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A History of the Grandparents I Never Had

A newly translated excerpt unearths the lives—from the shtetl to Auschwitz—of ancestors who died before the author was born

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Smithsonian/Flickr)
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I have no grandparents on my father’s side. I have Constant and Annette, my father’s guardians, but that is not the same thing. I also have my maternal grandparents who, for their part, managed to survive the entire war with stars on their chests. In June 1981, the year of my eighth birthday, I wrote to them to tell them I loved them. My handwriting is large and faltering. There are spelling mistakes everywhere and I have drawn hearts at the end of every sentence. At the bottom of the writing paper, a baby elephant wearing a beret rides a scooter through a jungle of giant flowers. This is what I wrote: “You can be sure that when you are dead I will remember you sadly for the rest of my life. Even when my life is over too, my children will have known you. Even their children will know you when I am in my grave. For me, you will be my gods, the beloved gods who will watch over me, only over me. I will think to myself, ‘My gods are looking out for me, I can stay in hell or in heaven.’”

What had I been told—or not told—to make me write such a testament at the age of seven and a half? Was it my vocation to be a historian, or the resignation of a child overwhelmed by his duty to pass on the story, as a link in a chain of deceased people? With hindsight, it seems clear to me that those promises were not addressed to my maternal grandparents so much as to those who had always been absent. My father’s parents are dead and always have been. They are my guardian gods who watch over me and will protect me even when I have joined them. It can be reassuring to cling onto original scenes, to founding traumas, but in my case there was no revelation—nobody ever sat me down to tell me the “terrible truth”. I have always known about their murder.

I am now 38 years old and have my own family. Do I still have the strength to carry within me those people of whom I am the continuation? The only traces Matès and Idesa Jablonka left behind were two orphans, a few letters, and a passport. What madness to try to retrace the lives of strangers from nothing at all! Even when alive, they were already invisible; history has pulverized them. This dust from the last century is not resting in an urn at the family temple; it is suspended in the air, moving with the winds, dampened by the foam of the waves, sparkling on the roofs of the city, stinging our eyes and disappearing once again. And so, before they are finally erased forever, it is vital to uncover the traces and footprints they left behind, the accidental evidence of their time on earth.

And so my research began, intended as a family biography, a work of justice and an extension of my work as a historian. It was an act of begetting, the opposite of a criminal investigation, and I was led naturally to the place where they were born.

***

Anti-Semitism is pre-War Poland was fueled by the propaganda repeated by the government and the Catholic extreme right, combined with economic crisis: boycotts, looting of shops, violent disturbances in universities, and murders. During the second half of 1936, there were 197 attacks, 39 murders, more than 1200 people injured and 2607 cases of smashed windows. Pogroms broke out in Odrzywol (November 1935), Czyzew (December 1935), Przytyk (March 1936), Minsk Mazowiecki (June 1936), Brest-Litovsk (May 1937), and Czestochowa (June 1937). The press unleashed its hatred against the Jewish victims, and the murderers turned their trials into an opportunity to preach anti-Semitism.

The Polish government disassociated itself from these abuses in favor of a more “civilized” anti-Semitism: changing the electoral system to prevent Jews from being elected; limiting ritual slaughters; strengthening the numerus clauses in universities; dejudaization of the craft industry and trade through discriminatory taxes, and so on. In August 1936, Poland asked the League of Nations for colonies in order to resettle Jews; Colonel Beck urged France and Great Britain to relinquish their foreign holdings so that Poland could use them as a “dumping ground”. That autumn, French prime minister Leon Blum and his foreign affairs minister addressed the issue with Beck, which caused elation in Warsaw; France, however, only planned to settle a few dozen families out of all the refugees already on French soil. While the Endeks, led by the young pro-Nazi generation, demanded the expulsion of all Jews from Poland, the OZN party launched an advertising campaign in the country: “Don’t buy from Jews!” and “Poland free from Jews is a free Poland!”

There is no better reflection of those dark years than in the photographs of Roman Vishniac. From 1936 to 1938, sensing that the shadow of Nazism was about to fall across the continent, this Russian Jew, taking refuge in Berlin, traveled across Eastern Europe to take pictures of distressed street peddlers, water carriers, beygel sellers, students hunched under their kerosene lamps, old beggars wandering the streets, children wide-eyed from hunger.

Warsaw, 1937. A bearded old man with sunken cheeks is placed in a type of wheelbarrow. Vishniac’s observation: “This man lost both his legs, thirty years before, in a Russian pogrom. […] Every day, before going out to look for work, [his son, a porter,] took his father out into the street and gave him some bread and water for the day.”

Oujgorod, Ukraine, 1937. A four-year-old girl looks at us from behind a misty window. She has to stay inside her house all winter because there is no money to buy her any shoes.

Warsaw, 1937. An elderly Jewish couple are engaged in conversation in the street; the man has his hand on his heart and the woman is holding her cheek. “For twenty-five years, the owner was satisfied with his services, but that morning three men had come into the offices to check that no Jews were employed there. He had been fired on the spot, with no redundancy pay and no hope of finding any work.”

These are the reasons why my grandfather Matèswent into exile: popular and official anti-Semitism, the economic crisis, the lack of opportunities and—the deciding factor—oppression.

Lastly, there is one other thing: Stalin’s destruction of the KPP [Polish communist party]. In 1937, the Polish communist leaders were invited to the USSR and liquidated. The founders and leaders of the Party, heroes of the October Revolution, friends of Rosa Luxembourg, members of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, leaders of the Polish detachment of the International Brigades and several thousand grassroots members all disappeared into the anonymity of the purges. In 1938, the Comintern announced that the KPP was in fact a hide-out for the Polish secret services, a den for nationalists corrupted by fascism. Historians still debate the reasons for this crime: Was it Stalin’s resentment against the leaders who had dared to contradict him in 1923, a settling of accounts with the old Leninist guard, outright anti-Semitism, hatred for the Luxemburgist international tradition, obsessive fear of the Trotskyist opposition, the ‘May error’ at the time of Pilsudski’s coup, preparation for an alliance with Hitler, to which the KPP would inevitably have obstructed? This outcome illustrates the “tragedy of Polish communism”, to borrow the phrase first used by Isaac Deutscher, who was expelled in 1932 as a Trotskyist opponent.

If he had not left for France, would Matès have experienced Stalin’s prisons after those of Poland? Like the Jewish Communist writer Aleksander Wat, arrested by the NKVD in 1940 and imprisoned in the Lubyanka, would he have eventually thought that “the Bolshevik conception of social relations” consisted in “killing a man’s inner life”? Would he have been drawn to Moscow, sentenced to six years in a labor camp, deported to a Kazakh concentration camp, sent away naked in the night at temperatures of -35 degrees, like Moshé Zalcman and, like him, would he have sobbed, “Yes, at the time I dreamt that Communism would make a man’s life one continuous party”? Probably not, because Matès and Idesa were low-ranking members.

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A History of the Grandparents I Never Had

A newly translated excerpt unearths the lives—from the shtetl to Auschwitz—of ancestors who died before the author was born