Seeing Spirits in Poland Part One: Family

Visiting Auschwitz was important to my daughters. But I didn’t want to go. Poland is full of bad memories for me. None of which are actually mine.

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My paternal grandparents were both born in Poland, in the south. Pop pop was  a rabbi,  with a long, pious beard that provided the perfect counterweight to his mischievous, crinkly blue eyes.  He hailed from Kielce, a town name that made me think of potatoes, cholent and hot soup. Growing up, I adored my Grandparents, even though I didn’t always understand them.

My grandparents

Grandma grew up in Krosno, enjoying a sweet green childhood that I always imagined as full of cobblestones, kerchiefs and butter churns. She was a “spirited” girl. No kerchief could contain her glowing auburn mane. Even after marriage as a proper rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife), she wore elaborate hats instead of the expected wig or “sheitel” when it was necessary to cover her head.

Observant and modest in every other way, her barely restrained hair was a thing of danger, a proudly coiled crown always threatening to spring free and unleash her super powers,  if you pushed her too far.

Pop pop’s  family owned a tavern, which was a handy thing for surviving pogroms. They were famous for shaving leather saddle scraps and collecting grass clippings to distill into moonshine. Anything organic and fermentable was used to keep the taps flowing and soldiers drunk. Their own tolerance for alcohol was epic. That’s something I’ve inherited.  Slivovitz or vodka, I can breathe fire.  I simply don’t get drunk.

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Grandma’s family was wealthier and more religious then Pop pop’s clan. But they recognized Pop pop, a promising talmudic scholar as an acceptable mate for their strong-willed daughter. He was a couple of years younger and a full six inches shorter than her, but he was a renowned genius. You could stick a pin in any of his massive volumes, and he would be able to tell you exactly what was printed in the paragraph where the pinpoint landed. He was published and had prospects, including the opportunity to come to America.

Sometimes I forget that my father, although born here,  started kindergarten without knowing any English. He spoke Yiddish and was responsible for teaching his parents to speak English as he himself learned.  He grew up with their stories of the old country, and the constant anxious anticipation of news from abroad.

His grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were folded flat into notes and telegrams.

I wish I could say I remember more of my grandparent’s stories but I was the last of the grandchildren, and had the least exposure to their firsthand tales.

My grandparents from Poland

But my grandparents were not the only ones who left a dark impression of Poland on me.

Vivian was our Polish housekeeper in the 1970s, and frequently, my babysitter. Vivian was very intelligent and well educated, but her degrees didn’t transfer to the USA.  She made better money doing domestic work in the USA than she would have made working in Poland at a more academic position.

For decades, Vivian faithfully sent the money home to her son and grandchildren, patient for the day when she could return. In the meantime, we were her surrogate family.

Some children read Grimm’s fairy tales. I had Vivian’s history.

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Vivian had fought with the resistance, saving some Jewish children, but failing to save others. Soldiers and swastikas. Real life children hidden in actual ovens. Games of catch involving babies and bayonets.

Graphic, horrible and worst of all, true.

Her memories must have been a terrible burden. I was small but insatiable in my desire to hear more. Innocent and without judgement. By listening to her stories, I helped lift her burden. Now I carry it still, a battered, dark, imaginary volume.

I didn’t want to re-open and step into this book. I didn’t want to tell my daughters Vivian’s stories. Why should they carry this old book, too?

Sign at Auschwitz

But then, my daughters’ curiosity about Auschwitz, where so many of their ancestors were murdered, was so coolly casual. Impersonal.  It bothered me.

How long must memories age before the emotional attachments fade? Two generations? Four?

I came to realize that the Auschwitz they had come to see, was not unlike a movie set. Or a wax museum.

Reluctantly, I finally agreed to go.

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