This expression comes to mind when looking at my own parents and survivors like them who ended up among the living. My parents survived against all ads in Soviet Russia and Uzbekistan. Running east proved to be for most Jewish survivors the best chance to escape the fire that engulfed Europe. What followed at the end of six years was a shocking repatriation to the “vast graveyard”. Survivors came back from Russia to Poland in the spring and summer of 1946; they came back to a vast Jewish cemetery.
In postwar Poland and until the late 1960s the post Holocaust trauma continued for Polish Jewish citizens. We lived under a new kind of oppression, communism. A desperate, dehumanizing survival during the war years continued. This desperation came from a new kind of oppression, communism. Within this tragedy real people tried to live daily life. Richard Lourie the critically acclaimed author of both fiction and nonfiction, including The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin and Sakharov, wrote “We do not learn from our mistakes and never change. Antisemitism did not disappear in Poland after the Holocaust any more than it would in Russia after a young Jew had died for Russia’s freedom.” Racism and antisemitism under communism did not disappear.
My mother wrote about the political climate during the interwar years in Poland. She wrote about Roman Dmowski, a Polish politician, co-founder of the right-wing political movement, “Endecja“. Józef Piłsudski died in 1935, for Polish Jews his death was a great tragedy. Roman Dmowski, was a fierce opponent throughout Józef Piłsudski’s reign. Dmowski was an influential Polish ideologue and politician of his time. He believed that only a Polish-speaking Roman Catholic could be a good Pole. He was openly anti-Semitic. He strongly opposed minorities’ having any rights and supported the idea for Jews to emigrate from Poland. What made him so dangerous was that he was well respected, affluent and educated. He knew nine languages, had a doctorate in biology. He traveled widely, visited Brazil, Japan, United States, and Algiers and had been to all of Europe. One can safely assume that he was not a bigot. But he was an anti-Semite. He would start his speeches by saying “My religion came from Christ who was murdered by the Jews.” After Piłsudski’s death, Roman Dmowski’s right-wing National Democratic Party moved center stage, passing anti-Jewish legislation. With the great depression and Piłsudski’s death tension between Polish Jewish citizens and Polish citizens deepened.
Before the war, Poland was my parents’ home and that of their parents’ and grandparents’. Their vibrant community of over 3.5 million Jews flourished only to be decimated in six short years. My parents’ entire families that stayed in Poland were murdered, in the Warsaw Ghetto, Treblinka, the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz. My mother’s immediate family, her brother and sisters believed it was best to stay in Warsaw and ride out the war. At that, time there still existed this notion that the Great German Civilization will never hurt women and children. However, my mother saw things differently. She was the only one in my family who had read Mein Kampf. She and her generation believed Hitler’s evil plans for Europe’s Jews. At the same time they had no idea what genocide meant and that a genocide was about to be unleashed on their people. My mother, the pessimist fled and lived, her family the optimists stayed, they all were murdered.
The world, including America, the Roosevelt administration turned a blind eye, to the Nazis slaughter of Jews. Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish underground, 1941, was one of the first to report of the mass killings of Polish Jews. James G. McDonald, the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also tried unsuccessfully to set off the alarms of the looming catastrophe in the years 1933-1935.
To stay alive, my mother kept going east into the unknown on trains crammed with other refugees. She found herself deep in Stalinist Russia, far from home and family, full of remorse and regret. However, it was a decision that saved her life.
After escaping Warsaw November 8, 1939, my mother traveled to towns of Siedlce and Losice and crossed the Bug River. She crossed the Bug in a tiny fishing boat. In the dead of the night they finally made it to the other side, the Russian side. The Bug, a tributary of the Vistula River, is not a wide river, but the darkness of the moonless night and the silence that enveloped the boat seemed to make the trip last forever. Just as the travelers got off the boat, four armed men jumped out from behind the bushes. The fisherman with his boat disappeared into the dark of the river; the border patrol guards fired their guns into the air. “Stop! You are under arrest! You have illegally crossed the river,” they yelled in Russian. They surrounded my mother’s group and made them walk. She was detained by the Russians in Drohiczyn with hundreds of other who crossed illegally. A Russian soldier saved my mother’s life. He allowed her to continue the journey. Bialystok was the next stop. The town of Bialystok was teeming with refugees and my mother wrote that it felt as if she was in Warsaw. At the beginning of 1940, the Russian Government forced the refugees to sign up for mandatory work inside of Russia, saving more lives.
My mother worked in a factory in Saratov for the next two years. She had a family in Moscow, who left Poland after WWI, they made sure she survived well. Cousin Isaac and she fell in love. He was a famous theater director. My mother’s brother Sevek was arrested in the summer of 1940, by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in Saratov. He was sent to Kotlas, Siberia labor camps. Two years later he was sent to the front lines in the winter of 1942, to Astrakhan in southern Russia. He never held a gun before. As the German armies were gaining in strength, my mother joined the Polish army that were forming on Russian soil, under General Wladyslaw Anders and fled to Central Asia, in February of 1942. She survived four years of starvation, heat, malaria, in places like Guzar, Gitap, Karsi.
Some survivors managed to triumph even under the darkest of circumstances. The Holocaust aftermath left them with permanent scars and damages. Their psychic injuries and traumas were transmitted to us, the second generation. What happened to our parents’ and grandparents’ had an impact on the 2Gs. Far too many of us are unable to free ourselves from the Holocaust aftermath, always lingering in our life.
Six years after the war, my parents chose to stay in their homeland, Poland. They went on to raise a family, but in their minds the sorrowful wail of millions never stopped playing. Their hearts were forever broken from the enormity of their losses. We never were able to find out how and where my mother’s family perished. If they died of hunger, disease, were killed by bullets in the Warsaw Ghetto, or forced to board the trains to the Treblinka extermination camps.
As a child, I remember my mother, mourning her murdered family. She never stopped grieving; she lived with the ghosts of her vanished family. Her decision to run away from Warsaw after the German invasion haunted her all her life. A young woman of twenty-two, she said good-bye to her entire family, thinking she would be back in a few weeks. Her final farewell was to brother Adek. She handed over to him her most precious possessions, a box filled with diplomas, a few of her favorite books and an album with photographs. She told him to take care of it. Her parting words were, “I will see you in a few weeks.”
What I remember most vividly from my childhood years after the war in Poland is how my mother always watched the door, always hopeful, never giving up that a loved one would enter, come back from the dead. Later, when I grasped the magnetite of the crimes Europe’s Jews were made to suffer, I questioned why my parents thought it was essential to stay in Poland. For my parents it was important to restore their roots in the place where their ancestors had lived for centuries. They needed to be among the ghosts of their murdered family, to keep their memory alive and insure that they did not perish in vein. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” My mother found courage and strength among the ashes of her family; she brought them back to life, daily. Twenty years after the war, Jews were targeted all over again with an anti-Semitic campaign, sponsored by the communist government. In the years, 1968-1969 Polish Jews were expelled from Poland.