Back in March 2015, I was in contact with Peter Crosby, a UK genealogist looking into his Silesian–Jewish ancestry. He has the most extraordinary website (http://gen.scatteredmind.co.uk) of family names and connections – testament to decades of work carried out since the 1970s.
I asked Peter if he knew anyone in Poland who might be able to help me access archives in what I thought was my grandmother’s town of birth.
Dear Clare, My friend in Rybnik is Malgosia Ploszaj (it's Margaret in Polish). She's a leading light in Shtetl and numerous other Judeo-historical organisations. Her email address is ... , and she speaks and writes perfect English. Ratibor is just a few miles NW of Rybnik. If you tell her what you know of your grandmother – full name, date and place of birth, parents' names including maiden name, I'm sure Malgosia will do what she can. The records are typically only in summary form and will fill in any blanks in the details I just mentioned. For genealogical purposes those details will usually suffice, but once you have them you can apply to the regional state archive office for a copy of the certificate; you'll find details of the offices on the JRI-P website. Happy hunting!
So, rather nervously, I wrote to the email address supplied,
Dear Malgorzata Ploszaj Peter Crosby suggested it would be ok to get in touch with you regarding our family search. I do hope you don’t mind. I gather that you sometimes carry out searches for family documents in the area – and my father’s family lived in Upper Silesia until the 1930s/40s. Only my father survived the war (he died in 1990), and I have been trying to find out something about that half of my family recently. Is this something you are able to help with at the moment? If it’s not convenient, or if it’s not something you are interested in doing anymore, I would of course understand. My husband and I are hoping to come out to Poland a bit later this year, but we’ve never been before, and I yet don’t know where to start, so any advice would be very welcome! We also have no Polish language skills ... I have some names, and some dates and places of birth, so I do have something to start with, but I don’t know where to go to look for records of births, marriages, deaths, businesses, houses, etc. I’d just like to take some photographs and see some of the places where our family once lived, and if possible to get copies of the documents, if any have survived, that would tell us a bit more about them. Kind regards Clare
Very soon afterwards, back came what was to be a typically succinct and helpful reply:
Dear Clare, Yes, I may help you. Please write what you know about your father's family (towns, names, etc.). I will do the first research using Polish resources (digital libraries, Polish books). Then we will decide what next. With best regards, Malgosia Ploszaj
And so it began …
Małgosia spent some time with the little information I was able to send to her at this stage, and then sent me an MS Word document of information and the following email:
Email: 24 March Dear Clare, A few notes I've made in red color (see attached file). Yesterday I read almost the whole of your blog "Numbers to Names". Fantastic! You should come to Poland (Silesia) to seek for traces. I will write more in few days. Did you ever have contact with Roger Lustig? Regards, Malgosia
An example follows of the type of information attached with the above email (here, my information is in normal font, Małgosia’s additions are in bold; there were several columns of such notes on different family members). The reply contained a useful mix of reading suggestions, thoughts on potential follow-ups, and map references, shortly followed by another email (below), which contained further information that was a result of informal crowd-sourcing:
In 1884, Jewish births were recorded by civil services, so I think she should be in civil records.
Now Królowej Bony; building survived the war and still exists;
… then at Niederwallerstrasse/Niederwallstraße
Dolnych Wałów 17, Gliwice – the building still exists. You may see it here:
Gliwice synagogue was very close. It had no.15 at Dolnych Walow.
Deported, ‘probably to’ Auschwitz, 28 May 1942
Did you read “Geschichte der Judischen Gemeinde Gleiwitz 1933–1945? By R. Schlesinger, available at Leo Baeck Institute.
Email: 26 March Dear Clare, My friend from Gliwice (Gleiwitz) sent me a list of Jews deported from Gliwice to Auschwitz (probably). You may see Else and Hermine there (list attached). Also some Weissenbergs and a few "geboren Bloch" women. According to this list Else (Elsbeth) was born in Radoschau, which is completely different place here in Silesia. The original list of deported Jews is in ZIH (Jewish Historical Institute) in Warsaw. I attach an announcement from Pless (my friend from Pless sent me that). He told me that Leopold was a merchant in Pless for short time. If Werner was born there, civil records (or archive in Pless) should have his certificate of birth. As regards Myslowitz. Another of my colleagues is looking for any information about Kurt and his daughters and wife, but it won't be easy. In Poland all documents which are younger than 100 years cannot be seen by non-family. Ruth and Ilse were born in the 20s so ... You, as family (but you must prove connection) may ask for the copy of the certificate of birth. When you come to Poland I may go with you and perhaps we will be able to get it. A friend from Myslowitz told me that Jews from that town were deported to Auschwitz–Birkenau, but some of them to Belzec. Belzec is in the East of present Poland. Till next time, Malgosia
And so it went on. Małgosia would periodically check in with me, or with the website, and then look something up and make some more suggestions, or send through another item she had found. Or she would crowd-source a translation of something I had found and puzzled over. All this input from Małgosia and her friends was immensely helpful in getting some of my early information fleshed out considerably.
As regards "Happier times" (a reference to a photograph) dated 26 July 1931, the place is Zobten – now Ślęża. Very popular and famous mountain. Here you may see old pictures from that place which was always very mysterious and with many legends. http://dolnoslaskie.fotopolska.eu/Sleza. Picture "Walking party" was taken somewhere near some kind of a military building (typical stripes on the entrance gate) and in the mountains (see men's shoes) and sticks. I assume it was either Festung Silberberg (now Srebrna Góra) or Glatz (now Kłodzko). Both towns were (and still are) very popular among tourists. Fortresses (Festungs) were famous from Bonaparte's times and people used to visit them. Silberberg (Srebrna Góra) http://dolnoslaskie.fotopolska.eu/Twierdza_Srebrna_Gora Glatz (Kłodzko) http://dolnoslaskie.fotopolska.eu/Klodzko/b15432,Twierdza_Klodzko.html It is only my theory :-)
The next significant events surrounded our first trip to our family’s home region, which was then Silesia, in Germany – now Śląsk, in Poland.
That first trip is documented elsewhere, but what I haven’t highlighted there – because I didn’t know it at the time – is how much we would come to value Małgosia, both as a friend and for her research skills. And for her remarkable ability to just encourage people to help us. She goes into an archive or an office with a huge smile and just starts talking. And generally, even the most sceptical of listeners has ended up dropping whatever they are doing to help out. This gift for connecting with people to draw them into our story has led to some extraordinary pieces of information and documentation being uncovered.
Małgosia and I are pretty much the same age, and as such we are comfortable together and know our own and each other’s limitations: when we finally need lunch, we just need lunch, however many more documents might be waiting to be found! Małgosia is quietly respectful of the fact that I have a certain amount of emotional baggage with me when I travel to some places or find particular links, and she gives myself and my husband some space when we need it.
However, we soon found we had a mutual interest in uncovering whatever is there to be discovered, and these days we periodically look up from a new ‘find’ to give each other a cheeky smile in recognition of our self-proclaimed status as ‘detectives’ on the trail of old documents, pictures, buildings, and gravestones.
By nature we are both, I think, quite reserved, but in our mutual understanding of this we have grown close, and I miss Małgosia’s brisk common sense and extraordinary generosity when we have been away for some months.
As a testament to this – and to the many other people in Poland who have been so generous with their time and resources – I have even dreamed from time to time about buying a house and settling down there. It is an immense step, even to feel this way, given the dark complexity of what I felt about Silesia before my first visit. And my sense of ‘going home’ now when we visit Poland is in large part attributable to the warm kindness shown by Małgosia and by her friends and colleagues to whom she introduces us.
As I have written elsewhere, I felt a dark desolation about my initial visit to Poland. I didn’t know what to expect, and was fearful. On arrival, I had a deep sense that no-one was left here to greet me. Where so many of our family once lived, there would be no warm hugs on arrival – no exchange of family news, nor anywhere to collapse in a friendly room with a cup of coffee.
Today, I know when I visit that I’ll find Małgosia waiting, with a warm smile and arms spread wide, for just that welcoming embrace.
We briefly exchange our news in the car, driving to the next town or set of archives, and we soon get down together to our latest bout of detective work.
When we visit Poland today, while we may have no family here, we now know that we have friends.
And knowing that we are no longer alone makes all the difference.
A while ago, I asked Małgosia if I could write something about her and her assistance on my website, and she replied briefly, with a characteristic shrug,
"You may write anything you want. As you know I live in Rybnik and mostly do research for Rybnik Jews. Sometimes from other Silesian towns. I also cooperate with Virtual Shtetl (www.sztetl.sztetl.org.pl). Because I love Jewish cemeteries. I visited almost 300 of them in present Poland. That's all."
Now, I was increasingly aware that this wasn’t ‘all’ … so I went a-Googling in order to be able to pay some measure of fuller tribute to the work Małgosia carries out for those looking for information and connections here.
On a personal level, Małgosia has a website at the following address: http://szufladamalgosi.pl
Here, she documents her many searches – especially for those with Jewish descendants in her home town of Rybnik. I can’t imagine that this is always an easy task – either in terms of time spent, or in terms of how it may sometimes be perceived and received. And yet she ploughs on with this important work and I’ve never heard a word of complaint from her about any aspect of what she does here.
In addition, Małgosia, as far as I have been able to ascertain,
- gives talks for genealogists at the Jewish Historical Institute
- has presented a photographic exhibition on Jewish cemeteries of Upper Silesia
- has given a series of talks titled ‘Geboren in Rybnik’
- has written on Jewish themes in the museum at Myslowice
- has taken part on several occasions in the commemorative ‘March of the Living’ (https://motl.org)
Małgosia has written letters to local politicians and newspapers to build momentum to get an unknown number of Jewish cemeteries cleaned and cleared so that we descendants may view the gravestones with dignity (for example, http://www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu/2014/01/02/miracle-clean-up-care-for-jewish-cemetery-in-myslowice-pl/”). She also joins in the physical work of many of these clear-ups, from what I can gather.
In addition, as far as I can work out from my poor translations of Polish articles, Małgosia
- has been given an award for her work by the Jewish Historical Institute
- and has received official recognition from the Israeli Ambassador to Poland for her work towards the rescue of Jewish heritage in Poland https://www.thejc.com/news/world/righteous-honour-for-13-poles-who-helped-jews-1.22163.
In her ‘spare time’, Małgosia also studies at the University of Humanities and Economics in Łodz.
Expert in this area, Roger Lustig, has paid tribute to Małgosia’s long years of work on this subject – here, for example: http://www.avotaynuonline.com/2009/10/cemeteries-in-upper-silesia-by-roger-lustig/
And to me, in an email, he wrote simply, “You’re in good hands with Małgosia”.
Recently, Małgosia has been giving a series of talks at the Jewish Burial house in Gliwice, where she works as a volunteer. The burial house is now a museum and beautifully restored cemetery. See the news report here, for example:
I know, from one of the few occasions on which we’ve been able to get Małgosia to talk about what she has achieved, that she has spent two summers accompanying someone who wishes to document hundreds of lost Jewish cemeteries across a vast swathe of Poland – and I believe into other areas of Eastern Europe. This has involved very long days indeed, and often harsh conditions climbing into the mountains and through long unkempt grounds.
Back at her desk, Małgosia edits www.kirkuty.xip.pl – a site that documents hundreds of Jewish cemeteries. As I have said elsewhere, she contributes to the immensely useful Virtual Shtetl online database.
I have no idea what else Małgosia has done: perhaps one day I’ll be able to get her to tell me her story. But even what I have outlined here knocks anything most of us have done into the shade. Małgosia has all the hallmarks of a serious academic in her approach to her ‘detective work’ and it seems to me that for the last twelve or so years she has been fired by two passions: to learn and to help. Although much of this work in the villages, towns, and cities of Śląsk/Silesia is carried out using her engaging smile and considerable existing knowledge in the area, this belies what must be both back-breakingly hard physical work in the cemeteries, and years of painstakingly careful research in databases and archives.
I am now in my fifties, and it has taken this last half a century to get to the point where I can laugh as well as weep when dealing with our past and our family history. For most of my life this story has been a dark, traumatic haunting, as anyone whose family were murdered in the Shoah will understand only too well.
So what made the change – to the point where I could incorporate laughter and curiosity into my research into my family’s dreadful past?
When my mother died in 2014, I attended a series of sessions of therapy with George – a superb psychiatrist in London, whom I ought to have had the good sense to go to many years before. A few months later, I had reluctantly to end my therapy (mundanely, because of the cost), and a couple of months later I began this website. I was eventually to realise that in fact my therapy had never ended: it had just taken a different course and a different form.
This project became both my continuing therapy, and a means by which, finally, I found a voice in which I could narrate our history. I had spent my life before this always needing to write about it, yet never feeling that the history was mine to be told.
Małgosia’s extraordinary generosity with her time – even when she is clearly tired – has meant that I have been able to seek for new information alongside her, in company, which has been immensely significant for me. Her clear, common sense tones proclaim time and again: ‘Of course!’ and ‘We can! We can ask!’
Małgosia brings a sense of ‘the possible’ to things that only a moment before had seemed impossible.
Where the first half of my life was lived alone where this subject was concerned – it was always “You mustn’t”, rather than “Of course!” – Małgosia has quietly encouraged me to approach our story with good humour as well as with the humility that this subject demands. But approach it we always do, and we keep moving the history forwards – together – further into the light and into the realm of open knowledge, instead of oblivion.
With Małgosia by my side, I need not be afraid of digging deeper. In her company, I never feel that a question can’t be asked – or that my need for knowledge has no right to be fulfilled.
What better educator and friend could anyone ask for – than someone who helps us to feel this way?
For the freedom of thinking and the freedom of heart and mind that she has helped me to find – I wish to pay tribute here, with deep gratitude – to my dear Małgosia.
And for my family, who might have remained forever lost to us without Małgosia’s help …
אני מודה לך
From numbers to names