Along with sheer luck, I believe that most Jews who survived the Holocaust had adaptability, shrewdness and an irrepressible will to live. One such person is Zyga “Zygie” Allweiss of West Bloomfield, Mich. I am proud to be his daughter.
This past September, my father returned to Poland for the first time since 1945. I traveled with him to offer support and to document his quest to find and recover the remains of his mother, Esther, whose name I bear. She died in a Nazi slave labor camp and was secretly buried there.
Dad was born nearly 80 years ago in Jaslany, a farming village located near the Wistula River in southern Poland. Some 74 Jews resided there in 1939, when the Germans invaded. Dad was 12, and his brother Sol, now deceased, was almost 14. Living on their wits, and with the help of a righteous gentile family, Zygie and Sol were the sole survivors of the 11-member Allweiss household. And descendants of that wonderful Catholic family would again aid my dad — this time in the emotional search for his dear mother’s grave.
During the Holocaust, Dad and Sol were imprisoned with their mother and three of their sisters in Biesiatka, a forced-labor camp not far from their home. (The oldest sister, Sarah Federgrün, presumably perished at Auschwitz with her husband, and perhaps their baby daughter; the other brothers went east to the Soviet Union and never returned.) Dad and Sol made separate escapes March 7, 1943, the day the camp’s 600 Jews, including their sisters, were shot and dumped in a mass grave. Their mother had died two weeks earlier. As Sol watched, she was buried at night beside the only big tree in the camp.
For longer than a year after their escape, Dad and Sol hid on the farm of Maciej and Zofia Dudzik, Polish Catholics in the nearby village of Czajkowa. Maciej was a business acquaintance and a friend of the boys’ father, Jacob. (As for Jacob’s fate, some 150 police, all Nazi sympathizers, ambushed him with Dad and Sol in a field on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The brothers learned later that Jacob had been captured, tortured and killed.) Dad often says that the Dudziks deserve the highest honor for their goodness. Although it meant endangering their lives and those of their eight children, the Dudziks kept their promise to Jacob to “help save his boys” — and did not turn them out even after German soldiers came within a whisker of discovering them.
After many close calls during the war, Dad and Sol eventually sailed to New York on an orphans transport. Dad now walks with a cane, but as the years passed he grew ever more determined to see Poland again — not only to find his mother’s remains but also to see if the Polish nation’s feelings about Jews had improved since the Holocaust.
Our trip to Poland was even more meaningful, because we were houseguests of Janek and Janina Dudzik. Janek, now 67, was about 5 when his late parents sheltered Dad and Sol. Our two families were reunited in 1999 when Barbara Rzeznik, a Dudzik granddaughter living in Chicago, discovered the Allweiss brothers through an Internet search. Dudzik and Allweiss family members living in the Midwestern United States have shared a warm relationship ever since.
Janek drove us everywhere on our trip. We toured the Dudzik farm and saw Dad’s hometown of Jaslany, which is also where Maciej and Zofia’s gravesites are located. Dad was joyously reunited with Marysha Pluta, one of four Dudzik daughters who brought the brothers food and water during the war.
We also went to search for my grandmother, Esther. Finding the labor camp proved elusive. An elderly man whom Dad approached advised driving deeper into the woods. Finally, Dad pointed and said, “It’s here!”
The infamous camp was a clearing in the woods. We found evidence of barbecuing on a stump where “the big tree” might have stood. With great emotion, Dad said he’d felt like his mother was in the car with us, directing him here.
Janina and Janek Dudzik acted to help Dad realize his dream. They found men willing to dig trenches at the site. When no tree roots were found, Janek directed them to another spot where a large tree might have been removed. No trace of Dad’s mother was found here, either. Dad hid his disappointment well. The time had come for me to gather soil into film canisters and spread it over Sol’s grave at home. Dad and I said Kaddish. A pinecone falling at Dad’s feet made him feel Esther’s presence again.
Dad returned from his trip to Poland with a sense of closure that should extend to the rest of his days — as well as an unexpectedly pleased feeling about the people of modern-day Poland. They took a genuine interest in Dad and expressed remorse for the Holocaust and for what had happened to his family.
In memory of Sol, who died two years ago, my father frequently shares their story of survival with visiting groups, largely non-Jewish, at the Zekelman Family Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Mich. Schoolchildren have sent Dad countless letters of appreciation.
On April 16, during a Yom HaShoah program at Michigan’s Oak Park branch of the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit, I will present a video I made of our trip. One scene from the video shows Dad meeting a woman who still lives next to the Dudziks’ farmhouse. Off camera, the husband tearfully hugged Dad. The wife told Dad that they always knew the Dudziks were hiding Jewish boys.
“Thank you for not telling anyone,” Dad said.
Esther Allweiss Ingber is a writer and editor in Oak Park, Mich.