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I miss Poland already.
When we first visited Poland in May 2015, I felt nervous about making the trip to the place our father was born and lived in for nearly thirty years.
He had always asserted that Germany was unsafe and that we should not visit. And in his day, this area of Poland was a part of Germany. It seemed to twist his wishes to visit now that it was part of a different state, because these were still the same places he had lived in. The names of towns and regions might have changed, and the people had changed too – but it still felt like a betrayal.
However, by the end of our first trip 18 months ago, I had both raised and lain to rest so many of the ghosts that had troubled me all these long years. And by the time we returned some months later, and again last week, I felt at home and at ease. We have met with nothing but gracious and warm hospitality in Poland, and with an extraordinary interest in our family project and a keen willingness to help with it.
I have to finish work this week ahead of the family holidays now fast approaching. But I have carved out some time today to upload some of the pictures we took at Bytom cemetery last week.
Here, we found the graves of my great grandparents, Albert and Bettina (geb. Pinoff) Weissenberg, and I have written up the visit to the cemetery on their pages: as usual, please just click to follow the links.
As ever, I would have got nowhere with this part of my project without Malgosia’s help. She had been in contact with Eve, who manages the Jewish cemetery at Bytom, and has apparently done so for the last twenty or more years.
I was worried for their health in the freezing weather that day, but Eve had already located the graves, ready for when we arrived, and she took us straight to them. As there are around two and a half thousand graves here, we were grateful not to have to search around for too long, with the snow on the ground and our toes, unused to this cold, freezing despite our thick socks and walking boots.
Eve had also looked out other Weissenberg graves for us to photograph in case one proves at a later date to be a family marker.
And she found us one grave marked Weissenberg, Kind (child) – and I wondered again about Edgar. Was this the last resting place of Leopold’s little brother, who died in childhood? We will never know, in all likelihood, and the gravestone for this little one, whoever s/he was, is now broken by tree roots and lies buried in the snow.
The woman who looks after the Jewish cemetery at Bytom has some extraordinary record books on which to draw. She has a huge plan of the whole site, and lists of numbers and names that correspond to the known graves.
She was extremely kind and patient on this freezing cold day, and gave us as much time as we needed to be with our family – here, where the family once lived, in Beuthen / Bytom, Upper Silesia.
It is difficult to explain why this matters so much – to have found this gravestone.
Partly, I think, where there is so little to be found, these moments that show us that our families did exist – that they did once live here – are deep and meaningful indeed. They are acknowledged.
I have a letter written by great aunts Clara and Hedel, in which they mention going to their parents’ grave – this grave – on the anniversary of their deaths (husband and wife died exactly one year apart, on 5th February 1920 and 1921).
Clara and Hedwig took flowers and placed them on the grave, as any of us children would do for our parents.
Yet, as I looked on this place, I knew that Clara and Hedel had had no-one to do this for them, because they had no grave: by the time they were deported, no-one was left to pay their respects and to say prayers for their dead.
Clara and Hedel died in horror, fear, and shame – they died alone and remain unburied, somewhere.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, indeed.
So, I felt that here at least were two family members who had died as people should die. They will have had prayers said for them. They will have left behind family to mourn them and to do the right thing by them. They will have died in dignity, in homes and in hospitals, cared for and loved, prayed over and grieved for, and remembered. They were buried, here in Bytom, and had a gravestone erected, and flowers brought to it on anniversaries.
And we stood where my great aunts would have stood to pay their respects to our family matriarch and patriarch. Clare and Hedel would have stood here with their memories of them, as anyone would do today of their parents. We saw the holder for the flowers they placed here. My father would also have stood here to pay his respects and to say a prayer for his grandparents. And Leopold would have stood here too, to grieve for his parents’ deaths.
I am so grateful to all the people who worked so hard to enable us to stand here with our family, and to remember, and to imagine, and to know we belong together as a family again.
From numbers to names.