While poking through old treasures I found a long forgotten start on a translation of my mother’s memoir, “Dry Tears,” that I began when studying in Córdoba, Spain in the eighties! Wish I had finished it. Clearly I did not know how to say the word, “squint.” I love that it’s handwritten!
I can’t believe I am back.
I can’t believe I was in Poland for seven months.
In a way it seems like a dream. I got to spend seven months visiting my ancestral towns, interviewing 25 non-Jewish, Polish rescuers of Jewish memory and hanging out with my friends in Lublin at Brama Grodzka. And learning Polish. I would like to do more of all of that.
1. I discovered a lot about my family that I did not know: One ancestor was born in Kazimierz Dolny, the picturesque town in the Lublin district that has been the backdrop for many films. One great-great-great-great grandmother was born in Lublin in 1789.
2. I got to interview some amazing people who are preserving Jewish memory in Poland, like Jurek Dębiec who was anxious that we get to the interview because he wanted to get to the Jewish cemetery that he cares for in Nowy Żmigród.
“How often do you go there?” I asked him.
“This time of year, every day,” he answered. “There’s a lot to do.”
When we got to the cemetery we started talking about the Jews of Nowy Żmigród and how many of them were Chassidic, different from the Lublin Jews that I am more familiar with. When adding something about them he used the phrase, “Naszi Żydzi,” “Our Jews.” That’s how much of a connection some of these people feel to this history. It is heartwarming.
3. I met two new third cousins! One American who was visiting Poland and one Polish. It turns out the Polish one’s mother is my grandmother’s first cousin. We did not know she survived and vice versa. I never thought I would meet living relatives in Poland.
4. I taught my dear friends a class about my mom’s memoir “Dry Tears.” “Dry Tears” is about my mother’s experience surviving as a Catholic during the Holocaust. It was so rewarding to be able to discuss this book with my Polish friends who live in Lublin and care so much about this history.
5. I had so many serendipitous experiences they are too numerous to mention here. To name just a few: I got to teach Polish kids about Chanukah in Polish, guide Israelis through the exhibition in Brama Grodzka in Hebrew, attend several conferences in Polish and English and spend many hours discussing fascinating topics with my friends.
I cannot wait to return!
If you are a regular (or even sporadic) reader of this blog, please let me know. Sometimes people say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been reading your blog,” and I had no idea. I don’t know how many people are reading it.
I will feel encouraged to keep it up once I leave Poland if I know people are paying attention.
And thank you for your interest!
I can’t believe my time in Poland has come to an end. It’s been quite a ride. So grateful to all these folks for their friendship, their belief in me, their hugs, and their listening to my farewell speech in flawed Polish!
I will be back.
Leaving a lot of love here in Poland.
This is what shampoo and conditioner look like after seven months in Lublin water. Kindof like Obama’s hair after eight years in the White House.
I just completed the tenth trip that I have organized to Poland and I must say it’s the best ever. I am so proud of what I offer and the fabulous women in this intimate group were very happy with the results. At our closing night dinner they said they trip was well-organized and that it was obvious I had put my heart into it.
One of the best things about this trip was how many Polish people the group got to meet and talk to. In fact, on the last night one woman said that it felt funny having dinner without any Polish friends there. I call that a success!
Another participant said she had come to Poland assuming the people were anti-Semitic, that there was no way a monument to Jews could be set up in public and not be defaced, but she found amazing people doing the work of Jewish remembrance.
On the way back to my home base in Lublin, or maybe more properly, my home, I asked Kuba, my favorite driver, if he thought there was more anti-Semitism or anti-gay sentiment in Poland. He said definitely more anti-gay. Also anti-Muslim and anti-a lot of other things.
“Why should we be anti-Jewish?” he asked, “what did the Jews ever do to us?” Indeed. *
*It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: none of the other “antis” make sense either.
A few months ago I wrote about the amazing experience of meeting a third cousin who lives here in Poland.
Tomorrow morning I will be meeting another third cousin who is visiting from the US. His grandfather left Poland in the 1920s so thank God was not here during the Holocaust.
I don’t know the name or age of this third cousin or know where in the States he lives. I only know he keeps kosher.
Last night I dreamt he turned out to be a Chinese woman and not a cousin at all!
I never expected to meet two new cousins in one year.
If you had asked me before I would have said third cousins were far afield, but now sharing great-great-grandparents feels close, especially since we lost so many in the Holocaust who would have been closer. Fourth cousins, well, that would be something else. But then again…
UPDATE: I met my cousin. His name is Mitchell and he’s from Atlanta. It’s really cool to be expanding the family. I realized after we met that it’s Holocaust Remembrance Day back home and in Israel. A fitting day, when we mourn the loss of so many and when so many should be with us and aren’t, that we have found new relatives.
It’s thanks to Brama Grodzka that we found each other at all. An inquiry was sent to them about someone related to the Płuciennik family and they know that I come from that family so they contacted me. I never knew before Mitchell arrived that our family (his great grandfather Mendel, who was my great-grandmother Syma’s brother) had a candle factory on Kowalska Street. In fact, it was at 14 Kowalska and though the building is not the same as the pre-War building, the location is the little store close to Brama Grodzka where we buy water. Who knew I had a connection to the place!
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel and the States. And it’s Labor Day in Poland. May 3 is Constitution Day so lots of Polish flags are out and about. There are several Holocaust remembrance days: January 27th, April 19 and today. We don’t need a special day to remember, of course. A group of twelve Polish students left yesterday for Israel. They will be there for a week and in July the Israeli students will come to Poland. In 15 minutes (as of this writing) an alarm will sound all over Israel for Holocaust Remembrance Day and everyone will stop whatever they are doing and stand for a minute. I always found it an amazingly powerful moment. The cars on the highway stop and people get out and stand, people stop dead in their tracks in the street. I told my friend B. who is accompanying the students to warn them so they don’t freak out hearing the air raid sirens. I hope despite traveling during the night they will be awake to hear the siren and see the country stop for a moment to remember.
I am glad I am not burdened by the need to vilify Poles. That must be a huge burden.
Sometimes when I tell people (as I just did in the coffee shop I am sitting in in Lublin) that my mother was born in Lublin, and that my great-great-great-great (pra-pra-pra-pra) grandmother was as well, I feel like I am passing as a non-Jewish Pole, like my mother did during the War. The woman I told this to said, “Wesołych Świąt!” (Happy Holidays!) and I did not say that Easter is not my holiday. There’s a remnant of both my mother’s guilt and her satisfaction at passing as a non-Jewish Pole during the War. Something to explore further.
April 19, 2019. It’s Good Friday. And the first night of Pesach/Passover. And the anniversary of the beginning of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. And Holocaust Remembrance Day in Poland. Usually on this day in Lublin there’s a walk to remember one little boy, Henio Żytomirski, who was born in 1933, two years after my mother, here in Lublin. He was probably murdered in Majdanek. This year there is no walk on April 19 because there’s a teacher’s strike. And it’s Good Friday. I feel sad that we won’t be walking for Henio today.
I am feeling sad about Holocaust remembrance in general today for a couple of reasons. 1). Because I have heard stories about Israeli groups disrespecting memorial sites. I was depressed for a few days after hearing these stories. But then a Polish friend pointed out that this behavior probably stems from frustration at not being given any freedom about how to react to the Holocaust. One of my Israeli cousins recently told me told me that from the time they are little, kids in Israel are told, “Be sad!” on Yom Ha Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). There’s no option for any other reaction—anger, numbness maybe. I have seen numerous guides from Israel using the Holocaust as a lesson for why Israel needs to be strong. The greatest tragedy in our history, full of rich human stories and fragments of human lives becomes a means to an end. The stories of the people who perished—of mothers who lost children, of babies given away, of people risking their own children to save strangers—are not treated as sacred or valuable unto themselves, as precious stories that we must strive to preserve, but rather as tools to forward a narrative. And often no discussion is invited. So no wonder resentment builds. I know I am speaking in generalities here and there are no doubt many kids who have great respect for the history when they come here. I have witnessed some of them. A friend of mine recently told me her son had such an experience, but the fact remains that I see many students walk through here bleary eyed and uninterested. And no wonder. They are herded around and pushed to the point of exhaustion. Who could stay interested when forced to confront site after site of horror and tragedy without enough time to properly process and without space for curiosity or questions. Luckily some groups that come here do allow the time. They sit with the staff of Brama Grodzka and do a workshop or watch a performance and they get to talk. We need more of that in the future.
2). The second reason that I have been sad is because of an ongoing discussion I’ve been having with someone who, though she appreciates the non-Jew who saved her family and some others she has met in Poland rescuing Jewish memory, seems to be on a mission to prove to me that the Poles are all (or 99% of them anyway) anti-Semites. She send me articles about Polish acts of anti-Semitism and “accuses” me of being a “Polophile.” What I see so clearly is that her vision of Poles is exactly the same as the narrow one that many Poles had of Jews before and during World War II. It was wrong then when it was about the Jews and it’s wrong now when it’s about the Poles. But she doesn’t see that she’s the personification of all that she despises. And Poland in 2019 is not Poland of 80 years ago. Of course there is anti-Semitism but there’s anti-Semitism in the States as well—that doesn’t mean that most Americans are anti-Semites.
What keeps me hopeful is positive feedback we receive from visitors to Brama and participants on Bridge To Poland trips who “get it.” They see that the landscape is complex and that despite the obstacles, there are many good people working to build bridges. I have to remind myself to focus on that.
The photo I took today in Lublin. It’s my favorite poem. It puts to rest the myth that non-Jews and Jews did not go to school together. It puts the rest the myth that no non-Jew cared about a Jew:
“Classmates” by Julia Hartwig
The Latin teacher’s voice seemed a bit sharper
When she addressed them (never by first name).
Miriam was always perfectly prepared, Reginka weaker but correct.
They kept together and together left the classroom before Religion.
The last time we met unexpectedly at the end of Lubartowska* Street, on the border of a freshly created ghetto.
They stood there timidly as if something shameful happened to them.
(translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter)
I wish you all a blessed and peaceful holiday season.
*My grandfather had factories on Lubartowska Street and my mother’s family hid there during the war and lived there after the war for a time, before they left Poland. The ghetto boundary ran down the middle of Lubartowska Street.
I have seen many Israeli groups touring Brama Grodzka or death camps in Poland. Every group I have been able to listen to for an extended period of time has had a teacher who has told the group something incorrect. A few weeks ago a teacher who was “translating” (translating in quotation marks means pausing after the English and then saying whatever he wanted in Hebrew) Iza’s tour in Brama Grodzka, said that the Jews on March 16, 1942 (the day the liquidation of the Lublin ghetto and Operation Reinhardt began) were taken to Majdan Tatarski, the secondary ghetto not far from the death camp Majdanek. This is not true. They were taken to the death camp Bełżec where they were gassed immediately. The students he was speaking to, frankly, seemed so uninterested that they would not have known the difference, but for us who care about this history, this was a huge mistake.
The other day a well-meaning teacher with a group of Druze, Arab Christian, Arab Muslim and Jewish students from Israel told them that most of Lublin’s Jews were murdered in Majdanek. I had to correct him and tell him that twenty-eight thousand of the forty-three thousand Jews from Lublin were murdered in Bełżec.
Even the best intentioned make mistakes; and of course it’s not only Israelis.
Why is it a problem? So what if in 100 years some people think that the Jews of Lublin were murdered in Majdanek and not in Bełżec, does it matter? I think it does.
When a loved one dies in war or abroad we want to bring the body back. We humans want to know where the remains of our loved ones are. That’s why we care for cemeteries. That’s why there are so many initiatives by both Jews and non-Jews to care for Jewish cemeteries in Poland. That’s why it’s so upsetting to see overgrown, neglected Jewish cemeteries or Jewish cemeteries made into parks or parking lots, the matzevot long since having been lost or taken. We want to know where our departed lie, where to lay a stone or say a prayer. That’s why the devotion of people like Jerzy Debięc in Nowy Żmigród is so heartwarming. He goes to the cemetery every day. “The cemetery is waiting,” he said to me while waiting for me to interview him, impatient to get there.
So yes, when people don’t have an honorable final resting place, when their bones have been crushed and mixed with those of others to form the ground of the former death camp Beżec so that a young Dariusz Stola, later to become the Director of the Polin museum, could pick them up in a handful from the ground when visiting with his friends, then it is important to know where those bones lie. They are in Bełżec. Not in Majdanek or in Majdan Tatarski. In Bełżec.
It may be easier to assume they are in Majdanek because it’s closer to Lublin. You assume, because you did not bother to do the research that the Jews of Lublin would have been murdered close to home. Bother!! Bother to do the research! Honor those crushed bones, those unmarked graves, the ones that never even had a matzevah to be stolen, never even lay in a kirkut to be forgotten. At least we can remember the path of their final harrowing journey.
Matzevah/matzevot: Gravestone(s) in Hebrew
Kirkut: Polish word for Jewish cemetery
11:00: Gave a tour of Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN in Hebrew to a group of Druze, Arab Christian, Arab Muslim and Jewish students from Israel in Hebrew.
15:00: Taught my “Dry Tears” English class (a class about my mom’s memoir of her experience during the Holocaust) to my wonderful friends at Brama Grodzka.
17:30: Gave a quick Hebrew lesson to the Polish students who will be traveling to Israel on a youth exchange at the end of the month.
18:00: Attended a talk about a book in which the author interviewed Jews who were saved by non-Jews in Poland and talked to them about their mothers, both the Jewish mothers and the non-Jewish mothers.
In between all these, I had fascinating conversations with my colleagues at Brama Grodzka.
Once again, thank you to the fellowship committee at Wellesley College who awarded me with the Mary Elvira Stevens traveling Fellowship, without which these rich experiences would only be a dream.
Genocide was the first post-it on the board.
My friend G. had invited me to co-teach a workshop with him to students taking his class on international business and culture. They were from many African countries, a bunch from India, some from Spain and a few from other places (Turkey, Portugal and Thailand, to name a few).
Before I spoke about my family’s Holocaust history, G. invited the students to write on a post-it what difficult histories their countries or regions had had to confront. Then he asked them to approach the front and affix their post-its to the board.
At first there was a pause. And then a young man got up and stuck his post-it on the board. There was one word on it: Genocide. I felt the air go out of my lungs.
One by one these young people put their traumas, their difficult histories, on the board. Some perhaps were not so difficult on a day-to day basis, but most certainly were.
Usually I speak to groups who either know quite little about the Holocaust and so are fascinated by my family story, or to people who share a Holocaust legacy or have a familiarity with the subject matter. In this room I was faced with something different–people who could relate to my mother’s story because they too had difficult, painful histories in their lives, past or present. I told them that it was important not to compare suffering. And that I honored their experiences.
Later I asked the soft-spoken young man who had bravely been the first to put his pain in front of the class where he was from.
“Rwanda,” he answered quietly.
Originally I ended my blog post here. But then I wondered if the young man from Rwanda were to read it, would he feel exploited? And I wanted to explain more what I felt in that moment.
When he said “Rwanda” it was so huge. How do you answer, “Rwanda?” If I had said, “Sorry,” or “I see,” it would be so inadequate. And also, I don’t see. I wasn’t there I don’t know. The closest I get is seeing “Hotel Rwanda” and being the child of a Holocaust survivor. I wanted to maybe hug him, to make him know that I didn’t think saying Rwanda was the same as saying Norway or Canada, for the average person from there. I wanted him to know that I acknowledged his pain. But I was silent. I hope, still, that he knows.
Yesterday was the Mystery of Light and Darkness. It’s the time once a year when Brama Grodzka in Lublin organizes the reading of the names of some people who were in the ghetto. Some people. Not all, because the only list we have is one of people who had work permits. None of you are even on the list but I added you and read your names anyway because you are all Lublin Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust and I wanted to speak your names. You are my great-grandparents, my greats aunts, my great uncle, my cousins and my mother’s beloved teacher. I should have known you and your descendants. I could have known you if circumstances had been different.
I wish more people had been there yesterday. I wish more of my friends had been. A lot of students were there yesterday reading the names. Some of them, I felt, were just reading words off a page. Did you notice that? But some of them were very aware that each name they read represented a whole life that was cut short. Their awareness gave me hope.
Sometimes when someone read a name, like when Witek was reading Goldbergs, there were so many of them that it was jarring. Were those all from one family? Did you know them? What was it like to hear the list when you know a lot of the names on it? I heard a lot of Bornsztajns— the name of my great-great grandmother Nechama Bornsztajn, (your mother, Saba Pejsach—was she really not a nice person, as has been handed down?) who was born in Lublin on Nadstawna Street in the mid-nineteenth century. Were all those Bornsztajns whose names I heard yesterday our relatives? Did you grow up with them? Go to synagogue with them? Do business with them? Play with them?
I heard the name Grajer, the notorious Jew who collaborated with the Germans during the war. Did you know about him? Did you hate him? I heard the name Burstein–there were a lot of them as well. And I thought of the article I am currently translating about the Burstein family and a story about a wise rabbi in their family.
I wondered how many of the names that were read were family of the Lubliners whom I know, descendants of Lublin Jews.
Behind all the names that were read last night are people, all kinds of people: little kids, wise rabbis (and likely some not so wise rabbis!), beloved teachers, collaborators. Lovable grandfathers like you, Saba Pejsach; timid, gentle people like you, Elke; little boys like you, Eljusz; elegant women like you Subta Syma, people who sang beautifully, like you Zelda, and so many whom we know nothing about. But at least we have their names, and if we don’t, we still remember.
Today in 1942 the liquidation of the Lublin ghetto began. It was the beginning of Operation Reinhardt—the beginning of the destruction of the Jews of Lublin and the Jews of Poland. The beginning of the erasure of an entire world. Tomorrow we will walk to commemorate the 28,000 Lublin Jews who were marched to the Umschlagplatz before being sent to be gassed at Bełżec, among them my relatives. Monday we’ll read names of people who were in the ghetto as part of the Mystery of Light and Darkness.
It’s been a very Hebrew kind of day. I am working on a translation of an article in Hebrew written by a descendant of Lublin Jews so that some Polish students going to Israel on an exchange program with students from Lublin’s sister city Rishon Lezion will be able to read it so they can learn about the ancestors of the Lubliners they will meet in Israel.
I had falafel for dinner.
But the coolest thing is that I gave a tour of Brama in Hebrew! Granted, I needed help with a few words here and there but overall it was really good. I had 20 in my group, which is really too big for me. I like groups of 10 or fewer (I have given tours at Yad Vashem and the JFK Library as well), which is why Bridge To Poland groups are around that size. Larger groups are especially hard when you don’t know the people. In a large group there’s always someone not paying attention. I thought that speaking Hebrew would alleviate that situation but in the end I don’t think speaking Hebrew made them pay attention any more. The thing is, you are often going to have, in a class or tour group, some people who are really into it and and some who would rather be hanging out with their friends. These are kids. They are tired. They had been to Majdanek earlier in the day. Some of them were just plain done. But a few of them were really fascinated. They asked questions. They looked me right in the eye; one young woman looked to be on the edge of tears. One asked really good, specific questions based on having looked things up beforehand. A young man mentioned his grandparents. A few of them asked for the web address of the Center.
For some reason when I was speaking Hebrew to Israelis I found it easier to be super passionate about the work of Brama Grodzka and the importance of it to me and how moving I find it then when I speak English. There are certain things with an Israeli group that you know they are just going to get—the devastation of the empty space where the Jewish town used to be, for example. They understood immediately what the reading of the names was, unlike some other visitors. They hear that every year after all on Yom Ha Zikharon, Memorial Day. The teachers who were with them were very moved. And of course there are things you just don’t have to explain to an Israeli group: they know what a mezuzah is. They know the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish. They know what a matzevah* is and they understood that for most of Lublin’s 43,000 Jews, there are no matzevot, and that’s why Brama Grodzka-Teatr NN— an ark of memory, an archive, an orphanage of stories, or whatever metaphor you want to use, is so important.
*matzevah= tombstone in Hebrew (plural = matzevot; maceva = Polish spelling)
I’ve spoken and written a lot about hopes and fears regarding what will happen once the survivors are gone. I’ve talked about intentional distortion both for purposes of denial and to support a specific agenda (to emphasize Polish heroism, for example, or Polish misdeeds on the other hand). I’ve talked about laziness, forgetting, honest mistakes, overgeneralization, the inability to include the idiosyncratic in our picture of the Holocaust (ex.: My mother’s family had a German Shepherd named Dana as a pet. Dana saved my grandmother’s life during the war). I’ve talked about the forgetting or blunting of the edges that happens over time—pictures lose their clarity the farther away we get from when an event occurred. But one thing maybe I have not spent enough time on is plain old apathy.
I came across apathy this week when a young person was visiting us here at Brama Grodzka in Lublin the city of my mother’s birth where I am spending several months on a fellowship. The young man was pleasant and bright and collegial. He was present physically for tours and interviews. He went to Auschwitz with the most expert guide. He was in the room when person after person talked about their passion to preserve Jewish memory, but he didn’t get it. He wasn’t listening. He was on his phone or pre-occupied with this or that snafu in his travel plans and he didn’t listen, so he didn’t get it. So, when we standing inside the memorial at the Umschlagplatz in Lublin, the place where 28,000 of Lublin’s 43,000 Jews were gathered before being put on trains to be gassed at Bełzec, among them probably my grandmother’s siblings and their children, he took a phone call. And I felt…
What did I feel? Was I angry? Angry that he did not care enough to listen? I’m not sure what the point of anger would be. Was I sad? I think so. I think I am sad that the death of so many, of the entire community of my mother’s childhood, didn’t move another human being enough to pay attention. What would move this young man?
I wondered whose fault his apathy was. Was it his? His parents’ for spoiling him? His genes? Was it “technology’s” fault? Perhaps it was our fault—mine and Brama Grodzka’s, and his guides, for not being good enough teachers. Usually I feel we are very good teachers—I can’t speak for myself, but these people are the best in Poland at what they do— and that we communicate our message clearly, but maybe different methods will be needed to reach future generations, to get them to unplug and listen. Do we need to plug in too and reach them where they are? I don’t want that to be necessary. I want to be able to reach a person’s heart and soul with words and by looking into his eyes, and telling an authentic story, and not think it must be through the latest app.
I don’t want to indict a whole generation based on one person. (I don’t even want to indict this person; it’s not for me to judge). I’ve seen plenty of young people be moved by this history. But the detachment that I witnessed this week was sobering and made me sad for a future where, on the road to Holocaust remembrance we will be confronting an enemy named disinterest.
When I was in Parczew the other day my very gracious hosts gave me a bag of books and pamphlets about the town. I have found this happens a lot in Poland. when you visit a place you’re gifted with written material about that place.
I picked up one book and turned, of course, to see what it said about World War II. Nothing about Jews (see below). When I had asked the students at our meeting if they learned about the Jewish past of their town they had assured me that they did, so this was somewhat disappointing but not shocking.
The second book I picked up (also see below) did mention the Jews, though as you can see, the language, at least in the translation, is a bit problematic, implying that the Jews were not Poles though they had lived in Poland for centuries.
As one of my interviewees, Zbyszek Wieczork in Radom said, “Mamy co zrobic.” (We have what to do. We’ve got our work cut out for us).
Realized today I am doing things in Polish that before were a big deal, to wit: texting in Polish and understanding when a clerk in a store or restaurant tells me how much something is. (I know that sounds crazy to those of you whose only foreign language experience is French or Spanish or Hebrew or English or Italian or German (or, or, or) but numbers in Polish change depending on the case, plus the words for nine and ten are so similar that I have had trouble understanding the exact amount that’s owed when I am buying something. Now I seem to understand the, for example, 47 groszy part of the purchase). Another thing is I am understanding when someone makes an aside to me—instead of ignoring it and just assuming it’s meant for someone else because it’s in Polish!