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 LÃ³dz where they both lived, the jaunts to nearby Warsaw or KrakÃ³w, 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
Following my map, I arrived at the grime-encrusted ghetto tenements on PrÃ³zna 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 LÃ³dz, 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, LÃ³dz 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 LÃ³dz’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 LÃ³dz’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 LÃ³dz?” He retorted, “Don’t be a hochem [smart ass]. A Yid [Jew] can live where a Yid wants to live.”