Above, in the 1930s this building was one of three synagogues in the centre of Mysłowice. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained
For some notes on the history of Jews in Mysłowice, please see the section at the end of this page.
Encounters in Mysłowice: May 2016
Before setting off, I had no particular expectations of Mysłowice, except that I thought it would be much smaller than it actually is. I wanted to visit in hopes of getting some information about my father’s much-loved uncle Kurt Bloch, who lived here with his family in the 1930s and early 1940s.
As on our last visit to Poland in 2015, my first port of call this year was to meet with the extraordinarily generous Małgosia Płoszaj. Małgosia is busy studying now, yet still kindly made time for us, both in carrying out research before our trip and in taking us around some archives and towns – one of which was Mysłowice.
Małgosia said that she didn’t know very much about Mysłowice, so she put out a message on her Facebook page. Sure enough, a friend got in touch, and put her in contact with the director of an industrial heritage museum on the edge of town. Despite it being a Monday, when museums in Poland are closed, he kindly agreed to meet us at the museum (see http://cmp-muzeum.pl/?lang=en), to see if he could be of assistance.
Mysłowice City Museum
Małgosia explained what we were looking for and we showed some of our letters and documents – this one gives the town’s name on the stamp, for example …
Mysłowice post mark. Source: Werner Weissenberg, Correspondence, pers. archive, copyright retained
The director got on the phone, and from there he accessed the internet. Within a matter of minutes he had a list of debtors from an old newspaper. And Kurt and Frieda were on the list! Now, while it’s a bit of a pity about the context, it’s not especially surprising that at some point a small business owner would owe somebody money – especially with the extra costs that Jews were often forced to pay in taxes and so on. For me, the amazing discovery was the confirmation, finally, that the Frieda referred to in letters was indeed Kurt’s wife. We had become increasingly aware this was a possibility, but here at last was proof. Of such happy (and surprising) moments is family research sometimes made up!
Then another member of the museum staff came in to see if she could help. She took one look at a photograph of little Ilse Bloch on her bike in front of a building, and she knew which building it was. It stands next to the site of where the main synagogue used to be – and can be seen in photographs of the synagogue shown at the bottom of this page. The building had been a large school on the town’s main square.
Meanwhile, the document that the director had found online also provided an address for Kurt and Frieda (Plesserstrasse 17), which gave us further useful information, so now we could go and see if the building still existed. They also suggested that we try an archive in the town, and a primary school, which they believed retained some old records.
Having given up some of their quiet day off to two random strangers on an even stranger hunt for lost people, these two lovely people bid us a kind goodbye, and the historian gave us a short tour of some of the museum exhibits as she showed us the way out. I think I almost floated out.: we were leaving with far more information than I had expected to find here, and we had met with such kindness and generosity. It was overwhelming.
One interesting item that the historian showed us was the original street sign from the road on which Kurt lived, placed on a mock-up of a Jewish shop front among the exhibits.
Plesserstrasse street sign in the industrial museum in Mysłowice. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, pers. archive, copyright retained
Our historian guide also showed us some rooms they had constructed, showing typical Silesian home interiors from the era we are interested in.
One of these days we’d like to return here for a proper look around when the museum is open. It’s a fascinating place.
The City Museum of Mysłowice: a typical Silesian kitchen of the era. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, pers. archive, copyright retained
Finally, our guide showed us a photograph she has on her computer of an old synagogue (number ‘one’ – see the final section of this page, on Mysłowice synagogues, below).
Thank you so much to the kind people of the City Museum of Mysłowice. You started us off on a most extraordinary day. And we’d never have got anywhere without your generous help.
Mysłowice town centre
We parked the car in the centre of Mysłowice and walked to see our newly discovered sites. This was clearly an affluent town in its industrial heyday. It is still worth a visit to see the traces of its past in the buildings and streets. We also found it was more than worth the visit for the many warm, welcoming, and helpful people we encountered.
Mysłowice: a town square. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, pers. archive, copyright retained
Mysłowice: a town square, 2016. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, pers. archive, copyright retained
We arrived in a small square with old buildings remaining on two sides (pictures above), at one side of which was Plesserstrasse (now ul. Grunwaldzka).
ul. Grunwaldzka (Plesserstrasse), Mysłowice 2016. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained
Plesserstrasse, around 1915. Source: Original image at fotopolska.eu, by labeo7
Here, we walked on what are probably the same cobbled streets that my great uncle walked down, and that little Ilse would have cycled along on her bicycle.
We located the building that had been the Hotel Polonia, the owner of which we had learned was a client of Kurt’s at one time. And despite many changes, we have been able to get a decent idea of what the street must have looked like in the 1930s, both from what we saw that day, and from looking at old photographs of buildings on the internet.
This building is where the Hotel Polonia was located in the 1930s. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained
It used to look like this: you can see the name above the windows on the first floor, on the left of the image.
Hotel Polonia, 1930s. Source: Museum Miasta Myslowice (http://www.muzeummyslowic.pl), with kind permission to reproduce here.
From here we walked up to another square, on which we found the school Ilse is in front of in one of our photographs. Apparently it has twice been remodelled in the intervening years, but both the museum staff and some archivists independently verified that this was the same building.
Ex-School, Mysłowice, 2016. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained
To the left of this picture, you can just see a yellow sign. This is where the main synagogue stood in the 1930s (see section on synagogues, below).
At the other side of this old school, which now stands empty, is a municipal archive. It was suggested that we visit here, to see if there were any town records that might give us more information about the family. However, when Małgosia told our story, it soon became clear that this was in fact not a historical archive, but a modern council office.
Nevertheless, in the process of explaining what we had come for, when we again showed some pictures and documents, some of the staff became interested. One had a number of stunning hand-drawn architectural sketches of old buildings around his home town. I think I understood that he is attempting to locate all the old buildings that were once here.
Below are two of the sketches he showed us of Plesserstrasse 17, which is the address we’d just found for Kurt’s work premises.
Plesserstrasse 17; architectural drawing 1. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained by artist
Plesserstrasse 17; architectural drawing 1. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained by artist
These incredible drawings are clearly a labour of love – and skill. I hope he puts them together in published form some day. They enabled us to get a much clearer idea of what had once been on this site before the building was demolished in the 1970s.
Once again, then, we had gained more information and had encountered kindness, interest, and hospitable Polish courtesy. These good people had taken time from a busy working day to help us on our way.
Thank you so much to the Mysłowice municipal archivists.
Primary school number 2, Mysłowice
Our final destination was to be a primary school, located a short walk from the main squares.
Myslowice streets, May 2016. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained
On our way we kept a careful watch for anything that might look familiar from photographs. Although this was to no avail, it is interesting to examine a town with this sharp focus, and it certainly makes the architectural period detail stand out in the search for traces of our past.
Primary school number 2. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained
And so I come to what was probably the most remarkable discovery of our trip. In the school you see in the picture above were two very busy but very kind women who were going through their daily procedures for running a primary school. There were pictures on the walls here, and those familiar primary school sounds and smells of chatter and lunch, of paint and glue, and general busyness.
I don’t think either Małgosia or I really believed we would find anything here. Indeed, it seemed rather impertinent to be interrupting their busy school day. We were about ready to forget about it when we decided to give it a go, with the expectation that we would come out with nothing and head home.
So, in we went, feeling rather foolish, and again Małgosia told my story, and again I got out my pictures and documents, including the photograph of our little Ilse.
And of all the things in all the world … One of the women reached into the back of a cupboard and pulled out a single old black book.
To be honest, I still assumed this was a dead end, but she took us to an empty, quiet school room, and on tiny children’s tables and chairs we started to look through this slim volume. It contained the names of children who had attended the school in some past years. There had been a fire in the building in which these old records had been kept, and this was the only book that had survived the flames.
Still, this wasn’t sounding any more likely to reveal anything of ours, as her short history of the book continued, and as we continued running our fingers down the list of names.
And then … the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, even as I write this …
We saw Ilse Bloch’s Polish name and date of birth, as well as other information, all of which is outlined on her page.
I could hardly draw breath: as Małgosia chattered on to the teacher, thank goodness, I just stared at the page, and then started taking photographs, almost moving on automatic.
We didn’t find anything about Ilse’s sister Ruth, sadly, but I have some information about Kurt’s oldest daughter from letters from her father and her aunt, and when I set out to research this project my best hope was to find at least some small, solid, piece of real information about the life of every family member my father had told me about. And as I already had something about Ruth, my fear had been that little Ilse would be the one family member that I wouldn’t be able to fulfil this wish for.
Yet, here she was: Ilse Bloch at Primary school number 2 in Mysłowice.
I don’t think those two good women had any idea at all of just how much this discovery has meant to me. In a half hour of brisk and sensible kindness, they made my trip into something extraordinary and meaningful.
And I don’t even know their names.
As a final note here, the school had its centenary celebrations a couple of years ago, and the women explained that they had decided to make a similar list of the children now in school. So, perhaps in another 70 years some other family member might come along, wanting to know something about a little girl or boy, otherwise lost forever. I wasn’t sure, from what was translated to me, whether they have completed this task yet or not: I just hope that, if not, our discovery may give them the impetus to complete their task.
I can’t adequately express my gratitude for this extraordinary find. So all I can say is a heartfelt thank you to the staff of primary school number 2 in Mysłowice.
A final encounter
As we walked back to our cars that day, a man dashed across a road to greet Małgosia. When he had dashed off again after a short chat with her, Małgosia turned to explain who he is.
Now, Małgosia is very modest about her involvement in all this, and it has taken me some time to start to glean some idea of just how instrumental she has been in renovating many, many Jewish cemeteries across this area of Poland and beyond. I still only have a vague idea, I think, of just how much work she has done in this area alone.
Anyway, having found the Jewish cemetery in Mysłowice to be in a very poor state indeed, she had begun a campaign of letter and article writing, trying to shame and encourage local people and politicians into taking action.
In one such letter that I have since found on the web (http://www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu), she wrote, in January 2013:
“I have seen many ruined cemeteries but I was shocked by what I have just seen in the Mysłowice graveyard. The cemetery is used by the locals as a dump fill, a place for drinking sprees and a place where you can dispose of all kinds of objects which the locals do not need anymore. I cannot find any explanation for such behavior of the local population, nor can I justify institutions which neighbor the cemetery, on which they regularly dumped leaves over the past years. There are also piles of leaves discarded by an adjacent senior high school. Heaps made of leaves cover tombstones of former Myslowice residents near the cemetery fence. Is this situation not a shame for the town? How can the locals explain themselves?”
Anyway, having written these many letters and accosted many locals (I would guess!) to what seemed like no avail, Małgosia turned up one day to find the cemetery was being cleared, and that the clear up was being led by this good man who had dashed across the street to greet her: Bogusława Polak. I have now seen the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures on the web and his hard work has had a remarkable affect.
So, it would seem that this is another good person of Mysłowice who is helping descendants of the town’s Jews to find their history and traces of their roots in a now-decent, respectful, and thoughtful environment. It is good to encounter so much kindness in the present from people who have no need to be so helpful, yet take time of out of busy lives and jobs to help, for no reward.
But for what it’s worth, may they take our sincere and heartfelt thanks with them.
Mysłowice: a Jewish past
According to Virtual Shtetl, the population of Mysłowice in 1910 was around 18,000; around 488 (2.7%) of these were Jews. By 1921 this had dropped to 463 Jews living in the town. By 1939 the total population was just over 20,000, 162 (0.8%) of whom were Jews. Onewas my great uncle Kurt, another was great aunt Frieda, and two more were their young daughters, Ruth and Ilse Bloch.
In 1946, the population of Mysłowice was 23,786, none of whom were Jews.
Mysłowice is a town in Silesia located about 15 minutes by car from the large industrial city of Katowice.
According to Virtual Shtetl (which provides an excellent short history of Jewish communities in Mysłowice over the centuries), a town has been here since at least the 1200s. By 1742 it was part of the Prussian empire. It grew considerably with the industrial and agricultural development that occurred throughout most of Silesia in the nineteenth century. In 1921 it was incorporated into Poland, and at the start of the Second World War it was occupied by the German Army, in 1939. During the war, some labour camps were built here, as was one of the many sub-camps of Auschwitz.
After Mysłowice became part of Poland, Jewish emigration to Germany increased – hence the drop in numbers over this time. When the German Army invaded Poland in September 1939, they destroyed the synagogue, which had not been obliterated during the events of November 1938 because it was not at that time part of Germany, where hundreds of synagogues had been destroyed over a few days during the previous autumn.
At the start of the 1940s, the intention was to exterminate Jews and to forcibly move Poles ‘to the East’ in order to make space for ‘Aryan’ lebensraum (living space); many people from both these groups were forced into slave labour in industry and agriculture.
Silesia was one of the first regions affected. Initially, the German invaders established ghettos here; in 1940, the largest of these were in Będzin and Sosnowiec. Chrzanów / Krenau was the next town down the road from Sosnowiec out of Mysłowice, and from all these areas a vast amount of slave labour was provided. As part of this plan, Jews were also deported from Mysłowice to the Krenau ghetto. According to Małgosia, they were driven out to Sosnowiec and Chrzanów over the bridge located just around the corner from where my aunt and uncle lived.
The road and bridge leading out of Mysłowice in the direction of Sosnowiec and Krenau ghettos. This photograph was taken at the approximate location of Kurt’s house in the 1930s. The building itself was demolished in the 1970s. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photograph, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained
Mysłowice bridge, circa 1910. You can see the main synagogue (see notes below), centre left, and the school discussed above is also visible, on the far left-hand side. Original image source: fotopolska.eu, by Neo[EZN].
There were three synagogues in Mysłowice, the remains of which are shown in the photographs below. None has a plaque of remembrance that we could see on our visit in 2016.
The first shown here, the smallest of the three, remains almost intact in terms of the building itself, although the Star of David has been removed from the top.
Mysłowice synagogue (one): now and then. Source: archivist, http://cmp-muzeum.pl/?lang=en
The next pictures show the old synagogue building in more detail, in photographs taken on our visit in May 2016. As with all images on this website, please just click on any photograph to enlarge.
Myslowitz synagogue (one). Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photographs, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained
The second synagogue we saw is also intact as a building, although again its purpose has long since changed. At least this one is still in use as a religious building, however. It was built around 1826, but after the new temple was built (see below), this one was sold and is currently a Catholic house of prayer.
Myslowitz synagogue (two). Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photographs, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained
The largest synagogue in Mysłowice was an extraordinary building of Moorish influence. It was built between 1895 and 1899, and designed by Ignatz Grunfeld from Charlottenburg.
Mysłowice / Myslowitz synagogue (three) and school. Source: Original image at https://fotopolska.eu/470772,foto.html, by siggi
The site of the main Mysłowice synagogue today: May 2016. Source: Clare Weissenberg, Photographs, May 2016, pers. archive, copyright retained
One of the extraordinary things about being ‘on the ground’ in these family towns and cities is both the improved understanding of scale and a very clear sense of location. The synagogue in the black and white image above is shown next to a large rectangular building. This building was a school in the 1930s, and it was just down the road from where Kurt and his family lived. He only had to take a few steps to be at the synagogue, his daughters had an easy walk to school, and Frieda would have had a short stroll to the shops, as they were right in the centre of things. Jewish life was not lived on the edges or on the outskirts of towns in the 1930s, but was very much at the heart of Mysłowice’s social, cultural, and mercantile life.