Since my parents died when I was young, Uncle Marek was my link to their shared past. My father’s younger brother, Marek was the only one alive in our family who witnessed the War and the Holocaust in Poland, the only one who could tell their stories. I have longed to know more, especially about my “ghost meshpucha”: grandparents, aunt, uncles, and cousins who perished. My uncle and I spent hours and hours discussing our family’s history, his own experiences, and the questions we shared, questions that remained unanswered.
Marek was 13 years old when the Nazis attacked Poland in 1939. He and his father, the grandfather I never knew, climbed into a horse carriage and traveled east to the former Polish section under Russian rule. My parents and my mother’s family from Krakow also traveled east. They met up in Stryi, Ukraine. When the Nazis overtook the Russians, my parents, grandfather, and Uncle Marek lived in desperate conditions in the ghetto for two years. My father worked in a medical clinic to support them.
Despite reassurances from the other doctors that the Germans needed them, my father knew they were not safe. He managed to contact someone from a Polish underground organization called “Zegota,” and purchase false identification papers for himself, his wife, and his brother. My grandfather was not a good candidate for passing as an “Aryan.” Not wanting to be a burden, he chose not to escape with them to Warsaw. Instead, he went into hiding in the forest, where he was murdered.
I’ve heard many family wartime stories of close calls, escapes, and hiding. Among the incredible accounts, one stands out in my imagination: Marek’s journey. After the destruction and evacuation of Warsaw in fall of 1944, desperate to earn money, 18 years old, he boarded a train bound for Krakow. He disembarked and went across the street from the station to the nearest hotel, which happened to be Nazi soldiers’ quarters. With feigned confidence, he met the manager and landed a job as a bellhop. The soldiers had no idea that the young man carrying their luggage was a Jew. He spent months hiding, right under the noses of German soldiers.
At the end of the war, he had no high school diploma, no home to return to, and no parents. But he had determination to make something of himself and to give meaning to his survival. He also had the love and support of his brother, my father, from whom he was separated after the Warsaw Uprising. My father survived a German POW camp, miraculously reunited with my mother, and immigrated to the United States when I was a baby. He wanted Marek to join us, but there were complications. Marek remained in Poland to complete his education, became a doctor, married, had a son, lived under Communism, immigrated to Israel, and then to the United States.
There are no “happily-ever-after” Holocaust stories. Survivors endured sleepless nights, PTSD, physical, emotional, and spiritual scars. But Marek’s life seems more fortunate than some. Like my parents, my uncle struggled to create a new life and succeeded admirably. His example of working hard as a doctor is one I admire. He also knew how to live with enjoyment and generosity. He made me feel proud, especially when he told me that my father was his hero who saved his life and the lives of many others.
After his retirement about 20 years ago, Uncle Marek wrote his memoir, in which he acknowledged his debt to Zegota for its assistance. He wrote, “I survived because there were thousands of good people who sacrificed their lives so other humans could survive.” He wanted to see the glass as half-full, and he lived that way.
For many years, I’ve been writing and telling our family’s stories. If you visit Tucson’s Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center, where I was a volunteer, you can see a family photo of my parents’ wedding reception in Krakow in 1939. Of the 17 guests shown, three survived the war: my mother, my father, and Uncle Marek.
In May, we celebrated Marek’s 95th birthday on Zoom, his first online gathering, and he was thrilled. “It’s amazing! I feel as if you’re all here with me in my room. Like a miracle!”
One week later, on Mother’s Day, he went to sleep, had a stroke, and did not awaken.
I am grateful that we had the opportunity to see him when he was in good spirits, enjoying his virtual birthday celebration. Amidst all the conversation that day, I managed to tell him that I love him.
I feel blessed to have known my uncle and will keep his memory alive as long as I can. “L’Dor v’Dor,” From one generation to the next we will tell our stories.
Evelyn Damashek Varady is an educator who taught middle school language arts, drama, and social studies at the Tucson Hebrew Academy for 20 years and English to adult refugees and immigrants at Pima Community College Adult Basic Education. Since 2015, she has worked as a volunteer docent at the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center. She is currently writing a family memoir featuring her parents’ Holocaust experiences in Poland.