Recently I went to Kraków in Poland with uni, and it was here I met Monika Goldwasser.
I visited the Galicia Jewish Museum located in the Jewish Quarter of Kraków, a permanent photo exhibition documenting/celebrating the lives of the Jewish people in this area.
Once we finished our tour, we were directed to a room in the back of the building where we were met with a glamorous woman with long black hair pinned up in a beehive shaped bun. She was beautiful, but I noticed she never smiled. I also noticed her eyes, they were so sad.
Now, when one thinks of a Holocaust survivor, one mostly like thinks of a person who has survived a concentration camp. However, how Monika Goldwasser survived the Holocaust was miraculous.
When Monika was a baby, her Jewish parents – Adam and Salomea Goldwasser – were hopeful that they could survive the war. However, their hope quickly died when their neighbours were killed – the Nazi regime was thriving.
Her parents gave Monika away to a stranger because they knew they could not look after their only child anymore. They attached her only with a note stating her date of birth, her birth name and the name of her biological parents.
Unfortunately, this stranger could not look after Monika anymore and she was sent to an orphanage in Kraków ran by nuns. This orphanage in particular was on the same street as a Gestapo office. Often, Gestapo officers came into the orphanage and asked if there were any Jewish children. It is important to note here that if anyone hid a Jew, then they and their families would be killed. The nun in charge was extremely brave, risking her life, and the lives of the orphans- as Monika herself noted – because when she was asked if they had any Jewish children, she very calmly and confidently replied, “Jewish children? Of course not, no Jewish children here”.
Monika went on to describe how a Polish couple came to the orphanage and found a very young girl led on the concrete floor. This girl was miserable, her eyes were full of sadness and despair, she was so exhausted she could not cry. The couple picked the child up and just held her, they could not bring themselves to put her back onto the concrete floor.
This girl was Monika Goldwasser.
The nunnery begged the couple to adopt Monika because they did not know how much longer they could protect her and the other children at the orphanage.
Monika mentioned how this Polish couple could’ve chosen anyone else, if they had chosen any other child their lives would not be at risk. But they didn’t. They chose Monika. Monika also mentioned how other Jewish children were adopted from the orphanage but they were treated awfully. She didn’t say how they were treated, but one can only imagine.
Throughout the rest of the war, Monika and her adoptive parents went into hiding. One reason for this is because her adoptive parents had no children and it would appear odd and would be subsequently suspicious/dangerous if they were to suddenly appear back home with a child. Obviously, another reason for this was because of Monika’s Jewish heritage.
Remarkably, Monika survived the war with her adoptive parents. She was raised as a Catholic girl in Poland and had a very happy childhood, full of laughter she noted to us. However, she had no idea her adoptive parents were not her biological parents, subsequently meaning she had no idea of her Jewish heritage. She mentioned to us that she loved her parents very much, and they loved her very much.
Monika mentioned to us the first time she felt something wasn’t quite right. When she was a young girl, she was misbehaving and her mother got very angry at her and yelled something along the lines of, “You naughty little Goldwasser”. Monika found this odd, why would her mum call her a Goldwasser, what does it mean? When she asked her mum, her mum was visibly nervous and made up some excuse that “gold” is gold, and “wasser” is water is German. It made no sense, and Monika knew this.
When Monika was 10/11, she found a note. A note that said, “Monika Goldwasser, daughter of Adam and Solomea Goldwasser”. This was the note that was attached to her when she was first given away. It was at this point that Monika knew her parents were keeping a secret.
At the age of 22, Monika’s adoptive mother was on her deathbed. It wasn’t until this point that her adoptive mother told Monika the truth, she told Monika of her Jewish identity, her true identity.
Unfortunately Monika’s adoptive mother died, and Monika kept her Jewish identity a secret. She kept it a secret from everyone, including her family and friends.
Some time later, Monika discovered a television appeal from an elderly Jewish woman living in Israel. This woman was appealing to find her niece, to know whether her niece survived the war. The woman was describing Monika.
Monika was conflicted because on the one hand nobody knew of her Jewish heritage, yet on the other hand Monika was desperate to know who she truly was. Monika decided to meet with this woman, who turned out to be her biological mother’s sister.
Monika mentioned to us that the first thing her aunty said her when they first met was, “Oh my god, you look just like your mum”.
Monika decided to see if she could find out more information about her biological parents. The first document she found was a job application from her mum applying for a job in Germany before the war because of her language skills. Attached to this document was a photograph of her biological mother. This was the first time she had ever seen her biological mother – Monika was 50 years old. It was from this moment, from this photograph, that she decided to strive to find out as much as possible about her biological parents.
Monika was so lucky to find so many documents relating to her parents – she mentioned to us that she had these documents stacked high at home. This was because her parents were highly educated, they both went to university. Her parents were both philosophers, her Dad in fact had a PhD. Also, her dad knew French while her mum knew German. Moreover, her dad was also a writer. Sadly, a lot of his writings, a lot of his poems, have been lost, but one still remains. Monika wanted to share it with us:
To Adonai (To God) – by Adam Dalin (pseudonym of Adam Goldwasser)
Perhaps heaven is You – perhaps you are the mist
Maybe You are only in the trees – perhaps You don’t exist
And perhaps You, Oh God, are close and everyday:
Going with me to school and eating from my plate
Helping with my poems, and ready to be of aid
Drinking a glass of soda with me in the shed.
I am an only child, God, so maybe You are my brother,
So that I am not lost in life, and the world does not bowl me over,
Who knows, perhaps, my companion on the journey
No need to be searched for, and not bored with me-
And who together with me, not paying attention to the times,
Leaves for abroad in a Third Class carriage.
Oh! Adonai, sometimes I feel that You are so near,
You are so easy, You’re mine, it all fills me with fear:
Is my voice a prayer? Do I know what I say?
Why did You come at all? You came which way?
Everything said about you today and before
Could be untrue – You are probably not thus or,
Perhaps heaven is you – perhaps you are the mist-
Maybe you are only in the trees – perhaps you don’t exist
(Taken from MySlenice: Traces of Shtetl Life, A Town Trail (2011) p. 59).
She found out her parents had been killed in a mass shooting during the war, confirmed by a family friend. She mentioned to us how her biological mum carried a doll everywhere she went pretending it was Monika, to protect Monika herself. She asked us not to ask any questions on her biological parents, because it just hurt too much for her.
In the last decade, she discovered she had family of Jewish heritage in America. She flew out to meet them and she said to us, it was the first time she had ever felt like she belonged.
Monika travelled to Israel to try to honour her adoptive parents. She was successful. In 2015, her adoptive parents were awarded the Righteous Among the Nations – a prestigious award from the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives to save the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
At the end of our meeting, Monika mentioned how she was well aware that she was extremely lucky to survive the Holocaust as it was only through the help of other people.
She finished our meeting by wishing us all the best, hoping that what we dream will come true. She wished kindness for us all, because it was through the kindness of others that allowed her to survive.
Jewish Quarter, Kraków
Wawel Castle, Kraków
Market Square, Kraków
Thank you for reading!