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David Miliband visits his roots

Britain's foreign secretary makes his first trip to Poland.

Most of his father’s family left Poland after the First World War, ending up in Britain by way of Belgium. His mother’s family, the Kozaks, was exposed to the full force of the Holocaust. They lived in Czestochowa, a city in western Poland that houses the country’s holiest icon, the Black Madonna, but was also home for centuries to a large Jewish community. That is where his mother, Marion, was born in 1934, and where the invading Germans penned up the Jewish population in a ghetto starting in 1941.

Miliband's great-grandparents — Maurycy and Adela — were murdered in Czestochowa in 1943, and his grandfather, David, died shortly after the end of the war. Just how his mother survived the Holocaust is unclear, although Miliband credits Poles with helping to save her life. Poles helped many of the 250,000 Jews who survived the war — about 10 percent of Poland’s pre-war Jewish population — although sometimes other Poles would denounce those hiding Jews to the Germans.

“My mother was born here, her life was saved by those who risked theirs sheltering her from Nazi oppression,” Miliband said on a sunny day outside the Jewish cemetery.

Miliband’s grandmother and her two daughters left Poland in 1946, part of a massive migration as the country’s surviving Jews left the country that had been the site of their extermination.

Immediately after the war, Poland was convulsed by several waves of anti-Semitic pogroms, fueled by Poles who were worried about having to give back property to surviving Jews. Also, the country was poor, ruined by the war, and under a Soviet-imposed Communist government. Many Jews made the choice to leave.

Although Poland’s official Jewish community numbers about 20,000, the country is reviving memories of its Jewish past. The government is paying for the construction of a museum of Jewish history to be built in Warsaw, which will explore the millennium they spent in Poland.

“The Milibands are not a big part of that story,” wrote the foreign secretary. “But, like so many Britons of Polish Jewish origin, it is an important and unforgettable part of us.”

More on the legacy of World War II:

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A "skinny kid" returns to Normandy year after year

Remembering suffering, without downplaying guilt