Summer is typically seen as a time for relaxing, carefree and light vacations, filled with trips to the beach or the mountains to get away from the stresses of everyday life. Earlier this summer, Office Gallery’s Jordana Wluka Bishop took a different kind of trip – one still far away from the everyday, but full of meaning, understanding, and importance.
Together with her parents, David (brother of former Office Gallery owner, Allen Wluka) and Nancy Wluka, her niece Jadyn and nephew Zachary, they set off to go back in time. It would be her first visit to her grandfather’s (Icek “Hank” Wluka) hometown, Nowy Dwor Mazowiecki, located in east central Poland. She would soon come to realize truly how significant this place had been to her family both in the past and present.
According to the Nowy Dwor Jewish Memorial website, Nowy Dwor (as it’s more commonly referred to) started with a small Jewish population in the late 17th century and grew to the point where nearly half the population was Jewish.
David Wluka first visited Nowy Dwor with his father, Hank, in 1988 to visit his hometown and the Jewish cemetery where his family lay. They found the cemetery had been desecrated by the Nazis in 1942, when they took the remaining Jewish population out of the Ghetto to Auschwitz. They were horrified and heartbroken to see open, broken graves – empty holes where their family had once rested. And a few scattered bones, including a baby’s skull which they brought to Sharon Memorial Park for a proper burial.
More than 20 years later, in 2010, some of the headstones (matzevot in Hebrew) were discovered during ordinary utility work, which prompted a concerted effort by David Wluka and Ze’ev Shaked, another descendant, to create the non-profit Nowy Dwor Jewish Memorial (NDJM). This is when they discovered that Nazis had torn out the headstones to be used as reinforcement under the dirt roads for their tanks and trucks. They had also mined the cemetery, including the caskets and corpses inside, for sand to make concrete.
As a result of donations from around the world, more than 150 headstones have been uncovered so far, many in good condition, and are now displayed as part of two memorial walls at the cemetery. NDJM also has compiled a database of birth, death and marriage certificates, among other legal documents, for descendants to trace their family histories. They provide scholarships to local students who win their annual essay contest on tolerance, as well as make donations to their schools as prizes.
Jordana says the trip and the ceremony offered her more perspective and patience. She met other descendants and cousins from Israel for the first time, heard stories about her grandfather’s short life before the war, and was able to better imagine what he and others experienced. She thought about whether she could have survived something like what her grandparents did in their teenage years. Her grandfather was assigned to Building 8 in the Auschwitz work camp, and worked at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, digging out the ash pits from the crematoriums, which Jordana visited prior to the ceremony. Her grandmother, Bronia “Brenda” Patashnik Wluka, was moved to a ghetto and lived there until she ran when she learned it was to be liquidated. She survived by hiding from house to house and later by digging shallow graves in farmland that she hid in during the day. Brenda was 13-15 years old during this time.
Mostly, Jordana thought about her grandparents’ lives after that time, and the wonderful memories they gave her and her brother Aaron over the years. Both survivors of the holocaust, Hank and Brenda met at a displaced persons camp and were married after three weeks. Jordana’s father David (named after Hank’s father) was born in Austria about a year later before the three of them came to the United States to Boston where their sponsors – her grandmother’s cousins – welcomed them. Brenda and Hank had two more sons, Allen and Michael, and Hank went on to start a TV and appliance sales and repair store in South Boston.
Jordana remembered that throughout his days her grandfather carried with him a genuine gratitude just to be alive, and never had a bad thing to say about anyone. And those kind, kind blue eyes. When he passed away in 2001 from Alzheimer’s, he was remembered with story after story of him helping those less fortunate – offering food and clothing whenever he could. Her grandmother was known for her beautiful rendition of “God Bless America,” which she sang frequently, and for being a wonderful friend to all. She passed away just over a year ago of pancreatic cancer. Hank and Brenda were married for 55 years. Their survival led to three sons, three daughters (in-law), five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren (with another on the way!).
As a result of these memories, and stories, and circumstances, Jordana has devoted much of her time in her adult life to causes such as the Foxboro Walk to End Alzheimer’s and the Nowy Dwor Jewish Memorial. We are proud to support Jordana, and to lend our support to these important causes as well.
They still haven’t found Hank’s father’s headstone.
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