Poland Is the Past


Soon after Ceil and I were married, we spent a few days with her parents in their home in Monsey, New York. I was then the editor of the late, lamented Hebrew Publishing Company, and I had brought a manuscript with me to work on. Looking over my shoulder, my father-in-law, Josef Weinberg, a”h, asked what the book was about and I explained that it was an anthology of eyewitness accounts of the Shoah. My father-in-law, a survivor of Auschwitz with a number on his arm, sat down and asked me to show him some of it. With Ceil hovering nearby, he then started telling me about some of his own horrific experiences as a teenage slave laborer, stories which, in common with most survivors, he had never related to his own children. 

Years later, our eldest son Naftali signed up to take part in the annual March of the Living, in which Jewish students, adults and survivors from all over the world walk defiantly from Auschwitz to Birkenau. When my father-in-law heard this, he was incensed. “No Jew should step foot in that accursed Poland,” he insisted, “and certainly not spend even one cent there.” Yet when Naftali returned home and told his grandfather how much he had learned about the Shoah, and how the experience had touched the souls even of those teens who previously had little Jewish content in their lives, he was somewhat mollified. 

My own father also came from a family that lived in Poland for many centuries, although thankfully he and my grandparents left there before the First World War. After extensive genealogical research into the lineage of the Oliwensteins—which was the family name my father was born with—we produced a 750-page book tracing our ancestry, with over 1,000 profiles of Oliwensteins through the generations to the present day. 

The subject of one of those profiles became the focus of a remarkable chesed shel emet project, led by my brother Cedric. 

Rabbi Benzion Oliwenstein, our great-great uncle, was born around 1830, likely in Warsaw. He was a teacher of Talmud who in 1892 moved to the city of Czestochowa (Yiddish: Tchenstochov) in southern Poland, to serve as a dayan. As we learned more about him and became more involved with his story, we began to refer to him fondly as Uncle Ben. His wife and children had all passed away before his move to Czestochowa and so, when he himself died in 1908, he was the only family member to be buried in the Jewish cemetery there. On a trip to Poland, my brother visited his kever and was considerably bothered by the fact that, while the rest of our Polish ancestors were buried in Warsaw’s well-tended Okopowa cemetery, Uncle Ben was all alone in that forlorn, neglected cemetery in Czestochowa.

With the encouragement of his rav, Cedric started on what proved to be a seven-year saga of bureaucratic twists and turns involving a seemingly unending stream of documents, forms, affidavits, permits and powers of attorney, in order to be able to exhume Uncle Ben’s remains and to bring them to Jerusalem for reburial. 

Along the way, he ran into many frustrating roadblocks, such as when the local authorities in Czestochowa would not grant permission to open the grave without the approval of the owner of the cemetery, which in theory was the local Jewish community. But it was no secret that the Jewish community in Czestochowa had ceased to exist many years previously. The leaders of the nearby Katowice community refused to give their approval as that might mean acknowledging responsibility for the upkeep of the cemetery, which they made abundantly clear they would not do. 

Eventually, the local authorities agreed to grant permission. But the Israel consulate in Warsaw still had to issue an import permit for the remains to be brought into Israel. The clerk at the consulate, whom Cedric described as having no personality and no sense of humor, quizzed him on the specific circumstances of Uncle Ben’s death, despite it having happened over a century previously. He asked for the name of the doctor who signed the death certificate and the cause of death. Cedric suggested that perhaps he was called Dr. Cohen and decided that Uncle Ben had died of a heart attack, which seemed to be satisfactory answers.

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Shudrich, arranged for members of the Warsaw chevra kadisha to be present at the exhumation. Although we were told that it was extremely unlikely that anything would be found in a grave that was more than a century old, very nearly 100 percent of Uncle Ben’s skeleton was retrieved.

Two days later—110 years after Uncle Ben had been buried in Poland—his remains were reverently covered with the soil of Jerusalem on Har HaMenuchot, in the presence of a group of family and friends. 

For us, Poland is the past; Jerusalem is both the present and the future. Despite the barbaric October 7 attacks that so heinously echoed the horrors my father-in-law witnessed at the hands of the Nazis, and the painful war which inevitably followed, we have no doubt as to where Uncle Ben would prefer to be.   


David Olivestone and his wife Ceil made aliyah to Jerusalem in 2013.

This article was featured in the Winter 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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