Before WWII, many affluent Jewish families owned art from some of the greatest painters in history. Artists like Picasso and Matisse. Many of these works were confiscated by the Nazis, and some were never seen again. There were some that were recovered though.
David Mazower, Journalist for the BBC News Magazine, shares his recounts of his family’s history.
Mazower’s mother’s family were Polish Jews and held their home deep to their hearts. When he thought about this history of his family, he thought of his Great-Great-Grandfather, Menachem Mendel Szpiro.
Szpiro grew up as a devout Hasidic Jew but when he grew to become a young man, he cut off his sidelocks, trimmed his beard and embraced the knowledge that came from the secular world.
Szpiro founded a school for girls and became a respected educator and held a deep passion for the languages.
He was already fluent in Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish and Russian. He was determined to learn Esperanto, Spanish, French and German–even if that meant studying by candlelight every evening.
Szpiro’s apartment was small, but he managed to cram it full of books on every subject. The library took him 50 years to amass.
at 78 years old, Menachem Mendal attempted suicide while he was in a Warsaw Ghetto. After this failed attempt, he ended up dying in the Treblinka death camp.
The only reason Mazower knew of the library, which is now long gone, was because he found a memoir of a former student of Szpiro’s in which there was a description of it.
Mazower then thought of his cousin, Paul, whom he met in Boston when the cousin was in his 60s.
Mazower speaks of how his cousin was a tough, plain-speaking man who survived the war and life. He was the first adult whom he met that had a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm.
Paul made a new life for himself in the US. He brought with him his prized possession which was only a single, torn off cover from an old round fob watch.
Proudly, he unwrapped the cover and showed it to Mazower. It was engraved with the portrait of his grandfather, Moyshe Asch, the patriarch of the family. Asche gave all 10 of his children an identical watch.
Nine of the watches disappeared over the years, but at 20 years old, Paul had torn off the cover of his watch and hide it inside of a window sill before he was deported from Lodz, Poland. When he returned to the city as a liberated survivor, he begged the new owners to let him inside. He retrieved the hidden cover from its hiding place.
Mazower poses the question, “What would you take if you had to leave your home in a hurry?
What are the treasured possessions that connect you to your past, that you hope to pass on to future generations?”