Family Roots In Polish Towns

Submitted by Judi Garfinkel and written by her husband J. Larry Brown.


Family Roots in Polish Towns: Sandomierz, Tarnobrzeg, and Grębów

The regional state archives in Sandomierz are in a former synagogue where portions of the original murals still look down from the walls that surround the floor-to-ceiling stacks of documents in the make-shift metal shelves that fill the room. Ancient and decrepit, these records hide the small secrets of simple lives. After filling out about ten different forms to gain access to the files we wanted to see, they were brought to us one at a time. The second would not be forthcoming until we returned the first to the nice but by-the-books young clerk who was the sole person in the room that served those who came to touch and search. Sandomierz holds the census records for Tarnobrzeg, home of the Garfinkels. The trek through the 1880 census was complicated by torn and missing pages and the old European lettering whose beautiful penmanship contained extra swirls that complicated each surname on the hundreds of pages we copiously reviewed. But twenty minutes into the procedure Judi shrieked: “I think I found my great-great grandfather.”  Yitzhak Zanvel Garfinkel’s name was known to us but little else. Not only did we now have his date of birth in 1834, but his address and household composition.  But this holy grail of family research was to compete with even a larger jackpot, a total of 59 Garfinkels found in that census year alone. 

The trip the next day to Tarnobrzeg (pronounced Tarnobjek) was to retrieve records not maintained in Sandomierz, as well as to look at the old Jewish cemeteries in the area. The small cemetery at the edge of town had no sign from the road and was difficult to find, but the Star of David remains over the entrance on the side street. The 82 year-old gentile caretaker across the street had the key to let us in but his job is diminished by the fact that only six complete stones remain along with the remnants of about ten others. Some fist size tombstone chunks remain on the ground amidst the weeds and bushes, most of the stones having been taken by Germans and Poles to build roads. A Catholic, this ardent man answered the questions we peppered him with through the Polish researcher who accompanied us. The Jews of the town were given two hours to pack one suitcase each before the Nazis rounded them up. He pointed to the back corner of the cemetery to note that many Jews were shot in the tree-covered area where we had just walked. Others were ordered to walk along the railroad tracks and then shot to death as they did so. He had seen some of his young friends among them. Still others were taken down to the river where the old brewery remains, and shot at the edge of the water.  Before any of the families were allowed to leave the town center, according to this eyewitness, they were ordered to dump all their jewelry onto a blanket on the ground. It was, he reported, a big pile, one augmented by the money found hidden in a woman’s hair. In the more modern town center we learned that the even older, original cemetery dating back to the early 1700s had been leveled. On the site where it once stood is an asphalt-covered mall and restaurant. No recognition of the this once-hallowed ground was noted although the Assistant Mayor with whom we later met reported his plans to commemorate the site with a plaque. He told us that the Red Army entered Tarnobrzeg toward the end of the war to find a port that the Nazis had built. It had been made from the tombstones in the old cemetery because their shape served to build the small levee. After the war the stones were used to pave the roads and, he reported, they remain to this day beneath the asphalt that now covers them.

We drove over this tombstone road to the village of Grębów (pronounced Grembov), the former home of our Adwocat relatives, the one-time poultry farmers. It also was the home to some of the Garfinkel side of the family, and we had come to look for the shop on the main road that once housed their family building supply store downstairs and their living quarters above. We also wanted to see the tavern with a porch on the upper floor that had belonged to other Garfinkel family members. We had a hand-written map of the village’s several roads and the location of homes and shops with names provided by  recently-deceased Youshua Garfunkel, who had lived there as a child. To our astonishment, his childhood memories had been stunningly accurate. The small building supply store no longer exists but the foundation bricks lay on the ground, and the nearby tavern-cum-home still is there albeit sans upper porch.  In a three minute walk we found the road where the Adwocat poultry farm once stood, and the house still is there. The hustle and bustle of our excited voices and camera clicks as we walked the road brought many furtive glances from local residents which became clear when our researcher/guide offered: “They probably fear that you’re American Jews who have come to reclaim your property; the town will be talking about your visit long after you leave.”

A local man who had no such fear approached us on the road offering in Polish that an old man living nearby knows a lot about the Jews who once lived in Grębów. He led us to the house of 88 year-old Edward Winiarskich who hobbled to the front gate with the use of two canes. A near-illiterate Catholic peasant, he did indeed have a lot to offer. He remembered Baruch Garfunkel who ran the store on the corner who, he reported, liked to hold a sugar cube in his teeth as he sipped tea. The old man had been a member of the Polish Underground, even during the war against the Russians, and had been sent to Siberia for three years. While he was in Siberia he received a package from Abram Komito, a local Jewish man whose home was on the hand-drawn town map in our possession (he mentioned Komito’s name without seeing the map or hearing the name from us). It turns out that Abram needed to run from the Nazis but had no boots so the old man had given him his. Some time later, Abram Komito heard of his arrest and sent a package to Siberia for Edward all the way from Palestine, before it became Israel. 

As we questioned him more we were served fruit juice and water by the woman who cares for him. Our interpreter informed us that “you will be interested in this,” as she returned from the house with a folded, torn document which the man unfurled before his pink face that housed cataract-smitten eyes. It was a letter of recognition that he was a “righteous person” (a gentile who had saved Jews) from Yad Vashem in Israel. Over the next two hours we pieced together an incredible story. When the Nazis arrived the Jews were forced to concentrate in the village square. Some were shot on the spot and others were taken to the Sandomierz ghetto. Many tried to hide and, over several days, were hunted down. The wife and children of a man named Baruch fled the village for the forest nearby. The Nazis found the woman and brought her to the town center and hit her in public. They then took her back to the forest, along with a contingent of villagers who followed, and executed her in front of her children as they cried, “Mama, Mama.” They then shot her small children too.  Other families fled or pleaded for help, including Edward’s next door neighbor and her three daughters who had nowhere to hide. Winiarskich put them in his cellar but someone in the town told what he had done. The Nazis came to check and he told them, “There are no Jews here, that’s crazy. Feel free to come in and look.” The soldiers turned around and walked away. For two weeks the old man slept at his front door to listen for night sounds of approaching Nazis; he then was able to arrange for the family to escape. 

Did you have a family at the time, we asked. Yes a wife and daughter. Did you know, we asked, that you and they would be killed if you were caught harboring Jews? Yes, he answered. Why, then, did you do it. His voice immediately offered the words: “they were neighbors.” To this day, for more than four decades now, daughters of the Hertz family he saved and who now live in Israel send him packages. “They are good people,” he reports. They never forget me, not in all these years.” As we left the old man and his 70-something caregiver hugged us… Catholic Poles and Jews, it all mattered but then it didn’t matter. Our shared humanity was our bond


See photos taken by  Judy Garfinkel
See photos of
Edward Winiarskich - a Righteous Gentile


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