22. September 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 6 · Categories: Olio

I had some time before my late night flight out of Warsaw and decided to visit the suburban town of Praga. It was there that my father had spent the fall and early winter of 1944 as a Polish-Soviet soldier. Beneath a highway and of no interest to any Pole is a statue of Soviet General Zhukov, who led the advance of the Soviet and Polish People’s armies across the Vistula River and their victory over the Germans in Warsaw in January 1945. The victory was a conquest, not a liberation. After the war ended, the Soviets abused the Poles of Warsaw and the entire nation for over forty years.

Near the statue of Zhukov, I looked across the Vistula River. My father had likely camped within a few hundred meters of this same spot. He knew that war would soon end, that the Germans were finished. On cold nights his troop would keep warm by huddling together like bees in a hive. You got ten minutes in the center of the hive to get warm and take a little nap. Then you were kicked out and put on the edge before you were allowed to work your way back to the center.

My father never took off his boots from the time he and his army successfully attacked Warsaw in January 1945 until war’s end. No one in his troop did. They marched and fought in their boots. They slept in their boots at night. In Germany at the end of the war, it was not possible for my father to remove his boots’ leather – which had more or less bonded with his skin – from his feet in any conventional way. He and the other soldiers took razors to their boots and carefully cut the leather into strips. Then they slowly peeled the leather strips away.

I filled up my rental car with gas on the way to the Warsaw airport. At the gas station, I asked for directions to the rental car return. The young woman at the cash register listened to me struggle with my Polish, then smiled and said, “Speak English.” She gave directions with the help of a customer who was listening to us.

I had expected to spend my time in Poland around quiet introverts who opened up only when they had a few shots of vodka. Those were the kind of Poles I had grown up around in Milwaukee. Instead I had found a country where people went out of their way to be gracious and helpful time and time again.

Would they have been as warm to me had they known I was Jewish? Many would have been. Some might have turned hostile. The grandparents of the people I had met no doubt would have known my ethnicity after a glance at my face. But who in 2018 in Poland had that ability? Who in 2018 in Poland had ever met a Jew, much less an American one who spoke Polish poorly?


I spent a day in Barcelona before I went home to California. Nearly the entire population of Barcelona’s medieval Jews was murdered in 1391. There’s a small area left where it’s known that Jews lived and one medieval synagogue remains. This is perhaps as prominent a physical remnant of a once vibrant Jewish culture as can be found in the entire country. Spain is a monoculture of Catholics, both those who believe and those who are non-practicing, and has been for hundreds of years. Poland has been the same way since the end of World War II.

In another four hundred years, the chances are good that Poland will, like Spain today, be absent of both a significant population of Jews and any significant signs of past Jewish culture. The buildings in pre-war Polish Jewish neighborhoods will be replaced. What few active synagogues remain will be repurposed or knocked down.

A few years ago I went to a contemporary art show in San Francisco that had a video installation. In the video, a young Polish man stood in a small, empty Polish soccer stadium and implored Jews to return to Poland. His voice was loud and echoed against the stadium seats and walls. He wanted children and grandchildren of Polish Jews like me to return, to make Poland a multicultural paradise again. I thought his words were a sick attempt at humor. My family was murdered in Poland once already. We weren’t going back to be murdered again.

By chance, I met the young man from the art video the following year. I was astonished to hear him say that he meant every word in his soccer stadium speech. He hadn’t been ironic or snarky in the video. Poland would benefit from having Jews return. He would welcome such a re-immigration with open arms. I thought he was delusional.

But as I talked to the man, I remembered something I’d forgotten about my brother. Before he died and when was gravely ill, my brother called and asked if I wanted to join him in an effort to claim Polish citizenship. He told me that by Polish law we were eligible. He was going to pay someone to put together the appropriate paperwork. Did I want to split the cost with him?

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“I’m going to move there. I’m paying almost six figures a year for my medical care. In Poland I’d pay next to nothing.”

“That’s crazy talk,” I said. “Your Polish is non-existent. You won’t be able to communicate with anyone. You’ll be a stranger. You’ll spend your last years alone.”

“It’s not so crazy,” he said. “Why should I give my money to a greedy American medical system when I could leave it to my kids?”

I said no to joining my brother. He died soon after this phone call, well before the Polish lawyer he hired sent in my brother’s application for citizenship. A month after my visit to Poland I surprised myself. I wrote a letter to the Polish consulate.

I told them my parents’ life stories and why they were forced to leave Poland. I told them the paperwork I had as proof. I asked them whether it would be possible to apply for Polish citizenship and what my next step should be.

Poland will never return to the multicultural glory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It will be, for however long it remains an independent nation, a land of ethnic Polish Catholicism. Judaism at best will continue to show up as a tiny speck in its religious demographics. But if there are currently 8000 Jews who are Polish citizens I would like to change that number to 8001.

16. September 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 5 · Categories: Olio

I woke up early after arriving late in my mother’s hometown. I had driven from Krakow. I hadn’t known that my windows were wide open and a bee was buzzing in the hotel room, hovering around the ceiling light. I looked outside at the pink sky and the city below me. The buildings were two stories high, mostly apartments. The city stretched for at least a mile and had none of the pulchritude of Krakow. It looked like a city without whimsy and vaguely well to do for Poland.

My father told few positive stories about his home town. His family was poor and his relationship with his father was fractious. The only warmth in his voice would come when he talked about playing soccer or going swimming with his friends. But my mother loved growing up in Tomaszow Lubelski. Her family was wealthy. She went to a good school. She had a beautiful white dog, a kid brother she adored and a goat that would follow her around town. She would talk about how how wonderful their Sabbath meals were, that she looked forward to them every week.

My mother once said to me, “Hitler didn’t kill me, but he took my childhood away from me. I’ll never forgive him for that.” This was an uncharacteristic complaint from my mother, who was almost always stoic. Once when I was ten and we were in the kitchen baking together, I asked her, “How do you do it? Everybody got killed. How do you stay happy?” She looked at me like she always did when she thought I was acting like an American. Dismissive. “What do you mean, how do I do it? I wake up. I do things. Every day. There’s no other choice.”

If there was a place in Poland that had the remote potential to make me nostalgic for shtetl life, it was Tomaszow Lubelski. But there was little present to evoke warm feelings. Only a few historic buildings were left. Everything else looked boxy and from the 1970s and newer. I walked into one of the historic buildings, the county records office, and tried to find my mother’s birth certificate.

The county clerk was helpful and gracious. We went through computer records and handwritten birth notices from the late 1920s. Only a few people with my mother’s maiden name had their births recorded and none were relatives I knew. My mother didn’t know exactly when she was born. When she applied for American citizenship, she made up a birthdate. It wasn’t surprising that there were no records of her birth, but I was disappointed.

In the center of my mother’s town, a sign welcoming visitors had a list of all that was historical and worth visiting. I was surprised to see the Jewish cemetery on that list. Long abandoned, its headstones were, like in my father’s town, used to pave streets during the war. In the 1990s Jewish war survivors from Israel collected funds and erected a monument to the memory of the town’s Jewish community. The monument can be found on the cemetery’s south side. The Israeli survivors also paid to have a secure fence placed around the cemetery’s boundary and hired a man who lived next door to keep watch and be a gatekeeper.

As I waited for someone from the gatekeeper’s family to arrive back home, a couple of middle-aged men walked by and gave me hostile looks. Were they anti-Semites or were they simply having a bad day? I had my suspicions. I had already been in Poland for a week and until then almost everyone had been welcoming. Many had gone out of their way to help me. People smiled. They were patient with my bad Polish. But I hadn’t spent time in small cities until then and hadn’t spent any time in eastern Poland. This was the heart of Polish ultra-nationalist, right-wing politics.

The daughter of the gatekeeper drove up and asked me who I was. I told her my mother had been born in this town. The young woman smiled and let me in. Young women in Poland were almost always solicitous to me, more than likely because of my wrinkles and thinning hair. The woman’s long braids reminded me of pictures of my mother in her twenties. Just a few days before, a young woman like her offered to help me carry my backpack up a flight of stairs. “I’m old, but I’m not that old,” I said. She laughed.

The cemetery was overgrown with vegetation. My feet got wet from the morning dew. Only a few tombstones remained. As I said a prayer, I began to sob. I wasn’t listening to my father’s voice inside me telling me to buck up. Instead I let it all out. It felt good, cathartic. This was where my ancestors were buried, after all. An infant sibling of my mother, never mentioned by her parents but whispered about when she was a kid, was probably buried here, too. Why wouldn’t I cry?

When the Germans took Tomaszow Lubelski in 1939, my mother was living on a farm owned by a Christian friend of my grandfather. My grandfather wanted his family out of harm’s way so he sent them off to the countryside. A German officer barged into the farm house when the Christian family wasn’t there. My grandmother looked Roma, not Jewish. My mother, in braids and with high cheekbones, looked Slavic. Both spoke a perfect Polish. The translator for the German officer assumed my mother and grandmother weren’t Jews. “The German wants a good Polish soup. Make some for him right now,” the translator said.

Had the Germans stayed in Tomaszow Lubelski from that day on, all the Jews in town would have been systematically murdered like they were in my father’s town. But when the Soviet Army invaded Poland a week later as part of the Soviet’s agreement with Germany to divide Poland in two, the Soviets mistakenly took control of my mother’s hometown. When the error was discovered, the Soviets were told to leave. The Soviet officer in charge took his time. He went to the Jewish community and made them an offer: stay and the Nazis will no doubt murder you; leave with us and you’ll live.

Not everyone believed the Soviet officer’s prediction of the future for Jews in Tomaszow Lubelski. My grandfather was one of the skeptics. But his younger brother was confident the Soviet officer was telling the truth. Surprisingly, my grandfather decided out of family loyalty that he and his family would leave with his younger brother. Two thousand Jews marched out with the Soviets. When they reached the border they were offered Soviet citizenship. My grandfather and great uncle, always capitalists, refused. They were sent to a gulag. The Jews who didn’t leave with the Soviets and stayed in Tomaszow Lubelski were murdered in Belzec.

It’s a short drive from my mother’s hometown to Belzec Concentration Camp. The road parallels a railroad line, probably the same one that brought over 400,000 Jews to be gassed. The workings of the camp were destroyed by the Nazis when it was abandoned in 1943. In fall of 1942, when my relatives in Volodymyr-Volinsky and Tomaszow Lubleski were killed, the Germans were murdering fifteen thousand Jews a day in concentration camps and killing fields.

Hardly anyone visits Belzec. It’s too far east. There are no major cities nearby. There are no structures left to enable people to imagine the horror of being in a camp. Instead the entire area is taken up with an austere, volcanic rock filled field sculpture. It’s eerie and frightening, which is entirely appropriate. The grounds cover tens of acres.

As I walked the pathways I saw no one else. My mother had three cousins who survived the war and lived in Queens when I was kid. I thought about them as I took in the details of the field sculpture. Their parents were murdered in Belzec. I began to sing the section in the Kaddish that talks of peace for all and for Israel. I sang it loudly over and over as I walked. It was a source of comfort.

I walked to my car outside of Belzec and paused to look at the railroad tracks two feet from the passenger door. The Jews came in cattle cars. There was no pretense of slave labor at this camp. The Jews walked in. They were all murdered. I got in my car and drove in bad traffic and exhaust filled air non-stop to Lodz, where I spent a day doing some research for a novel. I walked around the city and talked to librarians.

08. September 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 4 · Categories: Olio

I took a bus from Warsaw to my father’s Polish town, which is now in Ukraine. It was a step back in time of at least twenty years. Poland has a viable economy. Ukraine doesn’t. My father’s town, now called Volodymyr-Volynsky, is a modest-sized city that has been a regional trading center for eight hundred years. Now its principal source of revenue comes from smuggling booze, cigarettes and who knows what else across the Polish-Ukrainian border twenty kilometers to the west. The road along those twenty kilometers is full of potholes, rills and gullies.

Photo by VM.

Unlike Warsaw, Volodymyr-Volynksy wasn’t destroyed by the war. Churches, even one from the twelfth century, are intact. I could walk the same streets as my father and see many of the landmarks of his childhood. I visited his “red-brick school,” which coincidently my wife’s step-grandfather also attended. I knew that my father had lived on the edge of town in a straw-roofed shack. Those kinds of homes were gone, but photos of them taken by the Austro-Hungarian government before World War I can be found in online archives.

The town’s main synagogue survived World War II as well, but was demolished by the Soviets. There were no Jews in town left to stop them. Before the war, there were over twenty thousand Jews in Volodymyr-Volynsky. After the war there were less than 90 survivors and all but a few soon left. Today, there are probably less than five Jews in the entire city and all come from elsewhere. There are also less than a few hundred ethnic Poles in a city where Polish and Jewish life dominated.

In the region that contains my father’s hometown, Volhynia, there were 330,000 Poles and 200,000 Jews in the 1930s. By the end of the war, less than 3000 Jews and Poles remained. In Volhynia, Nazis enlisted Ukrainian fascists to murder Jews and then the Ukrainians, with German help, murdered Poles.

When Polish people have occasionally told me that the Soviets during and after WWII treated Poland worse than the Nazis did during WWII, I’ve never engaged them in debate. The assertion is loaded with anti-Semitism and too ludicrous to merit discussion. The Germans murdered over five and a half million Polish citizens. But I have always wished to remind these Nazi apologists that the massacre of ethnic Poles in Volhynia, 40,000 to 60,000 murdered during the war, showed the likely future for all of Poland had Germany won.

I walked around the boundary of the old Volodymr-Volynsky ghetto. This was where my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins spent their final days. I then walked along a street featured in a 1916 photo of a business district. I own a copy of that photo and one of the signs visible in the image is for a hat and umbrella shop owned by P. Rojstaczer. My grandfather’s name was Pinchas.

I took a modern recreation of the 1916 photo. I talked to the owner of a little shop next to the one once owned by Pinchas Rojstaczer. The streets and sidewalks were no longer made of dirt. The horse and wagon buggies had been replaced by cars, trucks and bicycles. But the church in the background was the same. My father, no doubt, had walked this same street many times.

My father told me in that in 1946 he came home to see if anyone in his family had survived. He was a soldier in the Soviet Army at the time, stationed in the Soviet zone of Berlin.

He walked around town that day just like I was doing in 2018. The people he knew weren’t happy to see him. That night he went to sleep in his family home one last time. Around midnight he heard noises outside. “Let’s get the one Hitler left behind,” one of them said.

My father saw flames and smoke above him and knew the gang outside had lofted torches onto the roof. They were trying to burn him alive in his family home. My father was a soldier with a gun. He shot his way past the blocked front door of his house and shot everyone he saw around him. Then he ran out of town.

I walked around the town’s central plaza where a fall market was taking place. People were buying their winter cabbages, carrots, and onions in 10 and 20 kilo bags. I bought a pair of pretty wool socks for my wife. How many people there would know of that night when my father shot his way out of town seventy two years ago? It was probably long forgotten.

The pre-war cemetery near the center of town where my father’s ancestors are buried is now a park that leads to a school. All the tombstones are missing save for one stub. The thousands of tombstones that filled this park were broken off by Nazis and Ukrainians and used to pave streets during the war. I probably walked over those tombstones, now covered over in asphalt or concrete, that day.

One of the few Jews who currently lives in my father’s hometown was a gracious host who knew the Jewish history of the city well. I walked with him and a translator in the graveyard, now filled with deciduous trees. People on their way to the school and who knows where else walked past us. I’d noticed in my walks with my host that many people knew him and greeted him warmly.

“You’re a popular fellow,” I said to him.

He was a musician born in another small western Ukrainian city. He’d moved to Volodymyr-Volynsky because his wife was offered a good job in town. He smiled. “I have a lot of friends. I’ve performed at a lot of weddings.”

“They know you’re Jewish, don’t they?” I asked.

“Oh yes, they know.”

I was surprised that a Jew in this town would be treated warmly. My sense that Eastern Europe was still fully saturated with anti-Semitism was in error. There was at least one pleasant exception. There were no doubt many others. The man loved Ukraine and the people of Ukraine loved him back.

We took a taxi, an old Lada, to the killing field where my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins are buried. A fifty-foot high concrete monument was erected in 1989 to honor the eighteen thousand Jews murdered here. I’d seen pictures of the monument before and felt fortunate that this place had been identified. I knew where my relatives were buried.

Other Jewish WWII survivors and their children aren’t so fortunate.There are thousands of unmarked killing fields throughout Ukraine.

A border-like red and white bar, sixteen-feet long, protected vandals from entering the memorial and the surrounding killing field. Still, there have been recent anti-Semitic graffiti sprayings nearby and in the not so distant past, grave robbers have dug into the killing field’s remains in search of gold and jewels.

As we walked around the site, the taxi driver did his own search. He was looking for mushrooms for his wife’s borscht. He would reach down, pick a mushroom, carefully examine it, and if it didn’t match his criteria, drop it.

I’d never seen a killing field and hadn’t known what to expect. But it was instantly identifiable. The first burial mound we saw was the biggest, a meter high rectangle about a third of the size of a soccer pitch. As I approached I started to cry, but then I heard my father’s voice in my head again. Be a man. Make yourself strong.

I’d only seen my father cry twice. Once during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, he came into my room when my mom was out of town. He asked to come into my bed as the thunder rolled in the house. He held me and cried. Then when the thunder ended he got up and said, “Thanks. I’m OK now.”

When my mom came home I told her about this incident. “It’s the war. The thunder reminds him of it,” she said. I realized then that my mom had held my father during many a thunderstorm. The other time I’d seen him cry was when a distant relative gave him a picture of his sister taken in 1935 that had been mailed to America. Would my father have cried seeing this burial mound? There is no doubt.

There were three burial mounds. I said a prayer at each one. The Jews of my father’s town had dug their own graves. Every day for over two weeks, they were marched out from the ghetto. Then they walked seven kilometers to this site and were given shovels. They were told that they were digging pits for airplane fuel tanks for a new airfield.

At the edge of the biggest killing field I noticed a birch tree perhaps thirty years old. The tree had grown at such a pronounced angle away from the burial mound that the trunk’s base was two feet closer to the killing field than the trunk at eye level. It was as if, while young and growing, the birch tree had been trying to get as far away from this evil as it could.

I wanted to get away, too. That afternoon, I took a bus filled with Ukrainians going back to their jobs in Poland. The bus driver got into an argument with the Ukrainian border guards that seemed to be about the inadequacy of his bribe. We sat in the bus for four hours and then were pulled off for a bag inspection. I was the only non-Ukrainian. “I don’t speak Ukrainian, only Polish,” I said to the border guard. “Is your family Ukrainian?” he asked as he looked at my passport. “Yes. My father was born here,” I said. He gave me a wave of approval without even looking at my backpack.

A short video (by VM) of me at the killing field can be found here.

01. September 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 3 · Categories: Olio

There are fewer than 10,000 Jews in all of Poland today. Before WWII, there were three and a half million. Today Poland is a monoculture of ethnic Poles who practice Catholicism. Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, Armenians, and Roma were once a major part of this country, which had a long history of uneasy tolerance of other cultures. Multiculturalism vanished in Poland after WWII. The towns Jews lived in throughout Poland and the rich culture they possessed are all gone. Jews are now zoo-like specimens in Warsaw and other cities. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is an attempt to document a difficult past with a tragic ending.

I walked into the exhibits of the Jewish history museum, appropriately placed one level underground, and looked at the displays about the beginnings of Polish Jewry. The museum was all new, completed in 2014. Located within the boundaries of the old Warsaw Ghetto, it’s glass covered and elegant.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews was markedly different than the museum I had visited in the morning. The Warsaw Uprising Museum, contained in one of the few large pre-war red brick buildings left in Warsaw, was poorly lit and covered in black paint. This one, filled with calming mauve taupe paint and lightly stained wood, was meant to be welcoming. But I was wary.

The museum’s narrative begins with those in power in Poland happy to see Jews enter their land in the early part of the second millennium and making rules that allow Jewish merchants to prosper. I suppressed my impulse to talk back to the Jews described in the museum, “Don’t do this,” I wanted to say. “Don’t come. I know how this story is going to end. Badly. Horrifically. It’s a trap. Poles will hate you. Then Hitler will come to murder you.”

I looked around and watched the other visitors. They might as well have been in an art museum. Their faces were tranquil as they took in the multimedia displays. Did these people, mostly Polish adults and groups of kids on school field trips, know this tragedy in any detail? I didn’t think so.

In the museum’s exhibits, anti-Semitism in Poland was an external force. Cossacks made pogroms. Germans made concentration camps. The dark past of conflicts between ethnic Poles and Jews was whitewashed as was the role of the Catholic church as a breeding ground for anti-Semitism. The creators of the exhibits had purposely made Polish-Jewish relations anodyne over hundreds of years of history. This museum displayed a selective narrative, one that wouldn’t upset any of today’s Polish leaders.

I’ve lived in the American South and have heard white Southerners in denial over their dark past. An American museum of slavery designed for their comfort and denial would employ an approach similar to what I saw in Poland’s Jewish museum. Slaves would be shown as happy people treated with kindness by their masters. No, ethnic Poles were not slave owners. They weren’t the cause of the annihilation of Jews in Poland. But their hatred of Jews was omnipresent and during the Shoah they were complicit.

I got one fifth of the way through the exhibits and started to cry. I couldn’t take any more of the eerie calm of the crowd and the exhibits absent of heart and foreboding. I walked quickly, almost ran, through the rest of the exhibit, went back upstairs and got a beer to calm myself.

I thought about another museum, one planned, but never built. The Nazis collected a great deal of Jewish memorabilia. Had they won the war and annihilated all of European Jewry, they planned to show 200,000 Jewish relics in a post-war Jewish museum of their own. The Nazi museum would have celebrated the annihilation of Jews and been scathing in its depiction of Jewish life in Europe. Certainly none of that was present in this Polish museum. But the types of artifacts shown in the Polish museum were identical to those the Nazis would have displayed.

It’s a sad and depressing fact that the state of Jews today in Europe is nearly the same as the the Nazi’s dark hope. Jews are essentially extinct throughout the Pale of Settlement. They are essentially gone in Germany as well. The Polish museum was inadvertently a museum of cultural extinction.

As I drank my beer (and had some duck and tzimmes), I thought of how I would design a museum like this one. Darkly painted, it would tell a story of hatred and the evils of anti-Semitism. But the museum I wanted was one that could never be built in Poland.

I heard my father’s voice in my head, the one that told me not to be a baby, but to be a man. “Be strong,” he’d say to me in Yiddish. I needed to stop brooding and see the rest of the museum.

I went back downstairs and walked through the exhibits a bit faster than most. The Jews portrayed in this museum were not a bad people. They were not greedy. They were not Christ killers. In the post-war period, they weren’t detested communists and communist sympathizers who destroyed the lives and livelihoods of ethnic Poles. All the awful anti-Semitic tropes present in Polish culture even today were as absent as the role that Poles played in the destruction of Polish Jewish culture.

Instead in this museum there was a nostalgia for Jews and their music and customs in Poland. The dire poverty of many Jews before the war and the threats they faced from Poles, both of which propelled Jews to dream of leaving Poland for Palestine, were ignored. In this history, the Jews came to Poland, flourished and then were washed away in a terrible externally driven tragedy.

Jewish scholars who played a role in the construction of this museum had to know they were helping to invent a narrative. But they had achieved a partial victory. Jews were shown to be worthy of sympathy. To have Jews depicted in a Polish museum free of negative stereotypes was major progress. Is a museum that tells lies by omission of value? Not for me, certainly. But I’d be happy if I knew for certain that one hundred years from now, Jews will be thought of with nostalgia in Poland as pleasant, dairy-restaurant creating, klezmer playing merchants and craftsmen.

I was done with a generic and artificially sweetened history of Jews in Poland. I had to see my family’s history up close. First I needed to see my father’s Polish town, Wlodzimierz (center of map). It is now part of Ukraine and called Volodymyr Volynsky.