21 March 2009

Poland: Visiting relatives before the Holocaust

Suchastow and Skalat were the hometowns of the Fink family, my mother's father's family. Once in Austro-Hungary, these Galician towns were then in Poland are today in Ukraine.

The Suchastower Benevolent Society in New York City was very active and my maternal grandfather and his family were active members. As was the case with many of these landsmanshaftn (immigrant societies), the young men who came first and established themselves, welcomed newcomers from home, gave them jobs and got them started in the new world.

One can see the close relationships as the "boys" were often witnesses for each other on their naturalization documents. My grandfather and his brothers were in the building maintenance field and many of the young men began there as window washers before striking out on their own.

About 15 years ago, a short film was found, made by one of the Suchastow boys on his 1930s trip home. The film was discovered, converted to CD. Many Suchastower descendants were fortunate to receive copies. I have one, another copy is at Beth Hatefutsoth in Tel Aviv, and the original - I believe - is in the archives at the Museum of Living Jewish Heritage in New York (the filmmaker's family donated it).

I'm the second generation born in America, so I didn't recognize any of the smiling faces on the Suchastow section of the film. But I recognized the central square of the shtetl and the homes (right, c1930) were strangely reminiscent of the bungalows Grampa built at his Kauneonga Lake bungalow colony in the Catskills (see below, mid-1950s). that looked like shtetl homes.

The colony in Kauneonga also had a central space that looked like Suchastow's, ringed by the now-familiar bungalows. In Kauneonga, however, our central space also contained a playground minus the flocks of geese and goats.

The film also shows the town of Zbarazh, and the filmmaker's sea voyage to Europe and back.
I knew that the Suchastow man had tried to convince others to leave on his trip. They didn't. This short film is the only pre-Holocaust record of their faces, those families, that shtetl.

Today I learned of another documentary - compiled from other amateur home movies - detailed in this Boston Globe story.
Poland—Poland's Jews were nearly wiped out in the Nazi Holocaust, then the communists who ruled the country for decades after World War II waged anti-Semitic campaigns and made Jewish history a taboo topic.

But a new documentary draws on a patchwork of amateur camera footage shot mostly by American Jews visiting relatives in the 1930s in Polish towns and provides a window into what once was.

It makes its debut in Canada, Germany and Ukraine in Polish next month, and an English version will be ready for the U.S. market later this year, Polish producer Miroslaw Bork said Friday.

"Po-Lin, Slivers of Memory" was conceived by Polish camerawoman Jolanta Dylewska, who was inspired to make the 80-minute film after coming across one of the home movies in Jerusalem archives in 1996 while working on an earlier project.
I don't know if our Suchastow footage is included, but I'm trying to find out. There is a short trailer (Polish narration) for Po-Lin here.

The filmmaker said that the movie had enormous emotional value for her, and that people filmed reacted with great warmth because they knew the person filming them.

For those who may not be familiar with the phrase Po-Lin: in Hebrew, it means "you will rest here," or "a place of refuge," but it has become the word for Poland. In the Middle Ages, Jews expelled from other European countries settled there and remained for a thousand years. The pre-Holocaust Jewish population was 3.5 million; only a few hundred thousand survived.

Remembering that short film on Suchastow, I realized - as did Dylewska, that those people had only about a decade to live before the Holocaust began.

The Polish-German product cost some $380,000 and opened in November, playing in Polish cinemas.

After finding the initial home movie, Dylewska found more footage in Israeli and American archives, and added commentary -- based on Jewish history books -- in Polish with English subtitles.

At the same time, she said she took great care to preserve the original atmosphere of the black-and-white films in hope "the viewers will carry these people in their memories."

She also filmed the places from the home movies as they are today, and found witnesses to talk about their former Jewish neighbors and friends.
If the film comes to your city, do see it.


  1. Anonymous8:01 PM

    I can't say that I appreciate present-day Poles appropriating Jewish history, music, crafts, etc., especially for financial gain. It's not as if Poland is inviting Jews to return; they seem to prefer to make money from Jewish history. Sorry if this doesn't sound appropriately appreciative.

  2. I was lucky to get a copy of the Suchostaw movie a few years ago. I sat my mother in front of the TV and told her I was going to show a movie from Suchostaw. Her reaction surprised me. She was not one of those who did not talk about the past or her shtetl. She spoke often about Suchostaw, the family, the customs and way they lived. So, when she said “Why do I need to see that? They are all dead” I insisted, just in case she recognized someone. All through the movie, her comments were “look at the unpaved roads, when it rained it turned to mud” and so on.

    As the film progressed, I heard a gasp from her. Than she asked, “can you play it back?” and when I did, she said, “There is my mother”. I still cry now while telling the story. My mother had a photo of her father but none of her mother. It somehow got lost soon after she left Suchostaw. This was the first time I saw my grandmother’s face!

    I rushed the film to a studio where they captured the photo and it now sits in the shelf above my computer, with the other faces of those I lost, as a reminder of why I work so many hours everyday in preserving our history.

    Susana Leistner Bloch,
    VP, ShtetLinks, JewishGen, Inc.
    Manager, International Desk, JewishGen, Inc.
    Kolbuszowa Region Research Group, Coordinator
    Suchostaw Region Research Group, Coordinator

  3. I just added the link to the Polish language trailer for the Po-Lin documentary. I can report that it has a clip of Kolbuszowa, but didn't say anything about Suchostaw. Here's the YouTube link:

  4. To Whom It May Concern:

    I am working on a documentary called, "The Catskills: Memories of a Jewish Utopia". I was wondering where or who I can contact concerning these photos and footage posted here.

    Evan Haiman
    Baker Street Productions