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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

A Visit to Piltz

by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

In the 1970s, after my father's death, when I told my mother that I planned to go to Poland someday, she said, "What for?" Both she and my father had been born in Poland in a shtetl [village] called Piltz, but to my mother Poland meant poverty and antisemitism.

My mother died in 1975, but the urge to visit Poland stayed with me. This pull to return to my roots was, of course, not unique to me. Many, if not most, people share it.  Frank Viviano, the author of Blood Washes Blood, A True Story of Love, Murder, and Redemption Under the Sicilian Sun, wrote as follows about his trip to the Sicilian town of Terrasini, where his family had lived for generations:

"I can't really explain why I've come here, to a village where I know no one and have no past of my own."

It was a drive to complete my life, to go back to where it all began, for my parents and therefore also for me.

But I was torn by the decision. I knew of Poland's antisemitism, in the past and today. Poland was also currently anti-feminist. Why should I, a Jew and a feminist, go to a country with a long history of antisemitism and a current backlash against women's rights?

On the other hand, Ellen Friedland, the co-producer of a PBS documentary about a Polish synagogue, wrote me that Poland was "magical" and encouraged me to go. 

 Conflicted as I was, I made plans to go to Poland on August 11, 2001, on a two-week Elderhostel Jewish Heritage trip, and arranged for a side trip to Piltz. I wanted to see and step foot in the shtetl where both my parents had been born and married and where my grandparents had lived.  Furthermore, the first chapter of my memoirs (Eat First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter), takes place in Piltz. I based it on what I remembered of my parents' stories but I wanted to see how close my recollection was to the truth.

But I didn't know where Piltz was. My research revealed that there appeared to be two towns named Piltz--one in Kielce province and the other in Katowice province. Furthermore, while Piltz was the name my parents used, the Polish names were different. It was generally referred to as Pilica, but was also called Pilitsa and Pilitz. In addition, there was another town called Pilzno. I could not tell which town was my parents' shtetl.

I decided to visit the Piltz that was northeast of Bedzin (Bendin in Yiddish), Katowice, and Sosnowiec since I'd often heard my father mention those towns. I learned a good bit about the history of this Piltz and its Jews.  The name of the settlement was already noted as Piliciam in the year 1228.  In 1897, its population was 3,950, about 68 percent of whom were Jewish.  Before the war in 1939, its Jewish population numbered about 2,500.

In Kiddish Hashem: Jewish Religious and Cultural Life in Poland During the Holocaust, by Shimon Huberband, Jeffrey S. Gurock and Robert S. Hirt, the authors state that Piltz was an "ancient Jewish community" with a Jewish cemetery dating back several hundred years and a very old and "exquisitely built" synagogue. Renowned Talmudists served as its rabbis. A note stated: "During the first expulsion [of Jews] of January 5, 1940, the Nazis killed, shot, confiscated Jewish possessions, etc.  During the second half of 1942 the community was totally liquidated. The few remaining Jews were sent to the Maidanek death camp."

In addition to visiting Piltz, I decided to see if I could find any record of my parents.  But I expected that my entire search would be fruitless: I wasn't sure the Piltz I was going to was in fact my parents' shtetl, I knew my mother's maiden name was Dombek [little oak] but I didn't know its Polish spelling, and I wasn't certain of the spelling of the names of any of my grandparents. I had not a single address or personal contact.

On August 12, 2001, I arrived in Poland.  There followed almost two weeks of memorable activities in Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin, Cracow, and other cities, including visits to the Warsaw and Cracow ghettos, the Jewish Historical Museum, the Nuzhik Synagogue in Warsaw, Oskar Schindler's factory in Cracow, and the deathcamps of Treblinka, Majdanek, and Plaszow.

On August 24, the tour group was going to Oswiecim to visit Auschwitz but that was the day I had arranged for my trip to Piltz. As I bid "Good-bye" to the members of the group that morning, they all said they were anxious to hear what I would find in Piltz.  I nodded, certain that I would find nothing. I set off for Piltz with my driver, and Krystyna, my 70-ish Polish interpreter.

As we entered Piltz, we were struck by the loveliness of the town.  There was no hint of the atrocities against the Jews that had taken place there.  After we drove past the charming market square, I saw a sign in front of a building that said "Biblioteka." "Hey, there's a library," I said to Krystyna. "I'm a writer. Why don't we go there?"  The driver let us out and I began walking up the driveway to the library, followed by Krystyna.

Krystyna pointed to another sign that listed the library's hours, which indicated that on Fridays, the day we were there, the library didn't open until 11:00 a.m. (It was then 10:15 a.m.). I kept walking. I hadn't traveled to Poland and then to Piltz to be stopped by a sign. Krystyna, not understanding, again spoke to me and pointed to the sign. "That's not for me, Krystyna," I said, and kept walking. At that, a window on the second floor of the library opened and a dark-haired woman stuck her head out. She was the librarian, and she motioned for us to come in.

Her name was Anna, and meeting her was one of those special moments life throws you every once in a while. Anna, a beautiful woman who appeared to be in her forties, welcomed us with warmth. I introduced myself and Krystyna and told her the reason for my visit. She was very devoted to Piltz and said it meant a great deal to her that I had written about Piltz in my memoirs and had come to visit. She told me that Piltz's current population consisted of 2014 people, not one of whom was Jewish. This shtetl, once the site of a vital Jewish community, now had not a single Jew.

Anna began looking up my family's names in various books and as she did I shared with her my mother's reminiscences about the town. During much of the conversation, Anna had tears in her eyes. When she was unable to find any record of my family, I remembered my telephone conversation with Joachim Russek, the non-Jewish head of the Center for Jewish Culture in Cracow, before I left for Piltz. When I told him of my interest in looking for family records, he suggested I see the mayor. Now I mentioned this to Anna.  She called the mayor's office and arranged for me to see the woman in charge of the Office of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. Anna and I took some pictures together, and she walked Krystyna and me outside. We hugged good-bye--this time we both had tears in our eyes--and drove to the mayor's office.

A large, expressionless woman was sitting behind a desk in the Office of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. I told her what I was there to find and wrote down the names of my family members and the approximate birth dates of my parents. The woman brought six huge books down from a nearby shelf to her desk and arranged them by year, starting with 1891. She found nothing in the first two books, and then while she was reviewing the 1893 book, she said, "Here it is." The writing was incomprehensible to me because it was in Russian since Piltz was under Russian control at the time. She read aloud that in 1893 my maternal grandfather, Itzhak-Moshe Dombek, had registered the birth of my mother, Hinda Leah Dombek, as March 15, 1892; that he and her mother were both forty years old at the time, and that her mother's name was Szandla Czeschkowska. My hands flew up to my cheeks. I was after all, in the right shtetl; my mother had actually been born there and I was there to see it!

We were, however, unable to find any record of my father.

After lunch, we drove to the Jewish cemetery. The driver took us to a street, stopped the car and motioned for me to enter the adjacent grounds.  There was a white fence around the area, broken at the point the driver asked me to enter. I did not believe this land overgrown with grass and underbrush could be the entrance to a cemetery and was fearful of entering. But the driver insisted and, hesitantly, I entered. As we walked in, we did indeed see grounds filled with gravestones. I took many pictures of the gravestones, although I could not find--and did not really expect to find--my grandparents' gravestones. I cannot read Hebrew, so I was not able to read the names on the gravestones. But I had no doubt that I was standing in the cemetery where some of my grandparents (and perhaps other ancestors, too) were buried. Only as we were leaving did I notice the black metal entrance gate with a Star of David lying on the ground.

Then we drove to the Piltz River .  When my parents first met, they had taken a fifteen-minute walk.  I did not know where they walked, so in my memoirs I had them walk to the Piltz River. Now I was able to stand at its banks. It was a narrow, shallow river at the point where we stood but meaningful to me all the same.

That evening, back in Cracow, I met with Joachim at the Center for Jewish Culture and told him of my experience.  He gave me a paperback book, Cmentarz Zydowski W Pilicy, edited by Leszka Hondo and published by the Uniwersytet Jagiellonski in Cracow in 1995. This 328-page book, part of a series on Polish-Jewish Studies, contains pictures of all the gravestones at the Jewish cemetery in Piltz with information on the deceased in Polish and Hebrew, along with an index of names.  The idea for the book came from two young men from Olkusz, a town near Piltz. They suggested that since there were neither funds nor personnel to maintain all the Jewish cemeteries in Poland, an inventory of the gravestones in each such cemetery be documented in books. The book on the cemetery in Piltz was the first such book.

After my return to my Potomac, Maryland, home, as I was reviewing my research material, I was again puzzled by the conflicting information I had received on the two Piltzes. Only this time I was able to solve the mystery.  Warren Blatt, editor-in-chief of Jewish Gen, Inc., had the answer. There had only ever been one Piltz! But the internal provincial borders changed over the years. That's why Piltz was at various times in the provinces of Radom, Kielce, and Katowice, and is today in Slask province.

On August 4, 2001, before my trip to Poland, I had heard Richard Bernstein, on Book TV, discuss his book Ultimate Journey; Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment. Bernstein said:

Travel is a metaphor for a deeper search.

Travel is a way of finding yourself.

You have to go far in order to come back to yourself.

He was right on all three accounts.

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© 2001 Sonia Pressman Fuentes. This article was published in the March/April 2002 issue of Outlook, Canada's progressive Jewish magazine; the Kielce-Radom Special Interest Group Journal of jewishgen.org, an issue devoted to Piltz (Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring 2002); in Heritage Writer, a newsletter published by Inkspotter Publishing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada (Vol. 2, Issue 4, Oct. 2005); in the Algemeiner Journal (May 4, 2007), a weekly newspaper targeted to the Orthodox Jewish community; and on the Virtual Shtetl portal website, the website of The Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It appeared on that website on March 15, 2016, with accompanying pictures.

"A Visit to Piltz" has been translated into Polish for The Polish Jews Forum, an ezine directed to Polish Jews and Poles interested in things Jewish. Click here for the Polish version. This article also appears in both Polish and English on the website of Virtual Shtetl, which deals with the history of Polish Jews from pre-WWI through post WWII. Click here

Alex Oldfield, a Canadian who was on the tour to Poland with Sonia, is a skilled amateur photographer and took pictures throughout Poland. They can be seen here: http://www.alexoldfieldphotography.com/f903627103

Read the sequel to this article, "My Visit to Piltz, Poland."