“They were seven Polish Jews from Warsaw and it was 1939. I heard their stories when I was already married and a mother. I don’t know if they told them before then; I only know that’s when I began to pay attention. It must have been around the time of the American awakening to the Holocaust in the late 1970s and 1980s, with TV specials and movies suddenly giving status to their European accents. This attention encouraged my father and his two brothers to talk more about what happened to them, even though theirs wasn’t a Holocaust experience of the first order. The stories captivating Americans were about concentration camps and gas chambers and death. My family stories, about how they outwitted their circumstances and survived, were the kind that did not count as about the Holocaust, until now.
This, then, is a Holocaust story plucked from the least known yet most common of the stories of Polish Jews who survived World War II. Most Polish Jews still alive after the Holocaust spent the war in the Soviet Union. So it’s a story of exile. And it’s also a story of family—my family. Most of the people you will get to know best are survivors who lost almost everything important they had—parents, brothers, sisters, and one would say “homeland,” but it seems Jews do not have a homeland, and even Israel, the default homeland, has its problems. Once the Seven escaped the Germans in Warsaw, they did not return, even after the war, but kept going, out of the Soviet Union, out of Poland, out of Europe.
For sure, death was there, too. Of these seven Polish Jews who left Warsaw for exile, six lived out a natural life span. But another sixty, according to the statistics, 90 percent—parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, an entire family network, almost the whole of the mishpokhe—did not. Did not go to school, fall in love, and get married to have children and then grandchildren, did not go once a week to the shvitz, did not play soccer and ride bicycles, did not go dancing or to the opera or catch the latest film at the cinema, did not do their tailoring or bookbinding or make gefilte fish or light the Friday-night candles for the Sabbath. When I woke up to my connection to this history, I began to record those I could on audio tapes, and as best as was possible, given Soviet restrictions on foreigners’ travel, I retraced the steps of their exile.”
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