by Rafaël Newman
In the spring of 1991 I crossed the German-Polish border at Görlitz and travelled through Zgorzelec, the city’s one-time other half across the river Neisse, into Poland.
The Gulf War had just ended, and the streets of Berlin, where I was spending the year at the Freie Universität, were still littered with cardboard coffins, relics of protest against the US-led intervention in Iraq. A recent visit to the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, to see the Berliner Ensemble perform Brecht’s Die Maßnahme, had been disrupted by activists clambering on stage with a banner that read, “THIS IS WAR: NO MORE EVERYDAY LIFE”, a neatly ironic iteration of the playwright’s own tactic of estrangement as a defense against complacency and the hypocritical respite provided by bourgeois entertainment. Moreover, whispered confabs at the Staatsbibliothek with fellow students at my American grad school also currently abroad were being met with glares of more than usually acid disapproval from locals. So it seemed like a good time to get out of town for a while.
A recently acquired Berlin friend had planned a car trip to Poland to visit family – or rather, the Polish friends who had assisted his German relatives when they were made to leave their “ancestral” home on the Baltic following the Second World War, when that part of Germany was “restored” to Poland, for a new residence on the Rhine – and I invited myself along for part of the ride: from Berlin, by way of Görlitz/Zgorzelec, to Breslau, now Wrocław, where I would part company with my friend before he headed north to Gdynia, his family’s former home.
At one point during the drive, my friend’s father, who had been one of those forcibly evacuated and who was accompanying us on our voyage, referred to Gdynia as “Gotenhafen”, the city’s name from 1939 to 1945 and evidently a commemoration of specious Gothic prehistory. Not for the first time on that trip, my friend, a very serious advocate of German-Jewish reconciliation, who had gone to the trouble of learning Hebrew so he could lead tour groups in Israel and who maintained meticulous annals of his own family’s embroilments in the Third Reich, mocked his father’s easy way with historically tainted nomenclature. As we sat later that day at dinner at the inn where we were to spend the night in Wrocław before our paths diverged, my friend’s father, as a conversational gambit, I suppose, recapitulated my coming travels: I was to leave him and his son the next morning, he recalled, and travel on by train to Łódź. Only he didn’t call the next stop on my itinerary by that name; instead, he referred to the Polish city as “Litzmannstadt”.
My friend’s reaction this time was more mournful than scornful. If his father’s use of the fairy-tale, apocryphal name “Gotenhafen” for the city of his youth displayed a merely risible, if regressive, obscurantism, declaring Łódź “Litzmannstadt” demonstrated not only resistance to subsequent history but was tantamount to an act of aggression: for the latter name had been given by the Nazis in memory of a German hero of the First World War, and is now used only to refer to the ghetto they established there, and which would become a prison, and an antechamber to extermination, for some 200,000 Jews in less than four square kilometers during the Nazi occupation. This inadvertently revisionist faux-pas, my friend went on to remind his father over our meal of duck and red cabbage, this use of a violently imposed Germanic name for a Polish place, was exacerbated by the fact that their fellow traveller was headed to Łódź to seek out traces of his own family’s Polish past: or rather, of my Jewish past in Poland.
My paternal grandfather was born in April 1912 – “on the night the Titanic sank,” he claimed, though the family Torah in which his and his siblings’ birthdates were recorded was difficult to decipher – in the town of Biała, a half hour’s drive north of Łódź in what was then the Czarist partition of Poland. Biała at the time of his birth was a shtetl or “private” town, on lands ceded by a local nobleman, with a large Jewish population; my grandfather’s family had run a kosher dairy there.
And it was to Biała I headed, by bus, when I arrived in Łódź by train from Wrocław the next morning. Modern Łódź is a good-sized town, the third largest in Poland; but it is also a comparatively young metropolis, having grown to prominence only in the 19th century, when it attracted German and Jewish immigrants to Congress Poland, the Czar’s client state that had emerged from the post-Napoleonic settlement, and was decreed a center of the burgeoning textile industry. So it lacks the imperial grandeur of Warsaw and the medieval venerability of Cracow, and quickly appears shabby, indeed threadbare, as you move away from downtown Piotrkowska Street, with its merchant villas and memorial to native son Artur Rubinstein. The bus stop at which I was to meet my transport to Biała was in a seedy, semi-rural district on the outskirts of town, and as I waited I drew a package of cigarettes from my coat pocket, which in turn drew the attention of the men waiting with me – men who looked for all the world like my grandfather in Montreal, with their shrunken stature, greyish eyes, yellowed, thinning hair, and checkered flat caps. When they realized that no American smokes were on offer, however, and that this foolish tourist had merely purchased the cheap local brand, the men lost interest in me.
As I myself was to lose interest in Biała later that morning. The village was small, dark, and muddy, although the spring was still young and cold; it was dominated by a hulking wooden church and a statue of Marshall Piłsudski, the interwar Polish Republic’s venerated leader; and there were no immediately obvious signs of Jewish life among its few hundred inhabitants. I strode about dejectedly, took some photographs, and caught the next bus back to Łódź.
What had I thought I would find? Surely not a synagogue, with no community to maintain it. Perhaps a cemetery, but if there had been one in my grandfather’s time it had since been excavated. I was still hungry for something, however, some positive evidence to take back to Berlin with me when I returned from my putative paternal homeland; and so I made for the New Jewish Cemetery in Łódź, the Cmentarz Żydowski, which occupies the northeastern corner of what was the Litzmannstadt Ghetto from 1940 to 1945.
Established in 1892, the New Jewish Cemetery contains the gravesites of some 160,000 people, including around 43,000 from the ghetto, buried in modest graves in the so-called Ghetto Field, a postwar addition. It is reputed to be the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, and to contain the largest Jewish tomb, that of Izrael Posnański, a local industrialist during the city’s golden age. And when I arrived at Bracka Street and began to trudge up Chryzantem Alley, the cobbled road that runs along the cemetery’s eastern edge, parallel with Zmienna Street, following the two-meter high wall, the cemetery certainly seemed endless. My search for an entrance was complicated by the fact that dusk was already gathering in mid-afternoon, nor was there anyone in evidence to ask for directions. It wasn’t Friday evening yet, and I had no reason to believe the cemetery closed before five o’clock; but as the shadows thickened and the air grew icy, my bravado diminished, and I began to dream of digging into duck and red cabbage.
As I felt my way, trailing my hand along the brick wall, from down one of the lanes bisecting the alley and leading into what looked like a series of allotments fronting on Zmienna Street there suddenly issued a sustained howling, amplified as it rebounded off the frosted ground. I turned slowly, my back to the cemetery wall. Somewhere down the lane to my right a dog was baying in the darkness. As the hair stirred on my clammy neck, I consoled myself with a one-liner I had read in a vast and humorless compendium of Jewish jokes edited by Salcia Landmann, the formidable doyenne of Swiss Judaists: If you see a Jew with a dog, it’s either not a real Jew, or not a real dog. The ancestral panic rising within me, I felt, was evidence enough of my roots in Polish soil.
I aborted my search for an entrance to the Jewish cemetery and stumbled my way back, as quickly as prudently possible on the icy laneway, to Bracka Street and returned from there to the railway station, where I caught the next train to Warsaw, and my connection to Berlin.
The night before my second visit to Łódź, twenty-eight and a half years later, I attended a lecture by Didier Eribon in Warsaw.
On his way to the Conrad Festival in Cracow, where he would give a lecture entitled “Return to the Sources of Exclusion”, the French sociologist had been asked by the Biennale Warszawa to talk about Retour à Reims (Returning to Reims), his epochal 2009 work of auto-analysis, which had recently appeared in Polish translation. Noting with a certain bemusement the number of translations already in print, and the enthusiastic international reception of a quintessentially French book, one dedicated to the particular parochialism of French politics in the postwar era, Eribon evaded the evidently high-caliber theory of his fellow podium member’s questions (lengthy Polish disquisitions bristling with recognizable psychoanalytic terminology and the names of French thinkers) to make a simple point: despite the book’s roots in his own personal psychosexual development amid the oppressive machismo of the French provinces, and his retrospective reckoning with a working class that had drifted from its traditional progressive, internationalist sympathies to an adherence to rightwing, white nationalist populism, Eribon’s work on intersectional identities between blue-collar Reims and academic Paris, and the specifically French concatenations of class, sex, race, and politics, was apparently accessible to a wide range of experience across national, cultural, and sexual boundaries. His formulation of identity as social verdict, decreed by means of insult and prohibition, and the derived concept of negative identity – that class, ethnic, and sexual subjectivity is as much a matter of what one does not, or cannot, do, as it is of the classically existentialist complex of character and engagement – has proved useful in a wide and disparate range of contexts. He urged his audience that evening in Warsaw to use his ideas for their own purposes, as varied as they might be, in Greece, Germany, or Poland, to mount their own campaigns against the insults and verdicts of a newly emergent system of domination.
In a Poland that had purged itself of its few remaining Jews long after the Nazis had left, and whose current right-wing government had recently attempted to forbid the association of Poles with acts of genocide during the Third Reich, waging a philo-semitic public relations campaign while making it potentially difficult for the marvellous Polin Museum in Warsaw to render its nuanced account of a millennium of Jewish life in Poland, it seemed Eribon’s ideas might prove useful to me as well, as I sought signs of my grandfather’s onetime presence.
I found the entrance to the Jewish cemetery the next day, and although the early autumnal twilight was once again punctuated by a distant barking from the allotments on Zmienna Street, it was in a very different frame of mind that I finally visited the vast compound.
I was not alone, for one thing. My voyage to Poland this time had an institutional framework: as a visiting professor at a small international university in Switzerland I was assisting the leader of a study trip to sites of Holocaust memorialization in and around Warsaw, Łódź, and Cracow, and I was joined in the cemetery by 18 students and their professor. The cemetery visit was my contribution to the course, and I had given the students a cursory briefing before we arrived in Łódź, gleaned from such books as I could find in Zurich’s central library. I had admitted to them that this would be my first proper visit to the cemetery as well, but I not yet mentioned my own personal stake in the place.
Their assignment was to assess the difference between this site of Jewish memory, established and maintained by local Jewish residents (at least until the German occupation, and since its end by more distant patrons), and those sites commemorating genocide we had visited so far in Warsaw – the Ghetto Heroes Monument and the Umschlagplatz memorial – as well as the ones we would see later that week, at Chełmno, Rzuchów Forest, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, about which they had heard in class discussions in Switzerland before leaving for Poland.
We wandered through the cemetery for an hour or two, searching for legible matzevot, or headstones, amid the tumbledown gravesites, admiring the handsome Jugendstil mausoleums of bygone local dynasties, and noting the iconography of Jewish burial custom: the carved stone wreaths, forest animals, fruit baskets, doves, candelabras, and spread-fingered Shaddai hands that serve as a legend to the tribal appurtenance or otherworldly aspirations of the deceased. We noted the canonical eastern orientation of the headstones, to ease the passage of the resurrected to Jerusalem upon arrival of the Meshiach, and the habit of visitors to a gravesite to leave pebbles on the headstone (while the Catholic cemetery around the corner, we observed later, was abloom with flowers in preparation for All Souls later that week).
Not that there were many other visitors to be seen in the Jewish cemetery, or much evidence of upkeep beyond the merely cursory. The students were taken aback by the admission price – 10 złotys, around $2.50 – until I explained that, in the absence of a thriving local Jewish community to support the cemetery with taxes and subscriptions to burial societies, it was dependent on alternative sources of income.
Towards the south end of the enormous cemetery its elegantly shabby, 19th-century alleys and romantically overgrown burial plots thinned and gave way to a vast, scrubby expanse, tufts of dry grasses waving in the breeze and a scattering of what looked like white flags concentrated in one corner: Ghetto Field, the burial place of some 45,000 of those who died in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto between 1940 and 1944. Its upkeep, we read on a recently installed sign at the entrance to the area, was ensured thanks to a donation from a Mr. Josef Buchmann of Frankfurt. The nearer gravesites had stone borders and metal plaques; the farther ones were merely low white signposts, what had appeared to be flags, from which paper labels were peeling.
By now the afternoon was waning, and it was approaching three o’clock, closing time on a Friday evening. As we walked back to the main gate we were struck by the elegant brick pre-burial house, its doors standing open and no sign of an attendant. Its main hall was empty and cold, without furnishing or other appointment, merely references to patrons inscribed in the stone walls. One of the students peeked into a chamber off the main space, and quickly withdrew; she ushered me over, and when I craned my neck around the doorway I found myself staring into an empty coffin, resting on an antique barrow, surrounded by shovels and pickaxes, ready to be filled and buried.
And it was this image that was to stay with me most durably over the days to come, during which we visited the memorial to the deportations from the Litzmannstadt Ghetto at Radegast Station, where I discovered my own, un-anglicized family name among the lists of those condemned; the monument in a clearing of Rzuchów Forest, in which thousands of those murdered in mobile death vans at Kulmhof, or Chełmno, were buried, exhumed, burned, and re-buried; and at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the vivid green of the embankments along the iconic railway track would complement the red brick of the barracks, and the brilliant afternoon sky hung with fleecy clouds, in a grotesquely painterly fashion, a major-chord reprise of the cloud burial in Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge”. It was the sight of the perfectly ordinary, civilian equipment of death in its routine surroundings, awaiting the arrival of the body of a local who had died of “normal” causes, that was what I had come to Łódź and its environs in search of: a vestige of Jewish life there as it might have been, which is to say: comprising death; a death, if not willed, then suffered in the ordinary course of events, and attended by its proper rituals and observances. The everyday scandal of human mortality leavened by custom and tradition, rather than the ultimate insult offered by the Nazi murderers, whose verdict on their victims – Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, Poles, Communists – had been as cruel and as final as humanly possible.
My return to Łódź had of course not been to the origin of my own personal becoming, nor even, really, to that of my grandfather, who had been a young boy when he left Poland, but rather to the site of an original absence, of a departure, of the brutal but bracing freedom of a transitory yet self-directed human life. My grandfather had lived in this region, among people who had expected to be buried here, but who had been obliged to up stakes for a new life, and death, in another place. A place where they could dig themselves a grave in the ground, rather than in the clouds.
The southern wall of the pre-burial house was embellished with a single ornament, and I paused to photograph it as I headed for the exit – surreptitiously, abashed at the students’ pious severity in the face of my request that they record the cemetery’s iconography. A cement alcove was set into the brick wall at eye level, a shallow depression with a scalloped upper border, chipped and damaged as if it had once contained a bas-relief effigy. It looked for all the world like an ancient site of veneration of a saint, disfigured and denuded of its totemic figure by iconoclasts; as if the local Jews had resolved to recapitulate the origins of the Christian reformation in their zeal to assimilate. To me it seemed a cenotaph, an empty space reserved for an itinerant and timeless power, one that had left this place and travelled as far as it could possibly go, across the ocean, to take up residence in another land; but which might, on occasions like this, return briefly to pay its respects.
My grandfather’s own verdict was considerably earthier. When I visited him in Montreal in the summer of 1991, freshly returned from my year abroad in Berlin and on my way back to university, I presented him with an album filled with the photographs I had made in Biała that past spring, hoping to awaken some memories in him, some token of association with the village I had visited, and had been so disappointed by. Sitting in his recliner in the corner of the humble apartment he shared with my grandmother, he placed the album on his bony knees and paged through it, photograph by photograph: the muddy central square, the wooden church, the schoolhouse, the statue of the Marshall. It took him a while, in complete silence. When he had finished, he looked up and fixed me with his greyish gaze. “That place,” he said. “They should have turned it over with a shovel.”