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Imaginary Homeland

Visiting Poland—the country where my mother was born—upended the black-and-white fantasy I had created in my mind

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Etgar Keret with Bogdan Tosza, the director of the Łodź Czterech Kultur festival (Elżbieta Lempp)

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

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Bella Goldin says:

You find it hard to refuse the Poles? Funny, they had no problem refusing the Jews when they begged for food, water, safety. Is this how you “respect” your grandparents’ heritage – their lives and their miserable cruel deaths?

    Ziemowit C. Pierzycki says:

    Poland is a country, full of all kinds of people, good and bad just as much as any other country. Your statement is a false generalization, as proven by my family members who saved Jews during the war and paid a price for it. Even so, I’m sorry for what your friends and family members may have experienced in Poland during the war and perhaps after.

The pic is way too dark and text too shmaltsy to treat seriously. Book fairs and folksy festivals are not Poland; neither his parent’s nor today’s.

For Jews Poland has always been black, white and very grey and it always will be.

Hershl says:

Are you a Jew?

Do you know anything about Jewish history?

I find it hard to believe that you seem so cut off from the hell that was Jewish Poland and the almost total lack of empathy toward us shown by Poles.

The Yiddish saying, Scratch a Pole and you will find an anti-Semite, is still very true.

    Marlen says:

    you’re too picky Hershl… the saying you quoted is much more universal: “scratch a goy and you’ll find an anti-Semite”…

      Marlen says:

      “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…” This article is about Etgar Keret’s souvenirs and perceptions and let’s just be glad they’re not negative… Shalom

    Adriana M says:

    it’s sad to read what you say. Actually i’m a Pole, my greatgrandmother helped during the war both her Jewish firends and then in the end, when the Russians came, her German friends… We’re all people, the relations between Jewish and Polish in multicultural pre-war Poland were complex. There was love and friendship but also mutual hostility and hatred like in every society. Actually my boyfriend got to know few years ago that his grandfather was Jewish. You are a part of us and we are a part of you. Try to understand it, please. The history of Jews in Poland is as much my heritage as yours. But I guess, we here, see it usually more in technocolor, using Keret’s words, and you, there, in black and white: only Holocaust, Polish antisemitism and concentration camps. It is so sad. If you want, you can watch a short amateur documentary I made two years ago with my friends about Jewish people in my city. We tried to find some answers back then, but not necessary the simple ones:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlRI6pqzR6w

Enchanting thoughts…beautiful writing that pulls us into the history of our ancestors. I hope there is a book from Etgar about the Jews of Poland.

David Sitbon says:

I will never judge emotional reactions like the ones above. I am talking out of a long period of four years in Warsaw where I lived for work purposes.
There are realities worth knowing about the young Poles discovering they are Jews and being helped in this acrobatic process of reinventing an identity. By the way by an American-born rabbi who is now Chief rabbi of Poland.
There are also numerous instances of Young Poles rediscovering or discovering the important role played by the Jews in their country where they lived 1000 years. It all ended as we know. This is not a reason to play deaf and not admit what is happening even if antisemitism has not disappeared but will at the speed of economic growth and more importantly at the same time regression of the influence of the Church.

Jean Terry says:

I can imagine picturing it in black and white in your mind especially because of the dark Nazi era and old movies of that time. It would seem very grim because of what happened there.

Verificationist says:

Oh, Jesus Christ, ease UP, people.

Bill Pearlman says:

Tells the jews of Jedwebne or Kielce

Dani ben Leb says:

What is of interest so far is the seemingly complete rejection of anything Polish in this thread.
Apart from some empathy on my part, I do also see a particular US Hebrew stance here, that has very little to do with reality, be it on Israel or Poland or anywhere else in the EU for that matter.
Sure, it is a very bumpy ride emotionally. Sure, the grandparents don’t need to know. Fact is this generation is “going”, to Poland, to Berlin, to Germany. Some even make a connection by claiming EU citizenships. Coming full circle.
Life is complicated ( the Jewish paradox ), and having Hitler set the discourse at this stage would be a waste. Just as it was back then.
Let us not forget that the Nazi’s killed millions of Poles. In fact, the ‘Untermensch’ Pole was not far behind the ‘Untermensch’ Jude in the Nazi hierarchy.

Dani ben Leb says:

Ask any Israeli of Keret’s generation, and they will tell you about a classic comedy skit he co-wrote in the 90’s.
The punch line is ” Haven’t the Jewish people suffered enough ? ” ……all else follows from this.
Also, something to keep in mind, the endless amounts of US money that is inflating an unpalatable far right wing religious Judaism is partly to blame for strong interest in places like Poland and Germany. They are more tolerant of young, hip creative Israeli’s than what often waits for the young in Israel. Namely an unreasonable rent situation, making the life they want to live unrealistic.
Here is a recent Haaretz piece on the topic:

http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/why-are-israelis-moving-to-germany-1.384831

Verificationist says:

Bill, no one is saying the Jews of Jedwabne didn’t suffer the gravest suffering available to us. But must every article about Poland begin with an extended flogging of the Poles? Perhaps The New York Times should institute a new policy whereby “Poland” is renamed “Poland, the country that systematically murdered its Jews.” For instance, “The debate about the euro bailout is causing political turmoil in Poland — the country that systematically murdered its Jews.” Do you think that not mentioning it means it didn’t happen, either to us or to them? Do you think that forcibly mentioning it and making it the focus of every discussion is conducive to creating a different dynamic for Jews in the world — which is one of the end goals here, no? Have the Germans conducted the soul-searching that they have conducted over the last half-century because Bill Pearlman won’t let them forget? No one is saying Jedwabne didn’t happen or should be forgotten. Just a little nuance, for God’s sake. This piece — a bit half-assed, by the way, which would have been a perfectly legitimate objection to it — is hardly even about that. It’s about Etgar Keret’s beautiful mind, not the Jews of Jedwabne.

I find it ironic that so many commenters have this knee-jerk reaction about Keret’s piece, given that so much of his work is informed by the fact that his mother is a Polish survivor–in fact, he states that explicitly. Do they think he’s unaware of Polish Jewish history? Do they even care that that is what he often grapples with in his writing? Would a blanket condemnation of Poland’s existence make his work more valid to them?

Dulcy Freeman says:

There’s obviously a lot of pain out there that this lovely memory piece tapped into. Globalizing on any level is not appropriate here. Rather, take the overarching metaphor of black-and-white and expand that, if you will, realizing that any memories we have that are not of our direct experience will not/can not be in the colors of reality. That is always the danger of trying to put things in a context that we did not participate in: selectivity.

It’s exhausting to seek out knowledgeable individuals on this subject, but you sound like you realize what you’re speaking about! Thanks

Not Michael says:

A very interesting piece, and I’m glad I read it.

As for the comments . . . there is nothing like generalizing about an entire nation for centuries!

You know, many, many Poles killed Jews during the Holocaust, but there are more Poles honored by Yad Vashem as righteous among the nations than members of any other nationality. The Holocaust is not so black and white.

Also, Jews formed 10% of Poland’s prewar population, and despite antisemitism and economic competition from non-Jewish Poles, Jews were highly integral to Polish urban life and to the Polish middle class. Poland even overtly welcomed Jews when they were being expelled from Western Europe in the premodern era. So this, too, is a complex story that requires nuanced examination — not just knee-jerk hatred of Poles.

justicegirl says:

Keret is a beautiful writer, someone I’d like to meet.

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Imaginary Homeland

Visiting Poland—the country where my mother was born—upended the black-and-white fantasy I had created in my mind

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