It was about time to visit the home town of my parents and grandparents. I had lectured in Birmingham and at the annual Limmud study week on the history of Breslau Jewry, but without ever having set foot in the city.
The reasons for the omission lay in family history. Although 14 relatives perished in the Holocaust, my immediate family escaped, paradoxically, because my parents were early victims of persecution. My father, Ernst J. Cohn (d. 1976), became the youngest law professor in Germany, but almost immediately was prevented from lecturing by demonstrating Nazi thugs, suspended from his post, and then dismissed along with other civil servants in 1933. He left via Switzerland for England in 1934 and retrained as a barrister. In 1935 he married my mother, Marianne, née Rosenbaum. Naturalised in 1938, he then stood guarantor for the immigration of many family members, though at the cost of severe insomnia. My mother, today aged 92, was only 19 in 1933 when, driving a friend’s car, she was pushed off the road by a large vehicle filled with six drunken SS men, who later threatened her with violence if she reported the incident. This persuaded her father to agree at last to finance her emigration to England, for she too wanted to escape.
After the war my father refused to return to Breslau as long as it remained under Polish rule. Respecting his wishes, I suppressed my curiosity until, some years after 1989, the Polish authorities slowly changed their attitude towards the city’s German past. Fifty years of stringent polonisation gave way to recognition that Wrocław had always been a multicultural centre for numerous migrations. The German and Jewish pasts were something to celebrate – and an attraction for tourists from Germany.
My wife Loretta and I took one of the many cheap flights used by young Poles returning home. As tourists, we focused on the sites of my family’s past.
We stayed in a small central hotel in old houses charmingly restored by the Polish Association of Architects. While there are some new buildings of the 1920s and more recent times, many beautiful old houses and public buildings in the large central square, the Ring (now Rynek), and nearby have been, or are being, restored to their former glory, or indeed in some cases when badly mutilated by previous restorations, recreated to the original design. We avoided the southern residential suburbs, destroyed in the Soviet siege of 1945 and replaced by Stalinist blocks. In the Ring we admired great-grandfather Nathan Berger’s men’s store (now selling canned music), a little further away the apartment block he let out, and, round the corner, grandfather Rosenbaum’s pharmacy, now dealing in foreign exchange. Polish law prevents us from laying claim to these buildings, which were forcibly auctioned at knock-down prices by Nazi decree.
Nearly as large as the famous medieval square in Cracow, the Ring and adjacent squares and streets are a magnet for people to patronise the many restaurants and cafés and their extensions onto the pavements, but without as many tourists as overwhelm other Central European cities. The Wrocław botanical gardens and Japanese garden have regained their role as havens of beauty and tranquillity, as have the islands in the River Oder, especially the one (long ago attached to the mainland) on which sit the cathedral and other religious foundations.
The eighteenth-century aula of the university where my father studied and, all too briefly, taught has regained its former state. The university museum, albeit extensive and interesting, reflects an incomplete coming-to-terms with the past. The achievements of German scholars until the early twentieth century are celebrated, including ten Nobel Prize-winners most of whom were Jewish, as are the Polish professoriate who fled from universities of eastern Poland incorporated into Russia, but the period of late Weimar and the Nazis is passed over. Similarly, in the national museum, the fine collection of Silesian art from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century is matched by numerous Polish paintings of later centuries imported as surplus to Warsaw’s requirements, but the meagre pickings of European art of recent centuries suggest that the collection was once larger, though where it might be now is problematic.
Jewish Breslau, once the third largest community in Germany, is a shadow of its former self. A commemorative plaque marks the site of the 1872 New Synagogue (Reform), the second largest in pre-war Germany, where my family had worshipped – some more regularly than others – but destroyed in Kristallnacht. It is some consolation that the land is not occupied by a high-rise block of flats but is the playground of a school.
The courtyard of the surviving Orthodox synagogue, the Stork Synagogue, has a plaque indicating that this was where the many thousands of remaining Jews were rounded up between 1940 and 1942 for deportation to their fate. At least services are now held in a small prayer room overlooking the site.
Post-war history explains the incomplete restoration of the fine synagogue dating from 1829. The community grew to 2,500 souls who came from the camps and the rest of Poland, but by 1968 the authorities had become so antisemitic that most Jews fled to Scandinavia, Israel and Western countries. The Communist city government then allowed the building, which had survived Kristallnacht and the war unscathed, to decay.
After 1989 a third community began to trickle into the city and now numbers 250 persons. On the urging of the Catholic archbishop, the city supported some initial restoration, but the shell of the large synagogue is used only on high holy days and for well-attended monthly concerts of Jewish music. The recent award of the 2012 European football championship to Poland and Ukraine induced Wrocław as a chosen venue to promise further regeneration, including the final restoration of the synagogue.
The Jewish community was also favoured when in 1993, after many attempts, it received the school, hospital, offices and other property of the pre-war community, now too extensive for its needs. From the proceeds of lettings, community facilities of every kind are maintained, including free kosher lunches for all – including us tourists! The new young, friendly Orthodox American rabbi regrets that few families of the pre-war Jewish residents have yet visited. He encourages all Poles who genuinely want to become members of the community, even if they are not fully halachically Jewish.
One young university student with a Jewish grandparent helped us to look for my uncle Jakob Cohn’s grave, which is listed in the remarkably preserved records for the 20,000 graves in the New Cemetery, though in vain, because that section is still overgrown. He recruits weekly 10 Catholic priests and 10 Polish soldiers to clear the cemetery, and recently 50 young Americans touring Poland were persuaded to devote a day to this work. The municipality looks after the better-known Old Cemetery; among its 12,000 gravestones we found famous persons like Ferdinand Lassalle, the socialist politician, and Heinrich Graetz, the historian of the Jews, as well as the monumental family vaults of many secularised Jews who prospered in the heyday of Breslau Jewry.
I regret the passing of that era, when undoubted assimilation was also matched by Jewish cultural activity of every kind, but the time has come to accept that Wrocław now has a new Jewish community, just as Germany itself has acquired a large one of 100,000 and more souls, mostly from Russia. We have always been a migratory people and those who escaped Germany have enriched other countries and other Jewries. Am Yisrael chai – the people of Israel shall live!
Henry J. Cohn