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"I have a wish that we can all be back together again": The story of the Potasz family during the Holocaust


Following the German invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, Rafael Potasz (born 1911), a lawyer from Poznan, was conscripted as an officer into the Polish army's Alpine warfare unit. He was captured and sent to a German POW camp near Bonn, where he spent the entire war. After liberation, he reached the Augsburg DP camp (near Munich), where he met Hela Abramovicz, whom he married in 1947. Years later, he would tell his daughters how it came to pass that despite being a Jew, he was not repatriated to Poland together with the rest of the Jewish officer POWs. He said that upon their arrival at the camp, they were told to fill out their personal information in the registration forms. When the German officer noticed that he wrote down "Meir" as his father's name, he asked Rafael if he was a Jew and the answer was affirmative. The officer then erased this field from the form, thus perhaps saving Rafael's life.


Rafael passed away two years ago. Hela moved into a home for the elderly, and their daughters packed up the family house. A collection of letters discovered in one of the closets revealed what their father never told them: before the Holocaust, he had a wife named Zosia and a daughter, Lilka, who was born in Bedzin in 1937. The letters open a window into the history of the Potasz family during the Holocaust: Meir and Dvora Potasz of Bedzin had two sons – Rafael, who studied law in Krakow and was a certified lawyer, and Joseph (Jozek). In 1936, the father sent his young boy, Joseph, to the Mikveh Israel agricultural school in Mandate Palestine. After graduating three years later, he was supposed to return to Poland, but remained in Palestine at his father's advice. In 1944, Joseph joined the Jewish Brigade. Several months before the war, Rafael moved with his parents from Bedzin to Poznan. Meir, the father, was a salesman for a hardware company, and the relocation was probably done for business purposes. When Rafael was conscripted, Zosia and Lilka returned to the parents' home in Bedzin, while Meir and Dvora later ended up in the Warsaw ghetto.


During the Holocaust, the Potasz family members continued to correspond: Warsaw, Bedzin, Bonn and Palestine. Dozens of letters and postcards, in German and Polish, provide a uniquely authentic documentation of what was happening at the time. A pivotal figure between the family members in those years was Alfred Schwarzbaum. A wealthy merchant from Bedzin, Schwarzbaum left for Lausanne, Switzerland when the war started. From Switzerland, he ran a one man aid and rescue agency, mostly involving the delivery of food parcels and money to Jews living in German occupied territories. The correspondence with him shows that he was already acquainted with the Potasz parents, whose main concern in those days was for their son in the POW camp and for their daughter in law and granddaughter in Bedzin.

 


In mid-August 1941, Rafael wrote to Schwarzbaum: "I need coffee, perhaps some canned goods and also soap. There, as you can see – I've abandoned all hesitations and manners, and am not ashamed to send a full list. A man can't help but learn new truths. I trust your consideration". Two weeks later, his father wrote to Lausanne: "It is imperative that this delivery will arrive just after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) to Warsaw. Please consult an expert in order to assure the wholeness (beauty) of this fruit, this is of the utmost importance. Furthermore: each etrog (ceremonial citron) must be accompanied by a lulav (a palm frond) and 8-10 hadassim (myrtle tree branches), the latter spoils quickly during shipment, the lulavim may be short and packed separately."

The father's letters reveal that he was a shliach zibur (precentor) in the ghetto as well as a contact with the outer world. This is evident from the "four species" delivery for the upcoming holiday of sukkot and from a news report which came in from Palestine two months later: "The news of the death of old [Menachem] Ussishkin hit us hard. The passing of a historical figure of such magnitude is more than we can bear – as daily troubles keep coming one after the other". In mid-May 1942, Meir wrote to Rafael: "I can see that you are mostly interested in our health and to know we are not starving, so I hereby inform you that we are well and not hungry. In these days, this is significant. All other things are of secondary value." Two weeks later, Zosia wrote to him: "I am constantly restless and each bite I take makes me think how hungry you must be… I just want to know why all the Jews returned but you".

 

The frustrating difficulty of Rafael's absence made it hard for her to imagine what was in store for the Jews who did return to Poland. In mid-September 1942, Zosia wrote: "I have but one wish that we can all be together again. I have become more sentimental than I used to be". One month later she wrote: "I have no news from Warsaw, there's no mail coming. I assume they are doing alright because they were working. We can probably count on dad."

The reason why contact with the parents was lost was the great deportation from the ghetto in the summer of 1942 to the Treblinka death camp. The parents probably perished in one of them. In early August 1943, Joseph wrote to his older brother: "Regarding the bringing of Lilian [Lilka], there's no chance… rest assured, that if ever it became possible I would have done everything in my power. As for the parents, I am hopeless and expecting the worst". It also appears from the letters that there was some hope for the possible rescue of six-year old Lilka. Hope was lost as Schwarzbaum wrote in postcard sent two weeks later: "For a week now it is impossible to send letters and photos – the letters return to sender. It is assumed that everyone left". Six weeks later, Rafael replied: "I was quite prepared for the news about Zosia, whose last letter was from mid-July. I doubt if I can even get reports from her from where she is now. Same goes for the parents. I have lost all hope. I appreciate the encouraging words, but I am totally desperate".

In one year, Rafael lost almost his entire family: Zosia was sent to the Grünberg labor camp (a Gross-Rosen subcamp) and died of typhus. Lilka remained in Bedzin with her grandmother and aunt, and several weeks later all three were sent to Auschwitz where they were killed. Only Joseph, his younger brother, remained, and Rafael and Hela joined him in Moshav Hadar Am, near Netanya. It was their father, Meir Potasz, who foresaw the coming turmoil and purchased two land lots for his sons in the 1930s.

In 2014, Rafael's daughters, Irit and Tami, gave the collection of letters to the Ghetto Fighters' House Archives. The letters were translated and interpreted. The file was catalogued, digitized and scanned and is now accessible to researchers and all who are interested.

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