Last November, ORBIS, the Polish Travel Bureau, hosted and sponsored my nine-day “dry-run” research trip, which included visits to Jewish historical sites in Warsaw, Luhlin and Krakow, as well as emotional visits to former Nazi concentration camps at Treblinka, Madjanek and Auschwitz. ORBIS arranged access to archival records in each city and I was also able to examine and photograph camp records in Madjanek and Auschwitz.
During a recent meeting at the Polish State Archives, Prof. Dr. Marian Wojciechowski, its director, discussed with me the logistics of Polish archival research. He explained that while Poland is eager to cooperate with requests for genealogical data, the Warsaw government is hampered by several factors, including a shortage of computers, understaffing, the lack of indexes to records, and too few copy machines, which last we, of course, take for granted. However, the Polish State Archives does have some Jewish vital records (births, marriages and deaths), so details were finalized for tour participants to request records of family members. Jewish records exist for Lublin from 1826 to 1869, Warsaw from 1828 to 1866, and Krakow from 1796 to 1877. Subsequent records, still in existence, can be found in each city’s municipal archives.
Why is this tour “historic”? It is the first time that a group of Jewish family historians has been granted access to Polish archives. Participants will submit family names and towns prior to departure, and the records (if found) will be waiting in the archives upon their arrival. Participants will be allowed to photograph the records (without a flash), and will receive an orientation by archival personnel at each site. Examples of old records will be available, and an exhibition is also planned.
When I went to Poland, I didn’t expect to meet ‘landsleit” because my roots are in the Ukraine. Imagine my surprise -- no, shock -- when I entered the synagogue in Krakow and was introduced to members of the congregation. Shimon Peres had visited the day before, and many people had gathered to discuss his visit. When asked about my roots, I replied, “My family came from small towns in the Ukraine: from Shepetovka, Sudilkov, Konotop, Priluki…” I didn’t get any further. Chana Fogel, widow of the cantor, ran for her purse to retrieve her birth certificate showing her birthplace as “Konotop” - the home of my paternal grandfather. Wlodzimierz Sztejn volunteered that he had served in the army in Shepetovka and spent several years there. He remembered a “Vinokur” family -- my patrilineal surname before it was changed to Weiner!
During visits to Majdanek and Auschwitz, I was able to research family names and make copies and/or photographs of records. With the submission of family names prior to arrival, camp personnel will conduct research for tour participants. If records are located, copies will be available upon their arrival in August. An added bonus to this tour is the opportunity to visit towns within a 60-mile radius of Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow with an English-speaking guide. Arrangements will he made for visits to the municipal archives in each location. Although the tour will focus on sources for documenting family history, it will also include visits to Jewish sites in each of the three cities, and meetings with members of the local Jewish community.
If you have roots in Poland, now is the time to visit, to see what little remains and to mourn the loss of so much and so many. I will be traveling with the group as the “scholar-in-residence” and will provide advance reference material and maps of the tour participants’ ancestral towns. The tour is being coordinated by Bernard Kaplan of JHT Tours, Inc., 420 Lincoln Road #448, Miami Beach, FL 33139. For further information, write him at the address above. Non-stop flights from New York to Warsaw will feature an optional extension to Israel.
Also in Warsaw (since 1947) is the Jewish Historical Institute, whose treasured contents are a testimonial to the history of Polish