, including my grandmother, who poked her head out of the door to see what was going on. The German soldier went into the old man's house, dragged him into the middle of the street, shot him to death and left him there for his neighbors to bury. I asked my mother what the people ate during the war. She said, "One day we had potatoes with cabbage. The next day, we had cabbage with potatoes."

There was no baking allowed either. Fresh bread was for the Germans, not for the Poles. The only place where baking was allowed was at the hospital, for the sick, and my mother happened to work there during the war, at the switchboard. The cook liked her, and one day he gave her a whole loaf of bread. It was a day old, so it didn't have that recognizable fragrance anymore and would be safer to transport home. My mother wrapped the bread carefully, then tucked it into the front of her underwear. She covered it with her coat, and it made her look pregnant, but nothing more. She said she sweated bullets walking home, hoping none of the German sentry on the street corners would recognize her and stop her, knowing she wasn't pregnant the day before. When she came home with it, she didn't say a word. She just locked the doors, closed the windows, and pulled down all of the shades. My grandmother didn't know what was going on. She looked at the bulge under the coat, but she didn't say anything. Finally, when there was no threat of being seen, my mother lifted her skirt, took out the bread, unwrapped it and laid it on the table. Everyone gathered around, her parents and her brother, and they all stood there amazed, staring at it in silence. It was like a miracle, to see a loaf of bread. Finally, somebody made the gesture to hold hands. They prayed over the bread, thanking God with gratitude. My mother said she remembered that moment because it felt sacred, she said, like a priest's Consecration prayer at Mass, right before Holy Communion. Then they quickly ate the bread, even the crumbs, so there would be no trace of evidence left.

My mother told me that during the war, the desperate Jews would bring their children to the convents in Przemysl and beg them to please take them and save them. Bring them up as Catholics, they would say, it doesn't matter, just give them a chance to live. There were several religious orders in town -- the Carmelites, the Benedictines, both cloistered orders, and at least one other whose name I forget, that ran an orphanage. They would take the children when they could. The older girls, that had enough sense to be quiet, they would dress as nuns, quickly force them to memorize a litany of prayers, which was the test the Germans would spring on them to weed out the hidden Jews, and integrate them into the religious community in order to save them. The younger ones were more difficult. They would cry for their parents. It was risky to take them in and pretend they were orphans because they were likely to give everyone away. The babies were no problem, and many Jewish babies were raised by the nuns in Przemysl as Polish war orphans. Anna Wojtowicz had an aunt who was a nun in Przemysl, working at the orphanage. She might know more.
And now the almost inevitable coda to stories like these...
Incidentally, yesterday I went through some old papers of my father's that my stepmother in upstate New York mailed to me. On both his Polish and Italian documents, and even on one German document he had, I think from the time he was in a German work camp, he listed his mother's maiden name as Isaac, or Isaak, not Isacescu, as I believed it was. Or maybe they changed it whenever they left Romania. Yet in her post-war letters to my father, my grandmother came across as obviously Catholic. She would invoke Mary, the Blessed Mother, and the Saints to protect him and our family. No one ever told me .... definitely not my father .... and maybe my grandmother really was raised a Catholic, but her surname is definitely not. I'm amazed my father had the courage to tell the Germans that his mother's maiden name was Isaac. What was he thinking?!! Who knows! I'm asking my questions too late in life to get answers. You are wise to pursue your own family's truths NOW.

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Blogger Marianne Petit said...

Hello. I found this blog from a few years ago and I am hoping you will get this. I am thinking about writing a fictional story based on true life experiences during WWII. I am wondering if you, or anyone you know, have any family stories I can use. While I may have to twist your story to suit the book, I will, at the end of the book, list your name and the story you give me exactly as you have told me. In my first book, I used stories told to me by my parents and friends and I would like to do the same for this sequel.
for example. My dad was in the Free French. He and his friend were starving and they came across a farmer in the field who offered them blue cheese that was sitting in the sun. My dad hated that cheese but was grateful and ate. In my story. Behind the Mask, it is my heroine who is sitting on a train and starving. you can contact me at
Thanks, Marianne Petit

4:47 PM  

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