Revisiting 'The Crippled Son of a Polish Priest'

50 years after the first issue of Haaretz Magazine featured a story about an eccentric steakhouse owner with an unusual story, the plot has thickened.

The article about Roman Dabrowski that appeared in the first issue of Haaretz Magazine ended with the interviewee making a “humble request” of the writer, Moshe Admon. “It is very important that you write in the magazine that people be careful of automobiles and that they not drive fast. Too many children are lying in hospitals.”

Dabrowski did not arbitrarily choose to convey a road-safety message in an article about his life story and the steakhouse he ran near the Beit Dagan intersection. The subject was indeed very close to his heart. Three years earlier, he had been run down by a truck, and following the accident he had to use a cane to get around. Which explains why in the subhead of the article he was called “the crippled son of a Pravoslavac priest.”

Dabrowski offered the reporter an emotional description of another car accident, one that involved his little daughter. “Roman says nothing for a minute. He lights a cigarette and inhales it deep into his lungs. His robust shoulders tremble. ‘It started out well,’ he says in a whisper, eyes staring into space, ‘but suddenly, about a year ago, as I and the children were walking to a party, a taxi driving by hit my daughter Marusia. She only got out of the hospital a few days ago. She’s had countless operations, but will apparently remain an invalid. Something is wrong with her leg. Sometime soon I will have to bring her back to the hospital. What can you do? That’s how it is.’”

The article about Dabrowski was published shortly after he opened his roadside steakhouse at the Beit Dagan intersection. It was one of the first steakhouses in the country, which was only then emerging from the austerity and rationing era. Dabrowski was also an Israeli pioneer in the preparation and sale of what was called “white steak,” more commonly known as pork. The sign hanging over the entrance may have read “Roman with a beard,” but many of his customers preferred to call the place − and Dabrowski himself − “Rasputin,” “Robinson Crusoe” or even “The Rebbe,” due to his bushy, curly beard. The napkins and paper bags in which the food was packaged were embossed with the legend “Roman with a beard; Steak, liver and kebab − always ready.” Below the illustration of Dabrowski wearing a white apron and a pompous chef’s cap, it said in the native language of “the Russian goy,” as he was termed in the article: “Menu for a good, juicy steak: Put on your shoes, jump into your car and drive quickly ‏(but not too quickly‏) to Beit Dagan, Herzl Street 1 ‏(in front of the Amisragaz warehouse‏) to the Russian, to Roman with the beard, at Beit Dagan, who awaits you at the steakhouse. The homemade pickles will whet your appetite. Come and see for yourselves.”

“It was a small, modest place, with outstanding food and a heartfelt warmth for the customers,” recalls Moshe Admon. He remembers neither the article nor the interview he conducted with Dabrowski, but he does recall coming back many times for the food. Admon describes the owner as “a very impressive goy, with clear blue eyes and a beard. A smiling fellow who knew how to treat his clients well.” Admon also remembers the pork steaks that were served there, in a pita with hummus and salad, the hamburgers and the homemade pickles, which, he says, “drew a lot of clients to the place.”

Yosef Hadad, who owned the Pundak Asa steakhouse, which has operated at the Beit Dagan intersection since 1967, describes Dabrowski as “a very nice Russian.” He relates that his own steakhouse operated close to Dabrowski’s for many years, but that in spite of the competition between the two, a close friendship was forged.

The article described the early days of the steakhouse and the difficulties that arose following the car accidents of both Dabrowski and his daughter Marusia. “Roman invites us to his home. A neglected home, with shabby furniture and cracked walls. A sweet little girl is stretched out on a big bed, playing with a black puppy. ‘We’ve come to visit you, Marusia,’ declares Roman, and strokes her golden curls. Marusia smiles and hugs the puppy. Her little brothers and sisters sit next to her.”

Dabrowski tells the reporter that his children are enrolled in a mission school in Jerusalem, and that they only come to visit once a week. “It is hard for us to deal with them,” he says sadly. “I, my wife Nina and my cousin Rayechke are working hard and, thank God, earning a decent income. But the situation is not so good. Look at the walls. They’re barely standing. Aside from that, I have debts to repay.”

Marusia, Dabrowski’s daughter, who is now known as Mary Ellen Peeri, says that she completely recovered from the car accident that occurred 50 years ago. You can barely see the scars anymore, she says. Similarly, she has no recollection of the family’s bleak financial state, described in the article. “On the contrary,” she says. “I actually remember a happy childhood; I lacked for nothing.” Aside from that, she asserts, raising her voice, “I never had curly hair.”

Similarly, her older sister Nadia Larsen, who now lives in the U.S., remembers a “happy childhood; we didn’t lack for anything,” and relates that when she was a girl she was sent to private schools in Israel and Switzerland. The two sisters reckon that the gap between what was described in the article and the reality stems from the meteoric success of the steakhouse, which was reviewed a year later in Maariv. In the review, the writer Menachem Talmi offered this quote from Dabrowski: “I have no complaints. I am earning money, paying National Insurance, paying taxes to the regional council, paying income tax. With every passing year, I pay more. My friends say: Dabrowski, Dabrowski, you’re paying too much! Stop your laughing; start crying a little. The more you cry, the less you’ll pay taxes to Income Tax. But I’m a goy. I don’t know how to be a wise guy. I earn a lot, so I pay a lot of taxes. What the heck, why not?” The steakhouse eventually closed in 1982, three years before Dabrowski’s death.

The accident saved his life

In both articles, Dabrowski spoke of his childhood in White Russia and about his father, a Pravoslavac priest. He told the Haaretz reporter, “in a melodic Russian accent,” that “after the revolution we − my father, my mother and myself − moved to Nizhny Novgorod. I attended high school there and when the Russians came in 1939, they took me to the army.” He described his service as a low-ranking officer in the Russian army who was assigned as “an instructor” in the army of the Polish Colonel Anders, through which he made his way to Palestine during World War II. When the Maariv reporter asked why he chose to settle down here, Dabrowski joked, “Jews are smart people. I looked at them and said: if they decided to settle in this country, that is a sign it is good, a sign that it is worthwhile. So I settled here, too.”

Anders’ Army was formed in the Soviet Union during World War II, mainly by Poles who had been deported by the Nazis. Tens of thousands of men served in the force, including numerous refugees from the battle zones and also several thousand Jews. One of the latter was Menachem Begin. The army was loyal to the Polish government-in-exile, which was headquartered in London, and was under the command of the Polish general Wladyslaw Anders. When the war ended, thousands of Anders’ Army soldiers requested British citizenship, as was the practice in other foreign legions. Many of them no longer had families or homes in the Polish homeland. Others felt they no longer had any homeland once Communist rule was established in their country.

Newspapers of the time reported that approximately 1,300 Polish refugees from Anders’ Army stayed on in Palestine, including some 350 Jews. Roman Dabrowski remained, as well. At first he earned a living from various odd jobs. He was a cook, and then a builder, and during the battle for Jerusalem he hauled food and water to the Russian nuns under siege in Ein Karem. His children still have the special transit authorization issued to him by the office of the military governor in Jerusalem.

Following the war, Dabrowski worked as a “Sabbath goy” at Bikur Holim Hospital in the city. That is when he met Nina, a Christian Russian who had come to Palestine to be with a certain Jewish refugee from Poland. But here she discovered that the love of her life was married to another woman. Nina found consolation and a shared fate in the arms of Roman Dabrowski. The two were married at the Greek Orthodox church in San Simon in Jerusalem, and moved into an abandoned Arab house in Ein Karem.

Following the birth of their first daughter, Nadia, they moved to a small home near the Beit Dagan intersection. Their other two children were born there, Mary Ellen, who was nicknamed Marusia at birth, and Gregory, who was called Grisha, but who subsequently changed his name to Giora Dor after his conversion to Judaism.

“My father took it very hard,” he says today. “My parents were very religious and they felt it was a blow to the honor and continuity of the family. But I fell in love with a Jewish woman and wanted to build my family in Israel. I love this country and am proud of it, and I didn’t want my children to have to go through what I went through as a child. As a Christian child in a Jewish environment, I always felt I was on the defensive. As a boy, I was always different. That is also why they didn’t want to draft me into the army. At the time, being Christian was almost considered like being an Arab.”

His sister Mary also subsequently converted to Judaism, and married Roni, her sister-in-law’s brother, but she actually views her childhood as a Christian girl as an advantage: “I think that being different made me more open to the other, to the alien, to the minority. It made me more liberal and more conscious of the feelings of those around me.” The only one who remained Christian was the older sister, who now lives in the U.S.

When the family arrived in Beit Dagan, Dabrowski bought an adult tricycle, with which he began a small-scale hauling and delivery business in the Tel Aviv central bus station area. His wife Nina was a stay-at-home mother. But in the early ‘60s, Dabrowski was hit by a truck. He was hospitalized with a fractured skull, and his children relate that until the day he died he continued to suffer from severe back pain. Luckily, as he would say, the truck driver was Mordechai Guber, who headed the Be’er Tuvia regional council. He was a well-known public figure. Guber’s wife, Rivka, who was known far and wide as the “mother of the boys,” having lost her two sons in the 1948 war, took in the injured Roman as a member of the family.

In her book “Only a Path,” published in 1970, Guber wrote about the relationship that developed with Dabrowski. “We became friends of this Christian family, and it was fascinating to see how they were so accepting of their fate. They weren’t looking for someone to blame, but rather, they made every effort to help themselves, as much as circumstances allowed.”

Rivka described how she was surprised to be comforted by Dabrowski when she came to the hospital to visit on the day after the accident. “Don’t cry, lady!” he said. “This isn’t the first time I’ve broken my head, and for sure it is not the last, either.” She enthusiastically described how during her husband’s trial for his role in the accident, Dabrowski insisted on not receiving direct compensation, and asked only for the insurance company payment.

Dabrowski’s daughter, Mary Peeri, relates that later on, after the Gubers died, her father repaid them for their warmth by paying yeshiva students to say Kaddish at their grave for the year of mourning. She says the accident altered the course of her father’s life. “All of a sudden he had a family.” She relates that “Rivka would always say, ‘I don’t understand your father. Instead of getting angry at Mordechai, he is always saying that Mordechai helped change his life, and thanks to him his life has become much better.”

Roman and Nina Dabrowski were atypical of the demographic makeup of Israel of the 1950s and ‘60s. They belonged to a small community of Christians, mainly Russians and Poles, who had arrived here as refugees. They did not receive Israeli citizenship until 1971. Although the couple developed close relationships with Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors, they were not fully integrated into Israeli society. They used to attend St. Peter’s Church in Jaffa, which hosted a small Polish community.

“They never stopped missing their homeland,” say their children. They spoke Russian to each other and sang songs about the Danube and the light blue of distant snows and flowers. Gregor Pavlovski, the local priest who was born in Poland in 1931 as a Jew named Yaakov Hirsch Greiner and who converted following World War II, well remembers the Dabrowskis. He relates that all through his own years of service at the church they were in the practice of attending mass on Sundays, as well as holiday-time prayer services. Toward the end of his life, Roman began attending church more frequently. “He was a very cheerful and gregarious fellow. He liked people, but he was always lonely. He would come to church mainly to look for companionship.”

Blue blood

Dabrowski sought more than companionship at the Polish church in Jaffa. Years after his death, his daughter Nadia Larsen applied to the Red Cross, seeking to shed more light on her father’s roots. In March 2011, to her surprise, she discovered that someone in Poland was also searching for an individual with the same name born on the same day. She found out that back in 1957, someone named Wladyslaw Dabrowski had filed a request on behalf of his brother Wladek and his mother Josefa Wierzbicka to locate the father of the family, Romuald, which is the Russified version of the Polish name Roman. The Red Cross informed Larsen that her father was a Polish citizen arrested by the Russians who was sent to a labor camp in the Soviet gulag in Siberia.

The Red Cross reported that he was released following a prolonged period of incarceration, whereupon he enlisted in Anders’ Army. In the framework of this military service, he left for the Middle East and had never been seen since. His family in Poland was certain that Dabrowski was killed in the war and a war monument erected in their village included his name along with the other war dead. Their appeal to the Red Cross in 1957 was simply meant to clarify the details of the circumstances of his death.

The reunion between Dabrowski’s Israeli children and his Polish family provided even more details about their father’s tumultuous life. The families learned that he was the scion of an aristocratic Polish dynasty that had even been recognized by the Russian czar and been granted a coat of arms, at the center of which was a horseshoe.

Dabrowski’s Israeli children recalled being given horseshoe-shaped gold pendants by their father, who offered no further explanation. They also recalled that over the years, at times in the heat of an argument, their father − who had always represented himself as being the son of a priest − would say that he was actually a “blue blood.” They used to treat such admissions as no more than a joke.

The inquiry also raised the possibility that on the maternal side of the dynasty’s founder, the Dabrowskis were direct descendants of Tadeusz Kosciuszko − the valiant Polish hero who served as a colonel in the Continental Army in the American revolution, and who is still a revered figure in both Poland and the United States.

Dabrowski’s children learned that their father was born into an extremely wealthy family in 1914, but when at age 24 he decided to marry Josefa, a simple village girl, he was disinherited. Following his marriage, he served as a policeman in the city of Lvov ‏(now known as Lemburg‏), which is where his two sons, Wladyslaw and Wladek, were born. But after the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in September 1939, he was deported to Siberia. The chapter of his life between the deportation in 1939 and his arrival in Palestine in 1942 as an officer in Anders’ Army remains murky.

Dabrowski’s children also learned that their grandfather, Tomasz, had been arrested in Poland by the Communists. His assets were seized, his land was nationalized and he, as well, was deported for a five-year term to a labor camp in Siberia. His daughter later testified, “When he returned, he was barely a human being. He was infested with lice and fleas, his skin was covered with pus-filled wounds. He was filthy and he bore no likeness to his former self. He was just skin and bones. The Communists had turned him from a proud, vivacious man to a subhuman. He had been tortured and was starved and he suffered from lack of medical care.”

Two days after his release in December 1944, Tomasz Dabrowski died at age 59. Roman’s children assume that the Bolshevik-induced trauma prompted their father to conceal his Polish roots. They say that all through his life, their father stuck to the story about his childhood in Russia and that he never even told his wife Nina the truth about his real identity, his previous marriage or his two sons.

Peeri relates that whenever he would mention the Russians, her father would utter a silent curse, and would say they ruined his life. She figures he was concerned that if word got out in Poland that he was alive and had defected to the West, it would be detrimental to his family; that is why he never attempted to make contact with them. Larsen also recalls that ever since she was a child she would hear her father say, “As long as I live, I will never return to Russia. It is too dangerous.”

“We had lots of questions, but it was a generation that does not talk,” says Peeri, who expresses sorrow over the fact that her father, who died in 1985 of lung cancer, did not have the opportunity to see the disintegration of communist rule in his homeland.

Conversely, his widow, Nina did survive and even had the opportunity to reunite with her family. She was born in Mogilev, Belarus, but in 1942 was seized along with her sister Lena by German soldiers while they were shopping at a market. The two sisters were separated and sent to different German labor camps. At the end of the war, Lena was liberated by the Americans and returned to her hometown. Where her family home had stood, she now found only ruins.

Nina was liberated by the Russians and remained in Poland. After the war, she spent six months in hospital. There she met a Russian officer named Ivan, to whom she gave a photograph of her sister Lena, asking him to find out if she was still alive. Ivan not only found Lena, but married her. But the two were then unable to renew contact with Nina, and concluded that she had died in the hospital in Poland. As for Nina, she was certain that Lena had died in the war and that Ivan had never found her.

The two sisters only reunited 47 years later, in 1990, following Nina Larsen’s inquiry to the Red Cross. “I remember her when she was young − long hair, nice teeth,” recalled Nina in an article that appeared in the Rockland Courier-Gazette ‏(published in Maine, where Larsen now lives‏) following their reunion. “We separated as teenagers and met again as grandmothers,” said Lena.

Nina Dabrowski died two years ago and was buried at Kibbutz Einat, in a ceremony at which prayers were recited both by a rabbi and by Father Pavlovski of St. Peter’s Church in Jaffa. Roman’s remains were exhumed from the cemetery in Jaffa and reinterred next to her, this time under his true identity, with his Polish name inscribed on the gravestone. His children guess that prior to his death their father confessed his true identity and origins to Father Pavlovski. But the priest chooses to maintain professional discretion when it comes to confessions between priest and penitent, and refuses to share what he might have heard in the confessional. “What the children know is good. And that is what’s important,” he says.

 

Photo restoration: Ilya Melnikov
Photo restoration: Ilya Melnikov
Photo restoration: Ilya Melnikov