War Song

Tracing the steps her parents took through Poland before and after the Second World War, Toby Saltzman learned the meaning of survival.

The birds of Auschwitz drew me to Poland. The birds and a cache of possessions, greater in sentiment than value: my mother’s diamond ring, its band pitted from years looped around a molar in her mouth and her mother-of-pearl opera glasses; my father’s wrist compass, worn when he escaped from Siberia and his gold pocket watch retrieved after the war. Over time, the possessions mattered less to me than the change of seasons.

Every spring, the birds signified that my mother, who periodically succumbed to dark bouts of despair triggered by Holocaust memories, would regain her sunny disposition. Like many Holocaust survivors, my parents rarely broke the silence of remembrance. They rarely mentioned their first spouses and children (who perished) or their lives in Auschwitz. They were more inclined to recall the good times before the war — the concerts, the walks in the park in Lódz where they both lived, the jaunts to nearby Warsaw or Kraków, which they visited by train or horse-drawn carriage before terror abruptly ended the serenity of their lives. Every so often, my mother would sing in her sweet soprano voice about the birds on her windowsill in Auschwitz.

From the depth of my heart, I could not fathom how memories of their culturally rich lives could outshine their grief. I needed to walk in the footsteps of their good times and sad, to tread in the shadows of the vanished civilization that they had miraculously escaped. Ever since I was a child — auspiciously born in May when birds sing so joyously, almost a year to the day of their liberation — I had always felt the emotional weight that came with “replacing” my parents’ children who had perished. I needed to lay my own guilt to rest.

In spite of the stream of international group pilgrimages that trace the paths of Jews in Poland, I was determined to travel alone, unfettered by the emotional baggage of others.
Warsaw was awash in a chill rain when I arrived. After passing massive edifices of glum Stalin-era architecture, the modern Sheraton Warsaw was a welcome respite. Its concierge immediately became a friendly resource, helping to mastermind train schedules.
After dropping my bags, I set out to explore the Old Town. Before the Second World War it was the cultural and intellectual heart of the Jewish diaspora. Celebrated internationally as the boyhood home of composer Frédéric Chopin, it was also a hub of Jewish luminaries, among them the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, many of whom lived nearby, where the Nazis set up the Warsaw Ghetto in
November 1940.

Most of Warsaw was razed during the war, invaded from the east by Russians and the west by Germans. Today, the “new” Old Town stands within its medieval walls, meticulously rebuilt with artfully decorated facades facing a lively market square. As I walked along the Trakt Królewski, formerly the “Royal Route,” past chic cafés, designer shops, churches and the graceful gates of the University of Warsaw, the city’s cruel history seemed unbelievable.

Exploring the next day, I finally saw with my own eyes that the liquidation of the Jews left a void. Signs mark a Jewish Heritage Trail, which link places of significance, of which not many remained.
The Umschlagplatz Memorial railway platform (from which people were shipped in cattle cars to Treblinka, starting on July 22, 1942) was filled with students getting a history lesson. Their teacher, spotting me with a camera and notebook, said, “You must go to Chelmno. An archeologist just unearthed the graves of thousands of people.” I had no time to explore everywhere that memories lay.

On a rock at the former site of the Mila 18 bunker are listed the names of the leaders of the unsuccessful Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on April 19, 1943. It ended with most of the leaders committing suicide in their bunker. The huge Monument to the Ghetto Heroes with its frieze of people approaching the train to Treblinka took my
breath away.

Following my map, I arrived at the grime-encrusted ghetto tenements on Prózna Street. Wandering the cobbled laneways toward the sparse remnant of its original red brick ghetto wall, I couldn’t imagine that my parents had courted in these grim surrounds right after the war.

The sky was bleak early the next morning as I explored the overgrown graves of Warsaw’s old Jewish cemetery. Stopping at moss-covered tombstones, I examined inscriptions and carvings faded with age: two hands signifying priestly Cohens (like my father, a descendant of the high priest Aaron, brother of Moses), lions symbolizing the tribe of Judah, candlesticks honouring women who lit Sabbath candles or broken trees for lives cut short.

By the time I arrived at Royal Lazienki Park, the summer estate of the last Polish king, Stanislaw Poniatowski, who ruled from 1764 to 1795, the sun was beaming, flirting with birds in flight and bringing trees to life in a spontaneous blush of blossoms. I envisioned my parents strolling together along the lake.

After arriving in Lódz, anticipating two heart-wrenching days in my parents’ town, I was baffled by my blank reactions. As I drove along beautiful Piotrkowska Street (where I think my parents once lived before the war with their first spouses) in a storm, the raindrops reminded me of my mother’s tears.

A thriving industrial centre, Lódz was home to Poland’s second-largest Jewish community. In the spring of 1940, the Nazis created one of its most notorious ghettos and evacuated most Jews, including my parents, to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Standing on a hill beside a huge statue of Moses overlooking a vast park where the ghetto once stood, I was overcome by melancholy. Later, as I walked through the New Cemetery founded in 1892, I kept looking over my shoulder, feeling haunted by the ghostly whispers of the dead.

Of all of Lódz’s palatial homes that have been converted to cultural venues, I was intrigued most by the cinematography museum and its curator, whose original sepia-coloured negatives depicted Lódz’s streets and ghetto. I copied them, hoping to later find my parents’ faces imprinted there, but to no avail.

That night I spoke with Marek Edelman, the sole surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I asked, “Why do you still live in Lódz?” He retorted, “Don’t be a hochem [smart ass]. A Yid [Jew] can live where a Yid wants to live.”

Over breakfast the next morning, Krzysztof Panas, then mayor of Lódz, invited me to a gala premier performance of Cole Porter’s Can-Can (in Polish, no less!) and to be a guest at a wonderful dinner. In a catharsis of sorts, I felt my parents smiling in heaven at this once-unimaginable welcome.
For all my research about Kraków, the city that escaped wartime destruction was lovely beyond anticipation, a vibrant city spanning out from the base of its fairytale castle on Wawel Hill, through winding streets to a broad square lined with outdoor cafés. When the Germans occupied Kraków in September 1939, the Jews of Kazimierz and Podgorze were required to wear a Star of David
and assigned to forced labour.

After a day spent exploring the old synagogues, the exquisite artifacts in the museum, the centuries-old cemetery, the phar¬macy where Righteous Gentile Tadeusz Pankiewicz hid many Jews (a Roman Catholic, he was awarded this title by the State of Israel in 1983) and the gates of the famed Schindler factory, I headed for bed, my emotions rumbling in ap¬prehension of my upcoming visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Images of shoes marched across my mind, forbidding sleep. From the first day in Auschwitz, when my mother’s shoes were confiscated just inside the iron gates, she had spent almost five years dreaming of shoes. In this hovel of unspeakable horrors, where pain was more easily diverted by laughter than tears, she often joked: “I’ll marry the first man who buys me a pair of shoes.” A few months after the liberation, she married the survivor who did just that. A year later, I was born.
For all my complaints that my parents never shared explicit details of Auschwitz, I immediately recognized their intimate descriptions. Stirred by the barbed wire fences, the square of torture, the claustrophobic cell of solitary confinement, the prisoners’ photos, the pitiful collections of suit-cases, mounds of eyeglasses, human hair and shoes, and the “clinic” where my mother suffered experimental sur¬gery, I felt a sense of déjà vu, yet as I watched others collapse in sobs, I didn’t shed a tear.

As I passed the women’s block near the gas chamber, I was startled by a surreal vision: cheerful little birds flying toward me from a nearby house surrounded by leafy trees and flowering shrubs.
“What is that place?” I asked the guard.

“That was Rudolf Hoess’s [commandant of Auschwitz] house during the war,” she said.

I left Auschwitz feeling a surge of triumph that my parents survived, gratitude for the birds that gave my mother spiritual sustenance and hope, and a lightness of heart that comes with shed¬ding a burden of guilt.