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By Shira Tydings, Age 15
My grandfather, Dr. J. George Adashko, is referred to in my family as "Opa." Opa means grandfather in German. Opa was born in 1911 in Bialystok, Poland. He was the eldest child in his family. He had a younger brother who died when he was 3 or 4, and a younger sister. Bialystok was a town with mostly apartment houses and a few stores on the ground levels of buildings. It was a well-planned town arranged in a grid-like pattern. The streets were about the same length and rather narrow. There was a vibrant Jewish community in Bialystok. There were thirty different synagogues in the community before the Holocaust.
During World War I, Opa was only a little boy. There were often food shortages during which there was not enough food to be sold at a high price. Opa also recalls the many armies that occupied Poland, first the German and then the Russian.
Growing up in an observant Jewish home, Opa attended a combination school. He learned about both Hebrew and Polish subjects. The public high school which he attended was called a "gymnasium." By the time he reached the sixth class, equivalent to the eighth grade in the United States, Opa had been learning Latin for some time, Hebrew language, Bible studies, the Polish language, Polish literature, the German language, history, and mathematics. He remembers working hard for many hours in order to finish his school work. Often during the times of Poland's instability, foreign visitors would visit the school. Opa's teachers periodically switched the languages in which they taught when these visitors came.
As a teen, Opa occupied his time with school work, reading, and playing in the band. He also enjoyed going on walks with friends. Right outside the city of Bialystok, there was a large forest. He walked there and in the Municipal Gardens as well. Three times a week, the Polish police bands would play in the park. Opa and his friends would gather there to listen. Since there were rarely concerts or movies playing, Opa never heard a symphony until he came to the United States. Because Bialystok was a small town, there was not much to do. While it seemed that Bialystok was a cheery place, Opa often encountered anti-Semitism and prejudice against Jews. On Sundays in Zombrov, a small Polish town where Opa's grandparents lived, the Jewish children were stoned by other non-Jewish children if the Jews ventured near a church.
In 1928, Opa was sixteen. His family decided to send him to the United States for continued study. Opa came to the United States by boat. He sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mauritania. Then, it was "the fastest boat afloat." The voyage took him four and a half days.
When he first reached the United States, Opa stayed with his aunt. He then attended Columbia University in New York for two years to study Pre-Med. He stayed in the dormitories during his student- days. After two years at Columbia, Opa transferred to Perdue University in Indiana. He changed his major to engineering. He lived in the fraternity house while studying at Perdue. While the Great Depression was affecting millions around the world, Opa was happily studying at university.
After graduating college, Opa went on to receive his masters degree in physics. He was able to then gain a job in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Opa was lucky to have left Poland when he did. For in 1939 when Hitler came to power, the situation for Jews changed drastically. He was also fortunate that the immediate members of his family immigrated to the United States. His sister, Rae, also came to the United States under a student visa. His father came to the United States as an illegal immigrant. He then assumed the name of a deceased American man. Opa's mother was able to get to Cuba. When his father learned of his mother, he went to Cuba and as the "American," remarried his wife. Then they moved back to the United States. Although his immediate family did not perish, others were not as lucky. Opa lost other members of his family to the Holocaust. His great-uncle, great-aunt, cousins, and some friends died at the hands of Hitler.
In 1941, Opa worked for the Westinghouse Corporation. He moved back to New York City. On Valentine's Day, Opa met my grandmother for the first time. They went on their first date to the Opera. Then, during World War II, he worked as an engineer for a ship building and naval architect. Because of his engineering skills, he was appointed to work at home instead of joining the armed forces.
Later in his life, Opa became a father to my mother, Dorothy, and my aunt, Jane. In order to support his family, Opa took a job teaching at City College. He also decided to begin translating documents in different languages. Because he became very interested in languages, Opa obtained his Ph.D. in linguistics. He has since continued translating documents into English. He can speak many different languages.
In all the years after leaving Bialystok, and Opa went back to Europe frequently, he never returned to Poland until 1996. In May of 1996, he was given a trip for his eighty-fifth birthday with his son- in-law, Larry (my father). The two spent twelve days in Poland, tracing their roots. Opa visited Bialystok, Zombrov, and other towns significant to my father's family who also perished in the Holocaust.
Opa was very interested in going back to Poland. He wanted to see his home towns and the places where his grandparents were born. Most of all, he wanted to visit the graves of his grandparents in Zombrov.
It was expected that the areas would look different. Poland had been badly bombed during World War II. So, rebuilding and new buildings were inevitable. Opa anticipated the change in Bialystok's appearance but not to the extent that was found. Opa found the homes were hardly recognizable because everything had been rebuilt. The street on which Opa lived had been redrawn, and only a small section still remained. There was now only one synagogue in Bialystok.
Everything had been torn up, and the street lengths were non-uniform. Bialystok also grew in size. A new university marked for him the growth. Of the old buildings, only Russian churches remained. But, Opa was able to recognize these structures.
In Zombrov, Opa recognized the church near which he was once forbidden on Sundays. When my father asked if he would like to do anything in Zombrov, Opa replied that he wanted to cross the bridge near the church, something that was prohibited, when he was young, for Jews (unless you were asking to be stoned). Unfortunately on this trip, he was unable to find the graves of his grandparents because the cemeteries were so badly kept. The headstones were hard to make out, and they were often crushed.
My father and Opa visited a small town called Tykocin. On the wall of the lone synagogue, they found the names of members of Opa's family. When he found the names, he was very excited.
Opa had often traveled to Warsaw as a child. He remembered the narrow streets, street cars, and horse-drawn taxis. When he returned in 1996, Opa found a cosmopolitan city with buses, congested streets, and wider streets. But, he commented, Warsaw remained an attractive city.
Treblinka Memorial, Poland
My father was very interested in visiting cemeteries and concentration camps. Opa was not as interested. The two visited many barren fields filled only with stones and unmarked graves of Jews who died in the Holocaust. Opa found it depressing and painful. Because he didn't have the same interest as my father and did not want to see the camps, Opa remained in the car as my dad explored the concentration camps. Opa describes his feelings in an interesting way. Opa said, "I feel that I was lucky that I did not stay in Poland. Had I not escaped, things would not have been pleasant. I can't explain the feeling, but it is a miracle that I left when I left."
Today, Opa cannot describe the feeling inside that makes him feel almost guilty. The fact that returning to Poland was like visiting a graveyard kept Opa away earlier. He felt there were so many upbeat and happy places in Europe like London, Paris, and Vienna which detracted from returning to Poland. Now Opa thinks that had my father not wanted to travel to Poland, he would not have gone at all. But once he arrived in Poland, the trip was overall enjoyable.
Opa has said that he would gladly return to Poland, but he would concentrate more on pretty cities like Cracow and would not visit cemeteries.
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