Visiting Poland—the country where my mother was born—upended the black-and-white fantasy I had created in my mind
When I was a kid, I used to try to imagine Poland. My mother, who grew up in Warsaw, told me quite a few stories about the city, about Yerushalayem Boulevard (Aleja Jerozolimskie), where she was born and played as a little girl, about the ghetto where she spent her childhood years trying to survive and where she lost her entire family. Apart from one blurred photograph in my older brother’s history book that showed a tall, mustached man and a horse-drawn carriage in the background, I had no reality-based images of that distant country, but my need to imagine the place where my mother grew up and where my grandparents and uncle are buried was strong enough to keep me trying to create it in my mind. I pictured streets like the ones I saw in illustrations in Dickens’ novels. In my mind, the churches my mother told me about were right out of a musty old copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I could imagine her walking down those cobblestone streets, careful not to bump into tall, mustached men, and all the images I invented were always in black and white.
My first encounter with the real Poland took place a decade ago when I was invited to the Warsaw Book Fair. I remember feeling surprise when I walked out of the airport, a reaction I couldn’t account for at the moment. Later, I realized that I had been surprised that the Warsaw spread before me was alive in Technicolor, that the roads were full of cheap Japanese cars, not horse-drawn carriages, and yes, also that most of the people I saw were utterly clean-shaven.
Over the past decade, I traveled to Poland almost every year. I kept getting invitations to visit and, although I had generally been cutting down on flying, I found it hard to refuse the Poles. Although most of my family had perished under horrendous circumstances there, Poland was also the place where they had lived and thrived for generations, and my attraction to that land and its people was almost mystic. I went looking for the house my mother was born in and found a bank there. I went to another house where she had spent a year of her life and found that it was now a grassy field. Strangely enough, I didn’t feel frustrated or sad, and even took pictures of both sites. True, I would rather have found a house instead of a bank or a field. But a bank, I thought, was better than nothing.
During my last visit to Poland a few weeks ago, for a book festival in another part of the country, a charming photographer named Elzbieta Lempp asked if she could take my picture. I agreed happily. She photographed me in a café where I was waiting for my reading to take place, and when I returned to Israel, I found that she had emailed me a copy of the picture. It was a black-and-white shot of me talking to a tall, mustached man. Behind us, out of focus, was an old building. Everything in the photograph seemed to be taken not from reality, but from my childhood imaginings of Poland. Even the expression on my face looked Polish and frighteningly serious. I stared at the image. If I could have unfrozen my photographed self from his pose, he could have walked right out of the frame and actually found the house where my mother was born. If he were brave enough, he might even have knocked on the door. And who knows who would have opened it for him: the grandmother or grandfather I never knew, maybe even a smiling little girl who had no idea what the cruel future had in store for her. I stared at the picture for quite a while, until my 5-year-old son came into the room and saw me sitting there, eyes glued to the computer screen. “How come that picture has no colors?” he asked. “It’s magic,” I smiled and ruffled his hair.
Translated by Sondra Silverston
For a boy with little exposure to religion, the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons led to a spiritual awakening—that the supernatural may not be the same as the divine
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180
WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.
I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at email@example.com. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.