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ul. Szeroka, the Nissenbaum Foundation memorial

2/7/2022

When my mother was nine she once saw her father supporting the arm of an elderly woman as they walked down the steps of an airplane. In the years after the war, people appeared at the door of their relatives sometimes, against all odds, as if rising from the dead. It was rare but possible. Every elderly woman could just possibly be my mother’s grandmother, returning from the war. 

But when my mother’s father arrived down to the greeting area at the airport, the elderly woman was gone. My mother remembers her parents didn't understand why she burst into tears.

 

My grandfather knew his parents were murdered in Auschwitz but he didn’t know when exactly. In the 1990s he visited Auschwitz, and with my mother combed through the archive lists. They did not find his parents’ names among the endless Rosenbergs on file. The Auschwitz archivist assisting them, explained it was normal and that the Germans burned many of those records.

 

When he was already in his early nineties, in one of the rare times he ever managed to speak of his parents with me, he asked one day if I could please try to go through the lists again and find their names. It only took a couple of visits to the Jerusalem Holocaust archive to narrow down the deportation lists they might be on. “It would take one more visit to the archive,” I told my grandfather, who asked that I let go. “Just leave it,” he said.

 

A few years later my mother called and said her cousin Michael had discovered the date of their grandparents’ death. 

 

I call Michael to ask for details. He tells me he visited Breslau twice. I ask if his father, my grandfather's brother Max, had told him anything about their parents? Perhaps he was able to speak more than my grandfather had been? No, he says. They were brothers after all. 

 

Then he explained how he cross-referenced three lists. The Germans were very organized, he says. There was a list with the date they were deported from Breslau to Auschwitz in 1943. Then there was a very detailed list of every item they left behind. Every blanket, every undershirt, every pillowcase. The following day there was a list with names of those who arrived from Breslau to Auschwitz on that specific shipment and were selected for forced labor. They were not on that list. They were not on any other list after that. That's how you know they were taken to the gas chambers, he said.

 

The year Michael told us about the date, I was scheduled to go on a two-day work trip to Berlin. It was my first visit to Germany ever – and the date of my flight turned out to be the exact date Michael had discovered. I tried in vain to change my ticket and flew to Berlin with a candle in my suitcase. It was one of those white candles you light in memory of the dead. I was planning on lighting it, somewhere, somehow, but ended up not wanting to leave any traces of the candle in Berlin. Not its little tin. Not its base. Not its smoke. And so the candle returned with me good as new.

 

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The night after I speak with Michael I wake up at 2 am, struggling for breath. It has been a couple of months since I began writing and rewriting these letters to you, Reader, trying to form clearly constructed sentences after decades of silence that didn't feel like silence at all. I have pushed off the call to Michael to the last possible minute. Someday, when my children find these three cross-referenced lists, they too will be sick to their stomachs. There are sleepless nights in store for them as well. All those attempts to string words together to be associated with the words “The Krakow Jewish Festival”, to pretend there is any form of healing in time. All those attempts to deny the fact that when I walk the beautiful streets of Kazimierz holding a takeaway herbal tea disposable cup, my DNA is calling “DANGER”.

No. I listen. My DNA isn’t calling “DANGER”. Its crying despair. Its crying my grandfather’s decades of silent grief and my mother’s grief and my own grief and my children’s future grief. No rewriting of these lines for you, Reader, would ever get them right.