A Look Back and A Look Way Back

Posted on August 13, 2018

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After Then Husband and I married and went to grad school, we lived frugally and saved most of our monthly fellowship stipends.  At the end of the year, we had saved enough for a student flight to Europe, two sleeping bags, a Coleman stove, and a pup tent. We had enough left over for eight weeks in Europe, as long as we diligently followed Frommer’s guide, “Europe on $5.00 a Day.”

To say I was excited about the impending trip was an understatement. I had never been out of the Philly/NJ/NY/Boston corridor, except to attend grad school in Indiana. I had never been on a plane.  I told my father about our plans. His answer was “Europe?  You are going to Europe? Everyone wants to leave there. Why are you going there?”

My father was born in a town in what was, in his birth year, controlled by Poland. After his birth, it became part of Russia. It is now Belarus. (A common saying is that a Jew can be born in one town, get married in another, and die in a third, all without ever leaving his hometown.) Poland was a land that allowed Jews, over the thousand years that they lived there, to alternately flourish, to survive, and ultimately to be massacred, depending on the whims of whichever king or despot was in charge or conquered it. My father was simply grateful to have left, even more so to have been welcomed to a country in which he believed that he would have a fairly good chance of seeing each successive day.

In spite of my father’s warning, I went to Europe.  I, a person who had never experienced the hardship, deprivation, or fear that my father had lived with, instead believed that the world was a welcoming place. I developed a passion for travel. I have since been to many countries and have experienced many different cultures. I embraced them all. But I had never been to Poland. My father’s fear never stopped me from going anywhere. But it did stop me from going to Poland, as though the ghosts of what was would be waiting to torment those who crossed the border.

Last week, I went to Poland. I went, with my cousin, to attend an international conference of Jewish genealogy. Participants came from all over the world. We were the product of different DNA. We looked different from each other. We spoke differently. We acted differently. We had different life experiences and different beliefs about religion. But we were all Jews. And most of us were, in some way, connected to the countries of Eastern Europe in which we, our parents, our grandparents, or our great-grandparents, had lived.  It didn’t matter how far back we had to go to find an ancestor who had been born in Europe. That person defined, in large part, who we were.

We were also, no matter our family circumstances, children of one overwhelming event in our history. One of the conference presenters put it best when he said, “You know, it’s the old story. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Then they talk about the Holocaust.”

As human beings, we mourn our dead. We remember what their lives meant, as we put them to rest. In the case of our families who were murdered, we sometimes think less about who they were than who they could have been. In that sense, they have not been put to rest.

My cousin and I arrived several days before the conference began. We visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, two of the 4000 concentration camps and work camps the Nazis built to house and to exterminate those they considered undesirable. In that category, the Jews were the favored group. The English language has no words to describe the degree of cruelty devised and inflicted.

We toured sites associated with the Warsaw ghetto and the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Here was horror and courage, going hand in hand.  We ended the day at the Polin Museum, an extraordinary place showcasing 1000 years of Jewish history and culture in Poland.

Humans are complicated beings, the history of an entire people even more so. In Poland, two disparate groups, Jews and Christians, through circumstance, shared the same piece of the planet for 1000 years. In most cases, they spoke different languages and had different customs. One group is now gone. It lives only in the memories of the people who lived there or are descended from those who lived there.

The conference, itself, was mentally exhausting and emotionally exhilarating. Seminars ran the gamut from current DNA research, European history and geography, and tons of historical and family research methods and tools.

One could argue for a long time whether the Polish people have come to terms with their own complicity in the Jewish persecution.  History, as we all know, is subject to the interpretation of whoever is looking back on it.  What cannot be argued is that a very small percentage of Poles risked their own lives to save Jews. We were privileged to hear several of them speak.  Jews call these people the “righteous among the nations.”

They were, of course, asked why they did what they did.  They didn’t think of themselves as brave people. They had  no lofty reasons for their actions. They did it neither as the result of religious upbringing nor of political belief.  They said they did what any decent person would do. They said it was not something noble. They said there was simply a need.

Several religions, including Judaism, teach that if you save one life, it is as though you have saved the world. These people, by saving a handful, saved entire families and their descendants. One of the instructors in another session referred to people whose moral compass comes from within. In the face of pure evil, their moral compass pointed true north.

If my dad were still here, I’d tell him that the Poland of his youth is a very different place now. And the Warsaw Westin, where my cousin and I stayed, is a very different environment from the poverty in which he was raised. But there is enough, in the deteriorating prewar buildings, the one remaining synagogue,  and the few cemetery stones that have survived, to get a sense of what was.

And, finally, there is the music and the humor.  I’d love to tell my father that I attended a performance of Yiddish song and storytelling. The story told was about as unsophisticated as could possibly be. It was born in a culture that was mostly traditional, and deeply rooted in religion. It was a culture that changed little over time. I followed the story and laughed along at the obvious humor, with as much enthusiasm as my father would have exhibited, had he heard it 100 years ago in Pinsk, his Polish shtetl. In that moment, more than in any other, I was transported to my father’s world.  While the entire trip was filled with memorable experiences, that one performance would have been enough.

I am home, back in my world of privilege and safety.  But I did it, Dad. I went to Poland.

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Posted in: history, travel