Joanna Beata Michlic is a social and cultural historian, and founder and first Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust at Brandeis University. She is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the UCL Centre for the Study of Collective Violence, the Holocaust and Genocide, UCL Institute for Advanced Studies, and Research Fellow at Weiss-Livnat International Centre for Holocaust Research and Education, University of Haifa, June 2019 – May 2020. She is the co-Editor in Chief of Genealogy Journal.
Her research focuses on the social and cultural history of Poland and East European Jews, the Holocaust and its memory in Europe, East European Jewish childhood, rescue and rescuers of Jews in East-Central Europe and antisemitism, racism and nationalism in Europe. She is a recipient of many prestigious academic awards and fellowships, most recently Gerda Henkel Fellowship, 2017-2021. These views are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wiener Holocaust Library.
This blog is based on a lecture delivered at the International Seminar, Holocaust Education in 21st Century: International Perspective, in recognition of the 25th anniversary of Yad Layeled, Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, on 2 May 2021.
Very few Jewish parents in Nazi-occupied Poland were lucky to survive on the “Aryan” side either together or in close proximity to their children. Some parents had high hopes that they would be reunited with their children after the Holocaust, while others knew they were facing an ultimate death and could only attempt to safeguard their children’s physical survival. In the latter cases, they hoped against hope that after the Holocaust their children would be united with and raised by their surviving adult relatives in Poland or abroad. This was their final will, articulated in their emotional letters and written with pressing urgency. However, these parents’ wishes rarely came to fruition.
In this blog, I want to focus on two cases of missing child Holocaust survivors for whom searches have continued until the present day by family members. The relatives could only cling to fragmentary evidence and hope against hope that the lost family member could be identified and found.
Ori Bickels, born in a small green Polish town, Tuchola, in 1953, immigrated to Israel with his parents in 1957. Ori’s father, Józef Bickels, was born into a highly acculturated and educated Polish-Jewish family and had five siblings, four brothers and one sister: Samuel (Milek), Lonek (Arie), Wiktor, Jakub (Kuba) and Róża. Józef’s cousin also named Samuel (Milek) Bickels (1909 -1975) immigrated to Yishuv Palestine in 1933 and became a well-known architect. Among his works is the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, on 1 September 1939, Józef Bickels, who before the war was trained as a veterinary doctor, was drafted into the Polish army as a lieutenant. He fought in the Defensive Campaign of September 1939, and soon after was captured by the Germans. He spent almost the entire war in a German prisoner of war (POW) camp, Oflag II-E in New Brandenburg in northeast Germany. While Józef was incarcerated in the POW camp, his brother Wiktor experienced harsh conditions in the Lviv Ghetto where he was confined with his young family: his wife Roma Bickels, née Ratz, whom he married on 7 May 1939, in Lviv, and their toddler son Alexander, born in the Lviv Ghetto in the autumn of 1942.
On 4 July 1943, Wiktor Bickels wrote to his brother Józef a desperate letter that he knew would also be his last will. Wiktor wrote the letter in the shelter where he and his family were hiding for months. The shelter was located in the house of the selfless rescuers, a Polish couple, Jan Jurdyga and his wife Henryka Jurdyga, née Gwizdalska, and their three young sons. However, by July 1943, the shelter underneath their entrance hall at 359 Pieracki Street on the outskirts of Lviv, was no longer safe. Neighbours began to inquire about the origins of the toddler boy whom the Jurdyga family kept ‘above ground’ because of Alexander’s young age. In contrast, his parents remained seated all day in the shelter, only stretching their legs at night. One month after the liquidation of the Lviv Ghetto, in June 1943, the Bickels asked their rescuers to arrange a new shelter for their son, believing that Alexander could survive the Holocaust since he was not circumcised and had blue eyes and blond hair. The Jurdyga’s arranged a new hiding place for Alexander: an unnamed Ukrainian peasant woman from a nearby village, who regularly came to their house in Lviv to sell milk and butter, took Alexander with her one day. Shortly thereafter, Alexander’s parents left the Jurdyga’s house in the hope of escaping to the East. They were fully aware that their chances of survival were virtually nil.
In this eloquent and poignant letter to his brother Józef, Wiktor writes about the scope of their family’s destruction, the death of their parents and other relatives, and he expresses a wish that if he and his wife do not survive that Józef will track down Alexander and raise him as his own son.
“My dearest Józieńko, 4 July 1943.
I am writing my last words to you here. No one survived from our family, everybody has been killed. People who will give you this letter will explain everything to you. Mr and Mrs Jurdygowie, they have a heart of gold. They have been sheltering us till today. They were also the couple who were looking after our boy, but we were forced to give him away into the hands of strangers. In general, please remember to help THEM and be grateful to them throughout your life, do not forget about this. If you locate the boy, please bring him up as if he were your own child. He is our only descendant. He is not circumcised, and he has blue eyes. Mrs. Jurdyga could recognise him. These are my wishes. Now I need to say farewell to you. May Almighty God have mercy upon you and the child.
I hug you and kiss you with all my might, all my might. Yours, forever, loving brother Wicktor. Please remember about the dearest and loved people.”Wiktor Bickels’ letter of 4 July 1943 to his brother Józef Bickels.
Private collection of Ori Bickels (translation by author).
Józef Bickels received this letter only a few years before his death in 1996. Between 4 July 1943 and 1989, the letter was in the possession of the Jurdyga family, who in the aftermath of the Second World War, like many other Polish families from the Eastern Territories (Kresy), were repatriated to the Western territories in Poland. Once repatriated the Jurdyga couple searched in vain for Wiktor and Józef Bickels through the International and Polish Red Cross. After 1989, when diplomatic relations between Poland and Israel were reestablished, their eldest son, Edward Jurdyga, felt compelled to establish a contact with the Department of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem to honour his rescuer-parents who by then were deceased and to search for Józef Bickels in Israel. This is how Wiktor’s letter eventually reached his addressee, Józef.
Józef Bickels’ son, Ori, still hopes that someone might know the whereabouts of Alexander who, if alive, would be 79 years old today, could still live in Ukraine, and might not know about his Jewish roots and tragic childhood.
In a similar fashion, Jack Skovronsky, the son of Eliyahu Skovronsky (Skowroński), today hopes to recover traces of the whereabouts of Mira (Mirka) Moneta, born in 1938. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Mira’s parents, David Moneta, born on 14 October 1910, and Mindla Moneta, born in 1906 (or 1908) née Skowrońska, lived at 26 Nowomiejska Street in the central neighbourhood of the prewar multicultural and multi-ethnic city of Łódź. Mira was most likely born there. What we know about Mira’s wartime fate is based on sketchy evidence, mostly memories of Mira’s youngest maternal uncle, Eliyahu Skovronsky, born on 14 July 1920.
According to Eliyahu Skovronsky, in the summer of 1942, he oversaw hiding Mira in a brick factory in Prądnik Czerwony, a northern neighbourhood of Cracow, where he worked. However, someone denounced them and Eliyahu had to send Mira away to his cousins, the families of Rakowski and Banach in a small town, Kazimierza Wielka, 45 kilometres northeast of Cracow. The Rakowski and Banach families owned a lumberyard factory.
At their home, Mira was reunited with her mother, Mindla, but their reunion did not last long. With the liquidation of the ghetto in Kazimierza Wielka, only 22 local Jews survived the daily killings. Most likely, in the midst of everyday terror, between the different Aktions, Mira was smuggled out of the ghetto and placed with a local Polish Christian family. According to Eliyahu who had contacts with local Christian Poles, he arranged a hiding place for Mira. It is possible that one of the two local middle schools hid Mira in his home and might have adopted her in the aftermath of the war. But the headmaster in question and any other witnesses have not yet been located. Both Mira’s parents perished separately during the Holocaust. But her uncle, Eliyahu survived and searched for his niece immediately after the war. He did not encounter any trace of Mira and he left Poland for good soon after.
Nevertheless, Eliyahu did not give up and he kept searching for Mira into the 1960s. On 25 January 1965, from his home in the USA, he wrote an emotional letter to the Jewish Community of Cracow, asking for assistance in finding Mira. Eliyahu passed away in 1971. Today, a Polish woman, Katarzyna Szuszkiewicz, of the Jewish Community Centre of Cracow, with the assistance of a local historian, Tadeusz Kozioł, are trying to help his son, Jack Skovronsky in his ongoing search for Mira. If alive, Mira is now an 83-year-old woman who may, or may not, be aware of her painful past and of her family’s origins. Like Alexander Bickels, Mira Moneta belongs to a group of missing child Holocaust survivors from Poland.
Dr Joanna Beata Michlic would be grateful for any potential information about the whereabouts of Alexander Bickels and Mira Moneta. She would also be interested in receiving information about other missing child Holocaust survivors. Please write to [email protected].
Fate Unknown: The Search for the Missing after the Holocaust
By 1945, Europe was in chaos. Millions of people had been murdered or displaced by war and genocide. Many were missing, with the fates of some remaining undetermined more than seventy years later.
The Allies tried to cope with the war’s aftermath, including masses of people on the move. For many Holocaust survivors, the possibility of finding loved ones was a primal need and took precedence over everything else.
The Wiener Holocaust Library’s online exhibition examines the complicated history of the search for the missing after the Holocaust and the impact today of fates that remain unknown.
Suggested further reading
- Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Poland: survival and Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust as reflected in early postwar recollections by Joanna Michlic
- Fate Unknown: The Search for the Missing after the Holocaust exhibition catalogue
- The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II by Tara Zahra
- Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust by Rebecca Clifford
- In the Children’s Best Interests: Unaccompanied Children in American-occupied Germany, 1945-1952 by Lynne Taylor
- Child Survivors of the Holocaust: the youngest remnant and the American experience by Beth B. Cohen
For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Children; Jews in hiding; Rescue; Personal narratives; Displaced persons; Survivors