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The House at Ujazdowskie 16: Jewish Families in Warsaw after the Holocaust

The House at Ujazdowskie 16: Jewish Families in Warsaw after the Holocaust

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by Karen Auerbach

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In a turn-of-the-century, once elegant building at 16 Ujazdowskie Avenue in the center of Warsaw, 10 Jewish families began reconstructing their lives after the Holocaust. While most surviving Polish Jews were making their homes in new countries, these families rebuilt on the rubble of the Polish capital and created new communities as they sought to distance


In a turn-of-the-century, once elegant building at 16 Ujazdowskie Avenue in the center of Warsaw, 10 Jewish families began reconstructing their lives after the Holocaust. While most surviving Polish Jews were making their homes in new countries, these families rebuilt on the rubble of the Polish capital and created new communities as they sought to distance themselves from the memory of a painful past. Based on interviews with family members, intensive research in archives, and the families' personal papers and correspondence, Karen Auerbach presents an engrossing story of loss and rebirth, political faith and disillusionment, and the persistence of Jewishness.

Editorial Reviews


"This is an interesting and often moving tableau about the efforts of some wounded people to overcome their personal tragedies while redefining their communal loyalties." —Booklist

Michael Steinlauf

"Filled with strongly drawn portraits of fascinating individuals... Auerbach's book is an immense work of retrieval. She expands the range of Polish history, of Jewish history, and of the borderlands between them." —Michael Steinlauf, author of Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust

Jewish Book Council

"Amply illustrated with photographs of the families whose lives Auerbach chronicles, the book reverberates with hope and trembles with the tentative efforts of the people to rekindle the flames of their humanity after inestimable loss and trauma." —Jewish Book Council

From the Publisher
"Filled with strongly drawn portraits of fascinating individuals... Auerbach's book is an immense work of retrieval. She expands the range of Polish history, of Jewish history, and of the borderlands between them." —Michael Steinlauf, author of Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust


"Poignant and nuanced, this work is an important contribution.... Highly recommended." —Choice

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Indiana University Press
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Modern Jewish Experience
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The House at Ujazdowskie 16

Jewish Families in Warsaw After the Holocaust

By Karen Auerbach

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Karen Auerbach
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00915-9


History Brushed against Us

The Adlers and the Bergmans

FIVE MONTHS BEFORE Aleksandra Bergman and her daughter Zofia took a train from the Soviet Union across the rubble of the Polish landscape in October 1945, their future neighbor Eugenia Adler walked to freedom through the gates of the Nazi concentration camp Gross-Rosen in Germany. When the Red Army liberated the camp that May, she was a skeleton of her former self. But she had survived.

Eugenia, known as Genia, and five other Jewish women from the camp made their way by foot, wagon, and train back to their native country of Poland. As they traveled northward they carried with them few belongings, relying on their wits and the goodwill of strangers. In June the group finally reached Lódz, where Genia's friend Hela hoped to find relatives.

Genia was her immediate family's only survivor, and her native city of Warsaw was destroyed. At twenty-three, she was alone and uncertain about the future. But a few weeks after arriving in Lódz, Genia found a job at the communist party's ideological publishing house, Book, which became known as Book and Knowledge in the fall of 1948 after absorbing the Polish Socialist Party's publishing house, Knowledge, upon the dissolution of the Polish Socialist Party. The Book and Knowledge publishing house became her anchor for the next two decades.

Just before beginning work that July, Genia boarded a train from Lódz to Warsaw, the setting of her life until she was sent in a cattle car to Majdanek in 1943. But there were few traces of the city she had known. A half-century later, she recalled that first visit to postwar Warsaw:

I ached to see my beloved city, to walk the streets, however damaged they might be by the war. I had already seen the destruction and burning of the ghetto. I knew that Warsaw was wounded and I was anxious not knowing how deep those wounds were.

Seeing Warsaw was a crushing, devastating shock for me. Warsaw was a huge pile of ruins. That beautiful, elegant city was razed from the surface of the earth.... Rubble and ruins. Nothing else.

I walked along Jerusalem Avenue, the beautiful thoroughfare was no more.... I walked to the Praga section, where the Jewish Center was located. I hoped against reason that maybe I would come across someone I knew, or maybe someone from my family had left a message for me and is looking for me. I don't know what I hoped for. A miracle.

I walked across a floating bridge on the Vistula River. My Vistula. My beloved Warsaw, where I was born and raised, where my mother and her parents were born and raised. I found nothing and nobody at the Jewish Center.

So Genia boarded a train once more and returned to Lódz. Thus she began her postwar life.

* * *

Jews who remained in Poland after the early postwar years were a remnant of remnants. But the drastic rupture of the Holocaust did not severe their roots entirely, and postwar Jewish life was not only one of discontinuity. At war's end they were freed from Nazi camps, emerged from forests, came out of hiding places on the "Aryan" side, and returned from the depths of the Soviet Union. Then they rebuilt on the very landscape of their losses.

After early postwar emigration, the remaining Jewish population was increasingly made up of those for whom secular life had already overtaken religious observance even before the Second World War. Many struggled before the war with tensions between their Jewish background and increasing attachment to the country in which they lived, while others grew up in families that were distanced from their Jewish background even in previous generations. Some had left behind Jewish traditions before the war for communist politics, whose internationalist ideology rejected religion and, often, the relevance of Jewish identity to their worldviews.

Beneath the surface of the postwar lives of Genia Adler and her Jewish neighbors at 16 Ujazdowskie Avenue is the prewar history of a transitional generation on the borders of identities. They came of age between the world wars at a time when Polish Jewry and the newly independent Polish state struggled to define themselves and their relationship to one another. The Holocaust and its aftermath, together with the postwar communist government's secularizing policies, accelerated transformations in how Jews defined the boundaries of community. Only by understanding their lives before the Holocaust can postwar paths come into full view.

Polish Jewish life before the Second World War was shaped by contradictions. An increasing number of young people lived in multiple worlds: Polish and Jewish cultures, religious tradition and secular life, Jewish and non-Jewish languages, the shtetl and the big city. Their world was often a cacophony of languages. Most young Jews between the wars were educated in Polish at public elementary schools established specifically for Jews, called the szabasówki, with a day off on Saturday, and they sometimes spoke Yiddish with their parents while conversing with friends in Polish. Even those who joined Zionist youth groups but whose parents could not afford to send them to private schools grew up learning in Polish at the szabasówki.

Yet identification with Polish culture and with their native country before the Second World War found an increasingly uneasy place in Jewish life as antisemitism challenged the possibility for Jews to be equal citizens of the independent Polish state. Antisemites insisted that Jews could never be truly Polish, no matter how perfectly they spoke the language and how well they knew the classics of Polish literature. Young Jews searched for new solutions and new identities. They imagined what the future should hold, debating every possibility, from communism to Zionism in all hues.

Isaac Deutscher would have referred to the parents' generation at 16 Ujazdowskie Avenue as "non-Jewish Jews." Yet while they were distanced from Jewish observance, culture, and identity after the war, they were only one or at most two generations removed from the religious traditions of traditional Jewish society, and most of them grew up in that world. Despite their identification with Poland, despite their severance from Jewish culture and religion, their history is part of the fate of Jews who survived the Holocaust as well as the larger history of how Jews became part of European societies in modernity. Their histories are, in Yuri Slezkine's words, the story of "what happened to Tevye's children, no matter what they thought of Tevye and his faith. The central subjects of the story are those of Tevye's children who abandoned him and his faith and were, for a time and for that reason, forgotten by the rest of the family."



By the time Genia Adler was born in Warsaw in 1922, her family, the Sztarksztejns, had already begun to drift away from a strictly observant Jewish life. Her parents worked on Saturdays, but they attended synagogue on Jewish holidays, fasted during Yom Kippur, and built a sukkah in their backyard during Sukkot. In Genia's early years the family lived on Krochmalna, the bustling street romanticized in the stories of the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. It was crowded with peddlers and fiddlers, Genia later reminisced, "an unforgettable, colorful world, my world." Her parents made a living selling imported food and spices, and the family later moved to a more middle-class Jewish neighborhood nearby.

Genia was a pretty but plump girl who excelled in school and dreamed of becoming a doctor. Her parents usually spoke Polish and sometimes Yiddish at home, and at her Jewish girls' high school she learned in Polish while studying Latin, French, and Hebrew. Genia never focused on politics, but the Jewish political youth groups of interwar Poland were as much about community as they were about ideology, and in the late 1930s she joined the Socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair.

During the summers Genia attended a Jewish camp that melded the Polish and Jewish cultures in which she was growing up. The summer before the Second World War, she recounted in an interview late in life, the campers staged a production of the drama Dziady (Forefathers' eve) by Adam Mickiewicz, the most beloved Polish poet of the nineteenth century. Three decades later, in 1968, the play was at the center of student anticensorship protests that sparked the political turmoil and antisemitic campaign leading to Genia's emigration that year with her husband and children. Perhaps her memories of the months before herleave-taking from Poland in 1968 became blurred in her own mind with that summer three decades earlier, in those last days before the outbreak of a war that forced her to leave behind an earlier home. Or perhaps, as often occurred in the lives of the families at 16 Ujazdowskie Avenue, history really did create its own ironies.

By the late 1930s Genia had high hopes for the future, but at home she and her father began to argue over her plans to become a doctor. She eventually prevailed, yet quotas on Jewish students in some university departments in Poland, particularly in medicine, stymied her plans. So Genia set her sights on studying abroad and began tutoring to save money in Depression-era Poland. For months Poles had feared that war was imminent. The Second World War broke out before she could realize her ambitions.

During more than five years of war, it seemed as though decades passed. The Holocaust erased Genia's roots in Warsaw almost entirely. When she sat down with an interviewer in 1996, Genia recalled the smallest details of her childhood and wartime survival: the names of friends, addresses, important dates. Sometimes the chronology of her narrative was muddled. But as she recounted her life, she sought to reconstruct in her mind's eye a lost world.

Genia's younger sister, Cesia, was the first in her family to die. On October 31, 1939, less than two months after the war began and before Warsaw Jews were imprisoned in a ghetto, Genia held her sister as she succumbed to typhus. Cesia was the only member of her immediate family who had a funeral and a proper burial. Years later, when Genia returned to Warsaw after the war and visited the city's Jewish cemetery, her sister's grave had been badly damaged.

Genia's younger brother Natek was just ten years old when he was caught in the mass deportations in the Warsaw ghetto between July and September 1942, when at least 300,000 Jews were herded onto trains and sent to Treblinka. Older youth and young adults such as Genia, who was twenty by then, had a better chance of surviving than young children such as Natek. The Holocaust destroyed a generation of Jewish youth who were too young for the Nazis to consider them "useful" enough to remain living.

Jews of Genia's generation in the Warsaw ghetto often lived for the present at a time when their futures were so uncertain. Even in the direconditions of the ghetto, where corpses lay on the streets and several families resided together in desperately overcrowded rooms, young people found love and infants were born. Genia, too, began her own family in those desperate times. In the ghetto she married an upstairs neighbor, Jerzy Zagiel, in a ceremony performed by Majer Balaban, a rabbi and leading historian of Polish Jewry.

The young couple and their parents struggled together to survive. They found hiding places in the ghetto during the deportations to Treblinka, and they crowded into a cellar bunker when the ghetto resistance staged a desperate uprising the following April. After the Nazis bombed the building above the hiding place and they were forced to emerge onto the street, the family was herded to the Umschlagplatz, the train platform from which Warsaw Jews were deported to camps. Jerzy, Genia, and their parents were forced together into cattle cars and sent to Majdanek. Her mother never made it past the selection. Genia last saw her father and husband when she was sent without them from Majdanek to Auschwitz.

Soon after the Holocaust, Genia returned to the Umschlagplatz and took a train to the forest clearing that was once the death camp of Treblinka, where her brother had been killed. But if she ever visited the Nozyk synagogue, where she married her first husband in wartime, her children did not know it. Even when her son Marian was approaching sixty, he was not aware that the prayerhouse where his mother had married her first husband continued to exist in the postwar city, on the "Jewish street"—a few blocks surrounding the synagogue—where the small postwar religious community was based.

Genia Adler, a Warsaw native like five other adults among her postwar Jewish neighbors at 16 Ujazdowskie Avenue, sought to rebuild her life from entirely new roots, even while living in the city where she witnessed the beginning of her family's wartime destruction. "I buried my childhood, my family, the camps," she later recounted. "It all got buried deep inside while I attempted to start a new life."


After the Holocaust, as Genia recovered from wartime deprivations, she met an editor and philosopher named Emil Adler in the crowded offices of the Book publishing house. Emil was sixteen years older, but his short stature and boyish face gave him the look of a much younger man. He, too, was widowed during the Holocaust and was his immediate family's only survivor. Emil and Genia soon became a couple, helping one another through those first postwar years.

Genia was never passionate about politics, and she worked at the publishing house out of need for a job, not because of political faith. But Emil had been a communist since young adulthood, and after the war he became an editor at the party's publishing house with the hope of seeing its ideology prevail in his native country.

Emil's path to communism was a gradual one. It began with a childhood in a traditional but modernizing Jewish home, where his mother wore European clothes and his father's beard was closely cropped. Born in 1906, Emil grew up in the Galician city of Brody in the area of Poland that Austria annexed in the late eighteenth century. The city was a trade crossroads, located just across the border from the area of Poland annexed by Russia, and Emil's parents owned a small inn catering to merchants and other travelers. In the century before Emil's birth Brody had been an important center of the East European haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, whose promoters saw themselves as bringing modernity to an insular Jewish world: secular schools, European dress, the languages of their non-Jewish neighbors. Emil's adult life and those of other communists of Jewish background, who radicalized and transformed aspirations for integration, can be seen as one of the roads that led from that path.

At nineteen Emil left his childhood home to study at a university in Vienna, which was still a magnet for young Galician Jews even after Poland regained its independence. In Vienna Emil immersed himself in books and European intellectual life, not politics, but he had not yet left behind his connection to Jewish culture: in addition to German, he also studied Hebrew, though no longer in the religious context of his childhood. After the war he obscured this reference to his Jewish background in the records that documented his life. Whenever he filled out a form in postwar Poland asking what he studied in Vienna, he gave different answers: philosophy and psychology, or German linguistics, or "Oriental subjects." Only in prewar files and in records he filled out after he emigrated from Poland in 1968 did he include Hebrew among his university interests. That was not the kind of past a Marxist philosopher and loyal communist was expected to have; perhaps he listed "Oriental subjects" on documents in postwar Poland as a kind of coded reference to a Jewish language that the communist government associated with Zionism.

In 1927 Emil moved to the Polish capital. He was twenty-one, full of intellectual passion and plans for the future as he pursued a doctorate at Warsaw University. Throughout Emil's later wartime wanderings in the Soviet Union he held on to his diploma, one of few original documents that survived from his prewar life. The degree was awarded not to Emil Adler, but to Mendel, the Jewish first name with which he was born.

Warsaw between the world wars was a cauldron of political turmoil, and even before Emil finished his doctorate, the intensity of that world drew him in. As with his future neighbors at 16 Ujazdowskie Avenue who were communists, publishing was his entrance into politics. He helped to lead an underground cell of the illegal Communist Party of Poland while working as a clerk in a publishing house, called Rój, which was founded just a few years earlier but was already an important publisher of Polish literature.

Emil began his family in the uncertain years of the late 1930s, when the rise of Nazi Germany posed a danger to all of Europe and the prospect of war loomed. Just over a year before the Second World War, a snapshot was taken of Emil with his new wife, Helena, both of them dressed in stylish clothes and fashionable hats. Accompanying them was Emil's mother, who was stout and serious. They walked along the streets of a city whose residents could not have predicted the devastation soon to come.


Excerpted from The House at Ujazdowskie 16 by Karen Auerbach. Copyright © 2013 Karen Auerbach. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Karen Auerbach is Kronhill Lecturer in East European Jewish History at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. A former journalist, she reported for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Star-Ledger of Newark, and the Forward.

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