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What They Read

There is an intense essay by the Polish poet Wladyslaw Szlengel called What I Read to the Dead. Szlengel wrote it as the Nazis were liquidating the ghetto in 1943. He captured the final months, weeks, days, and hours of Jewish life in Warsaw:

One day, I was supposed to read these poems to the persons who had believed in their survival; together with them I was to browse this little volume as a memoirs from the luckily survived nightmarish period, recollections from the bottom of the hell – now, the companions of my wandering are gone and within one hour these poems have become the ones that I read to the dead.

It is then the high time to sort my papers.

I am thinking about this essay now because I am doing a revision on my novel. (Unlike Szlengel's work, I end the story in late 1939, when the main character leaves Warsaw to escape the Nazis.) As part of this work, a wonderful woman in Poland is translating the last issues of a Polish Zionist newspaper so I can see for myself what the last days of pre-occupation Warsaw were like, and what the Jews of Warsaw were reading as the Nazis bore down on them.

But it is hard. It is hard to read these things knowing that 99% of the people who read these stories when they were fresh off the presses were dead within five years. It is hard to see their bravery, their optimism, their fears captured in stories noting that there are free clinics for the injured, in ads searching for lost family members, in recaps of the mayor's speech to boost the morale of the population. I am reading what a doomed and damned people read, and they could not even begin to fathom what was to come, but I know. I know and it is hard.

Here is what Mayor Starzynski said, quoted in the paper on Sept. 20, 1939, "The whole world has united in the fight against Germany. Warsaw will resist, survive and in the end – win."

(The city capitulated a week later.)

Here is a missing persons ad: "REJDER BEJNYCH is looking for his son DAWID (Dadek), who got separated on Thursday, 7th September about 4 a.m. at the outskirts of Warsaw. He’s staying at a dentist Szejnwald, Warsaw, Zlota Street 39"

Here is an article reporting how bad things are in Czechoslovakia: "UNBELIEVABLE TERROR IN CZECH REPUBLIC – according to the news from Belgrade over 10 000 people have been arrested in Prague over the last days, including many prominent politically active persons."

Here is an advisory: "SAFETY IN THE STREETS: during bombings several balconies were destroyed and now can easily fall down to the pavements. Same can happen with the glass from broken windows. For that reason pavements in dangerous places should be marked and barred."

Yes, this is some of what they read in the last published issue of Nasz Przegland - Our Review. It is painful to sort these papers.

Do read it.

This is our history.

This is what I read to the dead.

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The Pot and the Kettle

Speaking of displaced persons camps (see post below), today's New York Times has a fascinating (random) article on how badly Americans treated Jewish displaced persons after WWII. Many people I know have been very surprised. When I was researching for my book back in 2009, I learned a lot about how bad things were, so the article just makes me sad. Here's a highlight:

“We entered the synagogue, which was packed with the greatest stinking mass of humanity I have ever seen,” [Gen. George S.] Patton wrote. “Of course, I have seen them since the beginning and marveled that beings alleged to be made in the form of God can look the way they do or act the way they act.”

For every American Jew who has been so critical of anti-Semitism in Europe, remember that the US has historically not really loved Jews any more. (And you just need to read the completely fucked up comments on the article to see that this is not just something that is a historical problem.) This country is just much better at hiding our anti-Semitism, just as we are experts at whitewashing the true history of "freedom" and "democracy" in a land built on the backs of slave labor, the 3/5 Compromise, and votes only for white male landowners. We are as failed at living up to our ideals as any other country, but really, really great at being sanctimonious.

What we know from history is that Jews can find refuge in places for quite some time, but it always comes to an end. Husband always says we should be ready to flee because the US is really no different. Of course, it doesn't have to be this way, but people really love believing the lies - that the Constitution is for everyone - because it means we don't have to do the hard work to make it true. And yes, I realize that I still have it pretty good living here compared to some other places. But that doesn't mean I have to settle for what is. I want to see the US really be the shining beacon of freedom, liberty, and justice for all, and it hurts me that so many of my fellow countrymen like to settle for half measures. The truth shall set you free.

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Regret, Or, The Internet Blossomed 10 Years Too Late

One of my many regrets in life that keeps me up many a night is that I didn't find out that my great uncle survived the Holocaust until after my grandfather died. It's one of those extremely stupid regrets, because honestly, there was really nothing that I could have done differently. I think that's why it vexes me so. My grandfather died in 1995. The internet sort of existed back then, but not in the extensive way that it enables every facet of my research today. I had an email account through college that was run on the pine system. I knew that AOL and prodigy enabled people to chat. This was very exciting. It was also pretty much it.

At the end of 2004, when there was much more internet to the internet, it occurred to me to email Yad Vashem to look into their database and see if they could find any of my grandfather's relatives with the bare information I had. Nowadays, the database is fully searchable online. But in those days, I waited for a response. When they found a record on my great grandmother and cousin, who perished, filed by my grandfather's brother-in-law, who did not perish as I had thought he had, I was blown away.

I was also immediately angry with myself. Why had I not thought, as a 13 year old or 14 year old or 15 year old (etc), to write to this Holocaust museum? Clearly paper, pens, envelopes, and stamps existed at the time. I could have learned, while my grandpa was alive, that he had a surviving relative.

Of course, without the internet, I also could not have found this man (or rather, his family, since he passed away in the 1980s - one thing I am not angry at myself for, since clearly I was not going to write Yad Vashem when I was four years old). Yad Vashem, for reasons that I cannot understand at all, does not really collect people's addresses to reunite family. So I had to google (or netscape - whatever) the guy's last name. Fortunately, it was very unusual, and I found his great niece very quickly.

Clearly, my dream to reunite my grandfather with some magical surviving relative could not have happened before he died because the internet was the thing that stood between me and this goal. The internet was ten years too late. I know I should not regret this, and it is useless to do so, but I do anyway.

As I found out in 2012, his brother-in-law was not just his brother-in-law. He has also some sort of distant (or maybe not so distant - that is still a mystery) cousin. I never had a chance to reunite them, but his nieces are also cousins. Instead of being alone, he could have spoken to these women and felt the warmth of blood relatives again.

The other reason I should not regret this is that I don't know what would have happened if I found his distant cousins and told him. Would he have handled the news well, rejoicing? Or at that late stage in life, would I have only caused him more pain? Obviously I would not want the latter. Sometimes things happen for a reason, and maybe I was thwarted in my dream of finding a relative because in the end it would have hurt him more.

Sometimes I wonder if he knew that his brother-in-law was out there. My dad said that he had heard a rumor about him, and asked some friends who were traveling to Paris to find out what happened to him. (The brother-in-law had gone to Paris after the war, then to Israel, though the rumor ended in Paris.) Supposedly the friends didn't find him or his nephew, which is hard to believe because I'm pretty sure that phone books existed in the 1960s, and there was probably only one person with that last name. So either the friends were assholes and never even bothered to look, or they found the nephew and for some reason, my grandfather let the connection go.

The truth is, I don't understand why my grandfather never wrote to Yad Vashem. Or maybe he did, too soon, sort of like how the internet didn't come for me in time. His brother-in-law filed the paperwork in 1953. If my grandfather inquired in 1951, say, they might have said, "Sorry, no Rajsmans on file," and maybe that was that.

I also don't understand why he never filed pages of testimony on his sisters. Was it because he never really knew what happened to them, and didn't want to create a false record? Or could he not confront the fact that they were gone, and in doing so, let them be lost forever. If he had filed some paperwork, perhaps his brother-in-law could have found him.

When my grandfather was gone, so was his past. Perhaps my silly regret, since I could not control the circumstances that led to the late discoveries, is a different regret, not one that involves him. Perhaps what I really regret is that I will never have the answers as to who they were.

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