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Near Quiet Places: Twelve Days in Poland

TEL AVIV – My trip to Poland began by accident. I didn’t plan to go to Poland, had no idea of going to Poland, never thought I should go to Poland. It began by accident and it seems strange to me even now that it all started with a casual suggestion over the phone that I go to Poland and do a series of radio programs about my trip. As usual, I tried to get out of it on some pretext. I was scared and my first impulse was to refuse. Why? I thought. How? What? But suddenly it all began to move and soon I couldn’t think about anything except going to Poland. Suddenly I felt I had to go to Poland and yet, at the same time, I felt a tremendous hesitation about going to Poland. All the baggage we drag around with us from Poland and anyway I don’t know a word of Polish.

The whole thing began in the summer and dragged on until the fall. Perhaps on purpose. Perhaps Poland in the winter, the cold, the wind, the rain. I began to read about Poland. (I talked about Poland with everyone I met, like some dybbuk.) Here too, bizarre things happened to me.

Some people said: “Are you crazy, going to Poland, what do you want with Poland, what do we want with Poland, what’s there to look for in Poland, I wouldn’t go to Poland for anything in the world.” All this with tremendous excitement, fury; they turned pale, they turned red. But on the other hand, some people told me with unimaginable longing: “I’d go with my eyes closed if I could, I’d fly on eagle’s wings, just to see my house, my street where my parents were” And the stories. And some said nothing and pressed their lips tight. The silent ones. Choking inside. Now I understand them, those silent ones, choking inside.

You mustn’t open any doors, any windows, anything that leads somewhere, everything is closed and locked up tight, forty years and their families and children still don’t know anything, those who can’t talk, who live like I who remember, I the witness, live like the last of all, alone like a corpse. You mustn’t move a single stone in that wall of alone like a corpse. You mustn’t touch, you mustn’t hurt.

As a child, my mother grew up in a small town, Kaluszyn, an hour’s train ride from Warsaw. When I was a child, she used to tell me about Kaluszyn. But I didn’t know a street, I didn’t know an address. I didn’t know anyone. And my mother died in Israel, in Afula, in the Jezreel Valley, of typhus when I was young, many years ago.

I began to look for threads. I made telephone calls. In one of them, on a Saturday night, a man I didn’t know, whose name I had just heard for the first time — and from the telephone number I knew he lived in Jaffa — told me in a low-pitched, husky voice: “Why do you have to go to Kaluszyn, there isn’t even a cemetery there, the cemetery’s a potato field” I didn’t know what to say. There was a silence. I felt his voice break. I felt, on the other end of the line, that man who didn’t know me and I didn’t know him — I felt him sobbing. In a different voice, a hollow, empty voice, a voice I still keep hearing, he repeated the line that comes back to me again and again: Where the cemetery was there’s a potato field. He didn’t say cemetery, he said graveyard, baisoylem, in Yiddish. Der baisoylem iz oykh nishtu. Der baisoylem iz a feld vos vaksen dort kartofel.

When I arranged to meet someone in a cafe to get an address, five people came and brought addresses and they also brought packages of coffee and instant coffee and stockings and leotards and chocolate and lemons and I went there with a suitcase full of food and a notebook full of telephone numbers and with some of them I forgot who and what went with whom, people I knew and people I didn’t know, from Kfar Ata and Beit Alfa and Deganya and Jerusalem; my relatives and the woman where I buy stockings and two women where I buy buttons and thread — right after the War, the woman I buy stockings from tells me — and she’s never mentioned Poland before but — all of a sudden, rubbing her red eyes — in ’46, after the War, when she was a little girl and they came back from Siberia to Warsaw, the whole family was walking down the street, in a row, in Warsaw. A Polish woman passed by and looked at the family walking down the street and said: “Where did such a race manage to hide?”

She told this with such excitement, as if it were happening this very minute, really — forty years — with such excitement that I wrote it down on a piece of paper in Polish: Gdzie jeszcze taka rasa — race! — sie uchowala? I don’t know Polish but that combination of words struck me, taka rasa, such a race.

And suddenly I was plunged into a vortex of dread and regret and memory and longing to forget and hatred and streets and house numbers and will you get to Lodz, will you be in Czestochowa and maybe you’ll go to the cemetery in Lublin maybe you’ll find my father, maybe you’ll go to the cemetery in Krakow maybe you’ll find my mother. Heavy sacks we all drag on our back and big stories and small stories, a thousand rocks pour down all at once from that volcano extinguished long ago that died and wasn’t buried. Why do you have to go to Kaluszyn, the stranger from Jaffa repeated. Ten thousand Jews there were in Kaluszyn, one remained. Right after the War, he went back to Kaluszyn and started running along the railroad tracks, he went crazy running along the railroad tracks and a Pole passing by shot him and he was the last corpse of Kaluszyn after the War, on the railroad tracks.

It was raining the day I left Tel Aviv. We arrived in Warsaw at six o’clock in the evening. The airport was empty. The terminal was empty. A strong, cold wind was blowing. At eight o’clock at night, from my hotel room, in the central square of Warsaw, opposite the memorial to the unknown soldier and the splendid opera house, I looked at the square and the streets which were empty at eight o’clock at night. The city was barely lighted, a weak, pale light. The street lamps were dim, not all of them lit, perhaps every third one, a very pale beam of light, and I stood for a long time and looked at the empty streets and I had the feeling that I had come to a ghost town. I thought about the bustle right now in the streets of Tel Aviv, the people, the sounds — and this silence, this emptiness. A city of one million six hundred thousand, the largest city of Poland.

The next morning, we passed a tall building on Tlomacka Street on the site of the splendid great synagogue of Warsaw — it was blown up and completely destroyed like all of Warsaw. Warsaw was a mound of ruins, destroyed house by house, street by street and when the Russians entered Warsaw in January 1945, they found a destroyed city — the central synagogue of Warsaw was blown up along with its worshipers.

Twenty years ago, a multi-story office building was constructed here and got bogged down in the process, nothing worked right, there were constant problems, the pipes didn’t work and the electricity didn’t work and the elevators didn’t work and the gutters and the plaster were faulty and there were fires and blockages and floods and they say there’s a curse on the building, that’s one of the superstitions going around Warsaw, that no building can stand here, no building, only a synagogue. The earth refuses to accept another building, only a synagogue. A huge building. Unfinished. Standing in the heart of the city. Empty still.

Our taxi driver that morning said that, now that the Israeli consulate was opened, the Jews would buy that cursed building and open an immigration office there. “Immigration office?” I asked. “How many Jews are there?”

He twisted his lips and said: “Oh, maybe two million”

“What?”

“Of course” answered the driver. “Everywhere, in the government, the ministries, everywhere, Jews, Jews, Zhids”

One day we went to the salt mines in Wieliczka near Krakow, the great salt mines of Poland and some of largest in Europe where they produce six hundred tons of salt a day. It’s a huge labyrinth dug out for hundreds of years and there are many Polish legends connected with it, colorful legends about why and how they began to dig here and how they found it. About Queen Kinge, a Hungarian princess, for whom they began to dig here and how the salt caves of Hungary were brought here by magic as her wedding gift to a Polish prince. A story about a ring and how it rolled. And there are so many tunnels and so many caves that just to pass through all of them takes three months of walking for eight hours a day.

In fact we did walk in the salt tunnels supported by heavy studded, wooden beams with lanterns lighting our way along the winding tunnels, tunnel under tunnel and everything is salt. Salt over your head, salt under your feet, salt all around your body, black salt because it isn’t clean, it’s mixed with stone, chalk, sand, clay and only underneath is there a clean layer of white salt. Railway cars covered with salt.

We walked on steps of salt, firm, polished, carved so sharply they looked like marble. We went down into caves on salt stairs, the original stairs, stairs that are three hundred years old. Salt miners used to walk on them with bags of salt on their backs — today of course they use elevators. And there were statues of salt, treasures of Polish folklore, enormous halls of salt, a ballroom and a ceremonial hall and a church of salt, a giant prayer hall with candles and chandeliers and crosses, and prayers carved on the walls in salt.

Here, 170 meters underground, we were in a gigantic cave, called the Cave of the Jews, the Zhids. Here boys from Auschwitz were sent to work, only Jews of course. They were brought down here, 170 meters underground, 170 meters into the salt — in chains and they worked here in the salt water, in dreadful conditions, from early morning to late at night, seven hundred Jews brought down here, in eternal darkness. Sometimes they would hide here, in the salt mines, in the darkness and when the Germans found out, they went looking for them with dogs and of course found them and all of them were killed.

In the last shift, seventy men were working here, in 1944, when the Russians came. Two of them remained alive, saved by the dark and they came to visit here. One came from Venezuela and one from Detroit, his legs amputated. They went down to the salt tunnel. There is a Jewish Star carved of salt here, in the wall of salt, that giant wall of salt, deep in the earth; a crooked Jewish Star, strange, carved high in a wall of salt, as if on a ladder. What a terrifying notion — to carve a Jewish Star in a wall of salt, under the eyes of the Germans. A kind of broken window opening onto another wall of salt and another wall of salt and another wall of salt in the depths of the earth. That giant cave all of salt, the Cave of the Zhids.

That night at the hotel, a group of Israelis who went to the caves was having dinner. We were joined by a woman who hadn’t been on the tour, an elderly woman, attractive and vibrant, with sparkling blue eyes, rosy cheeks and a good sense of humor. She sat across from me and I innocently told her about the salt. She listened. Listened very attentively. And I sensed something suspicious in her listening. She leaned forward a bit and looked at me all the time and listened attentively and suddenly she said, “My husband worked there, in the salt mines”

I shudder even now, as I write this.
“When?” I asked.
“I don’t know” she said.
“How long?”
“I don’t know” she said.
“How was he saved?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know anything” she said. “Forty years we were married, he never said a word, not to me, not to my daughter, impossible to ask, impossible to mention. Only once, by chance, in these forty years, did he say, apropos of something else: T worked there, in the salt mines of Wieliczka’ and he said they sent them down in ropes and they searched with dogs and found them” More than that she didn’t know. Just that dry bit of information.

In my childhood Poland was depicted almost as a Jewish country. There was so much talk at home of Poland, so many stories, so many tales, so many aunts and uncles and cousins and this one’s father and that one’s mother. There were 368,000 Jews in Warsaw in 1939, thirty percent of the population. My grandfather had a sister who had a big store in Warsaw. She worked in the store, a tall, beautiful woman. The Gentile women liked her and came to buy from her. She always wore an apron and would take the money only through the apron — she’d put out her hand and take it through the apron.

“Why through the apron?” I asked my father.

“Pride,” he answered.
So even though I know there are no Jews left in Poland today, when I got here — all of a sudden, it was like a slap in the face. On the way to Lublin, when we stopped the car, an old peasant woman was standing there. We asked if perhaps she knew if there were Jews left. “No,” she said. “Pulled ’em up,” she said; “pulled ’em up, all of ’em, pulled ’em up by the roots.”

Even where the Warsaw Ghetto stood, nothing is left, just the sewer covers, and those can be removed. In the Um-schlagplatz, there is a railroad station, just as it was, with the train — and there is a gas station on the spot. Yet, there are many secret and semi-secret Jews, like modern Marranos, some say 8,000, some say 10,000, some say 5,000. And if you ask people on the street if there are any Jews, they say, “Yes, so-and-so here, he’s a Jew” Poland, in fact, is one big Jewish cemetery, the land of the corpses of Jewry. A Jewish cemetery in Krakow, a Jewish cemetery in Lublin, a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. The land of the corpses of Jewry.

In Warsaw, the old cemetery on Gesia Street, a nineteenth century cemetery. Hundreds of members of my family are buried here in this cemetery. Chava-Miriam-Dvoireh my father’s grandmother with her jewels and her fancy collars and Reb Shmuel-Gedaliah my great-grandfather and Aunt Chaya-Rhode and Aunt Shurele and Aunt Roza-Hannah and Lippa and Avrumche — hundreds of Hendels are buried there….

There are tombstones with lions’ feet and tombstones of hewn trees and even tombstones of natural basalt with Polish writing: Henryk Wahl, 1836-1907, and next to it are fresh white daisies and memorial candles. That is, someone came, there is someone who comes, here in Warsaw. And of course the splendid tombstones of Y.L. Peretz and Anski, a joint grave, and of Esther Rokhel Kaminska, in Polish: Mother of the Jewish Stage and in Yiddish: Di mama fun Yid-dishn Theater Esther Rukhel Kaminska and there’s a “u” mark under the “R” so you know it’s Rukhel, in the Polish-Yiddish dialect.

And suddenly I was standing in front of a big, splendid, red granite tombstone with a statue of a man carrying a stone torch and reading a name I had heard my father say with great admiration, Baynish Mikhalevitch, 1876-1926, Bundist leader. My father, a Bundist in Warsaw, admired Mikhalevitch. With great emotion, he would tell us that Mikhalevitch had the biggest funeral in Warsaw, all the streets of Warsaw were filled for his funeral, hundreds wept at his funeral. And, all of a sudden, here I am standing in front of the stone, here, in Warsaw empty of Jews, after so many years. Borders and stairs and embellishments and turrets and iron walls and lattices and Jewish names and Polish names, a strange old iron tombstone of three women with A group of young women written on it. You can really sense the tremendous mass of forces and time, the countless faces of Warsaw Jewry. What’s real and what’s imaginary get all mixed up and it feels like a living thing.

Here’s the monument to Janusz Korczak, a figure of a man with some children. It reads: The symbolic grave of Janusz Korczak (Hirsh Goldschmidt), Warsaw 5633 — Treblinka 5702. A lot of candles on the tombstone, next to the tombstone, on the cement and on the ground and flowers, a tombstone standing alone among the tall, thin trees and then the mass grave, an exposed field and we know that people were buried here during the War; here they brought carts, the gates of the ghetto were opened and they came here and they buried people here right up to the end, to the fence.

One of the people in my group began to run around this area sobbing bitterly, buried his face in his hands and struck himself: “They buried my father here in ’39 and my grandfather they buried here in ’40 and my mother they threw out like trash like garbage like trash like trash like garbage” That awful sobbing, those blows to his face, a delicate, tormented face, all came back again as we wandered around the area that had once been the Warsaw Ghetto and all the while he struck his face: “Here they shot my father and then they dragged him through the gate to the cemetery and here they shot my grandfather and then they dragged him through the gate to the cemetery and my mother they threw out like trash like garbage like trash like garbage like trash like garbage” At the time, he was a boy of twelve. His younger brother, seven-years old, went with Korczak’s children.

One day, a few of us Israelis stopped in a restaurant. As we left, the waitress asked, “Where are you from?”

One of the people in the group who knew Polish said, “Israel”

“How come you came?” she said.
“To visit relatives,” he said.
She asked where they lived.
“In the ground,” he said, “in the ground.”

I was in Poland for twelve days, twelve very long days, much longer than just one more hour and one more hour and one more hour; it was another kind of time.

Someone called me from the Technion in Haifa who had gone to Poland, to Lodz, to look for his parents’ house and he looked and he found the house and he went inside and said: “Here, my parents lived here” And they told him: “No there were never ever any Jews here.”

Then he walked around in the yard and found a small isolated hut whose ceiling was destroyed and only the walls were left and, on them, on the peeling plaster, in a lovely mosaic, the ethrog and lulav, myrtle, pomegranates, red, like Titian, beautiful.

And a man with a very young, Israeli voice called and said he collected letters that had been floating around Europe during the War, wandering letters and he had a very strange collection. Just the day before, he had bought a letter from the city of Gora Zberdiowska where there had been three Jews, just three Jews; and in a telephone conversation with a grandson, it turned out that one of them had owned the land that was Auschwitz.

Strangely enough, after I came back from Poland, I received three pieces of mail from Warsaw: a letter from a couple of friends I met there and became friendly with, Jews, of course; a postcard I had sent to my children and when I took it out of the mailbox, I looked at the Warsaw postmark and the Polish stamp, Polska, and what I had written to my son and daughter, standing there, in the street — regards from Warsaw, on a clear, cold, gray day and, by the time this postcard arrives, I’ll already be home and that will be fine — and I must say it really was fine, to be back in Tel Aviv; and a thick packet of pictures of tombstones of the Jewish cemetery on Gesia Street in Warsaw, the cemetery that is Warsaw Jewry.

I can’t end this piece, I don’t know how and maybe it’s just impossible, there’s no way, no words, we can never end it, what people here, in this warm land of Israel, put on ice.


© 1990 Yehudit Hendel and Barbara Harshav.

First published in Hebrew,Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah, Tel Aviv,1987) Copyright © by Yehudit Hendel.  Published by arrangement with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Yehudit Hendel is an Israeli-born novelist, who currently lives in Tel Aviv. She was awarded the 1989 Jerusalem Prize for Literature for her short story collection, Small Change (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1989). The story that appears here is an excerpt from Near Quiet Places: Twelve Days in Poland (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1987).

Barbara Harshav of North Haven, CT, translates from Hebrew, French, German and Yiddish. She recently translated The Court Jesters by Avigdor Dagan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989).