Monday, December 28, 2009

A Story About A Quest


There is a story to be told here, people keep telling me.

Yes, there definitely is.

But where does that story begin? Who is the protagonist? Where does it take place?

In the 14th century, Jews began arriving in Poland and establishing communities like Konin.

No, too historical. I’m out of my depth.

In 1921, Fischel Mysch, my grandfather, arrived at Ellis Island. He was joining his brother who was already living in New York, and leaving behind another brother and the rest of his family in Poland – a country he would never return to again.

No, I’m not qualified to tell that story either. I never met my grandfather.

It was an ungodly early hour to be at London Luton airport, but that’s the hidden price of discount airfare, I thought to myself as my dad and I waited to board our flight to Warsaw.

No, that just seems trivial. It needs some context. It doesn't work without the back-story.


Maybe my problem is that this isn’t a once-upon-a-time type story at all. Maybe it really should begin with an exploration of an intangible, a concept. Like identity. Or travel. Or absence. Roots. Fate. Sense of place. Humanity.

Or maybe I should just take my friend Amanda’s advice. “Don’t over-intellectualize it,” she said. “Just let the words roll.”

Right.


***

This is a story about a book.

About 15 years ago a British author named Theo Richmond wrote a book called
Konin: A Quest about the Polish town his father originated from. Well, maybe I should say he finished writing it 15 years ago. Many years of painstaking effort and travel – spanning several corners of the globe – went into his research and writing.

I first heard about the book shortly after it was published when my dad recommended it to me – it turns out Konin is the same town that his own father was from. “You should read it,” my dad told me every so often. “It's about our family. My uncle Morton – you know, the one from Brooklyn – he was interviewed for it.
He’s in the book.”

“Yeah sure, Dad. Whatever,” I probably responded. My dad is a notorious name-dropper and so any claims about my dad’s uncle Morton’s 15 minutes of fame would have ben easy to dismiss.

I never so much as flipped through it in a bookshop. But the used book market underneath Waterloo Bridge is no ordinary bookshop. Thousands of books are lined up on massive tables, with no hint of any order – not thematic, not alphabetical, just hilariously random juxtapositions. You don’t go there to find a particular book. You go there because maybe a particular book will find you.

It was there about four years ago that a nice hard-cover edition of
Konin, on sale for a couple of quid, caught my eye. What the hell, I thought. It’ll look impressive on my shelf.


***

I didn’t read the book right away, but I got around to it eventually a few months later. As it turned out, I owed my dad an apology. To my amazement he was not exaggerating
this time. The story of the Mysch family – our family name before some rather convoluted changes to it – truly is central to an amazingly rich portrait of a typical pre-war Jewish community that the book depicts. My great uncle Morton (or Motek in Yiddish) is indeed one of the main sources of information – of personal memories, really – that Theo Richmond tapped into.

There was my great grandfather, a tailor who, during World War I had let German soldiers camp in his back yard, and who also (I am sorry to say) ran afoul of the local union whose members he employed and had to go into hiding for a few years. There was a great-great aunt who – the townspeople all thought – performed a great service within the community: she communicated with the dead by rolling around on the ground of the cemetery. There was Motek, popular, handsome and athletic – he was the guy who would beat up anyone who was picking on other Jewish kids. He wowed his fellow soldiers with gymnastics displays while serving in the Polish Army between the wars.



***

This is a story about fate.

Something else struck me in reading Konin. Theo and Motek’s relationship was very obviously more than just interviewer and interviewee. They had a special friendship and respect for one another. Motek truly believed in Theo, believed in his quest. It occurred to me that this author – who, I learned in the book, lived in London – might be interested to know that Motek’s grand-nephew was residing just a few miles down the River Thames.

So I tried looking for this Theo Richmond guy. Surely a published author can’t be very difficult to track down, not in the information age. Simple enough, I thought. I Googled him.

A few book reviews. New and used copies for sale on Amazon. But as for getting in touch: nothing.

Nothing? How is that possible? With all of the book readings, panel discussions, cultural events and commemorations that go on in London? Surely there would be a few links to organizations that would know how to get in contact.

Nope. No mention of where I might find him.

OK, I thought, this is going to take some more advanced detective work. I was going to have to, you know… ask around.

I asked around. People in the Jewish community. Nothing. The “history” community. Nothing. The publishing community. Nothing.

I wasn’t obsessed or anything, mind you. But I felt like I had caught a bug. It was just… it was just… weird. Weird that I hadn’t met Theo Richmond. It occurred to me why I felt this way: This guy knows more about my family history than I do. And on top of that he lives in London. And on top of that, I had begun working at this point for the Holocaust Educational Trust (my project involved in large part teaching about pre-war Jewish life in Poland). Clearly, I thought, we are supposed to meet.


***

I didn’t find the connection I was looking for. But eventually, the connection found me. It was complete chance. Obviously. It was always going to happen by chance.

Obviously, it was always going to happen in Poland.

I was leading a group of students on one of our Lessons from Auschwitz Project visits to Poland. At the end of a long and draining day, my group climbed onto our bus for the journey back to the Krakow airport. Across the aisle a teacher who was in my group took a book out of his backpack:
Konin.

“You’re reading
Konin!” I stated the obvious. “You know, my great uncle is in that book.” (I am nothing if not my name-dropping father’s son.) We chatted about it for a few minutes. I was just happy to have someone to have an impromptu book-club discussion with, to share what the book meant to me.

“I’d actually really like to meet the author,” I revealed to this near-complete stranger. “But I can’t seem to figure out how to find him.”

“I know where to find him,” the teacher responded. “Theo Richmond’s daughter is my wife’s best friend.”

Oh? Really?

One week later, I saw the teacher again at a follow-up seminar we had organized. He handed me a piece of paper with a woman’s name and email address handwritten on it.

“This is Theo’s daughter,” he said.

“That’s fantastic!” I replied. “Would it be alright if I mention your name, if I say that I was referred to her by you?”

“No need. I’ve already told her about you. She wants you to get in touch.”


***

It is
beshert! I remember writing to Theo in an email. I hoped he would appreciate the Yiddish. I hoped he would agree with the sentiment – it is meant to be.

He did. After exchanging several emails, Theo invited me over for coffee. I wanted to bring a gift – ostensibly to say “thank you” for having me over, but really to say “thank you” for the book. What I really wanted him to know is that his years of hard work actually mattered. But how do you say that without sounding corny?

So I baked him a batch of
my newly-perfected homemade bagels. I suspected from reading his book that he would appreciate them. You just can’t get decent bagels in London, not like the ones he describes being nearly force-fed in the homes of countless elderly Jews across the five boroughs of New York while conducting research for his book.

On the designated day, I trekked to his house in the suburbs. We schmoozed for two hours. He talked about the members of my family he had met. And I talked about the other members of the Mysch/Maws clan that he had not had a chance to meet. He was particularly interested in the generations that followed on from those original immigrants to New York.

We talked about my job. He was not interested in joining me on an educational visit to Auschwitz. Of course not – he is a chronicler of Jewish life. Going to the most notorious site of Jewish death would simply be too incongruous. Even I get that.

He mentioned in passing that he had several boxes of notes compiled during his research for the book stashed away in his attic. Who knows, he said, there may even be some more information about your family that didn’t make it into the book.

I may have raised an eyebrow.

His health was poor just then, and he understandably didn’t have the energy to go up there digging around. He suggested that maybe once his health improved, though. “Maybe,” he said, planting the seed, “if you ever decide to visit Konin…”


***

This is a story about a journey.

At this point, that same bug was back, with a serious vengeance. Theo calls it the detective bug. My friend Jeremy uses a different analogy. We who dig through history and search for its meaning, he says, are like archaeologists. We unearth layer upon layer, yet all the while we must be aware that we have entered the story ourselves. History is not static or complete. It is not merely something you observe from the protective distance of time; it is something that you enter and become a participant in. We represent history’s next layer.

The book
Konin depicts a community that once existed, but that is not to say that the story ends with the deportations of Konin Jews in World War II – even though the Jews were never to return there. The book it is also the contemporary story of a lost community in Diaspora, its members spread around the world. But the story continues beyond those survivors as well. Theo was born in London, and I was born a generation later in Boston, yet we have a strange sort of link. In the ongoing story of the Jews of Konin, we are the next layer.

Leaving Theo’s house that afternoon, the next step of the journey became obvious to me. I may only be a metaphorical archaeologist – an archaeologist without a shovel – but I would have to do as any archaeologist would. I had to go to the site. I had to go to Konin.


***

“Dad, I’ve got an idea. Hear me out.”

In my mind it was this simple: I couldn’t imagine not visiting Konin. And I couldn’t imagine going without my dad.

In reality, nothing is that simple.

In my five years in London, my dad had visited me once – that was four years ago. If I can’t even convince him to come to London, how the hell am I going to convince him to go to Poland?

The obstacles were partly practical, partly intellectual. The practical issues – “it’s hard to find the time to visit” – were easy enough. A simple combination of guilt and bullying could overcome that.

The intellectual ones were more nuanced. “Poland is antisemitic,” he protested (an all-too common belief among many American Jews).

“You have no way of knowing that!” I responded. I told him about the Poles I know and work closely with. I reminded him that America has antisemitism too. I reminded him that for centuries Poland was the closest thing the Jews ever had to a homeland. Is there antisemitism there? Yes. Is it more complicated than that? Hell, yes.

“But what will we see?” he asked.

Damn. He’s got me there, I thought. Good question.

“I don’t know,” I had to admit. “Maybe nothing. But maybe in this case, it’s not what you see that makes it worth visiting… it’s what you don’t see.”


***

The “journey” was not direct. It began with a detour. At the time, August 2008, I never would have even thought of my trip to Israel as being at all related to Konin. It was meant to be a work trip, plain and simple. I spent most of nine days in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and one of the world’s principal Holocaust archives.

Most of my time there was spend in a classroom, but we had lengthy lunch breaks to make use of however we wanted.

One absurdly hot day, I decided to poke my head into the air conditioned archive building.

I managed to communicate to a librarian what I was looking for – the Konin Memorial Book. I knew of its existence because Theo refers to it in his book. As survivors from many communities did after the war, Jewish Koniners from around the world wrote accounts of what they remember from their lives in the town, and pulled together some money to print only enough copies of the book for those people – presumably all Koniners themselves – who wanted a copy of it.

It is incredibly difficult to find.

Thankfully, my hunch paid off. Yad Vashem has a copy. A friendly woman behind the counter brought it out to me.

It was written in Yiddish.

Other than a few phrases
grandmotherly threats mostly I don’t speak a word of Yiddish. I don’t speak a word of Hebrew either, but I do still vaguely remember the alphabet from my years of Hebrew school. (Yiddish is written with Hebrew letters.) Time for me to reach into the depths of my memory and see if all of those Tuesday and Thursday afternoons were worth anything after all.

The friendly woman pointed to several pages of text at the back of the Memorial Book, which she explained were a list of names – names of Konin’s victims of the Holocaust, or at least those who the survivors could recall when they compiled the book. I looked for the Hebrew letter
mem.

There it was. “Mysch,” written in Hebrew characters. My name, as it would have been written had I been born in some parallel universe. Only in this case, it was next to several entries commemorating those killed by Nazis.

One of them I knew to be my great grandfather: Yitzhak. Others I was only learning the existence of for the first time: Freyde. Lutek. Channah. Rivkah.

In addition to this book, there was a database to peruse. Yad Vashem has undertaken a massive effort since the 1950s to collect as many names as possible of victims of the Holocaust. Some are accompanied by other information – places and dates of birth, parents’ names and the like. But really, the task here is to just account for the people whose lives were lost, to provide some sort of commemoration of those people who have no other marker of their death. They have put out a call to survivors and anyone else who may know: just give us names.

We know, of course, that there were six million victims of the Holocaust. How many of those names has Yad Vashem has collected to date? Three million.

Half.

The glass-half-full side of me thinks that compiling three million names is an impressive accomplishment. But the glass-half-empty side cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of sadness – that in the modern age, in the age of birth and death certificates, we don’t even know something as basic as the names of three million of the victims. To say nothing of any of the other more important details that we don’t know about these people – what were their lives like; what were their interests; their customs; their personalities; their dreams?

This figure of three million is a reminder of just how precious something as simple as a name can be. So I feel strangely privileged. People in my family who died at least have some acknowledgment that they ever existed. This also reminds me how grateful I should be to Theo for writing about Konin. Beyond just these names, I also feel as though I can say I know something about who my relatives were and what their lives were like. Most people cannot.

Yad Vashem is also home to numerous Holocaust memorials. Many of them are ideologically complicated to say the least – outdated, overly patriotic, that sort of thing. But at least one of them is truly remarkable; it is called Valley of the Communities. It is essentially a man-made canyon that you descend into, and wander around. Carved into the walls all around you are the names of the Jewish communities throughout Europe, most of which were totally destroyed as a result of the war. It is a powerful reminder that while we must of course remember the six million individuals who perished, it is also important to reflect on the more collective loss. The loss of culture and traditions, of music, language, food, humor, folklore, buildings, art. The general sense of belonging that we associate with that abstract word:
community.

I sought out the name of the community that had special meaning for me, and took a photo of its name carved in the wall. When I got back to my hotel that night I emailed it to my now-kindred spirit, to Theo.

His quest was also mine now.


***

It was no longer an option. I
would go to Konin, and I would go with my dad. The only questions were how and when.

Fortunately, there was an obvious impetus. My dad was going to be turning 70 in April. “Get yourself to London,” I told him. “I’ll organise the rest. It’s my birthday present to you.”

He was still skeptical but he knew I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He booked the flight to London.

I had the slight sense of guilt that my birthday “present” to my dad might feel more like a punishment. I also had lingering doubts that my romantic and philosophical notions about visiting a place with nothing to see might turn out to be a gigantic anticlimax. I remained outwardly upbeat, though.

A few weeks before his arrival, I sent an email to Theo, the man who started all this. Would he be willing to meet with my dad and me in London before we set off for Poland, I asked? Might he have any information that might help us on our trip? Any contacts in Konin of people with any knowledge of its pre-war history?

His contacts were scarce, particularly English-speaking ones. After all, he wrote his book almost 20 years ago. Poland was still under communism then. He did have the name of one English-speaking contact. It was nobody Theo had ever met before, just someone who had once invited him a couple years ago to the opening of a local exhibition on Jewish life in Konin. Theo couldn’t attend the exhibition, so he had never actually met the guy. It wasn’t much, but maybe this guy would be able to help.

I emailed Theo’s contact and told him the date that we planned to arrive in Konin. Did he know of anyone who might be able to talk to my dad and me about local history?

A few weeks passed, but he never got back to me.

Oh well, it was a long-shot.


***

A few weeks later, my dad arrived in London. We planned to do London stuff for a couple days before hopping on a flight to Warsaw. After a couple hours watching cricket at Lord’s and before heading out to a West End musical, we had an appointment for coffee with Theo.

We were, of course, on Dad Standard Time (late); but I am pleased to say not on Dad Standard Behavior. That is to say: my dad was willing to listen and to let someone else do the talking. Normally, Dad can convincingly weigh in as an expert on just about any topic you throw at him, but ironically when it came to this topic – Who am I and where did I come from? – he recognized that someone else might be able to provide him with some important information.

I brought with me my copy of Theo’s book – the same one I had bought under the Waterloo Bridge – because I was hoping that Theo could point on the hand-drawn map printed in it where our family lived. He also had finally gotten around to digging through the boxes in his attic, he told us, and found a photo which he brought for us to have. It was a picture of the house my grandfather grew up in, taken when Theo visited Konin in 1988 while researching the book.

“The house was in pretty bad shape 20 years ago,” he said. “They were tearing down many of the others on the street, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it is no longer there.”

Either way, we agreed, it would be nice to at least find the place where it once stood.


***

Our flight was due to depart ungodly early the next morning – 6:45 am – and from Luton Airport which is nowhere near central London. I got a cab and picked my dad up at his hotel at 4:30. For the first time ever he was already outside waiting when we pulled up.

At the airport, we checked in with ease, and went to have breakfast and kill time.

I played the role of savvy, experienced Euro-traveller. Unfazed by the experienced. Done this a million times. No need to stress. Just stick with me.

Except…

We. Missed. The. Flight.

Reflecting back on that moment, it is painful now to even type it.

The flight was actually at 6:25 not 6:45. By the time I realized the mistake and ran what seemed like 5 miles to the departure gate, they were just shutting the door.

“But!” I pleaded.

“I’m sorry, sir. You cannot board.”

“You don’t understand,” I begged, trying to catch my breath… but it was a lost cause.

My dad was annoyed. “Forget it,” he said. “Let’s just go back to London. I don’t care about going to Poland”

“Dad,” I said with role-reversal sternness and authority, “We are not going back to London.
We are going to Poland.

Fortunately, there are no shortage of flights to Poland from Luton airport. There was one leaving in just over an hour, in fact. Back in the check-in area, I sheepishly asked if there were any seats available. There were.

Perhaps this was a sign.

They were expensive.

Dad pulled out his credit card. So much for the birthday present.


***

This is a story about a connection.

Sitting down for a rest on a park bench in the area that was once contained within the Warsaw ghetto walls, my dad said, “I don’t know what it is. I just feel this… sort of… connection to this place.”

I smiled. It finally seemed like this might not be a total disaster.

Warsaw is a curious place. It is noteworthy for both the thriving Jewish life that once existed there and for the unimaginable horror of the ghetto, whose brief existence is one of the main emblems of the Holocaust. Today it attempts to embrace these components of its history, but its sites and symbols of commemoration seem a bit muddled at the moment. It will get there eventually – after all, as a community it is still relatively new at this business.

Until then, visitors have to make do with their own imagination. They have to make do with this intangible thing that we call “a connection.” They have to be able to stand in a place where there is nothing and feel something. Ninety percent of the city was destroyed in the war. Everything is either new or a recreation of something old. Connecting is no easy thing.

Dad felt a connection, though. This could bode well, I thought, for tomorrow’s visit to Konin.

Never one to let a nice moment go un-ruined by invasive technology, I used this idle time to check my email on my phone. Theo’s Konin contact had finally responded to my message from several weeks ago.

He was sorry it had taken him so long to get back to me, he wrote. He could not personally help me because he was out of the country at the moment. But he gave me the suggestions of a few people who might be able to help. One of them even spoke English, he said.

It was unlikely to amount to much, so I didn’t bother calling until the next day. We were already at the train station killing time before our train to Konin. The English speaker didn’t answer her phone.

Here goes nothing, I thought as I tried the next number he suggested, a man named Henryk, who is the director of the Konin Library. I knew that one branch of the town’s library happened to be located in what was once the town’s great synagogue, the building where my family worshiped.

Henryk answered. The conversation went something like this:

“Hello! Do you speak English?”

[Polish words.]

“English?

[Polish words.]

“You? Speak?”

[Polish words.]

“OK. Thank you. Goodbye.” I gave up. Enough already. Time to move on.

But five minutes later, my phone rang. On the other end was a woman named Karolina. She told me in near perfect English that she was calling on behalf of the Director of the Konin Library. Actually, she said sheepishly, as if it would betray Henryk’s professionalism – she was his daughter. It just so happened that she was in Poland visiting her family for Easter, and offered to help translate.

I was surprised to learn that her father knew about me from an email – apparently Theo’s contact had warned him that I might be in touch.

“My father says he will meet you in Konin. You are coming tomorrow, yes?” Karolina asked.

“Uhhh… actually… we are coming today.” I said. “Our train arrives at one-thirty.”

“Oh. One minute please,” she said.

I could hear an animated father-daughter conversation unfolding in Polish on the other end of the line, as Karolina’s hand covered the receiver.

“OK. My father will meet you at the old synagogue at two o’clock.”


***

I didn’t know the Polish word for library, which made it difficult to tell the cab driver where to take us. But I pointed to the name of the street on the map in the back of Theo’s book, and said – repeatedly – one of the few Polish words I do know: “
synagoga.” The cab driver was baffled. There obviously was no synagogue that he knew about, but he gamely took us to the street I had indicated.

As we sped right passed it, I recognized the building from photos. “Stop! Stop! Stop! Here! Yes!
Synagoga!” The driver made a U-turn and pulled up in front.

A man and his daughter were waiting in front. I knew it must be Henryk and Karolina. They had seen the cab zipping past a moment ago, and were not happy with the cab driver. Before greeting us, he yelled at the driver in Polish. I can only guess that the conversation went something like this:

“Where were you taking these people? Why didn’t you stop?!”

“They didn’t tell me where hey wanted to go, they just kept saying ‘
synagoga, synagoga’. They never said they wanted to go to the library!”

“You fool! This is the synagogue!”

The argument eventually over, we emerged from the car into the hot and very bright Polish spring day. We made our formal introductions.

By way of stating our intentions, I took Theo’s book out from my bag. Our hosts nodded vigorously at the sight of it – I suspect Theo essentially put Konin on the map (but just barely) when he wrote it. I flipped open to a page of photos in the centre and found the one of Motek in his Polish Army uniform. “This,” I said in my pointy, exaggerated foreigner-speak, “is my father’s uncle. My father’s family… his father… they are all from this town.”

Karolina translated for us that Henryk had cancelled his plans at work for the day to join us. For how long, he wanted to know, did we plan to stay in Konin?

What once seemed so obvious – that we could get in and out of Konin in just a few hours – now seemed embarrassing and cruel to say aloud to these people. “We will get the 7:30pm train,” I said awkwardly.

“You are not staying the night in Konin?” Henryk said through Karolina, disappointed. He thought about how to fit what he wanted to convey to us in that amount of time. Then began talking very quickly in Polish.

We smiled politely as if to indicate some vague comprehension – of which we actually had none.

Periodically he would pause, before launching into his Polish monologue again. We looked with some concern to Karolina, tasked with translating. “Don’t worry,” she said, pointing to her head, “I am recording it here.”

It occurred to me there how unfortunate it was that Henryk and my dad did not speak the same language. With their mutual gifts of gab, they might have become instant best friends.


***



Inside the former synagogue, teenagers surfed the internet on computers, and the universal library sound of books being loudly stamped in and out echoed throughout the room. But looking at the walls and ceilings, it was unmistakable what purpose this building had formerly served. We were introduced to the branch librarian as though we were visiting dignitaries. She seemed impressed to learn that we were bona fide Jews, with relatives who once worshiped here.

Upstairs, in what would have once been the women’s gallery, was a small exhibition of art relating to Jewish Konin. We visited. It was nice to see the town acknowledge this part of its past, though it did not seem as though this exhibit had likely received many visitors.

We left the library and Henryk pointed out the small building next door. It was the
mikvah, or ritual bath. More recently it had been turned into a convenience store.

***

We thanked Henryk profusely for meeting with us and insisted that we didn’t want to take up too much of his time, but he brushed off our protests. He would hear none of it. He had a car and – it turned out – a driver. Did we want to go see the
old Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town? We knew there was only one cemetery for Jews so surely our relatives were buried there. But there was some hesitation in Henryk’s asking us whether we wanted to see it. I suspected I knew why.

The four of us tried to fit in the small car clown-style along with Henryk’s driver (Henryk is a rather large man), and went the few miles outside of town.

When we got there, it was just as I had assumed it would be: a cemetery with no gravestones. Like so many others in Eastern Europe, they had all been destroyed by the Nazis, in part for practical reasons – gravestones made useful building and paving materials – and in part to demoralize and humiliate.

The small plot of land we saw was actually only part of the cemetery, Henryk explained. He pointed to some businesses we could see nearby, through a copse of trees, which now sat on land that once was cemetery.

So there were no graves for us to visit, but one old tree stood in the centre of the site. I couldn’t help but assume that it had seen my ancestors being buried. Perhaps my relatives mourned beneath its branches, or sought shelter in its shade while visiting the graves of their loved ones.

A plaque had been mounted on a large boulder to tell any infrequent, probably accidental visitors to this innocuous spot what once existed here. I found a small stone, and placed it atop the boulder, in keeping with the Jewish tradition – a public display of remembrance that seemed almost futile in this remote spot.




***

There was one other stop which we could use their help in finding, we told Henryk, Karolina and driver. I pulled out Theo’s book, flipped open to the map printed inside the dust jacket, on which Theo had marked the approximate location of where my grandfather, Motek, and the rest of their family lived – the one that had likely since been knocked down. I also pulled out the black-and-white snapshot that Theo had taken of the house in 1988.

It wasn’t hard to find the street. There are not that many of them in the old section of Konin. We pulled up in the car to the block of the street indicated on Theo’s map, wondering what we might find in the place where our family’s house once stood.

What we found was the house.

Well I’ll be damned.

We stood on the sidewalk and marvelled. But at what? The house was fairly innocuous. It was functional, divided into apartments, and would not have looked out of place in just about any city or town in the Western world. But there it was. After seeing a synagogue that was no longer a synagogue and a cemetery that was no longer a cemetery, seeing a house that was in fact still just a house carried a certain significance. We did not have to use a great deal of imagination to picture our relatives living here.

Even less so, when Henryk asked if we wanted to go inside.

“Uhhh… yeah?” I said, not sure how Henryk planned to go about doing that.

“I will ask. I am wearing a suit,” he volunteered.


***

How do you summarize the current state of Polish-Jewish relations? In short, I think the answer is that you don’t summarize. It is futile. How to summarize the incongruity and dissonance? Perhaps we can just consider a range of snippets, and hope that in their totality they contribute to some sort of larger picture. These snippets might consist of the faux-Jewish restaurants in Krakow’s old Jewish quarter; or the askance looks of the locals in Oswiecim as tour buses rumble through through their town on the way to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau – without ever stopping for a look around, maybe to buy a bottle of water.

Here’s another snippet. A man in a suit knocks on a stranger’s door. Inside a woman on crutches gets up from where she is eating her lunch to answer. Outside a man who is convinced that all Poles are antisemites waits with his son. The man in a suit explains to the woman who lives there that he is showing around some American Jews. Their family used to live in this building. Might she be willing to let us come in to have a look around? The woman, whose family has lived there since the 1950s, may have had brief cause for concern.
Do these Jews want to cause trouble? Do they want their house back? Did the man in the suit ever have to actually say: no, no, don’t worry – they just want to have a look around? I will never know.

What I do know is that Henryk came back outside to where we were waiting.

Karolina translated. “He says: we go inside now.”


***

As recently as that same morning, I had been concerned that we wouldn't get to see anything in Konin
that it would be a symbolic journey, but mostly just a symbolic waste of time. Instead, we had so far had the opportunity to visit the synagogue where our ancestors prayed, the spot where many were buried, and now even the apartment they lived in. It was starting to hit me what an improbably perfect day this was shaping up to be. My dad couldn't believe what I had pulled out of my hat. Neither could I.

I had little to do with it, really. It was Henryk, Karolina, the librarian, the driver, the lady in my grandfather’s former house… whatever we were expecting to encounter in Konin – it wasn’t this. It wasn’t random acts of kindness.

Still, there was one more person. We emerged from the house back into the bright afternoon, and Henry began yelling to a man across the street. The details emerged haltingly amid a dust storm of gesticulation, animated Polish conversation between the two men, and Karolina’s attempts to interject in English.
This man… he is Piotr… he is the town archivist…

I began the routine of trying to introduce and explain myself to Piotr, raised voice and pointing, as I had done earlier with Henryk. When I pulled the book out of my backpack again for a visual aid, Piotr took it from me. He flipped to the acknowledgments section, skimmed for a few seconds, then with a broad smile pointed at his own name.
“Me.”

Piotr was merely on his way home from work when he came upon us, so we didn’t want to take up his time. And of course, he spoke no English. With time constraints and language barriers working against us, we all stood on the sidewalk for several minutes trying to cram in as many conversation topics as we possibly could – him, us, Theo, this house, the town, the Jews, the Poles.

All the while the afternoon sun beat harshly upon us. So Piotr made a suggestion, perhaps practical, perhaps symbolic. Shall we go to a café?

And so we did. The setting and the attendees of this ad-hoc symposium could not have been better arranged if this meeting had been intentional and pre-organized. Just down the street from where my family once lived, in the former Jewish neighborhood of Konin, our expanding group now piled into a trendy café, to order beer and to have a discussion about history and our place in it. A man of books. A man of records. A young Polish immigrant. The son of a Jewish immigrant. A Holocaust educator. And on the table sat my copy of Theo’s book, symbolically saving a place for him.

We stayed for an hour, by the end of which Piotr, Henyk and Karolina surely should have been getting home – but if they did need to, they did not let on.

Through the beer and language barrier, here is what I think we discussed: People like their interaction with history to be tidy. They want good guys and bad guys. Winners and losers. They want to understand what happened and why it happened. They want a guidebook and a map to clearly indicate where they can see remnants of it. They want to know what these remnants represent and why they are important.

But history is not tidy. History is messy.

This was a principle that each of us around the table exemplified and embodied. In ways both purposeful and accidental, each of us were archaeologists, discovering and bringing to light different facets of our shared slice of history whilst also entering into it as participants.

That having been clarified, we spilled out onto the street for hugs, photos and email addresses.

We said goodbye to what can only be described as the kindest hosts I have ever encountered, and set off to explore some of the back roads of the town on our own for a couple of hours before we had to catch our train back to Warsaw.

The streets were nearly empty. We wandered through the old market square where our ancestors would have shopped almost every day for generations. We saw the site of the school my grandfather attended. We saw the bullet holes which still remain in the façade of a building – marking the day that the Holocaust officially arrived in Konin. Two townspeople – one Pole and one Jew – were publicly shot side-by side to make an example and frighten the rest of town into submission. Finally, using the map in Theo’s book, we found his family’s house and took a photograph of it to send to him. The structure still remains, but today it houses a furniture store.

The sun was beginning to set as we continued to wander. In a place of no particular significance, the whirlwind of the days activity must have all finally caught up with my dad. He exclaimed, “I’m so happy I could kiss you!” Then he did.

“Thanks, Dad. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it,” I think I mumbled. Whatever grandiose words should have marked this occasion somehow evaded me in the moment. What do you say when you have reached the end of your quest?

My dad said it, with a giant smile and an arm around my shoulder: “Where are we going to visit next time!?”

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Just brilliant, Alex. Thank you for sharing this. -kf

iamthinking said...

This is "New Yorker" quality. Thank You for all you do.

susan said...

You said you needed time to digest your Konin experience before writing about it. Well, you've fashioned a beautiful narrative out of your experiences. As a fellow Konin visitor, I salute you!

Susan

ack said...

Good work Alex! As a read it's even better than as told over pints...and pints and pints. I will look more closely at that book stall next time I'm under the bridge!

Anonymous said...

So well written. Brought tears to me, & interesting to hear.

From a person who's family too was from Poland before - a few ran & survived.

Sent to me by a Polish person I met on the internet, who wants me to know that Poles aren't & weren't antisemites. My grandmother & great aunt said otherwise. But this person's wishes & hopes for connecting to the world with pride & a sense of his Polish experiences -- count too.

So this was a good read. Also at a time when I needed something to come forward to connect me to this part of my life, that I lived though in directly -- through my father's stressors & my grandmother's cooking & tears.

I've never thought of all Poles as antisemites, but I wonder what my aunt & grandmother meant, when they talked, but almost always, didn't talk about their past.

Anonymous said...

Hello,
We opened a Facebook page: Remembering Jewish Konin.
We are also trying to save the synagogue building, if it's not too late...
you are wellcome to join and invite others.
p.s.
Are you still in touch with Theo Richmond?
I would like to imform him too as to the problem with the synagogue.
Thank you!
L.S.