Together we will travel back in time, to where I lived, after the war. To the south western corner of dreary communist Poland. To our prewar apartment, with a sunny kitchen and a massive wooden table. The table had seen better days, it was wobbly, actually barely standing upright, but is was always covered with a spotless, white, table cloth, that hang low to the floor.
Now imagine a small child, growing up Fearful of the World Around her. To protect me, I created a sanctuary underneath that table. Nothing and No One could hurt me there. In our apartment, my mother talked about unthinkable things. About the Month long bombing, her city being on fire, devastation, horror and death. How she survived and ran to Russia and Asia. She had read Mein Kampf, what Hitler planned to do to Jews terrified her. After Nazis entered Warsaw, she escaped. Barely a Woman, she was 22. She took with her only a few personal items. Photographs, keepsakes, her entire identity, all that, she left behind.
After she returned to her beloved city, 6 years later, she learned of the details, of what Hitler did to her people. Surrounded by a Jewish Graveyard she lost part of her sanity when she discovered Not One Member of her family had survived. Running away is what saved her, pain and helplessness came next. Overwhelmed by grief and remorse she lived among the ghosts of her family from then on.
Photographs are used as a way to remember and connect. But Not One Photograph existed that connected my mother to her family. She mourned and brought them back to life daily. She painted pictures of her loved once, with words.
I saw no tangible evidence that Mother’s family ever existed. I tried to understand how they could just, vanish, Adek, Sala, Anja, their husbands, their wives, and their children. I was frightened and distraught, but also ashamed. I did not believe my mother. In order for my child’s mind to reconcile something I couldn’t grasp, I decided that my mother was making up this family, that those people had never existed. Freud said, that in order to mourn you have to know what had lost.To protect myself from this anguish, I looked for ways to feel safe. I focused on her stories about Russia, which I spun into incredible adventures. I pictured her living in exotic places. The beautiful cities of Saratov and Moscow where she even fell in love. She lived in Central Asia, in the desert, under hot sun, and ate exotic food. My mother was heroic and strong, blond, blue eyed, splendid and beautiful, in her brand new, custom tailored, black coat. I would never allow myself to see her be hungry, chase after a piece of black bread, be sick with malaria or get arrested by NKVD, secret police.
The Russian stories, of where she survived, made me want to be like her, to travel to faraway, exotic places, to follow in her footsteps. After all I was her daughter, I inherited her spirit, we saw the world through the same set of eyes. I followed in my mother’s resolve, I lived under hot sun, slept in a tent, rode a camel and ate exotic food. I excavated the desert at Tel Beer-Sheva, Israel. Observed the lives of Arab men and women, evoking my mother’s stories of strange lands.
It was during my time, at City College of NY, in Prof. Elie Wiesel’s classes, that I connected the dots, of how the Holocaust effected my mother and me. I see him clearly, slender and frail but determined, full of great urgency. The horrors he lived through were visible on his face. He was 15 when he with his family were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Romania. He was liberated at Buchenwald.
Wiesel’s horrors, triggered in me my childhood memories, of growing up with the ghosts of my mother’s murdered family. Freud called it “shadow memories,” acquired traumas. Trying to atone what can neither be undone nor ever understood, much less resolved. My childhood in Poland now made sense. I understood that in losing her entire family my mother could not escape her past. By engraving her stories into my memory she pledged me, as the “memorial candle” the link between the past and the future, I was their voice.
When I told Wiesel about my mother, he said, “Your mother must write her story. Future generations must know.” It was a great risk to her sanity and health to reenter her unbearable past, but for the sake of the truth my mother wrote. She bravely brought her family and her Jewish life from Before the War Back to Life. And on the day she died and for the next six years I entered my mother’s world, and I confronted the ghosts of my childhood. Wiesel’s advice to me, “do not be afraid of the journey ahead.”
Prof. Wiesel was the catalyst, my mother conveyed strength and perseverance, and left me with a living document, giving a voice to those whose voices were silenced.
June 12th 2016, about 3 weeks before his passing, I was invited to tell this story on the stage at The Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica, Ca.
I was born in communist Poland after the war, where I lived with my family until the late 1960s. Before leaving for America, I attended High School, Szalom Alejchem in Wroclaw. I graduated from CCNY with a BA. I received my MA from UCLA, and was awarded a grant, allowing me to conduct research and travel to Poland and Israel. Meeting professor and writer, Elie Wiesel, through the Department of Jewish Studies at CCNY, I realized the importance of Holocaust survivors’ stories. I insisted my mother write down her incredible accounts she shared with me throughout my life. For me, the 2G, I had no way of knowing, but the seed for writing “Memory is Our Home” was planted in my childhood. Looking back in time, I know now that my entire life was a preparation, to be “a memorial candle”. I assumed the burden of my parents’ emotional world and I became the link between the past and the future. This history is embedded deep in my memory, my soul, it is part of my DNA.
“Memory is Our Home” was published by ibidem- Verlag, an academic press, in April of 2015. Distributed by Columbia Press.
Polish version, May 2016. “Memory is Our Home” was published in 2015 and in Warsaw, Poland, May 2016 “Pamięc jest naszym domem”
Thanks for sharing 🙂