Tuesday, August 28, 2018

I GUESS I LOOK LIKE YOU.

I heave my rucksack onto a chair on the restaurant-terrace, next to the gondola station. My table overlooks white, snow-capped alps close to the Swiss-French border.  I reek of sweat, after four-and-a-half hours climbing 1000 meters (3280ft), scaling three ‘Mont’ summits. Last week I’d attended events in Poland, (more on that in a future blog post). I've been hiking for a few days before heading home.  


A waiter trots over and takes my order in English (double espresso first please, then a pot of Earl Grey tea and a Tarte Tartin). 

“You from the States?” A woman sitting with her husband at a table behind me says, in her sixties maybe, long charcoal hair pulled back from her tanned face.

“Yes,” I say, wiping the sweat dripping from my forehead with the back of my hand.  “I’m Australian, but I live in the U.S.”   I should have told her I am a citizen of both countries.


The husband ask about my travels and I tell him I've been in Poland.

“Jewish?” he asks, smiling.

 “Yes!” I laugh, wondering why on earth he would say such a thing. In Australia, my mother raised me Christian. As a child, I’d followed her lead, clapping my hands to upbeat hymns at a Baptist church.  I'd  grimaced when my mother yelled “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” when the pastor recited a scripture or offered advice she liked. (If you’re new to this blog, you can read our story here on narrative.ly>>.)  I’d never identified as Jewish until I moved to the U.S., when I was suddenly surrounded by Jews. My neighbors and work colleagues invited me to celebrate holidays I’d never heard of, like Hanukah and Yom Kippur.  


On the restaurant terrace, the kind-faced woman nods, telling me she and her husband are Jewish too, from Paris, holidaying in the alpine town.  “I guess I look like you,” I chuckle, pointing at my nearly jet-black cropped hair.  

“Ah,” the husband says, raising his thick grey eyebrows, about seventy five I figure from his snow white hair, maybe older. (Eighty-one I will soon discover.) “I have family in Australia, in Sydney and in Melbourne,” he says.

Five minutes later, instead of talking across tables, I pull my chair up to Eddie and Anna’s, turning my back on the alpine views.   I learn that Anna was born after The War.  Her parents, escaped from Poland, left France when the Nazis invaded, paying smugglers to walk them over the Alps, to Switzerland, where they spent the rest of the war.  

I listen transfixed for an hour or more as Eddie tells me his story––that when the Nazis marched into Paris in June 1940, he was six years old. His parents organized to have him hidden in an attic, while using various guises they moved around dodging the Gestapo.  Later, a French policeman took Eddie on a train, to the villiage I now see below our restaurant terrace, that in November 1942 was in the Italian zone, where around eighty percent of France’s Jews had fled. But when the Germans invaded the Italian zone in September 1943 and the SS began rounding up Jews, Eddie’s family absconded, spending the rest of the war hiding in stranger’s homes, women kind-hearted enough to stash them in a basement or attic with blacked out windows, where Eddie nearly suffocated from asthma. 

Annie tells me she attends a Yiddish conversation group in Paris on Thursdays, the oldest member a 91 year old Auschwitz survivor. She says learning Yiddish reminds her of her parents. Her eyes twinkle with tears and I wonder what she’s hiding, who in her family was lost to the Holocaust maybe, like my grandparents, traumas not spoken about, traumas pushed deep, to cope with raising children, when they’d seen children rounded up and shot, or clubbed with guns, or pushed into pits and sprayed with bullets, dirt piled on top.   

I understand Eddie’s lit up face when he describes his mother cutting red, white and blue cloth in 1945 when the war ended, tying it to a mop, waving the French flag from a window.  Given my mother passed away only three months ago, I feel connected to this ‘child survivor’.  I met him only an hour or so ago, but I understand his optimism and his determination. It is the same brand as my mother’s.  

Eddie returns with Annie every year for a month to this once-under-Italian-protection-mountain villiage.   He celebrates life, like my mother did. He relishes every single day.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

THE LAST READING

I’ve been avoiding my blog.  I apologize, but my mother, Joasia, passed away recently after battling a rare disease.  She stopped breathing while I was stroking her forehead.   

Some day (but not today) I’ll write about the months I cared for her.   I finished reading my book manuscript to her in March. Most of my writing instructors and memoirists I‘d heard speak at writing conferences advise against letting those portrayed in a story read an author’s manuscript prior to a publishing deal.  But my mother knew she was dying. And I knew she would never live to see the book published.  So, I began reading to her.  

It was awkward reading over Skype from America, so I waited until I could read to her in person, during two trips to Australia.  I read to her while she lay tipped back in a customized mobile chair that supported her atrophying body, her mind still sharp as a tack.  She knew I was still refining the story, but I’d worried about how she’d react to my portrayal of her life, as I had researched it. I was particularly concerned about my descriptions of her strong faith, how for example, when I was nearly ten, we flew from Australia to Canada to visit a 'long lost relative'––a serious Jewish man who I discovered years later was actually my grandfather––and how my mother had told him Jesus saved my four-year-old-brother’s leg from being broken after he’d slipped under a car in a school car-park back in Australia and the car had rolled over his leg. 

During the hours I read to my mother, her eyes hooked onto me. She listened and considered every word. She’d interject every five minutes or so; “that’s exactly how it was!” Or, “yes, my father drugged me before he put me in the rucksack," after I'd described her escape from the Warsaw Ghetto.


A week or so later, I read her the closing paragraph. I closed my laptop.  When I looked up, tears were streaming down her face, her skin still as soft and unwrinkled as a thirty-year-old’s.   I began to cry too, relieved that she'd lived long enough to know that her remarkable story had been captured, that her three grandchildren could refer to it later to comprehend the miracles that had assured their existence.

“I’m so proud of you,” my mother said.  “It’s exactly what I wanted.” Her lips crumpled as she sobbed. “Promise me it will be published.” 

"I promise," I said.





Monday, January 29, 2018

SONG FOR A CHILD

After my first essay was published, about my search to find the Nazi SS officer who saved my mother, a writer, wife of a former TripAdvisor colleague, contacted me.

“You can’t be shy.   You need to promote yourself,” Jenny wrote.

Jenny and I had connected months earlier, after she’d landed a publishing contract for a novel she’d been working on for years . I was interested in learning about her long journey, and what helped shape her page-turning-book. We met at Jenny's ‘writing cafe,’ a coffee-shop with large tables where she'd regularly set up her laptop and coffee mug and type away for hours.

While I sipped tea, Jenny told me I needed to surround myself with other writers. She told me I’d need  support.   By the time I arrived home, she'd sent me a Facebook invitation, to a closed writing group. I joined a Creative Nonfiction group, a Memoirists group and more.

At first, I feared telling others about my essay––silly given my career building and promoting consumer brands. Although I was attending writing classes at Grubstreet and Harvard Extension, learning how to structure and craft prose,  I identified as a marketer, not a writer.   Jenny––not me––posted my essay in one writers group.

“Powerful!”  “Visceral!” People commented.

Suddenly I felt like a member of a writers group.   No. I was a writer.

For a long time, I lurked, hitting ‘like’, or commenting “congratulations!” when others announced book deals and essay publications.  I often did this when feeling lonely, on long days when I couldn’t leave my desk, immersing myself in the past in order to write about it; watching film footage of children starving on Warsaw’s streets, reading old letters, looking at black and white photographs so I could describe clothing and streetscapes. 

Recently, I got stuck.  I was reworking a section of my manuscript set in 1930's Warsaw and Krakow. Given the Nazis destroyed more than eighty-five percent of Warsaw, dropping bombs, torching buildings, killing in all more than five million Jewish and Catholic Poles, accounts of  pre-war life are sparse. 

I posted in a specialized group': "Does anyone have article & book recommendations describing inter-war life in Warsaw & Krakow for assimilated Jews?”  (Jews who were not necessarily religious, like my family, most speaking Polish as they went about their business, not Yiddish) .

Members posted links and offered suggestions. I ordered recommended books.  I spent more than an hour on the phone with one writer, who like me, had traveled to Poland, but, unlike me, had chosen to write a novel, a fictionalized account influenced by her grandfather’s experiences. (Read her exceptional nonfiction essay here>>.)   Then I watched a film-trailer of The Lonely Child,  the story of a song written in the Vilna Ghetto, about a hidden child, like my mother. (Click here to see list of film characters.) The melody haunted me for days.  I connected with Alix Wall, the woman behind the song project. The child in the song was her mother. She chose to tell her mother’s survival story in film, not a book.   I understand why.


THE LONELY CHILD | 1st Promo from Marc Smolowitz on Vimeo.

Film and music can evoke the past by reaching into places words cannot––at least that’s the way it is for me.  (Perhaps that’s why I binge watched The Crown.)  Words help me describe events, places, conversations, enabling my readers to come to their own conclusions.   But film and music, like this piece, rip me right open.

A song passes down through generations.  Everyone who hears and sings this song will relate to it through their own life experiences.  Many will learn about Alix's mother––how she survived tyrannical hate.

 Nearly two years after Jenny first invited me to the Facebook group, I now understand the importance of a writing community. But when I listen to writers who've taken up to ten years to research and publish compelling stories, I'm alarmed. I hope my book will be completed soon. But if it isn’t, I know my online pals will cheer me to the finish line, and over.





Saturday, December 9, 2017

A JEWISH CHRISTMAS TREE

I’d never heard of Hanukah until I moved from Australia to the US years ago. Neighbors and work colleagues took part in Jewish holidays like Hanukah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They invited me to eat matzo to remember how Jews overcame the impossible.  Soon after, the itch to find out what happened to my family became a fixation.

As a child in Australia, when December temperatures soared to more than 40C/104F,  my Jewish grandparents invited people to their house for Christmas parties. While I chased my sister and cousins around the garden, adults milled about drinking beer and wine. My grandfather threw steak, prawns (no shrimp) and sausages on the barbie. My grandmother Alicja dished up beetroot (beet) salad.  I don't recall a Christmas tree in their house, but my grandparents gave us Christmas gifts and celebrated the spirit of Christmas too. 

I miss them...


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"AND HERE WE ARE...."

Film maker Matan Rochlitz recorded this powerful story, published by the New York Times, of one woman's monumental decision to save herself and how she lived with it.
"We sat in her living room, the camera started rolling, and she began. She was sharp, funny and generous, and when looking into the darkness and recalling that difficult time, she did not spare herself one bit." 

It reminds me of the hours I spent recording my grandmother in her living room, under the Sputnik light pointing from the ceiling.  At the end, before I pressed STOP on the tape recorder she’d asked, “you think someone will want to know all of this?  We should never forget what happened.” 









Tuesday, September 12, 2017

POLAND,NAZIS AND TRUMP.


On a sunny Warsaw day last month, crowds cheered soldiers wielding machine guns and bayonets. Children waved red-and-white flags at tanks barreling down wide avenues. It was Armed Forces Day in Poland’s capital city, commemorating the 1920 ‘Battle of Warsaw’, when Polish forces defeated the Soviet Red Army.

I’d flown into Warsaw that morning on a red-eye from Boston. I’d checked in on Facebook at Logan, posting: “Ironic that the day I'm flying to a city 85% destroyed by Nazis, neo-Nazis are planning to march in Boston.”
Charlottesville Protest. Photo from Andy Campbell, Twitter. @AndyBCampbell

I’d also worried that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party’s authoritarian maneuvers––dismantling the state council tasked with combating racism despite rising hate crime, restricting public assembly and attempted replacement of Poland's Supreme Court with politically picked allies––had inspired our President, and his July visit to Poland.

My mother, Joasia, was born on her grandparent’s kitchen table, in 1942, close to where thousands of patriots waved flags at the Armed Forces Day parade. In 1940, Germans had begun cramming more than four hundred thousand Polish Jews into streets spanning 1.3 square miles, around eleven times New York City’s density.

Joasia’s grandparents were trapped in their once palatial home, hemmed in by ten-foot high brick walls marking the Warsaw ghetto’s boundaries. Children in threadbare clothes crouched on street corners crying, stick-thin brothers and sisters lying dead beside them.  A Catholic friend smuggled small food parcels to Joasia’s mother and grandparents to keep them from starving.

A month after Joasia’s birth, Nazis rushed into fetid buildings, shoved guns at women, pushed children down stairwells into the streets. Aiming weapons at the sick and old, they shot them in beds, in hallways. Women screamed, running from courtyards. Some carried bundles, suitcases, a precious pair of shoes, a shawl, a last piece of silver. SS soldiers drove terrified crowds toward the Umschlagplatz. They pushed them onto cattle-cars, slammed the doors shut, hauled them to Treblinka.

Joasia’s father crushed two sedatives. He forced her to swallow. When she was asleep, he tucked her into a backpack. The Catholic friend delivered him false ID papers. The friend helped him walk past gun-toting Nazis guarding the checkpoint-gate.

Joasia’s grandparents died in Treblinka and Madjanek concentration camps. Joasia hid in a house with her parents outside Warsaw.  But when she was eleven months old, the gestapo shot and killed her mother.

On Armed Forces day, Warsaw police arrested activists chanting “down with fascism,” and “down with nationalism.” Those arrested held signs reading “get fascists off our streets," carrying banners and photos naming Heather Heyer, the woman killed two days earlier in Charlottesville after a white supremacist rammed protestors with a car.  Before they were arrested, the activists had attempted to stop far-right extremists marching. The Police took down their names and addresses. Meanwhile, they guarded the anti-democracy extremists

At the same time in the US, news outlets reported the Justice Department’s sweeping demands for 1.3 million IP addresses of a protest website’s visitors, along with communications and personal data.  Authoritarianism’s warning signs alarm me.

My mother often says, “enough about the past, we need to live for the future."

My mother is right about many things, but she’s wrong to dismiss her past. More than seventy years after Nazism’s defeat, President Trump bullies Muslims, people of color and immigrants, and only grudgingly condemns Neo-Nazis carrying swastikas and tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us.”  Inciting fear, he unites people against an ‘other’.

The man who helped rescue my mother acted against hate. The woman hiding her, ignored Nazi death penalties.

When I see our country so divided, my mother’s heroes inspire me. They inspire me to talk with people who think differently from me. They inspire me to find one thing in common––viewing a solar eclipse, shopping for back-to-school, maybe. They inspire me to focus on those things. Not, our differences.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

THE TRAIN TRACKS


Around two-hundred people walk along a sidewalk parallel to train tracks. I’m in the middle, in Otwock outside Warsaw. A blonde-haired girl, around eight, chats with her mother. A young bearded man holding a bullhorn leads the way. Crossing to the other side of the tracks, the group gathers around the man with the bullhorn. He talks, but gets cut off when train-announcements blare from speakers. He waits, then describes what happened on this patch of ground in 1942, when Nazi soldiers and policemen drove around eight thousand people––from a square close by, wired off inside the ‘ghetto,’–– toward the tracks and onto the cattle cars, headed for Treblinka. The Nazis shot anyone who resisted.

The Germans promised the Jewish policemen their families would be spared. But Calel Perachodnik watched horrified, as his wife and daughter were loaded into the last cattle car, along with families of other policemen. Only one man clambered in with his family.

Close to me, a man with a razor hair-cut and arm tattoos stands transfixed. The little girl grips her mother’s hand.

    

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?

Fez

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."


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