The following story was written by Felicia Stolarczyk Wertz and shared as part of the Memory Project.
When my mother died in 1942, my 14-year old uncle took charge of us. My uncle went to the commandant of the labor camp and asked for advice on what to do with two orphaned small children. After a phone call the commandant told my uncle that he found a place for us in an orphanage. It was a harsh wintertime, and what I remember specifically was that we had no shoes at all. I remember the long journey by a horse-driven sleigh. I also remember that a woman came and took my brother on a small sleigh, and that was the last time I ever saw my brother Enoch. It all happened in the winter of 1942 in Komi, Autonomous Republic of Russia, located in the northern Russia notorious for its severe climate where political prisoners were sent. We were sent there to forced labor camp as “the unreliable element from capitalist Poland.” My uncle, who now lives in Demark remembers the name of the place: Vyshniy Chukachoy, near Zelenets on the river Vychegda. It could be reached by boat in summer only.
I remember speaking the local language, gathering blueberries in short summers, and always being hungry. I forgot about my brother. One day a woman arrived from Central Russia whose mission was to collect all children from Poland and transfer them to the Kursk region. Now, I know that it was connected with agreement between Stalin and the Polish government in exile under General Sikorski to set free all Polish POW and civilians sentenced to labor camps in Russia in order to form a Polish Army unit to fight with the Red Army against German troops nearing Stalingrad. So, when Mrs. Zajkin came (I met her many years later in Warsaw), my preschool teachers told all other children how lucky we were because we were going to a place where edible things grow on trees–apples and pears. Fruit trees do not grow in Komi. It sounded like I was going to a country with plenty of food. When I came to my new orphanage with all Polish children speaking the language and saying prayers at night, I felt awkward. I could not speak Polish, and I did not know anything about “Bozia” (a diminutive for “Lord” in Polish in child’s speech). I did not know anything about any religion at all. I picked up Polish fast. My first words were connected with meals; I knew that after those words we were fed.
I went to the first grade, where I was a teacher’s pet; I liked to learn. Then, the greatest event happened: the war was over, we were full of joy and we were preparing to return to Poland. I use “we” because it relates to all of us in the orphanage. No child knew anything about the fate of his or her parents. The day of departure came. Each of us had our monogrammed belongings in a little cardboard suitcase. It took us two months to reach Poland by train, because railroads had to be checked for mines. Finally, we arrived to the town of Slupsk, located on the former German territory. There was our new orphanage. Clean streets, streetcars, lampshades impressed me, as well as neatly kept houses.
I’ll never forget my first day in a Polish school. It was near the end of the school year, and I was put in the first grade. I remember seeing the well-groomed girls with their long, blond hair braided with beautiful ribbons. We, the girls from the orphanage were shorn and wore some striped shapeless dresses. We felt ugly and sad. Also, in that year of 1946, I found out I was Jewish, which hurt me. One day, the educator came with a list of girls who were to be fitted with white dresses. She read the list of girls, and my name and several other girls’ names were not on it. A white dress was our dream. She did not wait for us to ask why. She stated that we were Jewish and we did not need to go to Confirmation. Here I found out I was Jewish and it was not good. I heard rumors that Jews were bad people. I was shocked, because I was always a model child; I could read and write and sing and dance best of all. After some time, the same woman, Mrs. Zajkin, came to the orphanage to take Jewish children from Slupsk to a Jewish orphanage. I was furious, I was not going to go with those “bad people” (Jews), I was always a good girl and I wanted to be Polish. I hid in the attic for three days so that Mrs. Zajkin could not take me with her. Finally, she told me some things I could not understand then. It was about something dangerous going on in Poland (the pogrom in Kielce), and I agreed to go along. I remembered the overcrowded train and people saying bad things about Jewish people being like lice, they came out of everywhere after the war, not enough of them were killed, etc. Hearing that made me feel fearful and lonely. I was nine years old then.
In summer of 1947 I arrived to my new Jewish orphanage in Zatrzebie near Falenica (a suburb of Warsaw). The place was very beautiful and was located in a park. An older girl was assigned to welcome us and to introduce us to our new life. The first thing she said was that there are only Jewish people here–the educators, the teachers, the cooks, everybody. I looked around and saw boys and girls playing volleyball and I asked her, “Are those good looking boys and girls also Jewish?” She smiled and said, “Of course.” Then she asked me what my name was. I told her my name was Faiga. She said all Faiga’s became Felicia’s, so my new name now was Felicia. I remember going to a village school there within the walking distance. The village school kids would stop us on our way to school, call us names, and extort our post-war “luxury items” such as Hershey bars, Chiclets chewing gum and fountain pens, which we received from UNRRA packages. My educator thought I was too advanced to continue my education in the two-room village school, and she enrolled me into a town school under the condition that I skip a grade. I found myself in the third grade. I could read and write well, but I had problems with math, which were soon solved.
After two years our orphanage was dissolved, children were moved to other Jewish orphanages, and, in 1948, I arrived in Helenowek, near the city of Lodz, where I stayed till I graduated from high school (1955). These were my teenage years, the times of Communist grip over Poland. Our educators were Communists, and they made us read the “Communist Manifesto.” Our devoted and well-respected educator, Maria Milshtayn, was a committed Communist Party member and had been imprisoned before the WWII by Polish authorities. Her family perished in the Holocaust, but she survived in Central Asia. She did not have a family of her own, so she loved us as her own children. In 1958, when she found out about Stalin’s crimes, she committed suicide.
Since our orphanage was under the supervision of and financed by Jewish organizations we were well taken care of. We were also exposed to all available cultural events. Famous Jewish comedians, such as Jigan and Schumacher, would come to give concerts, we had a dance teacher, and our folk dancing group was famous all over the city of Lodz. A feature film in Yiddish was shot on the premises of our orphanage. Some of us took part in it. People would sit through boring communist speeches in order to enjoy our performance in the second part of the event. People would recognize me on the street and tell me, “Young girl, I saw you dancing in the Jewish theater the other day.”
I graduated from high school in 1955, and, as a reward for good grades, I was sent to study in Russia (the Soviet Union). I spent five years studying history at the University of Leningrad. In my sophomore year, I wanted to change my major to English language. I was refused. Those were the times of the so-called “Polish October,” the first doubts about the Communist regime, and then came the Hungarian Revolution, first contacts with the West and my personal eye-opening. I graduated in 1960 summa cum laude from the Leningrad University with a diploma in modern history. Nobody wanted to employ me in Poland. My friends would say, “You studied in Russia, and you want to teach Polish history?” I got a substitute teacher’s position to teach Russian.
One evening when I was visiting my friend in her Warsaw apartment, my girlfriend Rena called me. She told me that her father, who was reading the Yiddish newspaper “Folks Shtime” published in Poland, found my last name in the newspaper’s Red Cross Search section. I was shocked. Is it possible that anybody is looking for me? I am an orphan, I know my mother is not alive, I have never seen my father, and my little brother was adopted by unknown people. The next day, I went to the Polish Red Cross office in Warsaw. I asked the clerk for the name of the person searching for me. She gave me the address and name of the person, who turned out to be my fourteen-year old Uncle Izaak who took care of us after our mother’s death! I called my uncle right away. He lived in Szczawno-Zdroj, near Jelenia Gora in the Polish regained territories (former Germany). I had a day off because it was All Saints Day, November 1, 1961. I arrived by train and my uncle met me at the railway station in his Polish Army uniform. By that time he was a thirty-five-year-old married man with four children and a Russian wife. He held my hand and told me I looked like his sister, who lived in Israel, and asked me immediately what I knew about my brother Enoch. I told him that he had been adopted by a Russian family and promised him to go to the Polish Red Cross and ask them to continue searching. And so I did.
In December of 1963, the Polish Red Cross informed me that the Soviet Red Cross had sent them a letter from a man named Genadiy Sokolov, who was a resident of Kuybyshev (now Samara, Russia), who claimed that his real name was Enoch Smolarczyk and who was searching for his relatives! My joy was boundless. I immediately wrote him a long letter and called him. He was delighted that I could speak Russian. I asked him whether he remembered me. He said he remembered that there was a girl who held his hand. We both cried. I booked the first available trip to Russia in order to meet him. I could not go to the town of his residence because it was off-limits to foreigners. We agreed to meet in Moscow for four days (he took four days off to see me). I was with a tourist group, and, on April 2, 1964, at seven at night, my train was approaching Moscow, and I had to find him on the platform. I had his picture, but I recognized him immediately on the Byelorusskiy Station in Moscow. It was my brother’s first encounter with the West. I looked terribly “foreign“ to him, but my fluent Russian helped him to open up. We talked non-stop for four days.
He had lived through a very harsh life experience after his adoption. The family who adopted him was very dysfunctional, he experienced anti-Semitism, and he was sent back to the orphanage. At the age of fourteen, my brother decided to continue his education in a vocational school. He needed a birth certificate to enroll. He went to the principal’s office and asked for it. The principal took out his folder and found a document written in a “foreign language.” He asked her to look at it. She let him. He had studied some German in school, so he was able to make out the Latin script. He saw a name—“Smolarczyk, Enoch”—and memorized it. The principal was a kind lady, and she wanted to help him. She knew that any foreign ties would be bad for his future, so she tore up the Polish document and told him that she would make him a new birth certificate giving the date of birth as December 21( Stalin’s birthday), his current Russian adopted name Sokolov, and she would designate his nationality as Russian, which would help him in his future career. Thus, my brother, Gennadiy Sokolov, graduated from technical school as a radio and television technician. He told me he was always thinking about his relatives. He, like me, hated Sundays in orphanage, the day when relatives come to visit and bring goodies to children, and I was looking at all of them with sad eyes. It so happened that both of us had independently seen a Soviet movie about two brothers who found each other twenty years after the war. After seeing that film, my brother had written his letter to the Russian Red Cross, and our letters met by coincidence.
My next step was to bring my brother from Russia to Poland. I invited him for a month and introduced him to my Jewish friends, whom he befriended. He felt loved and at home. Jewish people in Poland were allowed to emigrate, and life was easier than in Russia. It took me a year to persuade my brother to come to Poland for good. The Soviet propaganda managed to brainwash him quite well. Poland was a great culture shock for him. He had to learn the language, continue his college education (electronic engineering), adjusting to a new country. In the meantime I had gotten married to an American with whom I corresponded for four years. I left Poland in 1966. My brother suffered from nostalgia, so I sent him money for a trip to Russia. He planned a three-week trip but came back after just a week. His nostalgia was cured; he could not imagine himself living there anymore. My brother married Bronia Lederman, a college student from Warsaw, in 1967. The next year, the big anti-Semitic campaign started. Polish Jews were fired from jobs and made to emigrate. When he got married, I decided to buy him an apartment in Warsaw. He went to look at it, and he was happy, but he was denied the permit to occupy the apartment because he was Jewish. His wife’s family decided to leave for Sweden, a country offered to accept Jewish people from Poland and provided them with language training and employment. They settled there, they learned the language, and they raised three daughters. I visited them every two years, and their girls would come to St. Louis to improve their English. His first granddaughter was born in 1997, followed by a grandson in 1999. Unfortunately, my brother got very sick. In October 1999, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and was operated on in November. The cancer spread to his liver, and I lost him in November 2000. In 2006, I planted flowers on his grave in Stockholm.
[My brother’s wife, Bronia Sokolov (60), is a social worker. They have three daughters, Paulina (38), an art historian, married with three children resides and works in Stockholm, Sweden; Irene (32), their second daughter is a lawyer in Stockholm; and their youngest daughter Veronica (27), is studying architecture and design in London.]
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