Published January 2019, Hour Detroit and hourdetroit.com.
A West Bloomfield resident shares his memories of living under occupied Poland during World War II
A guided tour stops in front of a large black wall in the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. City names and death tolls — representing the more than 6 million people who lost their lives during the Holocaust — are etched into its marble. Nearby, Edward Malinowski, a recently retired cardiologist who lives in West Bloomfield, looks on as the guide shares the staggering number of Polish Jews who died — more than 3 million. They, the guide says, were annihilated. “Not me,” says Malinowski.
Malinowski, 79, is one of 20 Holocaust survivors and second generation survivors who speak to visitors at the museum. He started presenting his story four years ago, sharing that he had felt some guilt in not doing so prior. Yet, no matter how often he opens up about the painful memories, as nebulous as they are given his young age during the period, it still takes extraordinary courage. “Some find it very difficult,” he says. “But it’s needed.”
Malinowski, a board member of the museum, prefaces his story with a disclaimer: “What I tell you is true except one thing. My name’s not Malinowski.” He was born in May 1939, four months before the start of World War II, as Edward Mersyk — later picking up the surname Malinowski to mask his Jewish identity from the Nazi regime. Prior to the war, he lived with his mother, Stefania, and father, Marek, who were both successful lawyers. The family stayed in an apartment building in Warsaw, Poland. When the Nazis invaded the country in 1939 and, the following year, transfigured their area of town into the Warsaw Ghetto, an enclosed district that isolated the Jewish population, things changed drastically.
The ghetto was overcrowded and dangerous. Anyone caught crossing its surrounding wall, risked being killed by Nazi soldiers. It was also an area where, beginning in the summer of 1942, Nazis selected Jews for a holding area called Umshlagplatz, which was connected to a train station. Malinowski says the space was considered a “one-way ticket” to the Treblinka death camp.
One of Malinowki’s earliest and most traumatic memories took place in 1943. His maternal grandfather was watching the then 3-year-old when Nazi soldiers came to his family’s apartment and beat Malinowki’s grandfather with the end of a rifle. “I remember thinking, ‘How could somebody do this?’ ” The two were then taken to Umschlagplatz. When Malinowki’s father, working at a ghetto shop at the time, learned they were in danger, he devised a plan. He bribed an Umschlagplatz officer, telling them his son had typhus, a contagious disease, and was able to have him removed. Without enough money to save both of them, within hours, Malinowski’s grandfather was killed.
“I remember thinking, ‘How could somebody do this?’”
Shortly after, Malinowski’s father decided they could no longer risk their lives in the ghetto. He says his father located a damaged apartment building outside the ghetto and offered to provide funds so the structure could be repaired in exchange for the opportunity for his family to stay there. The Polish apartment owner agreed. Yet, with striking features that made him easily identifiable as Jewish, Malinowski’s father felt the safety of his wife and young son was still in jeopardy. He decided to join an underground army that was formed against the Germans, and one night, two men who were believed to be from the army escorted him out of their home. Days later, Malinowski and his mother would learn that his father was deceived and led to the Gestapo to be killed. “That’s the last I know about my father.”
Malinowski’s mother’s sister escaped the Warsaw Ghetto with her 11-year-old daughter, and the two would later move into the apartment with them. His aunt, a well-off woman before the war, became the family’s saving grace in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising when RONA, a pro-Nazi unit of Russian collaborators, set up in their apartment building. Malinowski and his family were nearly killed, but because his aunt was proficient in German — she picked up the language from her daughter’s nanny — a man whom Malinowski believes to be a German soldier thought they were civilians and ordered RONA to stop. Following the incident, RONA took the family to a nearby holding camp. They were then deported to a camp outside of Warsaw, which they escaped from.
Malinowski and his mother, aunt, and cousin spent the remainder of the war traveling between cities outside Warsaw. When the country was later liberated in January 1945, Malinowski says he remembers standing in the middle of the street in Żyrardów, Poland, wearing a pair of short pants — they were all he owned. Nearly 6 years old, he saw a large tank drive by. The war was over.
Malinowski and other survivors meet at the Holocaust Memorial Center monthly, discussing subjects such as how frequently they present, and another important topic: Religion. “Many of us ask, ‘Where was God when they were killing people?’ ” Malinowski says. With little food or belongings, his post-war life was a matter of survival. Practicing Judaism was low on the list of priorities. “I wish I were more religious. Religion can help people accept what’s happening.” He and his mother were able to live in the apartment building his aunt owned before the war, which was intact, but most of Warsaw was destroyed.
As the city was rebuilt, Malinowski’s life was made anew, too. He learned to play the violin and finished high school early. He went to medical school and got married. But circumstances changed in 1968 when Malinowski, then an associate professor at Warsaw Medical School, was 30. Anti-Semitic protests forced him and his family to leave Poland during a time period that historians now call March 1968. Malinowski recalls that he agreed to go anywhere in the U.S. but New York — “Too many Polish Jews go to New York,” he says with a laugh. The family chose Detroit and were placed in an apartment at Ohio Street and Grand River.
Thousands of miles from Poland, he and his family avoided reflecting on the trauma. “For years, we never talked about it. We tried to forget,” says Malinowski, who worked at Sinai-Grace Hospital before opening his own medical office in Southfield. “Who expected that Germany, which gave us Beethoven and Bach, so many famous, educated people, could behave like this? Most Germans supported Hitler — they accepted this.” Anti-Semitic beliefs still existed in the U.S. then, and continue as evidenced by tragedies like the recent Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which Malinowski partly attributes to this country’s inability to acknowledge prejudice. But, in time, they opened up about their experience, and Malinowski connected with the museum.
Today, Malinowski is piecing together his memories. He’s visited Polish sites, including his family’s former apartment building, and has retrieved photos, which he shares when speaking. The final slide in his presentation includes one of his favorite photos: an image of his aunt, cousin, and father, a man who still inspires him. “People often see me as a hero, but I’m not. I’m a survivor. My father is a hero who made sacrifices.” Before he’s done telling his story, he takes a moment to consider the present. “I have two grandsons. When the first was born, he was named Marek after my father,” he emotionally shares. “He will finish his work.”