This is a writing sample by “nycghostwriter,” AKA Barbara Finkelstein. It is “Return to Poland,” published as a chapter in Lost on the Map of the World: Jewish-American Women’s Quest for Home in Essays and Memoirs, 1890-Present, Peter Lang, Phillipa Kafka, Editor, 2001. You can get professional ghostwriting services from a published non-fiction writer. Email me or fill out the short form on my contact page.
JFK Airport, April 20, 1998, Lot Polish Airlines,
Flight 7, New York to Warsaw
The usual suspects were waiting to board the 6:35 p.m. flight from New York to Warsaw. The Poles were easy to spot. They sat with their backs to the giant 767 parked outside Terminal 8, their faces impassive at the prospect of going home. These were inveterate commuters between Polish hamlets and big American cities: the nursemaids, factory workers, and house painters who forewent elusive job security in Poland for cash-under-the-table in the United States. Except for a priest, who sat in his seat cracking nuts, the men passed the time dozing, their arms crossed high on their chests. The women packed and repacked bulging carry-ans. On previous trips to Europe and South America, I had seen lots of twentysomethings, mostly Germans, Australians, and Israelis, who wore their JanSport bookbags and knee-tom jeans with the insouciance of borrowed prosperity. The Poles on this flight possessed nothing more than the granitic cast of everyday preoccupation.
A handful of Brooklyn Hasidim near the check-in counter kept their own counsel. They were all bearded men on a pilgrimage to the keyver (the gravesite) of Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, the founder of the Hasidic Tzanz dynasty. The Tzanzer rabbi (1793-1876) headed a large Torah academy that preached against the comforts of this world and led an exemplary life of poverty. The Hasidim, who spoke of him reverently, had packed enough clothing and kosher food for a trip that would see them through the next 72 hours. After worshipping at the keyver, they would go back to Brooklyn. Their group leader was a man in his seventies, a single-minded personality focused on the task of securing seats near the back of the plane. The Lot personnel were acquainted with him from previous pilgrimages and spoke to him in Polish, as if he were an eccentric but adored relative. Perhaps the tour leader’s job looked no more marginal to them than the catch-as-catch-can jobs that the Poles had taken in America.
The most numerous group of travelers consisted of Jewish high school students from all over the United States. They were on a tour called the March of the Living, an annual two-week retreat that takes tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders to Poland and Israel. Sponsored by the March of the Living (MOTL) organization, the teenagers were taking a Holocaust trip through eastern Poland, stopping off at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, the Jewish Cemetery, the Nozyck Synagogue, the Jewish Quarter in Krakow, the former Lublin Yeshiva, and the death camps-Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek. In the second week of the trip, the students would go on to Israel where, according to MOTCs official Web site, the attendees “encounter a country that is striving valiantly to keep the age-old flame of Jewish nationhood alive.” The stay in Poland culminates with a march into Auschwitz. The promotional literature promises dancing in Jerusalem’s streets on Israeli Independence Day.
Instead of meeting fell ow adolescents at amusement parks and ski resorts, MOTL participants can socialize with each other against the backdrop of elegantly chiseled tombstones, intact death centers, and a restored synagogue that stands virtually empty for most of the year. With kids slumped across the seats in the Gate 5 waiting area, March of the Living doesn’t look much different from the field trips to Washington, D.C., and Montreal that most of these young sophisticates have taken by the age of twelve. At this point-before these protected children have visited the crematoria-the Holocaust is one more cool trip to take.
Into this melange add Jakob and Rifka Finkelstein — my father and mother — and me. For fifty-three years my parents vowed never to set foot again in the country where Germans, Ukrainians, and Poles had carried out the extermination of European Jewry. Several months earlier, however, after my older sister and her sixteen-year-old son arranged to go n the March of the Living, my father decided he had to see Poland again.? He wanted to visit Uchan, his hometown in the eastern province of Hrubiescz6w, and Sobibor, the site of a razed death camp, where the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators had killed his parents and four sisters. The mere thought of going back to Poland made my mother unhappy, but she didn’t want my father to travel alone. She kept saying, “Can you imagine Papa alone in Poland?” The subtext was: “Your father has the face and demeanor of a Jew. I can ‘pass,’ but he can’t.” She justified her return, saying she would thank the surviving “righteous gentiles” who had kept her and her brother hidden in their homes and barns between May 1942 and April 1944.
I came into the picture against my mother’s wishes. She said the Poles might try to kill me. My father, though, was glad to have me come along and offered to pay my airfare. My main concern was about leaving my nine-year-old son in the care of other family and friends. As far as getting killed went, I was too much the blithe spirit to imagine such a thing happening to me. A decade ago when I flew into Lima after curfew, a couple of armed soldiers aimed their rifles into the window of my cab. I had felt a tremendous urge to laugh. Even a childhood spent in the company of shell-shocked war survivors could not drive home the point that modern mass murders, political kidnaps, and military round-ups are accomplished at the hands of ordinary uniformed young men with guns. Hold an American passport and you feel invincible.
My father was so jittery about the trip that he talked incessantly to the strangers around him. This from a man whose favorite way to kill an evening is to read The Wall Street Journal. He chatted up a Polish engineer on his way home after an eight-year stay in Queens, a couple of Hasidim, and teenagers from Dallas, Madison, and southern New Jersey. One of the girls had a ring through her nostrils like a bull and another pierced through the middle of her tongue. The frayed hems of her bellbottom jeans, her gray midriff shirt, and her Jean Seberg haircut still compete in my memory with the grotesque reminders of the Holocaust era that comprised our eight-day tour. We ran into her at the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, the Majdanek death camp, and the former yeshiva of Lublin, a sign that we all had more in common with each other than meets the eye.
On the Airplane
The longest trip I ever took with my parents was from Atco, my hometown in southern New Jersey, to Atlantic City, a distance of 40 miles. It did not entail eating, sleeping, and touring with my mother and father 24 hours a day in a foreign country where I did not speak the language. My younger sister Pesha thought I was reckless to travel with them. “They’ll have nightmares,” she warned me. “They’ll require emergency sedation and you won’t be able to get them help.”
I had seen my parents lose their minds only over menschlekhe zakhn (the matters of everyday life). These included the mysterious appearance of a used condom in the toilet of our old house, the nine-month-long separation twenty-three years ago of my older sister and her husband, and the knowledge in 1968 that Pesha had sneaked out to an ice skating rink on the Sabbath and broken her leg. All things considered, though, I never knew my parents to wake up in the middle of the night screaming as some Holocaust survivors do. I did not even know until recently that they had nightmares but kept them to themselves. My father, now seventy-four, says he often dreams that somebody is chasing him and won’t stop until my father is dead. My mother, now seventy, says that when she wakes up facing the wall, she thinks for a second that she is still hiding in a bale of hay.
Over the years, my parents have staved off the shrieking sort of nightmare through inadvertent talk therapy. In between discussions about their poultry business, Jacob and Rivka performed an unsparing analysis of their survival in Polish barns and slave labor camps, reconciling events in history books with their personal experiences. Their conversations were always factual: “When did you last see your father alive?” “Who threatened to expose you to the Gestapo?” There was no tearing at the hair, no chest-beating, no shaking fists at the heavens. I did not know how my mother and father would react to the country of their terror, but I could not picture them needing emergency sedation.
Before this trip to Poland, my father had flown on an airplane only twice, both times to Atlanta where we have family. Now he wore a suit for the flight, as men did in the 1960s when flying was still a formal affair. He sat with his back to the airplane and exulted in the presence of the Jewish kids. Each one of them, tongue rings, Nikes, and retro tie-dyed shirts notwithstanding, represented victory over Hitler. The major Jewish organizations surely have turned such sentiment into a cliché, but the pleasure these teenagers gave my father was visceral. “Flirt, kinder, spend your parents’ money!” Jacob exhorted, caring more about menschlekhe zakhn for the moment than rigorous religious observance. My father, an Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivor with an eighth grade education, could look at a bunch of privileged kids whose secular habits he rejected and see destiny.
Jacob Finkelstein is a kinetic personality with a tendency to fracture words in three languages. He has had a crew-cut since the 1950s when he came with my mother, sister and brother to New York from the Bindermichel displaced persons camp in Linz, Austria. His body is still rough-hewn from 30 years as a chicken farmer in Atco, a flyspeck town about as far from the gore of the twentieth century as Spam is from sagebrush. He sports kippah at home and a black fedora in the wider world. When he and my mother moved off the farm in 1981, they built a house across the street from Congregation Sons of Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Since the eighties, my father has taught a dozen mourners how to say Kaddish; every Friday morning he has checked the eruv, symbolic wire that circumscribes an area where certain kinds of work – carrying objects and pushing baby strollers on the Sabbath – are permissible. Not long after my parents became shul members, the rabbi gave my father the key to the synagogue door.
Unnerved by the very idea of this expedition, my father collared Poles, Hasidim, and March of the Living kids and told them he was a Holocaust survivor. He made the confession with equal amounts of pride and astonishment, as if he could not believe that he really had lived 53 years past the end of World War Two. Despite the composition of Flight 7, my father’s status had a supernumerary quality, like the existence of an army veteran on Memorial Day when the general populace is thinking about the beach or spring clearance at Macys. When my father talks about the war, his eyes get wide. He makes grim declarations, punctuating them with a matter-of-fact “yeah:” “He took a plank and beat the mother and her son until they were dead, yeah;” “They lined up the Jews along the hedge and shot them, yeah.” My father’s memory of the war – his transport to Staw, a Nazi slave labor camp run largely by Ukrainians; his father’s death at the hands of Polish farmers, the murder by Poles of his best friend two weeks after Liberation – creates in him a state of disbelief and outraged acceptance.
I cannot judge the effect of my father’s wide-eyed revelations on the people around him. The Polish engineer listened to Jacob’s manic, thumbnail sketch of genocidal roundups with dispassion or disquiet, I couldn’t tell which. A Hasidic man in his early thirties admitted that the tenets of Hasidism were aimed at reverencing the Almighty, not lambasting Him for any perceived indifference toward the murder of His people. And except for one teenage boy, who informed his companions that a genuine Holocaust survivor was in their midst, the March of the Living children were taken up with the frothy curiosity of youth: “Do you know David Kaplan from Minneapolis?” “Didn’t I see you at ‘regional’ last spring?”
Time, or whatever force dashes nations and individuals against the wall of circumstance, favors no one forever. We Holocaust survivors and descendants were no more or less central to the human comedy on Lot’s April 1998 flight to Warsaw than anyone else. My father’s assertions, retailed in the voice of immemorial shell shock to a dozen Jews and gentiles on the plane, implied that he understood this too.
Meanwhile, back at the Reich
In August 1939, when my mother was eleven and my father fifteen, the Nazis were two weeks away from crushing Poland. Adolf Hitler had already canceled the annual Nuremberg Party Rally, billed for August 15 as the “Party Rally of Peace,” and considered instituting Operation Himmler instead. The plan involved staging a faked attack on a German radio station near the Polish border by using condemned concentration camp inmates dressed in Polish Army uniforms. Poland would be blamed for starting hostilities. My mother remembers what the Polish government said in response to rumors of German
machinations: “We won’t give them even a button!”
Hitler’s less fantastical designs, of course, depended on negotiating a nonaggression pact with Stalin. On August 22, Nazi foreign minister Joachim Ribbentrop flew to Moscow to sign a treaty with Molotov, his Soviet counterpart. The published treaty contained a provision that neither power would attack the other. Moreover, if one of them became “the object of belligerent action” by a third power, the other party would “in no manner lend its support to this Third Power.” What Hitler could not effect through morbid
clowning he gained through diplomacy.
On September 1, 1939, the German armies invaded Poland and converged on Warsaw from the north, south, and west. “Horses against tanks!” writes William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. “The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long cannon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught.” The Nazis destroyed the Polish Air Force – down to the last button – within 48 hours. By September 8 the Nazis controlled Warsaw, Silesia, Slovakia, Kielce, and Sandomierz at the junction of the Vistula and San Rivers. They completed a “pincers movement” a hundred miles to the east where my parents lived, capturing the territory west of Brest Litovsk and the Bug River. By September 17, Poland was prostrate.
The Soviet feeding frenzy was just beginning. On the pretext that he was protecting the interests of the Ukrainian and White Russian minorities living in eastern Poland, Stalin sent his troops into Poland on the Seventeenth. Stating that any earlier Polish-Soviet nonaggression pact was null and void, Stalin proposed taking all land from Warsaw to the Bug River – two miles from my mother’s home and 30 from my father’s. A secret protocol on September 18 ultimately gave Lithuania to the Soviets and the provinces of Lublin and Eastern Warsaw to Germany. In it Hitler and Stalin agreed to mount a campaign of terror against Polish culture and national life.
Hitler and Stalin’s treaty lasted until June 22, 1941, when Germany attacked Russia. Now the Nazis had license to cleanse Poland, first of Jews, and then of Poles. East of the Bug River, they went about it in a crude, labor-intensive way. On May 25, 1942, the Germans overran Koretnitse, my mother’s town, collected as many Jews as they could find, and shot them to death. On June 10, 1942, when they marched into Uchanie, my father’s town, west of the Bug, they herded the Jews into farmers’ wagons, and then into trains, took them to Sobibor, and gassed them to death. Jacob, seventeen, and Rivka, thirteen, slipped through the Nazi dragnet and were on their own, in forests, barns, and a slave labor camp for the next two and a half years.
Humane under the circumstances
In September 1939, Rivka viewed the new political configuration as an opportunity to learn Russian. Indeed, the Soviet schools were open to Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, and the compulsory languages classes have stood my mother in good stead to this day. Life went on without great incident for several months until the Russians relocated the population of Koretnitse, or Kritnetse, as the Jews called it, and scores of other eastern Polish towns to a hamlet 60 miles farther east called Ludvikov.
It is a testament to the savagery of the Nazi takeover of Ludvikov in the Volhynia area on June 22, 1941 that my mother barely remembers the death of her own mother several months earlier, probably from a stroke. Whenever I ask what life was like without a mother, she says things weren’t too bad because she still had the rest of her family. My mother glorifies everything about her childhood – the visits by her brother Levy from the Lublin Yeshiva, the summers spent picking fruit in the Seleskes several miles from Kritnetse, her friendship with her many cousins. No animosity, no rivalries, existed in her pre-Nazi world. Even the anti-Jewish decrees that resulted in the confiscation of Jewish property, the seizure of Jewish slave labor, and the usurpation of foodstuffs and farm animals were tolerable as long as the Nazis did not kill.
“Then one day in 1941 we heard terrible cries coming from the home of the Katz family,” my mother says. “The Nazis killed Avram Katz, his wife, and two young sons. They burned their house to the ground. Three daughters, who happened not to be home, were spared.”
Raul Hilberg has written in The Destruction of the European Jews that, despite terror attacks like this one on the Katz family, the Jews never grasped the danger of remaining in their homes. The fact is, as Hilberg himself observed, there were not many places to go to. After the Nazis killed the Katzes, my mother, her father, sisters, and brother returned to Kritnetse. They built a buda – a shack – out of straw and bits of wood. “We gathered bricks where our old house once stood and made a hot plate,” says my mother. “We felt good in that buda. Every corner, every spot, was home.” The Szusters lived in the buda until May 1942, oblivious to the rampages of the Nazi mobile killing operations in effect since spring 1941.
My mother’s family, living on land formerly occupied by the Russians, was probably among the last Jews killed on the spot by these small, mechanized killing units of the SS and Police that accompanied the German Wehrmacht on June 22. Reinhard Heydrich had laid out the administrative foundations for the mobile killing operations, deliberately structuring his Reich Security Main Office so that every man – Nazi party leaders and civil servants – could be sent into the field to kill Jews “with bureaucratic meticulousness and Prussian discipline,” in Hilberg’s words. By June 1942, when the Nazis killed my father’s family in the conquered territory known as the Reichskommissariat, the weapon of choice was gas.
The historian Martin Gilbert includes a photograph of one of these mobile killing detachments in Atlas of the Holocaust, a book that documents, town by town, the genocide of the Jews. The photo shows eight men in military garb, posed crisply behind briefcases and rifles. These men, 30 and 40 years old, belong to the so-called Einsatzgruppe D, the unit responsible for murdering the Jews of Volhynia and the Ukraine. Hilberg says that many of these Einsatzgruppen killers were professional men. One named Otto Ohlendorf had studied at three universities and had a doctorate in jurisprudence. Another named Ernst Biberstein was a Protestant pastor. They or others like them, who marched into Kritnetse on the morning of May 25, 1942 and killed my mother’s family, trained all their intellectual powers on shooting civilians, recruiting indigenous units of Ukrainians in my mother’s town as auxiliary police.
“Early on the morning of May 25, my father heard an uproar from town,” my mother remembers. “He said to my sister Royse, ‘Go into town and see what’s going on. Maybe we’ll have to escape today.’” Some 1 ½ million Jews living in the former Russian territory had fled before the Germans arrived.
Royse got dressed and went into town. When she returned, she said, “People say the Gestapo will march through town at noon. They might shoot. But we have time. Let’s go back to sleep.”
“My sister went back to sleep,” says my mother. “But after a few minutes, my father sat up and said, ‘ Rivka, gey avek fin dahnet. Get away from here. The less you are home, the better.’”
My mother was afraid to leave the buda, but she was more afraid of disobeying her father. As she prepared to go, my grandfather instructed her to see a particular Polish woman who sold lima beans.
She says, “My little sister Yochved sat up and pleaded, ‘Take me with you. If you don’t, you’ll come back and find us all dead. They’ll kill me!’
“What my little sister described was lunacy, a vildkeyt. How could I believe that when I left, I would have no one to come home to? She knew better than any of us that she was going to die.”
As my mother left the buda, my grandfather called her back yet again. He led Rivka out to a tree and showed her where he had hidden her mother’s gold necklace, earrings, and wristwatch. I can only surmise that my grandfather knew that he and his children had been cornered, and he sensed that, of his three daughters, my mother was the one most likely to survive. She had barely left the Jewish ghetto when Einsatzgruppe D arrived.
Hilberg has written that the shootings usually took place outside of town, at a grave or a ditch. The Einsatzgruppe must have been especially quick on the trigger that day because dawn was breaking; these men preferred to kill under cover of night. Despite the killers’ hurry, writes Hilberg, the Jews were compelled to hand over their valuables to the leader of the killing party. Perhaps my grandfather went back to the tree and unearthed my grandmother’s jewelry in the hope that he could save himself and his daughters. The jewelry would not have saved any of them. Hilberg writes that the Jews were taken in batches, men first, from the collecting point to the ditch. The killers ordered the Jews to take off their clothes, line up at the ditch, and receive a bullet in the back of the neck. The men who committed this type of murder had a special name: Genickschussspezialisten – specialists in shooting in the neck.
My mother says, “I got to the home of the Polish woman who sold lima beans, not without passing dozens of Jews running with children in their arms, running with pillows. Through the window the woman asked me how my family was. I said everyone is fine. Her husband opened the door and I heard shooting from town.
“I saw my cousin Perele. She was running, pulling her hair and crying. My head started to spin, and then the whole world spun with me. I cried to Perele, ‘What happened?’ Perele said, ‘ Rivka, you have no one left. They killed everybody.’ When she told me that, I started crying that I have no one left.”
The Polish woman said she would go to town and investigate. She returned shortly and confirmed Perele’s story. “The woman told me that they killed all the Jews,” my mother says. “She told me to run.
“When she said ‘run,’ I asked where I should go. She said, ‘Take off your shoes. You’ll have an easier time running. And give me your coat too.’ I took off my shoes and coat, gave them to her, and began running.”
Gilbert estimates that German units killed more than 140,000 Jews between May and December 1942 in Volhynia, the region that included Kritnetse. Some 15,000 managed to escape, but less than 1,000 could survive two years of “intense hunger, severe winter cold, sickness, and repeated German and Ukrainian attacks.”
Otto Ohlendorf, one of the 3,000 Germans who directed the mobile killing operations in the former Soviet-controlled territory, inspected shootings like the one in Kritnetse. In an affidavit he made on April 2, 1947, he applauded the Einsatzgruppen for carrying out the murder of the Jews, which was “humane under the circumstances.”
Getting a coherent picture of the war from my father is not easy. He will tell me about hiding with his father in 1942, jump to a story about a Nazi on a bus after the war, and continue with an entirely different story about his father. In Jacob’s mind, all of the stories have one emotional point of intersection, but the absence of a unifying story line leaves me confused. Maybe the miseries my father suffered from 1939 to 1945 are so traumatizing that he still cannot collect his thoughts. About ten months after our trip to Poland, I asked my father to tell me a chronologically neat story, a tale with a beginning, middle, and end. He could not do it. I stopped him at every sentence to demand a transitional phrase or clarification. The project left me irritated and my father frustrated.
One fact I cannot properly assimilate concerns the Judenrat. This council, made up of Jewish community leaders, served as a puppet administration for the Third Reich. Its job was to transmit Nazi directives to the Jews. These included yielding Jewish property, labor, and lives to the Germans. My father has had to describe the role of the Uchanie Judenrat to me many times before I could comprehend that its negotiations with the Gestapo were evidence not of passive collaboration but of pathetic, crazy faith in reasonable dialogue with the enemy.
On June 10, 1942, the Judenrat of Uchanie received a Nazi order to call all the Jews of the town into the marketplace. The Judenrat representative had a list of every Jew who lived in the shtetl. He had arranged with the Gestapo to keep certain Jews, mostly relatives of Judenrat councilmen, out of the marketplace. He must have known that showing up there could bode no good.
The names of my father’s mother and his four sisters, ages 16, 14, 12, and five, were on the list. Sczlomo, my father’s father, instructed his family to ignore the Judenrat order. When the Judenrat representative called out the names of the Finkelsteins and nobody answered, he panicked: “Sczlomo, the Germans will kill all of us if you don’t get your wife and children.” Sczlomo told my father to get his mother and sisters.
“My mother, sisters, and I arrived at the marketplace,” says my father, who was seventeen at the time. “Before long we saw Polish and Ukrainian farmers pull up in their horse-drawn wagons. They were transporting the Jewish families to Miaczin. We were loaded into the wagons and taken to the railroad station there. Around nightfall it began to rain. We were as soaked as herrings.”
Their destination was Belzec, Sobibor, or Majdanek, the three death camps in Lublin province. These killing centers had been in operation since 1941, and I doubt that my father’s parents knew what was going on in them. Three of his sisters, however, understood what lay in store: In 1941 they had witnessed the Nazi massacre of several Jews in the Uchanie Cemetery. But killing factories were beyond anyone’s comprehension. If the Finkelsteins had even heard of Sobibor, for example, they would have known it to be a Durchgangslager, a “transit camp.” Located near the Bug River, on the border of the occupied eastern territories, Sobibor fit into the myth of the “eastern migration,” a phrase the Nazis used to trick Jews into believing that they were merely being relocated.
A cattle train pulled into a station at nearby Miaczin. Jews from Hrubieszców were already in the cars. Men, dressed in black uniforms, jumped out of the train and onto the platform. “They started hollering at us,” my father says. “They sounded like dogs barking. After the war, I learned they were Ukrainians. They chased the Jews into the train. In all the confusion, some Jews were left behind in Miaczin, including my father, mother, four sisters, and me. We hid behind the bushes lining the tracks.”
When the train pulled away, Sczlomo told my grandmother to take the girls back to Uchanie. She attempted to make the trip, but came back half an hour later. “Whatever will happen with all the Jews will happen with me too,” she said. My father and his family stayed near the bushes all night.
On June 11 the Nazis and Ukrainians returned to perform mop-up operations. Machine guns in hand, they surrounded the Finkelsteins and other stray Jews. Maria, a Polish rancher and neighbor, drove up in a wagon. She tried to help my father and grandfather by enlisting them as laborers, but to no avail. Nazi orders were to bring every Jew in.
My father: “The Gestapo began sorting people. Women, children, and the elderly went one way. Men went the other. Families were crying.”
The separation of men and women was integral to the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.” The German officials who gathered at the Wannsee suburb of Berlin on January 20, 1942 included separation of the sexes, along with the slave labor of all able-bodied Jews and mass deportation, as a tactic in their genocidal campaign.
With “bureaucratic meticulousness,” a train arrived. Once again men in black uniforms herded people into the cars. This time they selected 50 boys and men, my father and grandfather included, ordered them to pick up the suitcases, some weighing 60 pounds each, carry them while running, and load them onto the train. When the men finished, the Gestapo forced them into a cattle car.
My father: “We pulled into a train station near Lublin and sat in a side yard for twelve hours. No water, no food. Women and children were wailing. Your ears were pierced with the sounds of their crying.”
This holdover in the side yard was not coincidental. The train that carried my father and his family was one of many, temporarily halted while other trains full of Jews were directed to the killing centers at Sobibor and Belzec. These camps had a single purpose, says Martin Gilbert: “to kill every Jew within a few hours of arrival.” My father believes that the delay overnight was due to the sheer logjam of Jews waiting “to be processed” at both camps.
On June 12 the train began moving east to Chelm, a town in the Lublin district celebrated in Jewish folklore for its famous fools. The men in black appeared again, this time to select a group of Jews for forced labor. My father and grandfather were two of these captives. They and the others were taken to a barracks, counted, and given ersatz black coffee. They remained overnight, uncertain about their fate.
I have tried to research the slave labor camp at Staw, a hamlet near the Bug River, but no information exists about this camp where my father and grandfather stayed for three months. Gilbert writes that the Nazis used Jewish slave laborers to drain marshes and build fortifications on the Soviet border – the “Otto Line” – to act as a barrier against Soviet tanks. This is precisely what the 50 Jewish internees did, but only after having spent three days in the June sun, naked. The total number of laborers at Staw consisted of 200 men and 80 women, many of whom were devout Jews. After my father had escaped from Staw twice – Ukrainians caught him the first time and were barred from killing him by the German work detailer – my father fled to the farm of Aniela Szkaluba. Aniela’s children, now in their late sixties, were on our itinerary.
The murder of my father’s family reflects the second prong of Reinhard Heydrich’s genocidal strategy: to deport the Jewish population to central killing stations. After many years of pondering the fate of his mother and sisters, my father believes that their train continued on to Sobibor, where they were shunted into gas chambers and killed with hydrogen cyanide, commercially known as Zyklon B.
Heydrich himself was assassinated on May 29, 1942, four days after the murder of my mother’s family. Two Czechs, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabeik, hurled a British-made bomb into his open Mercedes sports car. Thousands of Czechs and Jews were the object of Nazi reprisals. Three thousand were sent east for extermination, scores were executed in Berlin, and the remainder was shot, mostly by firing squads of the German Security Police. Seven babies, who passed the test of “racial purity,” were sent to Germany to be raised as Germans with German names.
My father: “What I’m telling you, 90 percent is missing.”
When speaking about the War, my mother has a ready and easy way to tap into old misery. Her war stories, delivered in a singsong, sound stagy. She could be talking about some other child whose father ordered her to buy lima beans from a gentile neighbor on the day the Nazis marched into Koretnice on the Bug River – an errand that saved her life. What sounds almost like a Noh version of tragedy is actually a pre-war Polish convention for expressing grief. When my Uncle Levy, her brother, died three years ago, Rivka stood before the coffin and began weeping as if on cue. When the rabbi began the funeral oration, she stopped as suddenly as she started. My mother’s emotion is no less sincere for being automatic. I have concluded that her polished voice of witness turns all terrible events – illness, death, the Holocaust – into oral cuneiform. Even when deciphered, the emotion conceals a message rooted in a time, place, and sensibility that are ultimately beyond my ken.
My mother packed for the trip like a refugee. She brought along a blue carry-on the size of a laptop stuffed with kosher snacks. For my father she had tucked away an inflatable pillow, a sign that she still possessed the war survivor’s instinct to see utility in the minute. In another bag, which she had managed to slip past the airline personnel, she had stored toiletries, face cloths, aspirin, hard candy, needle and thread, and a tote umbrella.
Her concept of necessity seemed to preclude utter disaster: My mother, who can still hear the sound of her little sister’s voice at the approach of the Nazis, could foresee the need for Tylenol but not mace.
All of my mother’s precautions were based on practical consideration. She remembered Poland as a cold place, with perishing snow and mud laced with ice. In one of her stories, it is a winter’s night, and she is lying hidden in a bale of straw with her brother Anshel. Miezceslaw Hrysiak, whose family we plan to see on this trip, brings my fourteen-year-old mother a glass of hot milk. “I literally felt the ice melt from my body,” my 70-year-old mother says every time she tells me this story. For this trip, she urged me to bring my Gore-Tex hiking boots and the heaviest coat I own.
Judging by the map, my mother’s concern was reasonable. Warsaw lies on the same latitude as Newfoundland. The Baltic Sea is too far away to mitigate the freezing temperatures that scud in from every direction. Too far too to serve as an escape route to Scandinavia, the uncircumcised-looking land mass 500 miles northwest of my mother’s backwater market town. Never once has my mother wondered aloud that, in terms of late twentieth century travel, a safe haven lay painfully nearby in Stockholm. In 1939, even travel from one shtetl to the next demanded preparations that could rival going to Kamchatka Island, where a heavy winter coat was more desirable than mercy.
“All wickedness is weakness.” – Samson Agonistes, John Milton
Have deodorant, will travel
Practically everything I took with me turned out to be useless. I never wore my imitation shearling or the hiking boots that have kept me dry in travels from slushy New York to the Andes. I never plugged in the blow dryer I bought for use in foreign countries, never touched my ankle-length skirt that looked elegant in a Manhattan boutique and dowdy in Warsaw. My objective in preparing for the trip had been to appear affluent – not a simple goal for a hospital newsletter editor. I wanted Polish people to look at me and think, “This Jew has a better life than I do.” I suspect that I am not unique among descendants of Holocaust survivors in wishing to torment the descendants of War-era Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians, and Poles. One time, for example, in Costa Rica, I flirted shamelessly with a German guy at the hotel swimming pool while his wife sat seethingly by. I had no interest in the man but hoped that my coquetry would give him and his wife cause to argue. I don’t know what happened between them, but I felt like a skunk. A comparable low instinct sent me off to Macys several weeks before my flight, where I bought a leather book bag and an overpriced pocketbook made of indeterminate synthetic materials. The book bag I will have for the next ten years, but the pocketbook has a shoddy buckle that came undone before I disembarked from the plane. Let it be a lesson to all that malice does not travel well.
My sister Deb had advised me to heed the March of the Living injunction against spending money in Poland. The Poles didn’t deserve Jewish money. She told me to cart along antibiotics, aspirin, anti-yeast suppositories, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, junk food, and Pepto Bismol because Polish stores probably didn’t sell staples anyway. In short, the March of the Living intended to blow into this country, assert the survival of the Jewish people by trooping into Auschwitz, and fly off to Israel where the young people could spend money to their hearts’ delight.
My sister’s attitude seems to be common among children of Holocaust survivors. One of my acquaintances, a psychiatrist, told me that she loathes Poland so much that she asked me not to discuss my trip with her. Her parents, Polish Jews, had been in Auschwitz, and as far as she was concerned, Poland did not exist anymore. I said I would talk to her about my trip when I came home. “Please don’t,” she said.
My parents and the March of the Living had contradictory goals: Jacob and Rivka personally wanted to thank the people who had helped them survive; the March of the Living came to make a political statement. Gratitude toward righteous gentiles, dialogue with Polish high school students, these were not on the MOTL agenda. In our world, it is always tempting to claim most-favored victim status, but this stance rarely sheds light on soul or society.
Another useless commodity I carried with me was John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. I was reading it for a literature class and intended to spend my evenings writing a paper on the reconciliation of pleasure and virtue. I liked the idea of being a Jew headed for a Catholic country, studying a great dramatic poem about an ancient Hebrew written by a radical Puritan. I thought Milton would tangle me in the fold of dire necessity, forcing me toward some digestible conclusion about good and evil. Fourteen years ago, before I traveled to Peru, I had conducted a similar endeavor. I kept listening to “The Lark Ascending” so that I would have Ralph Vaughn Williams as background music to my musings about the eradication of Inca civilization. When I got to the foot of Machu Pichu, though, I was humming, “I’m Just Wild About Harrad’s,” sung to the tune of “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” The easy epiphanies I expected did not materialize, not in Peru, not in Poland. Just as well. I did not want to end up like the psychiatrist, mistaking rage for faith in God, love of the Jewish nation, or wisdom.
“How cold the vacancy/When the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist/First sees reality.” – Wallace Stevens
My mother spotted our host’s son in the ill-lit Warsaw Airport. Tomek was tall and blond, elegantly attired in a tailored wool coat and polished cordovans. He was waiting for us near a baggage carrel, a cardboard sign that said “Mil” and a great bouquet of flowers in his arms. Having spent a sleepless night with 200 excited teenagers, I was too jet-lagged to comprehend the magnanimity of Tomek Mil’s act. He bestowed the bouquet on my mother, as if she were royalty and not a member of a dwindling tribe of Holocaust survivors. No reporters, no VideoCams were on hand to record this encounter. Perhaps this was all for the best. In the glare of publicity, charmed moments run the risk of becoming propaganda.
Rivka: “I take a look at this beautiful, tall Pole, and he is greeting me, a Jewish woman, with flowers. I think to myself, ‘Under the Nazis this would have been unthinkable.’ I think to myself, ‘How times change.’”
Tomek spoke English and apologized for the rain. He looked at the puddles, embarrassed at the poor show his country’s weather was putting on for his guests. “It was sunny until a few days ago,” he said with true disgust. Tomek’s tone suggested unceasing marvel at his country’s capacity to disappoint. It was the kind of rebuke you give a child who stubbornly refuses to fulfill his potential.
We had just settled ourselves in Tomek’s ’91 Ford Escort when a cell phone somewhere in the mini-trunk began ringing. A cell phone! This was the surest sign that we were visiting a constituent member of the First World. Despite its widespread availability, a cell phone represents pure cachet. It is a symbol of new consumer necessity, and it instantly made Poland attractive. No matter that Tomek’s mother was calling to see if we had arrived safely. “She cannot lose track of me for two minutes,” Tomek said without rancor. It is a privilege to have your mom nag you by cell phone.
What was for Tomek an ordinary gray day in Warsaw was for me an updated frame of Jean Luc Goddard’s “Weekend.” I was traveling in an atmospheric Ford Escort with my parents and a twentysomething employee of the Polish Gas and Oil Company, and the cell phone was ringing. The cars on the highways took crazy risks in passing each other. The billboard advertisements of Claudia Schiffer, Toshiba, and “Good Will Hunting” were at pains to make Poland look like a 1990s facsimile of 1970s ex-urban Paris. In this movie, Poland is prosecuting a suit against its communist past and arguing for bourgeois consumerism. There is still something innocent about this pursuit. America was that way in the early ’sixties when everyone had to own a transistor radio.
This was not the Poland of betraying neighbors and genocidal civilian round-ups, the only Poland my parents had ever talked about. This was not even the Poland of milk and toilet paper shortages, the country I would have known if my parents hadn’t fled in 1946 for the security of an Austrian displaced persons camp. In visiting this place for eight days in April 1998, my parents and I were witnessing a nation of phantoms. Signs of World War Two and of Soviet domination were as little in evidence in this Poland as overt signs of slavery are in the U.S. How odd to visit a history-laden country during peacetime. What are we really seeing? What are we entitled to feel when an esthétique du mal gives way to a quest for cell phones?
Three Kings Day
Tomek pulled into a concrete courtyard full of used Fiats and Civics. At last, evidence of a Poland that had not yet caught up to the new bourgeois ideal. This apartment building on Pulawska Street, a boulevard of trolley tracks, gift shops, and newsstands, had a number of dark, inelegant passages to a lobby whose elevator and overhead light were on the fritz.
Tomek and his sister Iwana had lived here with their parents from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Now only their parents remained. From inside the courtyard, the building evidenced no sign of faded glamour, as the apartment buildings on the Bronx’s Grand Concourse do. This architecture had always been utilitarian, with doorways constructed to house all variety of shipwrecked souls.
We walked up the long, circular flight to the Mils’ apartment. The landing was dark but I could make out the letters “KMB” chalked on the door. I thought they must be graffiti by one of the new mob groups that was terrorizing the citizenry in the capitals of the former Soviet bloc, but Tomek pointed out that they represented Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, the three kings who visited Jesus in the manger. My father once told me that he had sneaked into a church to see a homage to Marshall Pilsudski, Poland’s pre-war leader, but it nonetheless staggered my imagination to see my parents entering a home dominated by Christian symbolism.
We had only the most tenuous claim on the Mils’ generosity, yet Kazia, Tomek’s mother, greeted all of us with three kisses each, an act of gentility that, I suspect, has some connection with the Trinity. In the 1940s, Kazia’s mother-in-law had saved two Jewish girls from my father’s town, one of whom now lives in Toronto. Thanks to this bond, we were standing now in Kazia Mil’s kitchen. Whether it was due to individual personality or cultural hospitality, this slender woman in a polka dotted shirtwaist made us feel like family. This was an instant sort of graciousness I rarely encounter even in my community, where families throw lunch parties for each other every Sabbath.
Kazia’s apartment lacked for nothing in the way of laborsaving conveniences. The kitchen had a washing machine and dryer, a dishwasher, an oven, a little refrigerator and a big one – more than most New York City apartments have. The living room boasted a giant color TV. It was nearly always on, often tuned to CNN, soap operas, and American sitcoms and movies with the English faintly in the background and a male actor who narrated all the roles. The living quarters were not luxurious, but for a middle-aged married couple they were comfortable.
Indeed, they were spacious for a woman who spent months on end alone. Kazia’s husband held a top management position with the Polish Gas and Oil Company and now he was away on business in Syria. I don’t know how long it took for Kazia to unburden herself to my parents – I conked out after a couple hours and went to sleep in a room facing Pulawska Street – but over the next few days it grew apparent that the absent Mr. Mil exerted a powerful influence over Kazia, Tomek, and Iwana, now an aspiring computer programming student in Philadelphia. He was the one who had installed all the laborsaving devices, as if he knew he was leaving a messy state of affairs behind in his wake.
Jet lag had no effect on my parents. Over the years, especially in the three decades that they owned a chicken farm in southern New Jersey, they had learned to take catnaps at any hour of day or night, like medical interns. They hadn’t been bothered by the all-night teenage revels on the plane, and had slept with their heavy winter coats up to the chin. By the time they met Kazia Mil, they still had enough physical and mental energy to talk with her for the rest of the afternoon.
Despite their admiration for people with wealth and power, my parents have never been ruled by a love of creature comforts. As with many Jewish immigrants, they had sacrificed having the niceties of life so that they could send their son and three daughters to college. This was why the house I grew up in had ratty furniture and blue-and-red floor tile that my father himself installed in the 1960s. This was why Jacob and Rivka could travel to Poland, a country that had not had a sizable Jewish population since the early-1940s, and not care about finding decent kosher food. As far as my parents were concerned, they would get by for eight days on a loaf of rye bread, a whang of salami, some packaged cheddar, and tins of tuna and sardines. No vegetables, no fruit, no variety. And this coming hard upon eight days of Passover, when we had not eaten bread, rice, or pasta. My parents were as single-minded about this trip as missionaries: They had come to Poland to find some vestige of themselves and their families. Eating and sleeping were incidental.
I observed something extraordinary about my mother and father: They were not uncomfortable in Kazia’s home. Although I had heard them express only contempt for war-time Poland, they now displayed an ease with this Polish woman that bordered on kinship. They spoke to her in a rush of trust, interest, and kindness that has never fully characterized their conversations with their American friends, including their Orthodox Jewish circle. Until our trip, I had detected a note of inauthenticity in their interactions, an over-readiness to give advice, an effort to be on good behavior. Their American friendships seemed to hinge on doing and receiving favors: Mr. Silverman ate his Sabbath meals at my parents’ table; my parents got a good price from him on their living room set. My parents were good to everybody and everybody was good to them, but nobody sought out the exhilaration that comes from talking about a shared past. In this Warsaw apartment, however, Jacob and Rivka were not seeking to establish a quid pro quo arrangement with Kazia. Whatever they got out of her could not be measured out in mutually beneficial deals but in moments of intimacy.
A person’s nationality, no matter how treacherous it turns out to be, shapes his innermost being, and his capacity to feel joy in the world. Forty-eight years of living in the United States – of watching “I Love Lucy” and “Seinfeld,” of picking the presidential winner every time except for Adlai Stevenson, of protesting the rezoning of their property from commercial land to wetlands preserve – none of these activities had made my parents less Polish at heart. How else to explain their comfort in the home of a woman who worshipped Jesus Christ, ate pork, and used money on the Sabbath? To my parents, Poland was a graveyard, yet this Polish woman’s home was the only place where their friendship could be kind and simple.
Being away from this country for 53 years, however, had exacted a toll on my parents’ language, especially my father’s. Jacob’s Polish was an archeological trove of jagged consonants, fractured suffixes, and gender disagreement. While he had no trouble understanding the language of his youth, he ended up performing an operation on contemporary Polish that brings to mind Vincent Price’s teleportation of a fly’s molecular structure onto a man’s. The only time my father’s Polish sounded comprehensibly Polish was when he was recounting the story of his survival. As he talked about his dying father’s request for water – impossible to satisfy – everyone understood his every word.
By mid-week, my father was speaking this burbling potion of transmuted language to me. “Translate,” I begged him, and out came a swarm of mutant syllables. If I had not spoken English in 50 years, and then bits and pieces of it came back to me, it might have sounded like this: “The road to Warsaw is fat of tigers and industrial MacTurtles. It is wife enough to caddy heavy taffy 24 hours a day.” No computer with American Spell-Check would challenge any word except “MacTurtles,” but you could not convince a native speaker that any of it made sense. I think my father’s Polish sounded like this.
The new house
On our first full day in Warsaw, Kazia insisted that we see the house that she and her husband were building. A high wooden fence rimmed the white contemporary architecture, belying the spacious suburban design inside. By the time we had made the grand tour of bedrooms, walk-in closets, heated bathrooms, and fireplace-fronted living room, I was utterly carbolic with resentment. In Poland my old antagonisms toward the Poles, toward Jewish destiny, toward my individual shortcomings, had surfaced from beneath my fake smile of approval. “Why should they have the pleasure of this nice house?” my miserable self wondered. I was thinking like the psychiatrist, nursing the embers of an old grudge and ending up with a long face for my pains. This is the feeling that demagogues manipulate so well and that people with weak character indulge. I recognized the symptoms, loathed my small-mindedness, and waited for my resentment to pass out of my system, like the ‘flu.
Back at Kazia’s apartment, I looked at old family photos. There were snapshots of a 23-year-old Kazia on dates with an ambitious young man from a family that had harbored Jewish children during the War. There were studio portraits of glamorous Iwana dressed in lingerie, black leotards, and evening gowns. Photos of family vacations to Greece, Syria, Sweden, and East Germany lay scattered among pictures of big family get-togethers. Yet two photos bore the unmistakable stamp of sadness. They were the ones of the four Mils – Kazia red-haired and sunny, Mr. Mil bearded and unsmiling, and the eight- and nine-year-old Iwana and Tomek, very blond, precious, and unhappy. The little wrinkled brows of the two children were the only hint that all was not perfect in these comfortable lives. This was my first inkling that the second and third generations after the War had achieved physical security but little sense of purpose in the world. Meaning is never acquired with zlotys or dollars, never conjured into being with heated hotel towels, love affairs, and cell phones. Only a hashed-out dialogue with family and nation can take a person halfway between love and ambivalence – on this planet, the best of all possible worlds. The Mils had fared better in Poland than the Finkelsteins, but they had not gotten off easy.
My parents had not come to sightsee. They did not care about the price of seed or about the multinational corporations that had come here to ply their trade. They could take some comfort, however, in the presence of the many corporate logos that crowned the Warsaw skyline. The faces of SONY, Toshiba, IBM, Marriott, Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut, and McDonalds stood out like sentries along the watchtower of a new, uncharted social order. Who would be stupid enough to mount an insurrection against anyone and scare off these capitalist crusaders just when capitalism held out the promise of a richer material life? The Poland my parents left in 1945 for an Austrian displaced persons camp was a killing field. Today’s Poland is hitching its wagon to a multinational star. My parents felt safe enough to stay in the Mils’ apartment and, in a couple days, to hire a driver to take us to the towns 200 miles east of Warsaw where their “righteous gentiles” lived. They were not here to note the sea change but to pay their respects.
So, when Tomek asked if anyone wanted to tour Warsaw by night, my parents demurred. They did not impose their boycott on me, and I yielded to curiosity about the post-war, post-communist present-day, the life I might have known if everything – politics, religion, economy, and human nature – had been different.
Tomek and I were good companions. I gave him a chance to practice his nearly fluent English; he was my sole interpreter of Polish life circa the millennium. Practical considerations aside, we had an instant liking for each other, despite my senior advantage of fifteen years. He needed a sympathetic ear, just as his mother did. So did I. To test my sensibilities, Tomek revealed the wry, slightly standoffish outlook on life that I have seen represented in every nationality but American. This is not to disdain our national innocence, apolitical sensibility, or the refulgent belief that life inevitably gets better and better. Behind Tomek’s ironic stance was a heaviness-at-heart all too familiar to me. His family background and mine were altogether different in religion, culture, and experience, but the same historical forces and similar family dynamics had endowed us with a capacious talent for brooding. I think we were relieved that we did not have to feign happiness or devotion to a greater ideal.
Our first stop was along the Vistula River. This river had played an important role in my mother’s wartime stories. In 1944, after the Russians conscripted her brother Anshel into the Red Army, Anshel got shot at the Vistula. “He was bleeding to death,” my mother would say in an elegiac voice. “He couldn’t make it across the river with the rest of his company. A trained military dog found him, pushed a rescue wagon under him, and began barking. Finally Anshel understood that the dog wanted to ferry him to a hospital, which is exactly what happened.”
From my tourist standpoint, the river was a smoky channel of water that merged with the horizon at an indistinct line called romance. I made the effort of picturing hunted Jews – the only image I felt entitled to see – and yet the gore I had associated with all things Polish was undone by the simple pleasure of walking beside a congenial soul. I asked Tomek if he ever tried to imagine what Warsaw was like during the Nazi occupation. He didn’t think about “those times” or about communism, which ended when he was seventeen. We saw people standing on a queue, and Tomek joked that they must be nostalgic for the days when people stood on line for “stupid things,” like hairbrushes or socks. The practical exigencies of “those times,” and the moral lowness of an earlier era when some Poles abetted the Nazis, were as remote to him as McCarthyism and the Depression are to me.
Tomek could sneer at ideology because he had had the privilege of casting about for a personal destiny. So had I, and therein lay our point of commiseration. When no government provides you with a job or a home, how do you go about getting them? Once you decide, have you made the right decision? Does the quest to amass property and wealth make you happy, dangerous, or corrupt? And, by the way, are you capable of love or does every passion lead to mésalliance? Better minds than ours had outlined philosophies and engineered social models in an effort to distill some witting explanation for the way human beings undo and preserve each other. Tomek and I were free to torment ourselves with questions whose answers lay almost exclusively inside our own hearts.
Over a demitasse of Turkish coffee, Tomek unburdened himself of his woe. The problem was his father, often absent, often authoritarian. “He cares about one thing,” Tomek complained. “Making money. It’s on his mind day and night. After the war, times were hard. The roads were bad and he had to walk up to his knees in mud. It made him single-minded. He looks upon me as if I were a weakling.” Tomek’s eyes, moist with emotion, said he feared his father was right.
My friend had contemplated setting up a computer business. He needed financial backing and asked his father to help. “He told me I had to submit a ‘management plan’ in writing, along with a ‘mission statement,’” Tomek said. “I argued, ‘Dad, I’m your son!’ But he has this ‘man of steel’ mentality, and he’s made it clear that I don’t measure up. And then he comes to me and says, ‘Tomek, I want us to be close.’ I say to him, ‘Where were you when I was growing up?’”
Not having had an opportunity to see Mr. Mil for myself, I could not write him off as the crusher of flowering manhood. Considering other factors – that Mr. Mil wanted Tomek to finish his B.A., that it was Mil money on the line – I could understand why Mil père wanted to see a budget. What made me sympathize with Tomek, though, was the universality of his conflict. I had had similar conversations with my parents, the two giants who had overcome the Holocaust when I, poor weakling, would have succumbed to typhus, cold, starvation, gunfire, gas, ghettoization, captivity, hanging, medical experimentation, betrayal, beatings, or slave labor long before Liberation. My friend felt dwarfed by his father’s fortitude in the face of the communist bogey. In my twenties, I had seen my father as a superman who had subjugated his emotions to the commanding power of the dollar. I did not know Tomek well enough to say that someday – and someday soon – he would have to cut his father down to human size so that he, Tomek, could let himself become a man. Sadly, no adult can impart truisms without sounding like a preacher. I had written off plenty of useless good advice in my day, and Tomek would have to do the same.
“Part of the problem,” Tomek said, “is that we have only two classes in Poland, the very rich and the poor. We have no middle. I want enough money so that I can live comfortably in the middle.”
Ah, in a roundabout way, we come again to the subject of the Jews. So maligned throughout the century, the Jews might actually have mitigated the tensions between Tomek and his father by helping to create a middle class. Before the war Jews were involved in the development of housing, municipal services, commerce, industry, and crafts. Sixty percent of the doctors in Warsaw were Jewish. It was a measure of Tomek’s dignity that he would blame nobody but himself – and his father – for his thwarted financial aspirations. Some answers do not lie exclusively inside our own hearts.
Before setting out for Hrubieszów, the province where most of my parents’ old neighbors now live, we attempted to get a transit pass to visit Koretnice, my mother’s hometown formerly in Poland, now in Ukraine. Tomek drove us to the Ukrainian Embassy, a broad, yellow building with foreboding double doors. For an hour-and-a-half, we stood on a line that eventually grew to include some 50 people. Every fifteen minutes, the door creaked open to allow some rain-soaked petitioner to state his case before the great Oz. This system of managing visa requests was a bureaucratic vestige that the new government had preserved in communist amber. Article Three of the new Ukrainian Constitution asserts that “the state is answerable to the individual for its activity,” but the framers clearly had neglected to inform the people’s representatives inside this Embassy. Only a couple months earlier I had crossed over from New York to Montreal, a passage that had taken all of two minutes, and I realized that what my parents said about the eastern European countries might not be all that farfetched: Anything concerning the integrity of national borders was grounds for war.
The mood on this line was antisocial. Strangers did not talk to each other. I spent part of my time surreptitiously eyeing the middle-aged lovers in front of us. The woman had bleached blonde hair piled high on her head and black eyeliner wings. The man smoked and parlayed furtive glances at his watch. Both wore inexpensive leather jackets. Descendants, I thought, just as I am. What did their families do during the war? I was glad that my parents had spared me the trial of living in a country where I would ask myself this question about everyone I met.
Tomek and I talked about computers and books. Our conversation was no different than one I might have with an American. At one point he asked me what kind of music I liked. It was the sort of question a young person asks another young person, and indeed, hardly anyone had asked me about my musical tastes since college. I realized that Tomek thought I was younger than I am. I looked at the middle-aged couple in front of us and wondered if I was older than they were. Americans look young well into their thirties and forties. Despite the statistics that tell us we are too fat and too inactive, our diet, lifestyle, and medicine make many of us look younger than our peers in other countries. I liked fobbing myself off as a young woman, so I bandied about the names of Suzanne Vega, the Cowboy Junkies, and Elvis Costello. Tomek thought Elvis Costello was some old-time singer. He probably confused him with Elvis Presley, but then again Elvis Costello has been around a while too, since the 1970s when Tomek was born. Life had changed a lot in the 26 years of Tomek’s life, and a rock ‘n roller with a 30-year-long career probably sounded as dated to him as Rudy Vallee does to me.
It was finally our turn to enter Oz. The Embassy office was not at the end of a long, Kafkaesque corridor, as I had imagined, but practically next to the street. The visa staff consisted of several women who sat inside Plexiglas cubicles. My mother, who also speaks Ukrainian, told one of them that three American citizens were requesting permission to visit a Ukraine border town for several hours. In a take-it-or-leave-it voice, the woman informed us that visas for three people cost $225US. According to Article 42 of the Ukrainian Constitution, “the entrepreneurial activity of deputies, officials and officers of bodies of
state power and of bodies of local self-government is restricted by law,” but the Embassy seemed to view $225US as a handling fee, not as entrepreneurial activity. Here was an object lesson in the discrepancy between the real and the ideal.
My father was irate. My mother told the woman that we wanted to visit family graves for a few hours. The woman wouldn’t negotiate. I thought we should go in spite of the cost; when would we be back in this part of the world? My father’s vote carried the day and we left.
Like most of my parents’ war-time decisions, discretion was the better part of valor. A few hours later we learned that traffic at the Poland-Ukraine border had to wait four hours to make the crossing.
“Moreover, God has said to me: ‘You shall not pass over this Jordan.’” – Deuteronomy 31:2
Our first destination on our journey to Poland’s eastern border towns was Lublin. In September 1939 the city had 122,000 inhabitants, of which 38,000 were Jews. It had been a center for Hasidic Jews since the late eighteenth century. During the Nazi occupation it served as headquarters for the SS and the Gestapo and for the administration of Operation Reinhard.
We visited the building in Lublin that was once Yeshivas Chachmey Lublin, the school renowned throughout Jewish Poland for its rigorous pedagogical methods and the determination of its founder, Rabbi Meir Shapiro. The Holocaust era produced a lot of sad stories, but Rabbi Shapiro stands out as the patron saint of lost causes. Meir Shapiro was descended from a community of Jews in the German town of Speyer. All but one of his ancestors were killed in 1096 during the First Crusade. The sole surviving Shapiro witnessed the Crusaders’ attempts to convert the Jews of Speyer, and then the massacre of the community when the Jews chose martyrdom instead. The survivor’s descendants turned the German name Speyer into the Hebrew ashpira. It became the Yiddish Shapiro when the family moved to the Bukovina region of Romania. Several Shapiros were noted rabbis, including Nosson Nota Shapiro, the Rabbi of Krakow at the turn of the sixteenth century.
Meir Shapiro was born in 1887 in the Romanian town of Suczawa. In the course of his 47 years, he was chief rabbi of various southeastern Polish towns, an activist in the Agudas Yisroel (an Orthodox political organization that began in Hamburg, Germany), and a member of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Legislature. As headmaster (rosh yeshiva) of small yeshivas early in his career, he was familiar with the impoverished lot of his students. “The youngsters would do their studying in various buildings,” writes Yehoshua Baumol, one of Shapiro’s disciples, in an adoring homage entitled A Blaze in the Darkening Gloom: The Life of Rav Meir Shapiro. “They would sleep wherever lodgings could be found for them in the town. For lunch (the single good meal of the day) there was the system of ‘eating days’ – in Yiddish, ess’n teg: A youngster would go to a family which had agreed to give one [student] a meal on this day of the week.” In short, Shapiro believed that the students’ material welfare had an effect on their study habits. By the early 1920s, he began a capital campaign to build a new “state-of-the-art” yeshiva in Lublin, the “Polish Jerusalem.”
Fundraising took seven years. Shapiro borrowed money from Poland’s national bank. He traveled to Jewish communities in Germany, Czechoslovakia, England, and the United States and raised funds equal to several hundred thousand dollars. The property itself, nestled in between the Lublin Hospital and the Jewish Cemetery, was a gift of Shmuel Eichenbaum and his wife, Lubliners who owned 35,000 acres on heavily Jewish Lubartoweska Street. Tzvi Zilber, president of the Jewish community, donated half a million bricks. Toward the end of construction, a Polish noblewoman named Countess Roland donated 12,000 young pine trees “to beautify the grounds in the yeshiva’s forecourt.”
Like any ambitious construction project, Yeshivas Chachmey Lublin encountered obstacles along the way. The socialist Jewish Bund, opposed to all manifestations of religious observance, referred to the building as a “five-story monstrosity” (It actually had six stories). Opposition also came from the right-wing Endecja party, an organization consisting of “middle-class and petty bourgeois citizens who paraded their antisemitism with a fierce national pride,” according to Baumol. Shortly after groundbreaking ceremonies in 1923, a huge cross, probably planted by Endecja, appeared in the middle of the property. The Polish government ordered work stoppages on the building three times.
Building resumed only after one Asher Mendelsohn, an Agudas Yisroel delegate to the upper house of the Polish Legislature, negotiated with government ministers on the yeshiva’s behalf. The so-called “Grabski Crisis,” named for the autocratic Polish president who applied severe taxation laws on Poland’s mostly Jewish merchants and shopkeepers, added to the yeshiva’s financial woes.
Costs for Yeshivas Chachmey Lublin were colossal. Donations fell off. Shapiro reserved his most bitter – and most purple – language for his fellow Jews. “Let them [my opponents] buzz around me and sting me as much as they want,” quotes Baumol. “It will avail them nothing! I am ready to shed blood, to give blood, to lose blood; I am ready to accept any persecution, every insult and derision. One thing alone remains clear and certain to me: In spite of everything, Yeshivas Chachmey Lublin will come into existence!”
Fightin’ words, but tragic and misdirected in light of the fate that awaited the yeshiva and every Lublin Jew regardless of political party.
Yeshivas Chachmey Lublin opened on June 22, 1930. Baumol estimates that 100,000 people converged on Lubartoweska Street to celebrate. “An endless line of buses, taxis and horse-drawn vehicles kept coming in from the surrounding regions,” he writes. “Every hour [trains] arrived to deliver hundreds of disembarking passengers. The Ministry of Transport added on extra trains … A few hundred policemen were organized to maintain order, under the personal direction of the city’s chief of police.”
Only one man, a Jewish journalist named Stupnitsky, had the presence of mind to remember that many Jewish undertakings in Europe had ended badly. Stupnitsky feared “that this wondrous, inspiring edifice may suffer some day, Heaven forbid, the same fate that befell all the great historic structures that Jews erected – in the countries of Spain, Portugal, and Holland … Jews built them, and today non-Jews possess them.”
Eleven years later, the Nazis gutted the yeshiva’s 100 rooms, including the library, bathing facilities, ritual bath, electrical laundry, bakery, dining rooms, and two kitchens. They also destroyed a scale model of the Jewish Temple housed in the yeshiva’s basement. It was the work of Chanoch Weintraub, a Hassidic artist who had researched the project in the Vatican Library. During the Nazi occupation, Yeshivas Chachmey Lublin served as a Gestapo center, a military quarters, and a hospital for wounded German soldiers. Thousands of manuscripts, many of them handwritten by rabbis from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, went up in flames in Lublin’s city square. The volumes burned for 20 hours.*
The only mercy in this story is that Rabbi Meir Shapiro died from a throat infection seven years before the Nazis wiped out his life’s work. Yehoshua Baumol, who wrote Shapiro’s worshipful biography, did not fare half so well. He was killed at Treblinka in 1942 along with his wife – a Shapiro – and their two children.
The elders of Koretnice, my mother’s town, wanted my Uncle Levy to study at Yeshivas Chachmey Lublin and raised the money to send him there. Levy satisfied the minimum requirements to enter the yeshiva: “Competent knowledge by heart of at least 200 double pages of the Talmud, with accompanying commentary,” writes Baumol. Unlike the majority of Lubliner students, however, Levy used his first experience away from home to read secular writers like Sholem Aleichem and Karl Marx, an unlikely but potent duo that prompted my uncle to cut off his sidelocks and become a willing draftee in the Russian Army. In 1993, in his seventies, Levy left Kazakhstan with one bag full of contraindicated medications and another of military medals – he was one of the Soviet Union’s few decorated Jewish war heroes. An erratic personality, he spent his remaining eighteen months of life in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, cadging apples from people in my parents’ shul, picking fights, and rereading the texts he had studied in Lublin. “I bet my money on the wrong horse,” he would say, angry at the world.
Today the building at Ulitsa Lubartoweska 85 houses the Collegium Maius, a nursing school. Classes were in session while tourists, many of them with the March of the Living, walked through the building. My mother peered into classrooms and read bulletin boards in the hope of finding some allusive reference to her brother’s yeshiva. “A mausoleum,” she said. Her voice did not have that eyewitness-to-history intonation that, during my childhood, made me doubt the veracity of her emotion. This time it was small, broken. She walked slowly down the winding staircase, sad and relieved that she would not visit this place again.
I have a photograph of my father standing in front of the former Yeshivas Chachmey Lublin with my mother, our van driver, and Tomek’s Uncle Witek, a nurse who now worked with his mother and father on their farm. Witek and our driver pose for the camera with faint smiles. Even my mother affects the tourist look for the camera. My father, however, is front and center and scowling. He cannot hide his resentment. Life has gone on. The past is visible in the yellow peeling paint inside and outside the building, and in the dimly lit halls, but otherwise it has no place here. There are no framed portraits of the boys who once had recourse to these rooms for eleven years and returned to their eastern European towns as rabbis, or, like my Uncle Levy, as a confirmed Marxist-Leninist. My father, wearing a blue pea jacket and a jaunty black hat, stands rigidly next to my mother, his rock and life’s butt. Lublin is just the first in a series of shocks my parents will get. There is almost no sign in this country of the Jewish life they once knew.
“Lives there who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell,
Though thither doomed?”
– Paradise Lost, John Milton
The Majdanek extermination camp southeast of Lublin was the brainchild of Heinrich Himmler, head of all German police forces from 1936 to 1945. Under Himmler’s guidance, Majdanek was meant to hold 25,000-50,000 prisoners, some of whom would maintain the gas chambers and crematorium. After the war, Polish authorities reconstructed the camp’s wooden walls, but most of the so-called workshops, female overseers’ living quarters, and administration barracks were left intact. The “black path,” the road from the present-day memorial monument to the gas chambers, is made of broken tombstones stolen from Jewish cemeteries. Part of the black path may have come from the 700-year-old cemetery in Uchanie, my father’s hometown, 30 miles east.
Jews began arriving at Majdanek in early 1942, but the massive transports gained momentum in April. My father was on one of the crowded cattle cars that stopped in Majdanek or nearby Lublin for twelve hours. It was a busy time in Majdanek, what with transports of Jews from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, and especially the Lublin, Warsaw, and Bialystok regions of Poland. According to Majdanek: The Concentration Camp of Lublin, a monograph by Anna Wisniewska and Czestaw Rajca that I picked up in the Majdanek gift shop, the SS subjected Jews to selection immediately upon arriving at the camp: “All those pronounced incapable of work, especially the sick, children and old persons, were directed to gas chambers without their details even being registered in the files. The remaining persons were put into the barracks.” Too busy to accommodate newcomers, my father’s train eventually moved on to Chelm. Jacob, his father, and some 50 other Jews were taken off this train and put on another to Miaczin, a triage station 60 miles to the south.
The largest execution at Majdanek took place on November 3, 1943 when the camp commanders shot 18,000 Jewish inmates. The day began with the morning roll call, after which all Jewish inmates were herded into one of the killing fields. They were joined by Jews who had arrived from other camps in Lublin and from the prison inside the Lublin Castle. Everyone had to strip naked and march toward the three rows of deep ditches dug near the crematorium. According to the authors of Majdanek, who cite eyewitness testimony by Erich Muhsfeldt, chief of the crematorium, “They had to lie down and the SS from Sonderkommando, standing at the top of the ditch, machine-gunned them. Consecutively, other batches [of Jews] were run along the bottom of the ditch to its very end, where they had to lie down on the corpses of those already shot, so that the ditch would be filling up, section by section, to its very brink. Men were executed in groups separate from women. The action lasted without any break until 5 p.m. The SS men shooting the victims changed, they left for meals in the barracks in town, but the execution continued incessantly. Throughout the day, music was played from two cars specially equipped with loudspeakers.”
The camp commanders ordered the bodies burned in a crematorium newly built by a Berlin firm called K. Kori. “Human ashes that remained were mixed with kitchen scraps and earth to make compost,” write the authors. “This was used as fertilizer in the fields and gardens of the camp.” If my father’s train had not been rerouted, he might have been among these damned souls.
The most arresting exhibit at Majdanek was a dark gallery consisting of photographs of killers and victims hung together behind a glass display case. This pastiche of evil and innocence reminded me of photos in my old college biology text: The editors ask the reader to determine which face expresses joy and which pain. One was of a woman undergoing childbirth and the other of a woman experiencing orgasm. In these photos, I could not determine who was happy and who was miserable, just as I could not decipher which faces among those at Majdanek belonged to thugs and which to defenseless civilians. By and large, it is not possible to know anything certain about a human being by looking at his face, a conclusion we must all come to even in times of less extreme unction.
My parents and I were at Majdanek for less than an hour. Very quickly we had had our fill of gas chambers, crematoria, and cylinders of Zyklon-B gas. We walked around outside for a while, taking the long view of the coop-like barracks and watchtowers, keeping our distance from the architecture of mass murder. My father kept wiping his eyes. Almost in one breath, the three of us said we did not want to be here anymore.
Judging by the monograph, and by personal March of the Living accounts I found on the Internet, my parents and I managed to miss some of the notable sights. I do remember seeing a turtle sculpture designed by a Warsaw artist named Albin Maria Boniecki, presumably a camp prisoner; the monograph says that he fashioned it to express the Jewish byword of the Nazi-occupied territories: Work slow. But I did not notice the mausoleum designed in 1969 by Wiktor Tolin, a Polish architect and sculptor. It is a large UFO-like structure meant to represent an urn of ashes. Real ashes of the murdered prisoners are still inside, complete with fragments of human bone. How could we have missed it?
I missed the urn because I didn’t want to see it. An old feeling had come over me at Majdanek, a feeling I didn’t much like admitting to, especially in a place that demanded solemnity. I wanted to go back to Warsaw and hang out with Tomek in a café. I wanted to be on a real vacation, having fun. “Fun?” my parents used to say to me when I was a child. “Vuhs ih duhs far a mishugas, fun?” What kind of lunacy is this, fun? The sight of my mother and father, crying and praying in fields, Jewish cemeteries, and farmhouses – this is what I had sought to avoid for four decades, and now here it was – misery, simple and complicated, staring me in the face.
Man was born to live in either the convulsions of distress or the lethargy of boredom. – Voltaire
The first righteous gentile to thank was Stanislawa Hnatiuk Mil, Kazia’s mother-in-law.She was the woman who kept two girls from Uchanie hidden in her barn 50 years ago. Before Liberation, Polish neighbors killed one of them. The other, Perele Najman, took refuge in a crawl space above the bread oven in Pani Hnatiuk’s childhood home. One day, when some young gentleman callers dropped by to visit the Hnatiuk sisters, a Yiddish voice drifted out of the oven. Perele, asleep in the crawl space, was retailing her troubles in her sleep. Fifteen-year-old Stanislawa began singing a nationalist song to drown out the incriminating language. She marched the young men out of the room and away from doing harm.
Now Stanislawa Hnatiuk lived in Korytyna, a village in which farmers still cultivate the reddish-brown fields with a horse-drawn plow. We arrived after nightfall when the lack of plumbing is a reminder that, for all their talk about better tomorrows, Nazism and Communism had brought few technological improvements to people living in Poland’s semi-industrial hamlets. The Mils use an outhouse for their toilet, and probably expected us to too. My parents, however, were too diplomatic to query our hosts about the facilities, and we ended up shifting for ourselves as best we could. The naïf in me must still believe that goodness should not be its own reward. Some institution, perhaps the Department of Public Works, ought to ensure that humanitarian action be rewarded with a lifetime supply of clean, running water. Stanislawa’s reward for performing an act of humanity will have to wait until my parents can get her a pension from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel that remembers the best of all Good Samaritans.
Sitting in Stanislawa’s home, I asked myself my perennial questions: Could anyone I know – elected official, teacher, friend, colleague – have stood up to a Nazi? Could anyone I know take pleasure in watching an armed soldier hurt a civilian? What are we capable of becoming in any given moment in our lives? Is it just a matter of circumstance that we are betimes like Voltaire’s Bulgars and Avars, each one taking a turn to burn the other’s village in accordance with international law?
Like everyone we met, Stanislawa wanted to feed us. My parents, however, strictly observe the kosher dietary laws and would not touch anything but coffee. I am made of weaker starch and ate anything that did not offend my father. In addition, I have grown accustomed to regular bowel habits, which my parents’ diet of bread and salami or bread and cheese had undermined by Day Two of our trip. Stanislawa provided stewed cherries that returned me to a blissful state of regularity. It was almost a point of pride with my father that he did not have one bowel movement in Poland.
My photos of Stanislawa show a stout woman in her early eighties dressed in a dark, knee-length skirt and a red-and-green Christmasy sweater. She has kind, unwrinkled eyes, which she averts out of reflexive suspicion, born of having lived most of her life under domination by two foreign powers. She stands in between my parents, who clutch her by the crook of the elbow, a little embarrassed by their esteem, and deeply moved.
My parents, meanwhile, show this woman love. They hold onto her and smile.
They have rarely, if ever, touched anyone with this show of protection, not their friends in the Orthodox Jewish world, not their children. With Stanislawa, they are in the presence of “proven goodness,” as my mother puts it, and their body language says that she is an angel. As I study these photos, ten months after my return from Poland, I am shaken by my parents’ feeling for Stanislawa and the other Polish people who risked their own lives for them and other Jews. All these years my parents have had a high standard for human decency, and have measured every person they know, their children too, against it. Jacob and Rivka have reserved their love for the rarest of human flowers. It is hard to accept that, in their eyes, most people, I included, are just ordinary human beings without “proven goodness.”
Behind Stanislawa’s house are acres of green and brown earth, planted with beans, tomatoes, and scallions. The sown fields stretch out to a copse of trees too thin, my parents observe, to hide a runaway Jew. From behind a high, bundled hayrick scampers Stanislawa’s dog, a squash-colored mutt with terrier ears and a collie tail. He is a frightened little wretch that recoils at my approach, yet looks at me with an unbearable expression of suppressed desire. He skulks through the brood of chickens and finally takes refuge behind Stanislawa’s ankles when the master of the house, a gaunt, toothless figure, trudges outside for his morning ablutions.
In the morning we left for Krylow, the small town west of the Bug where Anna Buszko and her family had come after the war to avoid living under atheistic Soviet rule. Pani Buszko had given my mother and her brother Anshel shelter in the winter of 1943. In addition to risking her own life, she had the burden of pacifying six children under the age of thirteen and a husband keen to cooperate with the Nazis. In the early 1980s, Anna wrote my mother that she had gotten down on her hands and knees and pleaded with her husband not to expose the whereabouts of Rivka and Anshel. The children, the ones old enough to understand, were cut from their mother’s cloth. They knew about two Szuster children in the barn and never told anyone about them. When Yad Vashem named Anna Buszko a “righteous gentile,” Pani Buszko said that God had sent Rivka and Anshel to her as a test of her faith. Under communism, she said, she kept waiting for a comparable test, but none ever came. Anna’s act of courage was her one shot at being a good Catholic, and she thanked my mother again and again for having given her life meaning.
Anna Buszko died five years ago. She and my mother had planned on seeing each other in Israel, but by the time Pani arrived, my mother was in a New Jersey hospital undergoing a scheduled surgery. Before we came to Poland, my mother wrote to Lilcia, Pani’s daughter, and told Lilcia she wanted to see her. No letters were forthcoming and my mother assumed Lilcia had died too.
Witek, Tomek’s uncle, found Lilcia for us. He was a “shtik” politician, as my mother says, meaning, I thought, that he had little real power now but still knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody. The night before at the Mils’ farmhouse, I had been doubtful about Witek’s vaunted political contacts. He had shown me a box of photos, most of which featured Witek with a changing congeries of girlfriends. He finally nodded off with several bottles of beer in his belly, falling out fully clothed in an alcove where, my mother said, she saw a mouse scuttle under his bed. All I can say is that sometimes the most unlikely people, the ones befogged by liquor, dragged down by divorce, and returned to childhood dependence are the very people who end up negotiating complicated assignations and neat business deals. Who knows what they know, who pities them, who owes them a favor. You don’t always need big money and power to make things happen.
Witek knew somebody who knew Lilcia’s daughter Regina, a secretary in Hrubieszów. While he made his phone calls and then went to chase her down, my father struck up a conversation with Jan Murlok, our van driver. As it turned out, his father-in-law had grown up in Uchanie. And guess who we should run into while waiting for Lilcia’s daughter – but the father-in-law. He was a round-bellied man in his seventies, dressed in a flint-gray sweater and a worn leather vest. Whatever remnant of memory he had about my father’s father was enough to make my father reach up and put an arm around his shoulder. The photo I have of my father and our driver’s father-in-law shows two men of similar build and coloring, one hatted, the other bare-headed, standing side by side. The father-in-law has a serious expression; he was uncomfortable about my taking his picture. My father is almost smiling. He is grateful that in this country with few testaments to a Jewish presence, somebody remembers his father.
Within half an hour, Witek returned with a shy middle-aged woman. My mother was puzzled at the sight of her. This woman was too young to be Lilcia, and too tentative to have any past ties with my mother. After a few words of explanation, though, the woman – Lilcia’s daughter – touched my mother’s arm and my mother began crying.
Witek disappeared for a while to get a message to Lilcia that Rivka was in Hrubieszów with her husband and daughter, and also to buy me a coffee table book called Polska by a Polish photographer named Jan Morek. The photographs show Morek’s love for a country replete with Renaissance and Baroque architecture, medieval fortresses, black madonnas, Silesian coal miners, and Zakopane highlanders. Everything in this country known to Americans in my generation as the subject of light bulb jokes was achingly beautiful. My resentment resurfaced from the dungeon wherein I had banished it. Krakow, with its hourly bugle call from the church of Our Lady in Krakow, was in this book. It had been the home of a friend of my parents, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and the daughter of a Krakow choirmaster. Zamosc, with its Renaissance town square and lovely students in blue jeans, was in it too. My mother’s mother was born there. Jan Morek had not intended to disturb my equanimity with his patriotism, and yet I found his photos fodder for my grudge. Life was a lot simpler when I thought Poland was only a country of killing fields and ugly Soviet-style architecture. The Poland in Morek’s book, the Poland I viewed from our hired van, and the Poland Tomek showed me, was, as Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote about a river in France, “intolerably glorious.”
We parted with Witek at his sister Luzcyna’s apartment in Lublin and continued on our way to Krylow to see Lilcia. We spied her walking down the steps of her daughter’s home, a modest white house on a narrow dirt road. Lilcia was a tiny woman with small shoulders and a matronly torso, Celtic-looking with her red hair and pale complexion. When my mother caught sight of her, she shrieked, “Lilcia!” and the two women threw themselves on each other. Much weeping ensued and they staggered into the house. Within a few minutes, we were all seated in the living room: My parents, Lilcia, Regina and her husband, and me. Remembrances of survival past would have to wait until the guests were served herbata – tea – and cake. I rarely touch tea for anything but medicinal purposes, but as it was the only foodstuff I could ingest on this trip without upsetting my father, I drank it and drank it. Polish tea is an infusion of grasses and leaves served in clear glass cups. The gracious manner in which it arrives at table, on a tray with sweets and sugar, compensates for its bitter taste.
Lilcia and my mother sat down next to each other on the sofa. My mother cosseted Lilcia as if she were her long-lost child. Here was another example of the love that had lain dormant inside my mother’s breast, waiting to be showered on a person who had shown her kindness once upon a time. I was more amazed than jealous, and relieved that the war had not absolutely atrophied my mother’s capacity for joy. I had seen her dote on one of my nieces like this, and on my son, but never quite on her own children. Helen Epstein wrote in Children of the Holocaust that Holocaust survivors often withheld love from their children for fear of losing them one day as they had lost their first family. This may be an untestable theory, but it is plausible in the case of my parents. They were rarely charitable toward their children’s wishes, to go to the prom, to go bowling with friends, to ice skate, to see the Grand Canyon, to grasp the beauty of a wider world. They kept us at home as much as possible where life was supposed to be safe. Yet they kept us at arm’s length by dismissing all of our worries. We resented them on and on. So sad, the whole thing.
My mother reminisced: “I used to come to Pani Buszko’s house at nighttime. She and Lilcia would give me bread. I was always afraid to go into the house because in a house you are trapped. But one time it was so cold that Anna said, ‘ Rivka, come in.’ So I went in.
“On this particular occasion, I nearly got caught by a man named Leszczuk. He was the mayor of three small villages and he was in the business of rounding up Jews for the Gestapo. He walked into Anna’s house as if he owned it. It was too late for me to run out. Lilcia, who was eleven at the time, one year younger than me, said, ‘ Rivka, hide in the corner.’ She opened the kitchen door. She and her little sisters sat down on the floor in front of the door. I sat behind the door in the corner, hiding from Lesczuk. He threatened Pani Buszko: ‘If Zydy – Jews – come here, don’t get involved with them.’ I was sitting behind the door, shivering. What if the other children began playing with the door? Leszczuk said his piece and left. If not for Lilcia, Leszczuk would have found me and I would have been finished.
“I told Lilcia, ‘I will never forget you.’ I never did.” Rivka leaned over and kissed Lilcia on the cheek.
And then my mother reached into her pocketbook and withdrew a one-hundred dollar bill. She presented it to Lilcia with great ceremony, while all the assembled looked on. The transaction, a token of appreciation for a long-ago act of goodness, had an air of unaffected solemnity. Like all of our Polish hosts, Pani Lilcia would turn the money into 300 zlotys and use them mostly for medicine. Within a few weeks, the money would be gone. Yet Lilcia accepted my mother’s gift without histrionics, and without any sign that one hundred dollars could not begin to repay my mother’s debt to her. Before we left Krylow that day, my mother reenacted this transaction several times. I still puzzle over her need to replay this scene rather than hand over a lump sum, like the eponymous millionaire on the old sixties TV show who handed out million-dollar checks to worthy souls. Maybe my mother’s repeated awards were a way of saying that she never tires of thanking the Buszkos for their help. Maybe they were a way of saying that 53 years had passed since the war ended and the smoke cleared to reveal worlds and generations in ruins, but a small circle of friends would never stop remembering.
Lilcia took us round to a green field furrowed with ruts and trenches. These were the result of excavations five decades ago by Germans who had pulled up dozens of Jewish headstones for use as death camp paving stones. Two headstones remained, one a simple, round-cornered tribute to female virtue, the other a more ornate structure with a chiseled crown, draperies, and the five books of Moses above the traditional Hebrew paean to righteousness. Their presence at the edge of a farmer’s sown brown field was a testament to the mysteriousness of survival. Why had the privilege of testimony had fallen to them and not to any of the other headstones to the graves under our feet?
Lilcia’s neighbors had gotten word that Polish Jews had returned to visit and came out of their houses to join us. One was a wrinkled, toothless crone in a babushka and bright purple sweater. When I asked to take her picture, she smiled and dimpled like a girl. She swiped at the babushka covering her head, ripping it off to expose her thin, messy ponytail and her rich, womanly vanity. In one photo she is standing next to my mother, who, despite her own flyaway gray hair, looks almost glamorous by comparison. Babushka’s breasts sag to her stomach; her peasant hand is arthritic. “Do you think we liked what happened to the Jews?” she asks.
My mother translates Babushka’s words in a dirge-like voice: “She’s saying that she and her family had many Jewish friends. She’s crying because they’re all gone. Her own mother spoke Yiddish like a Jew. She says she wants to see at least one of her old Jewish neighbors. But nobody is alive. Most of the Jews, they took them away from here. She doesn’t know where, but they never came back alive.” My mother appends the only possible conclusion: “That’s the story. It ends with us, and with them.”
The other neighbor curious to make our acquaintance was a woman in her mid-fifties. She was dressed in modern-day peasant garb, with a high red knit cap, black pants, and several layers of plaids, stripes, and herringbones. She had the weathered skin of a woman who has never used cosmetics, and the simplicity of spirit one rarely encounters in the New York scurry for material wealth and privilege. In one of my group shots, she is standing next to my mother, holding onto her with both hands and smiling for the camera. Lack of artifice, and kindness, too, seem to age the body and mind. Most New Yorkers would take her for a woman of 60.
As my parents and I make ready to go, the woman tells us that every day she tries to understand how the parents of her friends and acquaintances could have done the Nazis’ bidding. She reads almost nothing but books about the period. She says she is deeply ashamed that a generation of Polish people was complicit in the murder of the Jews. She begins to weep. She stumbles over the rutted ground and heads back to her house, an old hand shielding her face.
In the yard behind Babushka’s house a rooster asserts his right to free speech. He is a witless creature whose crowing punctuates our homage like a church bell in the aftermath of a storm.
Lilcia and Babushka point to an unremarkable grassy field. A half-century ago, the Germans conducted a round-up of Jews in the town and killed them here. My father stands on grass that grows over the field of unmarked graves. He reads from Psalms 74: “Why, O God, have You abandoned us for an eternity? Does Your wrath smolder against the sheep of Your pasture?”
My mother wears her green winter coat and a silk scarf decorated with English drakes and bugles. It is not cold but she will not consider walking around in a sweater. She says the weather could change at any time and she wants to be prepared.
We made a brief, depressing stopover at a Holocaust memorial in Hrubieszów. “Pomnik Sciana Pamieci” consists of a wrought iron fence and a gate crowned by two stylized Stars of David and the open pages of a book. The structure is a line drawing against blue sky and flat green field. A hulking two-story home sits on the sidelines of property that housed the Jewish ghetto from 1440 to 1942. Beyond the gate are the familiar aesthetics of the Jewish genocide: Artistically hewn marble darkened with charcoal pays tribute to “the victims of the Holocaust.” In many cases, Polish-Jewish survivors raised the $50,000 necessary to build memorials like this one in towns throughout Poland. In Hrubieszów, though, the town helped fund the five-acre memorial. The gate’s symbolism, easy to dismiss as trite, is a reminder that the people who sojourned in this place for 502 years were a separate nation with a book at its core.
The Hrysiaks live 20 miles west of Hrubieszów in a village called Horyszów Polski. A half-century ago, Miezceslaw, the family patriarch, found my mother stealing tomatoes from his garden. My mother looked up at his wan face and decided that she had had enough of hiding. She expected “Pan Mitka” to drag her off to the Gestapo. Instead, he said, “Take as many tomatoes as you need. I won’t harm you.” Mitka told my mother that she was also welcome to come by his house, “and we’ll give you to eat.” The only advice he gave her was to “pray in your own language so that God will help you survive.”
This arrangement – stealing tomatoes by day, eating with the Hrysiaks by night – lasted one month. Hard on my mother’s trail was Leszczuk. He knew that she and Anshel were still sleeping in the Buszkos’ barn, but he had not been able to nab them. One night intuition told Rivka not to go into the barn. “I decided it was time for me to spy on Leszczuk,” she said. “The light was on in his house and I could see everything clearly. He went over to the wall and took down his rifle. Then he came out looking for Anshel and me. Anshel wanted to go over and talk to him. I begged him not to. Within half a minute, Leszczuk was standing in the barn doorway, firing three shots into the hay. I said to my brother, ‘Those bullets were meant for us.’” That night my mother and Anshel stole back to Mitka’s farm. They found a massive pile of straw, scooped out the bottom level to make a nest, and, once inside, drew the straw back toward them. Several weeks later, after a snowstorm, Mitka found the children in the straw. From that point until the end of winter 1943, he brought food out to the straw “house.”
Mitka’s humanity toward Rivka and Anshel stemmed in part from an experience he had had with another Jewish child. Several months earlier, when the viciousness of the Nazi occupation was not entirely apparent to him, Mitka and his wife Zusanna had adopted a six-year-old Jewish boy orphaned after an Einsatzgruppe round-up. My mother remembers how the child cantered about on a horse in Mitka’s field. When the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators learned that certain Poles were flouting the authority of the Third Reich, they drove from house to house in a horse-drawn wagon and collected these little adoptees. The children were never heard from again. Mitka was a devout Catholic, and this experience haunted him. He vowed that if he ever got a second chance to help a Jewish child, he would protect him. The Nazis never stopped suspecting Mitka. They would come unannounced, mostly at night, in the hope of catching Pan Mitka in the act of sheltering a Jew. But Mitka was at heart the wily peasant boy who had once hired on as a stable hand for Zusanna’s father and then became owner himself when he married the boss’s daughter. He kept plenty of liquor on hand for his night visitors. From her pile of straw in the barn, my mother used to hear the whole crew singing and getting drunk.
Mitka was the person most responsible for helping my mother survive the frigid winter of 1942-1943. He was a tall, spectral figure, thin and hollow-cheeked, when he first spied my mother in his garden. “I thought that was the end of me,” she said in the many times I have heard this story. “My family knew the Hrysiaks before the war, but I had never had anything to do with them. Mitka talked to me in a kind voice, and told me to take whatever I needed.”
When Pan Mitka died in 1995, he left behind a wife, three children, and three grandchildren, all of whom had gathered at Zusanna’s house to serve us a five-course dinner. I have rarely had to exercise the restraint necessary to forego a table burgeoning with chicken soup, sliced meats, homemade bread, roasted red peppers, vine-grown tomatoes dressed with oil and parsley, potato salad, and a stemmed bowl piled high with pastry. The Hrysiaks knew that Jews do not eat pork, but they thought that everything else was kosher. My parents, who are unyielding in their faith, did not appear remotely tempted by this spread. I, who have little trouble observing the dietary laws in New York, am sorely tested when I travel, particularly to a country that has to import its kosher meat from farflung Brooklyn and Antwerp. In moments like this I think less about matters of faith than sheer determination. Bob Marley, for example, was said to abstain from eating if he could not get the vegetables and grains that comprised his diet. Without my parents as my stoic guides, I confess I might have indulged my appetite that, till that moment, took brutish nourishment in salami and cheese, separately.
Most of the conversation that began with a glass of herbata and continued with this feast dwelled on memories of the war. Given my ignorance of Polish, though, I missed all the nuances of friendship that my camera recorded. Whatever my parents talked about endeared them to the Hrysiaks. In one photo, Mitka’s granddaughter, an ample, high-cheeked woman in her late twenties, has covered her hand over my mother’s. It is a loving gesture that says, “Thank you for coming back.” Everyone else – Mitka’s younger son, a burly, silver-haired man in his early fifties who resembles Bibi Netanyahu in build, and a bevy of other family relations – is smiling. Even my father is smiling. He is hatless too in deference to the secular Christian custom. Rarely these days do I see my father without a hat or yarmulke; he does not socialize with non-Jews. And yet, hatless, smiling, and grateful, he fraternized with the Hrysiaks. “I feel to them like family,” he says.
An hour into our delicious meal-less meal, my mother stood up to toast Pan Mitka, first in English, then in Polish. Raising a glass of sok – juice – in her right hand, she said, “After the war, we never had a chance to say thank you. When everything was over, we all ran in different directions, me, my brother, and you and your family. Now that we are all together, I want to say thank you to you, and to Pan Mieczyslaw. His soul is with us together.”
As my friend Tomek would say in his ironic voice, “A stone would cry.”
The lavishness of Mitka’s gravesite is evidence of the stature he had in life. We visited it before heading off to Miazcin, the little town my father last saw through the slats of a cattle car. Mitka’s plot consists of a rectangle of marble with an obsidian plaque that bears his name and life span. Built into the marble is an asymmetrically shaped, brown crucifix, the right part of the cross longer than the left. An emaciated Jesus hangs there in perpetuity, his right leg tucked up under his seat. A marble base, five feet by four, is strewn with pots of fresh roses and zinnias. When the Bibi-like son approaches this tomb, his lower lip trembles and the tears stream down his face.
The rest of the cemetery is a city of monuments and tall crosses. A long dirt road cuts through the hectares of unmowed grass and weed. Utility poles along the perimeter offer an eerie intimation that the dead come out at night and require light. The place was beautiful, orderly, and except for the marble tributes, restricted in excess by the poverty of the living. My last photograph here was of a sarcophagus housing eight members of the same family. The Hrysiaks said that the Nazis had killed them for “non-compliance.” Two pots of pink flowers flanked either side of the vast base. Fifty-three years after the end of the war, somebody still remembered these people. Which generation will finally forget?
All in a dream, all in a dream, the loading had begun. – Neil Young, After the Gold Rush
I remember my parents’ discussions about the war as unending efforts to reconcile memorywith fact. At every opportunity, especially on the Sabbath, which I experienced as a day of long, lonely prohibition, my mother and father would attempt to construct a chronology of the war. Both of them had eluded the Nazi machine by reason of fate or chance – they never pretended to understand what kept them alive through two-and-a-half years of hunger, homelessness, and the constant threat of murder – and strove to analyze the basics of survival: “How did Mitka prevent the Nazis from entering the barn?” “How did you keep the smell of potatoes from wafting out of the woods?” “When could you pass through the fields undetected?” Not once did I hear my parents attribute their survival to God. Matters best suited for philosophical inquiry would have to wait until they had left the chicken farm for a suburban life of relative calm.
As an aspiring American, I resented my parents’ resurrection of this ugly European past. I would ask them to describe what their towns looked like, what they did in the summers. Their answers exasperated me: “There was nothing special about our lives,” they would say. “We went to school during the year and in the summers we picked fruit in the orchards.” Did you have friends, I would ask. “Yes, but the shtetl was full of our families too,” they said. “We could count up to fifth cousins once-removed.” To my mind, something didn’t add up. How could everything about one’s life be normal one minute and then be turned upside down by war the next? I insisted that the Jews in Poland had to have seen some warning signs. Why didn’t your families just pick up and go, I asked. “Even a ten-mile trip demanded days of preparation,” they would explain to my uncomprehending mind. “If you grew up on one side of a river and got married to somebody on the other side, chances were that you never got back to your hometown for the rest of your life.” In 1940? I asked. Yes, in 1940.
My youthful imagination lacked an appreciation for the stubborn inescapableness of everyday life. Come peace or war, a person has to eat. He has to pass his time inside a shelter or outside in the open air. Despite the ubiquity of executioners, the sky is blue or full of clouds, the weather is cold or hot, the grass is green or crawling with lice. The laws of nature do not change when one group of people decides to kill another.
No place drove this point home to me more than Miaczyn. This small eastern Polish town divided by railroad tracks looked as uneventful as Atco, my hometown in southern New Jersey, also split in half by railroad tracks. Miaczyn could be any out-of-the-way whistle-stop on a rail line connecting two larger cities in any developed country. Trees and utility poles line the tracks. The occasional house looks on as trains make scheduled stops once or twice a day. A signpost nailed in between parallel posts proclaims the town’s name in large Helvetica type. Nothing about the bushes alongside the tracks indicates that in 1942 my father’s mother and four younger sisters lay hidden while German soldiers loaded the waiting cattle cars with terrified Jews. The four children and their mother managed to escape the death train that day but ended up taking it the next to the Sobibor extermination camp.
My father passed through Miaczyn on his way to Staw, another small town that the Nazis used as a slave labor camp. He remembered seeing Miaczyn’s signpost through the train car slats and wondering where the town was in relation to Uchanie, his hometown. More than any other place in Poland, he associates this town with the sound of screaming as the Nazis beat and kicked the Jews into the trains. During our hour-long visit, he walked alone, up and down the length of the concrete walkway in between the two sets of tracks. I was afraid to interrupt him. Unlike my mother, whose two brothers survived the war, my father has lived his adult life with no family but his wife and four children. He is a gregarious personality forced by circumstance into periods of introspection, and I thought he might tell me to leave him alone. I ventured near him and asked what he thought of this homely little town. “There is nothing to see,” he said. “Such terrible things happened here, and now it’s as if nothing ever happened.”
In one of my pictures, my father is standing in front of the bushes where his mother and sisters forestalled death for 24 hours. The bill of his baseball cap shadows the top half of his face. He has on a long-sleeved white shirt, black trousers, and new, white sneakers. I know what he is thinking: “I am standing on ground that was once the color of blood. There are no memorials here, or in most places, to mark the slaughter of innocents. I am the last Jew who will know what happened in Miaczyn. What is the meaning of life?”
We sat down on a bench outside the wooden station-house to eat our bread and cheese. A youngish woman from a nearby house, curious about our presence, came near and told us where we could wash our hands. The van driver, always respectful, passed the time examining the tires. My mother wore her winter coat.
Mystical interpretations of life do not satisfy me, but I wonder why, of all my poorly shot photographs, the one of the Miaczyn railroad tracks has splotches of red on the concrete walkway and the westbound tracks.
“Earth conceal not my blood.” – Job
Next stop: Sobibor. The Nazis killed at least 250,000 people at this death camp 50 miles northeast of Majdanek. Because the only hard and fast figures are the dates of Jewish arrivals from Holland, the exact number of murders is probably higher. My father’s mother and four sisters were just names on a list. The Germans did not bother recording the dates of the victims’ birth and death. In June 1942, when my grandmother and little aunts entered Sobibor, two- to three hundred Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators would have greeted them with bullets or gas: “Upon their arrival, the ailing, the infirm and children who had been deported without their families were led to camp No. 3, where there was a ditch,” writes Miriam Novitch, an Israeli who interviewed survivors for Sobibor: Martyrdom and Revolt. “That section was called the ‘hospital’ (Lazaret). The victims were machine-gunned near the ditch by Ukrainian guards, under German supervision. At first, the victims walked to the execution place; in 1942, when the new railway was built, the prisoners were packed into open trucks, and driven to the ‘hospital.’” Thus was Europe cured of its Jewish problem.
Four of my father’s sisters were under the age of sixteen. He remembers them as pretty and blonde, “like gentiles.” If they had survived until February 12, 1943, they might have been among the 200 attractive young Jewish women and girls forced to excite a Nazi sensibility more pornographic than political. In honor of Heinrich Himmler’s visit, they would have undressed and marched before him on their way to the gas. As Miriam Novitch writes, “[T]hey were received by the Oberscharfuhrer Erich Bauer, nicknamed the Bademeister (the bath attendant), who led them to the gas chambers. On that occasion, as an old fighter of the First World War and a member of the Stahlhelm, Bauer put on his best uniform. All the other SS polished their boots, as we learned from the survivors.”
Today Sobibor is a placid hillock. The rise of the land here may be due to the dynamiting by the Germans of the gas chambers, prisoners’ barracks, and SS villas soon after the October 14, 1943 revolt and escape of 200 prisoners. The woods then, and in 1998 too, did not appear dense enough to hide so many people. In fact, the Germans caught all but 30 of the escapees, brought them back to Sobibor, and tortured them to death.
If you go to Strawberry Fields in Central Park when the lawn is empty, you can get a sense of Sobibor today. Green. Unremarkable. Not much to see and nothing to do. You try to imagine what happened at Sobibor at peril to your sanity. I watched my father instead. As he walked around the overgrown lawn, he was like the cats on our old farm. The cats had several litters a year, too many for us to keep. When the kittens were a couple months old, we gave them away to egg customers. When the mother discovered that her kittens were missing, she began sniffing the little nest where she had last left them. She continued to sniff and mew pitifully for a few hours, but soon she accepted her loss as inalterable.
Is there such depravity in man, as that he should injure another without benefit to himself? – Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas
My parents were indefatigable. In two days we had taken in the Hrysiaks, Lilcia, Miaczyn, and Sobibor. It was nearly twilight when my parents insisted on moving on to Uchanie. Were these the people in danger of breaking down? I was more ready than they were to find a rooming house for the night, a clean place with running water and a flush toilet. I was also eager to go back to Warsaw and see Tomek again. He was the only person in our Polish circle who spoke English, and the only person in a long time whose company made me happy. At best, I had expected him to be a Solidarity type of fellow, with a squared-off cap and a cigarette dripping ash. That he was winsome and scoffing and had time to squire me around was an unexpected bonus on a sad trip like this one. Alas, I was no different than the children with the March of the Living. They had come to witness the fate of our people in Europe and to have a good time. People cannot help but aspire to happiness.
In Uchanie, my father had a hard time getting his bearings. He couldn’t quite remember where his house had stood, but he pointed out a street of sleepy, low-roofed cottages where his mother had been born. When we got out of the van, my father turned around several times in the narrow street, and homed in on the Jewish cemetery. It was an untended, grassy plot bordered by wire mesh and an ugly iron gate. It was also slightly higher than street level because space limitations had necessitated burying coffins on top of each other. An elderly survivor named Moishe, who had lost his wife and four children, had erected this graceless fence. Otherwise, no symbols or memorial plaques made note that this was a cemetery. After the war, this Moishe moved in with the Ukrainian woman who had helped him survive. One day he received a note from some Polish farmers ordering him to leave Uchanie. If he stayed, the note promised, he would be killed.
Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble to scrape off the lettering of the one remaining tombstone. Directly across the street was a Christian cemetery decorated with floral wreaths.
After the war a young man named Zdzislav Masterlerchuk told my father where in the Jewish cemetery Szclomo Finkelstein’s body lay buried. Zdzislav had lived with his parents and two brothers in a house that faced onto the cemetery, and he had had a ringside view of the killings and burials that the Nazis and their collaborators conducted there. Zdzislav showed my father precisely where his father was buried. My father piled dirt on top of the spot. Two hundred and twelve seasons over the course of 53 years had made the makeshift marker indistinguishable from the surrounding earth.
In college I knew a guy who used to say, “When I’m dead, the garbage man can take me to the city dump.” Up until I saw the well-tended Christian plot and the disrespected Jewish mound, I did not know that the way we treat the dead reveals who we are. What does it say about the townspeople in Uchanie, especially the old ones who saw their streets turn into a carnival of grotesque liberality, that they mark a people’s sacred ground with a cheap iron fence? What honor do they give their own dead each time they walk past the unmarked Jewish graves to their own families’ serene cemetery? A simple memorial like the one we saw in Hrubieszów would have said that the people of Uchanie feel grief, remorse, sadness – the emotions that every person must feel in his transformation from homo sapiens to human being. A plot of earth with one defaced tombstone is an indictment.
My father stood with his back to us and recited Psalms. Night fell and a nimbus of red hung over the trees along the edge of the cemetery.
We came to the street where the Polish farmers discovered Jacob and Szclomo living in a neighbor’s barn. My father remembered seeing these people in the family store. The farmers had belonged to a nationalist group called Armia Krajowa (AK). The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s web site defines the AK as an underground fighting organization that bombed railway shipments and participated in partisan fights against Nazis. The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, also cited on the web site, estimates that AK membership in the first half of 1944 ranged from 250,000 to 350,000, with more than 10,000 officers. “While the AK did not engender a general revolt, its forces were responsible for intensive economic and armed sabotage,” says the Encyclopedia. “In 1944, it acted on a broad scale, one of its operations being the Warsaw Polish uprising, which broke out on August 1, 1944, and was quelled by the Germans only on October 2. AK units carried out thousands of armed raids and daring intelligence operations, bombed hundreds of railway shipments, and participated in many partisan clashes and battles with the German police and Wehrmacht units.”
The web site concedes that the AK “generally turned down Jewish applicants,” even while certain units “carried out holding actions outside the Warsaw ghetto walls in May 1943. It does not detail the accounts, expressed by my parents and other Holocaust survivors, of the AK’s antisemitic ideology, best summed up in the group’s slogan “Poland for the Poles.” While it is inaccurate to say that the Polish people intentionally collaborated with the Nazis to cleanse Poland of Jews, it is reasonable to conclude that the ideologues of the AK saw an opportunity in the Nazi occupation to rid the country of Jews – a nation within a nation.
The farmers that my father and grandfather encountered in the Uchanie street belonged to the AK. One of them, a township committeeman named Stopa, refused to participate in any violent agenda against Jews. “He said to his friends, ‘You’re going to harm our Jews?’” Jacob remembers. “My father begged them for water. They wouldn’t give it to him. Instead, they got a wagon and loaded my father and me onto it.”
The men of the AK drove the wagon in the direction of a small woodland. My grandfather and my father, his hands bound with rope, knew what awaited them. My grandfather untied my father’s hands and told him to jump off the wagon. “The Jewish path will continue with you,” he said. My father jumped off and escaped into the woods. He never saw his father alive again.
“We never thought we would have to hide from the AK,” my father says. “But we had to hide from them even more than from the Germans.”
In April 1998, in this same street, we saw a young boy. My father asked him if he knew of any old people around here who were alive during the war. He directed us obediently, as if we were indistinct figures in his own dream, to a house several streets away. In a small kitchen a woman with a young girl by her side listened to my father’s story, that he was a Jew who once lived in Uchanie, and that he wondered if someone she knew might remember his family. She led us to an ancient woman named Mech. She lay on a daybed, swaddled in blankets. My father approached and asked her if she remembered Sczlomo Finkelstein. This living mummy shot up and trained her hollow eyes on my father.
“I dreamed about Sczlomo last night,” she said. She could not remember my father’s mother, but Sczlomo, whom she had not thought about in a long time, had returned last night to stare at her.
“Thank you, Pani,” said my father. He gave the old woman permission to collapse back on the sofa. Somebody had remembered, if only dimly, his father’s long beard and heavy lidded eyes. The old woman’s memory was insufficient, and possibly unreliable, but, for my father, it had made the trip to Poland worthwhile.
Frasier has left the building
The people who had let my father use their barn were long dead, but their sons were still alive. One of them, 70-year-old Adolek Szkaluba, lived on the same farm my father had run to after his escape from Staw. The Finkelsteins had bought grain sorghum and wheat from the Szkalubas, and the Szkalubas had shopped in my grandfather’s dry goods store. Aniela, Adolek’s mother, used to send my father and grandfather bread at Staw, 30 miles away.
“When I ran away from the camp, I found myself on her doorstep,” my father says. “Aniela devised a scheme to feed me, because her husband, Franciszek, was afraid of having me around. She told me to scratch at her door, and if the coast was clear, she would cough. That was my cue to come into the house. She would feed me hot millet and bread. This woman was an angel.” In addition to giving Jacob shelter, Aniela Szkaluba presented him with a book of matches so that he could bake potatoes in the woods. He kept the matches wrapped up with pictures of his bareheaded mother and father that Nazi photographers had taken two years earlier.
It was early evening when we left the cemetery, and my father could not figure out where the farm was. He and Jan, our driver, flagged down an orange tractor of the sort we saw everywhere in the eastern section of the country. They asked the operator if he knew Adolek Szkaluba. “He’s my uncle,” he said. Jan, who could have found a moth in a mitten at the bottom of the sea, got the directions to Adolek’s farmhouse.
On the shoulderless road, we passed three young farmers leaned up against the walls of a brown barn. Except for the tractor parked alongside one wall, the picture they cut could have come from the 1940s. I fell prey to my old habit of suspecting people of the worst. How would these guys have acted during the war? What would have motivated them, fury or pity? I strongly suspect that my questions about essential human nature have robbed me of insight and feeling. I find myself struggling against the temptation to think like a Puritan, calling the ordinary a cloak for depravity, imputing sin in everyone but myself. What about my own capacity to do harm? Isn’t each one of us complicit in crimes against humanity because we do nothing to stop them?
Sometimes I think “good people” too are complicit in the crimes of humanity. Mostly I believe that only casuists blur the distinction between victims and perpetrators when they assert that all human beings are capable of acting like wild boars. The writer Primo Levy warned against making this confusion of moral categories when he wrote in The Drowned and the Saved: “I do not know, and it does not much interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer. I know that the murderers existed . . . and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.” People like Aniela and Pani Buszko are proof that nothing can lure certain special human beings into the Saturnalian muck.
It was dark when we arrived at Adolek and Anna’s farm house. The Szkalubas were expecting us and had prepared dinner. Once again I paid witness to a delicious looking spread, with tomatoes and red peppers, homemade bread and sautéed chicken. Alas, the only foodstuff kosher enough to ingest was the weedy herbata. Our hosts were baffled by our dietary habits, which seemed destined to return us home 20 collective pounds lighter. Pani Szkaluba thought my self-restraint responsible for my thinness. Resorting to charades, she ran her hand around her ample girth and apologized for being out of shape. “She says that a farm diet does terrible things to the figure,” my mother translated.
This woman did not have to apologize to me for anything. In certain regards, her life was more genteel than mine. In the matter of food presentation, for example, this roly-poly farm-wife had an eye for detail that could qualify her dishes for the pages of Gourmet. Nuance in the shape of garnishes and special serving dishes gave the lie to the “peasant’s life” in which farmers, tired from a day of pulling the plow – some of them had no horses to yoke – thundered into the kitchen, bellowed a command at an oppressed female in an apron, and wolfed down a mound of unseasoned pig flesh with chunks of black bread on the side. Despite their hardscrabble lives, our hosts always had herbata and pastry in the pantry, and they served it with ceremony.
Aesthetic considerations extended to the front lawns, where Polish women worked every evening to plant and weed flower gardens. Because of my war consciousness, these orderly landscapes had the unfortunate capacity to evoke contrary images of violent disorder. This is the mind’s wont, to tease the howl out of the merry. It must be as John Milton said, that “good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned.” Sadly, I could look at nothing sweet in this country without thinking of murder. And faced with canisters of Zyklon B gas at Majdanek, I could think only of sitting with Tomek in a Warsaw café, drinking espresso and commiserating.
My confusion about Poland and the Poles reached critical mass when Edek, Adolek and Anna’s middle-aged son, arrived for dinner with his two children. Unable to participate in any conversation, I sat at the dinner table, craving the parsley-topped potatoes and struggling to figure out the family relationships. Every so often I sought refuge in “Frasier,” tuned in on the color TV off in the corner. As with all the American shows, this one featured a Polish narrator who spoke each part, and the actors’ English voices faint in the background. I had not yet become a devotee of the program, and was forced to treat the characters with an attitude of reluctant alienation, as I might treat any unfamiliar compatriots far from home. I regretted not having brought my Berlitz Polish for Travelers along so that I could say something, at least to the children.
The girl was about thirteen. She was a lovely child, with a blonde pigtail down her back and a feminine beauty unmarred by affectation. She sat on a sofa, hunched forward slightly with her arms across her chest. When I was turned toward the dinner table, doing my best not to look like my parents’ grown, deaf-mute daughter, the girl stole furtive glances at me. She examined me with the emotional hunger of a girl in need of a trusted older friend. Whenever I met her eye, her posture relaxed as she sent a shy smile at me. I could not even ask her the usual banal questions about school. Indeed, the only Polish word I knew without thinking was dziekuje – thank you – and I wanted to say it to her again and again for appealing to my maternal instinct.
It was late. The Szkalubas would not hear of us paying for a room in town, so we prepared to stay the night. Edek, looking rumpled from a day in the fields, gathered up his children to go. Pani Szkaluba entreated her son to leave the children with her overnight, but he told her they had to go to school the next morning. In the end, the girl left and the boy slept with his grandmother on the pull-out sofa.
The little boy fell asleep on the sofa and would not let himself be moved to another room. When she was ready to sleep, Pani Szkaluba took off her sweater but otherwise got into bed with the child fully clothed. That made five of us sleeping in a room half the size of a small museum-gallery.
In the morning the boy donned blue nylon sweatpants, a lavender pea jacket, a yellow sweater, and a baseball cap. At first he was less demonstrative about his interest in me, but soon, after his grandmother had finished fussing over his handsome little face, he followed me outside to the barn. He pointed out the brood of piglets and showed me how to feed oats into his favorite horse’s mouth. If we had had another hour together, he would have been in my lap, studying me with the same aching tenderness that his sister had trained on me.
These were children whose dearness you want to reward with trips to the zoo and a daily routine involving homework, supper, and a book at bedtime. “Where is their mother?”
I asked my mother.
Edek’s wife had suffered a nervous breakdown several years ago after the eldest child, a girl, got cancer and died. The mother never recovered from the loss. She wept and shrieked at odd intervals, and several times Edek had found her wandering around in the street naked. To make sure that she didn’t harm herself, he locked her up in the bedroom before he left the house. “My children have had no luck in marriage,” Pani Szkaluba told my mother. “My daughter-in-law is mentally ill, and my daughter refuses to live with her husband because she cannot stand the smell of tractor grease on his body. No luck.” No utopia has ever succeeded in eradicating the problem of unforgiving fate.
Go to hell
In the last year of the war, my father hid in the woods with a woman named Gitl Horenfeld and Avromele, her six-year-old son. I am at a loss to conjure up what this means exactly. Even though I now have seen Polish woods, I cannot picture my father as a sixteen-year-old boy, lighting a match to roast potatoes, sleeping without a blanket in a forest, talking to a woman and her child. If I had been in his place, my fear of bugs, rats, and mice, let alone killers, would have unhinged my mind in several places. I regret the deficiencies of my imagination, or the emotional tropisms that are to blame for them. “Hiding in the woods” has always been a mystery that my mind could never negotiate.
It does not help that my father’s memory is anti-chronological. Jacob cannot tell a story in the Aristotelian way, with beginning, middle, and end, the way my mother can. My father speaks Yiddish and a syntactically Yiddish English, switching back and forth in the hope of making me hear the sequence in his war-time experience. His memory lands on my ear as a tangle of affronted testimony: I was there, this is what happened, nobody understands. A story would help make the Holocaust comprehensible, as it is in movies like “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful.” Perhaps if I had grown up in a family whose parents do not analyze a forest in terms of its Jew-hiding properties, books and movies would be sufficient for my understanding. With my father’s fractured memories as my guide, however, I become witness to a man struggling 53 years after the fact to be comprehensible.
During our visit with the Szkalubas, my father learned that the man who killed Gitl and Avromele was still alive and living in Uchanie. He was in his nineties, which means he had been in his early thirties when he took up a piece of splintered plank and beat two people, a woman and a young boy, to death. The Szkalubas were shocked. Jaszek Szykula beat a woman and her son? He was such a fine person. Adolek and Anna did not doubt my father. They were merely stupefied.
According to my father, Szykula had a rap sheet yea long. Before the war, he had killed an eighteen-year-old Ukrainian boy and served six months in jail for the deed. During the Nazi occupation, he also killed a Jew named Moishele Kleiner, throwing him into a well that served as my father’s source of drinking water. One week before Liberation, he killed Nachman and Liebe Mehl and Sasha, their fourteen-year-old son. Szykula and his AK comrades shot them and threw their dead bodies back into the bunker where they had been hiding. His murder of Gitl was a matter of finishing a job he started: He already had turned her husband over to the Germans.
What made Jaszek Szykula, purportedly a “fine person,” think he had a right to kill? I cannot understand how he got to be a man in his nineties without throwing himself down in the Jewish Cemetery and weeping. I wondered if he was the one who had stolen into the cemetery under cover of night and scraped the raised letters off the one remaining tombstone.
My father told Adolek, “Tell Szykula that Jacob, Sczlomo’s son, says, ‘Go to hell.’”
“Go to hell” is a dramatic monologue, complete with an imperative beginning, a directional middle, and a justifiable end. This is a story I understand.
Back in Warsaw, my father began making Sabbath arrangements. He, Kazia, and I took the trolley to Marszalkowska Street so that we could reserve a hotel room and a kosher meal in a Grzybowski Place restaurant. Here was my chance to watch people watching us. Would they know we were Jews? I never ask myself this question in New York where being Jewish signifies energy, pushiness, wit, brashness, disdain, acquisitiveness – essential personality traits for anyone who wants to make it in any industry in New York from Wall Street to Soho. Despite the graciousness of our hosts, and of all the people we visited, I still knew that being Jewish in Poland was, what? Weird? Unacceptable? A satire on the Polish nation? Whatever it was, it was not normal. I waited for something to happen.
Only a day or two after visiting Sobibor and the Jewish Cemetery in Uchanie, my father was acting effervescent. He was actually freaked out, but his sense of horror on this trip was registering as garrulity. Earlier in the day, he, my mother, and I had taken a walk around Kazia’s neighborhood. My father, in particular, kept pointing out the phantom alternative universe once inhabited by Polish Jews: The corner kiosk once had sold a dozen different Yiddish newspapers. The thousands of apartment buildings around us that had once housed 300,000 Jews were now Judenrein. “You mean to tell me that such big, brick buildings could not save 300,000 Jews?” he asked the world. “How do you dispose of 300,000 people?” We need a punch line here about Treblinka.
My father was speaking his ad hoc language with Kazia when a Polish man caught wind of the fractured syllables. He found my father hilarious. The man had a look of amusement on his face, as if he were already telling his friends that he had met a talking trout on the Marszalkowska Street trolley. I did not understand a word of what this guy said to my father, but I knew he was goading him to keep breaking his teeth on Polish kolajes and ksiazkis. I doubt he was even thinking “Jew” about my father. He was probably thinking “alien.” Martian. Himalayan. Something absurdly not-Polish. I thought his kind of contempt would be easy to manipulate into murder. Ah, you see how a Jew thinks? A nut on the trolley mocks my father, and the next thing I’m thinking is, “Killer.”
When we came to our stop, my father said goodbye to his mocker. Even dowidzenia – goodbye – was more of a struggle than usual, and the mocker seized upon a last opportunity to jeer. The more the man mocked, the more solicitous my father was. My father had the look of a simpleton on his face. I knew he had no use for this guy. What was he trying to accomplish by being polite?
Kazia took hold of my father’s arm and spirited him off the trolley. My eyes met hers. Kazia tapped her head to signify that the mocker was plum crazy. She trained all her protective instinct on my father and tightened her hold on his elbow. I have rarely seen anyone so fiercely kind.
“Papa, why did you talk to that nut?” I asked Jacob in English.
“Luhz ihm geyn kebenye matre!” Jacob said with heat. This was a half Yiddish, half Polish expression that means, “Let him go fuck his mother!”
“What was he saying to you?”
“’Khob ihm in d’rerd!” Jacob insisted. He can go to hell and drop dead at the same time! “In bud arahn!” Ah, he’s all wet!
What was I to make of this incident? It was unpleasant, but no more unpleasant than the time a tour guide in Peru made a joke about Jews by pantomiming a long, hooked nose. Or the time in Moscow, during Gorbachov’s glasnost when a gang of hoodlum types careered across my path with intentional menace. Or the time in Paris when two Left Bank toughs pushed my companion up against an apartment wall and left me forever with the impression that he was a coward. What made this episode on the trolley different was context. In Poland, the Poles of the Armia Krajawa and nationalist Ukrainians had teamed up with the Germans to kill us. So what if somebody mocks you, as long as his mockery stays on the restraining side of murder.
Alas, I sound like my parents.
The Hotel Metropol
For the Sabbath, we took a room at Warsaw’s Hotel Metropol on Jerozolimskie Street. Kazia was stunned to hear that my parents were willing to pay a couple hundred dollars for a night in a hotel just because it was within walking distance of Warsaw’s one synagogue. “I’ll pay whatever it costs to be a Jew,” my father said. If anyone else had issued this declaration, he would have sounded melodramatic. Given my father’s history, his assertion was understated.
Whatever the presence of the multinational corporations is doing for the Polish economy, it is not forcing the Metropol to become a world-class hotel. Our room was clean and tidy but lacked the amenities of a Budgetel. No mini-bars of soap, no shower caps, no extra blankets, no TV. In any case, a hotel without complementary shampoo bottles is hardly an inconvenience to people who once got head lice by sleeping in a barn.
Most of the hotel guests were the children and parents from the March of the Living. They had already been to Auschwitz and Krakow, and were leaving for Israel in 48 hours. Their tour of Poland had been confined to death camps, Holocaust memorials, and hotels; the March participants were forbidden to leave the hotel without an armed escort. They had no opportunity to talk to Poles about anything, not even the price of a postcard, as the organizers had enjoined everyone from unauthorized conversations and purchases. I can appreciate the need for a political statement of some sort, but I disliked this rule. How many BMWs might one count among the collective property of this group? How many Hammacher-Schlemmer knives, Volkswagons, Krupp coffee grinders, Gramophon CDs? Economic purism at the end of the twentieth century is more a matter of eclecticism than rational boycott. Has anyone noticed that all the countries that were hostile toward each other 55 years ago now have trade agreements? If March of the Living really wanted to show Poland what the loss of three million Polish Jews meant to daily life, it would encourage the young people to splurge as only young people can. All year long Polish hostelers and merchants would yearn for the presence of Jews, and when March of the Living left, carrying the young people off like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the Jews would be missed, deeply.
As much as I liked Tomek, I could not talk to him about my experience in the Polish countryside. He was still young enough to think of the war years as a distant era, a “painful time,” as he put it, that was unlikely to return, even while another “ethnic cleansing” campaign was in progress only two little countries to the south. He was also inclined to believe, as people are at 26, that anybody, given half a chance, is capable of stabbing you in the back. In a time when Slobodan Milosevic expels ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, and when post Khmer Rouge-Cambodia doesn’t have qualified teachers to teach or dentists to fix teeth, any assertion that some people are basically good at heart will sound like the maundering of a fool. Yet I cannot help but wonder how much worse life would be without individual acts of kindness. Tomek was still too wrapped up in the sorrows of youth to see that the frictions of everyday life can erode the essential goodness of people like his father and mother. His own air of embattled love is surely an outgrowth of his parents’ struggle to live in an implicating world.
Tomek and his mother accepted my parents’ invitation to join us at the Nozyck Synagogue on Saturday. They were supposed to meet us around noon in front of the building, Warsaw’s sole synagogue. I left the women’s gallery at a quarter to twelve and waited for them on the front steps. My fellow idlers were young Israelis and Argentines who had spurned the opportunity to pray. They were dressed in jeans or black, skin-tight disco garb, affecting a world-weary truculence that said they already knew the worst about life. The secular Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Ethiopian Jews among them generated a clubby, glamorous air. When March of the Living ended, they would return to their homes thinking that they had been to Poland. Perhaps this is as it should be. Hanging out on the steps of the Nozyck Synagogue, protected on all sides by Israelis with walkie-talkies, may give the truest picture of what it means to be a Jew of a certain age and class in the late twentieth century. Perhaps every country gets what it deserves.
The Mils took a long time. I was edgy standing around with the young people. Some time in the past ten years, I had become an adult, I, the Baby Boomer, the child of Holocaust survivors, and my targets of ridicule had grown to include adolescents. I had not had wealthy parents to send me on jaunts to Europe and Israel, or to robe me in hundred-dollar blue jeans. Standing at the edge of this over-indulged band of teenagers, I nursed a colicky, middle-aged envy of youth.
Twenty minutes into my wait, a Polish man about my age loomed toward me. With his worn baseball cap, faded jeans, and distressed leather jacket, he conformed to my stereotype of the Polish workingman. He said something in Polish. I mimed my incomprehension and he struggled all the harder to make himself understood. “Tragedia,” he said, and inched closer to me. “Holocausht!” The man’s eyes welled up with tears. He touched my arm. In a moment he was too overcome to speak. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “It’s all right.” Nothing was all right, and I certainly had no right to say it was, but I didn’t think to say my one Polish word. Dziekuje. Thank you for not being eaten up alive with jealousy, as I was that very minute. Thank you for not resenting our affluent presence while you walk past on a Saturday morning in poor work clothes. Thank you for feeling in your heart the crime that Europe committed against the Jewish people on your country’s soil. Thank you for being serious. Thank you for missing us.
The man loped off. He shaded his brow to hide his tears.
Several minutes later Tomek and Kazia arrived from the direction of Marszalkowska Street. I was glad to see them. The half-hour I waited, alone, on the periphery of the largely Israeli MOTL contingent, unable to talk to the bereft Polish passerby, had been lonely. Standing by myself, without the protection of family or friends, I had succumbed again to feelings of anger and self-pity, and the uncomfortable realization that I felt a deeper kinship with the Polish man than with the young Israelis. Kazia and I climbed up to the women’s gallery; according to strict Orthodox observance, men and women pray separately. Tomek donned a kippah, a ritual skullcap, and took his place on the main floor. He stood up amidst the throng of singing and dancing March of the Living youth, most of them only ten years younger than he, and surveyed the scene like an anthropologist. Kazia and I spotted him at the same time and laughed. The Mils were good sports.
Conversation with my mother
After a friendly lunch with Tomek and Kazia in Warsaw’s one awful kosher restaurant, my parents and I repaired to our hotel room. Toward evening my father joined the observant March of the Living contingent to say evening prayers, leaving my mother and me time to rest. Napping is a favored activity on the Sabbath, except on this Sabbath in Warsaw, my mother and I were too wrung out to sleep. Now that my parents had visited “their people,” they were ready to go home. I, for one, had reverted to a childhood personality I would prefer to bury in molybdenum on Mars: I was angry at Jacob and Rivka. How could I have resurrected the grudges that had given my adolescence a thousand legs? What complaint would not sound petty after seeing Majdanek and Sobibor?
Until my early thirties, I attributed most of my problems to my parents. How could they have settled on a chicken farm in gentile Camden County and insisted that their children be observant Jews? How could they have expected us to forego friendships, Friday night dances, and seafood restaurants when all they could offer was a punishing draught of religion? Hanging out in the Hotel Metropol, listening to my mother criticize her brother Anshel for staying in Poland for ten years after the war, and her brother Levy for choosing Communism over her brought my blood to a boil. “What about you?” I accused, as if I were thirteen years old again. “Do you criticize yourself for raising four children in an American version of Siberia?”
“It wasn’t my idea to live on a farm,” my mother said. She was on the sofa, propped up on her side. She spoke without rancor.
“I know Papa bought the farm without your knowledge. Why didn’t you threaten to leave him?”
“I wasn’t the kind of person to go off with two small children and make my way in the world.”
“Why didn’t you leave the farm after five years, the way you vowed to do?”
“We got stuck,” Rivka said. “The chicken business wasn’t as profitable as we’d hoped.”
“I don’t blame you anymore for getting stuck. Anyone can get stuck. I just get tired of hearing you blame your brothers and everyone else for screwing up their lives.”
“I don’t blame anybody for anything,” she said.
“The March of the Living kids irritate me,” I raved on. “I’m jealous of them. I’m jealous that they have each other. I look at them through the eyes of a hostile stranger. I resent their happiness and their group feeling.”
“I wish I could have done things differently. I just wasn’t able to.”
“Papa said that you could have gone to Israel in 1948,” I said, dredging up one of the family chestnuts. “Going to Israel would have been a saner decision than settling down on a chicken farm in Nowheresville.”
“Papa was tired of fighting. He was afraid he’d get killed and leave me a widow with two children.”
“Papa once told me that Ben Gurion visited your DP camp. Papa waited in line to shake his hand. Israel excited him. Why didn’t he go?”
“Ben Gurion’s people had a reputation for coercing survivors to go to Palestine. Papa doesn’t like to be bullied.”
“That’s why he didn’t go to Israel? Because he had a personality conflict with a politician?”
“He can be very stubborn.”
“Sounds short-sighted to me.”
“It was better to be a religious fanatic on a chicken farm?”
My mother sat up on the sofa. “Bruchale,” she said, using my Yiddish name. “All Papa wants to do is be his father. If you know that about him, you know everything.”
My mother’s interpretation silenced me. I was who I am because my father wanted to be his father. Tomek was who he is because his father was a man of steel. A stone would cry.
Then my mother dropped another bombshell. “There are things you’ll never know about me,” she said.
“I can’t know them if you won’t tell me. Tell me!”
“I never will!”
“Then how am I supposed to understand everything?”
“You’re not. You’re not supposed to understand everything.”
My anger was gone, and, one year after this conversation with my mother, it still has not returned. I am sad about our old arguments, many of them the result of our social isolation. I am sad that my parents thought they were doing everything in the world for us, but often ended up spinning their wheels. I am sad because I have grown into a person who understands that the big story of my life is not about me. The big story during and after a war is that history swallows you up and spits you out, and then, if you are lucky, you land somewhere and make the best of it. If you are truly lucky, you have children whom you love and who will understand something about you and your world when they are 40 years old.
I think that Jacob and Rivka Finkelstein understood all of this when they decided to pay tribute to their Polish friends. Is it my imagination, or has their expression of gratitude toward Kazia and Tomek, the Hynatiuks, Lilcia, Mitka and his family, and the Szkalubas made them grander human beings? Can it be that my resentments toward them have turned small and embarrassing?
I said djiekuje over and over again in Poland because it was the only Polish word I knew well. I neglected to say it, though, to two people who had tried mit alle koykhes – with every last ounce of courage – to protect their children from a world that could turn mindlessly cataclysmic in the blink of an eye. Djiekuje, Jacob and Rivka. Djiekuje for surviving the labor camp, the deportations, the executions, the barns, and the forests, even when it was easier to lose hope and die. Djiekuje for making our lost world more intelligible to me. And thanks for the airfare.
* This assertion has been challenged by Polish scholars who argue that the yeshiva’s library books were catalogued by a young rabbi named Aron Lebwohl. Before Rabbi Lebwohl could complete his task, the Germans sent him and the majority of Lublin’s Jews to Majdanek.
Barbara Finkelstein is the author Summer Long-a-coming (HarperCollins). Her play, “Dirty Laundry,” was a finalist in the Actors Theatre of Louisville Ten-Minute Play Contest (2008).
You can buy a copy of Lost on the Map of the World from the publisher.