With this entry, “Refugee Tales” moves east from Vienna and its environs to outposts of the Austrian Empire in Moravia and Silesia. (Located today in the Czech Republic and Poland.) This was the region my father’s family, the Spitzers, came from. However, with the advent of the Iron Curtain after World War II, those of us living in the U.S. were cut off from that part of the world for decades. Even after 1989, regaining personal contact appeared impossible until sheer chance, in the person of a Polish house painter, opened the door. Hired to refurbish my parents’ apartment in Manhattan, he surprised my father by casually mentioning that he was from a small town in Silesia called Skoczów. This was the birthplace my father had left half a century before! The painter, too, experienced a shock of recognition. He explained that the tannery, once owned by the family, was still going strong. Despite all the time that had passed and all that had happened during and after the war, people who worked there still spoke of being employed at “Spitzers.”
A year later, the painter returned home to embark on the sweet life his American earnings had made possible. The large house that he began to build for himself on the Rynek, Skoczow’s large central square, roused the curiosity of an elderly woman by the name of Maria S. With the impertinence of the old, she asked him how he had come by the money for his new abode. He gave her the details of his American sojourn, but when he concluded with the news that the Spitzers were alive and well and living in New York, her ears perked up. She saw an opportunity for herself.
Maria’s grandfather had been the coachman for the tannery in the early part of the century. She could recall my parents. Now it was 1992, and Poland had barely emerged from the Communist decades. Life was still difficult, the town shabby. Any contact with the West was a prize worth having. It was Maria’s effusive letter to New York that determined my first trip to Poland. Someone in Skoczów who remembered the family would be there to serve as my guide.
Unfortunately, Poland was not yet ready for me. Yes, Maria showed me around, but her itineraries were based on personal claims I could make nothing of. She did not introduce me to anyone else, insisting, with post-Communist paranoia, that the town was rife with troublemakers. The only contact I made was at the tannery, where, of course, the manager was excited at the arrival of a “Spitzer.” He had me sign the guest book, gave me some leather goods for my father, provided a tour, but communication was difficult. As my visit came to a close, I faced the depressing reality that nowhere in Skoczów was there any indication that a Jewish community had ever flourished there. I had no desire to return.
Two years later another letter from Skoczów arrived in New York. It began:
My name is Jacek Proszyk. I am twenty-one years old and study in Bielsko. In Skoczów I live since 1976. Some years ago I became interested in the history of the Jews of Skoczów and I started to collect memoribilia and information about those who survived. Having been in the tannery, I noticed a notation in an album which was signed Mrs. Monika Spitzer-Strauss. In the same note Maria S. was mentioned and she gave me your address. I am very pleased that I am able to write to you since I am looking for contact with your family for many years. I had lost hope that I would find the family Spitzer.
Last year I found out that exactly one hundred years ago, the Jewish congregation in Skoczów got official recognition. About one hundred and four years ago, a synagogue was built in Skoczów. It was mainly the initiative of the manufacturer David Spitzer, a man who did a lot for the little town. Looking through all the archives, I found very old documents of the time of the founding of the Jewish congregation signed by hand of David Spitzer.
In 1992, Jacek had come upon the sad remains of the Jewish cemetery. He was so distressed by the decades of neglect that he determined to resurrect the history of Skoczów’s lost community and recruit others to join his quest. Within a year, a local research committee was searching for survivors or their families, combing the archives for material on Jewish life in Upper Silesia, and making plans for an official day of commemoration.
In addition, a local businessman agreed to finance a scholarly publication titled In the Shadow of the Skoczów Synagogue. Historians contributed articles on the role of the Jews in the region over a period of 300 years and the director of the museum provided a detailed and unvarnished account of the fate of all the Jewish citizens under the Nazi occupation. The volume concluded with biographies of 50 Jewish families.
And so I returned to Skoczów after all. On June 21, 1994, I was present at the commemoration of a monument erected on the original site of the synagogue–the synagogue to which great-grandfather David Spitzer had dedicated so much of his life.