14. February 2021 · Comments Off on A love story, more or less, for Valentine’s Day · Categories: Olio

I was hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. 1975. I’d never done much hiking in the East. I was used to drinking water straight from moving streams. Five days in, I got sick as a dog from the water. Fever, chills. I talked to a hiker, an old dude, about this. You’re going to need some chemicals, son, he said. I didn’t have chemicals. I crawled off the trail, cramping the whole way and found a highway.

I knew my girlfriend, Holly, was visiting a friend who was waitressing in Brunswick, Maine and hitchhiked there. I spent the night sleeping under some trees in a little park next to Bowdoin College. In the morning I went from restaurant to restaurant to find the friend. When I found her, she didn’t recognize me and started to flirt, which was awkward. She was super embarrassed when I told her who I was. Nowadays she lives in upstate New York where sne’s a Buddhist educator and officiates weddings

Anyway the friend/waitress was living in a huge old, falling apart house on the coast where a 90 year old dude had a caretaker who was a friend of hers. That’s where I found Holly. The dude had a wonderful library. I opened up a copy of Leaves of Grass. First edition. Signed ”To my good friend….” The good friend was the dude’s father, who had built the house.

The cramps and fever went away. Holly and I slept in a little room at the top of the house with slanted walls and rose covered wall paper. It was perfect. Three days in I told her I loved her for the first time.

I did some repairs in the house to earn my keep. The fridge was a mess, full of moldy stuff and I decided that for the health of all I’d clean it. I found a dark little piece of god knows what wrapped in paper in the back and pulled it out. The old dude, who was a sweet man, shouted at me, “Do not throw that out!”

“What is it?”

”My parents’ wedding cake.”

“Really? It must be 100 years old.”

”92. Every anniversary day I eat a piece. Then I soak the rest in rum to preserve it.”

”I’ll put it back.”

”Thank you.”

When I was a teen, I was worried that I didn’t have a capacity for love. It just wasn’t in me, I was convinced. I could like things and people, sure. But love wasn’t my thing. I was an innately cold numbers dude. I was prepared to live with that deficiency.

I said ”I love you” to someone for the first time 46 years ago. She became my wife four years later. I occasionally said those words in my twenties. In my thirties, I said them more. Forties, still more. Now I say those words every day and cry at movies.

11. February 2021 · Comments Off on My real education · Categories: Olio

When you grow up, you look at the world around you and for some strange reason assign a permanence to it. Your mother will always be there for you. The custard stand two blocks away will always be there to satisfy your sugar cravings and the mini-golf course next to the custard stand will always be there for your birthday parties. It’s a delusion that gives comfort. All of the places and all the adults you know – some you love – as a child will in fact eventually disappear. Well, not all. The custard stand of my childhood is miraculously still there.

This month a famous rabbi I knew a bit died, Abraham Twerski. I’d see him occasionally as a child, most commonly on the Jewish holiday Simchas Torah. Like me, he came from Milwaukee. Like me, he left Milwaukee to pursue his intellectual passions. His father, Rabbi Jacob, was my childhood rabbi and gave me my bar mitzvah lessons.

Here’s a video of Abraham’s father with my grandfather and some others I remember from my past, all gone.

Here’s an audio of Rabbi Jacob Twerski singing my bar mitzvah Haftorah portion.

Rabbi Jacob spoke a Ukrainian Yiddish and read Hebrew with a Ukrainian Jewish accent. He came to the US a decade before World War II began. His oldest son, Abraham, was born the following year. His synagogue, built in the 1950s, was filled almost entirely with Holocaust survivors, including my parents. Like my childhood custard stand, the synagogue, too, is miraculously still around, Here’s a recent picture of it, refurbished with funds from a Holocaust survivor and a landsman of my father.

As a kid, I was tapped to be an occasional cantor and would sing in this synagogue. It’s tiny, but back in the day I thought it was as big as Madison Square Garden. I was certain I’d be a cantor or, after I heard Richard Tucker sing at a local wedding, an opera singer as an adult. My eventual atheism got in the way of being a cantor and my post-puberty inability to hit a high C got in the way of making it to the Met. But I could still hit a high C (and higher) the year of my bar mitzvah.

The hour before I would have my bar mitzvah lessons was when Jacob Twerski had his daily hour of counseling. He was renowned for this. Judges and lawyers would tell people, including some gentiles, “Go see Twerski. If he can’t help, then come back to me.” But mostly the people who came were Polish and Ukrainian Jews and they would always have their counseling in Yiddish.

I would come to my lessons fifteen minutes ahead of time. The French doors leading to the rabbi’s office were always open. I’d sit outside and listen. I heard of bad marriages, bad children, and bad business partners. Then I’d listen to the rabbi’s advice. It was all eye opening.

One time my grandfather’s old business partner was there. They’d split up amicably years before. I heard all the troubles he had with his wife. When he got up to leave, he saw me and turned red. “Teyvoo’s grandson heard everything!” he shouted out.

“Him? No worries. He doesn’t know a word of Yiddish,” the rabbi said.

“Teyvoo’s grandson doesn’t know Yiddish? Impossible!” he shouted out in Yiddish.

“Tell Mr. X, Shtuleh. Do you know Yiddish?”

“Not a word. I never learned it.”

“See! You have nothing to worry about.”

Then I understood. The rabbi wanted me to listen to all of these stories. This was my real education. The actual bar mitzvah lesson was just paperwork.

01. January 2021 · Comments Off on Another tale from the Grafton, Wisconsin hospital · Categories: Olio

When I heard about a Milwaukee hospital that spoiled 500 doses of COVID vaccine, I knew which one it had to be. Absolutely knew. Why? I’ll tell you why. Below is a darkly comedic family story. Darkly comedic is my family’s specialty!

When my mom was dying of cancer she had a request: We needed to find the worst hospital in the area for when she was on her last breath. “I don’t want those sobs to try and save me and put me through pain. I want them to be so lousy at their jobs that they kill me off right away!”

We toured hospitals around Milwaukee by rotating where she got her weekly blood supplement. Every hospital was doing this work well. Our quest to find a lousy hospital was coming up short.

But then we found one that looked like a Marriott and was just 10 miles from my mom’s home. They failed at giving her the blood supplement twice before they finally did it right. The place looked like it was filled with incompetents. “Here! Take me here! Fill me with morphine and let me die happy!”

That’s what I did when her time came. And they were completely incompetent at this hospital just like we predicted. They ignored my mom’s health directive and tried to save her. But they had absolutely no talent to do that. They were breaking equipment. They gave up after 10 minutes. It was a comical horror show. “Just give her fucking morphine,“ I said. “That’s what she wants.”

Which hospital was it? The one in Grafton that spoiled 500 doses of COVID vaccine this week. Truth!

26. October 2020 · Comments Off on Writing a musical · Categories: Olio

Newton invented calculus during a pandemic. Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a pandemic. I’m not as smart or creative as those two (Who is?) and our pandemic is small potatoes compared to theirs (Thank heavens for small favors.), but we are in a pandemic and I’m pretty smart and creative. What was I going to do? Write a musical, of course!

Why a musical? I love musicals. Musicals are probably the only type of popular entertainment that I truly enjoy and don’t just watch so that I can understand what other people are talking about. I actually do a fair bit of watching and reading for that reason – trying to understand popular culture even though I don’t find it enjoyable – and that reason alone. I could have written another novel during this pandemic but the market for Jewish-themed literary fiction and comic literary fiction is dead, dead, dead (even more dead than the market for just plain old serious American literary fiction). Those are the kinds of novels I write, read and love. Actually, I think there is still a sizable market for those types of books, but publishers disagree. I’m done unless publishers change their minds. It could happen.

Write what you love. I’m not going to write some revenge porn thriller that attracts middle-aged male readers. No stories about dudes with guns blasting away or spies deftly avoiding and killing bad guys. I’d hate myself even if I were successful at it. I’m not going to write some sob story about a woman in trouble for middle-aged female readers, either. There’s a definite market for all those kinds of books, but every time I read one (so that I can understand what other people are talking about), I scratch my head and wonder, “Why on earth are people reading this tripe?”

I don’t fully know why, proud artistic snob that I am, I love musicals, but I can make some guesses. One, musicals are usually about romance and I’m a romantic dude. Two, they almost always have comic elements and usually are comedies. I like happy endings. I live for comedy. Three, they are usually filled with 32-bar AABA songs and I think that song form is golden. Fourth and ignoring the esoterica of song form, they have music. I love music. Fifth, they are live entertainment and I love seeing real people in 3D doing their thing.

But writing a musical? That always seemed like too big a mountain for me to climb. It’s not the lyric writing. I’ve written hundreds of songs. It’s not the melody writing. See note on lyric writing. It’s not the libretto. Those are fun to write. It’s putting it all together: the songs, the lyrics, the libretto, and the non-singing musical elements into one coherent, delightful, snappy story that can make people smile, laugh, and jump out of their seats at the end to applaud. It always seemed like too much for one person to do. Until now.

For some unknown reason the mountain didn’t seem as high during this pandemic. Maybe that’s how Newton felt about calculus and Shakespeare felt about King Lear during their pandemics. Who knows? All I know is that I felt I could do what I never thought I could do before. Truth is that when I started to write this musical, I was hoping for someone to work with me and write the music. I’d do the book and lyrics, both. But I asked a composer to work with me and his response was, “You write good tunes. There’s no reason you can’t write the whole thing by yourself.” Actually, I think musical writing to him is the equivalent of writing a spy novel for me – beneath him – but I appreciated his cheerleading.

So I wrote a musical comedy about two 18 year old women in love in DC during the era of a fictional awful, lying, dictator-wannabe president named Crumb (yes, he’s a stand-in for Trump).  How did an old Jewish dude come up with that idea? Originally, I was going to write a musical based on a satirical novel about a tobacco lobbyist. But It turns out that writing about a man with zero redeeming features who proudly champions a product that kills people and has no capacity for love is not exactly musical material. While doing research for that idea for a musical, I started reading about a soda-pop lobbyist who was once a bigwig in the Log Cabin Republicans and who is a Never Trumper.

I think the Log Cabin Republicans are inherently funny, kind of like the way I think Jews for Jesus are inherently funny. There’s something about the “yuckstaposition” of a pro-LGBTQ group (actually a pro-gay group that pretends it supports the entire LGBTQ community) in a political party dominated and partly defined by its homophobia that is both tragic and funny at the same time. Funny to me at any rate. Now I was getting somewhere in terms of a musical.

The soda-pop lobbyist didn’t seem like musical material, though. What if I replaced her with someone without the baggage of promoting obesity and diabetes in our population? Someone younger and more idealistic. What if a young libertarian was in love with some Green New Deal type because opposites attract? Now that’s musical comedy. I was off to the races.

I wrote the libretto in a flash. The tunes came in a hurry, too. Now I’m working out the tough part for me, actually arranging the tunes into mini-scenes with music composition that involves no singing at all. Real composing! Slowly but surely I’m getting there. I’m about four weeks away from finishing all the non-singing composition.

I love this musical. I’m as proud of it as anything I’ve done creatively. Its title is Never! It’s not as impressive as inventing calculus or writing King Lear, vu den. What is? But it is ambitious. Plus it’s damn good.






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.

25. August 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 2 · Categories: Olio

I landed in Warsaw. On the bus from the airport to my Warsaw apartment, I looked around. The Germans destroyed Warsaw in WWII. Almost all I saw was 1970s Soviet era construction and newer. My father, who was kicked out of his home for lack of religious observance and had lived in Warsaw from 1936 until war broke out in 1939, would have found much of the city unrecognizable. But some parts had a nostalgic feel.

I walked around Warsaw for only a day and a half. Like my mother in Munich twenty years before, I had no need to linger. Warsaw was a dreary, yet utilitarian city. People seemed happy to talk to me, sometimes in Polish, more often in English. Warsaw reminded me of my own hometown, Milwaukee. The landscape was similar and the people were as unpretentious as the architecture. The similarities were not unexpected. Milwaukee had many Poles and the abundance of both Poles and Germans was why my father, unlike my mother, never learned English particularly well.

Milwaukee has one thing that Warsaw doesn’t. Jews. Tens of thousands of them. There are three times more Jews in Milwaukee than are left in all of Poland. In Warsaw, the only Jews I recognized on the street were Israelis on vacation. I ended up being a translator for two families for a bit. It was mentally exhausting to quickly flip between English, Hebrew and Polish. My parents flipped between three to four languages every day of their adult lives. I tip my hat to them.

My father had lived in Warsaw as a teen when it was overflowing with Jewish culture. He loved his time there. He had a job as a furniture maker, a skill he had learned from his father, and made good money. He told me about the night life in Warsaw in the 1930s and the fun he had chasing girls. Big city life free of religion had been liberating. 

My father had been to Warsaw during the war as well. In the Soviet Union in 1943, he was drafted into Stalin’s Polish People’s Army to serve on the front lines. He knew enough German to be enlisted as a translator for a Russian colonel.

In late summer of 1944, my father’s troop advanced with the Soviet Army all the way to the suburban Warsaw town of Praga on the east side of the Vistula River. The Warsaw Uprising – an attempt by the non-Soviet-aligned Polish Home Army to drive German troops out of Warsaw – was failing on the other side of the river. Shortly after the Soviet victory in Praga, my father’s arm of the Polish People’s Army was given the order to attack Warsaw and aid the Polish Home Army.

I’ve read many scholarly accounts of the Warsaw Uprising and the advance of the Polish People’s Army. I also have my father’s story. They are not at all the same. I wanted to know the popular history of the Warsaw Uprising. How did the Polish government want to portray this event? The facts are that the Polish Home Army and Polish People’s Army were both crushed by the Nazis, who then blew up Warsaw and turned its beautiful buildings into rubble. Everyone agrees with those facts. But the devil is in the details.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum, completed in 2004, tells a story of Polish militarism and courage. You’d think through most of the museum that the Uprising had been entirely successful. What was a quixotic attempt to unseat weakened Nazi forces from Poland’s capital is transformed in the museum’s displays, audio tracks and movies into a show of Polish force, determination, and pluck.

It’s standard operating procedure for nations to try to redefine devastating defeats as moral victories. Given my distaste for hyper-nationalism, I find such efforts unappealing. When I hear people shout “USA! USA!” I groan. Pride in one’s origins is understandable. Ardent belief in a nation’s superiority is both absurd and harmful. But Poles lost their nation for over a century. Perhaps they can be forgiven for their not uncommon strident patriotism and their desire to distort history.

The facts are that in 1944 the Polish Home Army was an army in name only. It was a resistance group, poorly equipped and undermanned. For the Polish Home Army to fight the Germans on its own was folly. The Polish government in exile knew it was folly. They needed a real military force to engage the Germans in Warsaw. But the Soviet forces on the other side of the Vistula River weren’t interested. Neither were Western allies, who had battles of their own to fight. 

[Photo shows aerial view of Warsaw, more or less completely destroyed,  after war’s end. Still from museum film.]

In September 1944, the Polish People’s Army was told by the Soviets to cross the Vistula alone so that it could have the glory of reclaiming its capital city. Now comes the part of the story of the Warsaw Uprising that isn’t in any scholarly book. It’s my father’s story. 

Polish soldiers in my father’s troop were suspicious. Why weren’t the other Soviet soldiers going to fight as well? My father’s Russian colonel talked to him in confidence. “Tomorrow my soldiers will be slaughtered,” the colonel said. “Russian air cover will not come. My soldiers will die because we’ve already won this war and Stalin wants all Polish soldiers dead.” Stalin was looking ahead and wanted to avoid the possibility of a capable Polish military force challenging him after the war’s end. 

This colonel’s prediction came true. My father stayed with his colonel and watched his friends cross the river and die. The Soviet’s betrayal in the Warsaw Uprising isn’t mentioned in the museum. Its focus is on the Polish Home Army, which is viewed heroically in Polish culture. The Polish People’s Army, in contrast, is commonly viewed by Poles as a Stalinist tool full of pro-communists and communist sympathizers. My father would vehemently disagree with this characterization. 

I’d seen enough of Polish failure and death strangely turned into a moral and patriotic victory. I left the museum and walked through a rather depressing neighborhood of Soviet era apartments. I knew where my next stop would be: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

20. August 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 1 · Categories: Olio

(Well before the pandemic, I went back to Poland and Ukraine to see my parents’ homes and the places where my relatives were murdered. Here’s Part 1 of the travelogue. I’ll post the other parts in the weeks ahead.)

My mother:

“I went back home after the war to look for my father. An old neighbor saw me on the street and recognized me right away. ‘You have to come with me otherwise they will kill you,’ she said. I hid in her house overnight and left in the morning. Don’t ever go there.”

My father:

“Don’t ever visit. I went back home after the war and they tried to murder me by burning down my house with me in it. I had to shoot four people to get out alive. They remember me. If they see you, they’ll try to kill you in revenge.”

My mother and father were distant cousins. They didn’t know this. I didn’t know it until I looked at my DNA relatives on an online website and found out that all of them were related to me on both sides of my family. Even before DNA tests, it wouldn’t have been an outrageous hunch that my parents were related. They were Ashkenazi Jews born 90 kilometers apart. My mother came from a wealthy home in Tomaszow Lubelski. My father came from a poor one in Wlodzimierz. At the time of their births, both towns were in Poland. Now my father’s town is in Ukraine. 

My mother survived the war because the Soviets sent her family to a Siberian gulag in September 1939. My father survived because he fled to Tashkent in the same month. All of my mother’s family made it through the war except for a few aunts, uncles and cousins who were murdered in Belzec. Everyone in my father’s family was murdered in a killing field in what is now Ukraine except for him and perhaps three first cousins.

My parents had a close and loving marriage that lasted forty plus years.

They met in America, Milwaukee to be precise. My father first spotted my mother from a distance of twenty yards as she walked out of a Sears, thought she was both beautiful and elegant, immediately sensed that she was a Polish Jew, followed her home, and smoked a few cigarettes outside while he waited for her to leave her home. He then knocked on my mother’s door and introduced himself to my grandmother, said that he earned a good salary as a union carpenter, and his intentions toward her daughter were honorable.

To say that I admire my parents would be a profound understatement. I am, in fact, in awe of them. That wasn’t always true. But I always respected my parents even while I deluded myself into thinking I was a next-generation, superior version of them. Both were well-tuned survival machines alert to any danger. As a family, we always had our passports ready and 10K of cash and gold stashed in a wall in case America turned into another Poland, Russia or Germany overnight. I would have arguments with my parents about this paranoia.

“You know what the difference is between the shit of Poland and here?” my mother once said to me. “Money. Take money away from Americans and they’ll be the same fascists as anywhere else.” I thought this proclamation, to which my father nodded in affirmation, was absurd at the time. Now when I see pictures of the Deplorables who attend Donald Trump’s rallies, I’m chagrinned.

My parents worked morning, noon and night to make a good life for themselves and their two sons. When invited to a party, they would dance, smile, laugh, savor the meal, and my father would drink until his face glowed a bright red. They never read Tennyson, but were like his Ulysses. They drank “Life to the lees: all times” they “enjoyed greatly, have suffered greatly.” Theirs wasn’t a simple and pure joy, certainly. My father once looked at everyone dancing at a Polish Jewish wedding, smiled broadly, and said to me in Yiddish, “Look! Everybody is happy here. Hitler is watching us from above and he hates what he sees so much that he’s clawing his eyes out.” Never again have I heard a more mordant way of expressing the truism that living well is the best revenge.

That wedding was like all events my parents experienced in America. It was viewed through the lens of the Shoah. It was a lens that all in my family held, including me. I know and have read about Jewish children whose parents lived through WWII and who never heard their parents’ stories. For them, the family’s past is a dark mystery. I can’t say that. I know hundreds of stories about my parents’ lives in Europe.

But while my mother and father were happy to tell stories about their past, they were adamant about never revisiting the places they once lived. Whenever I told my parents that I wanted to see their hometowns, they looked at me sternly and told me unequivocally that not only was this a dumb idea, it was also a dangerous one. 

This taboo about revisiting the past was partly broken about two years before my mother died. My father had passed away several years before. I was teaching in Italy for a semester. My mother called to work out the details of her upcoming visit to see me and my family. Then she said something that made me put down the phone for a few seconds so I could compose myself. “I want to go to Germany with you,” she said. “I want to visit my DP (Displaced Persons) camp.” 

“What? Why?” I asked.

“Because I was young and I was free for the first time in six years,” my mother said. “Those years in the DP camp were good ones.”

“I can borrow a car and we can drive there,” I said. “Do you want to go to Poland, too?”

“Poland!” my mother shouted over the phone. “Why would I want to go to that shithole?” 

I smiled as I heard this. I had my mother back, not some strange woman fond of her days in Germany. We did go to Munich with my wife and daughter. My mother told stories non-stop while we walked around. We lasted two and a half days out of a planned four day visit before my mom looked at me and said, “This is enough. I need to get away from these goddamn Germans for good.” That trip was over twenty years ago.

I, of course, never lived in Poland, Ukraine or Germany. But my parents’ stories about their hometowns are still vivid and visceral to me. I’ve never felt particularly American even though I was born in Wisconsin and have spent almost all of my life in this country. English was not my first language. Yiddish was. Polish was my third language after English, which I learned from my brother and by watching TV sitcoms. 

The worst insult my parents could throw my way was, “You’re acting like an American.” That meant I was being weak. I was being soft. It meant that if America ever turned into another Russia, Poland or Germany, I would be one of the first to die or end up in a gulag. I made sure to avoid “acting like an American” in my parents’ presence.

It’s probably true that I’ve been inconsistent about acting like an American outside my parents’ presence, too. Late at night or when I’m tired, I tend to fall into an accent that sounds more Eastern European than it does Midwestern.

Last year, I felt a renewed need to see the source of my parents’ stories. I longed to go to Poland and Ukraine. I knew this trip wouldn’t be for pleasure. I don’t possess the warm nostalgia for shtetls that I hear from third and fourth generation American Jews. My parents’ stories of Europe before the war were about how hard and awful Jewish life was for all but the wealthy. If I traveled to Poland and Ukraine, I expected to see a dark and depressing place, one where it would be best to keep my mouth shut. 

I hope to be alive for at least another twenty years. But I don’t know how long I’ll continue to be healthy. This was the year to go. It was also necessary to go by myself. I would have gone with my brother if he had still been alive. I knew I’d be blue and pensive. He would have been that way, too.