Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Train

Our train pulled into a station somewhere between Fez and Marrakech. A man in his early twenties wearing jeans slid open the glass door to our compartment, ushered in his wife––clutching a four-month-old baby swaddled in white cloth––and guided her to take the seat next to me. Hoisting a small bag into the overhead storage rack, he then sat opposite, between my husband who was reading a book, and a swarthy, chatty man in his sixties with a thick middle. 
       “As-salaam Alaykum––peace be with you,” the couple smiled as we exchanged greetings in Moroccan Arabic, the young man nodding to each of us with a warm, toothy smile, his dark-brown eyes fixated for a moment on each of the three strangers, then flitting between us, his wife and his baby. 
       Within minutes the older man had turned to mush and leaned toward the baby, smiling, cooing something we couldn’t understand, the young man and his shyer wife chattering back and forth with the older man, as if he were family.
       “Welcome in Morocco,” the black-curly haired young man then smiled at me and my husband, his beautiful wife smiling at us too, lowering her thick-lashed eyes bashfully as she jostled the baby who had begun to scream and fuss. 
        Bounding out of his seat and squeezing next to his wife, the young man scooped up the baby. He stood and hovered the child above his head, cajoled and whispered sweet-somethings to her. The baby giggled, the older man “aaaahed,”  laughing. The young wife smiled too, and we all struck up the kind of conversation that occurs in train carriages around the world, despite language barriers––them: “Why are you in Morocco? How do you like it?”––us: “How old is your baby–do you have other children too?”
        An hour or so after we’d learned about their parents, brothers and sisters, and that they were headed to Marrakech for a few days vacation, we felt as if we’d been guests at their wedding a year and a half earlier. The young mother, draped in a sapphire blue headscarf, suckled her baby under a white cloth, the man opposite slept with his glasses tipped on the end of his nose, and I gazed out the window at vast red-desert plains, a faint smile on my lips.   I wondered why––in crowded carriages of the London Underground, the New York Subway, and to-and-fro from work on trains in Boston and Melbourne––we all stare down at our books, tap on our laptops, listen to music through our headphones.   What would happen, I wondered, if we had the courage to speak to the person sitting next to us?


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Package From the Past

 When I yanked my suitcase from the swirling luggage carousel, it landed on the floor with a thud.  A paper tag had been wrapped around the handle at the check-in counter in Australia. “HEAVY,” it read.  Inside the suitcase wedged in-between my clothes, cardboard boxes and metal boxes were filled with old documents, papers, and letters written on thin airmail paper. My wheeled hand-luggage was heavy too, filled with more paper. And black-and white photos of my grandparents that had been snapped in Warsaw in the 1930’s, plus pictures of a five year old girl with flowers in her hair frolicking in the mountains near Dachau, Germany; my mother in 1947 after she’d been flown there in a military plane from Poland a year earlier.

At home, I lay out the items carefully on a table. My mother has downsized recently. She’d given me this trove of memorabilia for safe-keeping. It will help to round out my book manuscript, enable me to describe what things looked like, the mountains towering behind her as she dipped her toes in a river, a year after her tummy had ached and gurgled while shivering with hunger in the dust and rubble of a bombed-out Warsaw.

A rectangular black cardboard box lies on my table, stuck together with tape. Inside is a ruler with measurement lines so tiny that I reach for my glasses. Scratched into the white resin is a barely legible date: 18.III.1932, and a name: Julek.  Julek had gifted the slide rule to my grandfather while they studied engineering at Danzig University. (Julek later committed suicide when he was about to be arrested by the Germans.)

My grandfather once published an article about his slide rule in an engineering magazine.*  “At the moment of my arrest I had the slide rule in my pocket,” he wrote, describing the day the Gestapo grabbed him, in 1944.  Three months later, the SS officer who'd interrogated him escorted him to a labor camp.“He stopped me before the gate and gave me back my slide rule,” Zdzislaw wrote. “My slide rule came with me through Auschwitz, Natzweiler and Dachau camps.  I was able to smuggle my rule even when naked in the showers.  I kept it under my feet.”

The slide rule might be obsolete–replaced by software tools and apps that generate the complex calculations for constructing buildings–but its journey through history is not.

*Przygoda, Zdzislaw, Slide Rule Column Brings back Memories, Canadian Consulting Engineer, July 1983

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Bring on the Rain

Walking with my dog through fields by my house, the grass is toasted light brown. It snaps and rustles under my sneakers,  reminding me of sunburned Australia, (without the poisonous snakes). My dog runs ahead, seeking shade from the hot sun, while a squirrels drags itself up a tree, as sluggish as the mouse-like voles the dog has been pouncing on in our yard. Water in one pond has dried up. Stinky mud is all that is left in another – we are in ’severe drought’  according to the Department of Agriculture. 
Photo: Boston Globe

My book manuscript too, is in need of some kind of rain.  On my sixth draft (or is it ten?) I’m reworking the beginning and ending, yet again.  Each time I scan through the chapters, I want to rip the whole thing up and start over.   There are so many ways I could tell this story.

A few weeks ago, just when the how-should-I-tell-this-story-dilemna made me want to throw in the towel,  I received an email.  “In celebration of our 200th week of publishing, the editors at Narratively have put together a list of our 20 best stories ever…”    
They picked my  essay, about the Nazi who saved my mother,  as their #4!  (Click here to see the 20 stories)

I should keep going then.  I must. The essay was based on an excerpt of my manuscript re-crafted for my writing class last year.   I have a few more  ready to go from Spring semester, but am holding off.  I need to finish the darn book first.   

Today it is raining.  Next week the grass will be green again. I’m sure of it.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Bearing Witness

Elie Wiesel 1928-2016: Holocaust Survivor, Nobel Laureate, and International Leader of the Holocaust Remembrance Movement.

"I believe firmly and profoundly that anyone who listens to a Witness becomes a Witness, so those who hear us, those who read us must continue to bear witness for us..." 

                                "Whoever hates, hates everybody. Whoever kills, kills more than his victims."

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


It is mid Monday morning in Warsaw and already the pavement bakes in the heat of the hot June sun. My first two days, I had avoided walking through streets where my family had lived–Orla, Kredytowa, Graniczna–sealed off by the Nazis late in 1940 by a brick wall. My grandmother would have wanted me to enjoy her city instead of chasing ghosts. So yesterday morning, before jumping in a taxi to visit my mothers’ nuns, I had sauntered down a stone path behind the National Museum, into a park of green grass and luscious chestnut trees, following a boulevard through a network of more parks to Park Ujazdowski, where children ran around ponds and ducked under gazebos.
      But now I am walking to an appointment not far from Orla street. It seems amiss to not drop by. I pass by the grand Opera House that is lined with rows of towering pilasters. When I turn down Senatorska Street, a woman steps toward me and holds out a piece of folded paper. She points to an address written in pencil. She asks me in accented Polish if I know where it is. Wearing a long lightweight dress that ripples in the light wind, her head is covered in an off-white hijab.  Her eyebrows are as thick and black as mine.
     “Nie Polski,” I say. “English?”
      “A little.”
      I pull out my folded map. Circled in pen, next to a Star of David, is the Synagogue, and the Jewish Historical Institute. We both stare at the map.
     “No, I don’t see it. Wait, I’ll look on my phone.” I turn on data roaming and type in her address as she holds up the paper.  “Where are you from?” I ask while we wait.
     “Syria. I live here for two years.”
     She seems nervous. Her eyes dart from me, to the ground, and then she is with me again. “Where you from?” she asks.
     She seems surprised.
     “But my mother was born here - two streets away.”
     “Yes. It was during a difficult time. The area was cut off and most of her family were killed.”
     Her street shows up on my phone and I point to the roads she should walk down. “How do you find it in Warsaw?” I ask.
     “I feel safe,” she says.

Theatre Square - photo

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Welcome Back to Warsaw

Sauntering into the lobby of the serviced apartment building in Warsaw, I didn't pause as I pushed at the glass entry door. I knew how heavy it was.
            “Welcome,” nodded a man in his thirties at the front desk, his closely shaven white-blonde hair contrasting my nearly jet black mop. “This your first time in Warsaw?”
“No.  It’s my fifth. I’ve stayed in this building four times.”
“Welcome back then,”  he smiled, handing me my room card. “Need help with your bags?”
Dziękuję – Thank you, no, I’m fine.”
To be honest, I couldn't wait to offload my suitcase after ten hours of squashing in a tiny airline seat. I planned to soak under the shower, then rush out for a walk.

A few hours later, I wandered along wide streets lined with grand buildings that had been reconstructed after German warplanes strafed and destroyed them––and most of the city––during the war.  This time I ignored clear plaques fastened to facades that had fascinated me on prior trips, describing what had been there before the destruction; courthouses, banks, government buildings.  The city seemed familiar.  Despite construction cranes dotting the skyline, restaurants and landmarks were where I remembered them two years ago.  
Around the corner, close to my ‘home’ for the week, is a street lined with cafes and bakeries. Waltzing into one I had frequented with my mother (when traveling to Poland to meet families of those who'd saved her during the war), I pointed to a slice of dense chocolate cheesecake then sat at a table. Sliding a forkfull into my mouth, I closed my eyes, smiling.  Welcome back, Warsaw.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Echoes of the Past?

While sipping on an espresso, I scrolled through Facebook on my iPhone.  This popped up.  It was Holocaust Memorial Day.

More than seventy years ago, a charismatic man stood on podiums whipping crowds into a frenzy.   "If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed," this man once said.

Source: Facebook