My Father’s 1985 Return to Nowy Sacz, Poland
As I settle next to my father on the flight from Warsaw to Krakow, I think about how I can never remember how many brothers and sisters he had, though their picture hangs in his home. I buckle my seat belt and turn back. An armed Polish soldier stands at the rear of the plane. The stewardess informs us over the intercom, in Polish and English, that if we should need to leave our seats, we are to please press the call button. Hijackings to the West will clearly not be tolerated.
An hour later, as the noisy TU-24 turboprop descends, my father tells me, “It’s been the dream of my lifetime to return here with my children.” My sister had to remain at home to take care of her own young children.
In 1937, when my father was 19, his father died of cancer. A week later, while he was alone with his mother in their house in Nowy Sacz, a check arrived from an uncle in Los Angeles. His mother broke down. It abruptly occurred to him, the youngest in the family, that these distant relatives might have enough money to lift him from this anti-Semitic countryside all the way to America,
After endless American immigration problems, he finally arrived in Los Angeles a year later and immediately set out to bring his next oldest brother over. Delay after delay con- fronted him. Soon 1938 disappeared, then the months of 1939 slipped away. He went to the immigration office again and again. On September 1, Hitler burst into Poland and all possibility of prying his family out was crushed under the thunderous goose stepping. No one survived.
In 1944 my mother, whom my father met in Los Angeles after the war, was hauled — along with her entire family — from the Beregszasz ghetto in Hungary, crammed into a railroad car and taken to Auschwitz. Born in 1950, I can recall my first realization that something had “happened”” — my sister and I were never allowed to watch war movies on television, but
we did not understand why. I was much older, probably a teenager, before I began to understand, On this trip to Poland, we leave my mother, crying, in Copenhagen as we pull away in the taxi. She wants no part of returning to Auschwitz.
I tremble inside on the drive to the concentration camp. Green meadows roll on both sides of the road in the Carpathian foothills. We pass small patchwork farms with wheat piled to dry in the sun, sometimes view the beautiful Vistula. My father seems calm, chatting with the taxi driver and occasionally translating. He is asking the driver about wages, the cost of living, prices of housing, the subjects that often occupy him in his second life in America. Soon we pull into the crowded parking lot.
The enormity of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where it takes 20 long minutes to walk the width of the inner camp, sucks the breath from me. I want to see everything.
At one point, the guide leads me to the wire, and I gaze at the twin chimneys left where the wood barracks of Block BIIC, my mother’s barracks, have worn away. I imagine this place snow and mud, and my mother inside, 17 years old, shaved. I come closer than I ever have to comprehending her experience, and then realize, at first with frustration and then finally with acceptance, that I will never really understand. We stay for five hours. Finally, my father, who has held up well visiting the camp, can bear no more.
Krakow disappoints my father. The elegant medieval city that survived the Nazis is eroding under the Communists. Paint is peeling; the stone facades are soot-covered. Most of the nightclubs and lively restaurants have been silenced, We are assaulted everywhere by people who offer six times the bank rate for dollars. We stop at an outdoor café in the pigeon-filled central square. The Cokes come warm. There is little refrigeration, and only rarely are there ice cubes.
At the Krakow Jewish cemetery, as at the cemetery at the edge of where the Warsaw ghetto stood, there is a commemorative wall sculpted from tombstone fragments. After the war, someone collected the scattered tombstones they could find and, since it was impossible to return the stones to their previous sites, raised them into a memorial. Graves crowd the cemetery, with no room for expansion, Those Jews interred recently are buried in the walk- ways. Carved into the headstones of those who have died since the war are the names of relatives erased in the camps. My father talks about this repeatedly on the way out.
Before sunset this Friday, we arrive at the Tempel Synagogue for the only Jewish service in the city this evening. The nearby Remu Synagogue will be open Saturday morning. Before the war, Krakow had more than 300 synagogues serving its 60,000 Jews. We hear estimates that there are between 200 and 600 Jews in the city now.
A dozen old men sit on a bench outside the Tempel Synagogue. My father is upset at what remains of Krakow Jewry. A few more people arrive, approach us. My father talks to them, tells them he is from Nowy Sacz and asks if there are any Jews left there. An old woman says she knows of at least one family and gives us the address.
As we enter the building someone pulls us aside and asks for money, which he has planned to give anyway. Other people draw him aside for the same reason. Dispirited, he gives it to them. The dissolution of the once-proud community will be one of the things that will trouble him most about this trip. Forty old people nowhere near fill the synagogue by the time the service begins. No one invites us home for Friday night meals in the tradition of welcoming guests to the community. It seems they have little to invite us home to.
Saturday morning as we exit the hotel to drive to Nowy Sacz, I suddenly hear a large group of people speaking Hebrew. I approach and speak in Hebrew. My dad catches up and speaks in Yiddish. They are Israeli survivors returning here in the security of numbers in search of memories. As they clamor towards the tour bus, another man, who has overheard, approaches us, speaks to my father in Yiddish and to me in English. He is a survivor living in New York, here with his two children.
My father has arranged with the same taxi driver who chauffeured us to Auschwitz to drive us to Nowy Sacz, to stay overnight there with a relative and essentially to be at our disposal. For dollars, I believe, he would drive us all the way to Moscow if we asked. It’s amazing to me how friendly my father is to the driver, who is in his early 30s, and to all the Poles he meets. I expect him to be distant. He’s handing out zlotys to the drivers, maids, doormen—but not out of a need to prove that he escaped with only a suitcase and has returned in a far better position than any of them. He explains simply, “They need the money.” It seems to me, having lost everything, he identifies with people who have little. He is equally generous in Los Angeles.
Winding through the mountains we pass small far after small farm, each with an acre or less of land and several cows. Everywhere cut wheat is drying in tied stacks in the sun exactly as in my father’s time.
We approach Nowy Sacz, and he’s excited and disoriented. He has not been able to remember the name of the street he left 47 years before. There are rivers and bridges, but he cannot find the river near his house. We stop some people and suddenly the name of his street — “Kraszewskiego” — pops out. They direct the driver and tell him the road we entered did not exist before the war.
We turn onto the old road, and suddenly he recognizes everything. He grew up here. He points to the area to the right, instructing the driver. Within minutes, we pull into his street. Some of the houses are obviously new, others quite old. There is a chance.
The driver slows to a crawl. My father points and says, “That building was the Jewish hospital. The picture’s in the Encyclopedia Judaica. We’re close now only a few doors away.” He’s staring out the window as we continue, slowly, slowly. Only a few buildings remain before the street dead-ends into the river. We drive. We reach the river. Nothing.
We walk back. There are numbers on the houses. I wonder if they would be the same after all these year. He does not remember the address. We retrace our way towards the hospital, now an apartment building, the landmark that we have gone too far. I point to an opening between two buildings. “Maybe the house was back from the street?” He moves through the opening. “No,” he says as we enter this backyard.
Suddenly he’s agitated. “This is close. I think we’re next door.” He turns to the left. “This is it. This is the house.”
Some people come out — after all we are in their yard. He explains that he lived in this house before the war. They are warm, friendly, invite us in. After we have journeyed this far I am amazed when he refuses.
We return to the street. My father’s family rented this house so there are no feelings that these people have confiscated his property. “I’ve been looking for three steps up to the front door,” he explains, as we stand before the single step. “But there was no sidewalk in my time. That’s what confused me. Also the street wasn’t paved the way it is now.”
We return to the taxi and rive toward the hotel, but then my father instructs the driver to take us to a store where he can buy a shawl for my mother. It seems as through purchasing the shawl, like in being here, is his reaffirmation of continuity. After everyone was murdered in this place, he is able to say, “I have a wife and here is my son.” That is what makes this trip possible for him. We check into the hotel.
An hour later we are back at the house. We enter the kitchen. My father has brought gum, chocolates and Camel cigarettes. The family is more than eager for us to come in but I believe would have been equally hospitable without the gifts. Still they are a good idea. The coal burning stove is gone but he points out the old grooves dug into the floor on both sides of the gas stove.
He’s brought his video camera and is filming. He is very excited, and I have to remind him to switch to indoor shooting. The dilapidated dining room lies through the kitchen. He tells me how much cleaner all this was in his time. Madonnas and crucifixes look down from the walls. “My two sisters, my brother and I slept in here. Junek, the oldest, was a dentist and slept in his office.” He stops. “It’s amazing, I didn’t remember how small it is.” The room must be 8 by 10 feet.
Through this room, we enter what was his parents’ bedroom. It’s slightly larger. That’s it, the whole house. The toilet is outside. Seven of them lived here, and they had a maid who slept in the kitchen. He never felt poor; others lived in far harsher conditions.
In the yard, crumbling stairs rise to one side off the cobblestones. ‘There was a soda water factory in there.” Chickens cackle in a pen. ‘We kept chickens in there too, next to the out- house.” He pulls me to the side, a sudden intensity in his eyes. “I heard from Mina [a cousin who survived, now in Tel Aviv] that my brother buried gold in the backyard, I don’t want any part of it, but do you think I should tell them? They could probably use it.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’d hate to have them dig up the whole place and not find it.” He thinks for a moment. ‘‘The Germans used to bleed the Jews in the ghetto, slowly made them hand over all their hidden valuables for food. My mother may have had to dig it up to eat. If I tell them, it could be a lot of frustration for them.”
An old woman is sitting on the steps in the adjoining yard. We approach and he recognizes her. She is a non-Jew who had lived then in that same house. She remembers him too and tells him that when the ghetto was delineated here, she had had to move out. We return to what was his yard. He sighs. “It feels good to come to roots and refresh them after so |many years.” We return to the house. The woman asks if he wants to see the basement. What basement? There was no basement in his time. She lifts a door in the kitchen floor and he remembers. Of course. They kept potatoes there.
A half hour later we climb into the taxi and start to pull away. Suddenly, a young boy runs after us. We stop. It’s the old neighbor’s grandson. She wants to ask my father something. We back up. The woman calls from the sidewalk. “Your brother the dentist, did he survive?’ My father’s voice trembles as he answers, ‘‘No.”’
We drive the few minutes to the Jewish cemetery. Waist-high grass sways between the remnants of tombstones. In Los Angeles my father showed me a prewar photograph of his father’s tomb: Beautiful granite and marble monuments crowded this entire area, the size of two city blocks. Now, virtually all the markers have disappeared. Here and there, a piece of tombstone juts from the grass. Near the center of the cemetery is the rebuilt ohel, or sanctuary, that stands over the tomb of Reb Hayim Halberstam, the founder of the Zanzer Hasidim, who died in the late 19th century and whose followers today stretch from the United States to Israel. We approach the ohel; then my father abruptly walks away and leans against an erect tombstone. He sobs loud and hard, the first time he has broken down since we’ve been in Poland.
I approach and place a hand on his shoulder. He pulls a Hebrew sheet from his pocket and begins to say Kaddish. I say it with him. “Now I feel better,” he says, wiping his eyes. “Come, I want to see if I can show you approximately where my father was buried.”
We wade through the grass. Across from the cemetery, someone has cut the grass and piled it to dry in the sun. To be sold? Used as feed? Who? My father finds the gate that was once the main entrance. “I’m looking for signs of the main road to orient myself.” He stops to read the names on several stones, hoping that he will find his father’s. We search in the dense grass, cannot locate any indication of the road. My father gives up quickly. Without a word, he brushes past me and hurries toward the car. I take photographs of him from behind, a small, lone Jew, charging through the high grass.
My father knows Nowy Sacz as if he had left the week before, not five decades ago. “There were Jewish stores everywhere.” He points at the shops ringing the large cobbled main square. Out of a population of 40,000 in Nowy Sacz, 17,000 were Jews. We cross the street and continue along another length of the square. The medieval city hall rises from the center. He stops at the corner and gazes up at three windows. “That’s where my brother Junek had his dentist’s office, but I don’t want to go there.” He quickens his pace.
We eat lunch in a restaurant that was formerly a shoe store belonging to a friend of the family. We speak about his brother Shmerek who was shot three days before the war ended. Though I have virtually never seen him down a drink at lunch, my father orders a vodka. The waitress apologizes: It’s only 12:20 P.M. To help curb the alcoholism problem, the Government has prohibited the serving of liquor before 1 o’clock. A conversation ensues about his coming from America to visit here, and she smiles and brings the vodka.
As we leave the restaurant my father says, ‘I had dreams that Shmerek was alive somewhere, on kibbutz, that I didn’t try hard enough to find him.”
I wrap my arm around his shoulder. “I’ve had a very heavy day,” he goes on, “I want to take a drive now to this resort town of Krynica. It’s about an hour away. It will help me relax. I just want to go to the synagogue first. We can walk.”
The massive stone synagogue stands off the square. This entire area teemed with houses of Jewish study that have disappeared, without a trace. A plaque outside states that the building was once the Dawna Synagogue, restored from 1976 to 1982. It is now a state art museum. Inside the entrance hangs a large, beautiful black and white drawing that depicts how the synagogue appeared before the Germans pillaged this remote town.
From his memory rather than the drawing, my father explains what the synagogue looked like when he came here with his father. Now there is nothing left inside, save the drawing, to hint at what once was here.
As we drive toward Krynica, my father says, ‘‘What an experience. An experience of a lifetime. I hope it’s as meaningful to you as it is to me.”
Later, back home in the States, my father cannot understand why he wasted the whole afternoon going to Krynica.
Early in the evening, we stroll through Nowy Sacz. As we head into Jagielonska, the pedestrian main street flanked by darkened three- story stone buildings, my father ex- plains, “This is where all the boys and girls went to meet each other.” We reach an intersection. “Let’s go down this street to the river where we used to swim. There’s a park.” He tells me he used to bring dates here.
We return via Jagielonska Street. “Here one of my closest boyhood friends lived, The street’s so narrow to me now, The Polish cavalry used to ride here, three, four abreast. We had Zionist parades.”
We try the apartment of the Jewish family whose name we received in the Krak6w synagogue. No one’s home, A neighbor comes out. My father tells her he grew up here, that he’s Jewish. He does not hide this from anyone. She’s very warm, explaining that the old woman probably went to the park and should return soon. As we leave, my father remarks that to the young Poles, Jews must seem like museum pieces. We hear that Jews are venerated now because Jewish dissidents and refuseniks in the U.S.S.R. are seen as the vanguard of anti-Soviet agitation.
We walk. The 15th-century St. Margaret’s Collegiate Church, crowned with belfries and crosses, towers above us. “I was always afraid when I walked here. I had to come this way every day on the way to school.” We continue along the church. “I had a dream a year, year and a half, ago. Coming down this street.’ He pauses. “I wonder if I’ll have dreams about this experience?”
We cross a bridge over a river toward the upper end of the street where he lived. He tells me a story of the flood of 1932. This have heard before. He was 14, home alone with his mother, when the river rose during a torrential downpour and gushed into their house. He pulled out a table, helped his mother through the window and over to the outside stairs that led to the attic. Suddenly, unexpectedly, tears well in my eyes. I can now picture where this happened.
We try the Jewish family again. The light is on. We meet a woman in her 70s and her son who is a few years older than I am. The apartment is large, lovely. There is a refrigerator and a television. A bathroom has recently been installed off the kitchen. The woman had hidden in the forest during the war and then had returned here.
I ask through my father how many Jews are in Nowy Sacz. To my surprise, they do not immediately know and begin counting on their fingers. There were nine, but her husband died a year ago; so now there are eight,
They knew some Jews were visiting. The young man watches over the cemetery, and as soon as we left, the Poles who live next door ran to tell him some people were there. We learn more about the Jewish cemeteries in the small towns. The Nazis machined down the tombstones, then paved the streets with them. After the war the Polish Government pried out the grave markers, but, with no way to discern where they had come from, replaced them randomly in various cemeteries. The young caretaker asks what my grandfather’s name is; he knows all the stones presently in the cemetery. Reluctantly, because of the inevitable disappointment, my father tells him. The caretaker has not seen the stone.
I read on my father’s face that there is something he is not translating. I ask. “He keeps telling me that I shouldn’t have gone to the cemetery without him,” my father explains. The young man wants the money he would have received as a tip. He already knows that 68 black-coated Zanzer Hasidim are arriving next week from New York to visit Reb Halberstam’s ohel and to place notes containing supplications on the tomb. The followers are certainly responsible for the affluence of this family. My father gives the man $20. His father is buried in that cemetery.
It’s Saturday night, and in line at the taxi stand outside, drunks stagger on both sides of us, Sunday morning, on our way out of Nowy Sacz, I ask my father how he feels. “Very satisfied,” he says, “People told me I’d be sorry, that I’d feel regret. I don’t. This is something I wanted to do my whole life.” He does not yet know that he will not sleep well the next six months.
Soon the sky darkens and rain pings against the windshield. We drive through small towns. Everywhere people are walking on the roads, heading to mass. They stand outside the crowded churches, holding their umbrellas in the rain, listening to the service over loudspeakers. I am reminded of the word I saw scrawled in massive letters across a brick wall in Warsaw: “JUTRO”— “TOMORROW.”
As the British Airways flight lifts off the runway Monday afternoon, I realize that when I have children, I shall return to these places with them. My father, having returned to Po- land, is anxious to go home.