In a far corner of the “new” Jewish cemetery (opened 1902) in the Polish city of Wrocław, Piotr Gotowicki is hacking away at the thick ivy that has grown over a gravestone lying flat on the ground.
It’s not just any old gravestone, as Piotr knows full well. He has consulted the record book, detailing exactly where each of the cemetery’s 12,000 bodies has been buried. And as the gravestone is uncovered, so is the name engraved on its surface.
“Georg Cohn, 13.12.1887-13.4.1938.” He was my mother’s adored father, who died of a heart attack just two weeks before her 17th birthday. My mother was his only child, and she emigrated to England the following year, sponsored by a cousin in London who said she’d employ her as a domestic servant. His wife Ilse was deported and shot in Kaunas, Lithuania by the SS in 1941. (See full story here.)
So the grave must have lain untended and forgotten for more than 70 years. And now, just three days after honouring my grandmother Ilse at the scene of her death, here I am in the cemetery, honouring her husband, my grandfather. This is truly a journey back to my family roots.
Piotr looks after the 25-acre cemetery single-handed. He has shoulder-length hair, a friendly open face, and, incongruously in this place of ghosts and history, smokes a vaporiser instead of a cigarette. When he meets a foreign visitor, his first question is: Do you speak a civilised language? By which he means either Polish, Hebrew, or Russian.
My mother never spoke of her father’s funeral, nor of ever having visited his grave. The record book reveals that the funeral was held at 4pm on 19 April 1938, six days after he died. (According to Jewish custom, funerals should normally be held within 24 hours of death – but by all accounts, my grandfather had little time for religious convention.)
These days, there are barely 300 Jews in Wrocław, compared to more than 20,000 before the war, when it was the third largest Jewish community in Germany after Berlin and Frankfurt. Piotr says there are now no more than five Jewish funerals a year.
My mother never returned to her home town. When she left in 1939, it was called Breslau and was in Germany. All the people who lived here were German. Further back in history, at various times the city has been part of Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Austria and Prussia. Since 1945, it’s been Polish again and its name has reverted to Wrocław. Everyone who lives here now is Polish.
So is anything left of its previous identities? Well, there are still a few beautiful old buildings, the ones that weren’t destroyed when the Soviet army pulverised the city in the closing months of the Second World War, and on some of the buildings you can see the faded German lettering identifying their previous owners. But otherwise, this is now a Polish city through and through, with a strong Polish identity. The Germans who used to live here were summarily expelled at the end of the war, and their place was taken by Poles from, among other places, Lviv, which had been Polish before the war, but which was handed over to Ukraine, ie the Soviet Union, in 1945.
In her memoirs, my mother remembered Breslau as “very dirty, with big houses”. She described her childhood home as “a very large flat, with a huge balcony”, overlooking a park. I managed to track down the address, only to discover that the street has vanished, along with all its grand, turn-of-the-century apartment blocks. But old photographs reveal that it was lined with chestnut trees, and yes, the trees are still there. So are the trams that run along the main boulevard at the end of the street.
But I also discover something that I suspect my mother’s parents never told her and that she never found out. The address she lived at between 1933 and 1939 became a home of last resort for an increasing number of Breslau’s Jews as their property was confiscated by the Nazis. At the cemetery, Piotr Gotowicki tells me that he has the burial records of a great many people for whom the address was their last registered place of residence. My mother always thought that her parents moved there because it was in a better part of town – the truth may be that it was the only place they could go.
At the offices of the city archives, I fill out a form detailing the names of my Breslau forebears. When I return a couple of hours later, they have managed to find my grandparents’ marriage certificate, my mother’s birth certificate, and my grandfather’s death certificate. All in copperplate German script, which makes them hard to read. But I had never expected that the records still existed, let alone that it would prove so easy to track them down.
There is one other place I want to visit while I am in Wrocław, the Schiesswerder, or entertainment palace cum beer garden to which my grandmother was taken after her arrest by the Gestapo in November 1941.
In 1946, an aunt who had remained in Breslau throughout the war wrote to my mother in London to tell her what had happened. “Your mother was picked up by two Gestapo men on the morning of 21 November. The bell rang, she opened the door, still in her dressing gown, and then she had to get dressed in their presence … They told her to bring enough food for four days and they took her to the Schiesswerder. Over the next three days, about 1,200 Jews were assembled there, then they were sent off from Odergate station at the crack of dawn. They were told they were going to Kovno (Kaunas). Herr Metzner, the chemist, who had rented your dining room, immediately called on me to tell me the terrible news …
“We tried to find out what was going to happen to all these people, and where they were going to be sent, but we couldn’t find out anything. Once they had gone, there was never any sign of life from them again. However cruel it was that your mother had to be included in this first transport, at least she and the others with her were unaware that they were being taken to their deaths.”
Now the former entertainment palace has gone, and in its place is a giant coal-fired power station. Nearby there is a street lined with dilapidated old tenement buildings; soon they will be gentrified and developed, and sold, presumably, to bright young Polish designers or advertising executives. And so old Breslau will continue to give way to new Wrocław. I can’t help wondering what my mother would have made of it.
(You can see some of my pictures from Wrocław here.)