Leaving Warsaw

Leaving WarsawAs I walk the streets of Warsaw today, it’s easy to recognize a Poland disparate from the one where my grandparents had grown up; where my grandparents had watched their families get shipped to Treblinka, wither beside barbed wire fencing, and get gunned down before them.

 

Now there are kebab shacks on Warsaw’s main thoroughfares and skate parks behind stately buildings. But no matter how many lines snake from popular breakfast eateries or how many Polish teens amble through the mall, aloof, their thumbs quietly hammering at smart phone screens, but I can’t shake the Warsaw where my grandparents had been herded into the ghetto. I can’t shake hearing every rotten anti-Semitic phrase their Polish neighbors had shouted at them religiously, from “Dirty fucking Jew” to blaming my people for bloodletting Christians to use their fluid to prepare the matzah.

 

I go underground to catch a train. These are different people, I tell myself now, just as I’ve told myself on the previous two trips to Poland. Different, I say again, trying to erase the swastika I had seen in the square in Lublin, the figurine of a penny-clutching Jew for sale in Warsaw’s Stare Miasto, and the multiple anti-Semitic barbs thrown at me and the group of Jews I had been walking with on the stroll from the synagogue to the hotel in Lublin.

 

Standing underground, I listen for my train, and pace with impatience. I want to get out of the underground. The stories of Grandma’s comrades trudging through the piss and shit in an attempt to escape the ghetto fills the space. I can picture the man who had opened the sewer cover; I can see him drop. The approaching train makes the same sound that the bullets had probably made as they cut short his life, and submerged him in the piss and shit. The bullets that chased her back into the ghetto for the uprising.

 

But this is a different city. And the reminders of my grandparents’ Warsaw attempts to speak to that change, to the way the city remembers: the statue outside of the new Jewish museum honors the Jewish fighters; the small and crumbling section of ghetto wall still stands; the new art project stretches over the road in place of where the bridge had been, the one that moved Jews from one ghetto to the next; the mound where Mila 18 stood, where Analewicz’s bunker bubbles from the earth. I’m comfortable in that Warsaw: the world of those dead and damaged Jews.

 

The train departs the city. I wait for the relief, but I only feel worse. There were just too many stories about trains and trolleys into and out of these forever ruined cities.

 

“Jew, Jew, Jew.” That’s what the Polish boy had shouted when Grandma was attempting to escape her hometown–where 12,000 of her neighbors and family members had just been murdered–for the Warsaw ghetto. The Nazis had been gathered outside, and the conductor charged at her like a rhino. But her father had given her a coin, which she used to bribe the conductor.

 

Poppy’s train had been heading to Treblinka. But he wore a wire around his waste. He used it to cut through a bar on the window and then jumped from the moving train. A heroic story with only a miserable ending: he watched the cattle cars continue to the extermination camp with his four sisters and parents inside.

 

The Poles were not the Nazis. But some were conspirators, some collaborators, some cold-blooded murderers. Poles denounced Jews for provisions. Jews dragged from their homes to the cattle cars watched as their Polish neighbors waited with sacks to loot the emptied houses. Jews ran and hid from the Germans, only to have some Pole shoot them dead.

 

Grandma’s brother had survived the entire war in hiding. Nearly. But when he was forced to move locations, a Polish police officer shot him dead on the streets. It was during the last weeks of the war.

 

“If the tables were reversed,” a Polish man had asked Poppy, “would you have risked your family to save us?”

 

“Maybe I wouldn’t,” Poppy said after some thought, “but I wouldn’t sell you out for a pound of sugar or a million dollars.”

 

I look around the train compartment. I can’t help wonder about the sophisticated mother reading a novel, the teen flitting her fingers at social media apps, and the elderly lady reading a Polish-language gossip rag. Who were their parents and grandparents and husbands? Did they support the forthcoming legislation that would punish anyone who criticized Poland for their role in the war? I worry that the years didn’t make anything better. I worry that I feel this way; in this new century, in this new millennium, with these innocent people.

 

Outside, the Polish countryside zips by. The graffiti apropos of train travel is troubling. I look for things that are not there: swastikas, Polish phrases that mean, Jews Out. Or maybe they are there and it’s lost in translation and speed. Perhaps I’m paranoid. Or just prepared. Something that no one in my family was in 1942 when the liquidation of Otwock sent nearly everyone to the gas chambers. I watch the forest move past. Mass graves had to be everywhere. For instance, in Otwock, a stone acknowledges the 2,000 people in Otwock gunned down in the woods off Reymonta Street. But there had been 4,000 Jews murdered in the forests. Where were the stones for the other half? Where were those bodies.

 

In America, kids learn at a young age they should try to dig to China. In Poland, I am certain, kids do not dig holes.

 

Still, I look through the forest. The trees block the unmarked, unremembered, unChristian dead.

 

The old lady flips the page in her magazine and examines the page where some Polish soap opera star, or whomever, stares off. The mother engages in her fiction. The teen composes a text, adding little emojis to summarize what she feels or thinks or dreams of. Nobody looks out the window. We speed past it all.

 

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If you’re interested in my grandparents’ stories, pick up a copy of my book about their lives, A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets.

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Posted on by Noah Lederman in Europe, Somewhere

2 Responses to Leaving Warsaw

  1. Juliann

    Powerful story! The Holocaust is something that will always fascinate and horrify me. I can never make sense of it despite visits to concentration camps, college classes on the subject and reading innumerable books about it. I think, like you, I would see dual images from the train: the past and the present, because they are both a part of Poland’s history.
    Juliann recently posted…Danke Schoen, Wayne Newton!My Profile

    • Noah Lederman

      Thanks Juliann. I always feel differently about some of these places until I’m actually there.

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