It was only March, but the sun cast a warm glow on the fields dotting the Polish countryside. I couldn’t help but notice that the flat landscape before me, which was painted with picturesque farmhouses and tall green pine trees, had an uncanny resemblance to rural Ontario, the place I call home. I could imagine the desperate souls who, decades ago, found shelter among the towering trees, hoping that they and their loved ones would be spared from the brutal Nazi regime.
As my husband and I joined the Toronto contingent of the March of the Living last spring, I thought I could handle seeing Auschwitz and the gruesome death camps of Majdanek and Birkenau. What worried me was the potential emotional upheaval that my husband, being a child of Holocaust survivors, might experience on the trip.
I was born lucky. I grew up in Toronto in the 1960s, having grandparents, aunts and uncles, all Jewish, who escaped Poland years before the Second World War began. I heard stories about the Holocaust, but felt its potency only from a distance. Every year on Yom ha-Shoah, I watched a slide show of horrific black-and-white images of corpses that were projected on a large screen in the back of the synagogue’s social hall. I was terrified to see such atrocities, but thought that this kind of genocide could never happen to me, here in Canada. I never needed to learn how to live with extreme loss or trauma.
What I did need to learn as an adult married to a child of survivors was how to decode and better understand my husband’s family’s reluctance to talk about the Holocaust. The lack of discussion surrounding this topic was foreign and puzzling to me. I desperately wanted to know their stories.
In the middle of our trip in Poland, we left the group for a day and hired a driver and guide, primarily to visit my mother-in-law’s birthplace, Ostrowiec. On the way, we stopped in Staszow, a small village that was once home to both sets of my grandparents.
A local resident and retired economist, Andrzej Wawrylak, showed us around. He has made it his life’s mission to reconnect Jewish Holocaust survivors and their families to Staszow. We found my grandmother’s house, which had most likely been rebuilt, but it still had the same distinct steep-sloped roof and stucco facade – much like the photos I’ve seen in my grandmother’s album. Most of my ancestors who lived in Staszow immigrated to Canada in the late 1920s to begin a new life, but my husband’s family endured another kind of fate – one that was fraught with uncertainty and suffering.
My husband’s mother, Rose, who’s now approaching 90, was only 12 years old when the Second World War began. She posed as a gentile Polish maid and worked for several Christian families until the age of 16, when the war ended. She lived in constant fear of being turned over to the Nazis. During those years, Rose was on her own, while three of her other siblings hid together in a local farmer’s barn. She is the youngest of seven children. Four, including Rose, survived the Holocaust, while the rest of the family – parents, cousins, aunts, nieces and uncles – were all sent to Treblinka.
In preparation for our day trip, our guide, Aron Raszkiewicz, a 29-year-old Polish Christian, gathered information about Rose’s family, the Zyngiers, from the Public Archives in Kielce and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. (The surviving Zyngiers later changed their name to Singer, upon arriving on Canadian soil in 1948.)
In the front seat of the van, Raszkiewicz chattered at supersonic speed as he pointed to his laptop showing us the Ostrowiec town ledger – neatly handwritten pages filled with dates of marriages, births, deaths, street addresses and the occupations of a once-thriving Polish Zyngier family. Immediately upon hearing these names, I began to weep. I imagined my mother-in-law’s parents, Hana and Natu Zyngier, her sisters, Frimmett and Shayndel (my daughter’s namesake), and their husbands and children. We also learned about another brother named Woolf, who died when he was an infant.
With each answer we uncovered, the missing branches of the Zyngier family tree blossomed before us. I looked over at my husband’s green eyes, which were watery and wide open – eager to fill in the empty spaces of his mother’s life.
We walked to the highest point in Ostrowiec, where Rose once lived, and discovered a plaque commemorating the site of a synagogue that once stood there. Down the hill, in the centre of the town square, was a large sculpture of an iron noose that paid homage to the Polish gentiles who were executed at the hands of the Nazis. Like so many young Christian Poles, Raszkiewicz is still trying to make sense of it all. Some of his friends want to know more about the Jews of Poland, while others would rather not.
The brave Holocaust survivors who accompanied us to Poland would often say, “If you hear a witness, you become a witness.” Although I am now a witness to the atrocities of what transpired in Poland, I am also a witness to the unexpected beauty I found in Poland – the landscape, the rich Jewish history and the Polish righteous ones who risked everything to help others. I will not forget the dozens of Polish cadets who, along with thousands of others, marched with us from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom ha-Shoah. I will not forget everyday Polish folks who waved and reached out to shake our hands as we marched. This gives me hope.
And I will not forget Raszkiewicz, our passionate guide, and his determination to help fill in the missing pages of our family history.
Before we left Ostrowiec, we gathered on the grassy slope of a park adjacent to the cemetery and Raszkiewicz told us that underneath where we stood were countless mass graves. He asked us if we wanted to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. With a somber look, he left us alone to pray for the dead.