Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Soldier of Conscience

 On Veterans Day we salute and remember those who served with bravery and valor but also those in active duty.  In Australia and in some parts of Europe, on the 11th day of November at the 11th hour, teachers stop their lessons, students bow their heads and citizens with red poppies pinned at their chests stand in city squares with closed eyes, for a minute of silence, to remember the end of hostilities of World War 1.
       Today I remember a shopkeeper.  Roman Talikowski sold leather gloves from his small store on Nowy Swiat Street, a grand boulevard in Warsaw.  According to my grandfather, Roman was a humble man who regularly smuggled food and money into the Warsaw Ghetto to at least seven members of our family to keep them from starving.   When the roundups to Treblinka began, a month or more after my mother was born in June 1942, he helped orchestrate my mother’s escape.
       While thousands were being chased from buildings into the streets and herded toward the trains to Treblinka, my grandfather took two sleeping pills from his pocket. He crushed them and mixed them into a paste.    With my mother in his lap, he coaxed her to swallow - the Doctor who had given him the drugs had told him that two pills could kill her. When my mother was asleep and limp in his arms, he gently tucked her  into a rucksack, making sure there was a tiny opening for her to breathe, although one cough or whimper from her could see them shot.  He said farewell to his in-laws and headed for a checkpoint at the Leszno Street gates. When he was close to the gate, he handed a bribe to the leader of a group of workers who crossed to the Aryan side to labor each day. He slid into their column and marched through the gate.
         On the other side of the ghetto wall, hawkish eyes of blackmailers scanned the street for startled, thin escapees with dark hair pushed under their hats. My grandfather passed another bribe. He glanced to the opposite side of Leszno Street to see Roman's slender empathetic face and kind eyes. He crossed the street toward Roman  and fell in behind him as he walked, as if headed to work. Instead, Roman led him to a secret hiding place.

It must have been difficult for my grandfather to keep up the façade on the other side of the wall.   He told me that without his Catholic-Polish friends he would never have survived, but I wonder how he knew who to trust? One friend helped him to secure papers and Roman found him a job with a Polish contracting firm constructing warehouses for the Germans.    Through his underground contacts Roman also found a place for my mother and her parents to live; a small room in a large house on the outskirts of Warsaw where my mother was hidden for nine months, far away from the septic smell of the ghetto and far away from five members of my family whom Roman tried to save, four of whom were hauled off to Treblinka.
          Next week Roman’s family will receive a medal in honor of Roman’s efforts to save my mother and other members of our family. Seventy-one years after he ignored the death penalty for helping fellow Poles who were Jews, we will finally be able to say ‘thank you Roman’.
Roman Talikowski

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Save our Children

In the past week the world went to hell in a hand-basket. Hundreds of innocents were senselessly killed when a plane was shot down over Ukraine.  Bombs and rockets flew across the skies of Gaza and Israel. Images of bloodied children and horrified parents spread like wildfire across the news and social media and tore at anyone with a conscience.
      War in the air and on the ground unleashed violence online, where people spat epitaphs of hatred hiding behind Twitter and Facebook feeds and hashtags. Hamas and Israel’s publicity engines and their supporters pumped carefully crafted, videos, slogans, hashtags and photo-shopped  propaganda that fueled a spiral of dehumanizing, hateful language from people on both sides, making it harder for those seeking objectivity to find it.  On Al Jazeera and western-news Facebook pages for example, I saw people on both sides call for the burning of the other’s babies and children, and much, much worse.   
       After days of reading irrational animal-like rhetoric, seeing voices of moderates crushed by waves of extremes, and shocked at carnage from the violence,  I lost my faith, temporarily, in human nature.  I cried for those I knew on both sides of the conflict who are scared and suffering. I worried about the circle of violence that is generating more hatred. “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”, Gandhi supposedly said.
       Who are you ‘for’?  people asked,  as if picking a side to support in a soccer match.  
I looked for and found people in Israel and Palestine who are reaching out to each other in solidarity. I am for raising the bullhorn to them, and to the majority of citizens on both sides who want peace and a Palestinian + Israeli state, according to a Gallup Poll conducted late 2012:  
  •  Non-Jewish (mostly Arabic speaking) Israelis expressed the highest level of support for the peace process, at 89%, followed by 72% support among Palestinians living in the West Bank, 70% among Jewish Israelis, and 62% among Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.
  • Seven in 10 Palestinians living in the West Bank broadly supported the idea of an independent Palestinian state existing alongside an independent state of Israel – the ‘right to exist’ in a two-state solution. An even larger percentage of non-Jews living in Israel (85%) were in favor of this solution. In Gaza, support was at 48%.
  • Both sides favored nonviolent solutions and negotiation, highest at 82% among non-Jewish Israelis. Palestinians in Gaza favoring non-violent solutions were in the majority, at 58%
Photo courtesy Turning a New Page for Peace

Let the people then, demand their leaders recognize what both sides have in common and want  – the right to raise, feed and educate their children in peace, to buy vegetables from their neighbor without being blown up, or being shot at by a sniper.   The right to exist.
      Although I hesitate to write this lest people think I am making a direct comparison, today is the 72nd anniversary of the beginning of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, when around three hundred thousand men, women and children were killed and herded onto trains; my mother’s grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, friends, carted off to Treblinka and gassed, like cockroaches. Their right to exist was taken away from them. In addition to those gassed, more than eighty thousand starved to death inside the ghetto walls, and lost their minds.

    The situation in the middle east is not black or white and it’s hard  to put ourselves in the shoes of both sides and see the world from their perspective.  But, given what happened to my family and thousands of others inside Ghetto walls, I support their ‘right to exist’, but cannot look at the barbed-wire walls of concrete that weave between Israel, Gaza and the West Bank without cringing and hoping for a better way. The attacks on Israel have declined since it’s erection, but I would argue, diplomacy has failed and hatred and extremism  fueled.       Call me naive, call me stupid, but call me hopeful too; the way forward is for citizens on both sides to demand of their leaders a ceasefire, call for moderate leadership at a peace table (no extremists on either side), and then the hard part - concrete compromises that will allow both states to exist, and the right of both peoples to a safe, peaceful life.
       Tell me what you think we can do to help – in the comments below. (Please keep comments in the cooperative spirit of this post )
Warsaw Ghetto 

Al Jazeera via activestills.org

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Whosoever Saves a Single Life, Saves an Entire Universe

As the ‘Righteous Among the Nations*’ ceremony began in Warsaw at the annual Polish Bishops Conference, Archbishop Gadecki took the podium. Seated behind him and throughout the circular auditorium, were stern faced Cardinals and Bishops draped in long black robes lined with magenta buttons, heavy crosses hanging from their necks. Skull caps perched on  mostly grey heads were congruent with Yarmulke’s atop Warsaw’s Rabbi and the Israeli Ambassador.
           Battalions of reporters with black tripods, cameras and videos lined up like paparazzi. I had begged  to be let through minutes before. Behind me had followed two exceptional people; Iza who traveled with me twice to Suchedniow, a town in central Poland  where my mother had been hidden in a  convent during the war, and eighty year oldish Sister Honorata, who connected us to the convent and knew the Sister who cared for my mother. Sister brimmed with the same spunk and wit my mother and I had seen nineteen  months ago when we returned to Poland.  In the audience also sat Zbigniew Nosowski, an unassuming and generous man who had found Sister Honorata and helped me learn more about my family’s legacy in Poland.
           The Archbishop spoke of the role of priests and nuns during the holocaust. Next, the Israeli Ambassador discussed the Jewish debt to brave Poles.  Capped clergy nodded. Faces softened.
Photo courtesy Fr. Zbigniew Niemirski / GN. http://radom.gosc.pl/.
          None of us know what we would have done had we been in that same situation, the Ambassador said. Would we have risked our lives?
            Later, I realized it was a politically opportune move to saturate the media with images of Catholic clergy standing alongside those awarding medals posthumously to three priests and two nuns  - brave  Catholics who risked their lives during the war for Jews.  Some connected to the decision to host the ceremony at the annual Polish Bishops Conference commented that it was ‘an important event for the image of the Catholic Church in Poland ‘ and  ‘ it would have an impact on future relations and reconciliation between Poles and Jews, Judaism and Christians’.  While some may have found the ceremony setting ironic, for me it was perfectly apt; an opportunity to honor and make an example of those who stood against wrong, and not those who did wrong.
Wojciech Przesmycki, Sister Kornelia's nephew receiving the medal from the Israeli Ambassador..
Photo courtesy Fr. Zbigniew Niemirski / GN. http://radom.gosc.pl/.
More photos: http://bit.ly/1yFtu7z

I am told there is often a common theme at Righteous Among the Nations medal ceremonies.   Recipients rarely boasted of their deeds.  He didn't think he was a hero.  Just an ordinary person. Very humble.  She didn't think she was doing anything courageous - it was just the right thing to do. How could she not? 
            In Warsaw, I heard similar of all those being honored,including from two families accepting medals on behalf of heroes who risked their lives for my mother  and other family members; Maria Kaczynska, Sister Kornelia  Jankowska and  Sister Serafia Adela Rosolińska. Maria Kaczynska's granddaughter, Iwona, described Maria as a humble, but courageous woman. Kornelia’s relatives described her as caring and gentle, as did my mother.
            It was me who felt weak and humbled as I took my turn on the podium, to read out letters from my mother, first at the Polish Bishops Conference and then later in the day at the rebuilt Nozyk Synagogue.  I am one who is unsure of what my actions would have been in the chaos and fear of war. I am one who does not know if I have what it takes to be brave in such circumstances.  Yet, if it were not for those being honored, I would not be alive. And so I swallowed my fear and spoke up.
           I looked out into the audience and into the eyes of those receiving medals on behalf of their relatives. I saw pride.  I saw humility.   I saw the impact of the actions of their for-bearers.
          We hugged.  We kissed.  The audience embraced us.  The audience also embraced the notion of building a future by recognizing the commonness of humanity, of honoring those who taught us how to walk in life.
*Righteous Among the Nations - The official title awarded by Yad Vashem on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust – Oskar Schindler being one of the most famous recipients.
+Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5

Honoring Sister Kornelia and Serafia Adela Rosolińska. Polish Bishop's conference.
Video here>>

Sister Kornelia's relative receiving the medal (In Polish)

Honoring Maria Kaczynska (English)

Maria Kaczynska's family & friends. Photo courtesy Virtual Shtetl Click here for Story of how I found Maria's granddaughters story on the internet 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Writers Block

I am stuck.  It's a common problem for writers, apparently.  A good friend solved her stuckness of two months by hitting her head against a wall - something I may try.
My first draft came more easily than my third, when words flowed onto the page and I worried less about structure.  The revision is stifling, but I must go on.  I must remember how it feels when the page smiles back at you.
 On a good day, writing reminds me of my solo travels in Italy or Switzerland, when a cobble-stoned path in a village would pull me in at its fork, forcing me to take the path to the right or left; then I would climb its ancient narrow stairways until my thighs burned and I cursed the bowl of pasta I had eaten for lunch, when all I could see was a shard of blue sky in between laundry that was stretched across an alleyway, strung from tiny balconies perched into walls of stone.  It would be about when my knees groaned and begged for a break that the kitchen smells and dampness of the alleyway suddenly ended, giving way to gardens and meadows - a sign that I had left something behind and was headed toward a new discovery.  Soon, or hours later, I would reap my reward; a spectacular overview of a lake or mountain ridge, something much larger than myself that had always been here, that I never would have discovered had I not taken the fork in the road......

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Handshake

A man sitting in the audience suddenly jumped to his feet.  I had just finished speaking at a Holocaust Memorial event where I shared the story of my mother, her family and their rescuers. I took in the older man’s tall athletic frame, weathered skin and full head of brown hair and sized him up as being around sixty years old.
     His voice boomed like thunder across the same auditorium where I needed to be amplified by microphone minutes before. He told us that sixty nine years ago, he drove through the gates of Dachau Concentration Camp as a liberator with the US Army; a young solider of twenty two whose life would be changed by what he saw there. He wanted that no one forget his shock, and spoke out in support of Yom Ha'Shoa Memorial Day. He wanted us to make sure we never let it happen again.
      When I remarked to him later, that without knowing it, my grandfather, enclosed behind the wire, may have waved to him in thanks, he said – no – he recalled few live prisoners. It was the convoy of railway cars that seemed to have no end, crammed with thousands of stick-thin corpses that left an indelible impression on him; one that lingers still today.
    Clenching his hand, I thanked him for bringing freedom and hope to the forgotten, and for remembering. In that moment, I knew that in sharing the story of my mother’s rescuers  – people who were open minded enough to act against intolerance and hatred – my grandfather was shaking the old soldier's hand, through me.