NOTE: Because the stories I will relate in this family blog pertaining specifically to my father cover the period before he immigrated to America in 1948, I will use his birth name, Otto Bruck, rather than the name he took upon becoming an American citizen, Gary Otto Brook. When discussing towns and places in modern-day Poland associated with events and friends from my father’s time, I will use the former German town names, with contemporary Polish town names provided in parentheses. When the stories relate to contemporary events connected with my own visits to Poland, I will use the modern place names, with former German town names indicated in parentheses.
It seems appropriate to start this blog with the five-year period between 1932 and 1937 when my father, Dr. Otto Bruck, lived and worked as a dentist in Tiegenhof (today: Nowy Dwor Gdanski, Poland) in the Free State of Danzig . Because my father was just a week shy of his 25th birthday when he first moved to Tiegenhof, and was only beginning his all-too brief professional life as a dentist, it provides a convenient launching point for relating his story. Also, given the traumatic events that would haunt my father following his departure from Tiegenhof, this period constituted what I would characterize as the halcyon days of his life and a period he always reminisced fondly about. And, for me, telling the stories of my many discoveries, in effect, also begins in Tiegenhof with the rather ordinary picture, shown above (Figure 1), of the building my father photographed there in 1934.
While I was initially uncertain as to the significance of this building, I assumed it was the building where my father had his dental practice. This was borne out when I enlarged the picture, and discovered his nameplate on the right side of the building’s entrance, “O. Bruck, Zahnarzt” (Figure 2). It is this precise picture that began my quest to learn more about my father’s life in Tiegenhof, including his circle of friends and acquaintances there, and, ultimately, lead me to want to know more about my father’s extended family. When I began my crusade, I never imagined all the places, literally and figuratively, it would take me.
In the “About” section, I mentioned that in addition to the photographs my father left me there was also a bread-box size of papers, documents, and artifacts from his life before he came to America. One particularly useful item was his “1932 Pocket Calendar,” an item I will often refer back to in my Blog posts. Suffice it to say this Pocket Calendar recorded significant dates, including birthdays of close friends and other important occasions, as well as phone numbers and addresses of friends, acquaintances, and professional colleagues. Most relevant for purposes of this blog post is that my father recorded the exact date on which, as he wrote in German, “nach Tiegenhof gekommen,” he drove to Tiegenhof. This calendar places my father’s arrival in Tiegenhof as April 9, 1932. In a separate document found among my father’s papers is a handwritten letter he wrote to the German authorities on September 9, 1980, justifying his request for compensation for the loss of his dental practice in the era of the National Socialists; in this correspondence, he noted that he practiced as a dentist in Tiegenhof from April 1932 through April 1937, so altogether five years.
Once I confirmed the building my father photographed in 1934 in Tiegenhof was where he worked, I immediately became curious as to whether the structure still exists. I was unable to ascertain this using Google Earth. My wife, Ann Finan-Brook, and I were already planning on visiting Poland for the first time in 2011, so we decided to incorporate a side-trip to Nowy Dwor Gdanski (NDG) to see for ourselves. Before our visit, though, I carefully studied all my father’s photographs and documents related to his time in Tiegenhof, hoping to learn as much as I could beforehand.
Starting with the actual picture of the office building, I noticed another nameplate on the left side of the entrance with the name Hannemann (Figure 2); he was a “Rechtsanwalt” or lawyer. A coffee & tea shop, named “Johannes Wiebe” (Figure 3), clearly occupied the street-level retail location of the building; the goods sold were posted on either side of the storefront, and included, biscuits, chocolate, confectionaries, canned goods, coffee, tea, cacao, and “Kolonialwaren,” that’s to say, other wares.
The signs posted in the storefront’s window indicate that “Weichselgold” and “Mühlen Franck” could also be purchased here. Weichselgold, I later learned, is a liqueur, similar to the more famous “Danziger Goldwasser”; Weichsel refers to the Vistula River which runs through this region. “Mühlen Franck,” founded by a man named Johann Heinrich Franck, produced a coffee made from chicory, ersatz coffee, that’s to say, that was particularly detested by coffee drinkers during the Nazi era.
Very noticeable in the 1934 photograph is the capstone with the date 1920 and the monogram initials “H.E.G.” It was pointed out to me the building could have been built in 1920, or just as easily be of a style dating to around 1890 and have been renovated in 1920; H.E.G. are likely the initials of the builder, whose identity could only be learned from the “Grundbuch,” or real estate register, if it still exists. Another thing I clearly noticed in the photo were the Nazi buntings and flags covering the edifice, which would certainly have imparted a sense of foreboding to my father as a Jew.
Finally, in the lower right-hand section of my father’s 1934 picture, along the edge of the building itself, on an advertising sign that can only partially be read, is an arrow pointing to an automotive shop (Figure 3); the services provided included car rentals, auto repair, garage, sale of tires and wheels, and refueling. The first two numbers of the phone number can clearly be read as “32_”; a 1943 Tiegenhof phone directory confirms the only auto shop that existed in Tiegenhof at the time was owned by Aloys Lewanzik, whose phone number, coincidentally, was “321”; this shop not only sold and serviced cars and motorcycles, but, interestingly, also provided driving lessons.
The actual address of my father’s office building was found on his membership papers to the local sports club, the “V.F.B. Tiegenhof, Baltischer Sportverband,” to which he was accepted on November 12, 1932. The address was “Marktstrasse 8,” although by July 10, 1935, when my father’s Driver’s License from the Free State of Danzig was issued, Marktstrasse had been renamed “Adolf Hitler Strasse,” as had the most important streets in virtually all towns and cities across Germany during the Nazi period. For a time I puzzled as to why his driver’s license, as well as his sports club membership, displayed what I knew to be his work address rather than his place of residence; it became obvious this building was both my father’s residence and place of work.
In just the last few weeks, one of my German cousins discovered another interesting thing. Danzig Address Books can be accessed on-line. “Teil III” (Part III) in the back of the directory is like our Yellow Pages, listing people by occupation. In the 1934 Danzig Address Book, there is a separate listing of dentists that includes Tiegenhof and the other towns in the Free State of Danzig. Two are listed, a woman by the name of Dr. Ziesemer, for which no address is provided, and a DR. HEINZ BRUCK, located at Markstrasse 8, the address corresponding exactly to my father’s dental office even listing his office hours (Figure 4). Clearly, this is a reference to my father, although why his first name is incorrectly shown is not clear. Unfortunately, no separate listing of dentists in the Danzig Address Books exists for before or after 1934 that specifically includes Tiegenhof and the towns surrounding Danzig, so it is not possible to further track my father.
Separately, I have corresponded with the “Archiwum Panstwowe w Gdansku” (State Archives in Gdansk) asking if they have any record of my father in either Danzig or Tiegenhof between 1930 and 1937. They responded telling me they can find no evidence of his time in either Danzig (today: Gdansk, Poland) or Tiegenhof. Why my father decided to relocate to the Free State of Danzig after he obtained his dental degree in Berlin is unclear; I know that one of his aunts and her three children, with whom he was close, lived in Danzig at the time, so he may temporarily have lodged with them while he apprenticed in Danzig after receiving his diploma from the University of Berlin. This could explain why no separate listing for my father in the Danzig Address Books of the time can be found.
Pictures my father took of the structures surrounding his office building provided additional clues as I attempted to learn whether the building where my father had lived and worked had survived the war. While I was never able to conclusively determine this before my first visit, I did locate historic pictures of Tiegenhof on-line showing the identical structures my father had photographed from his office. One was the “Kreishaus,” or courthouse, located at the very end of Markstrasse; others showed businesses along the adjoining street, Schlosserstrasse.
A very distinctive home, located opposite my father’s office, is a Dutch-style timbered home, possibly dating from the 16th Century (Figure 5). Dr. Jerzy Domino, an expert on vernacular architecture of the Zulawy region, characterized the timbered home as a corrugated frame structure. The form of the building was universal, and it could be either a noble manor house or the home of a wealthy peasant, and was found in both rural and urban areas. Mennonites, Germans, Jews, Tatars and Ukrainians would have lived in such homes, with the style being very widespread.
The pictures my father took along Markstrasse and Schlosserstrasse suggest an area consisting primarily of small retail shops in a downtown setting. The signs for two other businesses can partially be made out in two other photographs. Directly across the street from his office building was a sign that read “PAUL H___,” with the last letters cut off (Figure 6). I recently discovered the name of the owner and business in a book entitled “Tiegenhof und der Kreis Grosses Werder in Bildern” by Gunter Jeglin, where a listing of businesses in existence in Tiegenhof ca. 1935 can be found. The store was a “friseur” or hair salon located on Markstrasse, and the owner’s name was “PAUL HARNISCH.” Another business, also located on Markstrasse, that appears in my father’s photos was a “buchhandlung” or bookstore/paper goods seller named “HUGO PANTEL.” I was certain that if my father’s office building still stood, I would easily be able to recognize it based on my father’s pictures of the surrounding structures.
SEPTEMBER 2011 VISIT TO POLAND
My wife and I initially visited NDG in September 2011. At the time, we were staying in Sopot, Poland (German: Zoppot), a seaside town in Eastern Pomerania on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea 11 miles west of Gdansk, and a place where my father had often recreated. Thus, it was only a short drive to NDG from Sopot. As fortune would have it, when we arrived in NDG it was lightly raining. We briefly took refuge in a stationary store that sold postcards and books. While waiting, we came upon a book on Tiegenhof, written in both German and Polish, containing many historic photographs and various maps of the town. I immediately purchased this book, simply entitled “Tiegenhof & Nowy Dwor Gdanski,” written by Marek Opitz and Grzegorz Gola. In the back was an index that cross-referenced the former German street names with their contemporary Polish equivalents. I quickly determined that Markstrasse, the street on which my father’s office building had been located, was now known as ulica Wejhera. Armed with this information and a local street map, I quickly located this thoroughfare and ascertained that my father’s former office building no longer existed. Even though the neighborhood has changed significantly over the years, the Dutch-style timbered home seen in my father’s photos still stands; this structure provided a frame of reference for comparing the past and present layout of what was once the junction of Marktstrasse and Schlosserstrasse.
Near the site where I reckoned my father’s office building had once stood now stands the administrative offices for the town of NDG. Upon encountering the building receptionist, I realized that our language barrier would prevent me from making myself fully understood. Instead, I simply asked whether the town had a museum, hoping to learn more of the town’s history. As it turns out, the Muzeum Zulawskie is located in the former Emil Krieg family cheese factory, a few short steps away on ulica Kopernica, in German times known as Rosgarten. On the day of our visit, the museum was staffed, fortuitously as it happens, by Paulina Strzalkowska who speaks English well. Paulina initially mistook me for one of the numerous Mennonite visitors who come to explore their ancestral roots in NDG. I quickly explained I had come to learn more about the town’s history during the 1930’s, and that my father had been a Jewish dentist in Tiegenhof during that time. Paulina was immediately intrigued because the museum rarely receives descendants of former Jewish residents, probably because the historic Jewish community had always been fairly small.
Paulina directed me to a scale model of Tiegenhof housed at the museum. It shows the town as it looked in the 1930’s during the exact period my father lived there. The model was donated by the family of a German woman who lived in Tiegenhof before WWII, and whose husband built her this very realistic model as a remembrance of her former hometown. I took close-up pictures of the table-size model, which includes former German street names, and later learned the precise location where my father’s office building had once stood. Paulina took an even greater interest when I mentioned my father’s old photographs of Tiegenhof. As we prepared to leave the museum, we exchanged email addresses, and I promised I would be in touch.
The first thing I did upon my return to the States was to carefully study the book on Tiegenhof. The editor, Marek Opitz, had conveniently provided his email address, so I sent him a message, explaining who I am and describing my father’s association with the former German town. Naturally, I mentioned my father’s photos. By the next morning, Mr. Opitz had responded and, like Ms. Strzalkowska, indicated a great interest in seeing these photos. As it turned out, Mr. Opitz is also the Director of the “Muzeum Zulawskie” that my wife and I had visited in NDG, as well as the President of the local historical society, the “Klub Nowodworski.” I uploaded all my father’s pictures of Tiegenhof and the surrounding area on a CD and mailed them to Mr. Opitz.
After Mr. Opitz received the CD, he and I had a lively exchange of emails. He emailed me historic and contemporary aerial and street-level photos of Tiegenhof and NDG, approximating the position of my father’s office building. Marek also pointed out on the Muzeum Zulawskie’s scale model of 1930’s Tiegenhof the precise location. It is worth noting my father’s 1934 picture is the only known street-level, front-on photo of this edifice. Marek later explained to me the office building had been destroyed in the latter stages of WWII by Russian planes headed to bomb Danzig who dropped their payloads after being shot at from below by Nazi sympathizers. The prevailing winds on that day resulted in most buildings along Markstrasse catching fire, although, miraculously, the Dutch-style wooden structure and the historic structures along Schlosserstrasse survived relatively unscathed.
In the course of our email exchanges, Marek mentioned the Muzeum Zulawskie was planning an exhibit the following year on the Jews of the Vistula (Polish: Wisla) region, and asked whether he could include some of my father’s pictures. Naturally, I agreed. Marek further expressed an interest in having my wife and me attend the exhibit’s opening and deliver a translated presentation. We agreed to this, as well. In anticipation of our next trip to NDG, I sent copies of all seven volumes of my father’s pictures to the Muzeum Zulawskie. Thus, began the next phase of the journey to better understand my father’s life.