Return to Warsaw
by Helen Degen Cohen
Majka (pronounced Mayka), modern as a young Shelley Winters, is trying to be patient with her overly religious Catholic mother. The mother who is looking at me with those same eyesthough not as deep, not as foggy any longeras she did when I was eight years old, when she had me in hiding among the wheat fields. She is eighty-five years old now, sitting in a house dress that covers her sagging weight, her bad legs. Her gray hair is brushed back into a bun, and deep in her still smooth face, her eyes twinkle. She is staring at me with a slight smile. Mocking? Scrutinizing? Without any loss to her dignity, hands quietly in her lap, like a Mona Lisa. She is asking me questions, though not the ones I would have expected. She is entirely flesh-and-blood now. No. Not entirely.
If Maria Szumska were entirely of this world now, her daughter would not be so impatient. It's a habit, the way Majka reacts to her mother, to everything her mother says. She shifts in the chair, flushes, perspires. As if to say, oh please, they know already, why don't you leave them alone. And yet she is her mother's daughter. She herself has just made a pilgrimage, to Wilno (pronounced Vilno), as I am making mine, to Poland. Majka knows that this is my pilgrimage, she has made every conceivable accommodation for us, but this is her mother, this babcia (bahb-chagranny) who will not leave the little three-room apartment on the fourth floor, who insists on sitting in the corner of the roomwhere she literally lives, eats, sleeps, watches television, and writes letters to missionaries.
Maria Szumska sits at her table facing the window (and me, now), writing meticulous letters in a nearly perfect hand. The hand was perfect a year ago, but now it is less steady, the lines don't run as neatly across, nor do the letters stand as regally. But God forgives what can't be helped. Her stationery is precious. I know it so well. It has a red rose on each sheet. (There are huge red roses on a dark gray tapestry on the dining room wall, roses the size of lions. She has kept that tapestry since her youth in Wilno.) She addresses the envelopes just as carefully, an ingrained European habit, developed when correspondence was a matter of life and death, when packages and letters carried, or asked for, vital help or information, when telephones rang only in the movies. Written communications in Europe are still precious. Addresses are precious. When after the war my mother wanted to bring her family to America, she had to recall the address of an uncle in Chicago. There were four digits in the street number, and try as she might, she couldn't get them quite right, until one day she was close enough, the letter was somehow delivered andthat is why I am here today. When I'm in Florida I see my mother addressing packages to Israel, to Iowa, to Poland, I see how carefully she prints each name, every digit.
The table is up against the window. Maria Szumska sits facing the gray buildings of the suburb Ursus in the window, pen in hand. A few feet to her left, nearly touching the swung-open window-frame, is the television set, and on its screen the politics of Poland. She is writing a letter to a missionary and watching the changing fate of Poland, as we come in.
Maria Szumska is a super-patriot. She is passionately involved in what happens on the television screen. It is a gray meeting of the government officials, in a huge hollow assembly hall. It lacks the spunk, the showmanship, the confrontations, the play, of U.S. hearings on television. This meeting is dead serious, the room seems gigantic, the men lost within it, talking in gray, somber voices. It goes on and on for hours. She doesn't take her eyes off it. Her daughter Majka is extremely annoyed.
"You can finish later," she tells her mother and shuts off the television set. Maria Szumska acquiesces. She begins to talk about Poland, about its patriots, its martyrs, one after another. She pulls out pictures of saintly heroes, of Holy Mary, of the Pope. They seem to appear out of nowhere, since there are no files to be seen. They are postcard-sized, most of them, depicting heads with sharply-pointed haloes. She is not senile, she repeats herself out of her intense preoccupation, repeats stories of her heroes day after day, which I still can't absorb fast enoughI am still getting re-acquainted with the language. I try, I bring tapes, I hang on every word. I want to listen with everything I've got. This is my pilgrimage, after all.
On the table are a bowl of red currants, bread and sausage, a vase of flowers. Majka brings meals to her mother two or three times a day. And now that Majka has left us for a bit, her mother leans forward to ask me a favor, a secret. She wants to know if I could get her some milk chocolate. She accents the milk. Milk chocolate. But don't tell Majka, she would get angry. I say of course, looking around. I am always looking around, as if she were made of the room itself. My back is to the window, and I'm looking into the room, at her bed along the wall on my right, at the picture of the Madonna high on the wall, beyond the television set. Szumska is facing me, to my left, penetrating me with her stare. It is not a spiritual stare, as I expected. It is a worldly (bemused?) stare.
She has just talked about the glory of Poland, and now she stares at my American athletic shoes. Nods with approval. Her granddaughters should have such shoes. Majka comes in at that point and her face goes red. I wish it didn't amuse me as it does, this trip was supposed to be all sacred.
When I was almost eight years old, we stood at a train station in Lida, my parents and I, about to be shipped to the camps. My mother gave me a cup and told me to pretend I was going for water at the pumpand to keep on walking until I found the house of a woman we knew. I asked for directions from house to house. I walked across the town until I found the woman's house. But because it was too dangerous for this woman to take me into hiding, she searched for someone else, and found Maria Szumska.
It is a much longer story, of course. The woman my mother told me to find was a cook at the town prison, where we had been hiding in a room over the guard house, my mother, my father, and I. Because my father had made himself indispensable at the prison (by barbering, distributing food supplies, and supervising all the plumbing), he was permitted to move us from the ghettowhere living conditions were miserable and hundreds of thousands of people were marched into the fields to be shot during "selections"to live, discreetly, at the prison. In the end, though, we too were rounded up, with the rest of the remaining Jews in town, and placed on trucks headed for the train station and the camps. That is when my mother handed me the cup and told me to find the prison cook, Waclawska (Vahtzlavska). When I was out of sight, she and my father boarded the train and later joined an escape party: while the train was speeding, they had a small boy squeeze out of a tiny window and unlatch the door from the outside; whereupon eleven people (out of five hundred) jumped, four were shot immediately, and seven survived and joined the undergroundmy parents among them.
After several failed efforts at finding me a safe place with someone else and having appealed to the Mother of God, Szumska decided to do it herself. She sold her clothes, and with the money rented a cabin in the country. She was an educated, striking young woman, and her clothes too must have been attractive. Before the war her husband loved taking pictures of her, one of which is now displayed on the walla picture of a beautiful, dark-haired young woman seated on a lawn, her romantically ruffled white dress spread out around her.
Maria Szumska left her husband in Lida and came to live with me in the country. She would walk twenty-five kilometers from our cabin in the country back into town, to do her husband's laundry and get food to him. It occurs to me that I still don't know how she got all our food, even after all the questions I've asked her. We picked some of it wild, like spinach and chamomile and stray carrots, and poziomkitiny wild strawberries. (Truskavki is the word for normal strawberries; these tiny ones are poziomki.) She made potato dumplings which we ate in hot milk with boiled carrots. She baked some of our bread herself, in a make-shift oven. She walked me to the forest and lake. She left me with what I call "the cousins" in a novel I have written about the war, though now it seems that they may have been "neighbors." They were farmers, I am almost sure of that. That was in 1943.
Szumska was in her thirties then, with prematurely milk-white hairit had turned suddenly white soon after that romantic picture on the walland a pure, doll-like porcelain face with haunting eyesliquid, moonstruck eyes, as I remember. In the pictures she shows me now they are sad, melancholy; to me, then, they were only mysterious, only other-worldly. I have moved onto the chair on her left, shoulder to shoulder, and she turns to look at me more closely, and tells me that my teeth could be whiter. The surprise that goes through me amuses meI am disconcerted, I accept everything. I look straight through her, into her, trying to see the young woman, the one who sleepwalked and prayed, prayed and sleepwalked, who crossed her hands on her chest beside me, when we lay down to sleep, in the cabin in the country. The young woman who showed me a world my parents never knew, though they survived the war and are alive and well in Florida1.
What else did we do in Poland in July? We toured Warsaw; we were taken to both northern and southern Poland. Majka and her husband Jacek (Yahtzek)2 had met us at the airport and brought us to the house they were building out of concrete. They put us up in an upstairs room which belongs to their then nineteen-year-old daughter, Dorota, since both daughters (the other was twelve) were staying at their rented cabin in the northern country ("on the Mazurkas"). Several days later we took the opportunity to get into that northern vacation countryside by accompanying Jacek on his trip to pick up the girls at the cabin and bring them home (at which point Dorota would share a room with someone else and continue to let us use her room). It was our first trip out of Warsaw.
Jacek drove us there in his fifteen-year-old Mercedes. We reached our destination, near the Russian border, hours later. (Lida and the cabin where Szumska had had me in hiding were just across the border, but we had no Russian visas with us). It appeared to us a primitive, somewhat depressed country, and their cabin was a shack; but the girls loved it, it was summer camp, it was freedom to them. They'd become housekeepers, were perfect hostesses when we arrived, cooked meat and potatoes and made us tea. We picked wild strawberries and blueberries in the forest.
In my book we are spirits, Szumska and I; in July of 1989 we are encased in concrete. Literally. We are seated in one of the many gray concrete buildings in a suburb of Warsaw. They don't have the paint with which to cover the dirty-looking ugliness of concrete. When you land, the entire city looks gray. When you land, you smell the odor of war. I am not exaggerating. We looked out the windows, as the plane rolled in, and saw several Russian military men in green capes strolling around the bleak airport, the flat overcast gray city behind them. Outside, my friend asked me, "What is that odor?" I said, "It's the odor of war." Months later, in a book on Poland, I found that another writer had characterized it exactly the same way. My friend wondered, later in our trip: "What did they do with the rubble?" We had just finished seeing a film on the demolition of Warsaw by Hitler. It was shown in an upstairs room of a museum, with the windows wide open, overlooking the rebuilt Old City square, painted in colorful pastel shades, with tourists and artists wandering around below in the heat, or sitting under ice-cream table umbrellas. The scene below us, through the wide-opened windows, was in such contrast to the crumbling, black-and-white Warsaw on the screen, that I think we both wondered: what happened to the rubble?
It must have been recycled. It smelled to meinitially, at leastlike recycled war. And yet when we got into it, the ordinary life of the city made us forget the smell, all our initial impressions, just a week into our stay. By the time we left Poland, two weeks later, we'd forgotten it entirely. You can imagine what happens to permanent residents.
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera says that "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." But it seemed that the struggle in Warsaw was in both directionsto forget on the one hand, and not to forget on the other. To forgetin the form of building new houses, questing for jobs, American shoes, rock music. To not forgetin the form of Jacek, as he stood in back of his house looking around at all the land that once belonged to his family; of Szumska, reviewing her pictures; of Majka, making her pilgrimage to Wilno, when it was finally allowed, in May of 1989. Many such freedoms are only a few months old, in July of 1989. What was the black market currency exchange rate only three or four months ago is now the legal rate at any of a number of public currency exchanges. Once can choose whether to buy meat at a state-run store, or at a private booth at the market. Women in babushkas sit on the sidewalks of Warsaw selling raspberries. There are long lines at the "dollar" storeswhere one can use dollars or marks onlyfor Western goods. Everything is all mixed up. In July 1989, it is practically impossible to forget, though there is little time to remember.
The ghosts of Jews are everywhere, though I realized it only gradually. One begins to forget the odor in the air; one begins to remember the Jews, in time. It's a story I don't want to get into here; not at this time. It is too big, too complex. But what is curious is that the more the Jews dwindle here, the more their ghosts are felt. Poland is a country dotted everywhere with death camps, and yet people live all the way up to their edgesnew and old developments are immediately adjacent, children play along their fenceswithout acknowledging them. Jacek had never been to Auschwitz and didn't want to go with us at first. "It is too macabre," he said. Though he did decide to go in the end, even shed some tears, and was glad for it. Majka had been, before. I didn't cry at all. I wanted to write the story of the tour guide, a Polish native of Auschwitz (Oswiecim) who as a child had been exiled with his family from his town, while they were building the camp. He returned in middle age, to do tours of the campevery day, day after day, year after year. "Six million Polish citizens died here," he says, day after day. "Three million of them were Jews."
The Jews and the Gentiles had lived like two countries intertwined, co-dependent as Siamese twins. Three-quarters of the world's Jews once lived in Poland. There were 3.5 million at the start of the war, about one tenth after the war, and only 5,000 by the mid-1980s. Two post-war occurrences, one of them a pogrom in 1946, and the other a government-encouraged wave of anti-Semitism in 1968, account for the two mass emigrations of Jews from Poland. I had never known this. No one I've asked since knew anything about it. When I returned home, I read it in a book called Remnants3, given to me three years earlier by a Catholic ex-nun. Strange, that I haven't read the text till now. It is in a way a history of my people. It interviews a handful of the handful of remaining Jews in Poland, most of whom are old or sick. I picked up other books, with similar accounts. There is much more I have to read.
Majka and Jacek drove us south to Krakow during the second week of our stay, and there, at a museum across the road from our hotel, advertised in bold letters, was the exhibit "ZYDZIPOLSCY" ("The Jewsof Poland"), paintings of Jews and their life in Poland, predominantly portraits from centuries past, young and old, some with flowing Jesus-like hair. From the book ZydziPolscy which accompanies the exhibit: ". . . the few thousand Jews still living in Poland can by no means carry on life in the social structure which belonged to their fathers and grandfathers. A thriving graft has been cut off; its oral transmission has been reduced to single stereotyped phrases. . . . Those of us who are quick to blame others, including Jews, for our misfortunes, and who worship our poets and artists, will be reminded by the exhibition of how high a regard for the Jews those poets and artists had. The Jews in turn, historically made sensitive to everything that concerns them, will sense sympathy and even admiration in the works of Polish painters, the artists of a nation at whose hands they have suffered in the past." The few people in the museum were staring at depictions of a vanished culture. It was haunting, as are the suppressed attitudes towards Jews.
After dinner, back on the third floor of the Hotel Cracovia, I heard some singing, in Hebrewsongs I had known in West Germany after the war, at a D. P. camp, where our common language had been Hebrew. The sound was incongruous with the setting. This was Krakow, 1989. I had been an impressionable kid, I had loved those songs and dances. I followed the sound down the hallway, toward our third floor lobby, where I found a group of high school students from Israel, singing. I asked if I could join them, and two girls made room between them on a couch. They weren't just singing, they were making a statement: it was blatantly exuberant singing. They were laughing, singing, clapping. It was their version of "We Shall Overcome." The director said they were here studying the camps (Krakow is near Auschwitz), that otherwise they wouldn't know anything about them.
Upon my return to the U.S., I was told by a Pole who has lived here several years now that people on buses in Warsaw, as well as Polish cleaning women in the U.S., are still overheard saying, "It's a good thing Hitler took care of the Jewish problem." When Majka took us to Grójec, the town where I was born, just south of Warsaw (a thriving "shtell" pre-war, like the one in Fiddler on the Roof, but now a rough-looking place) and asked, at a tiny tourist office, whether there are any Jews left in Grójec, she was told that yes, there are a few, but they wouldn't own up to it. The famous Warsaw Ghetto (famous for its uprising against Hitler) is a large square, empty park surrounded by apartment buildings. Where so much had happened, there was nothing, not even visitors. We were the only ones there, standing before the monument to the heroes of the uprising, the ghostly emptiness palpable around us. The neighborhood where my father had been born was nearby.
The subject is overwhelming, and I am open. All my pages are open. I don't want to write on the white till I know what to say. I was in Poland in July, 1989, to see, to ask questions of, the woman who had risked her life for my sake. She is Polish, and Catholic.
There I stand, overwhelmed in the indoor tourist market, Sukiennica, trying to buy Babcia a present. Strange that we call her Babcia, or Granny, the woman who once haunted the countryside like a saint. What can I buy her? We can't find slippers. We can't find chocolate. And besides, I want to get her something meaningful. I've come all the way to Poland and I can't give her anything. What would you give her? A Polish doll? A Polish wooden plate? A necklace of amber beads? And then I see some plaques, upon which are painted madonnas. They are cheap. Too cheap. But what else in the world can I give her?
She is disappointed that I haven't converted. My son married a gentile. She asks medid he convert? No, I tell her. She looks at me. It is a great surprise to me, the greatest surprise of the tripthat she'd wanted me to convert back then. She had asked the priest, and he had told her to wait, that perhaps my parents would return. I always thought it had been her idea. That she was all spirit, all noble. She is smiling at me. Her eyes twinkle. There is dignity in the way she is sitting. I feel thankful, in a way. I feel peaceful. Everything is as it should be, in a way. I love her, in a way.
This is not the spiritual trip I thought it would be. This is an earthy trip. It is loaded with raspberries, sour cherries, black and red currants, strawberries, tomatoes such as we remember in dreams; home-made sausage and fresh white cheese for breakfast, along with a platter of sliced cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes, four kinds of bread and sweet rolls. We have ice cream at mid-morning almost every day on our jaunts to Warsaw, we look into every window for amber, the streets are full of ordinary people. I see nothing especially spiritual, no one straining to remember or forget. The crowds are in the streets as they are in Chicago, impersonal, shopping. They look Western. What can I bring back to Szumska?
Her daughter, Majka, is our hostess, our joy. Working at the sink in her modern kitchen, she turns to smile at us. Warm, demonstrative, motherly, with plenty of flesh on her, and blood that keeps rushing to her face, she cooks for us day and night, like crazy. Cakes and "ushki" (fried pierogi, or dumplings, stuffed with mushrooms), and soups, and cutlets and borscht, and potatoes. There's fresh berry juice instead of water (which she boils). The only thing they can't give usanywhereis ice. It's strange all right, to have nothing cold, no Coca Cola (which is served everywhere, but warm, in lieu of water), no beer, not even cold ice cream (nearly all melted and topped with berries), nothing cold whatsoever, but then what is ice? Majka drives us everywhere, she won't let us out of her sight, afraid that we may be treated rudely, be cheated, bewho knows what. We see palatial Lazienki Park with its roses, sculptures, and princely buildings. Churches, cathedrals. We take us all out to a restaurant and can't spend more than a dollar. And throughout it all, Babcia is sitting at her table, with her pen, indelible.
Behind the concrete house they've been building for three years, Jacek's brother Mihal has his greenhouses and his outdoor flower and vegetable nurseries. Behind them is Babcia's apartment building, rising gray, with its flower boxes. We cut through the planted field each day to visit her, passing Mihal's wife Yola in the field. We enter the bleak elevator building, ride the rickety elevator up, and find Babcia in precisely the same spot, at her table by the window, the television set on her left. She turns toward us, slowly, happily, waiting for me to hug her. There's a Friday in each month when a priest comes to see her for a private mass.
I take out my present, loosely wrapped in paper. It is from Krakow, I tell her. She didn't want us to go to Krakow. It was too hot, and she was afraid for Jacek, with his bad heart. She looks at the present suspiciously. Oh, it costs too much, she says, without having seen it. She smiles uneasily. I unwrap it. She stares at my plaque with the painted Madonna. What do I need it for, she says, I have one already. We both look at the Madonna on the wall, and I feel my embarrassment, my inadequacy. She looks at the present again, kindly. I thank you very much, she says, but you take it. Here it will be soiled. Not quite "soiled"the word is untranslatable. It will be damaged, disrespected, trashed. I know what she means. Halinko, she says to me, my life is an infinitesimal minute. I am gone. This must not be soiled. Take it. She hands it to me. I don't know what to do.
She stands up laboriously, walks toward a drawer, and extracts several more items. A gray, tinny cross on a chain. Some dresser covers, which she herself had crocheted, years ago. Hand-crocheted doilies in several sizes. She returns laboriously to her chair and places the items neatly before me.
By the time I have returned I will have a half a dozen books, a peasant skirt, earthenware bowls, holy pictures and objects, home-made jams and dried mushrooms, vodka, and of course all the store items: dolls, garlands, beads, wooden platesfolk art sold at the state-run Cepelia stores. Most of the presents will have come from Majka, one of the books from Mihal and Yola. It is Pan Tadeush, Poland's most beloved book of poems. A large, hard-cover book, it must have cost them a pretty penny. Mihal has been treating us to vodka in the back yard adjoining his flower nurseries, amidst sunshine and roses growing among the weeds. Yola has baked a cake for us, brought me flowers.
Flowers and berries are dirt cheap around Warsaw. When it comes to roses, I have never seen so many in my life. They seem to grow like weeds, among the unmowed grass along the sidewalks, behind fences, in the parks. Lazienki Park has square, formal gardens of the same red roses as far as the eye can see. The king had his mistresses and bath-houses there, and an outdoor theater, now in ruins. On one side of the river lived the royalty, on the other was the poor (then Jewish) neighborhood, with its huge outdoor market, still there. When we come home from sightseeing, a friend of the family, a stranger, greets us with flowers, for mefor my name day. We were met at the airport with flowers and sent home with flowers.
In 1943, when I was in hiding, I lived intimately with a wheatfield, and even more intimately with habri (hah-bree, plural for "haber")what we call here the cornflower. But there, beside the floppy orange poppies, the fragrant blue cornflower is radiant. I wish we had a different name for it, since in Poland it grows along the wheatfields, not cornfields. I've never seen a cornfield in Poland. Habri are on Polish postal stamps. Habri are my madeleine, the intoxicating whiff of my year with Szumska.
Pansies are the whiff of my earlier childhood, when I could formulate no thoughts about pansies. Or sunshine. Or wars. Habri have become more generic, are the sun and the moon turned into a flower, the sum of everything I've named beautiful.
I was dazzled, while in hiding with Szumska. And mystified. I'd been lifted out of the heat of the war and set down in a wheatfieldwhere the sun was cool as glass and the Holy Family lived with us in the dark cabin. Seeing that I liked to sketch, especially when she left me alone at night, she bought me a pencil for my birthday. It's the most important present I have ever received. One pencil. Would the soul be happier with twenty? Never. The soul is happiest when it isn't abandoned. The pencil was and is my surrogate mother and father.
She brought branches into the cabin and stuck them in the ceiling, for decorations. We brought in wildflowers and placed them on plates on the floor, as decorations. She brought in a fir tree for Christmas, and I made paper chains, angels, Saint Nicholases and stars. When on one occasion she left me with the "cousins," Nazis came in to interrogate the family, and me toosince they'd heard a rumor of a Jewish child in the vicinity. When one of them came up to me and asked me, "Are you Jewish," I was dumb. The farmers were so genuinely stunned that the Nazis had to believe them, give up their search, and leave. How could anyone ask such a question of a child, of Szumska's niece, Szumska, who was holy? At least that's the way I remember it.
I am trying to leave a hundred-dollar-bill for her. She protests, mildly, glancing at Majka. Majka is beet red. No, she says. And to me, You have brought enough, we have enough. But it's for her, I tell her, in case something goes wrong, and you need it. We can take care of her, says Majka. While her mother begins to calculate, Well, the pension comes to . . . Majka is livid. Don't take it! she orders. I know what a hundred dollars means. One dollar is 5,000 zlotys, a large head of cabbage at the city market is 100 zlotys. A pound of meat at the state-run store is 1,000 zlotys; at a private stall in the outdoor market, 6,000 zlotys. We bought the girls Puma athletic shoes, and Agatka slept in them all night.
It has occurred to me to wonder who has the richer life, Majka or her mother. Majka, with her busy suburban household, with her husband (Jacek's workshop is in his house) and their workers, the children and their friends, Mihal and Yola, guests and neighbors. Maria Szumska, alone in her room, her mind flooded with the distant work of missionaries, the entire kingdom of the Holy Family, the nobility of Poland's heroes. What makes Maria Szumska unique is the largeness of the world within her mind. Were she to be moved into her daughter's house, the noise would disturb her world. The sorrow she feels toward her daughter's lack of the spiritual is matched only by Majka's sorrow. And yet their names are the same: Maria. Majka is a nickname. And I felt like a bridge between them. We've all suffered and tried.
Even the suburb at first seemed drenched in the worn-out odor of its history. It came in the open window of our roomDorota's upstairs bedroom. The bodies, the buildings, the mannequins in the windows, the ghettoes and castles. The walls. It's not like your normal industrial smog, said my friend. We were silent. Majka's friendly voice intruded. The trees intruded, the forest was unreal. Each time we drove into Warsaw, it seemed hotter. We noticed the strangeness less, and the shoppers and the heat more. Trying to find parking. The lines for vodka and meat. Communist government buildings, street names. People (quiet people, speaking in undertones), an underground of people, sidewalks full of people, museums, Stare Miasto (Old City), lody (lawd-y, ice cream); hushed, harassed waitresses. People in a corner of a square, along a wall, hushed in the strange light. In one upstairs room, a film about the destruction of Warsaw. Clips of survivors wandering among the ruins, looking into the holes of the city.
These people could never be American, much as they would like to be. Nowoczestno. Modern. Be Nowoczestno, and come work for us, says a sign on a state-owned streetcar. It seems to be moving through a fog, to our left and behind us, as we ride in Jacek's car, as if it'll never catch up. It passes us, into a new fog.
Dziecinko (my child), says Babcia Maria Szumska to me, we must be thankful for what God has given us. She points to the features on her face, saying, The mouth speaks, the eyes see, the ears hear. Often she complains about how difficult times are, how empty the stores are, echoed by Majka. She goes through her litany of sighs, how weak she is getting, how much she has lived through, how difficult it is to die. Then her face changes, she wants me to buy the books of a missionary, to contact certain people in the States, to repeat after her: The mouth speaks, the eyes see, the ears hear. What more can we ask for, Dziecinko?
This wasn't a spiritual journey. Nor was it a temporal journey. It was a door I have walked through. Everything begins here. There's a weight to it. It's as if I've built my own concrete house and then walked through itin the front door and out the back, or in the back door and out the front. I am looking at the new landscape. The door is like the Arc de Triomphearound it, through it, comes the air of possibility. When I crossed the threshold, I left nothing behind. There is no wall between the past and future.
There's nothing sentimental about actual returns. Nostalgia is only a place in the mind. When you literally touch the past, it disintegrates. It will not let you stay there; and because you can't stay there, it propels you into the futureit is a door. Childhood has nothing to do with smallness. As a child, I was a genie, I created the biggest world in the world. When childhood, the biggest dream of all, reverts back to reality, it vanishes, turns into a door. She smiles.
We are smiling at each other. We are seeing each other through the mirrors of our past. She is the young woman I knew. I am the child who liked to draw, whom she left in a cabin at night, in the light of a kerosene lamp. She is the woman with white hair, who prayed to the other Mary day and night.
She was supposed to receive the award with which Yad Vashem (in Israel) honors gentiles who helped Jews during the war. The letter she had received confirmed it. I have written to Yad Vashem again, their bureaucracy is like any other, I have told them, she is eighty-five. It would mean a great deal to her.
"Can you tell me what flowers we had there? I need their names, for my writing, and I don't remember."
"Well, you see it was so long ago. We had roses"
"No, I mean in the fields."
"In the fields?"
"In the fields we had habri, and maki (poppies). We had chamomile flowers, and those small tiny ones . . . niezapominayki (forget-me-nots)."
Unless you return to the past and touch it, you stand in place. The fear of returning is the fear of the future. My God, what will happen to me, I had thought. Going back is different from remembering. Remembering is gilded, going back is facing impoverishment. The nourishment of the dream disintegrates; one has to re-experience hunger, to proceed. In order to survive death, we must die.
I am no longer here, says Szumska, the serious look of a child on her face. When I was a child, she was not my mother. When I was a child we were spirits together. Majka is mother to the child Szumska. Maria Szumska was never just a mother, her soul has a revolutionary bent.
The secret between us is as deep as the lake she took us to when I was eight.
1. My parents have died since this was first written. BACK
2. Jacek has also died. BACK
3. Remnants of the Last Jews of Poland by Malgorzata Niezabitowska, 1986. BACK
Copyright © 1991 by Helen Degen Cohen.
This memoir first appeared in The House on Via Gombito:
Writing by North American Women Abroad, edited by
Madelon Sprengnether and C. W. Truesdale. Minneapolis, MN,
New Rivers Press, 1991.
The photographs of Maria Szumska are in the private possession
of the author and used with permission.
Helen Degen Cohen (Halina Degenfisz) is a widely-published poet and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. She won First Prize in Stand magazine's worldwide fiction competition for an excerpt from her autobiographical novel, The Edge of the Field. Other honors include two Illinois Arts Council Awards, an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, an Indiana Writers Conference award in Poetry, and fellowships to the four major art colonies in the United States.
Ms. Cohen is a graduate of the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and, after years traveling to schools throughout the state as part of the Artist in Education program, she returned to teaching (at Roosevelt University) and then to co-editing Rhino magazine. Helen originally co-founded the magazine as well as its adjunct, the Poetry Forum, a monthly drop-in workshop. She was a featured poet in the October 2001 issue of TheScreamOnline, and is currently seeking a publisher for her poetry collection, The End of Snow. Helen can be reached at Halinka1[AT]aol.com (replace [AT] with @).
Click the button below to see her previous work in TheScreamOnline.