Luggage that cannot be unpacked

Marzena Dobosz

In pre-war Poznań, with a populace of around 270,000, Jews constituted just over one per cent of the population. After the war, only a few returned to their homes, and even they left quite quickly afterwards. Most of them went to Israel, and here in the 1990s, the survivors decided to meet. They also organized a convention in Poznań. "We finished the roll-call in a few minutes because so few of us were left alive" - ​​Hersz Kronenberg recalls those events in a story entitled "Nothing here for us". It’s one of the fourteen accounts collected by Zbigniew Pakuła in the book "Chaverim. Jews of Poznań". It is a bitter read.

The stories collected in the volume published by the Miasteczko Poznań Association are a record of the conversations that the author of “Friends” (Chaverim means "friends" in Hebrew) had with his protagonists. He met some of them when they visited Poznań in the 1990s and made friends with others during his travel to Israel. Letters and memories are an essential part of the book.

Actually, the book took thirty years to be written, although the author gave it its final shape in the last year. The stories told by the characters of "Chaverim", however, reach much further back into the past: to the interwar period, to the times of their childhood and adolescence, and even earlier – to the youth of their parents and grandparents. Most of these families did not come from Poznań. They settled here in the 1920s after the Greater Poland region returned to the motherland. Germans and German Jews left Poznań at that time, while residents of the more impoverished areas of the country came in to make a living. The book's protagonists graduated from schools in Poznań, studied and started working. When the war broke out, they were in their teens.

They remember well the wartime wanders, time in ghettos and camps, and deportations to the eastern outskirts of Soviet Russia. They survived the war, sometimes as the only ones from the family; sometimes after many years they found their brother, mother or sister. They did not return to Poznań. They had nothing to come back to. Nobody was waiting for them here. Nobody cried after them. That is why the friendships from childhood were so meaningful. The opportunity to remember the school on Szewska Street, shops around the Old Market Square, playtime, trips and time spent together was priceless. "Our life is a long journey, from the backyard at Mickiewicza Street to the house we found in Israel. It is extraordinary that three girls from one tenement house survived", says Anna Krasnokucka. The memory also brought up bad things: stones thrown through the windows into the school, boycott of Jewish shops, ostracism of neighbours.

Memories from the 1930s, from the time of growing anti-Semitic tendencies, are painful. Still, the war and the Holocaust are yet to come. War stories of "Chaverim" heroes, awareness of life with a wrongful death sentence, postponed until tomorrow seem unbelievable. And yet. "I did not think about the crematoria. After each completed selection, I returned to the camp routine, saying: I will live until tomorrow" - Jerzy Herszberg recalls life in the Birkenau extermination camp. We know the accounts of the survivors, we know what life was like in ghettos and camps, or rather what death was like. Yet, the wartime fate of Poznań residents sends shivers down your spine. How to read it, how to understand it, how not to fall into pieces?

The former inhabitants of Poznań settle abroad, most often in Israel. They are building a new state for themselves. They want their children and grandchildren not to be afraid for their lives. To be at home. They come to Poland rarely, sometimes at the grandson's request, to show him around the memorial sites, but also to return to places kept in memory as relics: the family home, the apartment on the first floor, the toy store, the school playground, the summer camp near the city.

I don't have the key to this book. I'm still looking for it. I read it for the first time with a city map to find pre-war addresses, "very Jewish", as one of the heroes said: streets Szewska, Dominikańska, Żydowska, Wroniecka, Stawna, then Małe Garbary, Święty Wojciech... And back to Pocztowa, Wielka, Stary Rynek, Kozia and further west, to Aleja Marcinkowskiego. From a primary school, bookbinding workshop and purse maker, bookstore, Corso cinema, Hirschlik restaurant and Nachman and Leia Siberians' eatery, to the synagogue. The Jewish community lived mainly around the Old Market Square, at Garbary and at Chwaliszewo. Many also lived in Wilda, Łazarz and Jeżyce: at Mickiewicza, Prusa or Jackowski streets.

I create a broader topographic picture by finding places to which fate threw Poznań Jews during and after the war: Koło, Opatówek, the extermination camp in Chełmno on the Ner, ghettos in Łódź, Łosice, Warsaw, Otwock and Nesvizh, camps in Ostrów Lubelski, Skarżysko-Kamienna, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, terrible places in the Soviet Union, as well as post-war Krakow, Wrocław, Copenhagen, Cyprus, Tel Aviv, kibbutzim scattered all over Israel and many, many other places on the world map.

I also read the accounts of Poznań Jews with a genre key – discovering literary genres recorded in "Chaverim". Pakuła's book is a memoir, but it is also a literary reportage, or rather a collection of reportages form which the author builds a "footbridge over time"[1], returns with his protagonists to Poznań, to Poland, recovers their old life with them, and recalls the dead. He tries – as he says – to "ineffectively accompany" them on their trip to their "borough", to help "connect the pieces of time", to wait patiently until they "sew threads of memories together". The narrator mends their memories, adds some facts, takes readers from place to place, also informs about the death of the heroes...

And if we look at the text of "Chaverim" through the lens of traditional genres, we find a lamentation pattern, close to elegy. The former inhabitants of Poznań and the surrounding area mourn the city that no longer exists, the people whose ashes were scattered somewhere on the land of their ancestors. "Chaverim" is also a reference to a particular type of story about martyrs who died because someone decided that they had no right to live. It is a story about mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbours, companions of the miseries of fourteen heroines and heroes of the book: Chana Auerbach, Anna Krasnokucka, Fira Melamedzon, Ida Milewicz, Hela Perkal, Łucja Pinczewska-Gliksman, Fira Sochaczewska, Eliasz Abramowicz, Jerzy Herszberg, Jakub Janowski, Hersz Kronenberg, Noach Lasman, Leopold Sokołowski and Eliasz Zajdy.

Finally, "Chaverim" is a reference to the prayer, called yizkor in Hebrew, in which the deceased are commemorated by enumerating their names: the heroes of the book. Although several dozen years have passed since their childhood and youth in Poznań, they easily list the names of their schoolmates, the names of kids from the yard, companions during games and excursions, or members of pre-war Jewish scout organizations. Chana Auerbach remembers well not only the topography of the city that does not exist today (fabric warehouses, button factories, bakeries and clothing stores), but also the names of their owners, the names and addresses of the neighbours and students of Franciszka Propstowa's "school shelter": "Bronia Badower, Gołda Ickowicz, Maryla Łuszyńska, Anna Milewicz, Regina Moszkowicz, Regina Szajewicz, Anna Szymkiewicz, Regina Winter…". The litany of names is complemented with black and white photos saved from the turmoil of history, carefully described, in which we can see the beautiful faces of the heroes, their family members and friends.

However do we read this shocking book, we always end with the bitter words with which the Jews of Poznań end their stories: "After the war, there was no room for us". And this is how Ida Milewicz sums up her memories:

"I started my journey to Poland in Treblinka to recall the names of my mother and father. Later, I went to Poznań, to which I had been coming back in dreams for years. I haven't been in my hometown for over fifty years. […] Hours passed. I didn't recognize any of the faces I knew. Nobody shouted "Ida!" behind me. I returned to my country. "

And if anyone still doubts why we keep returning to this subject, I will answer, as always, that we are coming back to save the memory of people who have passed away. And also to bring to the contemporaries the world that has been destroyed. So that today we know how to face this empty space that our neighbours have left behind. So that we help the survivors carry those suitcases which they still often cannot unpack...


Zbigniew Pakuła, Chawerim. Poznańscy Żydzi (Chaverim. Jews of Poznań)

Miasteczko Poznań Association, Poznań 2018


[1]                     "Footbridge over time" was taken from the title of Michał Głowiński's book "Footbridge over time. Pictures from Miasteczko", Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2006, in which a well-known literary historian tells a story about the place where he spent his childhood (except during the war) and youth. This is where his family on his mother’s side came from, here his grandparents had a house (a small business before the war). Here, after the war the relatives who survived the Holocaust met: "[...] we set out on a double journey, not only in space, also - in time. It is true, we are venturing into a time that is generally not too far away, one that is still remembered, but to get to what belongs to the past, we should build a bridge on which we will move, but the possibilities at our disposal are quite slight, therefore, we must be content with a fairly primitive footbridge, simple, solid, but not always safe", pg 7-8

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