Tribute to my Grandparents

Learning about my family's history in Poland

Poland was coping with an unusual heat wave on July 31, 2017, when my spouse, Heidi, and I had the unique experience of venturing more than two hours away from Krakow into the southeastern countryside, to my grandfather's home town of Frysztak. At the time of the Holocaust, Frysztak was about 90-95% Jewish – a true shtetl, where the primary language was Yiddish – and Jews had been the majority population for a couple hundred years.

The wonderful staff of Hotel Eden in Krakow's Jewish quarter hired a driver for us who "speaks a little English." I was a little worried about whether the person taking us to a place where no one spoke English, where there were no longer Jews, and where we needed to find the remnants of my family, would be compatible with what this journey required. Fortunately, the regular, limited-English-speaking driver was on vacation, and our assigned driver, Arek, was both English-fluent and had significant experience helping other Jews find their roots and the remaining fragments of family members exterminated in the Nazi occupation and genocide in Poland in World War II. I breathed a sigh of relief when Arek showed up with printed information he had researched in advance about Frysztak. This was just the beginning of what transpired into a magical and remarkable day.

I was hoping to find three things on this journey: the Jewish cemetery of Frysztak where my ancestors were buried; the childhood home of my grandfather, where he re-joined his family of origin in October 1938 after being forcibly deported from Cologne, Germany, and separated from his wife and five children; and the site in the forest of the mass graves and plaques about 10 kilometers from Frysztak where about 5,000 people, mostly Jews, were shot by the Nazis. My cousin, Debbie Findling, travelled to Frysztak in 1992, when we knew nothing of the fate of our grandfather. She found an elder Pole in the town named Roman Godek, who revealed to her that the Findlings – our grandfather, his four brothers and one sister, and their children – were indeed murdered by the Nazi death squads (Einsatzgruppen) in July 1942. Roman tried to speak Yiddish to Debbie, indicating that he was friends with our grandfather, and learned Yiddish from him. He also confessed that, after the massacre, he began living in the Findling house, a tri-plex in which the Findlings occupied the bottom floor. I had with me the photograph of the house that Debbie took in 1992.

Upon arriving in Frysztak, Arek asked a local about the whereabouts of the old Jewish cemetery, which was marked by a tiny Jewish star on the map of Frysztak in the center of town. The cemetery was located on a hillside behind a locked iron gate up about 100 meters from the town center. Arek quickly found someone in the closest shop who had a key to the iron gate. There was no sign at the entrance to indicate that it was a cemetery, referred to innocently as a “cement-ary” by Arek. When we entered the scraggly grounds, we had to wade through thick, overgrown grass and weeds, stumbling upon one gravestone after another covered in the overgrowth. Using my foot, I tried to wipe away the years of neglect on the tombstones, some overturned or spilled sideways, to uncover Hebrew lettering on the face of the stones. One tombstone, most likely the town's Rabbi, was contained inside an iron-gated border about five feet by eight feet, but low enough to the ground to step inside the area.

Arek seemed just as excited to find the tombstones as we were, and helped us comb through the dense brush. I tried to feel the presence of my ancestors here, wondering how many of them were laid to rest on this hillside before the Nazi purge of Jews from the town. Did my grandfather also walk these grounds? Were his parents buried here? I found it sad that no one in the town cared to maintain this sacred site – the only remnant of the Jewish people that constituted the Frysztak shtetl.

The next quest was finding my grandfather's home. We walked to the center of the town, and Arek inquired with two older men. He showed them the photo of the house I had from my cousin. The name Findling did not mean anything to them, as the Jews were erased from Frysztak before these men were born. But, when I suggested that Arek ask them if they knew where Roman Godek lived, they both pointed us down the road. We walked a short distance down the street where they directed us, and Heidi and Arek were sure we were now standing before the right house. Arek compared every aspect of the house to the photo from 1992, including the windows, the well, the siding, the door, the railing, etc. In spite of some renovations and the uncharacteristic small satellite dish perched atop one side, it was fairly clear we had found the Findling house. I felt both overjoyed and incredulous. I have wanted to see Frysztak and this house for many years. From the couple of photos of my grandfather, I tried to imagine him going in and out of this home, fetching water from the well, walking the stone steps down to the outhouse. Was this a dream or was I really standing on the same dwelling as my grandfather? My thoughts were interrupted when Arek knocked on the door leading to the bottom level. No one answered, but by peering in through the window, it appeared that it was occupied. The middle and upper levels, however, seemed abandoned for some time.

Arek appeared just as exhilarated as we were to have found the house. We noticed a scruffy man, about 50, shuffling by on the road, and Arek started a conversation with him. Again, when he mentioned Roman Godek, the man pointed to the bottom level of this house. Yes, we had found it!

The last and most difficult challenge was finding the forested site of the mass graves some 10 kilometers away, near a town called Warzyce. Arek used his GPS to get us to the area and, again, he queried a local man and presented my photo of the plaque from the site. The local gave Arek directions, and soon we were on a forested road. Within a few meters, we saw the memorial plaque on our right just off the road. No one was around, and the setting was peaceful and beautiful. Although the plaque did not exactly match my 1992 photo, the words on it were almost the same. It appeared to be a new, modernized plaque. Arek translated it, indicating this was a memorial to Hitler's victims from all the towns in the area, including Frysztak.

We walked through the grounds. On the right were the Catholic gravestones and markers for the Polish victims, and on the left side, the Jewish ones. Similar to the Frysztak cemetery, there was a small, iron-gated area in the middle of the grounds. There were also numerous bordered, squared areas about 12 by 12 feet each. Arek explained that each area signified a group of victims, as not all 5,000 people were killed at the same time, but rather in smaller groups. Arek added that he had seen similar mass grave configurations in other areas of Poland. As I walked through the grounds, I was overcome with shock and disbelief, but also a deep and profound sadness for my grandfather, his family, his friends, his neighbors in Frysztak and beyond. I could not help envisioning them all being so cruelly shot into these mass graves. I tried to imagine the terror they must have felt.

Arek said I should take as much time as I needed there, and he sincerely hoped that finding these places would help me and my family. I felt eternal gratitude for Arek. I wanted to express to him how this day was one of the most memorable and important experiences of my life, and it could not have happened without his sensitive and persistent guidance.

I also felt immense appreciation and love for Heidi for being there with me to have this experience together. We had been to Auschwitz-Birkenau the previous day on a tour, and a couple parts were so difficult for Heidi that she had to walk away and take a break. But together we walked into the gas chambers where my grandmother was gassed on August 2, 1943. Together we saw a large room filled to the brim with the hair remains of thousands of victims, and another with their shoes. Was my grandmother's hair in this massive pile, her shoes, her meager belongings? What was she feeling and thinking when she took her final breaths of zyklon B?

My cousins, my brothers, my sister, and I, as well as our children, would not be here today if not for the courage and fortitude of my grandmother to covertly place her young children on a train out of Germany after Kristallnacht. We would not be here if my grandfather had not had the foresight and skills to build a fortified lock for their apartment door that would prevent the Nazis from breaking it down during the Kristallnacht raids on November 9, 1938.

To my dear grandparents, Etla and David Findling, whom I never knew but always knew about: I have now stood on the grounds where you were brutally murdered, in humble tribute to you and all you were and the cruelty you were forced to endure. I will always carry your legacy in my heart.

Your son Martin's daughter, Rhonda

Rhonda outside of the old Jewish cemetary in Frysztak

Rhonda Findling is an EOPS Counseling Faculty member at Santa Rosa Junior College. She and her spouse, Heidi, have two fabulous teenage daughters.

Tags: Poland, Krakow
Categories: Overseas


September 01, 2017


Rhonda Findling