I was raised in Warsaw as a Catholic Pole. Today I have embraced my Jewish identity.
My grandmother, an agile woman in her mid-sixties, leaned over a pale, pink-tiled bathtub and reached behind the washing machine next to it. We were in the basement of her house. She was too small and had to climb up the bathtub ledge. Crouching, she finally reached a plastic bag. It was a dry and warm Polish summer in 1995. My grandmother was back on the floor, protectively holding the tightly wrapped package, a set of pictures of her family. The washing machine had long ago stopped working; it was a kind of treasure chest, hiding the memories of family that was unmentionable. My grandmother always believed that it was better our family history died with her.
There was something unnamed, yet shameful about us. Kids said my family was ugly, polite adults said I looked Spanish, less polite adults said many other things. I grew up in Warsaw, away from the small town my mother escaped as soon as she could, and the street my grandmother lived on her whole life, including the years she spent hiding in another basement. That was the street to which my grandmother, like her mother, belonged. She belonged to this street when it was the heart of the Jewish District. She had belonged to it the 50 years when we were the last Jews there. Even before the war ended, while still in hiding, my grandmother was christened. For the rest of her life, she strived to find her home, to belong, to pass.
This obsessive need to fit in shaped my grandmother’s choices, and it echoed in my mother’s life. I grew up knowing that the most difficult aspect of fitting in is the threat that at any moment we might be discovered. The erasure of the Jewish life in our part of the world was, mildly put, a discombobulating experience for those who survived. But in Poland, it was compounded by the almost complete demolition of virtually all social structures. Moreover, communism had no interest in rebuilding social bonds based in democratic practices. This meant that growing up 40 years after the war, I was still vulnerable to opinions about who I was offered voluminously to me by cab drivers, lonely drunks, old women who needed a reason to cut me in the line at the store, and a neighbor who thought I played music too loud. I was not only susceptible to their opinions; I had no other point of reference.
My grandmother was a Catholic who dyed her hair Henna-red and who destroyed her family pictures. The same pictures she had shared with me only once. On her deathbed in 2006, for the first time since the War, she told my mother, in utter confidentiality, that we were Jewish. My mother learned she was Jewish some 35 years before when her classmate told her he couldn’t date her. But had he not told her, there were other clear giveaways. Like the fact that my grandmother kept pictures in the washing machine. And that challah bread was most delicious on Fridays. Or that Paul Newman was the only light-haired actor that my grandmother thought handsome.
Against her deepest fears, my grandmother passed on to us a wealth of culture, albeit an amalgam of Polish and Jewish traditions. And it was the strength of that world which guided my mother in Warsaw. She moved there in the late 1970s, approximately a decade after the last round of expulsions of Jews from Poland. But in comparison to what my mother had grown up with, the capitol brimmed with Jewish life.
The socio-cultural association of Jews in Poland, formal and not, sought to make sense of the remnants of Jewish life. When I was growing up, virtually everyone my mother was friends with was Jewish. It was an unnamed network of people who kept their life stories for late night whispery conversations. They were few in numbers and had a very narrow, if any, connection to a positive sense of their ethnic, cultural, or religious identity. But out of the sense of an unspoken bond, they also supported each other, including women like my mother, a single mother from rural Poland with a sickly child, a prematurely born daughter with kidney problems.
I’ve come to realize that the hardest part of overcoming the illness that marked our identity is not the cherishing of traditions that were passed on to me. It is reaching the place where I can begin to outline what was taken away from me. This sense of loss is a common sentiment among young people, Jewish or not, in Poland. However, to me, the Jewish festivals that fetishize the shtetl past are as alienating as Chabad Centers popping up in Poland. At a time when most young people, for better or worse, pick and chose their identities to then stretch them beyond accepted boundaries, being Jewish in Poland often feels as if you’re perpetually perched on the set of Fiddler on the Roof.
Like many other Warsaw Jews, I felt insatiated. Ostensibly preparing to write a novel, I spent a year researching everyday practices of Jewish women in pre-World War II Varshe. At YIVO’s photo archives I looked for pictures of I.L. Peretz to see the apartment in which his wife and companion in social activism lived. In the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum online photo archives, I studied women’s fashion. While reading a variety of blogs devoted to old Warsaw I hunted for trivia. I learned about idea markets where Jewish political agitators encouraged other Jews to join their party. I read about the notorious Adria restaurant and nightclub, which was run by the composer Henryk Gold and was considered one of the centers of cultural—Jewish and Polish, life. I discovered Jewish feminist activists, bilingual radicals, and tri-lingual writers—hoydenish dreamers who populated the streets of my birth city 50 years before me. I found my home.
After the war, Warsaw was, at least architecturally, rebuilt. The past – diverse and riddled with ethnic and cultural tensions, yet rich and co-habitable – was gone. The very few remnants of the past that survived had their function changed as if to hide their original purpose and inhabitants. From the Warsaw that survived, more – like a wood synagogue near my mother’s apartment – were demolished by the early 1970s. It was assumed that Jewish architecture had no purpose or use in the country.