Mrs Sonia Wajsenberg
Born as Sora Jelin, Białystok, Poland, 2 August 1923, died 14 October 2016, Melbourne, Australia
Many years ago I was a young Honours student at the University of Melbourne, about to embark on my thesis in History about Polish-Jewish contact in and outside the Warsaw ghetto.
“There’s someone you MUST meet”, said Mark Baker, my supervisor, and he made arrangements for it right away. This, he said, was a woman who would tell me all I wanted to know, with frankness, intelligence, and spirit. Her name was Sonia Wajsenberg.
I was so nervous before our meeting. A Holocaust Survivor? I’d never met one! I’d only read their testimonies, memoirs, their history of suffering, how they got through the hell of the Nazi occupation against all odds. And I’d read, also, about the millions who were murdered. For months I’d isolated myself with Holocaust literature, history, facts. I was overwhelmed by it because I’d never known about the full extent of Jewish persecution before. I’d come from a Polish Catholic home where the struggles talked about were the ordeals of the Polish Catholics; people like my father who’d been in the Polish underground, then fought in the Warsaw Uprising, then taken as POW to Germany, from where he ended up in Australia; like my mother, a refugee.
Now that I was to meet a real person who had survived the Holocaust, I didn’t know how I’d even talk to her. Just relax, Mark said, be yourself, ask her everything and she’ll tell you.
I remember our first meeting as if it were yesterday. The day was beautiful as I made my way to her apartment on Spring Street in Melbourne’s CBD. Wow, people actually live here, I thought then, in 1989, before high-rise living in the city became fashionable. I was in awe of Mrs Wajsenberg before I met her.
Then when she opened the door to her apartment, and I saw her for the first time, I felt a lightness come over me because of the twinkle in her eyes and her gracious, generous, greeting. She was a small, beautiful woman who seemed to dance when she stepped, with the poise of a dancer, too, as she invited me inside. Her apartment was lovely – bright, airy, with wonderful views of St Patrick’s Cathedral, and the parks and streets of East Melbourne. She told me that those views brought her peace, and I understood what she meant.
We sat down then and the first talk was about me, much to my embarrassment! But she wanted to know all about me – who I was, what I was doing, who my parents were, where they were from, why I was interested in Jewish history. She wasn’t just asking to be polite; she was genuinely interested, and would continue to be throughout all the years I knew her. And as time went on, I would come to confide in her about everything – my failed relationships, my insecurities, my uncertainties. She always listened and always gave advice, which I welcomed as a hand of guidance in my life. But she also made me see some things were not worth worrying about at all.
I always called her Mrs Wajsenberg (or PANI in Polish), much as she insisted I call her Sonia. But I’d been brought up the Polish way where you didn’t dare call someone older, for whom you had respect, anything but their formal name. I think she understood this because she’d been brought up in the same era as my own parents – in that incredible, tragic time of the interwar years where so much promise came crashing down by 1939. She’d been taught, as had my father, to recite the great Polish poets by heart; she knew all the Polish (and I also mean Polish-Jewish) writers; she could recite Mickiewicz, Sienkiewicz, Remont, Wyśpiański.
She also knew Polish lullabies. I will always remember her singing “Był sobie krόl” (there once was a king) to my firstborn, on one of our many visits to her, ten years after I’d first met her. She sang with pathos and what seemed like tears, too, the melody reflecting (for me at least) all the hope, beauty and horror in her own life:
Był sobie król, był sobie paź,
i była też królewna.
Żyli wśród róż, nie znali burz,
Rzecz najzupełniej pewna.
There once was a King, there once was a page,
And there was also once a princess.
They lived amongst roses, they didn’t know storms,
That much about them is certain….
But back to our first meeting. All the questions I’d prepared went out the window. First, we had tea and cakes and many other offerings, and then I managed to begin asking her about her life. We started at the beginning, at her childhood in Białystok, and we never got much beyond that on the first day. There was so much colour and detail in her memories, spoken in that elegant, perfect Polish of those educated in the interwar years – a Polish that will never be spoken again.
I sat entranced as she spoke, a whole new world of pre-war Jewish life in Poland opening up to me in a way no book could tell it. I learnt then about the love she’d been born into, and the community of uncles, aunts, cousins, who gave her solace; about the streets of a destroyed city as they’d looked back then, with all the refinements and complexities of Jewish life on every corner, Sonia the child in a faraway land like that of the lullaby.
Then in came Mr Wajsenberg, Mietek. He was a giant of a man, and I was scared of him as soon as I saw him. He seemed to be everything she, Sonia, was not: tall, overbearing, laconic, restless. But that was just me jumping to conclusions, for when he smiled, his blue eyes danced, and his entire face changed. He was, it turned out, a gentle giant, whose sensitivity and care was evident 5 minutes after you met him, as was his humour, which still made her laugh, after almost 50 years together. How could he be anything other than her hero, her saviour, and she his, I thought, after all this time together, after he had risked his life in the hell of occupied Poland, trekking through the forests to save her? They finished each other’s sentences; he listened patiently as she told her story and added his in as well, for their tales were intertwined from 1942, when he’d come from Warsaw to the Bialystok ghetto to marry her and smuggle her out, back into Warsaw, where they lived in the open, but also in hiding, as a Christian couple, who married for the second time in a Catholic church (many years later my husband, whilst in Poland for a while, went to that church in Warsaw, and miracle of miracles , managed to get a copy of that marriage certificate. Their names on it were their false Christian ones: Bronislaw and Marta.)
I could talk here about their survival against all odds, at a time where every Jew was doomed to death, about their many near-misses with the Nazis and also with Poles who betrayed them.
That was the thing about Mrs Wajsenberg – she was into Polish-Jewish dialogue way before it became popular. She understood how complicated it was, despite her own pain, and she resisted making generalisations. She talked of good Poles and bad Poles and made me see how impossible it was to get the big picture without appreciating the little stories, like hers and Mietek’s, with all their details of everyday survival. Sonia knew that in trying to understand a person’s daily life – their fears, their character, their past – I would come closer to the truth about humanity – how and why it behaves in certain ways in times of upheaval. She readily admitted there were things she would never understand; one pivotal moment came as she stood staring into the abyss of post-war Bialystok and realised that all her loved ones had been murdered. She knew about anti-Jewish persecution, about Hitler’s obsessive hatred of the Jews and his machinery of destruction launched at Jews specifically, but she admitted she could never really understand why. Ever a humanist, versed in the great philosophical works of her time, Sonia did, sometimes, simply accept tragedy and injustice as horrors greater than her comprehension.
So while I could talk at length about the months of tapes I recorded with her and Mietek about their astonishing survival, I think that should be left to a book about them, two very special people of a generation that will be no more.
For me she became more than just a Holocaust survivor, more than the guide she was at the Holocaust centre, where she talked with brevity about things that had torn her heart; more than just a busy, glamorous socialite who loved theatre and opera and meeting her friends. She gave heart-rending lectures to my students at university when I began teaching the Holocaust – not just about her own life and survival, but about historical context, and her thoughts on Nazism, fascism, and all hatreds. She could hold her own in the most intellectual of company. The students learnt more from her than they had all semester. And the thing that astounded them most was how alive she was; how vivacious and humorous and sympathetic with them, of all things. She had a way of making everyone feel special.
She became a true friend to me, as I visited her countless times in that Spring Street apartment. Nine years after we’d first met, she and Mr Wajsenberg honoured us by attending our wedding. Mietek died just a month after it, and with his passing Sonia also lost a part of herself.
When our first child arrived, I’d take him in his pram to see her and we walked through the parks across the road from her place; we drank coffee in local cafes and talked, always frankly, about life’s joys and sorrows. I will always remember her merriment when she placed the month-old Julian on her sofa and laughed with him when he smiled.
I will never forget her voice, her laughter, her vitality, the way she looked at people with that half-smiling expression of genuine interest, or the way she processed things, long and hard, before giving her opinion.
She didn’t just teach me about the Holocaust. She was one of the most influential people in my life, an extraordinary woman from an extraordinary time and place, but also very much a part of the new world she’d grown into upon reaching Australia. She was always young to me; young at heart, in attitude, and character, with a childlike curiosity about everything around her.
I thank God that I was privileged enough to know her.
Spoken at her funeral on 16 October 2016
Mrs Wajsenberg with Darek and baby Julian (our firstborn), March 1999