Thursday, August 11, 2011

Meeting the family

Day 10- Cousins!

We had been very anxious that everything go well for meeting our Polish cousins. Initially we had wanted to take them out to a restaurant, but then we decided we didn't want to seem too flashy (and besides, Abbot Yid's food allergies kept rearing their annoying heads). So instead we offered to feed them at our apartment.

We met Mama Yid's third cousin, who I'll call Paula, her son Janusz and his wife Zofia. Paula was around 60 and only spoke Polish. Janusz spoke some English but mostly Zofia did the translating for everyone. They stayed about four hours, telling us all about their lives, their family, and their past. They said that before I had contacted them a few years ago didn't know they had any family outside of Poland.

Paula said her father's family had considered themselves very Polish before the war. They had gone to Polish schools, had Polish names, spoke Polish at home, etc. An uncle had even been an officer in the Polish army. They had known they were Jewish, of course, but it had been a part, rather than the sum, of their identity.

Paula's father Feliks had been in his early twenties during the war. His two brothers were killed-- one was shot and another may have been deported. His father died of a heart attack and he never found out how his mother died. He and his sister Eva had been hiding when the ghetto was liquidated and then they spent two years in one of the local slave labor camps. Conditions there were very hard. Once his sister got sick with typhus, and he stole an apple to give to her. Her was caught and severely beaten for it.

Janusz mentioned that he had been told a story when he was young about Feliks: during the war he had spent time hiding in a sewer. As a result he suffered from permanent claustrophia: anytime he came into a room he would open all the doors and windows.

Only Feliks, Eva, and their uncle the army officer survived the war. They came back to their homes but Poles were living in them. They moved to a nearby city and found jobs. The uncle died soon after the war ended from cancer, possibly caused by chemicals they were forced to use in the labor camp.

One of the things I was most curious about was why Feliks had stayed in Poland. So many other Jews survived the war and decided to leave, either for Israel, America, Canada, Australia, etc. But not him. Why?

Paula said he would have liked to leave Poland, but that her step-mother didn't-- she felt Poland was their home and that they should stay (I never found out whether she was Jewish or Catholic). Feliks and his sister were very close, but she wanted to go to Israel, and moved in 1956. She wanted to come back and visit but the Polish government wouldn't let her in. When Paula went for a visit in 1967 the war broke out and she flew back immediately. The Polish authorities were suspicious and interrogated her three times to make sure she wasn't a spy. They only stopped after her father paid them a visit and had "harsh words" with them. After Communism ended Eva visited several times. Paula proudly told us she had been on seven trips to Israel.

I asked the family about Jewish identity, but they seemed confused by my questions. They saw no difference between themselves and any others Poles. Yes, there was some antisemitism, they said, but nothing significant. Paula said she hadn't known she was Jewish until she was a young adult, but that it didn't make her feel different. Janusz agreed.

I commented that in America, people often felt like they had an epiphany when they found out something important or hidden about their roots, but that maybe things were different in Poland. Abbot Yid later suggested that maybe this had something to do with the cultural legacy of communism, under which people were encouraged not to stand out or to focus on things that made them different from each other-- the common culture was what was important.

While it was wonderful to see all three of our relatives, Paula was a real hoot. She immediately invented pet names for both my parents, and when I commented on the similarity between her and Mama Yid's haircuts and that they had both worn red shirts, she harrumphed and smiled. "Of course we look alike," she said in Polish. "We're cousins!"

We told them that the next stop on our trip would be Krakow and that this would include a visit to Auschwitz. I said that even though I knew it would be hard I thought it was important that we had spent time understanding how the family had lived before seeing how they had died. I added, "And something we have, which I am so grateful for, and which I know most people don't have, is the first-hand knowledge and perspective that this was not the end, that both the family and Jewish life did not end at Auschwitz. I know that we are still here, in Poland."

To see the family right in front of me, to meet meet living, breathing cousins on Polish soil, made the years of dry research in archives and on computers really come alive. I wouldn't have traded it for anything.

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