In this section my mother wrote the names of her aunts and uncles inside brackets (parentheses). I no longer remember if she told me why. Perhaps she wanted me to keep them private, in case someone might be hurt. But that was more than 40 years ago, and I can’t think anyone could be hurt by these names appearing now. Moreover, I think the fact that none of my maternal grand-aunts and grand-uncles or their offspring had Jewish names indicates something about their Jewishness and about their social milieu. So I’m leaving the names, and to make it an easier read I’m typing each name in bold the first time it appears.
Of my father’s parents I remember only his mother: his father died before I was born, so I saw only his photograph in the family album, but I can’t remember him. I vaguely remember his mother, as we used to go there on formal visits, always with a flowerpot. I don’t remember her walking. She was very old, and always sat on some kind of high chair. I realize now that she must have had some kind of paralysis. She lived in a large apartment with her two youngest daughters and a maid. She died when I was about six, and these two aunts of mine opened a millinery business. I don’t think they had any dowry, and they were called old maids for a long time. One of them never married, and the younger one got married many years after the war. She was quite old by then, and never had any children.
The older daughter was much older than my father, and he used to work in her husband’s business before he married my mother and opened his own business, in the same line. My aunt and uncle had about eight children, I think, all much older than us, so I can’t remember them well, though I sometimes saw them at their parents when we paid occasional formal visits there too, also with the same flower-pot, I think it was always just one hyacinth in a pot.
Later, when I was older and our business no longer existed, we used to visit them in their shop, which grew bigger and bigger. They were very well off. When the parents died, the sons continued the business. I don’t think the daughters ever married. I think they died as old maids. Their brothers did not give them any dowry. One brother seemed to me about the same age as my father, they were very much alike. He had a wife and two children, also a boy and a girl, and they used to live the same kind of life as we did, except that my aunt (I can’t remember her name) was not as beautiful and glamorous as my mother. She was rather plain, and so were their children. They lived in a larger apartment than ours. We used to visit each other once every month or two. But we were not very close. I don’t remember my uncle’s name either, but I remember that he loved the races, which ruined his house too. I don’t know what business he was in, I think it was something in textiles. I don’t think my father was very close to his family, so I don’t know them very well.
It was very different with my mother’s family. I think her father died when I was about three or four. I also remember him only from photographs in the same album. I distinctly remember the last photograph taken of him, on his death-bed, lying on a kind of catafulque or something similar. He looked like a patriarch there, with a short white beard. He was an exceptionally good-looking man. Very tall, and by this time, of course, gray. All his sons were exceptionally good-looking men. They were all about six feet tall, some even a bit taller, and all the daughters were beautiful, blond, with blue eyes. I think I will write about all of them, starting from the eldest.
This was my aunt Frania. Her husband, Leon, was an optician. I don’t remember him very well. I know that they were not very happy and were separated for a few years before he died. They too lived in a nice apartment and had four children. Aunt Frania was beautiful, and a very clever and energetic woman. She was only a bit too fat. I think she was about twenty years older than my mother. Her first daughter, Romka, was only a couple of years younger than my mother. Her elder son Fredek, who was killed in action during the First World War, was a few years younger. I only remember him vaguely. But I remember what unhappiness it caused his mother. She kept looking for him for many years after the war, she could not and would not believe he had been killed. I suppose he must have been 21 or 22. Her younger children were called Hela and Heniek.
Frania didn’t care much about giving her children an education. She believed in giving them a trade. I don’t think any of them was keen on school either. So the girls, after four classes of school, were taught dressmaking, and the boy learned to be an electrician.
At the time I remember them, the older girl was happily married, to a very good husband quite a few years younger than herself, and they had a lovely little boy. But I will come to this later.
Heniek was earning well, and bought himself a heavy motorbike, and took part in many races in Warsaw. Aunt Frania always used to worry about him. He had a non-Jewish girlfriend for many years. My aunt didn’t allow him to marry her, so he lived with her in an apartment without marriage, and never brought her to his mother’s house. As far as I know he is still alive. Aunt Frania and her daughters and their families (Hela married twice, but had no children) were all killed during the Second World War.
We used to come to Aunt Frania’s very often. My mother loved her family very much and kept very close to them all. I remember that when we used to come while I was still a little child, Aunt Frania used to put me on the table, and everyone admired my beauty and my beautiful clothes, which were all made by my mother. My mother was very talented. She never learned dressmaking, yet she sewed all our clothes herself, and they were always admired by everybody. This talent helped us to live through the later years of our lives.
I loved my aunt Frania and her family very much, but I was not very close to them, because they were all much older than we.
My eldest uncle, Zygmunt, was next. I think he was educated in Russia, and after my grandfather gave up his business, he took it over. But he wasn’t good at it, or didn’t like it, so he opened an accountancy office on the same premises and earned good money at that. His wife died very young, of tuberculosis. Their daughter, Rena, many years older than me, was not a very healthy girl. She never married, I think she was always in danger of TB and was never healthy. She was a very intelligent but not a very good-looking girl. She read a lot, had a passion for cats, and always used to sleep with one. As far as I know she is still alive. Her father didn’t marry again. I think they lived with my grandmother, and when my grandfather died, he became head of the house.
I’ve just noticed that I haven’t mentioned my grandmother. I remember her well only as an old woman and I think she was religious and kosher, at this time anyway. We used to come there every Friday night, the candles were burning, and all the family came there for supper. Married and unmarried children still lived in the house together.
The next son was my uncle Duniek. He was only about four or five years older than my mother. I think he was the only one who was not very handsome. He always wore very thick glasses, something was wrong with his eyes. In later years he had to have an operation on his eyes, but I don’t think it was very successful. His wife, Wiera, came from the Ukraine and spoke poor Polish, so they used to speak Russian at home. They had one daughter, Maniusia, who was about a year or two younger than me. She was very beautiful, tall and slim, and also very intelligent. After finishing school she went to the Higher Commercial School. Her friends were all intellectuals. She also studied languages, and later married her English teacher, and as far as I know they are still living in America. They have one son, who must be a few years younger than mine.
We were pretty close and kept in close contact, which however grew looser when we started our own married lives. She got married a few years after I did.
My uncle Duniek died between the wars, and Wiera died after the Second World War in America, where she had been brought by her son-in-law during the war.
Next came my aunt Genia, whom I never knew and whom my mother loved the most. They were very close as girls. She was only a year older than my mother, and was also very beautiful. Her husband, Marcus, was a felczer. I don’t know if there is such a word in English. A felczer was a man who practiced medicine, though he had never studied it. I don’t really know how it was permitted in those days, but it was. When people didn’t feel well, they’d go to a felczer. They’d see a doctor only when the felczer said they had to. They were of course much cheaper than doctors. Marcus was a very good one. I myself went to see him even after the war when I wasn’t feeling well and he always used to help me.
I remember many stories about a felczer who cured my brother of paralysis when he was only three. He was in bed for six months, paralyzed, and all the doctors gave up hope, so my parents called the famous felczer Kaminsky, and he cured him.
Aunt Genia and Uncle Marcus did not have a happy life, I was told. She was a very gentle person, and he was rather a brute. They had two sons. Sewek was born the same year as my brother, and Fredek a year later, so he was only a year older than me. These two boys were the closest cousins and playmates of our childhood.
When her dearest sister Genia died, my mother tried to keep in very close touch with her children, and she was successful in this for many years. Uncle Marcus brought his sister to live with him after his wife died, and she took care of his house and children. She was very good to them and they loved her, but they loved my mother dearly too and we were the closest people to them. They used to come to our place at least once a week and sometimes twice, and my mother made sure that there was always something nice to eat on those days and also some toys for them to take home. She also made beautiful clothes for them. When we went away for the summer, for four months every year, my mother always used to take them with us, and so we grew up together, three boys and one girl, up until the First World War.
Uncle Marcus was religious and he made them pray and believe and always used to take them to synagogue up to the time they grew up. After he died they did not pray any more, and how strange it was for me to hear after the Second World War that both of them, lawyers for a long time and with some other diplomas too, holding positions in the Polish government after the war, had got baptized with their families.
The next was my mother, and after her there was her younger brother Bolek. I remember him only very faintly from those times. What I remember is that he was very tall and very well built, perhaps a little too fat, and that he tried to teach me French, it usually ended with some French song. He married in about 1913. His wife, Terenia, was very pretty, very tiny, very rich, and she was very much in love with him. He got a large dowry for those times, but he used it up very quickly. He was very lavish: he liked beautiful clothes, races, and women. After he spent all her money, he had nothing himself, he got a very high position as director of a very big firm of biscuit manufacturers in Moscow, and they both left to live in Russia. She had a very beautiful younger sister, Klara, who became good friends with my mother and was often at our place.
After the First World War my aunt Terenia came back to Warsaw alone and started to divorce my uncle. I don’t think the divorce went through, but they never saw each other again. He never came back, and his younger brothers received very infrequent letters from him for a while, but after the war the letters stopped and the whole family thought that he had been killed during the revolution. But much later there were rumors that he was very much alive, in the Far East – Hong Kong or Shanghai or some other place. As a matter of fact when we arrived in Shanghai in 1941 my husband tried to find him. We thought that if he’d been in the Far East for so many years he must be pretty well established by this time, and we thought he might be able to help us in some way. So through the Jewish Agency we tried to find him. And the Agency did find him, but in what different circumstances to what we had imagined. He was of course a changed man by this time. He was not very old, he said he was 52.
He was very tall and very fat, much fatter than I remembered him. He was not very well, I think he had some heart trouble. He said that during all this time he had had ups and downs, that he had been very rich a few times, but every time he had lost all he had, which I can believe, because none of my mother’s brothers could keep money. They liked to spend it, not to keep it.
He said that when his wife left him he had been in love with a Russian woman, and had lived with her for twenty years, though he couldn’t marry her because his wife had not divorced him. After twenty years that woman got married, but he was not very desperate. When we arrived in Shanghai he was living with a young Russian girl of only 25 years of age, and very pretty too. The rumors were that she had two boyfriends – my uncle, for money (though he didn’t have very much at this time) and the other, her own age, for love. This was just one of the very many situations of those times in Shanghai.
About six weeks after we arrived in Shanghai he died suddenly. Of course she inherited everything he left, though it wasn’t much. My husband declined anything, he didn’t want anything. And that was the end of my uncle Bolek. I was still able to send the news to Warsaw and the family, which of course they were all very sorry to hear.
The next was my Uncle Max. I hardly remember him from pre-war times, I think he was studying at the University of Munich then. But I remember that when the war started he was taken to the Russian army, and sometimes came home on leave. He was very intelligent, intellectual, cultured and so on. He was nice to us children, but didn’t show any special interest in us. I think he lived very much with his thoughts. After the war he was a writer, and later on also a film director. He was not very successful as a writer, and I never read anything he wrote. He wrote mainly plays and I never liked reading plays. I remember that one of his plays was presented in one of the Warsaw theaters, but I couldn’t see it because after many rehearsals and only a few times on the stage it was replaced by some other play. However this doesn’t mean it was no good. We, I mean the Warsaw public, were very spoiled and critical. We had wonderful theaters in Warsaw and wonderful actors, I still remember some of them.
He didn’t marry for a long time. I don’t know much about him because he also got baptized, and then kept to the baptized part of the family, while we were in close contact only with the Jewish part of the family. But sometimes, when he was passing through our area, he used to drop in. Eventually he married a Polish woman, had a not very successful life, and died after the Second World War.
My youngest uncle was Julek. He was exceptionally good-looking, very tall, very proportionally built. He looked like Gary Cooper. He also studied at the university in Munich, but whenever he came to Warsaw he spent more time at our place than at his mother’s, where he lived. He liked my parents’ way of life, and enjoyed all those artistic crowds, dinners and parties, and I suspect that he was very fond of my Aunt Terenia’s sister Klara. I think she was also in love with him. But he didn’t marry her, and she married some other man. I never found out why they didn’t marry.
I remember that as children we were afraid of him. If he said “Now, children, are you going to sleep?”, we had to go. If we didn’t, he used to put us in the corner of the room with our backs to the room, and we had to stay like that for at least an hour. So after some time we used to obey him.
During the war he too got called up to the Russian army. When he returned home, he lived in our place for some time, but he also fell in love with a Polish woman and got baptized. However, he used to keep in close contact with my mother, and I heard that during the Second World War and the time of the Ghetto he took care of her and tried to delay the moment of her being taken to the camp as long as he could, but the time came when he could help no longer.
After the Second World War I heard that he fell in love with another Polish woman and left his wife and went with the other woman to Paris. As far as I know he is still there with her. I think he must be about 65 by now. He never had any children.
Next comes my Aunt Roma. She was about the same age as my cousin Roma, the elder daughter of my Aunt Frania. From my childhood I remember her only slightly. I think she found company which absorbed all her unmarried years, and it was company that was unwanted in the family, because it was the company of Goyim. She fell in love with a Goy and was the first to change her religion. My grandmother was still alive, and it was a terrible blow to her. She fought as hard as she could, poor woman, but she couldn’t do a thing. She gave no permission, she said she never wanted to see Roma again in her life, and the last words she said as Roma was leaving the house were that she wished that Roma would never have any children. Actually I’m putting it too mildly, I should say that she put a curse on her that she shouldn’t have children. The whole business was too much for my grandmother’s mind, something went wrong, and very soon after she died.
Roma was never happy with her husband. She was from a big house, from a large, cultured, and once wealthy family, and she went to live with him in a terrible district, in a terrible, big, dirty house, where you had to go to the third court and walk up to the fourth floor, where she lived with him in two tiny rooms. I don’t remember what he did, I think he was a clerk of some kind, but all this wasn’t so bad, the worst was that what money he did earn he spent on drink, he drank so much that he got the DTs and had to be taken to hospital. After some time of cure, when he was supposed to be all right and never to touch drink again, he came home, but before long it started all over again, and finally he died in hospital, they could not cure him any more. She was a very unhappy woman, and never had any children, but she adopted a girl, and I heard that they both survived the war and are living somewhere in the north of Poland. If she is alive she must be about 68. So it seems she was older than Julek and Max.
The next and youngest was my Aunt Hela, but we never called her Aunt. Just Hela. She was the same age as my cousin Hela, my aunt Frania’s younger daughter. So you can see that twice my grandmother and her eldest daughter (Frania) were carrying children at the same time.
Well, I remember Hela very well. By the time I started school she was in the last class, the eighth. She was very tall, blond and beautiful. After finishing school she started to study law at the university, but she had to stop for some time during the First World War, though she did finish after the war. She was very patriotic, and worked in the PPS, the Polish Socialist Party, and she had many other interests too. She also wrote, was an intellectual, and she had many boyfriends, all of them students, most of them also active in the PPS.
After my grandmother died she moved in to our apartment and lived with us, and we used to share with her what little we had during those war years. But one day one of us found a cross with Jesus on it on the floor next to her suitcase. She had no other reason for changing religion at that time except belief. I don’t know if or what my mother said to her, but soon after that she went to live with our Aunt Roma, who was already a Catholic at this time.
After a few years Hela married a Polish colonel, but when he was at some diplomatic school and she used to visit him there she met another Polish colonel, who was also married. They both divorced, which was very difficult for Catholics, but as far as rumors said it was done not by the Pope but by some priest in Vilna, who arranged such things for large sums of money. Then they got married. I never saw him, but I heard that she was very happy. They lived in Belgium, he had a very high diplomatic position. She was just suited for that, with her beauty, her intellect, and her knowledge of languages. They had two children. As far as I know, he was killed during the war, and she and the children are alive in Paris. If she is alive she is now 63 or 64.
Well, that’s about all about my mother’s family and about the time before the First World War started. Next section →