Trace your Polish-Jewish refugee ancestors like Jane Seymour

By Jon Bauckham, 26 August 2015 - 3:26pm

Laura Berry, who worked on Jane Seymour's emotional episode, explores the document trail left by Jewish people who evaded the Holocaust after the Germans invaded Poland

Polish Jews travel through the Kraków ghetto before its liquidation in 1943

Polish Jews travel through the Kraków ghetto before its liquidation in 1943 (Photo: Getty Images)

Poland was at the epicentre of the Second World War in September 1939. Within a month the Nazis had established the first Jewish ghetto in Piotrków Trybunalski, forcibly segregating Jewish citizens from their non-Jewish neighbours.

Jane Seymour’s great aunt lived in Europe’s largest ghetto in Warsaw, but as conditions deteriorated she enlisted the help of friends outside the ghetto to escape the persecution that would result in Hitler’s Final Solution. Those who didn’t make it safely into hiding had only a very slim chance of survival. Another great aunt moved to France before the war, and papers scattered among several countries’ archives enabled Jane to trace her relatives’ exodus from Paris and migration across Europe as they desperately fled the Nazi advance.

The location of any remaining documents depends on where your ancestors attempted to travel to and where they ultimately ended up living during and after the war. Consequently, it’s often necessary to investigate archives in more than one country and you may need to seek assistance from overseas researchers who can translate documents. Professional researchers around the world are listed on the Association of Professional Genealogists’ website and at Cyndi's List.

Search for inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto in this online database

Search for inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto in this online database

Ghetto life

Published accounts of life in the ghettos recall everyday difficulties faced by inhabitants as food and supplies became scarcer. Jews transported from neighbouring regions led to terrible overcrowding and increasing numbers fell victim to starvation and disease.

The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto (published 2007) highlights the disparities between those like Jane’s relatives who had money and connections to help them escape, and others who could not afford to bribe their way out before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, after which point the Germans systematically destroyed the ghetto.

The Warsaw Ghetto Database, created by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, is an index of inhabitants compiled from diaries, archival documents and the ghetto newspaper Gazeta Zydowska. This paper and many other resources are also held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Inhabitants of the Lublin ghetto all wore the Yellow Star

Inhabitants of the Lublin ghetto all wore the Yellow Star (Photo: Getty Images)

Hiding in Poland

If, like Jane Seymour’s great aunt Jadwiga Temerson, your ancestor managed to slip out of the ghetto and navigate the gang-lined city streets to a friend’s house, then they had a chance of survival. It was a lonely and precarious existence, since Poland was the only occupied country in which hiding Jews was an offence punishable by death, and neighbours could also be held accountable.

The Ghetto Fighters House Museum and Archives in Israel holds the Adolf Berman Collection, which documents underground rescue operations after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, including handwritten lists of people in hiding who received secret financial support from ‘Zegota’, the Polish Council to Aid Jews.

After the war, the Central Committee for Polish Jews collected information about survivors and helped them connect with lost relatives. The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw now holds the Committee’s archive, including Jadwiga’s Survivor’s Card.

The Yizkor Book Project has a host of Jewish records

The Yizkor Book Project has a host of Jewish records

Memorial books

The Jewish community has a long tradition of remembering lost loved ones, and the post-war era saw a surge in privately published Yizkor Books, or memorial books. Displaced survivors recorded their hometown’s history and testified to what they had witnessed. If you know where in Poland your family originated then this is a good place to begin learning about the community’s experience. Family and friends are commemorated, and the Yizkor Book for Plock recorded the fate of Jane’s great uncle Herman, shot while in a ‘safe house’ outside Warsaw’s ghetto walls. His grave was found at cemetery.jewish.org.pl.

The Yizkor Book Project has partial translations from Hebrew and Yiddish into English, and some names can be searched at jewishgen.org/databases/yizkor. The New York Public Library has scanned 650 original volumes at nypl.org/collections/nypl-recommendations/guides/yizkorbooks. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, founded in Poland and relocated to New York in 1940, holds more than 750 books and local researchers may be hired to locate and translate entries. You can find out more at yivo.org.

Another useful source about the dispersal of communities is The Black Book of Polish Jewry: An Account of the Martyrdom of Polish Jewry Under the Nazi Occupation by Jacob Apenszlak, which is held at the British Library.

German Jewish refugees on their way to the US in 1939 before the outbreak of war

German Jewish refugees on their way to the US before the war (Photo: Getty Images)

Seeking refuge overseas

Those who were lucky enough to stay one step ahead of the Germans, and had the money to keep on the move, may have left a trail of visa applications and immigration records across Europe. Checking the national and local archives of countries and cities that you believe your ancestors travelled through is worthwhile, as well as any surviving immigration records for the places where they settled.

If migrants found themselves in Nazi-occupied territory, the only means of getting out were illegal. Swiss soldiers intercepted Jane’s great aunt Michaela and uncle Aron at the border with France, and an internment card was found in the International Committee of the Red Cross Archive in Geneva. These index cards were created for all civilians interned in neutral Switzerland, so that the Red Cross could answer requests for information from relatives.

Many Jewish people fled to the United States and the YIVO Institute in New York holds millions of letters, manuscripts and early published works, not only recording the experiences of immigrants who made it out of Nazi-occupied territory, but also about pre-war Jewish culture and records from the Warsaw, Lodz and Vilna ghettos (see yivoinstitute.org).

Even after peace was declared, Jews emerging from bomb-damaged hideouts in Poland tried to join relatives who had made it overseas. Jadwiga Temerson’s application for a passport in 1946 is among papers of the Emigration Department of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, in the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw.

The Wiener Library in London has thousands of refugee family papers donated by immigrants to the UK. An interactive map of these collections is online at wienerlibrary.co.uk/interactivemap. The International Tracing Service established by the Red Cross in 1943 has an archive at Bad Arolsen in Germany and a digital copy is searchable at the Wiener Library. To initiate a search for records concerning displaced people, go to wienerlibrary.co.uk/International-Tracing-Service.

 

A version of this article appears in the October 2015 edition of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
 

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