Birkenau, Annex to Auschwitz: Repost on 70th Anniversary of Liberation

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Today’s post title comes from Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination, written by Otto Dov Kulka, 80-year-old professor emeritus of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Kulka spent his childhood imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

From Elie Wiesel's memoir, Night: "And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.   We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”   We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau."

From Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night:
“And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.
We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”
We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.”

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Birkenau, (also known as Auschwitz II, a 171-hectare sister camp to 20-hectare Auschwitz I), was overwhelming to me not only in its grisly outfittings and haunting stories, but in its sheer vastness. Otto Dov Kulka’s choice of the word “Metropolis” is clear and precise, clean of melodrama or exaggeration. Horizon-pushing is the impression, and bone-numbingly bleak.

IMG_2887

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The day our family visited, the ice-snow was scratching laterally, metallically, across our faces.  We clutched our down-filled coats to our chests, stamped our lined boots, and tugged down on our thermal hats while our guide explained that prisoners, dressed in thin cotton shifts, crude wooden clogs, and weary from exposure, malnourishment, the 12-hours days of forced heavy labor and from perpetual beatings, died mostly at this time of year.

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Had our family been deported to Birkenau, our 17-year-old Dalton would have probably been the only one to survive.  We parents are too close to age 50, considered too lod for productive labor, and Luc is younger than age 14, which was generally the cut-off age for "best workers."

Had the members of our family who were with us on this visit actually been imprisoned at Birkenau, our 17-year-old Dalton would have probably been the only one to survive. We parents are too close to age 50, considered old for productive labor. We would have been gassed or killed on the spot.  Luc is younger than age 14, which was generally the cut-off age for “best workers.” He would have probably been disposed of, too.

The following are excerpts from Thomas W. Laqueur’s review of Otto Dov Kulka’s memoir.

Kulka and his parents came to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Theresienstadt [a smaller camp close to Prague] in September 1943, and he left the camp, by then a strange ghost town, in the infamous death march of 18 January 1945. He and his mother were spared the wholesale annihilation of the first 5,000 in March 1944 because he was in the Birkenau hospital recovering from diphtheria and she was nursing him. A hospital was only metres from where thousands were murdered every day; surreal. He was sure that he would die that June when he was stopped at the gate by an SS guard – “Bulldog” (we see his picture) – and prevented from joining a group of men who had been selected for labour.

IMG_2945

Upper bunk. As few as five, as many as ten bodies slept stacked chest to back on one level.  Sleeping on one's dies, one could not turn in the night without all the other bodies turning with you.

Upper bunk. As few as four, but more often as many as ten bodies slept stacked on their sides, chest to back on each bunk level. One could not turn in the night without requiring all the other bodies to turn at the same time. Sometimes there was a thin layer of straw. More commonly, prisoners slept on the bare planks.

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But as his group of boys was marched back they were not directed toward the gas chamber but to another part of the camp to pull carts. Boys were cheaper than donkeys. Again, he survived. The child was spared the depths of torment felt by adults in the murderous Auschwitz universe because, the historian tells us, there was less dignity and autonomy to strip away.

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The bunks were tilted to allow for human waste or vomit to drain off the lower edge. Dysentery was common, and prisoners were only allowed two 30- second toilet pauses a day. The "toilets" were a long wooden plank with holes. Beneath was an open trough.  This ran down the middle fo the bunk house.

The bunks were tilted to allow for human waste or vomit to run down and drain off the lower edge. Dysentery was common, and prisoners were only allowed two 30- second toilet pauses a day. In some barracks,  “toilets” were no more than a long wooden plank with holes. Beneath the plank was an open trough that ran down the middle of the barrack.

The flames of the ovens rose several meters high above the chimneys, but he lived a life in which the world of European high culture still mattered. An older boy, with whom he shared a hospital bunk, gave him a secreted copy of Crime and Punishment; a conductor organised a children’s choir that sang Beethoven/Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in a lavatory barrack where the acoustics were good. Did he choose this music as an absurd, purposeless protest, meant to hold on to values that Auschwitz radically denied, or was it an act of sarcasm, “the outermost limit of self-amusement,” Kulka asks.

"Sei Ruhig!"  Be quiet!   A barrack warning.

“Sei ruhig!”
Be quiet!
A warning stenciled on a barrack wall.

"Eine Laus ist dein Tod" A louse means your death.  Another ironic barrack warning.

“Eine Laus ist dein Tod”
A louse : your death.
Ironic warning on barrack wall.

As a boy he did not know; he sang. And as a man he says that he has lived by the first explanation, an illusion perhaps “greater than the fierceness of sarcasm”. Having sung Beethoven opposite the Auschwitz crematorium is, perhaps, part of Kulka’s “private mythology”, but is also, as readers know from the ending, evidence of the continuity of culture in hopeless circumstances.

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…Why, after … any illusion of escaping death had gone, did Jewish communal life, and indeed cultural life more generally, persist? There were efforts to save the sick; there were concerts, theatrical performances and schools. In a world in which death was a certainty, people acted as if there was a future. Men thought about going to their deaths bravely, as if it mattered to posterity, as if there would be a posterity.

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From the depths of the gas chambers they sang the confessions of “three secular movements of political messianism” – the Czech national anthem, the Zionist anthem, Hatikvah, and the International. A 20-year-old girl wrote poetry in the shadow of the crematoria that demonstrated her “abiding commitment to humanism” and to a moral ideal that rejected all violence and bloodshed. It survived; she was gassed and burned to cinders. We do not know her name.

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The boy [Kulka] grows up and becomes a historian. As an adult, he and his father visit the site of the Stutthof concentration camp, now a featureless field at the estuary of the Vistula. He includes a picture of them in front of a map of the camp that attempts to evoke what had once stood on these empty fields. What now remains is only meaningless landscape. The author’s mother had arrived there in September 1944 after a deadly march from Auschwitz; she worked at searching shoes, sent there from other camps, for valuables and then repairing them before they were forwarded to Germany. The men – father and son – had learned from a survivor the circumstances under which their wife and mother had died. Arriving pregnant with a child conceived in Auschwitz, she gave birth to a healthy baby that her attendant women then strangled to avoid detection; she used a hidden diamond that her husband had given her to buy food for a critically sick comrade; the comrade lived; she then became ill; she did not live. Kulka says Kadish near where she was buried. He had seen his mother last when she marched out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau gate and, unlike Orpheus, she did not look back at him.

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**

Nearly all of these images courtesy of Dalton Bradford. Thank you, son.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Auschwitz: Repost Marking 70 Years Since its Liberation

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"Macht" is the conjugated German verb, "to make". It is also a noun: "Power".

“Macht” is the conjugated German verb, “to make or render.”  It is also a noun: “Power.”

Our group, entering the camp.

Our group, entering the camp

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Who Says
Julia Hartwig
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering
scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished
songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces
But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown
this
and not the monstrous uproar on the street drenched with blood
the wild screams of the mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soliders
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm
with milk
Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescues
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful
numbness of despair
At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff
and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place
beneath silent stars in which these events
had been recorded centuries ago.

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 Prisoners' collected belongings – here, prosthetics.

Prisoners’ collected belongings.  Here, prosthetics

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Massacre of the Boys
Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated from the Polish by Adam Czerniawski

The children cried, “Mummy!
But we have been good!
It’s dark in here! Dark!”

See them They are going to the bottom
See the small feet
they went to the bottom Do you see
that print
of a small foot here and there

pockets bulging
with string and stones
and little horses made of wire

A great plain closed
like a figure of geometry
and a tree of black smoke
a vertical
dead tree
with no star in its crown.

[The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948]

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Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

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Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

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It was odd and uncomfortable to walk out of that execution courtyard

The strangeness of walking out of that execution courtyard

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Passion of Ravensbrück
Janos Pilinsky
Translated from the Hungarian by Janos Csokits and Ted Hughes

He steps out from the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like projection.

He is horribly alone.
His pores are visible.
Everything about him is so gigantic,
everything is so tiny.

And this is all.
The rest–––
the rest was simply
that he forgot to cry out
before he collapsed.

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Observation hole in door to bunker

Observation hole in door to gassing and burning bunker

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Leaving. . .

Leaving. . .

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Birkenau: Metropolis of Death

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Today’s post title comes from Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination, written by Otto Dov Kulka, 80-year-old professor emeritus of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Kulka spent his childhood imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

From Elie Wiesel's memoir, Night: "And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.   We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”   We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau."

From Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night:
“And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.
We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”
We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.”

IMG_2880

IMG_2885

IMG_2890

Birkenau, (also known as Auschwitz II, a 171-hectare sister camp to 20-hectare Auschwitz I), was overwhelming to me not only in its grisly outfittings and haunting stories, but in its sheer vastness. Otto Dov Kulka’s choice of the word “Metropolis” is clear and precise, clean of melodrama or exaggeration. Horizon-pushing is the impression, and bone-numbingly bleak.

IMG_2887

IMG_2896

The day our family visited, the ice-snow was scratching laterally, metallically, across our faces.  We clutched our down-filled coats to our chests, stamped our lined boots, and tugged down on our thermal hats while our guide explained that prisoners, dressed in thin cotton shifts, crude wooden clogs, and weary from exposure, malnourishment, the 12-hours days of forced heavy labor and from perpetual beatings, died mostly at this time of year.

IMG_2756

IMG_2787

IMG_2922

Had our family been deported to Birkenau, our 17-year-old Dalton would have probably been the only one to survive.  We parents are too close to age 50, considered too lod for productive labor, and Luc is younger than age 14, which was generally the cut-off age for "best workers."

Had the members of our family who were with us on this visit actually been imprisoned at Birkenau, our 17-year-old Dalton would have probably been the only one to survive. We parents are too close to age 50, considered old for productive labor. We would have been gassed or killed on the spot.  Luc is younger than age 14, which was generally the cut-off age for “best workers.” He would have probably been disposed of, too.

The following are excerpts from Thomas W. Laqueur’s review of Otto Dov Kulka’s memoir.

Kulka and his parents came to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Theresienstadt [a smaller camp close to Prague] in September 1943, and he left the camp, by then a strange ghost town, in the infamous death march of 18 January 1945. He and his mother were spared the wholesale annihilation of the first 5,000 in March 1944 because he was in the Birkenau hospital recovering from diphtheria and she was nursing him. A hospital was only metres from where thousands were murdered every day; surreal. He was sure that he would die that June when he was stopped at the gate by an SS guard – “Bulldog” (we see his picture) – and prevented from joining a group of men who had been selected for labour.

IMG_2945

Upper bunk. As few as five, as many as ten bodies slept stacked chest to back on one level.  Sleeping on one's dies, one could not turn in the night without all the other bodies turning with you.

Upper bunk. As few as four, but more often as many as ten bodies slept stacked on their sides, chest to back on each bunk level. One could not turn in the night without requiring all the other bodies to turn at the same time. Sometimes there was a thin layer of straw. More commonly, prisoners slept on the bare planks.

IMG_2953

But as his group of boys was marched back they were not directed toward the gas chamber but to another part of the camp to pull carts. Boys were cheaper than donkeys. Again, he survived. The child was spared the depths of torment felt by adults in the murderous Auschwitz universe because, the historian tells us, there was less dignity and autonomy to strip away.

IMG_2992

The bunks were tilted to allow for human waste or vomit to drain off the lower edge. Dysentery was common, and prisoners were only allowed two 30- second toilet pauses a day. The "toilets" were a long wooden plank with holes. Beneath was an open trough.  This ran down the middle fo the bunk house.

The bunks were tilted to allow for human waste or vomit to run down and drain off the lower edge. Dysentery was common, and prisoners were only allowed two 30- second toilet pauses a day. In some barracks,  “toilets” were no more than a long wooden plank with holes. Beneath the plank was an open trough that ran down the middle of the barrack.

The flames of the ovens rose several meters high above the chimneys, but he lived a life in which the world of European high culture still mattered. An older boy, with whom he shared a hospital bunk, gave him a secreted copy of Crime and Punishment; a conductor organised a children’s choir that sang Beethoven/Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in a lavatory barrack where the acoustics were good. Did he choose this music as an absurd, purposeless protest, meant to hold on to values that Auschwitz radically denied, or was it an act of sarcasm, “the outermost limit of self-amusement,” Kulka asks.

"Sei Ruhig!"  Be quiet!   A barrack warning.

“Sei ruhig!”
Be quiet!
A warning stenciled on a barrack wall.

"Eine Laus ist dein Tod" A louse means your death.  Another ironic barrack warning.

“Eine Laus ist dein Tod”
A louse : your death.
Ironic warning on barrack wall.

As a boy he did not know; he sang. And as a man he says that he has lived by the first explanation, an illusion perhaps “greater than the fierceness of sarcasm”. Having sung Beethoven opposite the Auschwitz crematorium is, perhaps, part of Kulka’s “private mythology”, but is also, as readers know from the ending, evidence of the continuity of culture in hopeless circumstances.

IMG_2943

IMG_2933

IMG_2929

…Why, after … any illusion of escaping death had gone, did Jewish communal life, and indeed cultural life more generally, persist? There were efforts to save the sick; there were concerts, theatrical performances and schools. In a world in which death was a certainty, people acted as if there was a future. Men thought about going to their deaths bravely, as if it mattered to posterity, as if there would be a posterity.

IMG_2908

IMG_2898

IMG_2893

From the depths of the gas chambers they sang the confessions of “three secular movements of political messianism” – the Czech national anthem, the Zionist anthem, Hatikvah, and the International. A 20-year-old girl wrote poetry in the shadow of the crematoria that demonstrated her “abiding commitment to humanism” and to a moral ideal that rejected all violence and bloodshed. It survived; she was gassed and burned to cinders. We do not know her name.

IMG_2888

IMG_2909

The boy [Kulka] grows up and becomes a historian. As an adult, he and his father visit the site of the Stutthof concentration camp, now a featureless field at the estuary of the Vistula. He includes a picture of them in front of a map of the camp that attempts to evoke what had once stood on these empty fields. What now remains is only meaningless landscape. The author’s mother had arrived there in September 1944 after a deadly march from Auschwitz; she worked at searching shoes, sent there from other camps, for valuables and then repairing them before they were forwarded to Germany. The men – father and son – had learned from a survivor the circumstances under which their wife and mother had died. Arriving pregnant with a child conceived in Auschwitz, she gave birth to a healthy baby that her attendant women then strangled to avoid detection; she used a hidden diamond that her husband had given her to buy food for a critically sick comrade; the comrade lived; she then became ill; she did not live. Kulka says Kadish near where she was buried. He had seen his mother last when she marched out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau gate and, unlike Orpheus, she did not look back at him.

IMG_2876

**

Nearly all of these images courtesy of Dalton Bradford. Thank you, son.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Auschwitz: Images and Words

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"Macht" is the conjugated German verb, "to make". It is also a noun: "Power".

“Macht” is the conjugated German verb, “to make or render.”  It is also a noun: “Power.”

Our group, entering the camp.

Our group, entering the camp

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IMG_2753

Who Says
Julia Hartwig
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering
scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished
songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces
But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown
this
and not the monstrous uproar on the street drenched with blood
the wild screams of the mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soliders
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm
with milk
Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescues
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful
numbness of despair
At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff
and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place
beneath silent stars in which these events
had been recorded centuries ago.

IMG_2738

IMG_2765

 Prisoners' collected belongings – here, prosthetics.

Prisoners’ collected belongings.  Here, prosthetics

IMG_2764

IMG_2763

IMG_2769

IMG_2772

Massacre of the Boys
Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated from the Polish by Adam Czerniawski

The children cried, “Mummy!
But we have been good!
It’s dark in here! Dark!”

See them They are going to the bottom
See the small feet
they went to the bottom Do you see
that print
of a small foot here and there

pockets bulging
with string and stones
and little horses made of wire

A great plain closed
like a figure of geometry
and a tree of black smoke
a vertical
dead tree
with no star in its crown.

[The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948]

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Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

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Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

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It was odd and uncomfortable to walk out of that execution courtyard

The strangeness of walking out of that execution courtyard

IMG_2808

Passion of Ravensbrück
Janos Pilinsky
Translated from the Hungarian by Janos Csokits and Ted Hughes

He steps out from the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like projection.

He is horribly alone.
His pores are visible.
Everything about him is so gigantic,
everything is so tiny.

And this is all.
The rest–––
the rest was simply
that he forgot to cry out
before he collapsed.

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Observation hole in door to bunker

Observation hole in door to gassing and burning bunker

IMG_2832

Leaving. . .

Leaving. . .

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Krakow, Poland: Pre-Easter, Post-War

This post continues a week of daily posts on Global Mom’s recent family trip to Poland.

Decorated carraige horses on Rynek Główny, Krakow's marketplace dating from the 13th century

Decorated carraige horses on Rynek Główny, Krakow’s marketplace dating from the 13th century

On the train from Warsaw to Krakow, our family lucked out. We shared our compartment with Jan, a native Pole who has lived the last three decades in the UK. For three uninterrupted hours, I’m afraid I gave the man no rest by interviewing him about everything from world politics, World Ward II and post World War II reconstruction, Jews in Poland, and Catholicism in Poland, to Poland’s best foods, best cities, best music, best sites, and details of his family history. (He was interested in genealogy, a point of common interest).

It was only after all this questioning and note-taking, that I realized we should get footage of this to share with you, and so here’s a brief segment of our time spent talking about his family, whose profile arcs over pre and post WWII. Jan’s now-105-year-old mother experienced the length of it while his father spent seven years in a Prisoner of War camp. As Jan explained (but you might not be able to hear too well; trains are noisy), his father left one morning, telling his mother he’d be home by dinner. Seven years later, that father returned, having spent nearly all of those seven years in prisoner of war camps. “Things got better,” Jan said at the end of this part of the conversation, “after Stalin died.”

I think we all agree on that.

As Jan had promised, Krakow felt warmer than the thermometer measured. Even with a cold front dragging its stiff arm across all of southern Poland, the town square seemed to smile in daffodilled defiance. Easter decorations hung everywhere.

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Students gathered. People ate at the open stalls. The market was busy.

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Music played from the many cafés. And every hour on the hour, a trumpeter stood in the taller of the two towers of St. Mary’s Basilica, cracking the air with the sounds of a traditional tune called the heynal. The heynal links to legend, I was told. It always ends abruptly and midphrase, a tradition holding from the 13th century, when a trumpeter warning of the Mongol attack, took an arrow to the neck.

Carriages in front of St. Mary's Basilica, which is famous for its elaborate altarpiece by Veit Stoss

Carriages in front of St. Mary’s Basilica, famous for its two mismatching towers and its elaborate altarpiece by Veit Stoss

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Towers of St. Mary's Basilica

Towers of St. Mary’s Basilica

The central Cloth Hall on the Market Place with statue of the Polish Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz

The central Cloth Hall on the Market Place with statue of the Polish Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz

Statue of Adam Mickiewicz, considered the Goethe or Lord Byron of Poland

Statue of Adam Mickiewicz, considered the Goethe or Lord Byron of Poland

The Renaissance Cloth Hall with interior arcade

The Renaissance Cloth Hall on Rynek Główny with interior arcade

Upon the Nazi invastion, the Market Place was given a German name, Old Market, then became Adolf Hitler Platz

Upon the Nazi invasion, the Market Place was renamed as Old Market and then  Adolf Hitler Platz

The city was overtaken, and many of its cultural landmarks ransacked or decimated.

The city was overtaken, and many of its cultural landmarks ransacked or decimated.

The Adam Mickiewicz statue was toppled

The Adam Mickiewicz statue was toppled

Palac Bonerowski, which stands on the Market Place, a noble residence-turned-21st century hotel...

Palac Bonerowski, which stands today on the Market Place, a noble residence-turned-21st century hotel…

...became a backdrop for the Nazi presence. . .

…became a backdrop for the Nazi presence.   Note the statue in the lower lefthand corner

The same statue stands in the same place today,having  witnessed many changes

The same statue stands in the same place today, having witnessed many unspeakable events

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Upwards of 15,000 Jews were forced to live within the  ghetto, from which they were then deported to concentration or extermination camps.  The following four images courtesy of the Oskar Schindler Factory museum

Upwards of 15,000 Jews were forced to live within the Krakow ghetto, from where they were then deported to concentration or extermination camps. This and the following three images courtesy of the Oskar Schindler Factory museum

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Families crammed into small living spaces – normally four families per apartment – if they were fortunate enough not to end up living on the street. These plaster figures depict the shared living quarters. Oskar Schindler Museum

If they were lucky enough to not live in the streets, families crammed into small living spaces, normally four families per apartment.  These plaster figures depict the shared living quarters. Oskar Schindler Museum

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Oskar Schindler, whose enamelware and metalware factory served to employ (and save from extermination) several  hundred Krakow Jews. Schindler's writing desk.

Oskar Schindler, whose enamelware and metalware factory served to employ (and save from extermination) several hundred Krakow Jews.

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Retracing the steps of the Jewish ghettos and deportation routes

Retracing the steps of the Jewish ghetto and deportation routes

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St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral

St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral

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Easter snowfall

Easter snowfall

Interior courtyard of Wawel, Krakow's royal castle

Interior courtyard of Wawel, Krakow’s royal castle

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Leonardo da Vinci's Lady With an Ermine, whose symbolism and complex history is almost as intriguing as the beauty itself.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady With an Ermine, which hangs in a private room in Wawel, and whose symbolism and complex history are almost as captivating as the beauty of the painting itself.

Leaving Krakow. . .

Leaving Krakow. . .

For Auschwitz and Birkenau...

. . .for Auschwitz and Birkenau…

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Warsaw, Poland: Wesołego Alleluja!

This week promises a daily post on Global Mom’s week spent traveling with her family in Poland.

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Why travel to Poland at this time of year? There were a number of reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to stand with our two youngest, our two teenaged boys, in the sites made infamous by the Holocaust.  In two posts from now, I’ll return to that part of our journey in detail.

Another guiding reason for choosing wintry Poland over a sunny place to the south, was because Poland, as you might know, is a predominantly Catholic country. And this was Easter. And I’d researched how elaborate yet reverent the Polish Easter celebrations are. This drew me.  So much, actually, that I began practicing the Polish equivalent of “Happy Easter”; Wesołego Alleluja!

But, you ask, isn’t Italy also Catholic?  And warm? Wouldn’t you find an Easter celebration there…or two? With the Pope, maybe?

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Actually, Italy is officially 80% Catholic, while Poland is nearly 90%. But you’re right that Italy is a good 20 degrees warmer than Poland when an unexpected Noreaster sweeps down from the Baltic Sea, shizzes through Poland’s primeval forests, crackles over the northern lowlands, and drops a major snowstorm on Warsaw just as the blossoms and pussy willows are being gathered for the holiday bouquets that worshippers gift each other or bring to their neighborhood cathedral. Poland’s Easter is usually brisk; this year it was glacial.

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Still, I think you’ll see in the following gallery that cold temperatures did little to freeze Polish devotion.  Cathedrals full to overflowing. Easter flowers and offering baskets sold and toted everywhere.  And that one little fragile Babcia (grandma), who, upon leaving St. Anne’s cathedral on Warsaw’s Old Town square, stopped, set her basket on the stone floor, unwrapped the shawl around her chin, and leaned forward to kiss the wooden feet of the Christ statue on the entry cross.

(No, I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – get that shot.)

But I got others. So enjoy, and feel free to share.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

This work is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

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Standing room only at an evening service in the middle of Easter week.

Standing room only at an evening service early in Easter week.

Every cathedral we visited was like this.

Every cathedral  we visited was like this

Street - as - refrigerator

Street refrigeration

Lazienki Park, or the royal gardens, Warsaw

Lazienki Park, or the royal gardens, Warsaw

Lazienki Park, Warsaw

Lazienki Park

Monument to Polish son, Frederic Chopin, Lazienki Park

Monument to Polish son, Frederic Chopin, Lazienki Park

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Warsaw, Poland: City of Uprisings

The following week of daily posts will be devoted to Global Mom’s recent trip to Poland. The text is minimalist, the images large format. I hope you enjoy the journey and share this collection with your family and friends.

Easter, for many the world over, summons images of death and rebirth. Warsaw does something similar in me. The Polish capital has been destroyed many times, only to rise up again, and again and again.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Old Town Square, Warsaw, is  UNESCO Heritage site, showcasing architecture dating to the 13th century, reconstructed after the Nazi's targeted terror bombings of WWII

Old Town Square, Warsaw, a UNESCO Heritage site, showcasing architecture dating to the 13th century, reconstructed after the Nazi’s targeted terror bombings of WWII

A cast iron model of Old Warsaw in the foreground, with the reconstructed royal castle in the background

A cast iron model of Old Warsaw in the foreground, with the reconstructed royal castle in the background

Warsaw has witnessed many uprisings: The Warsaw Uprising of 1794. . .

Warsaw has witnessed several uprisings: The Warsaw Uprising of 1794. . .

The November Uprising. . .

The November Uprising. . .

The January Uprising. . .

The January Uprising. . .

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising of April 1943

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. This is a marker embedded in the sidewalk, showing the precise location of the ghetto wall

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The monument to the Jewish Ghetto Uprising

The monument to the Jewish Ghetto Uprising

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising was led by Mordecai Anielewicz, who, with fellow insurgents, took his own life when the Germans quashed their grass roots rebellion

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising was led by Mordecai Anielewicz, who, with fellow insurgents, took his own life when the Germans finally quashed their grass roots rebellion.

The Warsaw Uprising led by the Home Army, late summer, 1943

The Warsaw Uprising led by the Home Army, late summer, 1943

Civilians and soldiers, fighting side-by-side against the Red Army under direction of the Polish government in exile in London

Civilians and soldiers fought side-by-side against the Red Army under direction of the Polish government in exile in London.  They were forced to capitulate, and any surviving Poles were sent to POW or extermination camps, and to Siberia

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Warsaw, following the Nazi's "Burn and Destroy" campaign

Warsaw, following the Nazi’s “Burn and Destroy” campaign. Between 170,000 and 200,000 civilians were killed, and remaining others were sent to “transit camps”.  Over 1,100,000 Jews had already been sent to nearby concentration/extermination camps. . .

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The Russian forces overtook when Germany retreated at the end of the war, and  began a massive reconstruction campaign amid the ruins. This consisted primarily of "modernizing" the razed city, and erecting Stalinesque buildings like this, the enormous Culture and Science Museum

The Russian forces overtook when Germany retreated at the end of the war, and began a massive reconstruction campaign amid the ruins. This consisted primarily of “modernizing” the razed city, and erecting Stalinesque buildings like this, the enormous Culture and Science Museum

The old city square and royal road was spared, and rebuilt on the mounds of the ghetto rubble.  In some places, as in the foundation of this building, one can see how old buildings were rebuilt on piles of debris

The old city square and royal road were spared, and rebuilt on the mounds of the ghetto rubble. In some places, as in the foundation of this building, one can see how old buildings were rebuilt right on top of piles of debris

Based on the canvases of Italian painter Benardo Bellotto, the old square was meticulously rebuilt.

Based on the 18th century canvases of Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto, the old square was meticulously rebuilt, using as many pieces of scrap, paint chips and ornamentation as could be retrieved from the ruins

It was completed to perfection in 1953

It was completed to perfection in 1953

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Right on the old square, the home of Marie Salomea Sklodowska Curie, 1911 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her theory of radioactivity

Right on the old square, the home of Marie Salomea Sklodowska Curie, 1911 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her theory of radioactivity

More tomorrow on the beautiful architecture, Easter rituals and people of Warsaw. . .

More tomorrow on the beautiful architecture, Easter rituals and people of Warsaw. . .

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Global Mom Publishing Update

Global Mom Cover (large) 2

Global Mom, the book, and Global Mom, the Mom, have hit the road.

Wearing her newest (and final) cover, the book strode right out the door, stopping somewhere along the way to make sure she’s well-pressed. Next, she’ll go to the market to meet the public.

As of June 1st, Global Mom: A Memoir will be in major bookstores (like Barnes & Noble) as well as smaller independent stores, and if for some reason you can’t find her there, she’ll be available for order on Amazon. Between now and then, you (and your friends) can pre-order if you’d like. Just don’t be thrown when you go here to order and find Global Mom wearing last season’s cover:

GLOBAL MOM COVER

(We’ll get someone at Amazon to help us with a quick wardrobe change well before June 1st.)

Some readers have asked if Global Mom will be available digitally, and, if so, when.

Yes, she will. She will be available on all digital readers at the same time she’s released in hard copy.

Oh, and one more bit of nice news: There are plans in the works for me to record an audio version to be available on iTunes. Honestly, I’d rather do that than proofread anything, even the alphabet.  And by the way, if you’re interested in doing any sound effects on the recording, sign up right here in the comment thread.

In the meantime. . .

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Global Mom the Mom has also hit the road. For Poland.

Train from Warsaw to Krakow. Cold, wet, shivering. Fantastic.

Train from Warsaw to Krakow. Cold, wet, shivering. Fantastic.

Wearing every last layer of our warmest clothing, our family spent the last week between central (Warsaw) and southern (Krakow) Poland. We’d planned for some time on traveling there with our kids, and thought Easter week in a country that’s over 90% devoted Catholic would be a good time.

We chose well.

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You can visit Poland with me in just a couple of posts from now, when I take you through the Jewish ghettos of both cities. . .

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Important sites where history has left its scars and where award-winning movies have been filmed. I’ll take you, for instance, to Oskar Schindler’s factory. . .

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Schindler Jews

Schindler Jews

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. . .And to the buildings that were the backdrop for “The Pianist”.

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You’ll see beautiful architecture. . .

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Contrasts between WWII devastation, Nazi occupation and today’s renewal. . .

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And we’ll have stuffed cabbage leaves and fish soup in this funky open kitchen restaurant where I got to chat up the chef while he whipped up Polish dumplings.

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You’ll meet other native Poles as well, with whom we took video footage.

Jan, native Pole, with whom we shared our train compartment and talked for hours.

Jan, native Pole, with whom we shared our train compartment and talked for hours.

(Live video footage will be a new and regular feature of this blog. And yes, I’m learning this all on the fly.)

You’ll see street musicians. . .

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Street dancers. . .

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A handsome parade of costumed and picketing atheists in front of cathedrals over-spilling with worshipful Poles. . .

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A procession of hundreds late at night on Holy Friday down a main boulevard of Warsaw. And the massive wooden cross. . .

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A lesser known (but my favorite) Leonardo DaVinci portrait. . .

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An evening vigil of hundreds of Israeli youth at the huge monument to the Jewish Uprising. . .

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. . .Which you saw in this post, and towers over this square where I first met the last living survivor of the Uprising, the man you might remember as Antonini.

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And no one should miss a visit to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. The experience for our family was blood-chilling. The boys say they’ll always remember it as the coldest day of their lives.

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So please follow me* on my daily posts this week, beginning with excerpts from Global Mom, where we’ve just moved into the very heart of Paris. As you know from the last post, the move was slightly messy. It gets messier.

And then I’ll bring you along for the several posts and photos from Poland.

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(The irony running underneath this week wasn’t lost on me: one hour editing a piece on the “slightly messy” but ultimately cushy relocation to Paris. Then the next hour visiting the train lines that deported human cargo to their deaths.  You’re right.  The juxtaposition’s painful. And invaluable.)

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And at the end of it all, on Easter Sunday over all of northern Poland fell the white comforter of heavy snowfall.

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*Instead of “Follow Me,” I prefer, “Come along with me.” If you want to do that on this blog, just scroll down past “Leave a Comment”, and click “Follow This Blog Via Email”. It’s an honor having your company on the road.

Luc at the camera. Train back to Warsaw. Colder, wetter, still shivering. And fantastic.

Luc at the camera. Train from Krakow back to Warsaw. Colder, wetter, still shivering. And fantastic.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Antonini, Part 2

yad vashem tree

Yad Vashem

“Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name (yad vashem) better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).

**
avenue righteous

My brother Aaron, a teenager at the time of this story, hiked up to the entrance of Yad Vashem, the Mount of Remembrance on the eastern side of Jerusalem’s Mount Herzi. It was early November. The skies were the color and texture of old, wadded aluminum foil, and there had been rain throughout the night.

Under his sweatshirt Aaron held a small camera, and in the front pocket he fingered again for the scrap of paper entrusted him by his parents. On it was the name of Antonini’s wife written in ballpoint pen, and a number indicating in approximately which quadrant of this sprawling garden her tree should stand.

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Here, both victims and heroes of the Holocaust are commemorated through statuary, architecture, various forms of artwork and this grove referred to as Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. Hundreds of trees are planted here for non-Jews who risked everything to save the lives of Jews. Antonini’s “kranke katholische Frau” numbered among them. Past the tree honoring Corrie Ten Boom,

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Beyond the plaque to Oscar Schindler,

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Aaron found her tree and her plaque.

Weeks later, about when November turned to December, in some small apartment in Warsaw, Antonini received a letter and a small collection of photos of a tree and a plaque standing in distant Jerusalem. He showed them to his wife. The two were grateful beyond their ability to express, but Antonini tried to write their thanks anyway in a letter he sent to my parents.

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The Letters

Over the next four years, Antonini’s letters from Warsaw, Poland arrived in my parents’ white wooden mailbox in Provo, Utah. Each letter, a modest single page and some times two, was written on fine onionskin paper, the likes of which folks in America rarely used anymore, let alone wrote on. Antonini wrote with a fountain pen. The penmanship had the sort of meticulous formality you might find in a calligraphy primer from the 1920’s; beautiful as you hold it up to the light, the letters a physical curiosity, even an objet d’art. We’d gather to look at them, I remember, like scientists gather to scrutinize delicate new specimens of nature, microbes, fragments of a mystery.

But scrutinizing is all we could do to those letters.

Antonini wrote only in Polish.

This he’d warned about upon our first meeting when, over Polish-Chinese cuisine, my parents had promised to correspond. And this would just have to do. However much he’d mastered a Yiddish-tinged spoken German, he’d never learned to write it. And so, apologizing, here came the letters in his native tongue. My parents took them to a professor friend at the local university whose specialty was Polish translation.

“Dr. Dalton, remind me. Who’s this man again?” The professor leaned back in her chair after making her way through a paragraph from Antonini’s first letter. She’d been tracing with her finger the florid loops and perfectly spaced slants, crosses and dots. “You said you met him where?

“At the monument to the Jewish ghetto uprising, central Warsaw,” my dad said. “So, what does he write? What can you tell about him? He’s been through a great deal, of course, and his wife has been ailing for some time, I think, so maybe. . . is it all disjointed?”

The translator smiled. “This is. . .Disjointed? Ha, no, not at all. This is. . .how should I put this? This is elevated Polish, Dr. Dalton. A magistrate’s vocabulary. And look at this, you see here?” She pointed to the lean of the ink letters. “This is noble handwriting. Sign of a high education.”

“Cultivated, you’re saying?”

Very. An elegant man. Erudite. Even the sentence structure. You know, that sort of old world, fine upbringing. Now, what’s this guy’s story again?”

What was this guy’s story?

More than most of us could ever begin to comprehend.

The Choir

My parents and Antonini continued corresponding, they writing to Poland in German, which Antonini and his wife somehow translated well enough, and Antonini responding to Utah in Polish, which the local professor read, always with some comment about the level of linguistic refinement.

Then, a few years after our first meeting over steamy bowls of Polish chow mien noodles, my mother, then a soprano with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was on her way with them on a European tour that was stopping in Poland. She wrote to Antonini, of course, to arrange a meeting and, above all, to invite this cultivated man, the one whose beloved older brother had been among the 39 members of the Warsaw Philharmonic to lose their lives in the Holocaust, to a performance from this, arguably the world’s most famous choir.

At the time on that tour, the first Mormon meetinghouse in Poland since WWII was going to be dedicated in Warsaw. This was, for those few isolated but faithful members of the church, (like the ones we’d met with in 1987 in the photo below) a landmark day. And it so happened that the choir would be in the country. The choir.

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The day of the choir concert, there were many church authorities and representatives of the press filling the entry halls of the Warsaw Marriott Hotel. The crush of bodies made it hard for my mother to make herself stand out in case Antonini should arrive, and just as hard for her to watch for a small man she only remembered as a living Rembrandt with a black beret and a gray trench coat. What if she couldn’t find him? She began to wonder as she craned her neck above the crowd if Antonini had even received her last letter confirming where and when they would meet. And if he’d received it in the first place, what if his plans had changed? He’d given no telephone number – maybe he didn’t even have a phone – and my mother could only be reached at this hotel. She’d be one of many women wearing identical gowns. Would he recognize her? For a moment when time was running out before departure to the gatherings where the choir would sing and local political and church authorities would speak, and still no Antonini appeared, she thought of writing his name in big black letters on paper she’d scrounged from the reception desk. She’d hold it above her head, and even (this would be my mom) sing out his name operatically above the noise of the crowd. “An-to-ni-ni!” Just to get his attention were he hidden in there somewhere.

The buses were being loaded. Group after group of choir members pushed toward and out the doors. Altos lined up, still no sign of Antonini. Then the sopranos. No sign. And there, when enough bodies had finally cleared out of the lobby, in a corner stood a smallish balding man with white sideburns. He wore no beret, but he was in the same grey trench coat of years ago.

“Shalom,” my mother said to a man who appeared much older and far more frail than she’d remembered him. Immediately, she thought she saw the face of someone recently widowed. But she didn’t ask. Not in that crowded, hurried moment.

“Shalom,” he said, reaching to shake her hand, and then the two exchanged the three, light traditional Polish kisses on the cheek and my mother, always warm, drew this gentle friend into her arms.

Quickly, and with little talk, she ushered Antonini towards a man she’d had waiting, a Juliusz Fussek who, after years living in the U.S., had returned to Warsaw with his English wife Dorothy as a volunteer representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They served for over five years in his mother tongue and fatherland.

The two Poles – one Mormon, one Jewish – spent the afternoon deep in conversation, comparing notes, finding common bonds, and sitting in a place of honor watching the choir perform.

There had been little time, given the choir’s tight schedule, for my mother to talk with Antonini as much as she’d hoped. But from her place in the middle of the soprano section, she searched for and kept an eye focused on this soft face that responded with awe and radiance to the music that poured over him. After the concert ended and the choir members were required to return to their buses and hotel to proceed to the next venue, my mom and Antonini had to share only a brief goodbye.

Again in the German/Yiddish of years earlier, they clasped each other’s hands and vowed to continue this correspondence. Maybe there would be another chance to meet like this again? The choir tours every few years, my mom said. And she and my dad always seem to find themselves returning to Europe, she said with a smile.

“Aber bitte,” she added, “richten Sie die schönsten Grüße an Ihre liebe Frau aus.”

But please give the kindest greetings to your dear wife.

Those eyes of his changed shape, their surface shone, and something subtle shifted in his white brows. Did his lips part to say something? Was that single, short breath the prelude to a sharp-cornered secret? But then he let the breath out again as his lips drew upward in an unsteady curve.

He saw the bus was leaving. She had to turn to go.

And so Shalom.

And in return Shalom.

To Be Continued

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Actually, there’s no “to be continued” here.

I’m sorry I’ve brought you all the way to this spot without providing a good old-fashioned Hollywood ending, some remarkable revelatory connection, an incredible coming-together, a place in the narrative where the music swells and the cameras zoom and all the broken pieces slip magically together and it all makes poetic sense. Denouement and the slow fade.

But we never heard again from Antonini. To my parents’ next letter, no response.

And to another letter, still no response.

All the blank spaces in this story – who was and what happened to his wife, what about his regal handwriting and sophisticated Polish, his beloved David, all his history – to this day they remain blank spaces. I’ve never been able to track down the archives of the Warsaw Philharmonic orchestra to verify that the last concertmaster before the orchestra dissolved during the Nazi’s occupation of Poland was, indeed, a man named David, Antonini’s beloved older brother. And we never knew Antonini’s Jewish family name, since he’d adopted a new identity just as he’d adopted a new life, so it’s been virtually impossible to trace the family.

The blanks stay agape. And as a story teller, I’m sorry for that.

So why, then, tell this story at all? What’s the point?

The point is that a man suffered stupefying loss, grieved for forty years, met some strangers on a public square, they connected in their fumbling white-tennis-shoed touristy way, and that simple link lifted a heavy stone from the man’s heart.

And (here is the point of the point of the point), the strangers were lifted by him.

How? In the very way reading his story here has both sobered and lifted you. Real people who survive real horrors touch us, inspire us, show us what it means to continue, that it is humanly possible. Continue grieving great loss. Continue loving throughout the life that remains.

Would it surprise you to know that, when tragedy touched my life, my thoughts sailed straight for Antonini? My mind scavenged instinctively for stories of loss and living onward and I found I had such a story right at hand. It had a face and a voice, eyes like an artist and a worn-out black beret.

The man who by that time was probably gone from earth, (my calculations put him at 91 years old today), came back with quiet spiritual force in my imagination to show me how continuing is done. It began with a simple Shalom. It goes on simply with Shalom.

**

This week my husband received a Linked In message. A senior level colleague with whom Randall has nearly no regular contact, but who knew about the loss of our son Parker, took the time out to follow a nudge, (I’ll call it a spiritual prompting), to send a word. It said:

“Randall, I am sure you must still be hurting about Parker. I know this because of the happiness I derive from watching my sons grow up. This causes me to think of you. And while I acknowledge you’re still hurting, it was really good to see your smile on your Linked In profile.”

Did this man have any way of knowing that he, in that 2-minute investment of time and sincerity, did something holy? Did he realize that that brief reaching out showed that he is continuing with us? Did he have any idea that a four sentence email message lifted a heavy stone from our hearts? That he realized Yad Vashem by giving “a place and a name” to our deceased son?

Parker on Linked In. As public a square as the one where we met Antonini in Warsaw. But there you have it: comfort.

And do you think he’d calculated that he was sending that comfort on the very day of the 5-½ year anniversary of our son’s death?

I think probably not.

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Antonini, Part 1

SA20 1987 YU Ven POL173

All of today’s photos come from the private archives of my father, David Dalton. He recently gifted me with 20,000 shots cataloguing our family’s life. This post I gratefully gift to him on his 78th birthday. Love you, Dad.

It was late autumn of 1987 in Warsaw, Poland as my parents, my husband and I found our way down what the Poles call Memory Lane, a street whose existence, however much its name sounds like a Nat King Cole tune, marks one of the most bitter delineations in modern history.  This was the border of the city’s former Jewish ghetto.

Only meters from our path was where the infamous month-long resistance had taken place, biggest of its kind in World War II, when 13,000 Jews – men, women and children – lost their lives fighting the Nazis’ effort to empty the ghetto with violence. Nearly all of its inhabitants were sent to the their deaths either right on their doorsteps or in outlying extermination camps.

On this particular morning we eventually found ourselves standing in the shadow of the looming grey stone monument to the resistance. It is, appropriately, a massive wall with sculpted figures emerging from the surface, thrusting hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, and bare fists into the air.

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I stamped my feet lightly against the late October chill and my husband wrapped an arm around me. We followed my mom, who was, as always, reading aloud to us from a guide book.  My dad, meanwhile, was in the middle of the square taking pictures. I could see he was also trying to keep warm, as a puff of vapor rose from his mouth.  Despite the late morning sun creeping over the upper edge of the 36 ft. (11 meter) tall monument, the world was chilled and palpably sober.

Then from a distance, I saw a white-haired man in a black beret and gray trench coat approach and begin talking with my dad. In a minute or so, my dad waved that we all should come. Quickly.  As I came closer, I saw the man held a small bunch of flowers laterally across himself, almost like one would carry a child.

“Shalom,” the man said to each of us as we approached.

“Shalom,” we each responded.

“Peace.”

And in return, “Peace.”

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The man was maybe sixty years old, compact and softly contoured with a face hauntingly reminiscent of a late Rembrandt self-portrait. The conversation as we entered it was an oddly functional hybrid of Yiddish (spoken by the stranger) and German, from the rest of us.

“Antonini,” my dad held his hand toward the man while turning to us to explain, “has come today on behalf of his kranke katholische Frau,” (his “sick Catholic wife”), whose birthday it was, and who’d asked that flowers be laid on this memorial site. The man and his wife had followed this ritual for decades, Antonini explained. Every birthday and on all other significant dates during the year, the two came here zur Erinnerung, or in remembrance.

With the hands of a butcher, I thought – thick  fingers, padded palms – Antonini carefully laid the flowers at the foot of the monument, then stepped back on his thick-soled brown leather shoes.  They looked like they were at least twenty years old but had been meticulously maintained ever since. Probably polished them this morning, I thought. He was dressed neatly yet modestly, and from where I stood now at his side I focused on his white sideburn that matched the shock of hair just over his ear. His profile was placid, almost immobile, as he looked up  at the monument and into its vigorous and oversized faces chiseled in stone.

“We’re so sorry your wife is ill, Antonini,” my mom said. “Why, if we might ask, would your Catholic wife want to pay special tribute to those lost in the Jewish uprising?”

His arms held politely to his sides, Antonini now brought his fingers together, lacing them at the tips, then lifted and dropped them once with a single breath. “Warum?” he sighed.

Why?

“Because this,” he said, glancing at the monument, “is our story, my wife’s and mine.” His eyes fell to the ground a few feet from where we stood, to a large engraved metal disc made to resemble a manhole cover. This, we’d read earlier, was the first monument to the uprising, a reminder of the manholes through which hundreds of Jews had lowered themselves into Warsaw’s sewer system in order to smuggle goods or to escape annihilation on the street. Countless many had hidden for days and weeks in those sewers, and upon trying to emerge, the Nazis fumigated them with Zyklon.

“This story,” my dad stepped closer, “your wife’s story, your story, would you mind sharing it with us? Unless, of course. . .forgive me. . .it’s too pain-“

“Nein. Ich meine, Ja. Ja, natürlich,” Antonini interjected warmly, “natürlich kann ich sie Ihnen erzählen.”

No, I mean yes, yes of course. He wanted to share the story with us.

That is, if we wanted to hear it.

Over a two-hour lunch at a Chinese restaurant on Warsaw’s main square, (my dad had asked Antonini where we could take him for a warm lunch; this was his choice!), Antonini shared his story.  We sat at a corner table with the window and its filmy white lace curtains at my back. I remember the afternoon in vivid film clips and didn’t miss a single detail of Antonini, neither his soft mouth as it molded around the German with its Yiddish lilt, nor his expressive eyes that were tokens of a life beyond my comprehension. We wrote it all down:

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I was seventeen when I fought in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis who had overtaken Warsaw. Along with all of the other Jewish teenaged boys I knew, I was shipped off to Lublin. I was separated from my family, from my beloved and gifted older brother, David, who was then the concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. By a miracle and driven by my concern for my family and neighbors whose fate I could not know and was pained to imagine, I eventually escaped from Lublin. I made my way back to Warsaw. What would I find there? From my family, who still remained? And if they did remain, in what condition?

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I was so weak when I finally reached the city that I could only crawl in silence, terrified with every movement that I would be sighted by the enemy and tortured or murdered on the spot. At some point I grew delirious from hunger and fatigue and collapsed in the middle of a street.

I was awakened when someone, I did not know who, lifted me and carried me quickly out of sight and into a home. It was the home of a Catholic family who then fed me and gave me water to drink. They proceeded to care for me in every way they could although they, too, were victims of war with food and other goods in scarce supply, their own health and well-being at serious risk.  They then hid me for many, many months in their basement.  They hid me, as a matter of fact, until the war was over. They saved me.

When the Nazis retreated from Warsaw I finally discovered the horrors that had happened to my people.  Flamethrowers and smoke bombs had been used to drive out or kill all the inhabitants of the ghetto.  All those left had been shipped, as I had been, to extermination at Lublin, Treblinka, and other concentrations camps.

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The resistance had ended a month after it had begun when, with the press of one detonator button, Warsaw’s great Jewish synagogue had been instantly turned to rubble. In the end, after searching everywhere, I found that my entire family – parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and my dear David – had died.  I was alone in the world.

The Catholic family gave me more than the gift of survival by hiding me under their roof.  They gave me a future. They advised that until it was absolutely secure for Jews to move freely in society, I should change my identity.  Antonini is the new name I took; I had to deny my Jewishnesss, and for years ceased to speak Yiddish or Hebrew.

And in time the remarkable happened: their daughter and I – we had been through so much together – we married.  I married the Catholic daughter of my adopted Catholic family, the only family that remained for me.

To my knowledge – and I must believe this is true, since I have been in Warsaw all these forty years since and know the Jewish community here well – I am the last living survivor of the Ghetto Uprising.  I am where that terrible story ends.

We finished our lunch.

Asking what time it was, Antonini apologized but he really needed to get home to his ill wife. While we paid the bill, we had all the leftovers packed up for him to take home, although the waitress puzzled openly at the idea of “leftovers.” (The people she knew, people who had known real hunger, never ever had food, what was it called? “Left over”? ) But she found three large glass jars in the kitchen, filled them with everything we hadn’t been able to touch for all our fixation on Antonini’s story tellng, and put the heavy jars in a nylon sack.  After thanking us for that extra food that would make for his wife’s birthday meal, Antonini shared one parting detail:

“In Jerusalem in the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, a trees stands in honor of my wife.  We received a formal letter with a picture and identification attached inviting both of us to the dedication.  Signed by prime minister Menachem Begin. Framed. It hangs in the middle of our apartment wall.”

We clapped and laughed in quiet celebration for our friend, and told him how wonderful an honor that was.

“Yes,” he nodded, his head titled slightly to one side.  “But of course we could never afford to travel,” Antonini’s eyes were, for the first time in over three hours together, not just glassy with tears but spilling over with them.  “And now my wife is too ill to make the trip. She’ll probably never see her tree.”

With that, my parents looked to each other, my mom sat up ramrod straight, beaming, and my dad’s usually professorial face softened, melted. He let out a single, muffled laughed. Then he lifted one eyebrow.

“Antonini,” my dad said, clearing his throat and leaning his whole weight on his elbows on the table, looking Antonini in the eyes, “it so happens that our youngest son, Aaron, will be in Jerusalem in two weeks. He is part of the study abroad group we are leading in Vienna, and some of the students are going to be visiting the Holy Land.”

My mom jumped in, “Can we give you a gift, Antonini?  Can we promise you that Aaron will visit the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles for your wife?”

“He’ll take a picture of the tree, of the honorary plaque,” my dad said, “and then may he send that photo to your address? A belated birthday gift? To your wife?”

And in one slow-mo instant right in front of me I witnessed a transformation. Our Rembrandt portrait came to life.  His lips parted. Then they pursed.  Then, almost imperceptibly, his eyes widened. Then he bent into his shoulders, slowly placing one wrinkled hand and then the other across his chest. He shook his bald head to one side and then, heaving a sigh, to the other. Then he brought his stare up to meet our collective stare, and spoke in half a voice, “Heute haben Sie einen schweren Stein von meinem Herzen aufgehoben.”

“Today, you have lifted a heavy stone from my heart.”

With those words we all embraced, exchanged addresses, and watched our Antonini walk away, a big bag of bottled egg foo yong and fried rice hanging at his elbow.

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As he walked up the street and around the corner, I felt the words, “heavy stone” echoing in my mind and I focused on the weight of that sack, the one Antonini was going to carry alone and all the way home. How far did he have to go yet, I wondered. How many blocks? Would the weight of the bottles break the handles of the sack? How many times would he have to stop, bend over, place the bag on the ground, straighten his tired back, rub those padded palms together and knead those thick fingers, bend over again, switch arms, heft the sack and trudge on, one step at a time?

He’d insisted, though. He’d said he could carry it alone, the bag, that he didn’t want to burden us with it. Really, his home was not far, he’d smiled with those moist painter’s eyes.  Not far at all.

And you know? I believed Antonini. He’d be fine. He was resilient, after all.  One of the great survivors. The last of his own people.  Certainly if anyone could carry a weight all alone, it was he.

So I waved one last time as he came to the last corner, waved with both arms in the air and raised up on my tip toes. Auf Wiedersehen! Bye! Shalom!

I don’t have to tell you I was pretty young and inexperienced. Dewy.  Unscarred. You’ll forgive me, I hope, that back then I’d had little visceral experience with the harsher realities of life, and so although drawn to Antonini and captivated by his story, I wonder today: did I see him?  Did I truly see and experience who he was? Because I know only now that I had no eye, really – no cellular sense – for the ponderous but invisible weight of his vast loss and lasting grief, the burden of his lifelong loneliness.

Maybe Antonini could manage just fine without me. Chances are he did.  And that evening, he and his sick Catholic wife had a joyous dinner during which he had his own unusual story to tell of a family of foreigners who were at the monument that morning. How they listened to the story. How their son – Aaron, a good Hebrew name!– is traveling to Jerusalem. . .

I can go for days on the fumes alone of that thought.

I wonder, too, what might I have learned from walking – continuing, listening, carrying even a bit of Antonini’s bag of leftovers – just a few more steps? A few more steps or even, if he had let me, the rest of the way home?

**
Antonini, Part 2 in our next post. . .