by Miriam Wallbridge
The HJN series on Jewish immigration to Hamilton continues with a featured interview with Piotr Gawek conducted by his wife, Miriam Wallbridge. Born in Poland, Gawek, a professional violinist, immigrated to Canada in 1988. The two met in Timmins in 2000 and were married the same year. The couple and their three children have been living in Hamilton since 2014. Gawek’s story and the stories of other Jewish immigrants to Hamilton will be featured in an upcoming exhibit at the Rose and Phil Rosenshein Museum at Beth Jacob Synagogue, scheduled to open in September 2017.
MW: Piotr, you were born in Poland. Can you tell me about the history of your hometown? I understand that among Polish cities, it has a rather unique history.
PG: Yes, I was born in Zamosc, in the southeastern part of Poland. Zamosc is a UNESCO world heritage site. A fortified city built in the 1580’s, Zamosc is often referred to as the “Pearl of the Renaissance,” or as the “Padua of the North.” The town’s plan was the product of a unique partnership between its founder, Jan Zamoyski, then chancellor of the multi-ethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the celebrated Italian architect Bernardo Morandi of Padua. Zamoyski, a wealthy nobleman, patron of culture and the arts, and a champion of religious tolerance, commissioned the planning and construction of the town on his private estate on the basis of Italian Renaissance principles regarding the “ideal town.” His aim was to make Zamosc one of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities of the Commonwealth, one that lived up to certain Renaissance ideals. The result was a beautiful, multi-cultural city that became a safe-haven for ethnic Poles, Sephardic Jews, Greeks, Italians, Germans, Scots, Armenians, Turks and others.
MW: One might expect that Renaissance aesthetic ideals would have informed the city’s architecture, but did the founder’s commitment to multiculturalism also find expression in the city’s design?
PG: Yes, it did. So deep was Zamoyski’s commitment to cosmopolitanism that Zamosc’s original town square—its main public space — was framed with beautiful Renaissance “tenement” buildings, the facades and ornamentation of which reflected the town’s diversity. There were Italian arcades, Greek columns, Armenian geometrical motifs. As of 1618, a beautiful synagogue in the Italian Renaissance style took its place near the centre of the town. The central square was meant to foster a civil space for diversity and co-existence. Even street names like Ul. Ormienska (Armenian Street), Ul. Zydowska (Jewish Street), Ul. Grecka (Greek Street), Ul. Radziecka (Russian Street), celebrated difference.
MW: How far back into Zamosc’s history did Jewish settlement actually trace?
PG: Almost to the beginning. Zamoyski invited Sephardic Jews to settle, and a large number of Sephardim from Italy, Portugal, Spain and Turkey arrived in or around 1588. I have reason to believe that my own maternal ancestors were part of this original wave of Sephardic immigration, as on my mother’s side of the family, one finds surnames such as “Perec/Peres,” “Graca/Grace” and “Juda/Jude.” Importantly, these original settlement rights were re-confirmed by every subsequent leader of Zamosc, with the result that the Jewish population grew, and institutions key to Jewish life proliferated. There was an influx of Ashkenazim during the 17th century and again during the Russian Revolution, resulting in a historically unique blending of Sephardim and Ashkenazim.
MW: How robust was Jewish life in Zamosc throughout the town’s pre-World War Two history?
PG: Extremely robust. Zamosc had a vibrant Jewish quarter in the centre of the old city. Its suburbs were populated by large numbers of chassidim. On the eve of the Second World War, there were two synagogues, three mikvahs, several Jewish schools, two Jewish cemeteries, a number of kosher slaughterhouses, a market, a credit union, a hospital, charitable institutions and several theatres and newspapers. As of 1939, Zamosc had one of the largest Jewish communities in Poland —12,000 or more people — with its Jewish population slightly outnumbering its non-Jewish population.
MW: I understand that Zamosc also figured quite prominently in the Haskalah (the Enlightenment, an 18th to 19th-century movement designed to make Jews and Judaism more cosmopolitan in character).
PG: Yes, a large number of artists and intellectuals associated with the Haskalah came from Zamosc: the journalist Aleksander Zederbaum, the playwright Salomon Ettinger, the author and playwright Isaac Lejb Perec, the violinist Bronislaw Huberman, Abraham Luxembourg (father of the political theorist, Rosa Luxembourg), and others.
MW: What became of Zamosc during the war and the Holocaust?
PG: Roughly two thirds of Zamosc’s Jewish population were murdered, many at Belzec, some in the Zamosc ghetto, some in the Zamosc Rotunda. The latter, originally part of the town’s fortress structure, transformed by the SS into an execution site. Zamosc itself remained intact during the war, spared from shelling because of its beauty. In a perverse twist, it was selected for German colonization and was to be renamed after Heinrich Himmler. However, the Germans were pushed out of Zamosc by the Red Army before this came to pass. Zamosc was also famous for having had up to several thousand of its children — Jewish, non-Jewish, children of a particular age and physical stature — kidnapped during the war and adopted into German families.
MW: How was your family impacted by the Holocaust and war?
PG: My father and his sister were child survivors of the Holocaust and were deeply traumatized by their experience. My grandfather, who had a farm in nearby Ostraleka, kept the family hidden in the floor of the house and personally escaped Nazi capture twice. My mother spent the war hiding in an underground storage cellar. She recalls having been chased, together with her sisters, by the SS. She lost young siblings during the war. One of her first cousins, Lucjan Schnajder, was murdered in the Zamosc Rotunda. Frankly, I have not come to terms with the full impact of the Holocaust and war on my family and likely never will.
MW: In the post-Second World War Zamosc in which you grew up, what traces of Jewish life remained?
PG: I was born not even 20 years after the war came to an end. I grew up in what had been Zamosc’s Jewish Quarter, on Perec Street, approximately 100 metres from what had been the main synagogue, the mikveh, the market, etc. Under Communism, the main shul had been converted into the municipal library. Zydowska Street was renamed “Zamenhoffa Street.” There were very few material artifacts left to testify to the robustness of Jewish life during the 350 or so years that preceded the war. The walls of the main shul, once adorned with elaborate paintings and Hebrew script, no longer bore traces of this. One could see where the Torah ark and upper galleries had been but they were now in use by the library for displaying books. Frankly, one had to be a Jew to understand the sacred function they once served. The bimah and candelabra were gone. The building that housed the mikveh, which I could see from my window, was in disuse, eventually becoming a social club. The market and other key buildings were used by the town at large. The building I lived in, once the home of Izaac Leib Perec—also once owned by my mother’s family — had been turned into an apartment block. All buildings formerly owned and occupied by members of the Jewish community had been re-purposed.
MW: What became of Zamosc’s survivors?
PG: The vast majority of those who survived escaped from the ghetto into the Ukraine and from there, made their way to Israel. Those remaining behind became “hidden Jews,” unable to live an overtly Jewish life, and unwilling or unable to talk about their experience. If one survived the war as a Jew, one was alone and living in fear. Very likely, one’s parents, one’s family, and most of one’s friends had been murdered, or had left. One was on one’s own with no institutional or community support. Connections were destroyed, ties were obscured, identities became submerged, language was lost. There was a near total collapse of what once had been a civil space for the expression of difference and of Yiddishkeit. And it is fair to say that I am a product of that. Zamosc stands as a testament to the precariousness of Jewish life without infrastructure and supporting institutions.
MW: Did Zamosc retain any of its beauty?
PG: Zamosc also provides evidence of the precariousness of beauty, absent the tolerance of difference. Zamosc is beautiful in some ways, but the city is empty, more or less devoid of Jewish life, although this may be changing. But without the diversity that the city’s Renaissance architecture was meant to reflect and to edify, Zamosc has a kind of abstract beauty.
MW: You have told me that you attended both a specialized art school and a specialized music academy both in the former Jewish Quarter. How aware were your peers of the robust Jewish life, the rich Yiddishkeit that once animated that area?
PG: It is very hard to say. No one spoke of the Jewish community that once infused the central part of town with life. Ironically, when I attended art school, I restored some of the architectural details of the Renaissance tenement buildings framing the town square. But the history we read in school was a revisionist history — one revised, in fact, not once but several times during the course of my own schooling, and it made no mention of pre-war Jewish life. The older generation who had survived the war certainly knew. My mother, who grew up in the Jewish quarter, was an eyewitness to the ubiquity of Jewish life in Zamosc before the war—and through her, I came to understand certain things.
MW: Did you ever feel as though you were “on hold,” growing up in Communist Poland, as a curious and creative person whose roots are what they are?
PG: I think that at the height of Solidarity’s resistance to Communism, when the Church began to assist the movement, the average Pole probably had hope for moving forward in some way. I think that the sense of limbo may have been slightly different for those of us who could not yet find ourselves in the “space” that was opened up in the alliance of Solidarnosc and the Church against the Communist State. As I reflect on it now, I see that my sense of being on hold, under Communism, had a different spiritual hue.
MW: How did you cope with your own sense of being in limbo?
PG: I never allowed myself to be motionless. I was immersed in my art and violin studies. I also wanted to move forward and to deepen my understanding of myself, the world and my place in it. I grabbed a hold of what I could in my place of birth, this city founded on Renaissance ideals that became the site of so much inhumanity, darkness and destruction. I had to work through murkiness and submerged connections in order to find a way forward that aligned to my innermost sensibilities. I was guided by discoveries – the discovery of my grandfather’s tallit, his ring inscribed in Hebrew, his sacred texts, various details concerning the city’s history, my family’s history and origins, etc.
MW: You defected shortly before Communism collapsed, while in the midst of your violin studies at the renowned Krakow Academy of Music. To me, this seems like quite a radical and courageous move. Has your immigration experience helped you in your quest for self-discovery?
PG: For me, self-discovery has been, in some ways, a process of rediscovery and return, of “teshuvah.” While it may seem ironic, that process has been advanced by my immigration experience and by experiences I have had since coming to Canada. It has been fuelled by insights I formed while completing my education in this country and developing as a professional violinist — by discoveries I have made and continue to make in being a husband to you and a father to Yehudi, Jascha and Mischa — and by my discovery of the possibility of life lived in community here, against a backdrop of the acceptance of diversity. I hope this process will never stop. Zamosc may not have lived up to its original promise, but I remain determined to live up to my own.