Nettie and I have come to Cmentaz Zydowski (the Jewish Cemetery on the outskirts of Warsaw) in hopes of finding any of Annette’s distant family grave sites. This cemetery is the only active Jewish cemetery in all of Warsaw, which is an everlasting indictment of the decimation of Polish Jewry at the hands of the Nazis during WWII.

The cemetery is a gloomy, dark place indeed, with ancient and decrepit tombstones hundreds of years old laid out in the deep shade of heavy-leafed trees and overgrown briars. As we walk down the tangled, narrow rows padded with dense, spongy leaf mulch silencing our steps, we feel like burglars creeping up on the dead.

Paths of cemetery

We crisscross the cemetery but cannot find a single grave that might have been Annette’s family, most of whom left Poland long before WWII. But we find something else instead, something that drew us both together more than forty years ago, something that makes us reflect again on the different heritage that still binds us so tightly together.

I decide to ask a man for help who is clearing brush from a gravesite and filling a wheelbarrow. Fortunately, he speaks English rather well; and though he can’t help in our specific search, he wants to take us to the unmarked graves of thousands of Jews who were buried here from the Jewish Ghetto during the war.

“If you had money, even then during the War,” he says, “you could at least have your body buried inside the walls of the cemetery.”

unmarked graves

He shows us a vacant grass area, surrounded by unmarked stones that nonetheless mark this resting place, forty-five feet deep, of so many who died during horrific times.

He talks some more. I talk as well. I tell him my name is Zajaczkowski, “Ah, the rabbit,” he says, which is what the first part of my name means in Polish. I tell him the story I’ve told so many times that my father was in the Polish Air Force, that he fled Warsaw through Romania at the start of the war and joined the RAF in England.

His eyes light up. “I had an uncle named Kazimierz Wunsche,” he says, “who was also in the air force, who also fled Warsaw through Romania in 1939. He joined the RAF as well,” he pauses. He steps closer to me, looking me in the eyes, “What squadron was your father in?”

“The 300 Polish Squadron,” I say.

Tears come into his eyes, he leans forward and kisses my cheek as he drapes his arms around me, “They were brothers in the struggle against the Nazis, your father and my uncle. They were the same as one.”



I hug him back, I kiss his cheek. We both cry a little more, then Nettie tears up and snaps a photo of us standing upon this hallowed ground.

When we collect our emotions. He tells us about the Polish Catholics he knows with names like Zajaczkowski, and he tells us of his own Jewish heritage, the fact that his family has lived in Warsaw for hundreds of years. He talks about the days when Poland was the land the Jews of Europe came to because of its religious tolerance, its cultural diversity, its acceptance. Then his eyes grow sad again.

“And today, do you know there are only 1000-2000 Jews left in Warsaw, a city that held 3.5 million? Only ten percent of the Polish Jews survived the War, 300,000…far fewer returned to Warsaw. There was nothing here for them. And the Russians pushed most of them out in 1968.”

“And yet you are here,” Nettie says.

“Yes, because it is my home, my country. I am not only Jewish. I am Polish, too. Do you see?”

Yes, we do see. And we do remember our own difficulty in getting others to see that Annette and I, she a Jewish girl of 17 and I a Catholic boy of 18, were people first, lovers in fact, whose religion was secondary. Just as my father’s Catholicism and Kazimierz’s Judaism was secondary at that moment of fighting a common evil, of becoming brothers in arms to defend the country they loved.

We nod our heads. We hug again. We exchange names, his is Krzysztof Wunsche, and we bid farewell.

As Nettie and I walk down the cemetery lanes, I wonder if my father and Krzysztof’s uncle ever crossed paths in England. Is it possible they shared a coffee together at the air base or a vodka and talked of the loved ones they left behind in Warsaw?

Improbable, I guess.

And yet how improbable does is seem that Annette and I would come to this cemetery, on this day, and ask this man, this particular man, a question, and learn that his Uncle Kazimierz, a Jew, and my father Zdzislaw, a Catholic, fled their homeland to join the same squadron in England to fight a common enemy?


When I get back to our apartment to begin notes about this encounter in the cemetery, I look up the name Kazimierz. I shake my head and smile softly when I see that the shortened form of this name is Kazik. Kazik?! Kazik is the name of my father’s own brother! Which means that I, like Krzysztof Wunsche, had an Uncle Kazimierz as well.

Now, that I would call improbable…but true.


If you’d like to see a selection of photos from our last few days in Warsaw, click here: Warsaw Days.


14 Responses to Brothers In Arms

  1. Maxwell says:

    I saw a travelogue on Poland a few days ago. It seemed like I was right there with you. The cemetary incident is amazing. World Was 11 seems so long ago in many ways, but your meeting with Kazik brought it front and center. Stay safe.

  2. Mary Eliahu says:

    That was a special, ordained meeting, arranged by our fathers and fate. To be in a jewish cematary (for your wife) and to meet this gentle–man full of the tearful past, (as you are) how special and necessary perhaps for both of you. Your loving sister, Mary

  3. What a wonderful and moving
    Story. Brought me to years. See you soon we hope
    Norma and Charles

  4. Virginia says:

    I agree with the above comments. Very special story especially having read your book ‘Passage’. And the photos are just fabulous.

  5. grace says:

    Very interesting and moving encounter at the jewish cemetary. I am sure your dad and this mans uncle did know each other. The cemetary looks so dark and ancient. .

  6. Stephanie Logan says:

    Wow! What an amazing story! That’s something you might see in a movie and you’d think to yourself “that’s too much of a coincidence – that could never happen in real life!” I hope the rest of your travels are filled with even more rich, unique memories and experiences.

  7. Fantastic. Thanks so much for sharing this story, Frank.

  8. Elyce Wakerman says:

    “The more people talk, the smaller the world becomes.” Your wonderful story about your meeting with Krzysztof certainly supports that old saying. It is my understanding, though, that Cmentaz Zydowski refers to three Jewish cemeteries in or near Warsaw. And perhaps Krzysztof would be encouraged to know that there is a re-emerging Jewish population in Poland, currently estimated at 30 – 50,000! The Poles and the Jews are slowly but surely acknowledging the deep connection they/we share. Perhaps there is no greater testament to this than the soon-to-open Museum of the History of the Polish Jews near the site of the Warsaw ghetto.

    • Frank Z says:

      The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews is magnificent. Though it’s not fully operational yet, we were able to take a tour. The brilliant design of the building and grounds, the sheer majesty of the overall intention is, as you say, a very encouraging sign for Warsaw and all of Poland. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Jane Feddersen says:

    Frank, that story has the wedding cake coincidence beat by a mile. Great writing.

  10. Brian & Amy says:

    Wow ! That’s amazing . Very touching and profound .

  11. Frank, I had goose bumps reading your piece! I hope you can connect with Krzysztof Wunsche again….I think there may be more to this story!! Good luck!!

  12. George says:

    Great piece Frank!!

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