A Day, A Year of Mourning

Me and my father (born 1919)

Me and my father (born 1919)

January 19. I don’t usually think about the day my father died even though it is Jewish tradition to do so. I prefer to think of him on his birthday. This year January 19 is a national day of mourning in Poland in memory of Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk, who was stabbed to death last week. It’s the 6th anniversary of my father’s death. 2019 is also the year my father would have turned 100, so he’s been on my mind more than usual.

My grandmother’s youngest sister Zelda was born in 1919 as well. I know little about her. From my mother’s memoir, “Dry Tears,” I know that she had red hair and was unmarried, and her parents thought her too choosey when it came to men. My great-grandparents were worried she would never get married. She never did. The Germans murdered her before she had a chance.

A few years ago when reading my aunt’s memoir in Hebrew, “Skating on Thin Ice,” I learned that Zelda sang and played the guitar beautifully. Learning this seventy-five years after her death was a small gift–a piece of her that came back to me. I thought I would never learn anything else but then it happened again. In my latest reading of “Dry Tears,” which I have read many times, I paid attention to something I had not noticed before. My grandmother saw her sister being taken away in a truck, and ran after it in vain, only to see Zelda reach out and beg her to help in some way. Of course my grandmother could do nothing and was devastated. Perhaps because I had felt her devastation I had not taken in what followed in the book, which was that my endlessly resourceful grandfather found out what happened next. Zelda had been taken away and put on a train bound for a camp, she had jumped off that train and was hiding with non-Jewish Poles in the countryside. To me it’s amazing that Saba Roman (my grandfather) was able to discover so much detail. Not only that, but he was able to get word to Zelda that she was invited to join them. She refused however, believing that she would have a better chance of survival where she was.

My mother, her parents and her sister were one of three nuclear families out of Lublin’s 43,000 Jews to survive the Holocaust intact. None of my grandmother’s siblings or their children survived. And of my grandfather’s siblings and their children only his brother Gerszon made it. Who knows if Zelda would have survived if she had come to join her sister’s family. Would adding another person to the group have placed them in danger? Would she have been able to pass? Did she know Polish fluently like her brother, or did she speak it poorly like my grandmother? We will ever know. If she had survived I could have easily known her. As I said, she was the same age as my father. For that matter I could have known my great-grandparents Syma and Hersz Pejsach Finkielsztajn, who were both born less than 90 years before me—Syma, less than 80 years before me. But that was not to be. The only people who survived from my mother’s closest family were her parents, her sister and her uncle. (For info on my newly discovered cousins in Poland see an earlier blog post—a cousin did survive).

When I was little my mother used to light a candle on the day of her father’s death. That was the only person she lit a candle for. Most Lublin Jews were murdered in 1942. Most in the span of three months, but we don’t know the particular days that each of our relatives died. When should we light the candles for Golde, her husband and her four boys; for Chana, her husband and her children including Avigail; for Icek, Topche and their children: Chanina Dow, Nechemiasz Dawid and Henek; for Zelda; for Elka, her husband Shmuel and their children; for Cyla and Eljusz; for Syma and Pejsach and for all the other cousins and their children?

My grandmother’s sister Zelda was also born in 1919, but we have no photo of her.

My grandmother’s sister Zelda was also born in 1919, but we have no photo of her.

A New Way in to "Dry Tears"

I am lucky, thanks to the Fellowship Committee at Wellesley College to be spending several months in Poland as a Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellow doing several projects related to Jewish memory. I am doubly lucky to be partnering with my friends at Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN, the cultural institution and theatre in Lublin devoted to Jewish memory that inspired me to start Bridge To Poland. Brama Grodzka is a municipally funded institution staffed entirely by non-Jews. It has been inspiring these last few months to actually have a desk at Brama and to come here every day. I have started giving tours, I have met with Polish schoolchildren and told them (in Polish!) about my family connection to Lublin; I lit Hanukah candles for them. I have interviewed rescuers of memory for a video archive I am building on the Brama website, and I have uncovered information about my family’s past.

A couple of weeks ago I started teaching a class based on my mother’s memoir of surviving the Holocaust while passing as a Catholic girl, “Dry Tears.” As very few Lublin Jews survived, and even fewer, of course, wrote their stories down, this account is of particular interested to the folks at Brama who consider their institution an Ark of Memory.

“Dry Tears” by Nechama Tec (aka my mom) in English and Polish

“Dry Tears” by Nechama Tec (aka my mom) in English and Polish

When practicing for the first class in the privacy of my apartment I got choked up as I told my imaginary pupils that I was touched and honored that they wanted to take the class. The pretense for the class is to learn English but it seems most of them are there more for the content. They want to know the story and they want to know my second-generation take on it. I feel moved to tears by this interest (even as I type this in a café, I am holding back the tears).

What’s been amazing about this class is because the participants are so steeped in this history, they are offering me new perspectives, “Have you ever thought your mother could have played with Henio Zytomirski in Majdan Tatarski?” D. asked the other day. (Henio was a boy born two years after my mother who is part of the exhibition at Brama Grodzka and about whom a workshop called “Letters To Henio” is conducted. His father took a photograph of him every year and sent those photographs to their cousins in Israel. See my article: https://medium.com/@lavcloud/a-photo-waiting-to-be-seen-803636d94425). Other people got excited about mapping out the locations where my mother’s family lived and where my grandfather’s factories were. They tried to figure out the streets based on clues, “If your mother looked out at a convent from the factory, it couldn’t have been at this location.” What a gift to be able to re-read the book with this panel of experts!

We all know the survivors will soon not be with us. And sadly we, the children of survivors, will be the next to go. Parallel to us are those people of my age, like my deep, soul friends Tomek and Witek, the heads of Brama Grodzka, who inspire me over and over again with their dedication to remembrance. When we are gone we will need these younger people to keep on telling the stories in a faithful way. I’m so grateful that they care.

Tomek, Me, Witek, when  we  were the young ones! (2007)

Tomek, Me, Witek, when we were the young ones! (2007)

"Different" Things About Poland

I’ve been in Poland for a couple of months and though for the most part I love it, there are some little things that are different from back home*:

  1. They have great peanuts and bad peanut butter.

    I don’t understand this. The peanuts are very good—great flavor. Can they just crush them and get great peanut butter? I miss Teddie Peanut Butter.

  2. At salons they use paper towels to dry your hair.

    This has happened to me in two different salons. I suppose it’s because keeping up with laundry is tough but this is both weird and bad for the environment. There doesn’t seem to be much awareness about stuff that’s bad for the environment though.

  3. At salons they seem annoyed when you walk in to make an appointment.

    This has also happened to me twice (coincidentally—perhaps, perhaps not, at the two salons that used paper towel to dry my hair). I walked in to make an appointment because it’s easier for me to communicate in Polish face to face when I can flail my arms around and look into the listeners eyes to search for a glimmer of understanding. In both places the stylist was working on someone’s hair and looked surprised (in one case mildly annoyed) that I had walked in to make an appointment (receptionist anyone? I understand that would be an added expense but if there isn’t one then at least be courteous when potential clients drop in).

  4. They really, really like exact change.

    Numbers in Polish are really hard. Because of the cases there are all these crazy (ok, that’s a subjective opinion but I’m not the only one who holds it) rules. Like it feels like there are a million ways to say “two” depending on various things. So going to a store and understanding what I am supposed to pay the cashier is tough if the number is not displayed on a screen. The situation takes on an added layer of stress when, as happens quite often in Poland, you hand the sales person a bill, say for twenty złoty when the bill came to 17.30 PLN and she says, “Does Madame (my English approximation of the Polish Pani) have by any chance two zloty and 30 groszy?” when I am still trying to make sure I understood 17.30 correctly.

  5. The coffee is almost never hot enough.

    This is true even if I ask for it to be very, very hot. I don’t know what’s up with this but it’s annoying. (Oh, and it goes without saying—well, maybe not because I am saying it—that it’s much harder in general to find decaf than in the States).

  6. They don’t sand or salt the sidewalks enough (see attached photo).

    It’s very cold here. And snowy. So it’s not like they don’t need to sand and salt the streets and sidewalks. I think it must be a question of budget and the fact that it’s a much less litigious society than ours. My Polish teacher’s mother slipped and broke her wrist the other day. She is certainly not thinking of suing anyone. It took me double the amount of time to walk to work this morning because I was so afraid of slipping and falling. Other colleagues had the same experience. One of them did fall.

  7. Some people feel they get too much vacation.

    One guy I know was bummed because he had to take “forced vacation.” Another came back from vacation and I asked him how it was and he started saying, “Too—” and I was sure it was going to end with “short,” but he surprised me and said, “long!” “Too long?!” I exclaimed, “In America everyone complains that it’s too short.” “Yes, he said, but you only get two weeks, we get 26 days.”

  8. Sometimes people won’t take a tip.

    This happened in one of the hair salons. In the other (which was double the price) she happily took the tip.

  9. It’s really gray here.

    Those of you who have heard me speak or read my writing about how people often assume that Poland is a gray or black and white country will laugh at this tidbit ,but the thing is I have never spent an entire winter here. At home I probably wear my sunglasses as much in the winter as in the summer. Here after the first couple of weeks I have not worn them at all. I could never relate to S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder) before, but now I see why people get depressed without sunlight.

*I am reporting on my experience and things will surely be different in different places and for other people.

The steps leading down to Pilates class.

The steps leading down to Pilates class.

The steps leading down to Plac Zamkowy or Castle Square (once the main Jewish part of Lublin, now erased). Many people, including many old people, go up and down these stairs every day. On the day I took this photo it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit out.

The steps leading down to Plac Zamkowy or Castle Square (once the main Jewish part of Lublin, now erased). Many people, including many old people, go up and down these stairs every day. On the day I took this photo it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit out.

Polish Language Learning Continued

Continuing with the Polish studies. I’m in this frustrating place where I feel like I am on a plateau, I feel people have no patience for my less than perfect (to be generous) Polish, I can’t be me in Polish, I feel lazy to speak in Polish and I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. A friend sent me a graph that shows frustration and plateau in level B1, which is where I am. There’s a kind of opaqueness to Polish that I never felt with other foreign languages that I was learning, which manifests itself for me in not realizing that people are speaking to me when they are speaking in Polish unless we are actively engaged in a conversation. It’s akin to how I can read a book in Hebrew, which I speak fluently, but I have to properly concentrate. Like I have to say, “Hello, book, I am reading you now. Please unveil your secrets to me.” A book in Hebrew is not like one in Latin letters where key words will jump out at me and wave, “Hello! Read me!” Even my name does not do me that courtesy on a full page of typed Hebrew text.

A fun thing I am doing is reading the transcript of an interview my mom gave in Polish to Brama Grodzka in 2005. This is great because 1). I know the topic very well so I can understand probably 80%. 2). I am interested in the topic and 3). The text contains vocabulary that is useful to me.

I don’t usually find that New Year’s resolutions work, but if they did I would make one to rededicate myself to speaking Polish. I do love my Polish teacher and having three private lessons per week is a great thing.

For those who don’t know any Polish: Don’t those words look crazy?! Polish scrabble must have tons of Ws, Ys and Zs.

Polish language learning.jpg

Family Discoveries and Anti-Semitism

Today I found (well, my friend a genealogist who helped me, found) my oldest known relative’s death record. Lejb. He was born in 1800 in Parczew and died in 1874 in Kock (pronounced Kotsk). He and his wife Chaja Gryna were grain traders. Chaja Gryna’s father was named Pejsach. Pejsach was likely born in the 1700s so I guess Lejb is not really my oldest known relative but he’s the oldest whose birthdate I know. I am sure all these people were religious Jews.

I met another relative yesterday and she’s really great. She is 20 years younger than me but on the same level of the genealogical tree. I still cannot get over the fact that I have living relatives in Poland. They are descended from my grandmother’s first cousin who survived the War. She was saved, like my mother, by non-Jewish Poles. I am excited to meet more members of the family. I went to ZIH (the Jewish Historical Institute) to tell Anna P. that I had actually met the people she had told me about. When I was telling her about meeting living relatives in Poland I felt myself getting emotional. She asked if she could hug me. It’s such a mitzvah what the people at ZIH do. Not only the people at ZIH but all the people who do genealogy for people and help them find connections to this land that is so often dismissed as a cemetery, a place of so much pain that it is not worthy even of setting foot on. But if it is that, if it is only a place of loss and death and pain (and my experience teaches me that it is so much more) wouldn’t that compel the opposite response? Wouldn’t we want to visit? To pay homage? But I am forgetting that this is not a logical endeavor. When pain is involved, when the emotions and the heart are involved all bets are off. It makes sense that a human being would not want to feel all that pain again and again. And it makes sense that people would need to blame someone for their pain. I guess that’s where any form of hatred comes from ultimately—some sort of pain.

A few months ago I heard an anti-Semite speak in a Polish church in Boston and the crowd was very much on her side. I had never been in such a hostile environment. There were even two priests in the audience. I could feel where the anger was coming from. My impression was (the event was in Polish) that there was a feeling among the audience members that their victimhood had not gotten enough air time, that the Jews had gotten too much of the spotlight and now they wanted their due, and it seemed the only way to do that was to diminish what had happened to the Jews.

Somehow this post has gone from meeting family in Poland to Polish anti-Semitism. My relative told me that it was never a problem being a Jew in Poland. His parents (both Jewish) had considered leaving in 1948 but not, interestingly, in 1968 during the so-called anti-Zionist purge. But when I asked if there was anti-Semitism in Poland both he and his wife answered, “Of course!” I am curious to explore this topic further. I have found the most interesting parts of the conversations I have been filming as part of my fellowship here, is when I ask people about their childhoods and what they did or did not hear about Jews and anti-Semitism. It varies greatly.




It’s Thanksgiving, but here in Poland it’s just a normal day. I would not even realize it but I go on Facebook and everyone is saying what they are grateful for, and I listen to Boston Public Radio and they are not broadcasting live today or tomorrow.

Today is also 55 years since the JFK assassination. I asked my Polish friend and visionary preserver/guardian/keeper/protector (am trying to figure out the right word) of Jewish memory what his first historical memory was (he was born in the 1950s) and he said the JFK assassination. He said his second was the moon landing. Even more than the expulsion of the Jews from Poland in 1968. This is something I was recently discussing with my older son. Mine is Robert Kennedy’s assassination. His was Clinton’s second election.

I lived in Israel for eleven years (twelve really, but eleven in a row) and Thanksgiving was usually just another day there as well though I think maybe once or twice the expats did something.

So what am I thankful for? Of course my wonderful children. R. with his glorious sense of humor and his boundless generosity of spirit. He is the world’s best hugger. A great writer, a great creator of metaphors. A sensitive and uproariously funny soul. He does not just take things as they are but asks why.

L. who always tries to help people, who, when he was little and someone left a jacket at a soccer game wouldn’t rest until we got it back to the person. He has the patience of a saint and always explains every little technology thing to me and to other family members. He does great accents. Being with him and R. is like being in a constant improv show. L. knows so much about so much: wine, coffee, credit cards, cell phones, plane tickets. And if he doesn’t know he’ll find out. And he’s a sharp dresser. And they both have quirky, unique takes on the world. Oh, and both those boys can cook!

I am grateful for K. and M., the loving girlfriends of R. and L. and I am grateful that the four of them get along so well. I am grateful for Melvin and Linus and that R. and K. gave them a home.

I am grateful for my brother and my parents and for all the generations who came before. I am sorry that so many were cut short too early but I am honored to be here to represent you.

I am grateful and thankful for my friends in the States and elsewhere and particularly right now in Poland, particularly my friends here who are doing the work of Jewish remembrance, who are driven to do it. In talking with my friend today he said that so much of what he does and what drives him cannot be explained by logic or rationally. It isn’t rational. And I think that’s the beauty in so much of this work. It requires a leap of faith. It has an element of love or magic or faith. If that scares you or makes you roll your eyes then maybe some what I love won’t resonate with you. But I am so thankful to those willing to take that leap of faith. My friend P., after coming on one of my Bridge To Poland trips in 2017 said one of her big take aways was the power of art to convey things that words cannot. I just listened (today) to an interview that I did with Brama Grodzka back in 2008. I only had a vague recollection of even doing the interview but in it I said that I could not yet put into words all that I had experienced in Lublin. It was too big and too deep. I said that I was not sure I would ever be able to put it into words, perhaps I would in the future, but for now I did not have the words, I just knew that returning to the city of my ancestors was a powerful experience.

In these months, in Lublin, surrounded by people dedicated to remembering those whose voices were silenced too early, and surrounded by traces and intangible memory of my forebears, I will try to find the words as I work on my book about my experience discovering Poland and discovering the beauty and the magic that was waiting here for me.

Happy Thanksgiving.

No Expats, Everyone's My Teacher, Buses and Poles Speaking English

I realized that for the first time I am living abroad without an expat community, which is pretty cool. Every other time, whether I was studying (Spain, France, Italy, Israel, Poland) or living my life (Spain and Israel) there were always expats around. This time in Poland I am flying solo and happy to be doing it. Thanks again to the Fellowship Committee at Wellesley College for awarding me the Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship and providing me with this fabulous opportunity.

Being immersed in Polish society means more opportunities to practice my Polish. Everyone here is my Polish teacher, whether a close friend or someone in a shop. If I grit my teeth and plunge in with my less-than-perfect Polish I have the opportunity to learn something. Many are gracious, willing teachers. Some are not. Some get that I really want to speak in Polish, as hard as that is at times (And I really appreciate those that wait patiently while I look for the right words). Some don’t have the patience and switch to English.. Some don’t have the patience or the English. Yesterday I went to the PLAY store. PLAY is the company that I have my phone plan with. So I went into the store to ask some questions (why was I using so much cellular data, why did some texts go through while others did not, etc…). First the woman said she did not understand what the phone said because it was in English. Then I wanted to ask her a question about the SMSs and why only some went through. I know that the iPhone messages are blue and the others green and it was hard for me to explain in Polish without just saying, “the blue ones and the green ones.” She started rolling her eyes and practically mimicking me and said she did not understand. I said, “I don’t think Pani (formal form in Polish) wants to understand.” To my American ear it’s so funny that you can use this formal form to a young woman who is half your age and be complaining, but still be technically polite!

My real teacher, Magda, is great. Turns out she was my teacher 11 years ago when I was here and through happenstance we reconnected. She is a great teacher. I take the bus a half hour to her place. Two of the stops on the way to her place are Sympatyczna and Fantastyczna—nice, or likeable and fantastic! A lot of people got off at Fantastic tonight. I am proud of having mastered public transportation, as that is not my forté. I went to a kiosk buy the bus tickets and bought 20 at one fell swoop (this was before I learned there’s an app that allows you to buy the tickets online), and the woman at the store was incredulous: “You want 20?!” I guess no one had ever bought 20 tickets at once before, though I don’t know why. If you use paper tickets why would you want to have to buy them each time?

I am doing an Polish-English exchange with a woman at Brama Grodzka and also doing English conversation with a friend of mine. I am also paying attention to the kind of mistakes Poles make in English*. Here are some common ones:

  1. Pronouncing letters that should not be pronounced. Examples: AnsWer; BomBing; CasTle.

  2. Saying “we” when it should be “I” if the speaker did something with one other person. Let’s say Adam went to the movies with Dorota. Instead of saying, “I went to the movies with Dorota,” Adam will say, “We went to the movies with Dorota.” I imagine I make the opposite mistake in Polish!

  3. Overuse of the present progressive/using it where the simple present should be used, like when there is a habitual actual. Instead of, “Some people visit Auschwitz every year,” they say, “Some people are visiting Auschwitz every year.”

  4. Academical for Academic. (Not recognizing that Academic is both a noun and an adjective). And Economical for Economic.

    If you are still here you are a word nerd just like me!!! Yay us!

    *Please note that whatever mistakes they make, all my friends’ English is way better than my Polish, though I am working to close the gap!


Trains, B&Bs and relatives

I took a train from Warsaw to Lublin yesterday. It took 4 hours and 40 minutes instead of 3 hours. They are still working on the tracks but also there was an accident. Rumor had it that there was a body on the track. I don’t know if that was true. They did come on board and give all of us a bottle of water. When I saw that I said to the other woman in my cabin, “Uh oh, it’s never a good sign when they start passing out supplies.” “At least it’s just water,” she said, “Not food.” She was a biologist from Kraków on her way to a 4 hour sea shanty concert in Polish in Lublin! And she was reading a text book about sailing.

I was the only one in my Kraków B&B the other night! Weird but kindof cool too.

I love the B&B I stay in in Warsaw. Each room is different, mostly named for Polish painters. I met a couple from Colombia at breakfast and we were having a nice conversation when the wife said the B&B reminded her of a ghetto (we were speaking Spanish). I said that for me a ghetto means a place that Jews were forced to live during WWII. She corrected herself, “I meant a kibbutz.” (Oh you know, one of those places Jews live in groups!).

I met my newly discovered relative Mietek the other day. (thanks to Anna at the Jewish Historical Institute for finding out about him). He lives in Katowice but came to Kraków to meet me. His mother was my grandmother’s first cousin. She, like my mother and my aunt and grandmother were saved by non-Jewish Poles. It’s so cool to discover these new relatives who are very warm and friendly. Both of Mietek’s parents were Jewish and he has always identified as Jewish. He said it has never been a problem everyone at work knows he is Jewish. But when I asked about Polish anti-Semitism both he and his wife said of course there is anti-Semitism in Poland. I look forward to meeting other members of the family.

Parczew, where my grandfather’s brother and sister were born, from the train window.

Parczew, where my grandfather’s brother and sister were born, from the train window.

Bathroom door (from the inside) in the B&B.

Bathroom door (from the inside) in the B&B.

Bathroom at the B&B.

Bathroom at the B&B.

Bathroom at the B&B.

Bathroom at the B&B.

It's Official!

I have a Pesel Number! This means that I am officially registered in Lublin. It feels monumental. More than seventy years after my mother and her family were forced to leave this city and this country because of death threats against my grandfather and a generally inhospitable atmosphere for Jews, I am back. Not all descendants of Polish Jews would want to set foot here and I understand that. Even I have had thoughts about it being weird to be here when my mother’s family were forced out and when so many were murdered. But I also feel like I belong. It feels like home. The language belongs in my mouth, some people seem like old friends, some, like annoying acquaintances, but not strangers. I’ve got a bank account too.

Today a friend’s husband and daughter took me to another supermarket; it was so great of them but I have got to figure out how to order online—I cannot keep asking people to take me. It was a godsend though because all stores are closed tomorrow (Independence Day—100 years!) and Monday. I stocked my larder (larder, along with pantry—one of those words that was just not in my first generation vocabulary growing up, along with: divan, settee, doily, sconce…) and got lots of essentials like a colander, an apron and a broom and dust pan. Some other weird observations about stuff in (or not in) Polish stores: aluminum foil come in a roll but not in a box! They don’t seem to have index cards (if someone reads this and I am wrong please let me know). Spices come in packets, not jars.

I observed my first Brama Grodzka tour today. Of course I have been on lots of tours with Bridge To Poland groups but this was the first time I watched and took notes with the idea that I will be a tour guide. It was a group of Israelis. So when I got home I practiced giving a tour in Hebrew. It was fun. It will be fun if I can get them to listen to me—the groups are big and they tend to be rowdy. I am psyched to learn to give tours though. I loved doing it at Yad Vashem and the JFK Library.

Public Speaking in Polish

Every Tuesday morning there’s a staff meeting at Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN (the organization where I am based in Lublin, Poland). My friend said I should introduce myself.

I said, “Yes, in Polish!”

He said, “Well, maybe start in Polish…”

That did it. I was determined to do the whole thing in Polish—who am I, what’s my background (my mother is a Holocaust survivor who was born in Lublin and survived the War by passing as a Catholic girl) what I am here to do (various projects related to Jewish memory).

It was only my third time doing public speaking in Polish. First was in my class last summer when we had to do a five minute presentation. Second was at a conference, also last summer when I thanked a panel of rescuers for saving Jews and said my mother was saved as well, and third was this opportunity— and I did it!

Some Things That Are Different in Poland

  1. The washing machine takes 3 hours (at least in my apt).

  2. The dishwasher takes 20 minutes (at least in my apt).

  3. The washing machine has a dryer within it. (I have not yet availed myself of its services).

  4. They don’t monetize everything. Am participating in a three day conference on Operation Reinhardt at Brama Grodzka. It’s free and there are refreshments.

  5. A very large part of the small convenience store near my apt. is devoted to alcohol. I am comparing this to the “makolet” or little grocery story across the street from us in Tel Aviv where I cannot even remember alcohol but I suppose they had it. Yesterday two drunk men (not young men) were commenting in a jeering way on my yoga mat. Mostly I understood, “her” and “yoga.”

Grocery Stores and Racism

Since I have not yet set up grocery store delivery I recruited my Nigerian friend M., who is studying to be a priest and a social worker, to go with me to Tesco, the big supermarket. First of all he knows how to get there by bus, and second of all he can carry heavy stuff, unlike me!

I was upset to learn from M. that he has experienced racism here in Poland. He says sometimes people laugh at him. He noticed some people in a car doing it while were on the bus. And he told me that one time when he was riding his bike some young men starting kicking it and calling him black and telling him to go home. Sounds upsettingly familiar to an American ear. I thought (not an original thought, but still, I thought it) about how I can be incognito as a Jew and sometimes be privy to what people really think, while he can never pretend not to be black. I thought about how just being with him on the bus or in a store people might be judging me, and how awful that was. After mentioning the taunting he said, “It’s ok.” And I said, “No, it’s not ok.” And I started to tell him what I had been thinking, but in French so people would not understand, and he said, “Don’t speak Polish, speak English.” And I said, ““I was not speaking Polish. I was speaking French. You may have been hearing in Polish but I was speaking French!”

The grocery store: They had only one bottle of organic milk and I got it. The had zero decaf coffee. They did have gluten free bread but I did not see any gluten free crackers but I probably did not know where to look.

It’s going to take getting used to not having the products I am used to for a long time. I am used to my Schär Sourdough Deli bread with Teddy’s Chunky Peanut Butter and Trader Joe’s no sugar jam. I will also miss my Hu Kitchen Coconut Sugar chocolate bars when they run out (care package anyone?) but I assume there are many great Polish delicacies waiting to be discovered.

About ten years ago I met my friend Hyesung in the office in the high school the summer she moved to our town and offered to take her around because she was a newcomer. I showed her supermarkets, gave her the name of my hairdresser and doctor, and showed her where to park to take the T (subway) into Boston. When I was a newcomer my friend Jodi (whom I had known growing up) had done that for me. I wish someone would do that for me here. In fact, there should be a brigade of people worldwide who do that for each other!

How I Spent the Day of the Dead in Lublin

Old Town, Lublin, Day of the Dead, 2018

Old Town, Lublin, Day of the Dead, 2018

Brama Grodzka, Day of the Dead, 2018

Brama Grodzka, Day of the Dead, 2018

Just after publishing the blog post below I got an email from Monika at Brama Grodzka asking if I wanted to join a cemetery tour of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Polish on the Day of the Dead. I did. I had wanted to be with dead Jews on that day. What I did not realize or perhaps had forgotten (or perhaps understood incorrectly because it was in Polish—but I am checking and will correct this post if wrong*), was that during the Holocaust not only were Jews murdered on that hallowed ground where the Seer of Lublin among others is buried, but so were non-Jewish members of the Polish intelligentsia. That was the second time I got tears in my eyes today—when I thought about that idea of shared suffering. The first time was when we started the tour and I wondered, “Who were these other nine Polish people who had decided to use part of their holiday, their day off work when most of the country was with family, to visit a Jewish cemetery?” I was a bit shy about asking but I did ask one young woman who lingered after everyone had left. “I grew up in Lublin, she said, “The Jewish history is part of my history.”

As you can see from the pictures above, the streets of the Old Town were quite deserted on my way to the cemetery. The quiet reminded me of Israel on Yom Kippur. On the way back I walked through the empty space of what was once the Jewish quarter, past the eternal lamp that burns 24/7 in memory of the Jews of Lublin.

Later in the day traffic picked up and some cafés were open. I went to the Catholic University to meet my Nigerian friend who was in my Polish class last summer. He is on the road to becoming a priest and a social worker. We like to get together to practice our Polish. No doubt we are reinforcing each other’s errors, but it’s great to be with someone who knows and loves languages as much as I do. I was telling him (in Polish!) how Spanish (unlike French and Italian) only uses “to have” and never “to be” to form the present perfect. He was all excited and ready to start learning (Sorry, I am sure some of you non-language people have dozed off by this point).

I found out there’s a Yiddish class at the University I can join, though I fear the advanced class will be too hard and the beginner too easy (they are doing the alphabet). Exciting prospect though—learning Yiddish in Lublin!

All-in-all it was a great day. I walked 90 minutes, spent two hours in the cemetery and did a bunch of writing at night.

*After checking it seems that it’s unclear where any Jews were murdered on this site during the Holocaust. Of course all of Jewish Lublin, all around this area was destroyed. A whole culture that had thrived for centuries was wiped out. The Polish intelligentsia was shot near the cemetery in 1939, so in that sense there was Jewish and non-Jewish death associated with this place.

The Eternal Lamp stands guard over the non-existent Jewish Town

The Eternal Lamp stands guard over the non-existent Jewish Town

The Old Jewish Cemetery, Lublin, 2018.

The Old Jewish Cemetery, Lublin, 2018.

The Day of the Dead in Poland

Tomorrow is the Day of the Dead in Poland. People go to visit the places where their loved ones and their ancestors are buried. I have no tombstone to visit. My grandfather’s sister Elka and her children were shot in the forest outside Lublin. We don’t know where my grandmother’s sister Chana and her children or my grandfather’s brother Gerszon’s first wife Cyla and his son Eljusz were murdered. We don’t know where red-headed Zelda who sang so beautifully was taken to after my grandmother saw her driven away in the back of truck. Syma and Hersz Pejsach Finkielsztajan, my great-grandparents, cannot tell us where they were murdered.

While all my friends make their way to the cemeteries tomorrow night, where do I go ? Where do I go to shed my tears, and the tears for those who don’t even have someone like me to remember their names?


First Full Day in Poland

Well, I made it. It’s the end of my first full day in Poland for my fellowship* the goals of which are: to interview people preserving Jewish memory, to go into my ancestral towns and see what is left of Jewish memory, to create a safe space for those wrestling with their own identities, to work on my book and my Polish. A tall order. My friend from whom I am renting an apartment very kindly prepared everything— he was hanging new curtains when I arrived and had stocked the fridge. I have a desk at the Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN Center, the organization which was my inspiration to start Bridge To Poland. I look forward to getting to know their work even better by actually being on site for several months. Today I insisted on speaking Polish most of the day which must be painful for my conversation partners but I don’t know how else I will learn. I already managed to learn from my friend Agnieszka that you say Idę do Bramy but, Jestem w Bramie (I’m going to Brama but, I am in Brama—the endings in Polish change depending on what the noun is doing in the sentence). I had learned this with a teacher this summer but there’s no substitute for learning it on the ground. Next week there’s a conference in commemoration of seventy-five years since the largest massacre of Jews during Operation Reinhardt. Lots of top Holocaust scholars will be here. It’s hosted by Brama Grodzka. It will be in Polish so I won’t get it all but it was important for me to arrive in time for this momentous anniversary.

The week of November 11th I have my first set of interviews with guardians of memory. I am starting in my comfort zone, that is, with people I know and have a good rapport with: Tomek Pietrasiewicz and Witek Dąbrowski, Director and Deputy Director of Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN in Lublin; Krzysiek Banach, historian and head of exhibitions at the death camp and concentration camp Majdanek; Tomek Cebulski, scholar, author and tour guide at Auschwitz-Birkenau among other places; Anna Wencel, Director of Education at the Galicja Jewish Museum in Kraków and Dariusz Stola the Director of Polin, Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

On November 24th a Slovakian (I think I have that right) theater troupe is coming to Brama perform an interpretation of Gone with the Wind. Of course I won’t understand that but I know the story so well I am planning to go. My friend says the Poles won’t understand it either so I will be in good company!

It’s really fun starting a new life in a new country. I am sure there will be ups and downs and lonely times (like the weekends—what ever will I do on the weekends?) but for now I am looking forward to this new adventure! Thanks to all who helped me get ready for this, those who are getting my mail, staying in my house, etc… To all the people back home I will miss you and look forward to seeing you soon!

*I received the Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship from Wellesley College. Thank you, Wellesley!

This guy was waiting for me in my new digs. A good omen, I believe.

This guy was waiting for me in my new digs. A good omen, I believe.

An Old Photo Rediscovered

“Isn’t that Henio’s father?”

My friend Witek was visiting from Poland and I got out my grandmother’s photo album. I am about to embark on a journey of several months to Poland and wanted to make sure that I had a scan of one particular photo—the only photo of one of my grandmother’s sisters, all three of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. This sister—Golde— had 4 boys and had moved to Kovel during the war, I believe. When my grandmother saw saw the photo in the album in the 80s when I was visiting her in her Ramat Gan apartment with a friend, she had quickly stopped chatting, gasped and slammed the album shut. I now opened up the album to scan this precious photo and Witek spotted another photo on the same page—one of six men seated in a sortof official meeting with a caption that said, “Po’alei Zion” (http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Poale_Tsiyon).

Witek pointed to the man pictured second from left and said,

“Isn’t that Henio’s father?”

“I don’t know.” I answered, not being as familiar with the images of Henio Zytomirski’s’s family as Witek.

He looked online and found another photo and it sure looked like the same guy.

My dear friend Witek was visiting me in America from Lublin, Poland. It was his first time here and we had a great time—doing two presentation/performances about the work of Jewish remembrance in Poland and our own stories as well. The visit had a nice bookending to it since I met him on my first visit to Poland thirteen years ago and he introduced me to Lublin, the city where my mother was born. Over the years our friendship has grown as has our cooperation in doing the work of Jewish remembrance, which he—one of the wonderful non-Jews on the staff of Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN was already doing long before I met him. As a matter of fact he is the Deputy Director there and that means he knows the stories that they tell very well. One of those stories is about a little boy named Henio Zytomirski. Henio was born in 1933 (two years after my mother). His father took a photo of him every year and sent it to their cousins in Israel. In 1939 the last photo was taken. Henio was happy that day because he had learned to ride a two-wheeler. We believe that Henio was eventually taken to the death camp Majdanek where he was murdered. We know about Henio because his cousin Neta Avidars in Israel shared the photos with Brama Grodzka. So Witek has seen many pictures of Henio and his family.

Henio Zytomirski

Henio Zytomirski

Today, five days after Witek left, I finally got around to emailing Neta the photo and asking, “Is this your uncle?”

“Y  e  s  !  !  !”

Neta replied back via email.

“This man is absolutely Shmuel Zytomirski, my uncle, Henio’s father!!!

He was the chairman of Poale Zion (Z.S.) party in Lublin.

This picture is all new to me. I am so happy to have it.

Thank you Leora and Witek!”

I am blown away that my non-Jewish, Polish friend is the one who recognized a Jewish guy in a photo from 1930s Lublin in my grandmother’s photo album. In doing so he built new bridges between me, Neta, Witek, Shmuel Zytomirski, Brama Grodzka and Lublin of so long ago.

Kol ha olam kulo b’emet gesher tsar meod. The world really is a very narrow bridge.

Shmuel Zytomirski, second from left.

Shmuel Zytomirski, second from left.