In the first of our blogs commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, the acclaimed Historian David Cesarani shares his very personal experience of visiting the Polish town where his grandfather grew up.
In 1993 I travelled with my wife to the town from which my mother’s father had emigrated to England around 1911. Biala Podlaska lies on the route eastwards from Warsaw to Brest and thence to Minsk. We travelled by rail and walked the last mile from the Czarist-era railway station on the outskirts into the town. Our aim was to locate the street where my grandfather had lived and to visit the Jewish cemetery in search of headstones. To guide us we had a map from a tourist office and advice from the oldest surviving members of the family. Both were rather vague. But, to our astonishment, we found little changed. An aged relative had recalled the cluster of streets where the Jews lived, close to the town square, and we found them easily. We noted several brick buildings that once housed communal institutions and the wooden houses where Jewish families once resided. We then took a taxi to the cemetery, after I got the driver to understand the carefully rehearsed phrase in Polish ‘Please take us to the Jewish cemetery’.
What we discovered there was shocking and disappointing. Nothing. Just a low wall enclosing a desolate space, with a little gate and near it a small monument erected by the association of emigrants from Biala Podlaska. The Germans had destroyed the cemetery during the occupation. In that time the town was the site of a POW camp and later a transit camp for Jews collected from surrounding villages. The Jews, including the members of my family, were sent from there to Treblinka. For me, Holocaust Memorial Day is a moment to recall the sadness of that day and the infinite sorrow that comes from knowing a community was so utterly wiped out that even the dead were erased.
David Cesarani is Research Chair in History at Royal Holloway, University of London.