Goodbye, Warsaw. You are all sorts of awesome.
When my grandfather and I attended the 70th Anniversary Event commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp back in January, I had no idea that it would bring us back to Auschwitz just a few months later. We have been asked to return by the Auschwitz Memorial Museum to attend the inaugural International Conference on Education about Auschwitz and The Holocaust: Remembrance Has Not Matured In Us Yet… “The idea of the conference refers to the commemoration marking the 70th anniversary and the appeal of the Survivors to take action against hatred and anti-Semitism. The conference agenda will include panel discussions, workshops and presentations and will be held at various places within the Auschwitz Memorial Site. It focuses on issues connected with education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust.”
As we travelled from Warsaw to Auschwitz, watching the green Polish country-side pass by, I could not ignore that I was tracing my grandfather’s journey so many years ago, following his evolution from a child of Warsaw to ghetto resident to concentration camp prisoner. I felt it every step of the way. Because there he was, by my side, shadowing his own experience at the same time.
Travel writer Khadijat Oseni asked me to guest blog for her series Jetsetter Problems, based on my previous trip to Auschwitz with my grandfather. Her blog offers a variety of perspectives from travelers and the places they visit, and how those places affect them. My entry set a much different tone than many of her other essays. But i’m grateful that she asked me to contribute and that she felt this specific story was an important one to share. It’s a small sample of what we experienced, and also a sense of what was to come. CLICK TO READ.
We drove down to Auschwitz from Warsaw in a private van with one other passenger, Zofia Posmysz. Even though we could barely communicate, I liked her from the moment we picked her up. When she got in the car, she took off her awesome vintage 1920’s hat and gave me a Werther’s Original. Zofia had become a prisoner of Auschwitz some time before my grandfather, arrested for handing out leaflets for the Polish Underground resistance. Germany was intent on taking over Poland, and many in Poland were determined to put up a fight. Although Zofia was held in a different part of the camp with other Polish nationals and political prisoners – away from the Jews and other undesirables, my grandfather asked her a few names, to see if they knew similar people. There was some vague overlap, but nothing too revealing. Auschwitz was a huge camp, and I imagine it to be a monumental task to try and unearth faces and names from over 70 years ago, from an era that you spent so much of your life trying to block out. But, for orientation, there is always Your Number.
Halfway through the ride, we stopped along the road for pierogies and chicken soup (extra hot). We were the only ones in the restaurant: me, my grandfather, Zofia, our driver Marian, and Klaudia a volunteer from the memorial museum. As we received our coffee (very hot), the Survivors rolled up their sleeves and began to compare. Zofia: 7566. David: 83526, though only the curve of the 6 remains, the rest having been removed. They spoke in Polish, at first serious, and then pointing to their tattooed numbers and laughing. As we walked back to our van, I asked my grandfather what was so funny. He told me: after he came to the United States soon after the war, people would often ask him what the number on his arm was. They had no idea. It was not something you talked about. ‘Eventually, I just started telling people it was my phone number.’ He was telling this to Zofia. ‘Me too!’ she said.