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Lives and Legends


Halina Wasilewicz z"l
 
Chairperson, Częstochowa Branch,
TSKŻ (The Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland)

 
Please introduce yourself and explain the function you perform. Let's also talk about the history of your family, about your parents and where you come from.
 
My name is Halina Wasilewicz. I was born in Częstochowa. I've been branch Secretary of the TSKŻ since 1974. At the present time, I'm both Secretary and Chairperson. I sometimes jokingly say that I'm a child of the TSKŻ, since I spent youth growing up at the Częstochowa TSKŻ club.
 
My parents come from different sides of Poland. My father was born in Kuźnica Stara, not far from Częstochowa. From the age of ten, he lived in Częstochowa. My mother was born in Opoczno. After she married, she lived in Łdź and was transported from the Łdź ghetto to the HASAG slave labour camp in Częstochowa.
 
My father was very connected to Częstochowa. Like the majority of Jews, he was part of a large family. He didn't talk much about his family. I can't even tell you for certain how many siblings he had. I know about one brother for sure. I know that he had three daughters, two sons-in-law and a grandson born in 1940. That was my father's closest family.
 
My mother came from a large family. She had five siblings. Some lived in Łdź, others in Opoczno. After getting married, one of the sisters lived with her husband in Ozorkw. From that entire family, and I can't even tell you how many there were, only my mother survived. When she left the Łdź ghetto, she had no idea where she was being sent. As it turned out, it was to Częstochowa and, as I sometimes tell my son, she never complained about her fate. Wherever she was sent, she coped with the situation and didn't try to change anything. Only once did she change something - for a few hours prior to the liberation of Częstochowa. Of course, everything I know is based on what I heard from my parents. I used to eavesdrop on their conversations in Yiddish because they never discussed these things with me directly.
 
Yiddish was spoken at home?
 
Yes. My parents used it when speaking with each other. They spoke in Yiddish when talking about things that were not meant for my ears and I, just to be contrary, learned the language - how I don't know.
 
It just flowed into your head?
 
Yes, it just flowed in.
 
My mother said that, in the HASAG camp, those who weren't working on any shift would be forced into the barracks square and then loaded onto railway wagons. As the Germans sensed that the liberation army was nearing Częstochowa, they didn't make their escape alone. They took some of the Jews with them - those who were not working.
 
This was the only time when my mother tried to change her situation. Of course, she was prepared. She stood on the barracks square with her rucksack and said to her friend,"Mania, come over to this incomplete hundred", because prisoners were counted off in groups of one hundred and then packed onto railroad wagons. After a moment, they found themselves in this incomplete hundred. The loading of prisoners finished, and the Germans left. My mother remained in the camp with the other Jews. She didn't know Częstochowa. She heard a voice say, "I know the way to Częstochowa. Let's go".
 
A group of them then formed which my mother joined. I don't know how many of them there were. She went with a woman from Skarzysko-Kamienna who had been transported there, maybe, in mid-1944. As it was January and fairly frosty, she somehow lost her way and, instead of going with the group, she headed outside of Częstochowa, in the opposite direction, to the town of Olsztyn.
 
Apparently, she came to some railway crossing and came upon a railway crossing attendant. He looked at the two women with a child, recognised straight away where they had come from and said, "I can vouch for myself, but not so much for my substitute co-worker" and pointed to a house nearby. He said that they'd be able to stay there. The housewife said to my mother, who at the time was a little over thirty years old, "Grandma, please sit down". I don't know how my mother must have looked, dressed in rags. She stayed there for a few days in order to recover her strength, as she was unable to walk any further. The woman who had accompanied my mother came from Kielce and headed off in that direction.
 
After staying there for a few days, some Russian soldiers brought her to Częstochowa. There was a building at 19 Garibaldi Street (ul. Garibaldiego 19), which the Germans had most probably used as a storehouse. Maybe Germans had even lived there and then abandoned it straight after liberation. It was to there that Jews from Cz?stochowa headed first. My mother also ended up there and told me that this three-storey building was completely full of people who were lying on rags, on newspapers and on cardboard cartons. This was their accommodation. My mother asked, "Is there room for me to spend the night?" The response was, "There's no room."
 
Were all those people Jews?
 
Yes, all Jews from HASAG, but not only from Częstochowa. I'm talking about the first few days after liberation. I always mention that because, as assessed by historical researchers examining this subject, at that time it was the highest concentration of Jews in Poland over 5,000 people who had remained in the HASAG slave labour camp. I don't know how many of those people were actually staying in that building.
 
Is that building still standing today?
 
Yes, it's still standing at 19 Garibaldi Street (ul. Garibaldiego 19),
 
What happened then?
 
My mother went down to the ground floor, sat on the steps and began crying as she had nowhere to go. And it was at that moment that along came Wasilewicz. This is a family story which Ive passed on to my son. Mr Wasilewicz said, "Do my eyes deceive me?" Now I'll tell you how they knew each other.
 
Together with a friend, my mother was transported to Częstochowa from the Łdź ghetto. They slept on the same bunk. That friend worked on the same shift as Mr Wasilewicz, my dad. After the liquidation of the ghetto in 1943, my dad was left with one worn-out suit. My mum had arrived from the d ghetto with various items, among which were needles and thread. She loved to sew, to make things in her spare time. My mum's friend took the suit from Wasilewicz and my mother mended it. That was the beginning of their acquaintance. My dad looked after my mother. As one of the older people, he brought some order to the place in which they spent the night. Later, he looked after my mother during the many years of their marriage.
 
And so they were married?
 
I don't know what kind of wedding it was. It was most probably in the Registry Office. It proved to be problematic as some certification was required to prove that my father's first wife was no longer alive - witnesses to her being transported to Treblinka. These are stories that I found out about many years later.
 
A little time passes and little Halinka comes into the world.
 
Yes, little Halinka. And it wasn't that long after it was 1946.
 
What was Jewish life like in Częstochowa during your childhood years?
 
It existed. Despite the fact that my dad was not a religious person, for me he was very Jewish to such a degree that, when my parents were married in the Registry Office, the official said, Mr Wasilewicz, you have such a beautiful sounding Polish surname, why do you need to be called Jankiel? To which my dad replied, That's the name my father gave me and Im not going to change it. I survived the occupation with it so, as a Jew, I'm not going to change it. Even after I was born, he wanted to register me under the name of my grandmother Chaja Ita or Chaita. Usually, children born after the War were given Polish names which sounded similar to Jewish ones, beginning with the same letter. After being persuaded by my mother, Chaita became Halina. But on my identity papers, there is no doubt - I am Halina Wasilewicz, the daughter of Jankiel and Brandl.
 
Were your parents active in the community? Do you remember your neighbours and acquaintances?
 
They were only active within the Jewish community. I remember our neighbours and acquaintances, but they were active exclusively in the Jewish community. I went to school ...
 
To a public school, a state school?
 
A state school but it was a TPD (Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Dzieci - Society of Friend of Children) school.
 
Namely, without religion? It was without religion - actually without religion at that time. Later, in 1956, religion was introduced very briefly. It was the first secular school. 99% of its students were Jewish. It was not enough that we got together in the afternoons at the club, we were also together at school.
 
Where was the school located? On ul. Kopernika (Kopernikus Street). There's an old building there. Before the War, it was probably Axer's high school.
 
So that this was a continuation?
 
In a way it was. Later, a new school building was constructed on the other side of the street and that's where the administration moved. That was the first secular school.
 
There were no Jewish school as such?
 
No. Perhaps, for a short time after the War, but I really don't know. I know that there was a Jewish orphanage. Perhaps, for a short time, there was such a school, but I can't recall it from memory.
 
Were your friends mainly all Jewish?
 
Totally - my friendships were all Jewish friendships.
 
Did you, as children, feel any sense of "otherness" or hostility in the neighbourhood?
 
Yes, but I didn't sense it directly. It was quite funny - I laugh talking about it now. My parents would have sensed it differently. I don't know how it is now but, in the schools in my time, twice yearly, perhaps more often, the best students were honoured with distinctions. It was a public event with all students participating. People from each class were singled out. At that time, I'd hear, "Only Jews, nothing but Jews". Others were also singled out, but when they were Jewish, attention was always drawn to that fact.
 
I understand that Jews were not given nicknames.
 
Of course there were nicknames. It's good that you brought this up. My awareness about who I am came precisely from my encounters in the courtyard. I know that once I came home crying from the courtyard because someone had called me Źydówa (Kike). My dad told me to sit down. He said, "Yes, you're Jewish, because I'm Jewish."
 
I replied, "No, no, I'm not because I was born near Jasna Góra. Maybe you are Jewish!!" That was a time when I didn't understand certain things. Later, when I began to understand, after school, I would go only to activities at the Jewish club. It was a wonderful time. It was like a second home, a cultural home. There was a drama group. In the beginning, it was called Źywego Słowa (The Living Word), led by actors from the Częstochowa theatre. There were classes in Yiddish and Hebrew, a music group, an art group led, in the beginning, by Jurek Duda-Gracza, a very well-known artist. At that time, he was a teacher at the graphic arts high school. He was not Jewish.
 
Do you remember his classes?
 
Of course. We even have a chronicle kept by the youth club. He illustrated some of the pages in it. Right now, the chronicle is on display at the Upper Śląsk Museum (Muzeum Górnośląskim) in Bytom. We also have photos of walls which he decorated. Only it's a pity that they're not in colour. At that time, photographs were only in black and white.
 
How do you remember the events of 1968?
 
At that time, I was at university outside of Częstochowa. Each visit home provided me with more information about who was no longer around. My mum used to greet me, one could say, joyfully and repeatedly saying, "It's so good that you're not in Warsaw". Because I'd begun studying international commerce in Warsaw and I'd go to the club at Nowogrodzką 5. I'd grown up in a club, and my first steps as an adult were aimed at a club. It was all a terrible hotbed there, so probably ....
 
What do you mean by "all a terrible hotbed"?
 
The ringleaders of the student riot came from Club Babel. Among them were a group of my friends, so that I would have become entangled in it also. Perhaps, that's not how I felt at the time. But years later, I tried to understand how I had .... But
 
But you didn't leave the country.
 
At that time, my dad was already not leaving the house. We didn't have family and I felt obliged to stay. I don't hide the fact that, many years earlier, I wanted to leave because, much earlier, before March, many from my surrounding area were gradually disappearing.
 
What did the Jewish Częstochowa landscape look like at the end of the 1970's and the 1980's?
 
Very sad. That's precisely how I summed it up - that all our youth left, all my friends. At one time, in my recollections, I compared it to this - my father was sitting, poring over a book published, in Yiddish, by Częstochowa Jews from New York. He was looking at pictures of Częstochowa from the past. My Jewish Częstochowa was also now history.
 
Your whole circle disappeared?
 
All of it, precisely. Even using the fingers of one hand, I can't say how many remained in Poland or in Częstochowa. I only see them now in TSKŹ photographs from various parties. Only a few, a dozen or so, came to the Reunion of Częstochowa Jews in 2012.
 
As a Jew, how did you feel in the 1970's and 1980's?
 
You just had to live an ordinary life. In 1974, it was proposed that the Częstochowa TSKŹ branch be shut down because, according to the authorities, there were no funds to employ a secretary.
 
Was there any protest?
 
I'm getting to that. In October 1974, everyone got together and said that, even if they were unable to come, they still wanted to be assured that something like that was still there.
 
How many people were still here then?
 
Over seventy, maybe almost one hundred. I'm not now able to say exactly how many. It was usual, at that time, to only have one person per family on the list. To that you would have to add the spouse and the children.
 
And that was the year when you began to become active?
 
Yes. At that gathering, the question was asked, "Is anyone running the social club?" And I, being active in the community, raised my hand and, for 16-17 years, I ran the social aspect of the TSKŹ. So from there, I went from the TSKŹ period of my youth to an official position.
 
Let me ask this - what did the events in Poland in 1989 mean to you personally, as a Jew? Of course, I include your son in that.
 
What it meant is that, right now, he is away from me. I have to say that it was life-changing.
 
To me, that's unusual. You are someone who was active in the 1970's and 1980's. Suddenly, something unexpected happens. What was that like? How did it affect you?
 
It was strange. I remember that, when I was a child, there was the Social-Cultural Association (Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne) and there was also a Jewish religious congregation (Kongregacja Wyznania Mojźeszowego) which provided all the basic things. There was a shochet (ritual slaughterer), there was matzo, and the deceased were buried. Perhaps twice a year, a children's gathering was organised. I even have photographs. I still have the flags which I got and which were draped on a kind of bar around the candles. I already showed you the memorabilia from my childhood. However, nothing was done to educate the next generation. I know that two or three boys had their Bar Mitzvah, but I don't know if they were prepared for it as required. For their parents, it was probably very important. I know those boys.
 
Are they no longer in Poland?
 
One is here, and guess where - in the TSKŹ!
 
In Warsaw?
 
Yes.
 
I realise that I knew little apart from what I'd experienced at home and from what I heard from my mums stories. I remember that dad took the poultry to the shochet and that we brought matzo home. Once a year, I went with my mum to the pseudo-synagogue, to the Congregation. Even then, I still didn't know why mum and I would stand in the corridor. That was used as the separate "room" - the men used the real room. My knowledge deepened at the Lauder Foundation camp in Rychwałd.
 
In the beginning, how did it affect you?
 
It enriched me somehow. I felt good. I sometimes rebelled when there were discussions about who is a Jew or who could be a Jew. "I'm a Jew, whats the problem? I don't know about certain things, but I do know that I'm a Jew". However, I didn't know about a lot of things. From home, I knew how to prepare a seder. My collision with the cuisine at the university hall of residence was bizarre. I didn't know the principles of kashrut, but I did know that I couldn't drink milk after meat because it would make me ill, and that stuck with me.
 
I began travelling to Rychwałd on account of my son, so that he would learn more than I could teach him, and now he's centuries ahead of me when it concerns knowledge. And with him, it was as I described. When did I start speaking to him about his heritage? From kindergarten. He returned from kindergarten one day with this huge piece of knowledge, "Mum, tomorrow we won't cook meat. We'll go to church and the priest will sprinkle ashes on our heads."
 
I said, "Kubuś, sit down, let's talk. I don't have to cook meat, we can have days without meat. You know, I don't go to a church. Your dad will come, hell take you."
 
"Why don't you go?" he asked. I replied, "Because I'm Jewish", to which he responded, "Is it only you?"
 
So, I started naming all of my acquaintances whom he had around him, whom he knew. We'd never spoken before on that subject. Later, when I would speak with anyone on the street, he would ask, "Do they know that we're Jewish?
 
So I don't really know how he sensed those things about which it wasn't necessary to speak too loudly. He began to feel more and more comfortable about it, but when he was in second grade at school, the question was asked again, "When do we go to communion and in which church?" So, again, I had an issue to deal with. Until one day, he said that he wanted to be a real Jew, if he was already Jewish.
 
I asked, "And what, according to you, does it mean to be a real Jew?" He replied, "I want to be circumcised."
 
That event took place when he was twelve years old, before his Bar Mitzvah. Due to the fact that I wanted to do at least one thing at the appropriate time, we went with Kuba to Kishinev where there was a yeshiva. Within the space of two months, he was prepared and had his Bar Mitzvah. Years later, however, he admitted that he was sad because it had not occurred in the presence of our friends. One day, Kuba came into contact with a group of Hassidim, among whom was a tzaddik. It was decided that Kuba should start going to a Jewish school. As a result, he found himself at the Lauder School in Warsaw. Now, he's in a yeshiva in New York. Hes also studying psychology and teaching.
 
Thank you so much for the interview. I hope that one day we can do a sequel.

 
  
 
Halina Wasilewicz z"l
 
As well as being Chairperson of the Częstochowa branch of the TSKŻ, Halina is the mother of Yaakov Wasilewicz, whose story also appears in the "Lives and Legends" section of this website.
 
Like the TSKŻ itself, Halina was a true Jewish Częstochowa institution.
 
Sadly, she passed away suddenly on 29th January 2017.

 

 
Webmaster's Comment:
 
This interview, conducted on 15th October 2012, appeared originally, in Polish, on the Virtual Shtetl website of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
 
Interviewer:
Piotr Kowalik
 
English translation:
Andrew Rajcher
 
It is reproduced here on this website with the Museum's kind permission and also with the kind permission of Halina herself.

 

 
  
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