Journey to Poland with my parents
by Lena Fiszman (June 1993).
In April of this year (1993) my parents and I travelled to Poland with a group of approximately 55 people from Melbourne. I knew this would be a journey I would never forget and I was right.
Part of me was excited to be finally going to the place where, for me, my family's history and culture began. The other part of me was plain scared at the prospect of being in a country we all know still has rampant anti-semitism. Still another part of me was dreading travelling with my parents (don't misunderstand me - I love my parents dearly, but let's face it, being in constant contact with them for two weeks was going to require enormous patience and understanding, as this would be their first visit home after 50 years). Not forgetting, that I'd be travelling with a group of strange people, mostly from my parents' generation. To my surprise and delight, within a very short time, this disparate collection of people formed a sort of "meshpuha," which at times during our journey enriched and sustained me and also drove me and everyone else meshigge!!
Our itinerary was worked out before we left Australia and left little time to relax between sights. A bit like a Cook's World Discovery Tour. Nevertheless, on arriving in Warsaw, we all appeared possessed of the need to find something, whether it was a street where a parent or individual had lived or just to capture a sense of what Jewish Warsaw must have been like before the war.
On the first evening in Warsaw, I went for a walk with my father and two of my generation David and Emmanuel. My father, although not born in Warsaw, had spent a few years before the war broke out, living there. So we were looking for some building or street that he knew to get our bearings, since nothing he had seen so far had been familiar due to the extensive bombing of the war years. In Warsaw and in most Polish cities and towns, you are confronted by row upon row of what could only be described as "commission flats". A city that was once renowned for its beauty and history is now "communist grey" apart for one small section called the "Old City" that's been totally rebuilt. A few blocks later my father began to recognise a few familiar landmarks and then the images started to flow, the memories came back (thank god I had my tape recorder going).
What hit me that night and continued throughout the trip, was an enormous sense of loss - loss of a rich cultural heritage, loss of a lifestyle, loss of a people who had existed in that country for over 700 years. And most important, loss of our parents' memories and with them went the people who perished.
That night was also my first taste of how many Poles still feel about the Jews. Walking along a major road, we were confronted by a large piece of graffiti in Polish on the wall of a building: "ABORTION FOR JEWS" and then someone had added in red paint at the front "ANTI". My father seemed less surprised than the rest of us. "I don't believe it, they still hate us and how many Jews are left here!?" was my immediate reaction. I wasn't frightened for my life but a creeping paranoia set in. It seemed as if people were staring at us: "was it because we looked like affluent tourists or because we looked Jewish?"
Back to our cocoon existence in our fancy new French hotel, in what we discovered later was once the heart of the Jewish Ghetto, in fact the last remaining shule was around the block as was the Yiddish Theatre of Poland.
For the next ten days life revolved around the hotel dining room for meal times; where everyone exchanged thoughts, ideas, impressions and arguments about what we had seen, done and just as important - what we ate that day! What was great to see was how the generations mixed freely, speaking in English and Yiddish and the positive effect it had on everyone. Like my father who adopted but in reality was adopted by two surrogate sons - Norman and Allen, who took some of the pressure off me to be the "responsible daughter" and just take in what was happening.
The following day was the tour of what was once Jewish Warsaw, where we visited: remnants of the Ghetto Wall, the Shule, the Yiddish Theatre, the Jewish Museum, the Jewish Cemetery, the Umshagplatz, the Mila 18 monument, the Ghetto Memorial, Korczak's Orphanage and more. All of which was an extremely harrowing and moving experience (not without incident). And just when you thought depression was going to set in - someone would crack a joke (usually a bad one) and the atmosphere would change. That afternoon, Allen, Norman and I went for a walk around the streets of the central business district looking for a Kantor or money changer and ended on a typical tourist adventure: checking out the people, the buskers, the beggars, the buildings, the shops, how much a sausage cost, how much a BigMac cost? For a few hours we all felt like normal tourists on holiday.
The next day was our only free day. Some people went off exploring Warsaw while others like my parents and I went to visit their respective home towns.
Through contacts we organised a personal driver to take us to my father's town - Radom (which was also where my mother's father was born). We knew already that my father's house still stood and was protected by the Polish equivalent of the National Trust but knowing and seeing are very different. The journey there was uneventful, except for my dad's rising level of apprehension the closer we got. Before the war, the population was approximately 100,000 - a of which were Jewish. Now it had tripled and there was one Jew left. We were extremely lucky to have our own guide in an old friend of my father's cousin - a Polish woman who had protected jews during the war and who had always lived in the town. She literally took my father by the arm and reacquainted him with his past. Initially, he couldn't find any familiar buildings because the town has grown so much but as we got closer to the old part, it all came back (again, I had my tape recorder on). Shops, corners, names of streets, names of people, a lifestyle and not forgetting the horror, all came back to life. My father was like a little kid - wide eyed and excited. The best was yet to come. We walked towards a large square with buildings in various stages of disrepair. And there it was - my father's home! Beautifully painted and preserved. It's hard to describe what the next hour was like - full of emotion, wonder, memories flashing before my father's eyes. The house and the one next to it had been renovated and turned into an art museum. We were lucky to meet the young curator who happily let us wander through each room in the three storey building. He was as moved as we were, actually before we left, he asked my father to sign the visitor's book and make a brief note about his family. Since then, he has been asked to write a detailed history of the families who lived in the house before the war.
To share this moment with my father and also later with my mother, was something I will always treasure. The people are all gone but for maybe a few seconds I could imagine the family all sleeping together in the back room, and my father on the very wide window ledge. Him running up and down the stairs as a child. A few of the jigsaw pieces of my parents past could be placed in the puzzle. A past that was relatively normal and happy before the horror began. For the first time I could actually see my father as a child going to school, taking girls out on a date - NORMAL!
Unlike most people on the trip, I had the opportunity of meeting and speaking with some Poles who were caring, thinking individuals - menshen, people who were suffering economically in an extremely poor country trying to come out from under the yoke of communism. People who openly acknowledged the loss of the Jewish people and culture that shaped their country for centuries. They also acknowledged the guilt a large number of Poles feel towards the Jews and the anti-semitism that still exists and in many cases is condoned by the Catholic Church. They talked about the enormous coverage the Polish Government had given the 50th Anniversary of the of the Warsaw Ghetto in every media. Everyday for a week now there had been documentaries and eye witness accounts of the ghetto and its history and the centuries' old Jewish community on national Polish T.V. They applauded the openness and hoped, as we did, for a change in people's prejudices.
We returned to Warsaw that evening - exhausted on every level but exhilarated nevertheless. As we walked into the hotel dining room, I could see the faces of those in the group who knew where we'd been that day - a mixture of envy and expectation, since so few had found even the streets they were looking for in Warsaw. And here I was, not only did I find my father's home but I was with him at the time. To say I felt lucky that day is an understatement.
The next two days consisted of the official commemorations for the Warsaw Ghetto. The first at Treblinka, which was a two and a half hour journey one way by bus. The bus followed and sometimes crossed the original train tracks to the camp. Everything about that journey was bleak and desolate. As I got off the bus, I was overwhelmed by a wave of inexplicable pain. My father's three sisters and father died in this place. Nothing is left of the original camp except for commemorative stones - 17 thousand to be exact. Some actually have the names of the towns whose citizens were transported here - etched into the rocks. And I must admit that when I finally found the rock that had my father's town on it, I had to touch it, hold it, I guess connect. Tears flowed freely that day for most of us. When the Chazan sang Kaddish, my father had his arm around my neck so tight that I thought I would choke - I didn't dare pull away from him. As we walked back to the bus, I had a sense that we had walked on the ashes and bones of those who had died there - but if that was the only way to connect - then so be it.
Exhausted from the long bus drive back, we arrived in Warsaw to be told that within a few hours we would be going to the Palace of Culture and Science for an evening of Yiddish Theatre. Eventhough the venue was impressive, after speeches from no less than eight dignitaries - the collective patience wore thin. A nice Jewish choir from England sang and finally the Yiddish theatre group appeared. Very moving, but by that stage in the evenings' proceedings I'd had enough Jewish suffering and angst.Day 2 of the official commemorations: Jewish people from all over the world converged on the main Ghetto Memorial square to lay commemorative wreaths. Security was extremely heavy wherever you looked. For some unknown reason my Dad was given the Australian flag to hold with those taking the wreath to the monument stairs. He held that flag for what seemed like hours with no apparent discomfort. Actually, he openly acknowledged that he was extremely proud to be holding the flag of his adopted home.
Later that evening, most of our group boarded the bus to head back to the Ghetto Monument for the final and most important commemoration. Lech Walesa, Prime Minister Rabin and Vice President Al Gore would be making speeches. Security was even more evident as every doorway and rooftop of the surrounding buildings had a policeman. To get into the main area we had to get past Israeli Security which seemed excessive but in retrospect - necessary. As with all the official celebrations, thousands of Jewish people from all over the world were in attendance, with a large contingent of Israeli students. Although I didn't actually see the dignitaries that night (due to being packed in like sardines) and kept behind a security fence - I certainly heard the speeches. Some of what was said was actually very moving and heartfelt, some of course political pragmatism. Nevertheless, the ceremony was very moving.
The next day began what at times felt like "the bus ride to hell" but only in my darker moments. Driving through countryside dotted with villages and small towns and horse drawn carts; we drove towards the camp of Majdanek. The weather was perfect - bleak and cold. This camp, unlike Treblinka, was left intact with barrack after barrack surrounded by double electrified fences and watchtowers. With our guide, we walked through the actual gas chambers - all I can say, is that when I ran my hands over the walls, I swear I felt fingerprints. On one level, like most of us, I had seen pictures of the camps but this was real, too real. Each barrack had been turned into a display, with information and pictures of camp life. Depressing as that was, nothing could prepare me for the shoes. At least one barrack was full - floor to ceiling - with shoes. As my mother said that day: "if only these shoes could talk". The tears weren't there just a feeling of numbness. Horror on this kind of scale is simply incomprehensible to the human mind.
Right in the middle of this insanity, we literally bumped into old friends of my parents from America. Although I'd never met them before, it was as if I'd known them for ever. They had lived with my parents in displaced persons camp in Italy after the war. That time when everyone must have been putting the pieces of their lives back together. So I had grown up with the stories and photos of these people and for me they were my extended family. The joke was they hadn't been in much contact recently so neither knew the other was going to be there. You can imagine the accusations. But the joy in seeing each other was all that mattered. Unfortunately, we couldn't organise another time to meet as our schedule couldn't be altered. After lots of hugs and kisses, we left them to go back to the tour of the camp.
Walking straight into the Crematorium brought me back to the reason I was there. Again, having seen the photos and documentaries couldn't prepare me for the reality. That feeling of numbness and incomprehension took over again. It was a relief to leave this place of death and destruction. It took a while, but eventually someone cracked a joke - thank god!
From there we drove eastward, towards the camp of Sobibor. Like Treblinka, the camp had been liquidated and all we found were memorial stones and a statue. The main difference at this camp, was the fact that the inmates had revolted which brought about the closure of the camp and its death machine. From there we headed to Lublin (the home of Bashevis Singer), where we would stay the night.
Although the hotel wasn't that flash, the city had a nice atmosphere. It has the look of a typical European city with a mixture of the very old and new. After a highly forgettable meal the "young people" (young being 24 to 46), went for a walk through the old part of the city. Something hit me that night - here we were, all children of survivors. It was a miracle that our parents survived such horror but it was a bigger miracle that they had found the courage to have children - us. We were living proof that the Final Solution had failed.
The next morning the whole group went for a quick tour of the old part of the city which is truly beautiful. Then the long drive to Krakow, through more countryside dotted with villages. We passed so quickly through the famous village of Chelm that I literally did not have time to take a picture - perfect!
Krakow is my mother's home town or city to be exact, so I was certainly looking forward to getting there. But along the way the way we stopped in front of the monument to the camp of Plaszow. This was the first camp my mother was sent to went the Jews of Krakow were liquidated from the Ghetto. Like most camps, it had been destroyed by the Germans before they left. Hard to imagine my mother in such a place but I know it's true.
The weather was beginning to warm up and Krakow was such a beautiful city that the prospect of Auschwitz the next day seemed a million miles away.
My parents and I broke away from the group (who were being given the official tour). With my personal guide - my mother - we walked the streets of her past. We found the place where she used to work, some of the places she used to frequent as a young girl and even bought bagels from a vendor on the street. This place, like my father's town, always took on mythical proportions in my mind but not that day. Like my father, she began to recall the places, people and events that used to be her life (yes, the tape recorder was on).
In our hotel that night, no-one seemed to want to go out, whether from sheer exhaustion or more likely, apprehension of the next day's trip to Auschwitz.
In the morning, before the dreaded tour, we spent a few hours wandering through the old Jewish District of Krakow - called Kaziemerz. Standing in the cemetery of the old shule, my mother looked up at the building behind the fence and said: "That's where I used to live". My heart skipped a beat. No-one else in the group was from Krakow, so everyone seemed to share in our excitement. While the others explored the surrounding area; the three of us headed straight for that building. Although alot of the buildings were quite dilapidated, my mother's apartment building was intact. We walked into the foyer and found her apartment but she decided not to go in as it was occupied. Mixed with the memories was a genuine disappointment at finding things changed.
Auschwitz: The trip took approximately one hour and I felt ever bit of it, as did every one of us. In fact, you could have cut the air with a knife. Both my parents had been through the famous gates of Auschwitz - thankfully, for extremely short periods of time. An official guide led us through each of the barracks which now housed a virtual museum of the horror that took place there. More piles of shoes, hair, suitcases - you name it, they had it. At one stage, I stood in front of a display case of thousands of glasses, rims and lens. Without thinking, I looked at my hand which was holding a pair of sunglasses. That feeling of numbness came back. Halfway through this gruelling tour, my parents and I broke away from the group. Rather than go with the group and spend a day in Lodz, we had decided to stay in Krakow another night. Meeting up with our original driver, we headed straight for the other part of Auschwitz - Birkenau, which was a good kilometre away.
I was grateful at this point to be alone with my parents - this felt too personal. We walked into this sea of wooden barracks and I think my father's comment says it all: "When I got off the train and the orchestra was playing and Mengele was making the selections, to the left and to the right, I didn't realise how big this place was". As we wandered through what was once a massive factory of destruction; I wondered, how anyone could imagine they could escape. Where would you go? With the double electrified fences, watchtowers at regular intervals - impossible! We walked into one the barracks and I found the sight of those bits of wood and concrete they called bunks too much, it was all too much! Funnily, my father coped better than I did. I guess he laid to rest a few ghosts that day. I was certainly relieved to be leaving that place but that feeling of pain wouldn't leave for hours. In fact, I felt positively ill. That night, the three of us were to meet with some other friends of my father's cousin who lived in Krakow. It wasn't until I had a shower and changed that I could rid myself of that feeling.
We spent a lovely evening just wandering through the streets of the old Jewish District with two lovely people. Both women (although not Jewish) were dedicated to the preservation and restoration of Polish Judaica, history and culture in Krakow. The also ran a coffee house in the heart of the Jewish District, where they display judaica, art work and promote concerts of Jewish music. That night we were entertained by a group of Polish musicians who were experimenting with Klezmer music. A wonderful ending to what was a harrowing day.
One last look at Krakow, then the long drive back to Warsaw. We caught up with the group by early afternoon and quickly exchanged anecdotes of the previous 24 hours.
A few hours later, to cap off the trip, we were invited to the Australian Ambassador's residence for drinks, with a surprise guest - the Israeli Ambassador. The speeches that were given were what you would expect at such a function. But I do remember a comment the Israeli Ambassador made that stuck and I'm paraphrasing: "Yes, there are real problems here with anti-semitism but if there is one righteous gentile, let's not write this country off quite yet."
Back to the hotel for our last night together in Poland. Time to reflect, compare notes, exchange hugs and addresses. The next day we went our separate ways.
My life hasn't changed as a result of this journey but something is different. Maybe it's just that I have a different perspective but whatever it is, (as I said at the beginning) I will never forget.