When I told Janusz that my mother, too, was Polish, he looked astounded. “She may have been born there, but she isn’t Polish, she’s Jewish,” he said categorically. He wasn’t being anti-Semitic. I knew him too well, too long. But this declaration made me realize that no matter what country our Jewish ancestors were born in, Jews are Jews, not Poles or Czechs, not Germans or Russians. Just Jews.
Assimilation in the long run was not on the agenda of those countries. This, unfortunately, wasn’t understood as part of the game plan by many of those Jews who tried, who didn’t understand the rules, or believed that the rules hadn’t changed, and so perished.
Whatever I knew about Poland, the war, and the Holocaust as I was growing up, came from overhead discussions between my parents. My mother never really wanted to discuss her young life in Poland. As far as she was concerned, she was Canadian, without even having an accent to bear witness to the fact of her birthplace. Her understanding of the differences between being born a Jew in Poland and being born Polish –which escaped me in my innocent Canadian youth until Janusz made this very clear – was unconscious. But one of my mother’s only childhood memories, which she told without hesitation, was seeing her father pulled through the streets by his beard.
Many of my Jewish friends’ parents had come from somewhere in Poland. How could these people not have been citizens, not part of the fibre of the country of their birth. Warsaw, so cosmopolitan before World War II with 375,000 Jews, was the largest centre of Jewish life in Europe. Amazingly, that was 30 per cent of the city’s population. As I was growing up in Montreal in the fifties, I heard about anti-Semitism though never knowingly encountered it. But tales of the Holocaust, thousands of miles away, affected me more than local politics or racism. I recall hearing stories from survivors. Then there were the secondhand tales told to me by my peers about their unfortunate relatives. But my most explicit and still vivid imagery came from books. Volumes of unbelievable horrors. There were Noble Prize winner Elie Wiesel’s novels of his youth and survival. It became even more poignant when I met his sister, who had also survived and lived just a street away. Toronto author and producer Jack Kuper’s Child of the Holocaust was an equally horrific real-life tale of a youngster’s rage to live. Years later when I was first introduced to Jack, I stared at him, speechless, wondering how this successful, attractive man had, as a child, wandered from farm to farm pretending to b anything but a Jew. Then there was Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. How could ordinary people do something so terrible? Their ordinariness made it hard to demonize the planners like Eichmann. In the film The Wannsee Conference, which I saw with Janusz (it dazed him, as it did me), the Nazis’ meeting could have been a trade conference for something as mundane as the export of a new product.
Often my young friends and I would wonder if we could have survived. Anne Frank, of course, was our heroine – and not much older than we were, we realized, stunned at this coincidence.
The atrocities were so much a part of our consciousness, even though Israel had become an oasis. Deep down, I knew I would have to see firsthand to understand what happened in this whirlwind of destruction, this Shoah.
Eventually, I made my own pilgrimage and followed this Jewish Via Dolorosa to the sites of some of the Holocaust concentration camps in Poland. Knowing the emotional impact would be hard to bear on my own, I was glad that my husband came with me. I was angry, unfairly, before the plane landed, before I even set foot on the ground. Here we were in Poland, thirty years ago, searching for answers. Even the customs officers looked at us curiously for wanting to visit this desolate place without having any business or family there. Why would anyone in their right mind choose this country? It hadn’t yet become a trendy destination.
It was the early seventies. The TV miniseries “Roots” and the black awareness movement had popularized the ideas of looking back to one’s origins. I don’t remember exactly how long afterwards, but another miniseries, this one on the Holocaust, was the catalyst that stimulated the search for the concentration camps, especially Auschwitz. On our own search we would find ourselves connecting with memories and locations we knew only from stories from our parents. It would also be a chance to explore their childhood homes and our scanty knowledge of our ancestry. Nevertheless, all my feelings about the Holocaust stayed focused on concentration camps.
I was not a very good Jew in the traditional sense. Still am not. I don’t feel threatened by some greater power if on the high holidays I don’t attend synagogue. This trip would be a cathartic adventure, but not a religious experience. This was my pilgrimage. I had read a quote that describes what I felt then and now: “Do not let the world forget- write and record.”
The camps, we soon discovered, still existed, almost intact. This seemed like a great discovery at the time. Tourists were few. The concentration camps were not a usual sightseeing option when visiting Poland then, although visitors to Munich were routinely viewing the nearby concentration camp of Dachau.
A few years before, my curiosity about that dark period in history had become something of a fixation. We had gone to the Dachau concentration camp. The signs to that small village were still in place, as if nothing horrible had every happened there. Seeing buses with Dachau as a destination produced, for a Jew, an unforgettable dissonance. It was also the town’s three hundredth anniversary. Can you imagine how strange it was to see celebratory signs?
So sanitized was the camp, it had seemed more like a very bad Hollywood set. The sting was taken out of this hell. The only horrors to be seen were those in photographs.
These thoughts flashed through my mind as we headed from the airport for our hotel in downtown Warsaw. We had planned the time here to revolve about the inhumanity of the Nazi period. Not too many people take vacations that hend to destroy any thoughts about the milk of human kindness.
I was soon to see the Warsaw Ghetto. As a young girl, I had read the fictional account of the uprising in Leon Uris’s The Wall. Sunned and ashamed to be living and eating well, I had tried hard to place myself in the Ghetto. How many of us as teenagers wondered if we would or could pass as non-Jews so that we could be heroes as we scavenged for food to bring back to our parents and siblings behind the brick walls?
We began our first day by going to The Great Synagogue. I had seen photos of this once-majestic building, and my heart sank as we walked over wooden planks put there to provide access to it. Without the planks, the water and mud would have made it impossible. The smell of dampness and mildew was pervasive as we entered. Every time I go to a musty cellar, I remember the stench of that prayer hall. Off in the corner were two elderly, grey-haired men. Seeing us, they rushed up to talk. In the seventies the iron Curtain was sound proof and thick. In whispers, they asked about us, our country. Our common language was Yiddish. I, like most of my generation, had acquired my meager knowledge by listening to what my parents didn’t want me to know. Although I could understand, my tongue never conquered the guttural sounds of Yiddish. Luckily my husband was fluent.
“Do you have a minyan?” I asked. No, the bearded one answered, there weren’t ten men available for prayers.
“There are not enough Jews left to come to the synagogue,” he said, shaking his head. In fact, very few elderly Jews ever came.
“Why have you stayed in this country?” I asked. He told us quite openly that most of them had been forced to stay.
“Some of us were just too old, some were ailing, a few had criminal records, there were elderly relatives to consider,” he said, his eyes never revealing any emotion.
They couldn’t leave. There were no bar mitzvahs, no young people to carry on the religion. After them who? they asked. They lived on the poverty line. It was a subtle clue, one we happily picked up. We suggested that we’d like to donate some money.
“No, don’t give us zlotys,” he smiled, the first hint that he could still enjoy life.
“We want American money,” the other man said, finally joining in the conversation.
At their suggestion we walked to the streetcar stop. A cab would have been too obvious and dangerous, they whispered. We clung to the overhead straps on a very rickety streetcar, afraid that we might be jeopardizing the safety of these old men whose eyes didn’t seem to see.
“Talk Yiddish. Don’t worry, they think we’re speaking German,” laughed our new friends.
At the bank we cashed some American Express cheques for them, then they insisted we return to the synagogue. They asked if we would rescue some of the decaying books. “they are of little use to us,” the more talkative of the two said. Besides, they wanted to give us a gift. After tipping the Polish shammes, the caretaker, who stood there with two old mildewed Hebrew books under his arms, we left, with our erstwhile friends shouting Shalom The books, actually Siddurim, Hebrew prayer books, now sit in a revered section of our bookcase.
One of the disturbing things we had learned was that the elderly Polish Jews did receive a monthly stipend from the government but it never lasted more than a week; the cost of Kosher food exhausted their funds quite quickly. Seeing their pathetic life was the preface to our excursion into those infamous war years. Much worse was to come.
We wandered through the maze of streets of Warsaw and found a small bleak plaque as the only memorial to those who died in the notorious ghetto. Was this all the many lives were worth? Were the Poles still so anti-Semitic that they couldn’t bring themselves to erect a proper monument? I felt the Poles might have done a bit more to memorialize this ugly chapter of human history.
Warsaw, except for the restored old town, was not a pretty city then, and by now my feelings about the awfulness of the place, the people, and the past were overpowering. We contemplated leaving the country. But in the back of my mind I knew that I had to see more, no matter what other horrors were in store.
Our driver, whom we hired at the hotel, privately and for cash, was a Pole who couldn’t speak a word of English and certainly no Yiddish. But he had a Mercedes-Benz. Where did he get the money to buy such a car? I was becoming suspicious of every Pole I passed in the street.
In a more rational mode, I knew he would get us to where we wanted to go. Before leaving Warsaw we had our itinerary translated for him, but just before heading out we had been told about a Jewish museum. Our driver proved unable to find the museum, which was in the heart of the city. He informed our translator that he had never heard of this museum. I had the overwhelming urge to hit him, to destroy something that belonged to him. I knew kicking his Mercedes’ tire wouldn’t do it. But just a little bit of vengeance, I thought, should be permissible. Only years afterwards did we discover that ordinary Poles really weren’t aware of the museum’s existence.
We had met a family from Chicago in the hotel lobby the day before. Mr. Dworkin had been to the museum and gave us a rough idea of how to get o there. Hidden behind some of the newly built, grey concrete, gloomy, uninspiring buildings were the small rooms of the museum, which was in the charge of one elderly woman. As she showed us around, we became aware that these items of clothing, Yiddish memorabilia, and photos might seldom have been seen by the outside world. The dark rooms were lit as we entered, but the lights were dim. Nevertheless, we could clearly see the records of the transformation of Jewish life in Poland. The descriptions, reflecting the political correctness of the time, were in Polish and Yiddish. Not an English word to be found. We stayed for hours, looking at the exhibits and the old woman, a survivor, recounted her own horrible experiences. Why had she not left this hellish country? I asked. How could she, when all her family had perished here? she answered. “Someone had to pray for them in the land of their death.”
Our driver couldn’t understand why we wanted to go to the Auschwitz camps. He kept asking our translator at the hotel to explain. It was ugly and horrible, he told the young man, who told us. By now I realized that a friendlier attitude towards him would be more constructive. He had the transportation. There were very few cars and fewer tourists on the roads. Horse-drawn carts were a popular means of transportation.
On our way, we were just as pleased that our driver couldn’t speak to us. We passed through Krakow, stopping to see the beautiful medieval main square. What a contrast when we saw the railroad tracks that ran through the city. We wondered how anyone living there during the war could have turned their heads away, knowing about those trains filled with people, usually Jews.
Arbeit Macht Frei. We stared at the gate adorned with these words we had seen in photos over the years. Wasn’t that the platform where an orchestra of Jewish prisoners played to assuage the suspicions of the incoming train-loads of victims? Mr. Dworkin had told us about the new Jewish museum on the ground of Auschwitz. This was before it was officially opened. Workers were still putting the finishing touches to it.
“Don’t let them discourage you from entering. Just knock hard,” Dworkin had told us.
Perhaps this was the biggest irony. Here we were, two Jews, fighting to get into an area of Auschwitz. Confiscated footage of the atrocities was on view. It was clear that the officials were not too happy about allowing this to be seen. We aggressively pushed through.
“Turn on the lights,” I demanded as we stood in the dark entrance. I knew that I was taking my revenge on anyone who spoke Polish or lived there during the war. They seemed to understand this outburst. The overhead lights were dimmed again only when we asked to see some of the films. At that time, no one outside the Iron Curtain countries had seen them. “How could the Nazis have justified documenting this cruelty?” I asked, not expecting an answers, not getting one.
Strange as it seems now, it was even worse to see bus-loads of tourists from elsewhere in Poland and from East Germany and Russia visiting the camps. For the Poles, Auschwitz was a museum commemorating the suffering of all civilian groups during the war. The horrible and particular Jewish experience was only slowly becoming emphasized. To us, however, it seemed that for them it was just another day’s outing at the museum.
Outside again, the freezing cold air was a relief. Being with someone was a comfort. Although we had seen many museums and pictures, nothing can equal actually being there, experiencing the noise and the silence. Our earlier walk through the barracks of Auschwitz still haunts me. Shiny, glassed-in cubicles stacked to the ceiling housed eye-glasses, hair, shoes, and some clothing considered worth saving. The ovens still had the remnants of ashes.
We walked to the Birkenau camp section. Could things be worse there? We asked each other. Birkenau, a long walk away but within sight of Auschwitz, was the deadliest of all the camps – the largest of the extermination centres. Over one million Jews had been gassed there.
Inside the barracks were wooden shelves, pitiful sleeping accommodations. So little space between tiers. Wooden planks. Then the latrines. My God, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I recalled hearing my mother’s aunt telling us how they survived by hiding in them. That image has always left me feeling nauseated. Only in the movie Schindler’s List was this hideous act revisited, authenticated. Death, I think, would have been so much easier.
Now, years later, my memories of the camps have merged. The so-called showers and the crematoria, although still too vivid, are hard to place. Was it at Birkenau or Auschwitz that I saw them? The odour, however, remains distinct. Maybe visitors now have some air cleanser spayed about.
Back in the car, heading towards Lublin and Chelm, we passed a large statue. “Stop,” I said, tapping the driver’s shoulder. Little did I know that, beyond, in the fields, was Majdanek, an infamous death camp with its crematoria and gas chamber.
“I have just seen the most terrible place on earth,” wrote H.W. Lawrence of Majdanek. If I had thought that Auschwitz and Birkenau were bad, this camp was beyond words.
Perhaps because it was off the beaten path, nothing had been done to beautify the camp, distance it from its horrendous history – no facelift to improve on the original wooden-slatted structures, which were as they had been then. The wind blew through the spaces as I shivered in my very heavy coat. How could anyone have survived without proper clothing? The building was so flimsy that one could see the fields outside through the rickety wooden slats. There was no relief from the horror. Over five hundred thousand people had died here. Among them were other ethnic groups, not only Jews. The seven gas chambers and two wooden gallows were witness to the atrocities. Even now I can still recollect everything.
The only bit of laughter came when we finally arrived in Chelm. Ever since I was able to ask and understand, my mother had told us she was born in Warsaw. Years later, after reading Sholom Aleichem’s The Chelm Tales, did I understand her reluctance to admit that this much-taunted town was really where she spent her early life before coming to Canada. But we didn’t see any “Chelm fools” that day, just Poles going about their business. Ordinary people doing ordinary jobs. This was just another growing city, a few miles from one of the world’s largest death camps where millions had met their deaths. Here were average people working to survive in their country, going to church on Sunday, and praying with their families.