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All That Was: Chapter Eight - Families

Lusia Przybyszewicz’s parents and relatives imbued in her an admiration for what she considers to be the essential components of Jewish family life - homeliness, warmth, boundless loyalty and a strong sense of inclusiveness. “Their overwhelming love and compassion make any shortcomings I recall fade into insignificance.’’

By 1943/44, all of them, just like most of the others who feature in her story, had perished in the Holocaust.

Lusia’s profoundly moving life story, All That Was, can be obtained by writing to her at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW, 2-30. Australia (price $25 Australian, plus postage).

I could not fully recreate the richly diverse Polish-Jewish milieu in which I grew up, prior to the Second World War, without paying a special tribute to my many relatives: the Przybyszewiczes in Lodz and the Fragmans in Warsaw. They were always around me until the summer of 1939. Together with my parents they imbued me with admiration for what I consider to be the essential components of Jewish family life, such as: homeliness, warmth, boundless loyalty and a strong sense of inclusiveness. Their overwhelming love and compassion make any shortcomings I recall fade into insignificance.

By 1943/44, all of them, just like most of the others who feature in my story, had perished in the Holocaust.

My extended family circle was pretty large. Naturally, I was more familiar with my Father's family, since they all lived in Lodz. One exception was uncle Joziek, the youngest and tallest, and the only handsome one amongst the brothers. During the Russian occupation prior to the First World War, he was also the only one tall enough to be enlisted in the Russian army. Grandfather Shulim Przybyszewicz bribed the appropriate corrupt authority to have him discharged, as he was well aware that the army's inherent and rampant anti-Semitism could bring harm to his youngest son. The photo of Joziek, resplendent in his Russian army uniform, featured in the family album. It was the only reminder of one fortnight's wonder.

He married a Viennese Jewess named Renee, with whom, to every one's utter amazement, he became besotted. Babcia could not quite fathom why he had to travel so far to find his 'treasure'. He settled with his young bride at first in Vienna. Later on, after Hitler's annexation of Austria, they moved to Bucharest. Their son George was born in 1935. They eventually migrated to Australia.

Babcia Przybyszewicz, who had been widowed for a long, long time, lived almost next door to us, on the first floor of 4 Kopernika Street. She shared the household with her unmarried eldest son, Izak, and with her unhappily married childless daughter, Cyla and her husband. Uncle Joseph Warmund, a highly gifted but unemployed concert pianist, ruined his promising career through gambling on horses.
As a child, I had gathered from my Father's old photographs, that in his youth, he felt very close to his sister. However, I remember her as a rather plain, self-effacing woman. Perhaps it was due to her disastrous marriage that she seemed sadly lacking in self-esteem.

Luckily, uncle Izak, like his four brothers, was both intelligent and industrious. He single-handedly ran a successful textile enterprise. This business enabled him to comfortably provide for the entire household.

On Sundays, just before lunch, their flat became the Przybyszewicz clan reunion centre. Babcia, wigged, peered at us with her eager little eyes: she sat at the head of the table. Most of her descendants sat along the sides. The opposite end of the table was reserved for the latecomers.
Ritual had it that the grandchildren must make the rounds of those present to kiss and be kissed by everyone present. Bolek and I loathed this particular ceremony, because our faces felt licked all over. At the earliest opportunity, we hurried off to the bathroom to wash the muck off.

My Father's second sister Bela never participated in those touching get-togethers. She was married to Dr Ludwik Boruchowicz, a very successful skin specialist in Lodz. As he came from a poor Jewish family, his medical studies at the Sorbonne were financed by the generosity of Bela's five brothers. On attaining his goal however, his deep dislike for his mother-in-law, coupled with the indebtedness he must have felt towards his benefactors, created a life-long rift with his wife's relatives. I believe he approved only of my Mother, who was not a great fan of Babcia's either. To the best of my knowledge, he never addressed any other member of the family.

The family referred to Bela as 'Bajla die klafte'. This loosely translates into 'the selfish one'. She would occasionally visit her mother on a Friday night, accompanied by her brilliant little son, my cousin Stefanek, who was six years younger than Bolek. The child had neither knowledge of nor respect for the Jewish traditions, but he spoke three languages fluently by the age of seven. He was bored with the adults around him, and he took great delight in blowing out Babcia's Sabbath candles. Understandably, this was both highly offensive and unforgivable, especially from Babcia's vantage point.

I absolutely worshipped my uncle Ludwik. As I was afflicted by a rather persistent rash (which I had mentioned earlier) at some stage of my childhood, I often had occasion to call on his medical skills. His erudition and compassion impressed me greatly. A bond of friendship was established between us. To my delight, I was sometimes allowed to use the microscope in his surgery. This was a privilege. Even Stefanek was barred from touching it; and Stefanek was the apple of his eye. Such episodes gave a substantial boost to my generally battered ego.

Ludwik was handsome, olive skinned, and very witty. He never minced his words. I recall being fascinated by a hypnotic power of his dark brown eyes.
Uncle Bernard was also in the textile business. He had a pock-marked face, a Przybyszewicz nose more prominent than most, and a very meek, boring wife, Sara. His only daughter, my cousin Irka, was about a year younger than I was. The latter attended the Jewish gymnasium and was an excellent student. She had no sense of humour whatever and never put a foot wrong. I disliked her intensely.

Uncle Wladek, a successful textile man yet again, was probably the ugliest of the brothers (the sisters weren't pretty either). He married late.

I remember a great family upheaval when we learned that Uncle Wladek's bride-to-be, my new aunt Niuta, was the first woman solicitor in Lodz. She talked incessantly in a patronizing manner. I was quite scared of her. Whenever they came visiting, I was expected to recite for her appraisal the latest poems I had studied in my Polish class.

Shortly before the outbreak of war, they had a baby girl whose birth nearly killed Niuta.

Niuta's sister, a spinster in poor circumstances, claimed to be a piano teacher. The entire family was urged to give her support. At that time, I was receiving tuition from Mrs Cukier, our neighbour, and I was progressing quite well with my music. She lived with her unemployed husband across the courtyard from us, on the second floor in Wolczanska Street. From our third floor apartment I could watch him water their rare collection of cacti, which were displayed along the windowsills. He used to chat to them, maybe out of loneliness.

Saddled with this incompetent, new teacher, (Miss Halperin, I think), I soon lost interest in piano playing and developed playing-up skills instead. I began to show the poor woman disrespect by greeting her with chewing gum in my mouth. I would take it out and stick it under the keyboard, but only for the duration of the lesson.

One day, Father caught me changing the time on the grandfather clock in my attempt to get out of the prescribed one-hour piano practice. With his sardonic smile he observed that I should not give vent to my frustration by damaging the clock, but that I should simply give up the lessons. Thus, after a few months of struggle with my new teacher, I was allowed to give up the piano for good.

My Mother's family lived in Warsaw. Mother and I visited them a few times each year, especially in the 1930s as I recall. This was the time when the new single carriage fast train, called 'Torpeda', cut the travelling time by half. Those trips were very precious to me not only because I would sometimes miss school, but also because my Warsaw relatives' very different life style provided a challenge to the world I grew up in.

I understand now that this 'yearning' of mine to spend time with them had mainly to do with their poverty, but in those days I just thought it quaint and exciting.

Babcia Fragman came from a very wealthy and cultured background. She married into another prominent Jewish family. My own research leads me to the conclusion that at that time my grandfather Fragman was one of the three most eligible bachelors in the family. It appears that to this day descendents of three distinct Fragman clans still exist both in Israel and in the United States.

Grandfather Fragman died when his eleventh child, my Mother, was only two years old. The entire splendour was gone by the time I knew babcia Fragman, in the early thirties. She lived very modestly, with her eldest married daughter, Gucia, Gucia's husband, Pavilon, a bearded Orthodox Jew who was considerably older than his wife, and their daughter Bronia.
I best remember my lean tall uncle parading in the mornings in his longjohns. His bearded silhouette was not unlike that of Don Quixote.

They lived at 18 Franciszkanska Street. Later on, this became a well-known address in the Warsaw Ghetto. Their apartment block was extremely dilapidated, and their flat situated above the local bakery. The pleasant smell of baking mingled in the dark staircase with some less inviting odours that escaped from under the front doors of other flats.

Across the courtyard there was a 'buznica', a Jewish praying house, with very large windows. From this building one could hear a monotonous singsong of the faithful (males only!), loud and clear. All were wrapped up in their white and black striped prayer shawls (taleysim), with tefillen tied round their foreheads (these items looked to me like cameras). Their chant seemed in perfect harmony with the familiar head-nodding movement. I would watch this daily ritual, spellbound, from my aunt's balcony, where babcia Fragman also used to sit in warm weather.

The flat had no bathroom: all ablutions had to be carried out in the kitchen. The first room off the long corridor on the left was rented out to a family of three. The baby sometimes cried in the night. I always tried to catch a glimpse of the interior of that room. It smelled musty and was full of junk of all kinds.
At a workbench by the door, the father, a watchmaker by trade, was always working in poor light. The bespectacled, slouched, timid-looking wife busied herself with the infant. As I had very little social conscience at that time, I regarded this squalor as a bit odd rather than pitiful.

The warmth from the bakery provided an excellent habitat for cockroaches: this was the only place I ever saw these creatures before I came to Australia. Bedbugs were far more familiar to me both in Poland and in France.
Apart from the meagre rent paid by the watchmaker for the room, I really cannot imagine what other income came Gucia's way.

I have no idea what Pavilon did for a living; however I distinctly remember that he suffered acutely from piles.
My aunt ran the household, and Bronia performed brilliantly at school, (she was a bit older than I was). And babcia always looked sparkling and happy.

On our visits, Mother and I always shared the double bed in the main bedroom. I never asked myself how the others were accommodated at such times nor did I ever set eyes on babcia's bedroom. Perhaps it was hiding somewhere near the rented room; or maybe she shared quarters with her granddaughter.

I am yet to see, at Passover time, a Seder conducted with a greater degree of authenticity than the one lead by Pavilon. My bearded uncle stayed in a reclining position throughout the meal: he was the only one reading the Yiddish text from the Haggadah. He did it with a fanatical fervour. I was provided with the Polish translation. Gucia kept at his side and was always ready with the wet towels required for cleansing our hands in between servings. The Charoseth (in Polish 'glinka', meaning clay) tasted horrible, rather like grit. There was never any singing.

The matza would melt in your mouth. It was incredibly thin and oval in shape.

Like everywhere else in Poland, carp cutlets, or their skin stuffed with minced fish mixture, were served in aspic. The dish was slightly sweetened. I loved matza soaked in aspic, but I never really took to the fish. I ate it only out of a sense of duty. I do not recall the American style matzeballs in the chicken soup to be part of our Polish menu.

Another sister, Lipcia, lived at Novolipki Street. Her husband's name was Moritz. He was a kosher butcher employed at the abattoir and definitely looked the part. He spoke little at home.
In retrospect, they seemed better off than Gucia's family. Their only son, my cousin Beniek, was rather dull and did poorly at school I recall. He suffered acutely from acne.

The distinguishing feature about Lipcia that stuck in my mind was her enormous bosom. She was very warm-hearted and hospitable, but she made little conversation as she reserved most of her time for the kitchen. There was no bathroom in their flat either.

My favoured aunt was Mother's sister, Natka. Both Mother and Natka spent some time together in Vienna in their youth. They stayed with their Austrian sophisticated cousins, Israel and Sala Fragman and their two daughters, all descendants of one of my grandfather's brothers. Natka seemed altogether more worldly than the other aunts. She had the gentle nature and patience of babcia Fragman.

Her husband, Adolf Petersburger, was a handsome, moustached gentleman, of Austrian - Jewish descent. He was undisputedly the only member of either family who actually served in the armed forces. He would sometimes reminisce about his military exploits under the Austrian or maybe Russian occupation (I am not sure).

There was the famous story of his horse-riding trials. To become a member of the cavalry he had to endure many hours in the saddle. Not accustomed to this activity, his posterior soon became quite raw. To use his words: 'it looked like scrambled eggs.' The army doctor demanded that he reveal the offending part of his anatomy. After Adolf dropped his pants and bent over, the doctor took one look at the damage, then promptly prescribed several additional hours of horse riding, to help it harden up. And it did so apparently: after much suffering no doubt.

In 1945, towards the end of the war, in Germany, I was confined to barracks in the Polish camp at K.D.F. Stadt. During this stay, according to the morning roster, I too had to carry out the buckets filled with urine from our Schtube to the latrine outside. It was indeed a skillful balancing act, not to spill it over oneself, just as uncle Adolf used to describe it.
Natka never enjoyed good health. Maybe that is why the couple was childless. They had a nice flat in Warsaw at Dluga Street. They owned and managed a sweets-cum-chocolate shop at nearby Nalewki Street.

I still remember, on one of my visits to Warsaw in the early thirties, being taken to the Polish National Theatre by my aunt Natka. We went to see a dazzling performance of Dickens' Pickwick Club. I had never before seen a revolving stage.
Aunt Regina 'married well.' Her husband's family owned one of the largest stationery stores in the Jewish quarter. The whole family was employed there. She had two children: yet another, smaller Beniek, and Jadzia, who was also an outstanding student and, like most Fragmans, a very pretty girl.

One school holiday, both of my girl cousins, Bronia and Jadzia, paid us a visit in Lodz. I remember how difficult they found it to fit in with my group of friends. They even had trouble getting used to the food.

Regina used to be terrorized by her mother-in-law, with whom they lived. She wasn't allowed to entertain. The flat was huge, dark, sumptuously furnished, and the curtains were always drawn. There remains in my mind a picture of the old, wigged mother-in-law on her hands and knees, in the process of polishing a piece of furniture. She would spit on it from time to time in between the rubs.

I used exactly the same technique during the war, in my capacity as 'Dienstmadel' (housemaid) on the portrait of Hitler hanging on the wall of the Gaststatte 'Am Hochenstein' in K.D.F. Stadt.

There was another uncle, Jakob, who had the temerity to 'marry out.' I never met him, since he was an outcast.
On my first visit to Israel in 1961, my Aunt Eva told me that his surviving Catholic daughters in Warsaw were receiving food parcels from their Tel Aviv relatives.

My Mother's eldest brother Ruven had migrated to Palestine via Belgium in the 1920s. In the family tradition, he set up a very successful leather business in Tel Aviv, in Nahlat Benjamin Street. This business was developed further by his son, my cousin Bejrish, whom I met in Israel in 1961.

Bejrish built up a fortune over the years, and he became the object of envy of all the other members of the Fragman clan. He was very generous with me and my children during our 1961 Christmas school holidays visit to Israel.

Bejrish died some years later from severe sugar diabetes. I saw him for the last time in 1973 during the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war. He had both legs amputated and was then close to death. He left his widow Cyla and two by-now-married sons: Zwi and Yarden.

My Mother's eldest sister, Helena, was quite old and partially blind when I last saw her.

Uncle Stasiek, after my Mother, Dorka, was the second youngest Fragman. He also migrated to Palestine in the early 1920s because he could not bear the Polish anti-Semitism. Until then he was a very successful businessman, but he had 'a rough ride' in the Promised Land: unfriendly neighbours burned down a venture he set up in Acco. This caused him to lose a fortune. The early demise was followed by a long financial struggle.

His wife Eva and his children Bianka and Jerzyk (presently known as Yarden) were obliged to return to Poland a couple of times. My aunt, who was very enterprising, used this opportunity to take a course in dressmaking. This enabled her later on to supplement uncle Stasiek's modest income in Tel Aviv.

They stayed with us in Lodz for a while. That was the time when I shared my cot with Yarden. I shall return to them further on.

I spoke of only nine out of 11 Fragman children. I believe my Mother had two more brothers. One of them was named Israel. It is possible that they died before the war. In any event, I was unable to trace their whereabouts.

There remains in my memory my fair cousin Natalia Mayer, who owned a chocolate factory in Warsaw and lived in luxury. She was a descendant of another of my grandfather's brothers. Naturally she was immensely popular with all the Fragman children, whom she occasionally shouted to a luscious afternoon tea.

I do remember one such occasion on a visit to Warsaw. We reached her third floor apartment in her private lift. Seated around a beautifully set-up table stacked with goodies, we all felt too shy to partake of anything on offer. But the opportunity to help ourselves to a sample presented itself when Natalia was suddenly called away to the phone. Straightaway, we threw ourselves like wild animals upon all the chocolates and cleared the lot in an instant. On her return there was nothing left. My cousins and I were dying of embarrassment; the hostess pretended not to notice anything.

I met her again in Tel Aviv on that first visit. She looked just as elegant and attractive as before. She lived in a very modern flat, furnished in the Swedish style, with heating system installed under the tiled floors. I since learnt that over the years she also spent some time in Paris and had marital problems causing her much sadness.

A few years later, back home, the news reached me that she had died.

The proceeds from the sale of her flat were divided amongst all the surviving relatives. I also received my share, which I used to build an extension to my Sydney house.

As a child, I met cousin Israel from Vienna initially during his business trips to Lodz. During the war he spent some years at the Buchenvald concentration camp. One of the results of his torment was the absence of any hair on his body. After the end of hostilities the family emigrated to Palestine and settled in Tel Aviv, with daughters Gusti and Irene, in Nachmani Street. They lived directly opposite uncle Stasiek and family. More about them later.

Bob Fragman, who lives with his family in New York, also belongs to the same clan.


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