"Returning to Baruch Bergman's house"

Marzena Dobosz

"On a warm summer day, he liked to stand in front of his house at the intersection of Żydowska and Dominikańska." Such a picture – the image of a resolute boy standing on the threshold of the house – begins Zbigniew Pakuła's story about the life of Baruch (Bronek) Bergman, entitled “Poznań, majn hejm” (Poznań, my home). The story of a Poznań resident who ended up on the other side of the world after the war. But whenever he could, Baruch returned longingly to where he was from, even though none of his former colleagues was waiting for him there.

Nobody missed him when he and his family left Poznań in October 1939 to escape the inevitable death at the hands of the Nazi occupiers. He found new friends in Poznań only half a century later, in the 1990s, when he decided to organize a convention of his surviving colleagues scattered all over the world. And the journalist Zbigniew Pakuła, whom he asked for help then, became not only his friend but also a confidant. Thus "The Story of Baruch Bergman" was born. It is a Polish-English edition richly illustrated with beautiful photos, a testimony of the life of a Jewish boy who longed for his city from afar.

Readers of Zbigniew Pakuła's previous book, "Chawerim - The Jews of Poznań", published in 2018 by the Miasteczko Poznań Association, have already encountered Baruch in the story of his friend from the school bench, Hersz (Henio) Kronenberg, bearing the bitter title "Nothing here for us". It was Heniek with whom Bronek organized conventions of Poznań Jews – first in Israel, then in his hometown.

Baruch's parents – Sara and Pejsach – came to Poznań at the beginning of the 1920s. At this time many inhabitants of the more impoverished regions of the country were coming to the capital of Greater Poland while Germans and German Jews were leaving the city. It was easier for young people to start a new life in a large city that was once again part of independent Poland. The Bergmans came from Łódź, Sarah's hometown (Pejsach's family came from Widawa) and lived in a one-room flat in a tenement house belonging to the Jewish community.

Later, Pejsach ran a small fabric shop nearby, and Sarah looked after the house and the children. Baruch was born in 1925. He had two brothers: the elder David and the younger Gerson. The boys attended a Jewish school and led their lives mainly within the Jewish district. "The nearby streets were my world: Żydowska, Szewska, Stawna, Kramarska. On Dominikańska Street, which was more spacious than others were, we played palant" - says Baruch. And although the Bergmans did not do well, he kept childhood memories happy: devoted, loving parents and great brothers, great friends, kind and wise teachers. The Jewish community in Poznań was not large, but it was very supportive. And support was needed then because the 1930s was a period of spreading nationalist sentiments. Baruch often sadly admitted that in Poznań "you breathed anti-Semitic air". And that he only hung out with his friends from school and street, because Christian children did not want to play with them. "We were filthy Jews [for them]”, he said.

But that's not the worst. It was only when the Germans entered Poznań that things became scary. First, the harassment, then beatings – Baruch's younger brother lost his hearing as a result of being hit with a butt by a German officer. Then their rights were taken away; they were robbed, their possessions were seized, making a living became impossible, and finally, resettlement started. The Bergmans did not wait for death, but in October 1939 they left for Sara's family in Łódź. They tried to settle down there somehow, but at the end of that year, the occupants began to plan to establish a ghetto and soon it was necessary to flee again.

It is thanks to his father that Bergman survived the war, that he, his mother and brother avoided extermination, as he admits. It was the father’s incredible courage and determination to save his family, run away, hide, wait and survive. Pakuła does not use grand words when writing down Baruch's story about the desperate Jewish wandering. He reports on successive tasks that Pejsach Bergman faced and that he just took on. He managed to lead his wife and sons out of the Warsaw ghetto and take them to Kielce – good. He had to move them away because it got dangerous – he went and picked them up. Then there was Częstochowa. And Warsaw again. And yet you still had to live somehow, earn some money, and not reveal your identity with any gesture or word. But how can you live when the ghetto is burning a few streets away?

I read that Pejsach Bergman, who bought documents in Polish name from someone in Łódź, managed to rent an apartment in Warsaw's Wola district, on my street. Baruch's family lived here until the outbreak of the uprising. The tenement house at 6 Wolska Street was built just before the war, so it was in good condition. The front part survived the revolt and stood alone for many years near the crossing with Okopowa Street. On the right side of the entrance, there was a small veterinary office where I used to come with my stray kitten. And the Bergmans lived in apartment five during the war.

Today, on the site of the tenement house, which was demolished in 2011, there is a large, modern office complex. The gable wall on the west side is decorated with a huge colourful mural by Tytus Brzozowski depicting buildings that no longer exist, which once formed the climate of this area. At the beginning of August 1944, during the Wola massacre, residents were driven out of their homes. Some were sent to camps, but most were killed on the spot; it is estimated that 50,000 people died within a few days. The SS men entered Wolska Street. Baruch was not at home at the time – the outbreak of the uprising found him in another part of the city, and Bronek tried to join the fighting units. So he did not see the shattered heads of his father and brother, shot in front one of the walls of the tenement house. Where were they buried? Were their remains, together with the countless murdered inhabitants of the district, placed in a common grave at the Wola insurgent cemetery?

Bergman's post-war fate forms a story of a good life, full of love, work and persistence in building a future for the next generations. Pakuła ends the story of his protagonist, the story of his life carefully recreated from the few surviving photos, letters and memories, by calling forth the initial image. The image of a happy Jewish boy standing on the threshold of the house with a slice of bread in his pocket that his mother packed, staring into the depths of life – just like he used to stare down Dominikańska Street – as he recalls his blissful childhood spent in Poznań. There is even a photo like that in the book – Bronek Bergman, in the summer of 1997, stands on the steps of the front door to his house at 32 Żydowska Street, in short pants, with a cheeky look. As if he never left.

"I am a Pole because I want to", wrote Julian Tuwim in "We, Polish Jews..." on the first anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in which his mother died. Tuwim's words sum up well the story of the life of a Poznań resident, Baruch (Bronek) Bergman who loved his city with a "difficult, bitter-sweet love". And its taste is perfectly reflected in the book by Zbigniew Pakuła.


Zbigniew Pakuła, Poznań, majn hejm. Historia Barucha Bergmana
(The story of Baruch Bergman)

Translated by Daria Rzeczkowska
Miasteczko Poznań Association, Poznań 2019

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