BOSTON — When Karolina Panz was a high school senior in Warsaw back in the 1990s, she arranged for a group of Israeli students to spend a day with her classmates.
Panz, who is Catholic, had just taken part in a March of the Living event, accompanying a group of young Canadian Jews on a tour of Treblinka. During a candle-lighting ceremony at the concentration camp, she cried. Her tears moved the Canadians. They hadn’t expected Poles to care about the Jews.
By inviting Israelis to her school, Panz hoped to encourage Poles and Jews to see each other more as people and less as stereotypes. But one of her teachers, the wife of the school director, forced her to cancel the visit at the last minute.
“’Jews in our school? What are you thinking? How is it possible?’” Panz said the teacher told her. “I was shocked. It was the first time I met anti-Semitism.”
That experience nearly 15 years ago ignited a passion in Panz to find out about the 3.3 million Jews who lived in Poland before the war and how this, the second largest Jewish community in the world, virtually vanished in five years. In school, she had learned about the Holocaust, but only as part of the larger story of Polish suffering during World War II.
Panz’s resolve to put faces to the unfathonable numbers set her on a path that eventually led to a grandmother in Canton, Mass., Janet Singer Applefield, a Polish native who had spent the better part of her childhood living a lie to evade the Nazi killing machine.
Applefield made the Holocaust real to Panz. And Panz, through her meticulous research, helped Applefield fill out the story of her family and learn the fate of the mother she last saw 73 years ago. The Polish scholar has assembled a complicated story of bravery and brutality, greed and generosity, strokes of fortune and misfortune. She is still discovering new pieces.
“For me Janet is a hero,” said Panz, who at 31 is the age Applefield’s mother was when she handed her daughter to a Catholic woman to save her life. “She was able to look in the Gestapo’s eyes without saying she’s a Jewish child.”
To the Applefield family, Panz is a hero, too.
“She has restored a beating heart into the bodies that were our family. The names that were our family now have characters and depth and feelings and motives,” said Applefield’s younger son, Jonathan.
The crusading investigator
With her black bangs, open face and soft-spoken demeanor, Karolina Panz does not fit the caricature of the crusading investigator. A sociologist by training, Panz is particularly interested in the personalities and motivations of people, along with the external forces that shape them.
In the aftermath of her dashed high school attempt at bridge-building, Panz attended programs at the Auschwitz Center for Dialogue and Prayer. For her master’s degree at the University of Warsaw, she initially wanted to take one town – where Jews had accounted for half the prewar population – and study how its residents remembered and commemorated their lost neighbors.
‘We were not only victims, but also bystanders of the Holocaust and in some cases participants’
But in preliminary research among Poles in general, she found that few knew much if anything about the former Jewish presence and that many clung to anti-Semitic fabrications.
“Very slowly I learned that the history that we had learned in school, the history of victims [was] not as it seems,” Panz said. “We were not only victims, but also bystanders of the Holocaust and in some cases participants.”
She decided to stick with the same town, but look at it through a different lens.
“I decided to reconstruct the story to see what really happened and focus on the victims,” she said.
That is the same approach Panz would take some years later after moving to Nowy Targ, a valley town in the mountains of southern Poland where her husband took a surgical post at a local hospital.
With the tenacity of a detective, Panz scoured archives in person and online, sifting through pre-war census data, property transactions and tax rolls, and the meticulous wartime records Germans kept of the deportation of Jews and the disposition of their holdings. Accompanied by her two young sons, she visited sites associated with the 2,000 Jews who had lived in Nowy Targ before the war. Only 100 survived the Holocaust. None live there now.
More properous families tended to leave longer paper trails, and that was what led Panz to focus on Emanuel Singer, who owned a store in a building that still stands on the town square. Singer sold hardware and farm equipment. He and his wife, Helena, raised six sons.
Panz sought to “humanize” the Singers, to learn about the people behind the names and figures. In June 2012, through a Google search, she struck gold in the form of a website, janetapplefield.com. Its title: “Janet Singer Applefield: Teaching Young Adults Tolerance By Telling My Story.”
Applefield was Emanuel Singer’s first grandchild. Originally named Gustawa, she was born in 1935, the daughter of Singer’s oldest son, Lolek, and his wife, Maria. Posted on the website is an array of family photos, from posed formal gatherings to snapshots of country outings. Nearly all those pictured would have their lives cut short by the Holocaust.
Jonathan Applefield had set up the site for his mother just a few months before Panz happened upon it. Until then, he had not been particularly interested in the Holocaust.
“I didn’t want to identify with the victim,” the 46-year-old New Yorker said of his conflicted feelings. Through helping Panz with her research, he has come to feel pride, not shame, about his family’s story.
Singer and sons
Emmanuel Singer, the patriarch of the family, was a savvy, hard-driving and stubborn businessman, according to family accounts. Three of Singer’s six sons went to work at the Nowy Targ store, including Lolek. The father was a taskmaster, expecting his sons to match his dedication to the business.
“My father did not value anything as much as he valued work. He demanded a lot from himself, but also our work for him was like a slave’s,” Lolek would write decades later in an unpublished memoir.
‘My father did not value anything as much as he valued work’
Lolek, who served as right-hand man, sought a more balanced life. After marrying in 1934, he and his wife moved a considerable distance from the store. “Otherwise,” Lolek wrote. “I would have been summoned back to the shop even before arriving home for dinner.”
As the first of a new generation, Applefield was spoiled by her parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents. Numerous photos show her in the arms of loved ones, enjoying outings in the country and about town and with her pet dog, Ceta, and her younger sister.
Even before the Germans invaded, Polish Jews were subjected to economic discrimination. But Singer, whose store played a pivotal role in Nowy Targ, was exempted from a Christian boycott of Jewish-owned stores.
“[W]e were so engrossed in our work that it did not occur to us that anything bad could happen to us,” Lolek wrote.
As the Germans gobbled up first Austria and then Czechoslovakia, the sons warned their father that it was time to sell out and flee. But by the time Emmanuel woke up to the danger and began writing frantic letters to a brother in the United States, it was too late.
At age 4, Applefield saw her idyllic life shattered almost overnight as the Germans invaded in September of 1939. She had no concept of war, but from her parents’ frantic whispers, she knew “something dangerous was going on.”
Her father joined the Polish army, sending his family off to his wife’s parents. Applefield recalls fleeing by horse and wagon to Russia, forced at times to huddle in ditches as German planes strafed the refugees. After the fighting was over, her father managed to find the family, and they scraped out a living. Diphtheria claimed the baby sister.
When the Soviets made taking out citizenship papers a condition for staying, the family returned to Nowy Targ to reunite with relatives and protect their property. The Singers faced mounting persecution in Poland; their home was looted by German soldiers. In the end, they were forced into a ghetto.
As rumors spread that the ghetto would be liquidated in summer 1942, Applefield’s parents made the heart-wrenching decision to place her in the care of a woman who had worked as the nanny for friends.
With her fair hair, Applefield could easily pass as a Christian. Over the remainder of the war, a succession of people risked their lives to shelter her, not always with the most honorable motivations.
She still recalls the chilling blue eyes of a Nazi soldier who burst into one of her havens, turning the apartment upside down in search of Jews. She stood petrified as he lifted her blond braids and demanded to know who she was. Her protector saved her by saying she was a niece.
Later, Applefield’s father, from inside the ghetto, arranged to place her in the care of a cousin, Lala Singer, who spoke German and had Aryan papers. As an enticement, he sketched Lala a map showing where he had buried money. Some of the money was used to buy Applefield the baptismal certificate of a deceased Polish girl. The two fugitives lived in a shack on the property of a Polish family.
Lala, who with her German fluency could easily travel in occupied Poland, appeared to have felt burdened by the young child.
‘I was often beaten with an iron rod until I lost my consciousness’
“Even though Lala received a lot of my daddy’s money, she treated me badly and brutally,” Applefield wrote after the war. “I was often beaten with an iron rod until I lost my consciousness, and I recall that once when, in pain, I screamed, ‘Mommy, Mommy, help me!’ Lala’s reply was, ‘Your mommy is already in her grave.’”
Most terrifying was the day in May 1943 when Lala left her young cousin waiting on church steps, saying she was meeting her boyfriend. Hours passed. Then Applefield witnessed Germans rounding up Poles for forced labor in Germany; she later wrote that she believed Lala was among those taken.
Wandering the streets in tears, Applefield was swooped up by a stranger who placed the little girl with Alicia Golab, the matriarch of a Catholic family active in the Resistance. She lived with them for the rest of the war, using the name of the deceased Catholic child.
Meanwhile, Applefield’s father endured slave labor in a series of camps; the fate of his wife would remain a mystery. Until recently, Applefield had thought that within days of parting from her parents her mother had been shot in a mass execution in a nearby forest.
Reunited with her father
After the war, Applefield found refuge in an orphanage established by Lena Kuchler, who had posed as a Catholic during the war. As much as Kuchler tried to make a safe haven for the young survivors, Poland remained poisoned by anti-Semitism. Vandals attacked one of Kuchler’s homes with grenades. They threw rocks at the children on their way to school.
When first reunited with her father, Applefield was unnerved by the skeletal figure hugging and kissing her.
“He was telling me he was going to take me,” she said. “I had just adjusted to the orphanage. I had friends for the first time. Lena was our mother.”
Her father rented a room nearby, and as he regained his strength he rebuilt his relationship with his daughter. He told her about being a slave laborer in a factory, where he placed her photo on his machine as inspiration to persevere.
After some of their friends were killed, the last two Singers of Nowy Targ decided they had no future in their homeland
The pair returned to Nowy Targ about a month later. They found only a handful of Jews. Applefield said notes were regularly left at her door warning “that the work of Hitler will be finished.” After some of their friends were killed, the last two Singers of Nowy Targ decided they had no future in their homeland.
Two of her father’s five brothers had survived the war, having left Poland before the war. One lived in Israel, the other in New Jersey. When her father asked where she wanted to go, she told him America, because she had heard that was where money grew on trees.
In March 1947, the pair arrived in the States on a 90-day visa. Relatives arranged for Applefield’s father to marry an American-born Jew so they could remain. Within six months, Applefield had a new mother, a new nationality, a new language, and even a new name. She chose Jeanette, which was shortened to Janet.
Her new mother didn’t want to hear about the atrocities in Europe, and Applefield didn’t want to upset her father by asking him about his experiences. She distanced herself from her religion, marrying a secular Jew. “Jews are hated. I don’t want to be that,” she recalled thinking.
Over time, Applefield came to realize that what kept her “grounded during the war… were my memories about my family and my traditions,” she said. In the ’80s, she became a volunteer speaker for a Holocaust awareness group.
Although she has told her story to thousands of people over the past 25 years, Applefield was reluctant to learn for herself the full details of her family’s fate. For decades, she left boxed up her father’s diary and family correspondence from the Holocaust era.
But then she began receiving email inquiries from Panz.
New avenues for exploration
That a stranger from Poland younger than her own children would be so passionate about exploring the Holocaust impressed Applefield. And it emboldened her as well. With son Jonathan handling the Internet transfers, she sent Panz copies of Singer family papers.
Besides opening new avenues for her archival explorations, the Singer papers challenged Panz’s perception of the Jews.
‘I had wanted to put them into boxes of victims or heroes’
“When I thought about their prewar time, I always thought about it in the shadow of the Holocaust,” she said. But as she read the correspondence and memoirs, Panz came to see them as “very normal people with their problems, their dreams… I had wanted to put them into boxes of victims or heroes.”
From testimony at war crime trials in Germany during the ’70s, Panz learned how the Gestapo had tortured Applefield’s grandfather to find out where he had hidden money. In the end, they chained the 63-year-old man to the back of a horse cart and dragged him to his death.
Based on her research, Panz believes Applefield’s false papers had been supplied by Lala’s Catholic boyfriend, Victor Wójcik. Applefield had thought that her cousin and Wójcik were members of an underground Communist guerilla unit.
Panz paints a starkly different picture of Wójcik, one of a man who betrayed both his family and his country. While carrying on his affair with Lala, he had a wife and three children, Panz said. And at the same time he was helping Jews, he was also fraternizing, if not collaborating, with the Germans, she added. He owned a shoe factory; among his customers were were Hans Frank, Nazi governor-general of occupied Poland.
Arrested after the war for collaborating with the Nazis, Wójcik was freed after a prominent Zionist leader wrote a letter saying his mother’s life was saved by the factory owner.
Wall of memory
After Panz was well into her research, she learned that Nowy Targ town was planning a Jewish cultural day and seeking local records to create a wall of memory. Only two people responded: Panz and the mayor. “The mayor was very positively surprised that someone cared besides him,” Panz said. “He had had very good contact with survivors.”
The mayor invited her to write an article about Nowy Targ’s Jewish history for an annual town publication. Until then, the town history offered scant information about its Jews, noting that they were merchants and most had been killed at Belzec concentration camp – “a few sentences without names, people,” Panz said.
In her article, Panz wrote about the Singers and several other families. By telling personal stories, she made the Holocaust tangible to the residents of Nowy Targ. “It was like ‘wow’ for those people of the city,” she said.
There were limits to their enthusiasm, though. In August 2012, Panz wanted to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Nowy Targ’s Jews. Initially, the mayor and the town’s cultural center helped her with the planning.
“We had a lot of ideas,” she said, including a “march of memory” to the Jewish cemetery. But in the weeks leading up to the event, interest dried up. Panz couldn’t even get her friends to participate. “I was alone at the cemetery,” she said.
As it happened, the summer of 2012 was also when Panz’s correpondence with the Applefields was bearing fruit. By winter, she had tracked down eyewitness testimony about the fate of Applefield’s mother, a statement by a man who had known the Singers. He was part of a burial detail at Plaszow, a concentration camp outside Krakow. He said he saw the body of Maria Singer after she was shot during a mass execution in August 1943. She was only 33.
Last April, Applefield was finally able to say goodbye to her mother. Along with son Jonathan, she traveled to Plaszow for a memorial service. The camp itself is long gone, the site now rolling fields. The Applefields were accompanied by Panz and two descendents of the Golabs, the family that had sheltered Janet in the last years of the war. Applefield brought along letters written by her extended family to her mother. In spirit, at least, Maria Singer was introduced to the three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren she didn’t live to see. “We stood under a little bush in the shade and read all the letters,” Applefield said.
The Applefields stayed with Panz and her family, who now live in a village outside Nowy Targ. Janet helped put Panz’s younger son to bed, singing him the same Polish lullabye her mother had sung to her.
“She is so warm, so loving after going through such cruelty,” Panz said. “It’s incredible for me.”
While Nowy Targ had ignored the Holocaust commemoration, it embraced this ebullient 78-year-old suvivor
The trip was Applefield’s fourth to Poland since the war, but the first at which she spoke in public in her hometown. While Nowy Targ had ignored the Holocaust commemoration, it embraced this ebullient 78-year-old suvivor. She addressed students at the high school her father had attended and an overflow crowd at the former town hall, now a museum.
Beforehand, Applefield debated whether to talk about the anti-Semitism she had encountered as a little girl. Panz told her: “You have to be truthful. We Poles have to come to terms with our past.”
Applefield said when she projected pre-war pictures of her family, an older woman in the town hall audience jumped up. “I remember your mother. I remember you,” the woman said. “Your mother was so beautiful, so elegant and you were such a cute little girl. I always wondered what happened to you.” She then walked up to Applefield and hugged her.
Last November, when Poland held its annual commemoration for the dead, Panz’s older son told his class about visiting the small Jewish cemetery in Nowy Targ. In an e-mail to Applefield, Panz wrote that the 6-year-old “said that he has to go there to pray for your mother who was killed by ‘bad people’ because you, Janet, cannot come so often to Poland.”