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I’ve been going through my pictures from Poland and this is the last one in the roll. My grandfather gave me this Russian hat to keep me warm on the days we were walking around Auschwitz. Appropriate, since the Russians were the ones to liberate the concentration camp. On our last morning in Warsaw, I decided to wear it to breakfast, as well.
Since I got back home to Philadelphia, I have not been able to stop thinking about a lot of things. For instance, my grandfather’s tattoo. When my grandfather entered Auschwitz, the Nazi guards took away his name and replaced it with a number, 83526. It was one of the many ways they made sure to remind their prisoners that their individual lives had no meaning. Years later, and months after he arrived in the United States, my grandfather went through an expensive and painful plastic surgery procedure to have it removed. His arm was sewn in such a way that the skin kept pulling as it tried to heal together. He could not sleep for a year. Today, still, a curve of the 6 remains. There are survivors of the concentration camps who never had their tattoos removed, but lived the rest of their lives never wearing short sleeves, even in summer, even to the swimming pool. The tattoo is such a cruel metaphor of the legacy of the Holocaust. Even after being liberated from hell, these prisoners are never fully free. How deep does that ink go? What nightmares persist? We can never fully understand, but we owe it to these survivors, and to all those that were slaughtered, to try.
Go. Visit. See the museums, experience the camps, read the stories. Talk about it. The Auschwitz Museum [http://auschwitz.org/en/] and other organizations like it are doing incredible work preserving the camps and archiving the documents and recounting the stories. Reminding us that this is real. This happened. We need to be honest about history. We need to be honest especially about the darker sides of humanity we don’t want to admit exist. Because they do. As Primo Levi another Auschwitz survivor famously said, “It happened, therefore it can happen again… It can happen anywhere.”
And it does. It continues. Injustice, and cruelty, and oppression, and genocide. They persist. It is easier than we think for injustice to remain hidden until it is too late. So we cannot hide our heads in the sand. Remembering the Holocaust is not enough. Stay informed. Pay attention to the news. Ask questions. Speak up. Voice your opinion. Education is a weapon and a defense against propaganda and fear. Silence is a response. Stillness is a move. I am even more convinced now that we live in a world where we are responsible for each other and we must remind each other of our own humanity.
I have such profound respect for survivors like my grandfather who felt it was within their power to shield their families from the pain and trauma of what they went through. And so we owe it to them to hear their story – when they are ready to tell it, and when we are ready to listen. Already, this trip has started conversations within my own family that we have never had before. Ask your grandparents about their own stories, talk to your parents, your aunts and uncles. Tell your children your story. Do it honestly. The things that happen to us reverberate through the generations and in hearing about them, we can understand ourselves that much more. We all deserve to know where we come from. After my time in Poland, I know I do.
Thank you for going on this journey with me, for sharing your comments and messages. The conversations here have made this experience even more meaningful. There are more experiences I want to share and more stories to tell, and once I figure out how the internet works, I’ll figure out the best way to share them.
In the meantime, I’ve put all my posts here on my blog so you should be able to find them easily.
More than ever, I feel a responsibility to keep telling this story. Thank you for listening.
Wherever we went in Poland, there were signs for Kantors, or Money Exchanges. Some were regular Kantors, open during normal business hours; and some were open at all times, the 24-Hour Non-Stop Kantors. And that was the big joke, because that has been my grandfather’s title for the past several decades. The Cantor. The singer in the synagogue. The guy with the big voice. The teacher. The officiator. A whole life of being a leader in the Jewish community, while also having a whole other life I could never fully know and can hardly imagine.
How can anyone come out the other side of the Holocaust and still be sane? How do you find a way to still make life worth living? How do you still find the good in people? I’ve heard his story many times, especially on this trip, and I find with each telling that I’m still learning something new – about him, about myself, about the way the world works.
There have been difficult nights after difficult days during our travels – and yet, in the morning, he is waltzing out the front door of the hotel, singing to the strangers in the lobby. Singing out loud, in his big voice. My very own 24-Hour, Non-Stop Cantor.
Just in case you didn’t think we were staying at a classy hotel, there is a glass candy dish at the front desk. I unwrapped a candy and put it in my mouth before I noticed it had my name printed on the wrapper. In Polish, wiśnia means cherry. You can find Wisnias in lots of things: cake, soup, vodka. The famous Polish black cherry liquer is called Wiśniak. And it’s not just food. Just outside of Warsaw there is Wiśniowa Street, which can be found not far from Wiśnia river, which runs alongside Wiśnia mountain. My research team is going to have to figure out which came first: the Wisnia or the Black Cherry. Regardless, I’m coming home with a handful of Wisnias in my pocket.
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Last Night in WarsawTweet
On the train back to Warsaw with #MyPolishWisnia.
I am still sorting through a lot of emotions and thoughts after spending time in Auschwitz. My grandfather had taken me 11 years ago as well, but this time has been different. I am feeling more of a connection to Poland itself. I am feeling more connected to the family I never knew as my grandfather points out all of his memories. Perhaps this is bound to happen when the blood of your family is still so fresh in the ground.
Is that too heavy? Well, let me also say that Poland’s snowy countryside is beautiful, and I’m enjoying this free WiFi and free coffee. Free WiFi and Coffee on the commuter train! Jeez, get it together America. Poland knows whats up.
Pickled cabbage, baked rolled chicken, and kluski.
This plate could not possibly be any more Polish.
KLUSKI [KLOO-skee] pl noun: generic Polish name for all kinds of soft, mushy dumplings, usually without a filling; distinct from pierogi and stand-alone pasta dishes; there are many different types of kluski, differing in basic ingredients and preparation method (singular: klusek or kluska)
usage: “I’m up to my kluskis in kluski.”
Dirty Jokes & Apple Juice.
My grandfather knows how to throw a dinner party.