Magazine article The American Prospect

Six Polish Women

Magazine article The American Prospect

Six Polish Women

Article excerpt

Not long ago my wife, Ilene, and I journeyed to Auschwitz, which I had been reading about, it seemed, for much the greater part of my life. As it turned out, I had a good deal yet to learn. My teacher was Alicja, the pleasant and scholarly camp researcher with whom we spent the day. The first thing she disabused me of was the now fashionable notion that Auschwitz has become an essentially commercial attraction. The truth is, there is no charge to enter the site and little for sale, no trinkets or mementos, only a few posters, a light lunch, and the modest and largely pedagogical books put out by overworked archivists like Alicja herself. The visitor need not fear amplified guides, a crush of tourists, or slickness of any kind. Poland is too poor, and the staff too dedicated, to permit the creation of an East-European Disneyland.

Through morning and afternoon I noticed only two instances of vulgarity: The wood of the prisoners' bunks had been carved by adolescent boys--Bruno! Bruno!--who are perhaps already old enough to feel regret; and a cell phone beeped out the first half-stanza of, of all things, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," before the shamefaced recipient of the call could run out of sight to answer it. In short, everyone seemed to behave in the spirit of the simple signs posted in every language: Please behave appropriately, respecting the memory of those who suffered and died here.

There are, however, two types of visitors that Alicja cannot welcome. The first is children. Indeed, those under 13 are overtly discouraged from entering the grounds of the camp. Yet they were everywhere--infants, toddlers, eight-, nine-, and 10-year-olds romping before or gazing at the mountains of human hair, the landscape of luggage and spectacles, the actual apparatus that had pushed the Jews into the ovens. Alicja literally wrung her hands. But when I asked her why she and her colleagues did not forbid those who were too young to assimilate such terrors, she replied, "What if the child we turned away were the grandson of a survivor? How would we feel then?" The line is drawn, however, with the crowd of Holocaust apologists, revisionists, deniers. Alicja, a scholar, feels moral revulsion at the thought that anyone would seek to use the resources of Auschwitz in order to deny its very existence. "When David Irving asked to review our archives," she said, "we told him he could not."

But Alicja's chief gift is more personal than professional. By the time our visit ended I had come to understand that she knew me almost as well as she did the history and meaning of the camp. She had a way of sensing my mood and knowing what to do to restore my equilibrium. When I felt numbed by dissociation at the sight of honeybees at work among the cornflowers at Birkenau, she led me to a photograph of young trees behind a flaming funeral pyre and showed me how those same trees, solid now in bark and branch, still stood as survivors themselves. Similarly, when she caught my dismay at the enormous cross that Pope John Paul II had used to make Auschwitz a kind of Calvary, she brought me without a word to the wall of a cell onto which a Polish resistance fighter had scratched a tiny crucifix, hidden among the upright slashes with which he counted off the days until his execution.

I do not believe that sort of empathy can arise unless one has undergone a certain degree of suffering of one's own. As we chatted while awaiting our ride back to Cracow, I learned that Alicja was born and grew up in Oswiecim and had lost an uncle in this very camp. Forced to visit Auschwitz at the ages of eight and nine--no wonder she objects to children within its gates!--she suffered repeated nightmares for years. Even now she finds it difficult to explain how she came to dedicate her life to understanding what happened in the place she vowed never to set foot in again. I do not think she will object if I say that what she shares with every Jew is what Freud has called the fascination with, and the return to, the repressed.

The day after our visit we took the intercity express, Cracow/Warsaw. I boarded first, pulling my heavy suitcase down the narrow corridor. Ahead of me two, maybe three, young men seemed to realize that they had entered a first-class coach by mistake. They turned and forced their way by me, trampling over my valise, shouting commands, pinning me briefly to the wall. Goodness, what rude fellows, I thought, as they disappeared into the adjacent car. Then, as Ilene and I settled into our compartment, I realized that my wallet was gone.

I made a mild fuss (how, after Auschwitz, can one make a big one?), which elicited much sympathetic clucking in Polish. But the man in our compartment, whose special tariff we could no longer pay, told us we would have to take down our luggage and depart. Just then a quite beautiful and well-dressed Polish woman appeared from nowhere and, in perfect English, offered to give us the few hundred zlotys we required. She would not accept the 20 or so dollars Ilene managed to find in her purse ("You are a guest in Poland"), nor would she allow us to write down her address so that we could repay her later. I am afraid these words will have to serve as her only thanks.

Now the man who had wanted to evict us was all smiles, happily opening the recalcitrant tops on our bottled water, chatting with us about his many voyages, and, upon learning that we had just come from Auschwitz, sighing, "Those were very bad times." He was traveling with his wife and daughter, an adorable six-year-old who dutifully counted for us, in our own language, up to 20. "See?" said her papa, as doting a dad as I'd ever encountered. "We must depend upon Monika to save the world." Monika's attention, however, had been caught by someone passing through the outer corridor. She whispered in her father's ear. He laughed, pulled open the latch, and allowed his daughter to jump from his knee and out of the compartment. He said something to his wife in Polish, and they chuckled. "It is the film of Disney," he explained. "Mulan. She has seen it already four times. It is her favorite. There! There! Look! You will see!" At that Monika returned, giggling, pointing into the aisle, where she'd left a baffled passenger. The whole family burst into guffaws. "Monika! You found a Chinaman!"

In Warsaw we had a luncheon date with the literary agent who had recently arranged to have my novel King of the Jews published in the country where it had been set. She had many other American clients, had traveled extensively in the United States and around the world, and possessed a refined taste and great good humor. Nonetheless, what happened in the course of our meal reminded me of another woman, a guide who once took the famous writer Aharon Appelfeld on a tour of that same city. She too was a woman of the world, a medical student, fashionable and up to date in every way; yet when she led Aharon into St. John's Cathedral, she suddenly disappeared. Where had she gone? The writer looked everywhere, and only after a minute glanced down. There was the future doctor, prostrate on the floor, her arms spread outward in a cross. In the restaurant I asked my agent directions to the Jewish Cemetery, the largest such burial ground in Europe, which long since had been walled off and abandoned in the center of her city. A blank look. A shrug. She had no idea that any such place existed.

Ilene and I found our way to the cemetery on our own. Alas, it had already closed for the day, which was our last in Europe. The high, nondescript walls stretched for block after block, enclosing the whole of 75 acres. The only portal we found was securely shut. As we turned to go a middle-aged woman, gray-haired and in a shapeless black dress, hurried forward and began to bang on the gate with a balled-up fist. No reply, though we did notice, through a chink in the doors, that a few people were standing about inside. The woman pounded again, then turned to us and asked in French where we were from. "Ah, Boston! C'est beau, non?" But before we could respond she resumed her efforts, so that the old doors creaked and rattled.

"Et vous, Madam?" I ventured, my French rustier than the giant hinges. "Etes-vous Francaise?"

The woman howled. "Quoi? Moi? Francaise? Une femme Francaise? Ha-ha-ha!"

Suddenly, the door swung wide. The leader of a small Jewish tour group agreed to let the three of us inside. The woman went first, laughing still, and left us with a wave.

The cemetery, much like the barracks of Auschwitz, had been plundered during and after the war, for its granite, its marble, its artifacts, and is subject to repeated vandalism to this day. In the main, however, it has been left over the past half-century to rot. A solitary Jew tends to the place, as his father had before him, fighting what is clearly a losing battle against the spread of the trees and shrubs, the underbrush of ferns and vines. I wandered off alone, along what were half-forest and then half-jungle paths.

The last light of day fell through the foliage. On all sides, and underfoot too, were the tombstones of two centuries of Warsaw Jewry: the beggars and big shots, tailors and toilers, butchers, waiters, salesmen, and every variety of artiste--I.L. Peretz, Ida Kaminska, the famed Zamenhof; there the tall spire of a merchant prince, there the loaf-shaped coffin of a child, and there, all mossy, stone-covered, the tablet of a wonder-working rabbi. Lucky Jews! Happy Jews! Safe in the ground! Behind strong walls. The leaves, not yet even August, falling on your tombs.

It had grown dark. The paths, crisscrossing, faded from view. I walked through the maze. I tripped on a root. A vine clutched my shoulder. I quickened my pace, turning back on myself, finding the same obelisks and hunchbacked headstones--BROMBERG, MANKOVSKY, NAPARSTEK, SCHARF--I'd seen before. Was I lost in an enchanted forest? Surrounded by two hundred thousand ghosts? Would I, like the child in the fable, have to curl up within a hollow tree trunk for the night? Then, as I stumbled about in the gloom, I heard a high-pitched peal, like the cackling laugh in a fairy tale. But this was no sorceress, no witch. I followed the sound, back toward where we'd entered the graveyard. In a small clearing close to the gate stood the band of tourists, my worried wife, and the gray-haired woman in black. When she saw me she burst out in yet another gale of laughter and pointed to her breast. "Moi? Moi? Voila, Monsieur. Je suis Polonaise!"

LESLIE EPSTEIN directs the creative writing program at Boston University.

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