My friend, the historian Krzysztof Banach, who is in charge of exhibitions at the Majdanek death camp in Lublin, Poland, wrote a book about the exhibit he curated about the Lublin Ghettos. I am so grateful to him for creating this exhibit, for bringing together all these photographs, testimonies and facts about these terrible places where my ancestors were robbed of their dignity and treated worse than animals.
The photos in the book feel eerily familiar to me. I KNOW those streets. Streets that have not existed for 75 years. How can this be? I don’t know, but it is true. My mother is quoted twice in this book. She is one of a handful of eyewitnesses to the barbarity.
The book contains a surprise. A photo of Szeroka number 1 just before it was destroyed. Szeroka number 1— the building where my mother was born! I had never seen this particular photo before. What a gift.
In my work I am often confronted with stereotypes that people have of non-Jewish Poles. They make sweeping generalizations about how horrible the Poles were to the Jews or about how anti-Semitic they are today. Of course sweeping generalizations are never true. They were not true about the Jews and they are not true about the non-Jewish Poles.
I think the second or third time I was in Majdanek with Krzysztof he quietly showed me a piece of paper that was part of the exhibition. He did not describe it to the group. It was evidence that his great-grandfather had been a prisoner at Majdanek. Like my grandmother’s brother Icek. And that he had been murdered there. Like my grandmother’s brother Icek. I realized something in that moment. We share a common history. There is not such a separateness between us like some people might think, or like some want to keep believing. The history that Krzysztof and so many of my friends in Poland is working to preserve is our history. Our shared history. I can see right now someone getting up in arms saying that the Jews suffered a different fate than the non-Jews during World War II. Of course they did. But what I have come to see is that it is possible to know that and see the non-Jewish Polish experience in all its complexities. It is possible to hold the nuances on both sides and to know that suffering is not something to be compared.
I want to know all the stories.
My friends in Poland are open to the hard conversations and the difficult questions. Something I did not realize at first, when I first stepped onto Polish soil, soil that is now so familiar to me, is how much we, the Jews, are missed in Poland. My friend Tomek Pietrasiewicz—more a visionary than a man if there is such a thing—says that the greatest achievement of his life was creating a memorial to the path that the Jews walked to the Umschlagplatz in Lublin where 28,000 Lublin Jews were gathered before being deported to Bełżec where they were gassed. “I can only be sorry I did not start this work of remembrance earlier,” he told me last week. This from a man who has devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to preserving Jewish memory.
To Krzysztof, to Tomek, to all my friends in Poland who remember those children who lived and died, and miss those who did not get to be born, thank you.