For more than three years I’ve been gathering the life stories and recipes of Holocaust Survivors and photographing them with their grandchildren. The project has evolved from a TV and radio documentary, into a blog and a TED x talk, before now expanding to a book — Just Add Love, Holocaust Survivors Share their Stories and Recipes.
I want to share one story that unfolded while I’ve been writing it, involving the family on the cover of the book.
That’s Marysia Segan on the right, with her sister Eve and granddaughter Louise Davis. And yes, that means one of our covergirls is almost 90 years old!
What do you remember from a painful experience, what do you block, what do you slowly allow to emerge?
And I do mean slowly. Marysia tried for decades to recall the name of a Polish family who had sheltered her during World War Two. It was only when she was 85 years old that Marysia was ready to go back in time, to the last time she saw her mother, aged twelve.
Maria Bierzynski, known to everyone as Marysia, was born was born in 1930, in a village near the beautiful medieval town of Krakow. She was the tomboy daughter of the village doctor, Henryk Bierzynski, and theirs was a secular Jewish household. They didn’t speak Yiddish; in fact, Marysia spoke Polish like a country girl. That accent and her “non-Jewish” looks helped to save her life.
By 1942, the Bierzynski family was on the run. They had to leave their village, where everyone knew their respected doctor was Jewish. Marysia was twelve and her brother Jan sixteen when they moved with their parents, Regina and Henryk, to a nearby village, to wait for the false papers that would allow them to go into hiding.
They stayed in a guest-house, run by a Christian family. It took courage to accept and shelter Jews in your home in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1942.
Marysia was befriended by the two children closest to her in age, Janina and her brother Lech, known as Leshek.
They swam in the river and climbed and rode horses — ordinary summer pleasures.
But this was no ordinary summer.
One sunny morning in July, when Marysia and her mother Regina were upstairs, they saw a convoy of German police cars racing up the driveway. Reacting quickly, Regina gave 12-year-old Marysia a backpack with some food and money and sent her out to the forest, saying, “Take the back door. Don’t return till they’ve gone and it’s safe.”
They would be the last words she would ever say to her daughter.
Regina stayed upstairs. One of the police checking their ID papers was a local man working for the Nazis. He recognised her name, and knew her husband was the Jewish doctor from the next village.
Marysia’s brother Jan found her in the forest. Walking at night, the two of them looped back round to the village later to find their father.
Henryk decided to take his son and daughter to Warsaw, to try to ‘disappear’ in the large, anonymous capital city.
“Dad would get up every morning look out the window and say ‘We’ve got an extra day,’ because they didn’t hunt for Jews during the day, only at night. So once the sun was up, we were safe for another 12 hours,” Marysia recalls.
With help from the Polish Resistance, all three survived.
They only learnt Regina’s fate when they returned to their village after the war. All nine of those arrested in the guest house had been shot at the police station the same day.
“Dad found out where Mum was buried, where the nine people had been buried after the execution. He brought her remains back to our village for a proper burial. But I can’t remember any of it.” Marysia pauses, in tears. “No, I wasn’t young, I would’ve been sixteen or seventeen. I just blocked it. Completely. I remember him going away to get her body for burial and then — blank. Strange, isn’t it? At various times, I’ve wanted to go under hypnosis, to see if I could retrieve those memories.”
Forthright, energetic Marysia migrated to Australia aged 18. She wanted to do medicine like her father, or nursing. But she had no money to study, and no language either. “So, what does a woman who can’t speak English do? I went to do sewing. I did that for a while, then a little accounting and then I got married.”
Marysia lived a good life and transformed herself into a Melbourne society hostess. Her recipes appeared in Australian cooking and style magazines.
Her father followed her to Australia, with his new wife and daughter. That’s when Marysia met her new sister, Eve.
Marysia had little contact with Poland, which was locked behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, but her mother’s story was always at the back of her mind. When she was invited to Warsaw to take part in a World War II commemoration ceremony in 2014, she decided to go.
After 60 years, Marysia was ready to face her past, and to return to the guest-house where she last saw her mother. Except that she couldn’t remember the name of the village or of the Polish family who had taken them in. She had blocked them, just as she had her mother’s funeral.
There was no one to ask; by then her father and brother had both passed away. So she returned to Australia, bitterly disappointed.
She kept trying to remember; but for a further 10 years — nothing.
Then one day in 2014, 72 years after her mother’s death, she woke up one morning with their name on her lips.
“Just like that…”
At 85 years old, it was safe to remember.
Once Marysia knew the name, her sister Eve set to work. She discovered that Janina and Leshek, the sister and brother who were Marysia’s contemporaries, were still alive, still in Poland, in fact still in the village. Marysia went back to Poland.
“It was very touching. I can’t put it into words,” Marysia says. “I’ve got two photos, 1942 when I was 12, with a young man, and then the two of us in 2014, more than 70 years later.”