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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Mosquito

Sometimes things just don't work.   Like my blog feed.  The Mosquito was posted on April 19th, but for those of you who subscribe to my feed, it did not show up in your inbox.  Here's hoping this hack-post will make it.  Thanks for your support -- Karen.
Photo courtesy of

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Mosquito

It happened 73 years ago nearly to the day, on 19th April 1943. My grandfather Zdzislaw told me about it one evening as we sat in his tiny kitchen at a laminate table piled with bills and newspapers.
           It had been a warm spring day in Warsaw. The daffodils in the park were the color of the sun, the sky a dusky blue. But the dull grey uniforms of Nazi soldiers patrolling the streets were more noticeable.  On the ‘Aryan’ side of the Warsaw ghetto wall, Zdzislaw sat in a streetcar packed with men of sullen faces He alighted at a wide road, near Krasinski square.  He noticed two flags fluttering above the wall, one Polish and one with the blue star of David.  Drawing closer, he heard voices from inside the ghetto. Someone yelled through a megaphone, "we are uprising against the Germans and we will fight them!”
Zdislaw saw German soldiers and SS rushing into the square.  Streetcars were blocked in. Startled passengers emptied out into the street. He watched horrified as mortars boomed, blasting buildings inside the ghetto. Screams and dust spilled over the wall. A thin powder fell on the bystanders.
Crowds gathered close to the walls. Women cried. Others looked on in admiration. A few said, ‘let them burn!’ 
Zdzislaw scuttled along the wall, down Swietojerska Street, toward the railway station where he worked as an engineer building warehouses. He’d escaped the ghetto nearly nine months before and couldn’t afford to be spotted carrying false papers.
 Fighting continued throughout the day. The Polish underground attempted to break down the ghetto wall at Bonifraterska Street to help those trapped inside. The boom of cannons and the rat-tat-tat of gunfire rattled windows in apartments and shops. The city buzzed with stories. People told of hundreds of dead Germans, wrecked tanks, and wounded, frightened soldiers carted off to hospitals.
That evening, Zdzislaw traveled in a streetcar back across the city. Passengers nattered excitedly about the rebellion. Most admired the Jews for taking a stand against the enemy.  Suddenly someone sitting across from him yelled, "the ghetto is burning!  The Jews are burning, and we will finally be rid of them."
Passengers turned in their seats. Some threw punches at the man, who bolted for the door and scrambled from the carriage.

My grandfather’s experience reminds me that it often takes human suffering to connect us to those who might be ethnically or religiously different.  In his case, it was the Nazi regime.  Hitler’s goal was not only to kill Polish Jews, it was to purge all of
Poland, to ‘remove the subhuman Slavic population’(i), turning many into slave labor to serve a Germanic state (ii).
Today you can take your pick – it could be the Syrian father fleeing Assad and ISIS, as fearful of the medieval barbarism as we are, or a pregnant woman lugging water up a hill in the favela slums of Brazil, swatting mosquitos that could infect her with the Zika virus.
The mosquito does not care about the color of your skin, or if you cover your head or raise your arms to pray.  A bite is a bite.    
Photo courtesy of

[i] Forgus, Silvia P. "German nationality policies in Poland: Bismarck and Hitler."East European Quarterly 20, no. 1 (1986): 108.

[ii] ibid : 114.

Friday, January 29, 2016

In Honor of...

This week, on the seventy-first anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, an article I wrote about the heroism of my grandmother was published by Narratively.   A friend posted on his Facebook page a reminder of why telling these stories is so important.

" ...a powerful piece of family history that can remind all of us of the horrors of fascism that we hear echoing in our political dialogues today as well as the bright moments of humanity that sometimes shine through."  
When we hear hateful speech against those fleeing wars, bombs, killings, or against women wearing headscarves, or men in yarmulkes, let's speak up.  Never Again.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Time for Tea

When I was a child I practiced tea parties with my sister in my grandmother’s entrance hall. We balanced tea cups on a mushroomed brass stool while kneeling on oriental rugs. Puckering our lips gently around the edge of the teacup, we sipped and then lowered the cup onto the saucer, letting it land hard on purpose until we got the “clink” just right.

We wanted to be grown-ups, like my grandmother Alicja’s friends who visited for afternoon tea. Inka came by often.  Her skin was as moist and glazed as Alicja’s. Gold bangles jingled on her wrists as she waved her hands about. Her large loopy earrings swayed from side to side whenever she turned her head. Picking up her cup, she splayed her fingers gracefully like a ballet dancer. She sipped gently, lifting her top lip away from the cup a little, so as to not lose her lipstick. She placed the cup back onto the saucer on the table. Lipstick still perfect. Clink clink.

Sipping tea helps me through the long afternoons, when I’m staring into my computer screen wracking my brain for words to describe things; my mother’s reunion with ‘her’ nuns in central Poland, or what it feels like to sit at a table in the German archives inside the gates of the former barracks of Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit.

Sometimes I’ll throw a tea bag into a mug, let the tea steep for a minute or two, then toss the bag into the trash. On rare occasions, (I hate to confess to anyone British who might read this), I leave the tea bag in the mug and sip until the last drop, when the bag lurks on the bottom like a dead frog. 

But when I’m truly stuck and wrestling with my manuscript (revision six, but who’s counting), I spoon loose leaf tea—Fortnum & Mason’s Countess Grey a favorite — into an infuser, lock it, pop it into a china teapot, pour over boiling water and carry the pot to my office upstairs or wherever I am working, along with the Wedgewood teacup and saucer Alicja gifted me on my twenty-first birthday. I pour the tea, pick up the cup, breathe in the steamy orange spices, poke out my pinky finger, sip, and let the tea cup settle on the saucer. Clink clink.