It will be a long and very touching story about the Berl-Weiss-Gutfreund family of Brzesko and their extraordinary descendant, Lucia Weitzman.
Chaim Berl/Gutfreund was born in Brzesko on June 17, 1879 as the second child of Jeruchem Gutfreund and Chaja Berl. At that time, the family lived in a small wooden house # 184 at the Brzesko Market Square. Jeruchem was a flour merchant and his wife looked after the children. Chaim had 7 siblings, but 4 sisters and a brother died very young.
Ancestors of Jeruchem Gutfreund lived in Brzesko for generations, at least from the beginning of the 19th century. Most of them were merchants, although Jeruchem’s grandfather, Josef Schydlow, was a rabbi. Wife of Jeruchem, Chaja Berl, daughter of Salomon and Chawa Berl, was born in Radomyśl Wielki in 1854 and moved to Brzesko after getting married. Jeruchem and Chaja Gutfreund-Berl lived in Brzesko all their lives; they had many relatives in the city – siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles of Jeruchem. Today we can only try to imagine life in Brzesko in the second half of the 19th century. Small wooden houses, few tenement houses in the Market Square. St. James’s Church and the largest synagogue on the other side of the Market Square. (The synagogue can be seen already on the 1847 map of the city, although it was rebuilt practically from scratch after the great fire of 1904.)
Matzeva of Chaja Gutfreund nee Berl (1854-1930) has survived at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery.
Chaim Berl/Gutfreund married Chana Weiss at the beginning of the 20th century. Since they had only a religious ceremony and their wedding was not registered in the state vital records, we do not know when exactly they got married. Chana, daughter of Chaskel Wolf and Rojza Weiss, also came from a large family. She had seven siblings, but three of her sisters died of scarlet fever in 1894. Her parents lived first in Nieciecza and then in Bogucice, small villages close to Bochnia.
The young family settled in Brzesko, where all their children were born: Dwojra (1905), Salomon (1907), Michael (1909), Schachne (1911) and Jeruchim (1913). Father of the family, Chaim Berl/Gutfreund died in 1938 of pneumonia. He was only 58 years old, but in a sense he was lucky – he did not have to witness the tragic death of his wife, children and grandchildren in the Holocaust. It is difficult to say with 100% certainty, but most likely his matzeva has also survived at the cemetery, although it’s been badly damaged. The surviving fragment of this tombstone shows only the name of the deceased, Chaim Gutfreund. (All the neighbouring matzevot come from 1920s and 1930s and I know for sure that there was no other Chaim Gutfreunds in Brzesko at that time.)
Most likely, the mother, Chana Gutfreund/Berl née Weiss, and all the children perished during the war. In Yad VaShem there exist testimonies provided by David Flank on the fate of Solomon, Schachne and Jeruchim Gutfreund. Although not everything in these testimonies corresponds to data in other documents, most likely they do confirm death of siblings of Michael and Dwojra.
Michael Gutfreund/Berl married Eidel (Adela) Zollman, daughter of Josef Aron Zollman and Lieba Bittersfeld, in 1937. In the 1930s, the Zollmans lived in Bochnia; Adela’s grandfather, Hersch Leib Zollman (1849-1894), was buried at the Jewish cemetery in Bochnia. However, many generations of Adela’s ancestors – the Zollmans, Barterers, Bittersfelds and Teichlers – lived in Nowy Wiśnicz. That’s where they worked, prayed, married, had children and died. However, now any traces of their presence can be found only in some old documents and at the Wiśnicz Jewish cemetery.
Michael Berl left Brzesko to join his wife in Bochnia, and that’s where their only child, daughter Rose, was born on January 8, 1940. Soon after that all Jews from Bochnia and vicinity were moved to the ghetto. According to the documents kept in Bochnia archives, in January 1942, the family lived in the ghetto at ul. Kraszewskiego 18.
Just before the liquidation of the Bochnia ghetto, in a desperate attempt to save their only child, the Berl spouses gave their daughter to a Polish couple, Genowefa and Franciszek Świątek. Little Rose was 2 years old. Mrs. Świątek was a seamstress, before the war she made dresses for Adela and her mother. Being a devoted Catholic, Genowefa Świątek prayed for many years hoping to conceive a child. Finally the Świąteks adopted a boy from the neighbourhood, little Tadzio, but Genowefa still dreamed of a daughter. The couple were ready to take Rose, but they needed some plan. They managed to get a duplicate of the birth certificate of Genowefa Świątek’s niece and forge the date. In this way, Rose Berl got a new identity – she became Alicja Świątek, a relative of the Świąteks , who lost her parents during the war and was adopted by an older couple.
The entire family of Alicja-Rose perished, and after the war the Świąteks raised her as their own daughter. They were devoted Catholics and following the example of her adoptive parents, Alicja went to church every day seeking – and finding – consolation in prayer.
However, the girl discovered her Jewish identity very early in life. Shortly after the war, when Alicja was only 5 years old, a neighbour threw a stone at her and almost hit her straight in the head.
“- Go to Palestine, Jew!
Franciszek and Genowefa found Alicja surrounded by shattered glass and sobbing.
-What is a Jew? – Alicja asked
Genowefa sighed. – Jews are people, just like everyone else. Your parents were Jewish.
– My parents? I thought, you were my Mama? What do you mean?..”
Genowefa had to talk to Lusia and explain everything.
Soon the family was hit by a tragedy – Alicja’s adoptive brother, Tadzio. died of viral meningitis. Entire parental love was now focused on the daughter. The girl studied well at school, had several close friends. However, over the next 15 years, Alicja had many painful experiences – at school and later when her fiancé left her after learning about her Jewish origins. But in 1960, Alicja-Rose received a letter from her distant blood relatives, She learned that her maternal grandfather’s sister had emigrated to Palestine before the war, and now, with the help of the Jewish agency, she found her niece’s daughter. It was from her that Alicja received perhaps the most important gift: a photo of her Jewish birth mother, Adele Zollman. “Alicja could hardly believe her eyes. Her hands trembled, holding for the first time a photograph of her mother. Her mother – a flesh and blood girl! She was beautiful, playfully posing, with dark vibrant eyes and a flower in her short black hair. Alicja’s thoughts spun at the enormity of this small photograph…”
It turned out that not only her grandfather’s sister survived the war. Other relatives on her mother’s side found their way to the US. Alicja started receiving letters from abroad, and her relatives invited her to visit them, which drew the attention of the communist authorities in Poland. Alicja was several times summoned for interrogations, and in 1961 she lost her Polish citizenship and had to flee Poland, leaving her adoptive parents in Bochnia. She learned that she was to be arrested that night.
For some time Lusia (that is what they called her at home, and that’s the name she kept, having changed “s” to “c”) lived in Israel; later she moved to the USA. She badly missed her adoptive parents, and what was even worse, she understood that most likely she would never see them again. Searching for a new identity, answering the question of who she was and what she believed in were also very challenging…
In the USA, Lucia married a Polish Jew, Herman Weitzman. She was hoping that her parents would be able to come to her wedding, but Franciszek and Genowefa Świątek were already seriously ill and could not leave Poland.
Young Mrs. Weitzman started learning Jewish traditions, gave birth to two children, Mitchell and Lisa.
Unfortunately, Lucia not only failed to see her adoptive parents before their death, – she couldn’t even attend their funeral. Franciszek died in February 1965, and Genowefa a few months later. All Lucia could do was honour their memory. Genowefa and Franciszek Świątek, who saved little Rosa Berl, raised her as their own daughter, but had to part with her in 1961, were honoured with the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1994.
Lucia Weitzman had been searching for information about her birth family for many years – in fact, from the moment she learned about her Jewish origin. She managed to find surviving relatives from her mother’s side, and thanks to them, to connect with that side of her roots. But all she knew about her father was that he had been born in Brzesko. Several trips to Poland in 1980ies and later did not bring much result.
But in 2020, after the son of Mrs. Weitzman had contacted me, it became possible to recreate at least part of this family’s history. We now know the names of 4 generations of ancestors of Michael Berl/Gutfreund (father of Lucia Weitzman) and have their vital records. And there are family’s matzevot at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery. I could also learn that Lucia Weitzman’s distant relatives on her paternal side live in Sweden and Australia.
I hope that when Mrs. Weitzman comes to Brzesko next time, she will no longer feel like a stranger – finally, her ancestors lived here at least from the beginning of the 19th century.
May the memory of all those murdered in the Holocaust and those who saved Jews while risking their own lives, be an eternal blessing
I want to express my gratitude to Mr. Mitchell Weitzman for sharing family photos and wish Mrs Lucia Weitzman many more years in health and prosperity. I also encourage you to read the book “The Rose Temple” in which Mitchell Weitzman shares life story of his mother and her search for her own identity.
© Anna Brzyska, 2020