Honoring the life and memory of Stefan Kisielowski
Stefan K. has died. The last time Patrycja and I saw him felt like a farewell. He gave us a binder filled with maps, photographs, and instructions; and jars of honey from the bees in his garden. Stefan was an entomologist, which is what first brought him to the old Jewish Cemetery in Wieliczka, Poland, years ago. While tracking a rare insect species, he came across fragments of headstones – the only remnants of the local Jewish community. No one was left to care, or ask, or speak for them, and so he knew it was up to him. In addition to helping memorialize the cemetery, Stefan started collecting unclaimed Jewish documents found buried throughout the city, and he built an archive for them in his home. The earliest documents came from his own garden 36 years ago, hidden inside a cocoa tin that surfaced when he was digging up his well. This is where our stories collide:
A year ago, Patrycja and I set out on an adventure across Poland and Ukraine, retracing the wartime path of a Polish Jewish woman named Paulina. A magnificent string of errors and leaps of faith had joined us as partner detectives in pursuit of a stranger’s story, to which we had become bound. A testimony, taken from Paulina and filed by Poland’s Central Jewish Historical Committee in 1945, provided the clues we would follow.
According to the testimony, Paulina had been relocated to Wieliczka in 1942. During that time, her husband was arrested and taken to a prison in Krakow. When Paulina couldn’t get permission to go after him, she went anyway, on her own, without her “papers.”
We met Stefan eight days into our trip, in Wieliczka, in the home of his neighbor who, the day before, had accidentally walked into a talk we were giving in the public library. She overheard a name in our story that compelled her to stay, to introduce herself, and to arrange this meeting. While Paulina’s testimony had mentioned no addresses in Wieliczka, we had found a record that Paulina’s husband, while in prison, had received a package from Wieliczka, sent from a Janina Grazella, the prior owner of Stefan’s house.
From the moment Stefan kissed our hands (which is something Polish men of a certain generation still do) it was clear he was a gracious man. Knowing only that we were interested in the history of his house, he spoke with great pleasure about the magnanimous, progressive family who had built it, its impeccable architecture, its exotic gardens, fields of peonies, every kind of tree… and bees. Stefan’s father purchased the property after the war, and Stefan had come in the 1980s to oversee renovations. He said he hadn’t planned to stay, but then he told us of his encounters with the traces of the Jewish community that had been erased, inspiring great concern within him. Stefan was not Jewish, yet he adopted generations of lost and forgotten Jews as if they were family.
Stefan had never been able to find the person whose documents he discovered in his well, but he told us that he still remembered the surname was a short name, like Hirsch. We gasped. Paulina’s last name was Hirsch. This was where we told him our story:
I am also a Hirsch and had been given Paulina’s testimony when I was previously in Poland searching for information about my great grandmother, Salomea Hirsch. While I could find nothing more on Salomea, I was informed that she had a niece, Paulina, born in Krakow 1902, who survived the war and a testimony of her experience was on record. I had met Patrycja days before and asked her to help translate the testimony for me. The result was stunning: a breathtaking account of a woman our age, hiding in plain sight, traveling great distances, helped by many. We both became a part of the story, a story we could not abandon when we learned, over a year later, of its mistaken identity. This Paulina was not my relative, she had no living descendants, yet her story was now in our care.
Stefan was shocked. He had no idea we were looking for a Hirsch. He promised he would look for the documents, and he would be in touch if he found them. What are the chances?
Early the next morning, Stefan called us.
He had been up all night searching his archive and he found the documents. He felt they no longer belonged to him, he wanted to give them to us. Someday, I will know the right combination of words and gestures to describe what came next.
When we met with Stefan that day, he removed from a plain grey folder an aged slip of paper protected in a plastic sleeve. I carefully took it in my hands.
First I saw Hirsch, then Paulina, then date-of-birth: 01.01.1902. It was her Polish ID card from 1939.
The photo had been removed, and descriptions of her physical appearance worn away. But this was more substantial than any image of her we could hope to find: it was the identification of this woman, who up until now we had been pursuing like a myth. The other documents, in Hebrew and Russian, solved for us a huge mystery about Paulina’s daughter whom she lost in the war. These items that Stefan found in his well 35 years prior, cared for and saved, were documents we had been searching for, but never would have found in any archive. He told us how he had spent years of his life trying to find this Hirsch, or any relatives, searching the cemetery, and inquiring everywhere he went on his travels, but he came up with nothing. And then, somehow, we all found each other.
In that tear-stained moment together, Stefan had said that though he is a scientist and a rational man, this was proof to him that there are no accidents. Depending on the day you ask me, I might admit that I believe Paulina guided us to Stefan, that he was the key to the real story. So, when Stefan told us about the one big task he had not been able to carry out, we knew it was up to us to help him.
Information had been imparted to him, about an important archive of Jewish documents still buried in Wieliczka. After the war, a surviving member of the Jewish community returned to watch over the land where the archive was buried. At the time it was safest in the ground. The caretaker passed the location details on to his son, a friend of Stefan’s, who has since died. When we met Stefan, he was the last alive who knew of the archive’s location. He understood it contained thousands of Jewish marriage records from towns and cities across southern Poland, along with other documents that could provide answers to family members still living and scattered across the globe. He had been trying, with caution and reserve, to safely retrieve the buried archive, unfortunately to no avail.
We returned to Wieliczka this past November to give a performance at the Saltworks Museum, and to see Stefan again. He drove us to an overgrown field and showed us where the archive supposedly lay right beneath our feet. When we assured him that we would help him carry out what needs to be done, he was energized to move forward, and we took our first steps together. Before Patrycja and I left, we photographed the maps and instructions Stefan had assembled for us and suggested he keep the original, for now, in case it had something important he needed. We promised to retrieve it next time.
Stefan continued to move ahead with the logistics regarding the archive and called Patrycja with updates, which Patrycja relayed to me back in the US. His last call was in February, shortly before everything shut down. There was talk of further action and a reunion in the spring.
Now, our reunion will take a different form. Fortunately, Patrycja and I, on opposite sides of the ocean, both have jars of Stefan’s honey. It is dark with a rich, sweet, complex flavor that communicates everything I cannot. May its presence in our cupboards be a continual reminder of our promise to Stefan, a promise that we must keep, no matter the obstacles.
As troubled as the world may seem, I came back from my time in Poland with a new sense of optimism and faith in humanity. This comes from experiencing radical acts of kindness between strangers, and an inherent majestic benevolence which, whenever I think of it, I see Stefan. Just a few weeks ago, I thought of sending him a card, thanking him for his generous heart and his trust, and letting him know what an impact he has had on my life. Because of my struggling Polish, we could never directly communicate, and I wanted to be sure he knew this one thing.
Pan Stefan, your memory is a blessing to us all.
English text written by Michelle Levy, Polish text written by Patrycja Dołowy