Last week my extended family gathered at Mt. Hope Cemetery to honor Leah Liwska, a woman we never knew. Until recently, we had no idea what she looked like, or even the correct spelling of her name. And we still don’t quite know how or when she died.
My grandmother, Bella, first began searching for her sister, Leah, in the wake of World War II, after my grandmother was released from a Soviet labor camp. Despite having spent the past 10 years toiling in a gulag just north of the Arctic Circle, my grandmother couldn’t help but feel guilty about being the lucky sister.
She and her sister—two years her junior—had grown up in a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw. In her teenage years, my grandmother’s idealism and gumption led to her becoming a political activist. As the Polish government began to crack down on dissent and to arrest her fellow agitators, my 18-year-old grandmother escaped from Poland to Russia by foot. It was 1932.
For the next several years, she and Leah managed to periodically pass letters to each other that were hand-carried by travelers between the countries. But then Stalin began executing or imprisoning most foreign-born residents in Russia—my grandmother among them—and then Poland and the world became ravaged by atrocities.
In the postwar years, my grandmother tried everything within her limited powers to learn if Leah was alive. As the years and decades passed, even the glimmer of hope that she might have survived largely faded. But my grandmother still wanted to find something—if even just a trace of her sister’s existence.
After my grandparents, parents and I emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1978, my family tried again through various agencies to learn about Leah’s fate, but to no avail. My grandparents settled in Jerusalem while my parents and I came to Rochester. On a prolonged visit to Rochester in 1989, my grandmother fell ill and died while I held her hand. If she thought about Leah in those final hours, she likely assumed that all aspects of Leah’s existence would perish with her. After all, there were no photos, letters, tombstone or government records pertaining to Leah. Other than my grandmother, no one who had ever met Leah was known to have survived the war.
Last year, my father, my brother and I decided to visit Poland. Being realists, we did not expect to find much information about Leah or my grandmother. We viewed it as a heritage trip—a chance to walk in the footsteps of my grandmother and her ancestors.
But wanting to get the most out of the trip, we began to contact various Jewish historical organizations in Poland. As emails were passed back and forth, small bits of information led to minor clues, and then to larger clues. And then to our first big find: 10 pages of records about Leah that had been digitized in 2014 by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington.
As Leah had become a practicing health care worker (a midwife), extensive information about her work and her background were kept by the German occupation authorities in Warsaw. Additionally, we had our first ever photo of Leah. As it first scrolled onto the screen, I sat stunned for several minutes. Leah had the unmistakable physical appearance of a family member. And for the first time, I could picture her difficult life in all its vivid detail.
Our trip throughout Poland continued to fill in the missing pieces. We reviewed archived materials and poured over the handwritten birth and death record books about our ancestors. We visited the small village of Kaluszyn where Leah, my grandmother and many of our ancestors were born. It had once been 80 percent Jewish. But after its inhabitants were sent to concentration camps, the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery were razed, so as to leave no trace of the village’s true history.
Yet it was during our visit to the orphanage where Leah and my grandmother grew up that we finally learned the most important aspects of Leah’s story. In large measure, that is because this was no ordinary orphanage. It was run by Janusz Korczak, a famed educator, pediatrician and children’s author. One of Korczak’s books, “A Child’s Right to Respect,” is considered among the world’s first efforts to codify children’s rights as human rights. And the orphanage put in practice these self-empowering theories, with children there running their own parliament, newspaper and court system.
Korczak is also well-known, including through an eponymous film by acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda, for how he met his fate during World War II. Though Korczak’s prewar fame resulted in him being offered multiple opportunities for escape or sanctuary, he refused and stayed with his orphans. After being given one final chance to save his own life in August 1942, he again refused. Korczak was last seen calmly leading a procession of nearly 200 orphans—each dressed in their best clothes and carrying a blue knapsack and a favorite toy—onto a Treblinka-bound train.
Beyond the effect that Korczak had on Leah and my grandmother in their youth, his efforts also ended up inadvertently memorializing who Leah became in adulthood. Sometime after receiving her midwife certification in 1937, Leah began living and working in an orphanage for young Jewish children. That orphanage was eventually moved inside the Warsaw Ghetto walls and became part of a larger orphanage called the Main Shelter. The barbaric conditions inside the shelter were of particular concern to Korczak. In early 1942 he got himself appointed to help improve it.
Around March of that year, Korczak wrote reports and letters chronicling conditions at the Main Shelter. For instance, even though it was a cold winter, the building had no heat and the children had no shoes or winter clothing. Every meal at the orphanage was made up of soup, given to the children in 200 mg servings. Seventeen members of the orphanage staff were sick with typhus, and dozens of orphans had rectal prolapse (where part of the colon protrudes through the anus since severe malnutrition prevents the development of supportive tissue around the rectum). And in the month of January 1942 alone, 96 children had died at the orphanage. These were the conditions under which Leah was working.
Additionally, Korczak spent considerable time assessing the staff members at the Main Shelter. This was because he observed that most of them were akin to “criminals” who were only there to steal whatever food and resources they could for their own survival. These staff members were content to ignore the orphans and to turn the shelter into a “slaughterhouse for children.”
Yet there were also staff members at the Main Shelter who were doing all they could—at whatever personal cost—to help the orphans. So Korczak created a list of these “valuable employees” and appended it to one of his reports. Leah’s name is on that list.
Despite the unimaginable misery, hopelessness and death all around her, Leah did not stop trying to help the small children under her care. Despite the visceral pull we all feel to prioritize self-preservation over all else, Leah chose humanity over human instinct.
Reversal of fortune
As we stood by my grandmother’s gravesite, we tried to make sense of Leah’s life and legacy. The Jewish holiday of Purim (celebrated on March 9 and 10 this year) offers some perspective. Purim commemorates the Jews’ deliverance from destruction in ancient Persia. It celebrates the ultimate reversal of fortune story, as a brave young Jewish woman named Esther narrowly manages to vanquish the wicked Haman and foil his plot to kill all the Jews in the land. Nazis particularly disliked Purim, and timed various atrocities against Jews around the holiday.
Of course, Leah herself did not survive her circumstances. But her story now has. And if the arc of history is really to bend toward justice, it will require an ever-increasing supply of people who can see themselves in other people and can see the humanity in us all. Leah’s circumstances were especially difficult, but her decency and moral choices are within the grasp of most.
Within a matter of months, we discovered Leah, only to lose her again. Her legacy is the eternal reminder that people are often decent and noble. Frequently, their humane acts may be little known or forgotten. But as we uncover stories of their virtue—or gain faith that unseen virtue exists all around us—we can grow as a society. After all, we want humanity not just to survive but to eventually reflect the moral grace that is innate to all of us.
Alex Zapesochny is Rochester Beacon publisher. Purim began on March 9 and continues through March 10, 2020.