Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Form and Substance of Story

Yesterday morning we left Warsaw for Radom, the last part of our trip.  In Radom we will prepare for an art opening on Tuesday as well as a talk and interview with high school students earlier in the day.  When we left Warsaw we drove to the area around the monument to the Jewish ghetto and did a stop at the Umschlagplatz, the point where Jews were gathered for deportation to Treblinka.  The monument lists all the first names that were typically used by the Jewish community.  Dvora commented that it spoke to the anonymity of those who were murdered.   At the front of the monument is an image of broken trees, much like one sees on tombstones when someone dies too early.  On the back of that image the surrounding trees are reflected.  It is a very powerful monument that inspires contemplation.

We then departed for Radom, about an hour and a half drive from Warsaw.  Upon our arrival we contacted Jakub, our contact at the Resursa, the arts and culture center where we are having the exhibition of my artwork and Dvora’s photos and story.  Jakub met us at our hotel and had an opportunity to meet Dvora for the first time.  He knew much of her story from the 30 pages of interviews that I’ve completed and transcribed.  He has translated portions of that story to Polish for local publication.

We soon got into a very interesting conversation that began with identifying questions that Poles might want to pose.  It led to an intense conversation about how some Poles fear that returning Jews might want the return of property and how those issues should be addressed.  We also discussed the roots of anti-Semitism, the role of the church and the cross and convent that was once located at Auschwitz, all the sensitive issues!  While our focus is on the story of the Jewish community prior to the war and what their lives were like, we are all aware that sensitive issues could also arise and need to be addressed if they do.  I have no doubt that Dvora can handle such issues very adeptly.

Jakub then contacted the gypsy who has the key to the Jewish cemetery and we drove out there.  Dvora had never been to the cemetery before.  When she lived here she was too young and on her prior four visits to Radom they had not gone there.  Without knowing how to access the key it would not have been an easy thing to do.  I was interested in the new monument which included 70 tombstones that had been previously hidden.  Jakub had taken pictures of it for me and I have been getting them translated.  There are very few tombstones that still remain as the Nazis paved the roads with the tombstones.  Fragments are mounted on the cemetery wall which surrounds an extremely large area, giving us a sense of the magnitude of the cemetery that once existed. 

We went to a small building where the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is posted on the wall behind a curtain.  On the side are plaques for each neighboring town where communities of Jews perished in the Holocaust. Dvora, her son and I all recited the Kaddish together.  I looked over at Dvora and saw her eyes filled with tears and tears quickly came to my eyes as well.  To say the Kaddish in that place felt especially meaningful.  Four generations of her family members were murdered, her great-grandmother, her grandmother, aunts and uncles and cousins. She knew those family members and friends personally and had individual relationships with each of them.    Later she noted that under that soil lay the remains of the Jewish community of Radom, including those of some of her family members.

I read to her the quote on the wall from Psalms (78,6), "That the generation to come, the children to be born, may know and should arise and tell their children".  It captured well the commitment Dvora has made to sharing her story with successive generations. Dvora later commented to me that this experience was the defining moment of the trip.  Of course the trip isn’t over yet so there may be more moments yet to come.

The following day we made a trip to Garbatka, the vacation town where she spent her early summers with her family.  Dvora is especially nostalgic about this time as it represented a happy time before the war destroyed the life that she had.  We drove through forests with small white flowers on the forest floor.  Dvora observed that the trees were newer, not the thick trees of her childhood.  We started our visit at the train station where vora reminisced about how her mother and the children would be there during the summers, but her father would come on weekends.  They would greet him at the train station and then he would take them into the woods to find wild strawberries and mushrooms. As I recorded her recollections a train passed behind her and the church bells chimed.  We then drove through the town looking for a cottage that resembled her recollection of the ones she stayed in during those summers. 

Upon our return to the city we made a stop at the home where Dvora had lived for the years prior to being forced into the ghetto.  She identified her bedroom window and those of her parents and brother and we walked behind the building while she pointed out the location of each of the rooms of their six room apartment.  In the ghetto they were living in two rooms with no indoor plumbing. 

We then walked through the park to the main commercial street in Radom, Zeromskiego.  Flags were flapping in the bitter cold wind commemorating the anniversary of the plane crash which took the life of the former Polish president a year ago.

Dvora pointed out the building from which the German authorities had operated.  One day during the time of the ghetto, she had been sent there to repair frayed carpet runners.  When the Governor noticed her armband with the Star of David he had sent her away aghast that a Jew was in the building.  It was very strange to actually connect a physical location  with this story, giving it a form and substance that words alone couldn’t convey. 

As we walked down Zeromskiego we ran into family members of vora’s late brother.  When they had heard Dvora was coming to Radom they seized the opportunity to learn more about their father’s life.  We later joined them for a dinner to celebrate this occasion that brought us all to Radom.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful -- I've so enjoyed traveling along with you.