Home Shtetl Life Holocaust Landsmanshaftn History Photos Videos
Maps Trips Surnames Researchers Links Guest Book Contact

Helen Rosenbaum's Trip To Radzilow

Her Rozenbaum and Sawicki ancestors were from Radzilow

My Father's Last Wish

Helen Rosenbaum, April 23, 2004

Background - Why I Wanted to Take Part in the "March of the Living" Trip to Poland

Mosze Szymon Rozenbaum in his
1938 Passport Photo

Helen Rosenbaum
in front of her father's Radzilow home, 2004

       

The March of the Living was one of the most memorable and challenging journeys of my life.

This was a journey I was always going to take with my father (Mosze Szymon Rozenbaum) who very sadly died before this could happen. My paternal grandfather died in January 1939 shortly before my father left for Australia. Dad always believed that he could find the cemetery where his father was buried in Radzilow and wanted me to accompany him. Shortly after his death, I began to think about going to Poland.

There was always an underlying sadness in my family as both my parents were the sole survivors of their families. It seemed that Poland and the family who perished there were always constant companions in our lives. In some small way I wanted to honor and pay tribute to the lives of the family I was never privileged to know. As the only granddaughter and niece, I felt I had to go to Poland to carry out my father's lifelong wish whilst at the same time traveling the landscape of family memory. The March of the Living made this journey possible, and for this I will always be grateful.


Visit to Radzilow and Jedwabne

On one of the days set aside for shtetl visits, I had organized a guide to take me to Jedwabne and Radzilow. I wanted to visit Jedwabne as my father and his brother sold grain and animal hides there at the weekly market. I also wanted to go there as I had read "Neighbors" by Jan Gross in which he described the events that took place in July 1941. On this fateful day half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half, 1600 men, women and children - all but 7 of the town's Jews. The Poles herded the local Jews into a barn near the town's Catholic and Jewish cemeteries and set it alight. They buried the charred bodies in a ditch. In recent times I have learnt that many of the Jews of Radzilow (including my family) suffered the same fate and were also burnt to death.

My guide Artur arrived just after 6am on Friday to drive me to Jedwabne and Radzilow. He was a very polite young man with a good command of English who worked at the Biebrzanski National Park just east of Radzilow. Along the way we spoke about our lives and the Holocaust. He said he was very sorry about what had happened in Poland and felt that telling the truth was the only way forward. We drove through very picturesque green countryside that was mostly devoid of animal life except for the occasional cow. However we were lucky enough to see partridges, pheasants and nesting storks. The further northeast we drove the poorer the towns became.

When we arrived in Jedwabne, Artur decided that the best way to find out about local history was to talk to some of the older residents of the town. We walked through the town square and approached three old men sitting on a park bench. He introduced himself and said he was interested in their lives and that I was a Jewish visitor to Poland who had come to see her father's home in Radzilow. One of the men started to cry and then grabbed my hand and kissed it and apologized for what had happened in Jedwabne.

He then told us a story about his mother who had tried to save two of her Jewish friends by pulling them out of the square. She was unable to save them and they were pushed back into the square, taken to the barn and burnt to death by the Poles. He then took us to his home and showed us the photograph of his mother with her two Jewish friends. He insisted that he should accompany us to the cemetery and to the memorial erected to those Jews who perished in Jedwabne.

The memorial and cemetery were located on the outskirts of the town in a fairly desolate area. He then told us that the Polish Prime Minister had apologized to the Jews at this memorial. The cemetery was very overgrown with weeds and bushes and all that remains standing are one stonewall and a number of small simple headstones with Hebrew letters covered with undergrowth. He then proceeded on his hands and knees to uncover some of the graves and then asked if I could forgive him. I just stood there in the middle of nowhere and froze. Suddenly I was faced with the larger moral issue of forgiveness, I thought for a moment and realized I could no longer be a silent bystander. I turned to him and said I could not forgive him and nor was it my place to grant him forgiveness. We then left the cemetery, drove him back to the square and headed for Radzilow. On the way we picked up a hitchhiker who, when he learnt why I was in Poland, also kissed my hand and apologized.

Police Station, where Mosze Szymon and family lived in
rented premises upstairs

       

Radzilow looks much like Jedwabne, a small rural town with old stone and wooden houses and a village green in the centre of town. Artur had contacted a local teacher before our visit that put him in touch with Zofia, who knew the old Jewish sites of Radzilow. She invited us into her home and gave us morning tea and then brought an old man to talk to us. He was 92 years old and remembered many of the Jewish families and where they lived. He did not know my father's family but remembered the Fajkowski family and their home. Archie Fajkowski had been my father's best friend. He said he was impressed that with all the pain and loss I had suffered that I still wanted to visit Poland. He shook my hand at the end of the visit and finished by saying he was not pleased with the Israeli/Palestinian situation.

[L]: Late 1930's,
Mosze Szymon working
on a sewing machine
[R]: 2004, Helen Rosenbaum
standing in the same backyard

   

Zofia came with us into the square and pointed out the old Police Station where Dad and his family had lived in rented premises upstairs. It was an old faded yellow stone building now converted into two shops, the upstairs was uninhabitable and could not be accessed. I then walked round to the back of the building and stood in the place where many years earlier my father had his photo taken sitting at a sewing machine. I stood and cried. Everything I had ever heard about my family and the poverty they endured had finally become a reality.

Wissa River
[Bottom]: Cheder

       

We continued on and Zofia pointed out the Rabbi's house, a Jewish restaurant and the house where Dad's friend Archie lived. We then walked to the site of the former synagogues that were now stone barns to house animals. The Germans burned all three synagogues and all that remains is a foundation stone under one of the barns. We walked on to the watermill on the banks of the river where Dad and his friends played. The river was much smaller than I imagined. It was also the place where my father was so severely beaten by some Poles that he and his friends never swam in the river again. We retraced our steps and walked down a lane to the Cheder (religious school). The building was intact but derelict. Walking down that lane I could almost hear the voices of what was once a vibrant Jewish community.

Late February 1939
Mosze Szymon, shortly before leaving Radzilow, paying his last respects at the fresh grave of
his father, Zundel Rozenbaum, who had passed away only four weeks earlier, on
Jan 22, 1939


2004: The remains
of what once was the
Jewish cemetery, located
on the outskirts of town, opposite the school.
The site is now used
as a rubbish dump.
Note: The 1939 photo is
the only one uncovered thus
far of the original Cemetery.

       

We then drove to the site of the former Jewish cemetery, of which nothing remains. It is now a vast empty landscape covered with rocks and rubbish. I closed my eyes and visualized the photo of my father standing at my grandfather's grave and then thanked God that he was not here with me to see the devastation. Finally I had fulfilled Dad's wish and had stood on the ground where my grandfather was buried. I said a prayer and left a stone I had brought with me from Australia.

By this time I was so emotionally and physically exhausted that all I wanted to do was to get back to Warsaw.  We bought Zofia a box of chocolates, thanked her and headed out of Radzilow. This had been a truly momentous and heartbreaking day for me. It also had a deep effect on Artur who now planned to interview older people and document their oral histories. It was late evening when we arrived back at the hotel. Artur had been a wonderful and sympathetic guide who had made a harrowing day a little easier. He shook my hand, said "Shalom" and hoped that this would be the start of better Polish/Jewish relations.

I walked into the hotel totally drained by the events of the day. I changed and went down to have dinner with the group and started to cry as I heard the Shabbat songs being sung. It was wonderful to return to the support and comfort of the group and to be able to share the traumas of a very sad day.

This will not be my last visit to Poland. My next journey will be to pay tribute to my Mother's family, all of whom perished in the Holocaust.

Helen Rosenbaum's trip photos


The road from Jedwabne to Radzilow

Guide Artur Wiatr and Helen

Zofia and Helen

Helen in front of her father's former home

Her father's former home,
rented premises on the second floor
of the police station

Town Square

Helen in the backyard of her
father's former home

Backyard of her father's former home

Site of the former Synagogue

Archie Fajkowski's house
is 3rd from left

Rabbi Yehoshua Zelik Gelgor's house
Read Rabbi Gelgor's moving letter about Helen's grandfather's living conditions, sent to a relative in Australia

Site of former Jewish restaurant

On the way to the outskirts of Radzilow,
to the Cheder and the Wissa River

Wissa River

Water Mill

Cheder

Cheder
Read about the Cheder, its students and teachers, 1910, in many chapters of Moshe Atlasowicz's memoirs

Cheder

Lane, with Cheder on left side

Memories of Mosze Szymon Rozenbaum, and photos from his collection:



Written by Helen Rosenbaum, 2004.
Edited by: Jose Gutstein. Editor's notes or definitions are entered in [brackets].
Copyright 2004 by Helen Rosenbaum and Jose Gutstein.
All rights reserved to the material and the photos.
   Return to Rozenbaum Memoirs; Return to Trips; Return to Photos