How to Reconstruct a Dinosaur

Werner Zorek’s parents managed to send him to England before the war. The rest of his family died in Auschwitz. As an adult, Werner (he later changed his name to Warren) never talked about his past. It was only after he passed away that his family realized how little they knew of his earlier life.

 

Jennifer:

We had no idea Dad’s sister was mentally handicapped, she probably had Down’s syndrome.

Our cousin told us once. I found it so hard to believe. Dad would definitely have told us about something that important!

In April 1995, Warren Zorek gave an interview to the Shoah Foundation, at that time a new project launched by Steven Spielberg. In his home in New York, Zorek answered questions about himself and his family’s life before, during and after the war. There were many interviews like this one conducted in 56 countries between 1994 and 1999. The same set of questions was always used in order to keep the conversations focused on the same topics. However, the survivors were often asked for more details about specific events and could always add any information they considered important.

Warren:

They were hoping to go to some other country, they made plans to go to any country that would accept them. They were talking about South America, about Shanghai, about Cuba, about United States. I do remember going to the post office with my father and sending telegrams to different people that lived in the US and hoping they will give them the visas.

It was Michael who signed his father up for the project. He knew that Warren would never have done it himself, so he called the number he found in a newspaper and gave his father’s contact details. Michael and Jennifer were not present during the interview.

Warren was interviewed by Jannice Englehart who asked him why his parents had not tried to get his sister out of the country with him.

Warren:

My sister stayed with my parents. She was going to leave with them.

That was the only time (except when he listed his family members) that Warren mentioned his sister at all. Erna was two years older than him.

Michael:

After Dad died we found a letter he wrote to his doctor in the US. He asked him what the chances were that his children could inherit the same condition. This was just after he proposed to Mom.

The video shows Warren dressed in a tailored jacket and white shirt with a tie. When he fixes his hair every now and then, we can see a gold signet ring on his finger. He looks great and he seems like a friendly person who enjoys life. He is smiling and looks happy from beginning to end. He answers the questions in a short, matter-of-fact way, even though most Holocaust survivors would find it difficult to hide their emotions in front of the camera. He concludes every thought with some pleasant memory, as if he’d rather not talk about sad things for too long. If someone watched the video, which lasts about 90 minutes, and didn’t know it was a history project, they might think it was just a friendly chat on some late-night talk show.

Jennifer:

You watch this and you just cannot process what he went through.

He could have easily become an oddball. I don’t think anyone who knew my father would ever have described him as strange or sad. But he paid a price for that. He was incapable of speaking about his experiences.

I wonder what he had to do to find that kind of strength.

Warren:

Very honestly, my life in those days was just an adventure.

Warren talks about how he used to play jokes on his teachers (he went to a state school, not a Jewish one), and how whenever there was any trouble at school, you could be sure to find him nearby. He remembers spending holidays at summer camps on the Baltic sea, in Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg in Poland) and how he pretended to be ill just to avoid eating cauliflower for lunch. He talks about preparing for the trip, about buying a suitcase. And the smile never fades.

Jennifer:

There isn’t a trace of anger or hatred in him. How is that even possible?

Warren:

A lot of people feel that what has happened to them, they have to get a revenge, they hate people. People would say: “I’ll never go to Germany because of what happened”. If I could change things by not going to Germany or by not talking to people about it, it would be one thing. But since I can’t change anything the best thing to do is get on with my life and do the best I can for other people and for myself. I think because of that I think I’ve had a better life and I’ve been able to give some of it to other people.

After his parents passed away, Michael began the search for his family’s history. Some information was easy to find. The results, however, brought surprises and more questions instead of answers. They still don’t understand a lot of things about their father’s life. Warren’s sister’s condition was just one of the many things he never mentioned.

Jennifer:

He didn’t tell us about so many things. There were more things he never talked about than what he did talk about.

Michael:

But it’s interesting that we remember different things. Perhaps because he didn’t tell us the same stories.

Jennifer:

I remember we once went to the opera in New York. Dad said that his parents often went to the opera. They would always dress nicely and carefully prepare for the night out. I’m going to see “Madame Butterfly” in the Wroclaw Opera tomorrow, the very same one my grandparents used to go to.

Michael:

When I was about 14, I had to write a paper on the failure of the US to save European Jews. I asked my father what his life in Germany was like before the war. He said that is was actually very happy, he had no idea what was happening. His father was a very respected man, people treated him well. Anti-Semitism never touched my father directly back then.

Warren:

As far as my life is concerned, things didn’t get progressively worst. I didn’t see it, I didn’t notice it. I was just not that much aware of it.

On the night of November 9, 1938,  attacks on Jewish shops, synagogues, and cemeteries were carried out throughout Germany. Almost one hundred Jews were murdered, and thousands were placed in concentration camps. The New Synagogue in Breslau was set on fire, and the interior of the Orthodox Synagogue was completely demolished. The Jewish Theological Seminar on Włodkowica street was robbed of its most valuable book collection. The SS reported that 500 shops and 10 guesthouses were destroyed beyond repair.

Warren’s parents, Alfred and Frieda (née Freund), owned a Kaufhaus (shop) near the tenement house at 95 Jedności Narodowej Street where they used to live. They sold clothes and did quite well for themselves.

Warren:

The communication I had after the war was with a lady who had worked for my parents in their business, a German lady. She had found my address and wrote to me asking for food packages and also tried to tell me what happened to my parents. She knew they had been sent to Auschwitz. Actually she was the lady who at one time, from what I’ve learned since, had tried to negotiate with my parents to purchase their business.

From what I understand, from what I learned since, from this lady especially, they operated the business until, I guess, 1938, when it was destroyed on Kristallnacht. That’s what she told me.

Jennifer:

Just before Dad died I found some documents in his apartment. I don’t speak German, but one of them clearly said „Bar Mitzvah” and the date: 22 October 1938. Our father stated very firmly it was not his bar mitzvah, and I didn’t want to push it.

Michael:

I had no idea. We collected all the papers we found in their apartment and we had them translated only after Mom died. It was about that same time I discovered Abraham Ascher’s book, „A Community under Siege. The Jews of Breslau under Nazism.” It turned out the author lived four blocks away from me in Manhattan. We contacted him and he agreed to meet us.

Abraham Ascher is a Breslau-born historian who specializes in the history of Tsarist Russia. He was three years younger than Warren Zorek and he went through the same experience. In July 1938, his mother managed to move to England with him, and then they left for New York. Their paths could easily have crossed, and yet they have never met.

Professor Ascher made some suggestions as to where Michael could look to confirm the information found in the documents from his father’s closet.

Michael:

Two years ago I went to the Leo Baeck Institute in Manhattan.

I started going through microfilms of Jewish newspapers that were published regularly in Breslau before the war. Since about 1934 the papers started coming out less regularly, in 1937 there were a lot of issues missing, and in 1938 only a couple of issues came out. I got all the way to the newspaper dated 28th October 1938. It was the last page, the one with announcements. I thought – oh well, no luck. But then I realized that the paper was dated 28th October, which means it was printed on 21st. So there was one more issue for me to check.

Michael found one more issue. The “Barmizwah” column reported:

ALTE SYNAGOGE

22.10 Werner Zorek, Sohn des Herrn Alfred Zorek und seiner Ehefrau Frieda geb. Freund.

Warren’s bar mitzvah and Kristallnacht were a little more than two weeks apart. In theory, it’s possible that Warren left Breslau just after the event and that he didn’t know that his parents’ shop had been destroyed until after the war.

Jennifer and Michael knew that Warren’s parents had sent him to England before the war erupted. Nothing else.

In the interview for the Shoah Foundation, Jannice Englehart asked Warren:

Jannice:

What was the date that you arrived in England?

Warren:

I don’t know the exact date.

Jannice:

But the month and the year?

Warren:

Mmm…1937, I think it was probably spring. Spring of 1937.

Michael:

He couldn’t have left in 1937, his bar mitzvah was in 1938!

Jennifer:

He only told me that he was sent to England. I thought they knew someone there, maybe some family.

Warren:

I remember going to a public school and that was right in the neighborhood. Then I went to something which I guess today is considered a middle school and I stayed there until… Until I went to England.

What could this moment of hesitation mean?

Michael:

He told me about his move to England. His parents told him he would be safer over there.

Warren:

My parents made plans to send me away as soon as possible.

Jennifer:

We found a Kindertransport tag in the same suitcase where he kept his documents and bar mitzvah information.

Michael:

Our father never used the word Kindertransport. Later I learned what it was and I figured that this was how he left Germany.

When I started watching films about it, my knees were shaking. I knew my father was there.

Warren:

I was going off for a vacation, for a holiday. You are 11 years old and you can go somewhere.

In the interview Warren reports that he was born in 1925. He turned eleven in 1936. The debate about accepting a group of Jewish children fleeing increasing persecution in Nazi Germany had only really begun in the UK about two weeks after Kristallnacht.

Michael:

We had the information from our father’s documents and from the archives. We knew what he told us. We started looking for information on Kindertransports and we found out that the whole operation didn’t start until 1938. That’s when we started wondering what was going on.

Warren never uses the word Kindertransport in his interview, nor does he explain how his departure was arranged by his parents.

Warren:

I remember going to the station and saying goodbye to my parents, but I don’t really think I knew what that would mean on a long-term basis.

Jennifer:

That Kindertransport tag was the only thing he had left. It was his only link to his former life and his family. He would have never, ever let go of it – that’s how I see it.

Warren:

Probably children joined us somewhere along the way. I remember there were people from Vienna, because they were very fond of singing songs about Vienna.

Jannice:

Did you sing any songs?

Warren:

About Breslau? I don’t think there were any songs about Breslau!

Jennifer:

A month before he passed away I went through a box with photographs. I found his pictures with some English boys and lots of photos of him posing with different girls – girls he dated before he met Mom, I guess. I asked him: “Dad, you are 11, your parents take you to a train station and tell you that you’re going to leave on your own, to a country you know almost nothing about and where people speak some foreign language. You know you won’t have a chance to be in touch with them much. How did you feel about it?”

And he said: “You know what, I felt like I was going for some great adventure.”

Now my own son is 13, and I think I understand what Dad meant. When my son is going somewhere, he just says: “See ya, bye!” and he’s gone. I guess he would be excited, too. Perhaps boys perceive these things differently than girls do.

Michael:

I was looking for any trace at all of our entire family. I found out that Alfred Zorek, Dad’s father, was in Buchenwald. They sent me his registration card from the archive. Our grandpa was released on December 15, 1938, so he was away for over a month. I suppose Grandma paid some money to get him out.

The Buchenwald archive provided more information. Michael found out that after Kristallnacht a lot more men were brought to Buchenwald than the camp could house. Those who didn’t get a place in the barracks had to stand outside all night. It was November, the nights were very cold. They were not allowed to use the toilet so they had to go in their pants. It is estimated that two hundred of them died.

Michael:

Me and Jennifer have different opinions on what our father knew and what he didn’t know. He was 13. Suddenly his father disappeared, along with many other men. It’s impossible to think the children wouldn’t talk about it to themselves. Surely someone had an older brother or sister who explained what happened. Jennifer thinks they were unaware of the whole thing.

Jennifer:

I can’t imagine they just sat at the table and talked about where their dad was taken. Perhaps someone else told him, but I doubt people spoke about it in town. The whole thing was just about Jews after all, nobody else was affected.

Michael:

I think they did talk about it. Perhaps not the day after their father came back from the camp, but they must have talked about it at some point.

Jennifer:

It’s the 1930’s we’re talking about. Back then, parents really didn’t discuss certain things with their children. Nowadays, we probably tell our children more than we should. I still don’t know how much money my father was making. Me and Michael both went to private schools and college. It was just how things were, nobody spoke about whether we could afford it or not. I talk to my daughter a lot now because she picked a college where tuition fees are twice as much as we can afford. Our father grew up in times when children were only allowed to speak when spoken to.

Warren:

I don’t know whether this is the European way of living, but there was a big difference between what parents discussed and what children heard.

Jennifer:

I’m sure that his mother didn’t want to frighten him. I would like to believe he didn’t live in fear and he was not fully aware what was happening around him. But there are some things we will never know, we’re just trying to recreate our own idea of the past.

Michael:

We’re trying to reconstruct a dinosaur with just a couple of the bones we managed to retrieve. There are things we’ll never know and we’ll never be sure this was exactly how it happened. We can only guess.

Werner Zorek definitely arrived in Harwich, England on February 8, 1939. The city of Gloucester agreed to take in ten boys from the Kindertransport. They were referred to as “our boys”. The whole thing attracted so much attention that the city brought a doctor over from Holland, along with his wife, so they could become a foster family for the group of refugees from continental Europe.

Michael:

They were Jews, but that’s all we managed to find out.

Warren started attending school in Gloucester. He talks about it like he does of any other period of his life – with excitement. Hiding in air-raid shelters seemed just like a great adventure – nobody ever got hurt, after all.

It seems that Warren didn’t get to spend much time together with other boys from his transport because the parents of his schoolmate Jim decided to take him in.

Warren:

They were very wonderful people. They treated me very, very well, just like their own son.

Warren left his girlfriend behind when he left England. When he got to the US and it became clear that he had no intention of going back, Jim sent him a letter asking whether he still had any plans regarding the girl. Jim and Warren’s ex-girlfriend were married soon after that.

Warren:

We often asked them to come visit us over here, but Jim’s health did not permit it. Jim passed away, I guess, about 4 years ago now and his widow, this young lady that I knew came over here to visit with us. We showed her around, we took her to Washington. We were very happy to have her here, that was the least that we could do for them.

While Warren was busy learning the language, playing with friends and, later, dating, a loop was tightening on every Jew’s neck back in Breslau. There is no way of knowing what was happening to his parents and sister during that time.

Warren:

The war started, I remember it very distinctly. Sunday in September, we were listening to the radio. I remember Chamberlain announced that since they had no news from Germany, the state of war existed between Britain and Germany.

Of course we learned about the bombing, the cities that were bombed, Berlin. I never read anything about Breslau being bombed.

As far as the concentration camps nothing was never really confirmed. There were just rumors.

Michael:

For a while, I don’t know for how long, he must have been certain he would see them again. I find it hard to believe they sent him away thinking they’ll never see each other again.

Warren:

The communication ended about the end of 1941, maybe early 1942 through the International Red Cross. My parents would send a message to Switzerland, there would be a special form. They would write on one side of the form messages to me and the International Red Cross would forward them to England. I was able to write on the other side of it and send it back to the International Red Cross and they would then forward them to my parents. All the information I received was from Breslau.

Jennifer:

In one of the letters they wrote: “We hope that when the spring comes, you’ll smell lilacs in full bloom and think of us.”

Lilacs were our mother’s favorite flowers. Dad would always bring her lilacs as soon as they appeared in flower shops, and after he passed away, we continued buying them for her. When I saw that sentence in the letter, I started thinking that our father remembered it and started buying her lilacs until they became her favorite flowers. That’s what I think, but it could have been an entirely different story.

Warren:

Their messages were really very general. They would say: “Aunt so and so is fine”. I would say I learned to swim, they would tell me to be very, very careful.

Jennifer:

In another letter, dated September 1939, they wish him a happy New Year. It must have been Rosh Hashanah – I only realized when a friend pointed it out! They write: “It’s hard to enjoy the holidays without you”. “We hope you’re well.”

Alfred, Frieda and Erna were sent to Auschwitz in March 1943. Warren remained in England for two more years after the war ended. Then it probably became clear to him that no family members had survived the Holocaust. Warren’s American cousin Herman covered the cost of his ship fare to America.

Jennifer:

He arrived in the US on August 19, 1947. It’s a bit strange that we know these dates so precisely.

Michael:

We have a telegram. It says: “When you arrive in the port, call this number.”

Warren:

At that time I followed very closely what was happening in England. I also realized that with the Labor government that had taken over at that time, unions were tremendously strong and your chances of advancement would be very small. I thought it would be better here.

In the US, Warren became very involved with the Red Cross. After he retired, he devoted most of his time to it.

Jennifer:

Why did he get so deeply involved? Because they helped him? Or maybe there’s some other reason we don’t know?

Warren:

My wife explained to me that during the war when there was a shortage of firemen, her father, who was unable to serve in the army, decided he would be a volunteer fireman. (…) I could never understand at the time how he used to get up at 4 o’clock to go to a fire and then go to work the next day and I thought it was kind of crazy. One of the first holidays they brought me a fire radio – it would be nice for her father to listen to a fire radio when he came to our house. I wasn’t really interested in listening to this. (…) And then I went to few fires with my father-in-law. (…) The main purpose was not just being fireman but also to take care of the victims from fires. In the sixties fires were very prevalent in New York. The fire department was too busy to do anything with the people that were burned out. (…) The American Red Cross would have to take care of these people and that’s the job I became involved in as a volunteer.

I got a lot of satisfaction being able to help people. That’s why about a year and a half ago I decided to retire from my job at Bloomingdales and devote more time to people that are less fortunate than I have been. As we’ve discussed my life has been very, very fortunate and I guess I should pass it on to people who need it more.

Michael:

During the Stolpersteine-laying ceremony, I was wearing a Red Cross pin on my jacket. Our father always wore one like this. A small apple with a red cross inside. He was wearing it when he was buried.

Before the trip I was worried I’d forget to pack it. Or that I’ll pack it and lose it somewhere.

One of Warren’s tasks for the Red Cross was Holocaust tracing – finding families parted by the Holocaust. In the interview he proudly told Jannice how during the last 4 years he managed to connect 108 different families from all over the world.

Michael:

For a long time, our father didn’t try to look for his own family. He would do it for other people through the Red Cross, but he insisted his whole family died and there’s nobody left for him to find. Finally someone convinced him to give it a try and he did find some relatives from his mother’s side in Brazil, and a cousin in Israel. They even managed to exchange some letters before Dad passed away.

On February 8, 2016 Jennifer and Michael boarded a ferry in Holland and took the same route as their father did many years before. It was the anniversary of Warren’s arrival on the shores of Great Britain. They were hoping that the city archives in Gloucester would help them shed some more light on the boys’ stay with foster families, perhaps even on the correspondence between Warren and his parents. The files were described online, and the descriptions were quite promising. But after their arrival, Jennifer and Michael discovered that the archives had nothing fascinating to offer, and they definitely didn’t provide any answers.

They already knew everything they found there.

Zorek, Werner. Born: 14.10.25, Breslau. Liberal. Father had Clothier’s Shop. 1 sister in Breslau.

4 years Elementary, 4 years Secondary School

Good English.

A very good boy. Obedient and alert and a very good worker.

Very unselfish.

Michael:

That’s exactly what our father was like!

***

A couple of days ago I received a card from Jennifer and Michael. There was a photo attached.

On their way back from Wrocław, they visited their distant cousins in England with whom they’ve been loosely in touch since the 1960’s. It turned out their cousins had a photo taken during Warren’s bar mitzvah.

Michael:

Two years ago we didn’t even know our father had had a bar mitzvah, and now we have a photo of the ceremony.

 


Translation: Aga Zano

Proofreading: Barbara Pendzich

 

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