Report From Galicia


Report from Galicia By George Plafker.


Dear Plafker mishpocheh and interested friends:

As strange as it seems, I finally made it to the south of Poland where the Plafker ancestors are from!

I arrived in Rzeszow (pronounced "sheshov") on November 2d by a circuitous route from Warsaw to Prague on an overnight train, three days of sightseeing in Prague, overnight train from Prague to Krakow, and then by car to Rzeszow. There were three others besides me on this expedition: cousin and Zen roshi Bernie Glassman Tetsugen, Peter Cunningham, who accompanied Bernie and me to Prague, and Andrejz (Andre), who drove down from Warsaw to meet us in Krakow. Andrejz is our driver, interpreter, expediter, contact person, and amiable drinking companion. He is an expert on Polish culture and history and is married to one of the most famous actresses in the country. Peter is a noted professional photographer from New York who came along out of personal interest and to make a photo and video record of this "roots" trip and the Auschwitz retreat that followed. Both are Bernie's Zen disciples and fun guys to be with.

Rzeszow is a city of about 150,000 and is the only place in the area large enough to have OK hotels and restaurants. We stayed at a very inexpensive, but nice hotel directly across from the railroad station. Because this is the county seat, it has archives that include some of the sparse remaining records for what was a large pre-war Jewish population. In fact, the archives are in one of the large abandoned synagogues and another large synagogue nearby houses a museum dedicated to Jewish culture. We met with Dr. Grzegorz Zamoyski, the historian in charge of the archives, who was extremely helpful in telling us about what happened during the war, the communist years, and the 10 years since the communists were kicked out of power. He also directed me to sources of genealogical information in Poland, in the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., and in Austria. Unfortunately, most of the wartime records of atrocities were destroyed by the Germans and during heavy fighting with the Russians. However, most of the pre-war records of all kinds, including genealogical data, were supposedly moved to Lívov in what is now the Ukraine, according to Zamoyski, and the archives are apparently accessible there and possibly from copies in Israel. I have the addresses and will try to find out if any of these sources have data of interest for our family.

The countryside in this part of Poland reminds me of rural Pennsylvania or upstate New York. Rolling farmland and patchy forests with villages and cities scattered about. It is especially beautiful now in late fall because the leaves have turned color and are falling, yet the pastures are still green.

Halloween in Poland is celebrated by visiting cemeteries and decorating graves with huge bouquets of flowers and thousands of candles in multicolored glass containers so that they look like gardens full of fireflies. The weather was good throughout our trip in this area. Cool to nippy cold and clear to heavy overcast, but no rain.

We spent November 3d and 4th in the Kolbuszowa / Przedburz ("Kolbushova"/"Sheburz") area about 20 miles northeast of Rzeszow where my father was born. He left for the U.S. via Germany and Canada shortly after World War I. Kolbuszowa is now a bustling town of about 9,000 people, but the population was reportedly only about 3,200 before World War II including about 1,500-2,000 Jews, of whom only a handful (9 by one estimate) survived the war. No observant Jews remain in the entire area, although there are a few part-Jewish and converted Jewish families. The synagogue is now a "cultural museum", a rather common fate for those synagogues that were not destroyed by the Germans.

All records on the pre-war Jewish population in the city were reportedly destroyed by the Germans. However, we had great good luck in contacting knowledgeable and helpful people including a 72-year-old ex-teacher and the unofficial historian for Kolbuszowa (Halina Dudzinska) who knew of some members of our family and gave us an account of what happened to the Jews in the area during the holocaust. She kindly offered to accompany us to the Jewish cemetery in Kolbuszowa, which was fairly intact but unkempt. She also came with us to the village and farm where my father was born at Predzburz-Huta, 5 miles south of town. We were told that the Jewish population in the area were initially rounded up and confined to a ghetto built in the center of the town. They were later transported to a larger ghetto in Rzeszow where many were killed or died of starvation and sickness. And finally, some 5,000 survivors were taken into the forest between Rzeszow and Kolbuszowa where they were shot and buried in a mass grave. A plaque along the road marks the location of the burial site.

In Kolbuszowa, we met with the family of a man named Yankel "Plowker", who survived the war by hiding in the nearby forest for about 2 years ("Plowker" is the most common Polish spelling of Plafker and "Plavker" is the German version). After the war Yankel married a Polish woman, converted to Catholicism, changed his name to Plaszczinski, and remained in Kolbuszowa. He died in 1986, but his daughter, Krystina Pioek and her 3 children still occupy his house and she had a good deal of information, including photos and papers about her father. The poor woman was so emotional to meet someone who might be a relative, that she was verging on hysteria. We are not sure if there is a connection between our families, but it is possible through Yankelís father, Zelig, who might be the son of one of my fatherís brothers. Krystina gave us addresses of an uncle in Israel and another survivor friend of her fatherís who is now in New York. I will try to track them down to see if they have any information on whether there is a family connection through Yankelís grandparents or great-grandparents. I was able to give Krystina information regarding members of her family who were murdered by the Germans that I obtained from the data files at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

Przedburz-Huta consists of scattered poor small houses along a winding road through alternating pastures and woods. The area is straight out of Fiddler on the Roof except that there now is electricity and the road is paved. Some of the old people there seem to have been in a time warp because they live in the old-fashioned wood-shingle houses with outhouses and open wells and they still use ancient one-horse wagons and carts. We met some fascinating characters there, including an elderly couple and an ancient 92-year old woman who refused to believe that we came from the United States no matter how hard Andrezj tried to convince them of it. They could not imagine why anyone would want to do such a crazy thing and we could not find out just where they thought we did come from. One woman told us that her father worked for my grandfather on the farm but unfortunately, we were a bit late because he died last year. His daughter did have some information about our family, and according to her account, my paternal grandparents both died of natural causes before the war began. This was something I did not know, but I prefer to believe it because the alternative is not pleasant to contemplate.

November 4th and 5th were spent in the Sieniawa / Piskorawice area ("Shinuva"/Piskoravich), about 35 miles east-northeast of Rzeszow. My maternal grandparents and their 4 daughters (including my mother and Bernieís mother) lived here until they emigrated to the U.S. sometime between 1921 and 1923. Sieniawaís main claim to fame is that it is the site of a small, but very nice, palace that was built by one of Polandís most illustrious families, the Ciartoryskis. The palace was looted and trashed by the Germans, but the grounds and structure have since been restored as a first-class luxury hotel, the Sieniawa Palace Hotel. We spent one night there, and it was easily the finest accommodations and food we found anywhere on this trip--and all for just $40/person!

Sieniawa is a small town of about 5-6,000 people in a rural farm area and our family is actually from a wide spot in the road 5 miles north of town called Piskorawice. The pre-war population in the Sieniawa area was probably about the same, except that it was about 60% Jewish, most of whom were Chassidim. All the Jews in this area were killed by the Germans and buried in mass graves in the woods. Before the Germans were driven out by the Russian advance in 1944, they dug up thousands of bodies and burned them in a pit in the Jewish cemetery in an effort to destroy the evidence. Local residents say that the fires burned for days as indicated by the smoke and stench that covered the entire area. We visited the cemetery where the burning pits are still visible. This cemetery is fairly well maintained and is visited frequently by Jewish pilgrims because it contains the tomb of a "wonder" Rabbi.. Last year a new iron fence was built around the cemetery with funds from a Jewish organization in the U.S. We were told by one of the residents that students from Dublin had cleaned off inscriptions on all the tombstones and made tracings of them. There could be some useful genealogical information among those tracings if they can be located.

One more lead to follow up.

To our amazement, we found that the Sieniewa city hall had ledgers containing birth, death and marriage records for the local Jewish community dating back to the late 1800ís. We did manage to go through most of the birth records where we found birth records for our mothers and their two other sisters who came to the U.S. with them. We also learned that there was another sister and a younger brother who did not emigrate with their parents. There were many other births recorded to parents with our mothers maiden name, many of whom were undoubtedly related to our family. These birth records were especially helpful because they recorded names of the child, the parents, the motherís parents, the place they were from, and occupation of the father and maternal grandfather. Unfortunately, we did not have time to go through the death or marriage records to find out what we could about the two siblings who remained in Poland or additional information on all the potential relatives. Maybe next time?

Peter Cunningham has complete photographic and digital video documentation of our adventures in shtetl-schlepping and he also made continuous videotape recordings of our interviews. Bernie and I are thinking of making a web page on which we will post the family genealogy and selected frames or segments of the digital video from our trip. In this way we hope to be able to share all we have with the "ganzemishpocheh" (which just happens to be the domain name of our planned website). Until then, I hope that this email conveys some idea of where we are just now in the search for our roots.

After the Galicia shtetl trip, we returned to Krakow for two days and then on to Oswiecim where cousin Bernie and his associates led a 4-day retreat in the Auschwitz/Birkenau death camps. The purpose was to bear witness to the Holocaust by honoring the memory of the victims. This was the fourth such retreat, and was carried out by an interdenominational and international group of about 130 people. A very powerful emotional and spiritual experience and a unique opportunity to get to know some very fine and fascinating people. However, that is another story, and one that I hope to write up someday if I can figure out how to express in words all the feelings that were evoked during that retreat


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