This is the story of two Jewish families from the town of Ślesin (pronounced Shleshin –), a small town in Konin district, between Poznan and Warsaw. The small town had a couple of thousands residents, from which a few dozen families were Jewish. We got a glimpse to the town’s history when inlast September came into our office a father and his son, wanted our help in researching the family’s roots and shared their incredible knowledge and materials about the lives of their ancestors in Ślesin.
Gabi Kaufman mainly set, and heard as his father Yizhak is telling his mother’s life story – growing up in Ślesin, her early friendships and love stories, childhood friends which whom she kept in touch, the theater group she took part in, the romantic persuasion attempts from a young polish-catholic opera singer, her decision to marry within the Jewish community, and the departure to Argentina in the 1930s. Yitzhak gave us a book written by his mother in Spanish about her hometown, and shared with us many pictures his family kept for all these years – among them a beautiful collection regarding the theatergroup his mother took part in: Pictures of actors, posters announcing plays of the young amateur Yiddish theater club – operating in the local Yiddish library.
The Kaufmans wanted to share their story, and use it to promote understanding and connections between Jews and poles today. All these years away from Ślesin – in Argentina and Israel – The Kaufmans kept contact with friends from their home town, and now they want to promote this story as an educational one. We connected the Kaufman’s to a few organizations dealing with those subjects in Poland, promised to help more through translations or research, and off course – to keep in touch.
We didn’t know how fast we would be in touch: a couple of months after the Kaufman’s visit, came a husband and wife – Eli and Yona to our office and wanted to learn more about the Eli’s family. Eli didn’t plan a long stay in our office, “just 30 minutes” he said, and when he said the family came from Ślesin – we knew exactly what he should do in those 30 minutes. We showed Eli the pictures we got from the Kaufmans, to show him the life in his father’s home town. We thought that in a small town like this, maybe he could find some information from the Kaufmans. It was more true than we imagined.
After a few pictures Eli was shouting – “stop, this is my father’s name there”. And indeed – Rafal Bier – as his father’s name was in Polish, was a member of the Ślesin amateur Yiddish theater group. Eli started saying that it makes perfect sense that his father participated in theater acts, “he loved to perform” he said, and even got his father’s permission to sing in the church’s choir – just so he can perform there. We managed to find Eli’s uncle in one of the posters as well, and it became clear that Eli might find some concrete information about the family from Yitzhak Kaufman. It was an emotional day for Eli, and for us as well. Eli and his wife Yona stayed with us to light Hannukah candles in the ancient Menora from theJHI’s collections, and Eli said he would return the following day do continue the search.
When Eli Bir came back to our office a couple of days later, We already had an email response from theKaufman’s to share some information with him: the families did not only knew each other through the theater group – they were also neighbors, sharing the same building in town – One family in the groundfloor, the other above it. Yitzhak Kaufman also said that the connection did not end there: when the Kaufmans came from Argentina to Israel, the relation between the families continued – and he remembers as a teenager visits from the Bir family, with their little son Eli. Eli was delighted to hear that, and it was clear that the two families should meet back in Israel. Eli set in our office as we tried to search in our archival records and in other sources the traces of Rafal’s Bir life in Ślesin – mainly his early marriage in Ślesin, before he lost his wife and small child in the war and started a new family. Eli knew that this wife and child existed but nothing more – not a name, no age, and certainly no pictures. We suggested various ways to search – from the local Ślesin Civil records office, to local historians and Yad Vashem cross-references. Our records from Ślesin were few and scarce, and we hoped to come up with more information in the future.
We were happy to hear that the Ślesiners got together and held a meeting in Israel: renewed old contacts between the two families. We thought this was a great story, showing how creating a center like ours holds great benefits for the bigger cause. We shared the families’ story in our 2014 yearly report and in our Facebook page, and it was a story we were proud to take part of. When we got another email from Eli saying he will be in Warsaw and would come and visit — we were curious to hear what they learned from each other.
Eli and Yona came into our office smiling as always. As they unfolded more layers of the story it got more and more emotional, and more and more incredible. The Kaufman and Bir family were not only neighbors, and not only partners in the theater group. The first thing Eli Bir and Yitzhak Kaufman found out when they met in Israel, is that their parents were also business partners, and opened a shared business in Israel in the 80s. The second thing they learned is that they are sharing more than this:
Rafal Bir’s, Eli’s father, first marriage was to XXXXX Kaufman – Yitzhak’s aunt. The half sister Eli never knew, that died in the holocaust, was also Yizhak’s cousin. In the Kaufman family collection there were pictures of XXXXX, and of Rafal Bir with his daughter, the Kaufman’s niece.
Eli was delighted to share this information with us, we drank coffee and took a look at more family pictures he brought. We saw the pictures and greetings that were sent between the family members from Warsaw, Ślesin, Poznan and London, and helped Eli read the correspondence and greetings they exchanged.
The Kaufman and Bir families were looking at us from the old pictures. Their story is now back home – in Warsaw, in Ślesin, in the homes and the renewed connections of the sons in Israel.