Noah Lederman’s grandparents were both Holocaust survivors, but they’d been reluctant to share many of their stories with him when he was a child. After Poppy, his grandfather, died, Noah spent more than a year on the road as a travel writer. In this excerpt from his new memoir, A World Erased, Noah and his then-girlfriend, Gabriela, take a trip to Otwock, the Polish city where his grandparents came from.
Grandma had always pronounced the name of her city in Poland with two tongues. When she referenced the Jewish life that had once filled the streets, and described the little city as a destination where Jews came from across Europe to sip in the clean airs that lifted off the Swider River, Otwock sounded as though she were saying Oat Vox. It was as if her home had once been part of the Roman Empire and poetically dubbed the Voice in the Grains. But when she spoke of her Polish neighbors, the ones who had turned her family and friends in to the Nazis for a sack of potatoes, she pronounced it Utt Vocks, a name that caused her to choke and retch.
“What are we going to do once we arrive?” Gabriela asked while I paced the train platform, a cement slab situated between Warsaw and Otwock. We were waiting for our connecting train.
I removed the piece of paper from my pocket, where I had written down the names of the camps and ghettos where my grandparents had been enslaved. Below that were the two addresses in Otwock. “I’m not really sure.”
What was I hoping to find? The house? Some artifact buried in one of their backyards? A neighbor with memories? An apology that I could take back to Brooklyn? A way to forgive?
I studied the street names. I wanted to remember Berka Joselewicza and Podmiejska so that I wouldn’t have to glance at the page once we arrived. I didn’t trust the Poles enough to take my eyes off them. The night before, Gabriela had played a song by Phish called “Farmhouse.”
Woke this morning to the stinging lash
Every man rise from the ash
Each betrayal begins with trust
Every man returns to dust.
I couldn’t get that stanza out of my head. The first line felt like life in the camps. The second line read like a lie. The third line was a warning that would guide me through Otwock. And the fourth line was what had happened to most of the 14,000 Jews from my grandparents’ city when they arrived in Treblinka.
As loving as my grandparents were, they had raised me to understand the necessity of their hatred. The Germans had been culpable and nefarious, but Poppy and Grandma faulted no one more than the Poles. These were their neighbors, and they had turned in their Jewish countrymen for baking ingredients, tubers, or mediocre schnapps. Anne Frank’s claim that people were good at heart had its counterbalance in my grandparents’ warning.
Was it rational to judge the kin of those who had helped send my family to Treblinka? I thought about the man who had murdered Grandma’s brother somewhere near the place where Gabriela and I waited for the train. This Pole had killed him days before the end of the war. It would be preposterous to exact my revenge on his son. His grandson. But it also felt wrong to feel anything less than hate for that whole family line.
I felt anxious and worried and sick. Conflicted, I continued to pace. The sky above the tracks was a dull gray and heavy with clouds.
“It seems to rain every time you and I go to one of these places,” Gabriela observed, maybe to presage something or maybe just to observe something humorous about the world since I hadn’t smiled in the 24 hours that we had been in Poland.
The train pulled up two hours late. We boarded. It poured.
I thought about the tenets that my grandparents and Anne Frank had preached. The major difference was that my grandparents survived and Anne Frank didn’t. Maybe Anne would have revised her journal had she been liberated. I pulled Gabriela into a seat far from the other commuters and hummed the Phish song.
Each betrayal begins with trust.
The white terminal building with the burnt-auburn roof and tower launching from the symmetrical edifice looked like the entrance I had seen in pictures of Birkenau. Even the black letters—OTWOCK—stood over the archway like the Polish version of arbeit macht frei. The station was quiet.
I thought of the faces that had gathered for the photograph around the Seder table decades ago in this town. Now they were preserved above the light switch near the entrance to Grandma’s bedroom. Dead, dead, dead. Grandma’s words, which had always sealed each biography, repeated in my head like the drops of rain against the steel train.
How many seats could we have filled on each Passover had none of this happened? How many doors could my extended family have opened for Eliyahu had Hitler lost power in 1940 or ’41? But instead, my relatives went by train to Treblinka and were shoved into ovens.
I wondered whether they had resisted. Had any of them been gunned down instead? Died heroically? Foolishly? How many of them had been sent to their deaths by train? Down these tracks?
I looked down the empty rail line as if Treblinka stood, working, in the distance. A black cloud sat as if in a transparent urn in the sky, one that had been stuffed with the human smoke of lost generations.
Families are supposed to grow.
How could one forgive?
I grabbed Gabriela’s hand much too tightly. We walked toward the town center, which consisted of two small streets lined with empty shops. Otwock, still, was larger than I had imagined; the village sprawled in all directions. The likelihood of finding Podmiejska or Berka Joselewicza without a map would have been difficult, especially since I wanted to avoid conversation as much as possible.
Berka Joselewicza, sure, you just head past the unmarked mass grave of the exterminated kikes and then hug a left down the path that we constructed with the bricks from the synagogue we tore down. You can’t miss it beside the still-burning Torahs.
We entered the post office.
“Do you have a town map?” I asked the woman behind the counter. She offered a queer glance and moved to the back office, out of sight.
She returned with a postmaster, or maybe she was in charge but only he could speak English. His tiny-framed glasses pinched at his nose. The lenses weren’t much bigger than his eyes.
“Ehh. Ehh,” he began, warming up to speak a language that was rarely used outside of Warsaw and Kraków. “You will find…ehh…not many people speak the English here…ehh…What do you look for?” He adjusted his glasses.
“Do you have a map of the town? Or maybe some sort of brochure?”
“This is small town…Not much to see. Really. Warsaw more to see.”
I blanked on the street names and had to remove the piece of paper from my pocket. “Where is Berka Joselewicza Street?”
“That street is not in Otwock,” he said without pause.
“My grandmother used to live on that street, here, in Otwock.” I wouldn’t allow him to deny her that.
He waved for the paper. I hesitated before handing it over. He scrunched his face to better study the scrap, which also held the names of infamous camps and ghettos. He stopped reading and looked up to consider something. “This was before war then, yes?”
I didn’t respond. I scanned the glass to find the reflection of the Poles behind me. I expected an uprising. Or at least the gangs that had long ago waited outside of my grandparents’ homes with sacks, eager to lay claim to the left-behind valuables while the Jews were marched to the square and shipped to the chimneys of Treblinka or raced into the forests to be gunned down into mass graves.
In the glass, I spotted a mother rocking her newborn. Still, my heart raced. The postmaster awaited my answer.
“Yes,” I said. “Before the war. She lived on that street before the war.”
We stared at each other, not unlike the face-offs that Poppy would initiate with another survivor in the Miami card rooms when three clubs sat open on the table and the pot was rich with crumpled bills and rolls of quarters.
There was a long pause. He was hard to read.
“Well … ehh … this I am sorry for, but many streets in Otwock changed names after war.”
The word “sorry” hit me like a quick jab. Just to hear that word from his lips floored me, even if he were apologizing only for the town’s amendments to street names. I cleared my throat. “How about Podmiejska street? Does that still exist?”
“Katrina,” he yelled. A mail clerk shuffling through letters at a back counter looked up. “Ulica Podmiejska?”
The young mother leaned over me and spoke to the postman, seemingly perturbed that she had to wait this long for stamps with a baby in her arms.
Jewish infants didn’t have to wait, I considered explaining to her. They were tossed into the air and used as target practice. Your baby should enjoy the gift of waiting. The gift of time.
“This woman says that you must go a few blocks down that way,” the postman said. The woman with the crying baby smiled at me. “Take a left . . . and then you see Podmiejska on the right. Good luck.”
I was chagrined. I left the post office, folding my paper and tucking it into my pocket.
“What did you find out?” Gabriela asked.
“That the postmen in Otwock don’t know the location of any of the streets.”
We opened our one umbrella and walked down the paved road, which brought us to a dirt path. The street sign for Podmiejska was hidden beneath an overgrown tree.
“This was his street. Poppy’s street.” I was stunned that I was actually standing at the mouth of Podmiejska. For a good 10 seconds, I could only stare down the dirt road and watch the puddles jump with rain. Poppy had played soccer as a kid, and I pictured him dribbling his way around each of the puddles as his Polish neighbors chased after him, hurling insults and rocks.
Gabriela wrapped her arm around my hip and we tucked beneath the umbrella as we traversed Podmiejska.
The first few houses looked war-torn—abandoned and leaning. But as we continued down the muddy path, the homes grew more lavish, with flowering gardens that led up to antebellum porches. It felt like a Polish Savannah or an anti-Semitic Charleston.
Otwock had been 75 percent Jewish just before the war. Then 14,000 Jews had been removed like a tattoo, which at first appears everlasting, but can actually be reduced to an unwanted memory.
Podmiejska 12 stood behind a fence. “Is this it?” Gabriela asked.
“Poppy lived in a small, two-bedroom house.” I wasn’t sure how I knew that. But I knew it, and the detail about that dwelling was clear to me. The home before us stood two stories high. The lot for Podmiejska 10 was empty. Two elderly women in straw hats and raincoats pruned the hedges at No. 14. They looked old enough to have memories of the 1930s.
“Excuse me,” I said through the fence. One of the women retreated to the porch. Do I look familiar to you?
Her sister, her friend, her co-conspirator hesitated before approaching the gate.
“Can you tell me—?”
She interrupted me with a thrust of her hedge clippers, pointing the tool toward a house across the street, where two men worked on the siding of a house. One hammered at the façade from the eighth step of a ladder; the second kept it balanced and shouted up instructions.
“I’m looking for—”
But again she cut me off, stabbing at the air with her clippers. She appeared sad and uncertain, dubious and concerned. Maybe even scared. Should I even be sorry for that?
The old woman backed away from the fence, the clippers against her body and stationed between us.
I crossed the street and addressed the man at the base of the ladder. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes, of course,” he said. “Are you from America?” I nodded.
“How are you today? My name is Teddy.” He spoke as though he had expected us. Teddy extended a hand.
I hesitated, but took his hand.
He removed his glasses, dried the lenses on his wet shirt, and raked fingers through his spiky black hair. “What brings you to Otwock?”
I looked back toward Podmiejska 12. The women at number 14 still studied us from their porch.
“My grandparents are from Otwock.”
“Where do they live?” Teddy asked.
“My grandfather used to live on this street. At No. 12.”
“No. 12 is just there,” Teddy said, smiling as if he had just solved all of our problems. But the grin receded within seconds, understanding that I was unsatisfied with that No. 12. “You must understand, however, that the homes were much more spread out then. You see, I must assume that they lived here many years ago or else maybe I would know them and know of their American grandchildren. This is a very small city. We talk. And I don’t think the people at No. 12 have American relatives. Yes?”
“You see,” he continued, “when new homes were added to Otwock they redistributed the numbers. So your grandfather’s No. 12 might be where, say, No. 20 or 22 is now. You see? Where was your grandmother’s street?”
“She lived at 15 Berka Joselewicza. But the man in the post office said that the street no longer exists.”
“Please wait here,” Teddy said. “I will check with my wife and grandmother to see if they know anything about Berka Joselewicza.”
Teddy ran into the house. I looked up at the man on the ladder. He nodded and attempted a smile. Only half of his mouth cooperated, and the effort to be gregarious caused him to grunt. The rain intensified. Teddy was being so kind that I became immediately suspicious. I had heard stories about Jews returning to Poland after the war to reclaim their homes. The Poles had murdered these Jews to keep what they had stolen. Maybe Teddy had heard those stories, too.
After a few minutes had passed, I whispered to Gabriela, “We should go.” I hadn’t meant to put her in this position. I grabbed for her hand and then the screen door crashed open. I jumped. Teddy looked like he was carrying papers to fuel a bonfire. In his forearms, he held maps, brochures, and magazines.
“I woke up Grandmother and she said that Berka Joselewicza was a Jewish area of the town.”
We were outed. I had taught Gabriela enough about my grandparents’ pasts and what life had been like for the Jews in Poland. She knew to squeeze tight.
“But you must understand,” Teddy began, seemingly unfazed or too far removed to make the connection. “After the Nazis sent the Jews out from Otwock, the street names changed. Especially many of the streets in the Jewish area of town. I’m sorry. That is why it is not familiar to me.” He tucked the papers under one arm like a haphazard scientist who would always lose much of his data to disorganization, and then Teddy attempted to unfold a map by shaking it open like a fan. “Here, you may take this map,” he said after failing to whip it open.
I unfolded it and studied Otwock beneath the umbrella. The first thing I saw was the thin black train line.
“We are here.” Teddy positioned a wet finger on Podmiejska and then planned our route, a wet little path that he had dragged across the paper. “I think here they can give you further information. Maybe you can check this place. We call it the Jewish Center.”
The Jewish Center? Were there still Jews in Otwock? Or would we encounter pyramids of Jewish skulls and Semitic femurs like the structures built at Kutná Hora’s bone church?
After each recommendation, Teddy would consult the man on the ladder. Each time, the man shrugged and smiled gutturally.
“If you would like, I can ask Grandmother questions about your grandfather. But she must come downstairs first. Now I cannot because she is getting some rest. Can you describe him for me?”
I thought about Poppy and almost began by describing the old man, the one who had outlived his entire family by nearly 60 years. Then I realized that I needed to describe him as a boy, the way an old Polish woman may have remembered him. But I knew little of that child. “He had four sisters,” I began, “and he was the only boy in his family. His name was Leon Lederman. His father, Samuel, worked as a shochet—that’s a kosher butcher. His mother’s name was Shindel. They’re all dead. Only he survived.”
“They were a Jewish family?” Teddy asked.
I thought Teddy had understood that when he pronounced Berka Joselewicza a Jewish street and when I had said “kosher butcher.” But now he was asking for confirmation. Gabriela held the umbrella so that I couldn’t see the man on the ladder. There was no hammering and no grunt. I swallowed and prepared.
“They were a Jewish family,” I said, my body tense. Silence. I didn’t know what to expect.
“Grandmother is old now. Eighty-six. When she comes downstairs I will ask her what she knows.” Hammering recommenced. “Hopefully she remembers something of this family. Maybe you come back later and we can see if she knows of them. Good luck in your search. Please see what they can tell you in the town hall.”
Teddy pointed it out on the map. We walked to the town hall first. “Teddy seemed nice,” Gabriela said.
“I know.” Even I could sense the confusion in my voice. Regardless, I walked around Otwock with one rule in place: Everyone was an anti-Semite until they weren’t. This distrust felt like home, like chicken soup and kreplach. Now that I was in my grandparents’ Poland, it was uncanny to think that I had spent the previous year free of leeriness.
The town hall was a mansion set back from a simple garden. The former bedrooms had been transformed into offices crammed with filing cabinets and poorly positioned desks, the latter of which had been inundated with papers that would most likely never see the insides of those filing cabinets.
“My family used to live here,” I said to one of the town hall employees, pointing to Podmiejska on the map. “No. 12, and my grandmother lived at 15 Berka Joselewicza. Their names were Lederman and Zylberberg.”
The woman lifted her eyes from the map and signaled to me with pursed lips that she would not be able to assist in this task. I explained my story three more times and each Polish secretary made their countenance tighter. Their English was poor; my Polish was nonexistent.
The dead Ledermans and Zylberbergs, the lost homes, the missing streets, and the wet Americans had turned into actual water-cooler conversation, which Gabriela and I could observe through the window. The women filled their mugs and either laughed or pointed or shook their heads as if the windows in this town hall were transparent on only our side and the women had always thought they had the privacy of walls. Gabriela sat beneath a rattling air-conditioner unit and clutched her arms, which were wrapped in her soaked turquoise sweatshirt.
“I’ll get you to the beach again,” I told Gabriela, which was where we had been traveling in the weeks before Eastern Europe.
“Don’t worry.” She shivered. “We just spent two months doing beaches. I don’t mind. I want you to find something. I just don’t want you to be so mad.”
“I’m not mad,” I said.
“Baby. I can see it. Poland makes you furious.”
I pulled at my face as if it were that easy to loosen the anger and then leaned in to kiss her.
Two of the women who had the misfortune of being assigned to my query returned to the hallway. They explained things in tag-team broken English but spent most of the time arguing and pointing over each other’s shoulders as if the requested files were simply in the cabinets behind them, perfectly labeled, waiting for the third generation to reclaim this lost history. Twenty minutes of debate, which transformed into a pure Slavic shouting match, petered out when a third employee entered the cramped corridor. One of the original two ladies took this new arrival’s presence as a cue to leave. This third woman delivered a paper and then marched off. “There is no much we can do,” said the last of the Polish secretaries, who tugged nervously on the crucifix hanging from her neck. “We no have many records. The street you…you…desire, Berka Joselewicza, no exist.”
“There must be some records that explain what happened to the street. Maybe one that explains what it became.”
“We have war,” she reminded me, as though it had been her people who had suffered most.
“Are there records of the people who lived in Otwock before the war?”
Town hall had no records of the town. The post office needed help from the locals to locate streets. Otwock was a shitstorm.
Outside, the rainstorm increased as we traveled away from the little city center, toward the Jewish Center, a place on the map that now bubbled up from Teddy’s wet fingerprint. Tall pines lined the barren road and railway tracks.
An old man walked toward us and into a puddle. He reminded me of cousin Helen, wandering Brooklyn in her nightgown when the Alzheimer’s had worsened. Innocent and lost. But then he also fit the description of the Christian boys who, decades ago, had shouted at Poppy, “Dirty fucking Jew!” One of the old boys who had thrown rocks at my grandparents as they walked home from yeshiva. The boys who had accused my family of the bloodletting of Christians for the preparation of matzos.
Who had this man been all those years ago?
“Do you know the Jewish Center?” I asked him as he stumbled past. The old man ignored me. I repeated the question. He moved slightly quicker. Maybe his mind was gone. Or deaf. Or perhaps he always suspected that the grandchildren would return.
“Do you know Leon Lederman?” I asked as he shambled off, speaking more to the rain than to this witness who would forever be fleeing the scene. “Hadasa Zylberberg?” It came out as a whisper. Nobody cared.
Gabriela tugged at my sleeve. “Maybe you should take me to the beach.”
I watched him vanish into the forest. We continued through the storm.
“Is that the Jewish Center?” Gabriela pointed to a fenced-in building. We studied the soaked map and moved toward what looked like a haunted mansion.
“I’m looking for any information about the Jews who lived in Otwock before the war,” I said to an attendant in the lobby of the building. The floorboards creaked.
He led me over to a small plaque that paid tribute to an American who had helped the Jews during the war. After we had read the small sign, the attendant asked me to follow him into the living room.
Three disheveled couches sat in a semicircle in the middle of the large space. Four infirm residents occupying the cushions stared up, perhaps at the cloud of dust overhead.
Our presence attracted more of the elderly who had been camped out in the adjacent activity room. In they came: the scuffing walker wheels, the rickety wheelchairs, the clinking canes. I repeated my grandparents’ surnames and the streets they had lived on to each of the new arrivals. I provided biographies. But there was nothing.
“Are any of you Jewish?” I asked, hoping that I had stumbled upon a colony of survivors. But the dozen or so residents shook their heads or appeared uncertain about the question, as if memories of the Jews had been the first part of their minds to go.
“I think this is more like an old-age home,” Gabriela decided. “I don’t know why Teddy called it the Jewish Center.”
Over the next half hour, I discovered that the only thing Jewish about the Jewish Center was the little plaque’s mention of the religion, and that was it. The Jews were like a mythical race of people that had roamed the land with the earliest Homo sapiens.
“What is it you are doing here?” asked a new entrant into the circle. She wore a long floral housedress beneath a white sweater and had a chain of fake pearls draped around her neck. “Do you have grandparents here?”
“They used to live here. Leon Lederman and Hadasa Zylberberg.” I thought about what else I could remember about my lightning-struck family tree. “My grandmother’s father was called David Havala even though he was born David Zylberberg.” His mother’s surname, Havala, had carried more weight. “He sold to the fishmongers in the Otwock market. My grandmother’s grandfather was Meyer Szlama Kaufman. They owned a lot of property.”
“Speak louder. We can’t hear you,” the old woman in the pearls said.
Everyone nodded or shrugged or smiled. We thanked them for their time and walked back toward the train.
“You always said you didn’t know much about your grandparents. I think you know a lot more about your grandparents than you thought,” Gabriela said.
“My father sent me a second email with a few names and occupations. But I wish I knew more.”
Our umbrella flipped inside out, the metal frame bending and snapping with the strength of the wind. The rain intensified, and we took shelter in a cemetery. Every stone had a cross and a Polish name.
When we left the cemetery, we walked a few blocks and stopped at Ulica John Lennon.
“That’s funny,” I said.
“What is?” asked Gabriela.
“Otwock chose to name a street after a man who sang about peace, love, and karma.”
“Do you believe in karma?”
“I wish it were that easy.”
We sang a few Beatles songs to make the hike back less cold and wet and terrible.
“You know, my father’s favorite band was the Beatles when he was growing up,” I said after we finished a hit from Abbey Road. “He and his friends had been driving around when ‘Hey Jude’ came on the radio for the first time. Their jaws dropped. They had misheard the lyrics and thought that even the Beatles were anti-Semitic. That’s what it was like to have parents who survived the Holocaust, I guess. The children were always in fear that the Jew-haters were everywhere. And the grandchildren were always asking for the stories.”
“Well, walking through the past and searching for answers is not what most grandchildren of survivors would do,” Gabriela said. “I’m proud of you, baby.” She kissed me.
I accepted the kiss, but figured that she was wrong.
Before we reached the station, we happened upon Podmiejska again. “Let’s walk it one more time,” I said.
This time the puddles were deeper, the gardening ladies had vanished, and Teddy’s ladder was packed away.
I stood before Podmiejska 12 and knew that it had no connection to Poppy’s family. Not this new house. Not this plot of land.
“Hey,” someone shouted. Teddy stood beneath the trellised entrance to his home and waved for us to navigate the moat that divided the street. “Come for tea.”
We ran for the shelter that he had offered, enticed by the thought of something warm. It all happened very quickly before it hit me: I was standing in a Polish home on the street where Poppy had been the target. Or maybe it was a Jewish home that Teddy’s family had occupied after the liquidation of 1942.
“You are soaked.” Teddy laughed as our wetness painted his foyer’s orange tiles a deep red. “How did your search go? Was the map useful?”
Gabriela waited for me to answer, but when I didn’t, she said, “We didn’t find much.”
Teddy seemed disappointed, puckering his lips and pulling at his chin.
I was confounded. Here was a man who had provided us with books and maps, smiles and reassurances, and now shelter and tea. Yet he had also sent us to town halls without records and Jewish centers without Jews. I couldn’t decide whether he was genuine or not. Maybe he was Otwock’s diverter, some esteemed position that had been held ever since the Holocaust to flummox returning Jews.
“Hmm.” Teddy continued to rub his chin, nonplussed. “Come take off these wet sweaters and join me and my wife in the kitchen.”
In the kitchen, Teddy’s wife nodded and smiled from the stove. Behind her legs hid their daughter, who peeked through the space between her mother’s thighs.
“Here. Please,” the woman finally said.
“She does not speak English well,” Teddy said. “Sorry.”
“We don’t speak Polish well,” Gabriela replied.
Teddy’s wife knew enough English to smile at the comment. She poured us tea. A plate of cookies sat in the center of the table. Teddy disappeared upstairs.
“How old is your daughter?” Gabriela asked.
“She is 3.”
The little girl gave her age in Polish and held up the appropriate number of fingers, but kept herself shielded with her mother’s legs.
We ate the cookies and clutched the mugs. Gabriela continued to make headway with Teddy’s wife. I wondered whether there had even been a point to this day. Was it to prove to myself that my grandparents and their people had been erased from the land? Was I looking for a Teddy—someone to pin my hopes to—a Pole who could assuage my anger and confusion?
“This is Grandmother,” Teddy said, returning to the kitchen with a woman who was bent so far forward that she must have worked the fields for the majority of her life. Teddy held his hands out in case she fell. She batted him away, determined to reach the kitchen table on her own. “She wanted to come down and meet you.”
The grandmother kept her gaze to the floor, seemingly eyeing us with the bald spot in the center of her white crown. She took a deep breath and jumped right into her story. Teddy bent closer to hear her faint voice, one as emotionless as a court reporter reading back pages of a transcript.
“OK, Grandma. OK.” Teddy wanted her to slow down so that he could listen and translate. But the grandmother would not pause. So Teddy translated quickly. “She says that this house here, which she was born in, is now Podmiejska 21, but it used to be Podmiejska 9.” He stopped to listen. “She thinks that Podmiejska number 12 was the one up the road, which I will take you to shortly.” More listening. “She also says that she remembers a man, a butcher, who lived there. She says the family had many children and there were animals in the yard.”
I stood up; so did my eyebrows. “They had German shepherds and sometimes there were animals brought to the house to be butchered. He was the kosher slaughterer.”
“Grandmother says that the last person who lived there has died. Sometime last year. The house has been empty since.”
The grandmother stopped speaking, and Teddy placed his hand on her trembling shoulder. He whispered into her ear, but she shoved him softly and continued.
“Grandmother also wants me to tell you that she feels very bad about what happened here. She wants you to know that she feels very terrible for the past.”
I had always wondered how I would feel if a Pole apologized to me, specifically for the treatment of the Jews. But what does one do with an apology? If I took it back to Brooklyn, I could only imagine Grandma swatting at the words, as if they flew at her like malarial mosquitoes. It wasn’t my place to accept apologies, not for the dead and not for the survivors who lived with the dead and the memories. Maybe if Teddy’s Polish family had been our neighbors in the States, we would have grown to become good friends. But not here. Never here. I looked at the grandmother; I couldn’t tell what was genuine. Her words could have belonged to a guilty soul. Anger stood its ground as a safeguard. Blame was a reminder.
Still, I smiled at the old woman, appreciatively.
All was quiet. Then the grandmother lifted her head, revealing her eyes for the first time: blue rings blurried by tears and cataracts. She spoke again.
“Grandmother says that she and grandfather used to sneak food to the Jews in the ghetto. She wants you to know this.”
I wanted to believe her. But if I were an old Pole and a Jew came back to Otwock and sat in my kitchen, searching for answers, I’d say that as well. “Please, give me your contact information.” Teddy handed me his email address. “This is mine. I have a friend who is a historian of Otwock, and maybe he can help you in your search. So you contact me upon your return home and I will email him.”
Meanwhile, the grandmother had shuffled out from the room. Teddy signaled for us to follow. Beside the foyer, as she readied herself for the ascent to the second floor, the old woman whispered something into Teddy’s ear.
“She wants you to have this,” Teddy said. The little woman handed us an umbrella. She smiled at the giving of such odd reparations, turned to go upstairs, took a half-step, but withdrew her foot, returning it to the tiled floor. Enervated by the past, I guessed, the old woman returned to the kitchen instead.
“I want to take you first to a Jewish cemetery, the one that I know of in Karczew,” Teddy explained. “Then we will come back to where I believe your grandfather’s house once stood.”
We got into Teddy’s sedan and drove a few blocks, but the road to Karczew had flooded. Though I never visited Karczew, a gentleman I had conversed with on JewishGen—one of the websites I had used to conduct my search for family and facts—sent me photographs of the cemetery a few years after I had returned from Poland. Broken and ransacked tombstones stood among a sea of litter.
We returned to Podmiejska, and Teddy pulled up alongside a fence. “This is the property where grandmother says your grandfather’s house was.”
A squat home of brick and yellowed concrete stood at the corner of Podmiejska and a second dirt road. All of its windows were boarded up.
“Please. Take as long as you would like. Nobody lives there so you may go onto the property. I will wait here,” Teddy said.
“I’ll wait, too,” said Gabriela.
I opened the car door and stepped into the downpour. Gripping the fence, I hopped over it and stood in the small yard. The property, 50 by 25 feet, had a bulwark of pine trees to one side and two small apple trees between the house and the evergreens. The apple trees had littered the lawn with rotten fruit. I tried the door, but it was locked. I thought about kicking it in so that I could explore inside. But this was Poland, and I was a Jew, and I imagined tomorrow’s headlines in the local Polish news: Jew Ransacks Home of Deceased Polish Woman. So I just stood in the middle of the wet lawn, beside the apple tree, and then bent down, plunging my fingers into the soil. I plucked up a black stone and let the rain chip away at the mud concealing it. Part of the rock crumbled in my grasp, as though it had been eroding in this mound of soil for eons. It was a stone that Poppy could have used to defend himself against his neighbors, the ones who had hurled rocks at him.
I looked out at Podmiejska and imagined him as a boy, running in the rain, which fell now like rocks from an army of gentiles. I saw Poppy station himself beneath the apple tree and dig up stones while his four sisters stood in the doorway, berating and admiring their only brother. A mother at work over the stove for what could have been the last cholent, the last Shabbat. A father who had taught his boy how to hold the hallaf, the shochet’s blade. Who knew that one day this would become a tool in the boy’s profession, work that would allow him to make a life in America, work that would allow his family to grow and to return to Poland? To stand on his property under an apple tree, where it all began?
But for what? Why was I even here? Poppy was dead. And Grandma begged Death to remove her from this life, pulling the Holocaust into the tomb with her. What would I even gain from this moment? From Teddy’s kindness? From his grandmother’s words?
I placed the brittle stone in my pocket, spent a few more weeks visiting concentration camps and ghettos, took Gabriela to the shores of Poland, as promised, and then left Europe so that I could stand with my father in a Queens cemetery in front of Poppy’s tombstone.
Excerpted by permission from A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets, Copyright © 2017, published by Rowman & Littlefield.
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