I tried not to cry too loudly. The person sitting next to me on the plane was asleep. I was flying home – to Seattle. After three weeks that felt like a year, my emotions were raw. I was watching the Pianist, Roman Polanski’s 2002 movie about the Warsaw ghetto. After watching Schindler’s List, the night before, I thought this was a good idea. Maybe not. . .
I had been at the Umschlagplatz, walked the streets of the ghetto, touched the remaining piece of the wall, and saw the place where the tram cut across the ghetto – where the infamous bridge over the track was built.
Polanski knew what it was to live in a ghetto. I saw the apartment he lived in- in the Krakow ghetto. He was there until he escaped at age 7. He knew the scenes all too well:
- the dead and dying littering the street; people stepping over and around them;
- the Nazis coming to take away a whole family. Getting the grandfather in the wheelchair down the stairs and out the door seemed like too much trouble – so the Nazis dump him over the side of the building;
- the “rich” Jews eat, drink and smoke in a restaurant where the protagonist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, plays piano, while the poor and the hungry beg on the street just outside the door. They all wear armbands with a Star of David;
- Jews wait for hours to cross over the tram tracks – to the other side of the ghetto. Then the bridge is built and the Jews silently walk over the busy street below – two worlds crossing;
- Jews arriving at the Umschlagplatz. The previously wealthy Szpilman family buy a tiny piece of candy from a child with their last 20 zlotys. The father carefully cuts it up into 6 pieces – one for each. They eat their last bit of sweetness slowly and in silence;
- after some 265,000 Jews were taken to Treblinka in the fall of 1942, part of the ghetto wall is taken down and rebuilt elsewhere, reducing the size of the ghetto; only 60,000 Jews remain;
- Szpilman watches from his hideout across the street as the ghetto is destroyed: the bombs, the fires, the death, the courage;
- after the uprising – the ghetto looks like a bad post-nuclear war scene – rubble everywhere, no life anywhere;
- Szpilman lives alone and is saved by Righteous Gentiles over the course of a year and then, as the Red Army approaches and the Germans flee, he is fed by a Nazi officer – Captain Wilm Hosenfeld.
For a synopsis of the movie see Wikipedia article:
My Jewish tourist experience in Warsaw was confusing. I walked through the beautifully reconstructed “Old Town.” On the way out of the Old Town, I stopped at a tourist shop. What did I see – of course – the small carved wooden Jewish good luck charms. But there were also pictures of Jews counting their money (all very good luck for your finances!).
I visited the Umschlagplatz. I was uninspired by the memorial there. But then I stepped out of the memorial, just to the other side. There was an open field with trees and grass. I closed my eyes and imagined the Jews waiting to board the trains to Treblinka. The movie scene I saw two weeks later on the plane provided a more vivid image than I conjured that day.
I visited the old Jewish cemetery and sang and danced with my family at I.L. Peretz’s grave (designed by someone from Stoczek!).
We did all this with Aleksander Czyzewksi, who was born and raised in Poland. He went to High School with my son Jack at Seattle’s Northwest Yeshiva High School. He explained that as a student in Warsaw’s Jewish middle school, he came to this cemetery each week to clean the debris and wipe the dirt and the grime from the tombstones. We had dinner that evening with Aleksander’s parents. Neither of them knew they were Jewish growing up, but now live Jewish lives.
I prayed in the Nozyk synagogue, the only Warsaw synagogue to survive the war. The acoustics were astounding. As we sang the prayers to welcome the Sabbath – Kabbalat Shabbat – the sound bounced off each vaulted section of the ceiling and back to my ears, filling the room with music and filling my soul with joy. Sitting in the Nozyk synagogue that Friday night made me think of Yurik.
In Warsaw, I got up early each day – 5 AM – to write. The first morning in Warsaw I realized that the breakfast room did not open until 7. I waited patiently for the coffee I desperately needed. At 7, I charged the breakfast room, first in line for the fancy espresso machine. I pressed the button – double shot of espresso with steamed milk. Ahhh. I found a place to sit, hoping my family members would join me soon. After a few reviving sips of coffee, I glanced at the table next to me. I knew in an instant that this was a Holocaust survivor visiting Poland with his family. I could hear it in his voice and see it in his face.
Well, I slid closer to their table and introduced myself. There I met Yurik (his Polish name) Sears (Americanized last name), his Israeli-born wife and their daughter – Tamara – a professor of art history. He quickly told me his story. He was a child in the Warsaw ghetto. His mother was murdered early on when she went to the Pawiak prison to try to free her brother. Now a single parent, his father would take him, each day, under his coat, as he walked to the shoe factory where he worked. After a year of this cloistering, his father made arrangements to have Yurik smuggled out of the ghetto and hidden with a family who lived on a farm outside of town. The delivery was made and Yurik hid for a year in the attic of the farmhouse. After a year he was allowed to live in the main part of the home – as a member of the family.
His father survived the war and they were reunited. Now, in June of 2016, Yurik was back for the wedding of one of the grandchildren of the family that saved him. He told me that his parents were married in the Nozyk Synagogue and that he had visited it the day before we met. He admired its beauty and imagined his parents there under the Chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy)! I imagined this as well.
Yurik survived the Warsaw ghetto and lived to marry, move to America, have a daughter, and return to Poland to celebrate with his “Polish family.” Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Pianist, also survived the Warsaw ghetto, but he remained in Poland. He played the piano and shared his talents with the world. Szpilman married and had two sons. He died in 1988 and is buried in Poland. More about his life can be found at:
Under the rubble of it all, lies hope. Hope for a new life, for beautiful music, for art, for joy, for love.
CORRECTION: In the previous blog post about Schindler’s List I mentioned a wealthy family that had to share small quarters in the ghetto and I quote the father. This scene took place in the Pianist, not Schindler’s List. I was confused.