As a child in the New Jersey suburbs in the 1970s, I grew up hearing harrowing tales of the Holocaust, often while playing in the backyards of the grandchildren of survivors. In the summer, glimpses of numbered tattoos peaked from loose clothing, permanent proof of what this generation had gone through, sometimes leading to reluctant conversations against the watery backdrop of sprinklers, iced tea, and swimming pools.
I was raised in a non-Jewish family in what was essentially a suburban shtetl. Come December, our house was among the few on the street with a Christmas tree. The holiday season was when our Polish-born uncle Eddie, who had married into the family via my aunt RoseAnn, would come to visit. He too had stories of the Nazis. The most vivid was his escape from a work camp hidden inside the wheel carriage of a departing train.
Even with his brush with the Nazis, I think we dismissed his stories because we knew they were not Jewish tales; they lacked the gravity of the stories our neighbors’ grandparents told. Nothing in our school books backed up his description of the Polish experience during World War II.
The stories stopped when I was 12, the year my uncle divorced my aunt. Though I would see him briefly at my aunt’s and my father’s funerals, 34 years would pass before I would spend any serious time with him, this time in his hometown of Warsaw.
My uncle and I shared the same birthday, and as he aged, I decided I would try to use the day to reconnect by calling him. The journalist in me, having covered horrific events in today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, also wanted to sort out his time under the Nazis, always knowing there was more to it than what he told us. My uncle was a teenager when the war ended, and, at 85, he is among the youngest of those still able to recall a period rapidly slipping out of living memory.
When I called my uncle on our most recent birthday, mentioning I wanted to formally record his life in Poland, he told me he would soon be back in Warsaw. “For the 70th anniversary of the Uprising,” he said, adding “the government is inviting me to come and be honored for being in the resistance.” I thought for sure my uncle had gone senile. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprisings were in 1943, and the 70th anniversary commemorations had come and gone. My uncle went on to explain something I had never heard of before, the Warsaw Rising of 1944, in which he fought the Nazis as part of the underground resistance
No, my uncle was not senile. I was simply undereducated. The Warsaw Rising, when the entire capital rose up against the Nazis, resulting in the destruction of 85% of the city, was simply not something Americans are taught. It is the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in our school books and portrayed over the decades in movies with stars as diverse as Tovah Feldshuh and Adrien Brody that we learn about instead.
I was newly proud of my estranged uncle and I vowed to travel to Poland with him, to hear the stories where they happened, rather than in a New Jersey living room. Not only had he escaped the Nazis, but he had also fought against them in Poland’s Home Army, or Armia Krajowa, the resistance.
Once in Warsaw, at the sites and memorials where Polish politicians met with his surviving compatriots, my uncle’s stories began to align into proper sequence, something impossible to understand when I was a child. They also coincided with those I’d heard from Holocaust survivors, even if it was clear that Jews were treated more brutally than other Poles, and more likely to be killed by the Nazis. Once the uprising had been put down, my uncle, only 15 at the time, was loaded into a cattle wagon. Dachau was his first stop. He downplayed this, saying he was only there a week before he was sent to another work camp deeper in Germany. His wife, my step-aunt, who was with us, explained, “When you came in to the camp, you went one of two ways: either up the chimney or to work. Thanks God, Eddie went to work.” It was how he, his brother, and his father survived.
He escaped on Christmas Eve, 1944. “We lied on the beams of the train, trying to make ourselves as invisible as possible,” he said. I wondered if the date was chosen with the knowledge that the Germans would be drunk. Instead, he said, “No, it was snowing, so we knew they wouldn’t take the trouble to look for us.” There was still the possibility of being discovered, he said, as before each train was sent off, a soldier would hammer the wheels, making sure they were in proper order. If anything sounded off, and someone in the wheel chambers could cause that, inspection might lead to their discovery.
My uncle didn’t make it back to Poland. Instead, he hid out for time in what was then Czechoslovakia, eventually finding his way to Italy, where he joined the Polish army, and then to the United Kingdom, and the United States.
This intertwined lives of Jews and Catholics in pre-war Poland became readily apparent when we visited the street he used to live on, inside of what became the Jewish Ghetto. His childhood home was Franciszkanska, #11, the street named for the Church of St. Francis at its head. The street also became one of the Ghetto’s walls. “They took the Jews away from us,” he said. “We weren’t allowed to live with them,” including his first girlfriend, Rifka, whose fate he does not know. This is the first time he had been back since being forced to leave Warsaw in 1944.
I knew as little about intermingling of Christian and Jewish life in Warsaw as I did the Warsaw Rising. Through interviews related to the commemorations, I would learn more about why it is also relatively unknown by others back home.
Monika Koszyńska, the school education unit manager at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, said, “So many Jews from Poland went abroad, and they were passing the knowledge about the Ghetto Uprising. It’s a pity that they were not successful in passing on the knowledge that some of them were fighting in the Warsaw Uprising as well. Because some of the fighters of the Ghetto Uprising were then fighting in the Warsaw Uprising. And it is not known at all.” She feels that had this been better known among Poles after the war, there might have been less anti-Semitism under Communism.
Pawel Ukielski, the vice director of the Warsaw Rising Museum, blamed a variety of historical circumstances. “The Warsaw Uprising was not convenient for anybody to talk about for a long time,” he explained, mentioning how the Russians camped outside of Warsaw during the Uprising, allowing the Germans to destroy the Polish capital. This would make it easier for them to occupy the country at the end of the war. Western Europe and the United States also refused to recognize the Polish government in exile after the war, enabling Stalin to establish a satellite government.
“After the war, neither Soviet Communists nor Polish Communists, or even Western allies were willing to talk” about the Warsaw Uprising, he said, adding that in contrast, “the Ghetto Uprising was not a problem for Polish communists, so there was commemoration in Poland, and it was part of the big story of the Holocaust, and many influential Jewish societies all over the world took care to make it remembered.”
Still Ukielski argued that the narratives of what occurred to Poles, whether Christians or Jews, should not be considered in competition with each other. “We are proud that Warsaw was the city of two uprisings. Both of them were unique. We know what happened to Warsaw during the Second World War. It lost almost half of its pre-war population. It lost the whole Jewish population. It was a great loss, a loss of the part of the identity. So this is not the question that one should be better known or worse known, we want both of them to be known all over the world.”
I have found after spending time with my uncle in Warsaw who lived to see both uprisings, that I too know them both better than I ever would have before.