Monday, June 14, 2010

His Grandmother's River

His Grandmother's River

Makow Mazowiecki by Maciek 86

Thomas Merton said, "There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."

The Judeo-Christian tradition uniquely insists that we are made in the image and likeness of God, precious to God, and loved by God. Before the concept of the hologram was invented, the Bible informed us that we reflect the divine.

I experienced this awestruck encounter with the shimmering magnificence in each individual human being when doing the interviews for "Bieganski."

My informant would arrive, we would exchange conventional courtesies, I'd offer tea and cookies, and, within minutes, this person I'd just met would be sharing cherished family heirlooms: tales of life-and-death struggle, or laugh-out-loud jokes about a cheap aunt, or swashbuckling accounts of how grandpa liberated Grand Duchess Anastasia from the Bolsheviks and escaped to America.

"Bieganski's" initial academic readers often criticized the lengthy transcripts of informant interviews. I had to keep eliminating text I wish I could have kept.

The inclusion of some lengthy transcripts in "Bieganski" is not merely a matter of sentiment or theology. It is one of historiography.

Every time I eliminated an entire informant's transcript, or even just deleted a few words, I was making choices that would fashion which version of Polish-Jewish, or Christian-Jewish, or Jewish history or identity the remaining text supported.

The brilliant orality scholar Walter J. Ong wrote, "All narrative is artificial … Reality never occurs in narrative form … To make a narrative, I have to isolate certain elements out of the unbroken and seamless web of history with a view to fitting them into a particular construct … Not everything in the web will fit a given design"

An example: again and again informants insisted, "I've never experienced anti-Semitism in America."

If I use my scissors to cut off the transcript there, I am telling one story. If I allow the reel to unspool, we get to the part of the interview, occurring perhaps an hour later, where the informant finally told me about the swastika spray-painted on the family home, the cruel joke, the harassment at work.

Cathy, a beautiful, natural blonde and devout Christian, proud of her German heritage, talked about being the daughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor. She was not the "typical" or "representational" child-of-a-Holocaust survivor, but if we use our scissors to snip her story out, we miss key data required for full understanding.

Roy Martin's story never made it into the final version of my book. I asked for, and received, permission to post Roy's comments here.

I invite the reader to read Roy's story twice: once for its obvious beauty and power, and once with a historian in mind. This historian has a pair of scissors in his hand. He can cut Roy's story wherever he chooses, to produce a sound bite supporting this point of view, or that.

Roy Martin speaks:

My first trip to Poland changed my life. I had never known such generosity existed. A man who gave me $500,000 zlotys (before they were redenominated) because "You have come all this way to see where your grandmother was born; you must continue." People who would ask me to stay in their homes for "a few days or maybe a week" and place their best food before me while they ate bread with butter in the kitchen. People who would insist that I stay in the best bedroom, all by myself, while others slept on the floor in a common room.

Beautiful people with huge hearts. I've seen too the changes, the ways in which Poland has adopted capitalism, drowning out so much of its impulse to be human. Adopted KFC and Pizza Hut, drowning out (and closing down) the milk bars that used to be everywhere.

There are so many generous, beautiful people in the world. We don't know that, living in this paradise [America] where everything has a price and every interaction is a transaction, an exchange. We think we're more advanced than the peoples of places like Poland and Turkey until we get there and find them teaching us lessons we could not have imagined about what it means to be human.

…All of my grandparents were from that region. My maternal grandmother was from Makow Mazowiecki, about 50 miles from Warsaw. My other grandparents were from Poland (or Russia or Austria – depending on where the borders were at any given time). All of my grandparents came to the USA from that region as children, prior to 1924 when immigration was restricted.

My first trip to Poland was in 1994. Was quite a whirlwind, complete with a romance that turned into a very long distance relationship. As a result, I made many return trips to Poland. The last time I went to Poland for the sake of being in Poland was 1999, but I was back again in 2001 (just traveling through). I believe I was there five or six times during those years.

I am Jewish. All of my grandparents were Jews. I was very close with my maternal grandmother. She was born in Makow Mazowiecki. When I was a child, she told many stories. These stories were funny and charming and I believe revealed an underlying love of Poland (although I know she would deny it). She returned to Europe many times but never went back to Poland. Even though she was an open, loving person who believed in people's essential goodness, she could not get past what she had experienced as a child. She protested for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, for migrants in the 1970s, for many other causes, but she hated Poles.

As I got older, her stories became less idealized. Toward the end of her life, she would tell stories that were so horrible she would cry as she spoke. But it wasn't until after her death that I found out (from her American-born sister) that she had watched as her mother was raped by a soldier and, at the age of 6, she might have been raped as well. (She was the only one of seven children born in Poland.)

Polish girl mourning her sister, September, 1939

She did her best to convince me to hate Poles and Poland (as so many Jews do). But. As close as I was to her, I couldn't help but feel an underlying love of Poland. I had to see the place where she was born. I set out not knowing if Makow (which my family called Makova) still existed. It had taken me pretty extensive research to figure out that Makova was Makow Mazowiecki and where it had been. But I wasn't able to find it on the maps at the University of Arizona library. A history professor advised me that, the way the Germans and Russians fought, they might have wiped it off the map. But I knew they couldn't destroy the river. The river that was so central to her stories. The center of community. The source of life. So if I figured, if I saw nothing else, I'd at least see the waters she had known.

Getting there was adventure upon adventure, which I could go on about for some time. Crossing the border at Frankfurt Oder, still not knowing if Makow existed, I wondered if my grandmother, if she were alive, would be angry at me for returning or be proud of me for my open heart and adventurousness. As I passed the midpoint in the river and entered Poland, I was shocked to find a single tear running down my cheek. Shocked to discover that, somewhere deep within my soul, I apparently loved Poland too.

I hadn't planned on telling anyone I was Jewish because I had always heard that Poles hated us. I thought, if they knew, I would be skinned alive. The image that came to me, again and again as I ventured in, was Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." I was venturing into this place where my people had been tortured and killed, where they were hated and reviled. I would see where my grandmother was born, get out and never go back.

What I discovered came as revelation. Poland is filled with the most generous, open-hearted people I'd ever known. Since I didn't feel comfortable accepting generosity from anti-Semites, I began telling people I was Jewish. With a few exceptions, a few moments when I recognized a negative reaction, for the most part nothing changed. One man warned me to be careful who I told this to, but he didn't care one bit. His hospitality merely shifted from wanting to show me the sights of Makow Mazowietski to wanting to show me the Jewish sights (and of course my near-mythical river).

A little further into my trip, I was exploring Poland with a young woman – an open-hearted person with whom I soon fell in love. In time, we experienced the longest of long-distance relationships. Eventually we married, then later divorced. Truthfully, I wasn't ready for someone so wonderful. But I still look back on that relationship as the best I've ever known. The only one that might have lasted. The one that deviated from my karmic path for a short, beautiful time, the one that made all the bad things in my life worthwhile – because this path had lead me to her.

Going back for a moment to a few days after she and I had met, there we were, walking through the entrance to Auschwitz together, under the sign "Arbeit Mach Frei." It seemed so odd to be there, of all places, with the beautiful, idealistic young woman who knew nothing of anti-Semitism, who thought of Jews and Poles as brothers and sisters, who believed we had suffered and died together at the hands of the Nazis, who wanted nothing more than to show me what had happened to my people.
by Jochen Zimmermann

In Poland, I discovered something few Jews know, and even fewer acknowledge. There were heroic Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during the holocaust. There are Poles who willingly gave their lives as well.

None of that takes away the very real history of anti-Semitism in Poland. The two live side by side in the history of this complex nation. Nor is anti-Semitism entirely a relic of the past. Allegations of Jewish blood arose in political campaigns when I was there. Every now and again, I saw the face of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, it's also true that Poles taught me more about generosity and kindness than I had ever learned in the United States.

The world is complex. Few things are black and white. In 1994, I entered a Poland that was nothing if not shades of grey. Over the next five years, I watched as Poland became ever more complex, evolving into every shade of the colors of the rainbow.

End of Roy's comments.

I wrote to Roy, "You are definitely Polish! You have that ability to write prose that makes you cry and makes you have goose bumps, which I have right now."

Roy responded, "Thank you Danusha. Now I'm feeling a bit choked up. To read the words 'You are definitely Polish!' Would my grandmother be proud or horrified? Now that she's on the other side of the veil that hides us from who we were, I'm sure the former."

Art of Arthur Szyk

Listen to Henryk Gorecki's moving choral piece, "Szeroka Woda," "Broad Water."


  1. Thanks for posting this, Danusha, and I wish I could thank Roy Martin for sharing his story.

  2. John, thanks for reading. Every time I read this story, i tear up. Roy may read here as well, so he may see your comment. Thank you again.

  3. A moving story. Polish hospitality can be downright embarrassing. If you compliment the hostess's necklace, she may take it off and place it around your neck! (if you are a woman, that is). A Polish proverb says, "A guest comes to the house, God comes to the house."

    I'm going to contact a Jewish friend of mine who has on one of her websites the names of Poles who got shot for hiding Jews, in just one small region. This deserves to be better known. Likewise, I personally knew a woman who saved the lives of over a dozen Jewish children. Warsaw bazaar women donated food for them.

    This is not to deny that Poland has its share of anti-Semites, as does any country. I met one woman who kept talking about Jews who work to harm Poland. "What Jews? There are practically no Jews left in Poland," I said. "But what about those Poles who are genetically Jewish?" she countered. Now that opens a huge other realm, and here I must quote another old saying, one I learned only in the U.S.: "Scratch a Pole, find a Jew." Genetically, Poles are very mixed -- like any European nation. And this mixed genetic heritage is another factor that makes ethic bigotry ludicrous, aside from its being contemptible. Thank you, Danusha, for fighting bigotry the way you do.

    Two minor comments: 1. What a gorgeous photo! 2. I was greatly saddened by the disappearance of milk bars -- all that great, inexpensive food pushed out by McDonald's, etc . . . But I think that Poles are yet going to rediscover the superiority of their own cuisine.

  4. Oriana and Roy, thank you so much for reading and commenting. :-)


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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