At the outbreak of World War II, more than 100,000 Jews lived in the south-western Polish region known as Zaglembie (in Polish, Zagłębie), adjacent to other Polish regions known as Upper Silesia (Oberschlesien, in German), and Eastern Upper Silesia (Ostoberschlesien). Zaglembie had one of the largest Jewish population concentrations in pre-war Poland.
Starting in 1942, large transports of Jews were sent from Zaglembie to the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where most of them were murdered. Others were taken to Nazi labor camps. The largest ghettos of Zaglembie, those of Będzin and Sosnowiec, were liquidated in the first days of August 1943, and the last Jews of Zawiercie were deported to Birkenau at the end of August 1943. By the fall of 1943, Zaglembie was for all intents and purposes Judenrein, that is, literally, “cleansed of Jews.”
On July 27, 2018, more than 200 Jews from the US, Israel, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, and Germany gathered in Krakow to embark on a historic trip to Zaglembie. The group included two survivors from Będzin, Esther Peterseil and Dasha Rittenberg. The others were primarily children and grandchildren of Zaglembie Jews, as well as members of their families and friends. Quite a few had come on the trip with members of their families so as to explore their common roots together.
The trip was sponsored by the Israel-based Zaglembie World Organization in cooperation with the World Jewish Congress. Rina Kahan, director of foreign relations of the Zaglembie World Organization, was the driving force behind this extraordinary week-long journey into our collective past. I was privileged to organize and lead it together with her.
I had been to Auschwitz before. I had been to my parents’ home towns before. Others on the trip were in Poland for the first time, apprehensive of what they might encounter, what they might feel. Most of us did not know one another when we first met in Krakow. Some of us never spoke with one another throughout the entire trip. And yet we understood one another, recognized one another. When we looked at one another, we intuitively knew what the other was thinking. We walked through Auschwitz, Birkenau, Będzin, and Sosnowiec as a family. When the children and grandchildren of Jews from Będzin and Sosnowiec walked to the train stations there, we knew, we felt, that we were somehow walking with our parents and grandparents, or, perhaps more accurately, that they were walking with us. When we stood beside our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ graves at the Czeladź cemetery, we were fulfilling a sacred obligation.
During the course of the trip, we talked, cried together, sang together, sometimes even laughed together. We learned about one another, and discovered that we wanted to know more, about our families, about where we came from, and about one another. Being in Zaglembie made the past, our past, seem more real.
In the end, perhaps most importantly, this trip, the journey of a lifetime, gave us a sense of closure.