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?


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."