Dec 2005 Journal

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How I came to believe in miracles

I am a scientist - to be precise, an immunologist - and I don't believe in miracles. However, this summer I experienced a week which has made me wonder. This is a very personal account of that week but I believe the personal is transcended by something of far wider significance - the apparent need of Poles to make up for their antisemitic past.

I was born 80 years ago in Köslin, then a small German market town in Hinterpommern (Pomerania), between Stettin and Danzig. In the late nineteenth century, a vast synagogue was built and existed until its destruction during Kristallnacht, when both the 'old' and the 'new' Jewish cemeteries outside the town were also obliterated.

The Russian army largely destroyed the town in 1945, and since then it has become wholly Polish, with no trace of anything German (other than some pre-war buildings) or Jewish. Köslin became Koszalin. In 1989 I decided to visit the town for the first time since I fled from it in 1936, and I did so in the company of my first wife Joanne and my son Simon. Due to its great growth and extensive rebuilding I found it hard to orientate myself in the town, though the park and nearby woods and coastline were as I remembered them. Some landmark buildings that had survived included, amazingly, the one near the station in which my family and I had lived in a small third-floor flat in the mid-thirties. I didn't know a soul and, not unexpectedly, it proved to be a cathartic visit.

Five years ago I received a fax from Zdizlaw (Zibi) Pacholski, a professional photographer in Koszalin, telling me he had discovered my grandfather's tombstone. It had apparently been found lying in the stream which flowed alongside the old Jewish cemetery and it now sits in the local museum, the only Jewish artefact in the region. It was the tombstone of my great-uncle David Baruch, born in 1840.

Four years ago my wife Carol and I returned to Koszalin to inspect the gravestone and to get to know, among others, Zibi and his wife Nina. This time we had friends there. I was now able to appreciate the town for what it had become since my childhood.

Zibi, an excellent photographer, is also deeply interested in the Jewish history of Koszalin. He had discovered the 2003 website of the British Transplantation Society on which they had celebrated the first publication of a paper in Nature half a century ago that had led to the award of the Nobel Prize to its senior author, Professor P. B. Medawar. I had been the junior author and Zibi suggested to the mayor of Koszalin that something should be done about this man, who now called himself Leslie Baruch Brent. And so it was that earlier this year I received a gracious invitation from the mayor of Koszalin to spend a week, accompanied by Carol, as an honoured guest in his city.

We arrived in Koszalin in early July, and I had the most extraordinary week of my life there. We were treated like celebrities. Events organised for us included a visit to the Archives Institute, where I was able to inspect the birth, marriage and death entries of members of my family (all carefully preserved in their German leather-bound tomes), and visits to the museum (where my great-uncle's tombstone stood among beautifully displayed exhibits of the city's past) and the regional Chamber of Physicians, where I was formally presented with a certificate of honorary membership, the first in the society's history. Before our departure the mayor gave me a leather-bound folder enclosing my family's documents, beautifully photocopied on to vellum paper.

A scientific symposium had been set up in my honour on the subject of 'Transplantation', with speakers from Warsaw, Gdansk and Szczecin (Stettin) and a contribution from me, and one evening was spent in a theatre into which 120 people had crammed merely to ask me questions about my life. Somewhat embarrassingly, I was asked to unveil a large plaque in Polish, German and English outside the house in which I had lived with my family. On our last evening we attended a fine choral concert - dedicated to me - in the cathedral (formerly the Marienkirche). Leaving Koszalin, I carried with me a box of presents: a variety of books about Koszalin, three paintings, a videotape (in German), a bust of Hippocrates, a mug and other memorabilia - but, must importantly, my family's documents and a wine bottle carrying the remnant of a label showing the Star of David and a Hebrew letter. This pre-war bottle had been found on the site of the cemetery and Henryk Romanik, not only a priest but also a poet, had written a long poem about it, linking the bottle symbolically with me and my family. He presented me with an English translation of this touching poem.

But quite the most significant and moving event was the re-opening of the old Jewish cemetery. The site, having been identified, was tidied up and surrounded with a green wire-mesh fence. The Star of David had been incorporated into the ironwork gate, and inside was a large ice-age boulder with a plaque in Polish and Hebrew recounting the cemetery's history. In front of the boulder was an irregularly shaped area of white pebbles, with a small cypress tree.

Taking part in the ceremony were the mayor, the bishop of Koszalin and two priests (one of these, Henryk Romanik, had helped to prepare this event), two Jews from Gdansk (one a rabbi) and two from Koszalin, a woman from Warsaw representing the chief rabbi (she was the chief executive of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Culture in Poland), and a professor of transplant surgery. And, of course, the ever-present Zibi, recording it all for posterity. Carol and I were the guests of honour and the ceremony, which began with a two-minute silence to commemorate the victims of the London bombings, was watched by a crowd of about 100. This included some 30 Jews living in the city - the first time they had appeared as a group (I had not even realised there were Polish Jews in the town). The ceremony was intensely moving and the re-opening will, I hope, help to give the Jews in Koszalin some sense of communal identity. It is intended in due course to move my great-uncle's tombstone, which began this extraordinary odyssey, back to the cemetery from which it had been so brutally plucked in 1938. Do I believe in miracles? Well, maybe.
Leslie Baruch Brent

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