From Death to Life in Poland
Allison is the Coordinator of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program and is based at the Harvard Kennedy School. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I married into the Holocaust. Though I have Polish roots, my family came to the Americas before the Nazis started deporting Jews to ghettos and concentration camps. As such, while the Holocaust affected me as something that happened to my people, I never felt it as something that happened to me.
For my husband’s family, on the other hand, the Holocaust hits close to home. Every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, his grandfather (Saba) retells the story of his life in Nazi-occupied Poland where he was a young boy and lost his entire family. Every few years, he takes family members from Israel to Poland, to show them where he grew up and to visit some of the six Nazi concentration camps where he was imprisoned.
This year, Saba invited me to go with him along with his daughter, her husband, and their son who in October will be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces.
I approached this trip like Jews approach Passover – not to learn about it from a historical perspective but to understand it with such clarity as to say, “This is what happened to me when I was a slave in Egypt.” On this trip, Saba became mój dziadek, my grandfather, in Polish. The “in-law” became irrelevant.
My preparations for this trip were full of contrasts, a premonition of things to come. On the one hand, I was traveling to a new country with a different language, culture, and currency. I bought the book Colloquial Polish and spent hours breaking my teeth on the gritty sound of the language.
On the other hand, this wasn’t a vacation. I was retracing someone’s actual steps and documenting them through writing, photography, and video. And it could have been my own story, had I been a Jewish girl growing up in Poland instead of America.
Four decades after coming to Israel, Saba had written down his life experiences in a small notebook. It talked about his childhood in Pabianice and the Łódź Ghetto, about his time in Auschwitz, Birkenau, and camps in Germany and Austria. One day, one of Saba’s daughters found the notebook stashed in a drawer; for his sixtieth birthday, she had it published privately for the family.
So I read Colloquial Polish and Saba’s Story concurrently. First, I met the fictitious Neil Howard, an Englishman on a business trip to Poland. Then, I met the very real Gershon Pelta, who was 10 years old in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. As Neil Howard met the family of his Polish colleagues, German Pelta’s family was expelled from their home in Pabianice. As Neil Howard sat in a caffé ordering cake, Saba was forced into the Łódź Ghetto, where one month’s ration lasted a week. As Neil Howard got to know his new Polish colleagues, Gershon Pelta slowly lost each of his five siblings and parents, who were deported to Chełmno and other death camps, never to be heard from again.
This study in contrasts continued on our trip. In the morning, we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, where Saba survived by working in the “Mourer Schule” where the Nazis taught him to build. In the afternoon, we’d return to Kraków and wander the beautiful, bustling town square with its strolling, well-dressed locals, street performers, and endless outdoor cafés. In the morning, the Majdanek death camp (luckily Saba never spent time there); in the afternoon, Warsaw’s gorgeous city center, rebuilt after being completely leveled by the Nazis.
Our trip provided a rich learning experience for our local drivers as well. I was the designated translator, sitting up front and translating directions from Hebrew to Polish. Our Warsaw driver had a transformational experience with us. We were the first Jews he had ever met and he joined us at every single site – at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, at the Majdanek and Chełmno death camps. Every site had signs in both English and Polish, so he could read in his own language about what had happened. He never learned about this in school.
At Chełmno, he became overwhelmed. He simply couldn’t believe over 150,000 people had been murdered there. He held his head like it was about to explode. The Polish caretaker showed him records and transport lists. I walked slowly with him and told him Saba’s story. Tu – ojciec mój dziadek, siostra, y dziecko – śmierć tu. “Here – my grandfather’s father, sister, nephew – dead here.” Then I took out Saba’s Story, pointed at Saba and said mój dziadek był w Auschwitzu. “My grandfather was in Auschwitz.” I drew a line on my forearm where Saba’s tattoo was and the driver’s eyes widened. Then I read the names of the other camps where Saba was imprisoned, all by the age of 15: Birkenau – mój dziadek. Sachsenhausen, Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen, Gunskirchen – mój dziadek. Each time I said the name of a camp, the driver’s eyes widened further and his jaw dropped open. He was simply speechless.
How did Saba survive six concentration camps? Through the random kindness of strangers: the boy in Birkenau who gave Saba porridge as Saba reached his small hand through the deadly barbed wire of the electric fence; the SS soldier who, on the death march to Gunskirchen, let the children take turns resting on a cart so they wouldn’t fall behind and be shot at the side of the road. Each small act cumulatively saved his life.
When Gunskirchen was liberated, the first person Saba met was an American Jewish soldier; imagine Saba’s disbelief. The soldier gave him chocolate and to this day Saba thinks of him every time he eats chocolate.
After a year of rehabilitation in Italy, Saba arrived in Israel. He fought in Israel’s war of independence; he married and started a family. And when his children married, he used the skills the Nazis taught him to build a house for his family. That’s the house where my husband grew up.
At the suggestion of a friend, I asked Saba to bring some earth from the garden of the house he built. In Poland, at every memorial, every gravesite, every camp where Saba lived, we sprinkled Israeli soil on the ground. While we couldn’t give his family a proper burial in Erez Yisrael, we brought some holy sand to bless the damned earth. We said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
On our last night in Poland, we ate at a Jewish restaurant in downtown Łódź called Anatewka after the movie Fiddler on the Roof. Inside, every available surface was covered with Jewish pictures and paintings. There was a small roof inside the restaurant and every half hour a young woman would climb up and play the violin. Saba asked me if I would sing, so when the violinist finished, I stood up and sang “Raisins and Almonds” in Yiddish (click on the song title to watch the video). Saba smiled widely and sang along; the entire restaurant listened.
The night was rich with meaning. Watching the waitress refill Saba’s glass with their homemade liquor, watching him smile and laugh as he enjoyed his first of a three-course dinner, I was overcome with a feeling of abundance.
On this trip we experienced the tragedy of a void – from the complete silence in the fields of Majdanek and Chełmno to starvation in the Łódź Ghetto to the deaths of millions of people. Yet now we were experiencing an abundance of everything: the overwhelmingly joyful sound of music, more food than we could possibly eat, and more Judaica than we could absorb on the walls. We went from the destruction of Judaism to the abundance of Judaism.
At the end of the trip, Saba and I waited for the taxi to take me back to Warsaw for my flight to the US. “Do you need anything for the trip? Can I give you some money?” he asked. “Saba,” I said, “You have given me so much. My entire being is full of your gifts. I do not need anything else.”
This article is but a sample of the many experiences we had with Saba on our trip to Poland in July 2011. I hope to publish the story in its entirety so that everyone can share in the experience. The scale of the tragedy is so massive, so overwhelming, that sometimes only personal stories can help one truly understand what happened.
I invite you to view my photographs here. And I’d love to hear your comments.