Written by Magdalena Krysińska-Kałużna, April 2023
Translated by Ada Kałużna
I decided to ask inhabitants of two townhouses in the old town if they knew who had lived in them before the war. I do – they were Jews. I knock on several doors one after another.
One man tells me he’s doing shifts and doesn’t have the time to talk with me today, but I can come back after the longweekend. Another occupant needs to go to her daughter’s wedding – we arrange to meet the following week. An elderly woman promises to tell me about Konin, but not about this house and not today. She can’t tell me when as she has grandchildren to take care of. I need to keep trying. The people who do have time to talk with me don’t know anything.
Even though I am saying that it’s the prewar Konin that I’m interested in, everyone initially talks as if I asked about Konin from 50-60 years ago. When I repeat that I am wondering who lived here before the World War II, my interlocutors seem struck with the realization that Konin existed back then already.
I hear different variations of the same response: “I don’t know, how am I supposed to know?”. I tell one lady the name of a Jew who lived in her apartment before her. She looks at me skeptically and asks “So how old are you that you know that?”. I say that I know this because I read about it. She doesn’t seem convinced. The prewar history of this town seems so distant that asking any of the occupants about it elicits consternation.
I’ll come back. Maybe I will eventually find out more. Right now, I am comparing these conversations with what Maria Czajor, a relative of Wincenty Grętkiewicz, a mayor of prewar Konin, told me recently. In the 50s and 60s their home stillheld a living memory of the prewar residents of Konin, including the Jewish ones. Maria’s grandfather (who was the past mayor’s brother) ran a bakery on Długa Street and knew the whole town.
‘My grandfather remembered perfectly who lived where’ recalls Maria. ‘When one of us went shopping, we didn’t say that we were going to a grocery store or a shoe store but, for instance, “old Opas’ store”. And we didn’t refer to particular buildings by their address but by saying, e.g. “at Laube’s”. When I was a child, we would always say “Potters’ Square”, not “Castle Square”.’
The house of Maria’s grandfather, where she grew up, was a multi-generational house. Due to its connections with people and events crucial in Konin’s prewar history, it was certainly a special house as well. But maybe other families also used the names of past owners of Konin’s houses, apartments and stores – including the Jewish ones. If so, then there is no trace of that left in the memory of people I talked to.
But that’s the thing with memory – besides the fact that it weakens, it’s also selective. The manager of Konin’s department of the National Archive, Piotr Rybczyński, pointed out to me several times that some accounts presented in Uporczywe echo by Theo Richmond might not be factual, as in – in disagreement with information recorded in the available documents. These accounts were truthful for people who told them to Richmond. His interlocutors remembered Konin in those ways.
One of the stories I already wrote about – the murder of Ajzyk Leszczyński, a prewar Jewish investor (an owner of a mill and a vegetable oil factory) – shows how, just like in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, it’s difficult to say that people remember “facts”. A certain interpretation of events arises in our minds, immediately or over time. Accounts of Old Leszczyński’s death illustrate this phenomenon well. I encountered several versions of it. The most strikingly different ones were the accounts of Wincenty Grętkiewicz, as presented in his Wspomnienia (English: Memories) and the one told by Theo Richmond in Uporczywe echo.
The murderer of Leszczyński was hired by his competitors and eventually executed in Kalisz. So remembered this Joe Fox and so he told Richmond. Fox, as a child, saw the killer with his own eyes – chained up “around his waist and around both of his legs”*. According to Grętkiewicz**, the assassin was a journeyman, member of PPS (Polish Socialist Party) or SDKPiL (The Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania), hosted by a senior master of the millers’ guild, Ejchorst.
Ejchorst allegedly told the young man about the predicament the mill owners were in: they couldn’t compete with Leszczyński’s motor mill. When the journeyman saw Leszczyński in a buckboard the next day, he shot him and ran away. He was, however, captured. Injured, he died on the way to the hospital. Ejchorst was without blame, at least according to Grętkiewicz, but unable to prove his innocence, he was sentenced to over ten years*** of heavy labor.
Was it Ejchorst who Fox saw in chains as a child? Hanna Jarodzka, Grętkiewicz’s daughter, tells me that she wrote to Theo Richmond regarding Fox’s account of the murder of Leszczyński. She asked him to consider the story recounted by her father. This didn’t happen, however. It’s probably easier for us to believe those who tell us what they saw with their own eyes. That must be why the elderly lady asked me how old I was to know who had lived in her home before the war.
* Wincenty Grętkiewicz, Wspomnienia konińskie z lat mojej młodości, Konin, 2021, pp. 116-117.
** Theo Richmond, Uporczywe echo. Sztetl Konin. Poszukiwanie, Media Rodzina, Poznań, 2001, pp. 119-122.
*** Grętkiewicz writes “kilkanaście” (umpteen), so it could have been any number of years between 11 and 19.
A view of the Ryczke family’s house (presently, the crossing of Dąbrowskiego and Kaliska Streets)