The Poland I grew up with was handed down through distant relatives. My father had decided to reject his heritage, changing our last name from Jasiński to Jason, and insisting on using wonton wrappers for pierogi--nearly every phone call home ends in a twenty minute argument about how he’s bastardizing the recipe.
24 December 2002: Wesołych Świąt
Sometimes I would be reminded of my background when I forgot the English equivalents for cioci and opłatek, words I only used at Christmas (technically the word ciocia is more correct, but for some reason my family always said cioci), but the only real glimpses I could get came in the forms of family gatherings and pieced-together personal histories.
The last remaining relative I had who would have remembered anything was my great aunt, Cioci Mary. I never got the chance to ask her, given that I was young, and Christmas isn’t really the time to bring up war and dead family members.
Cioci Mary had never spoken much. She had never learned English that well, and I had never learned Polish given that the only time I would ever be able to would be at Christmas (the only phrase my dad knew was ty śmierdzisz). Unfortunately she never had the chance to teach me once I had become interested in my family history—she died in 2003 when I was only ten.
The last good memory I have of her of course happened at the previous Christmas. Everyone had arrived late (as per usual), and we were still waiting for the mushroom soup to heat up. Cioci was perched on a stool having lost most of her mobility to 87 years of aging.
Apparently this was the year my family decided I would learn at least a phrase in Polish. Wesołych Swiąt. My young, linguistically-naïve mind couldn’t process that the w sounded like an English v, what a nasal vowel was, and why the ł wasn’t an l. Needless to say, my first attempt at speaking Polish was a failure.
But even when I struggled it made Cioci happy. She would never know that I would end up traveling to Warsaw thirteen years later partially as a testament to our family, but this was my first step towards actively understanding my Polish heritage.
5 May 2015: Finding Something More Polish than Pierogi Made with Wonton Wrappers
The most I could ever put together of our family history was on my grandmother’s side. She had returned to Łódź with the rest of her family during World War II. Her mother and sister had hidden Jews to help them escape during the Holocaust, and her brother was a soldier who was killed during the war, most likely in Katyń “He was killed in a forest by Soviets” was the vague way my father had told the story. Interested, I searched and was able to find my great-uncle’s name in the list of Katyń victims (It was odd to think that I could learn more about his death from a Wikipedia entry than from my own family). My grandmother left the country soon after the war, and the only reminder of her former life was her brother’s horse blanket.
So when the University of Michigan gave me the opportunity to intern in Warsaw, I saw it not only as an opportunity to work and immerse myself in another culture, but also to reconnect with my family’s history. I decided to accept an internship with Culture.pl, pack up, and head to Warsaw two days after my college graduation.
My first few days were a flurry of anxiety and isolation. I don’t speak Polish and found myself making my own dialect by combining the few words I did know with Ukrainian. Obviously this did not achieve the desired result of effective communication. As a result I would often freeze up and forget how to act or speak in public. For the beginning of my trip to Warsaw I was worried that I wouldn’t learn how to live in another country by myself.
As I became acclimatized, I started to realize how much Poland emphasizes historical memory compared to the United States. Coming from New York City, a lot of our short history has been swallowed by gentrification and expansion. Of course these concepts exist in Poland to a certain extent, but there is still more focus on preservation.
Every day I pass the intersection of Górczewska and Aleja Prymasa Tysiąclecia. At first I only saw the numerous car dealerships along this stretch; however, upon looking closer I soon noticed the Wola Massacre Memorial on one of the corners. The monument is a testament to how history is seamlessly integrated with everyday life; although the location has evolved and changed over time, memory remains.
But I still hadn’t learned anything about my roots here. I decided to look into the case of my great uncle, the soldier, and the one person who was never able to return with the rest of his family to the United States. Since I was staying in Warsaw, it might be a little difficult to find out information on a family member from Łódź whose body was never found. One thing I did know is that I wanted to pay respect in some way. I decided to visit the Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East.
18 May 2015: The Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East
The monument is located at an intersection near the border of New Town. Raised on train tracks, the sculpture shows a wagon bearing numerous crosses as a testament to those who perished as a result of Soviet aggression. Among the crosses is also a Star of David to honor Jews who were killed by the Soviet Union. The contrast between these symbols shows a sense of unity—the memorial is not separated by religion or belief.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the monument to me is its asymmetry. The crosses stand at all angles, with some even looking like they are about to fall off. Some are neatly carved, whereas others could be branches put together. Perhaps to some it seems chaotic, but chaos is fitting given the violent events the monument commemorates.
In the United States when you visit monuments, it’s an entire day spent in Washington, DC amongst hundred of other tourists trying to get an unobscured photo of Abraham Lincoln’s face. People do it because it’s what they feel they should do when they visit the nation’s capital. But among all of the monuments in Warsaw, sometimes you can find ones that aren’t crowded with visitors. When I visited the Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East, I was the only one there.
I didn’t have a rush of overwhelming melancholy. If this were a novel I might fall to my knees, overcome by reconnecting with the past and my family history. Instead what I felt was a huge wave of gratitude. My great uncle didn’t just die, as my family had flippantly put it. He had served. He had fallen among other soldiers in an unprecedented massacre. And, although his name may only be a footnote in the annals of history, he was an individual. Maybe it was belated patriotism on the behalf of my family, but I felt proud and full of respect knowing how he had made a difference, and why his story had been so short.
Growing up on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, I was surrounded by so many Eastern European immigrant stories that it was often hard to know where my own personal history began. But being in Warsaw I realized that even if I didn’t know the exact details of my family’s story, it is easy to see how our history fit into a larger narrative. And that was reassuring; even though I had come to a foreign city completely alone, I was still somehow finding my roots.
5 June 2015: “Why Is There a Smiling Woman on an Ad for Auschwitz?”
The weekend of Corpus Christi I found myself on trains to Kraków and Łódź. Kraków was for fun, but Łódź was more of a pilgrimage of sorts.
I didn’t know what to expect from either city. Kraków had only been mentioned in history textbooks due to its WWII history. Mentioning the name of the city to most Americans might be met with silence or judgment, as they will associate it with concentration camps.
Stumbling into the city center it almost seemed like this aspect of the history had been completely forgotten. All sides of the square were lined with multicultural restaurants and very drunk tourists. The restaurants were mirror images of ones that exist in Warsaw’s Old Town, and instead of primarily hearing Polish I could pick out English, Italian, and even some Mandarin.
The Cloth Hall has probably the most comprehensive selection of Polish souvenirs you can find. Many of the stalls display the same fare: carved boxes, amber, and even matryoshki lined the walls.
The number of items can be overwhelming, and the variety of colors can make any tourist want to buy everything. However, I found myself walking past two souvenirs in particular: the traditional Polish folk scarf, and crystal glasses. For a while I couldn’t quite understand why these two things didn’t catch my attention, but seeing a red glass made it finally click; I had seen these in the cabinets and drawers at my parents’ house.
However, Kraków isn’t all about the liveliness of the city center.
I had come to Poland expecting to think about my family history from my father’s side of the family. I never expected to deal with my mother’s side since she isn’t Polish (that we know of, unless something got lost in the mixture of Russian, German, and Hungarian blood). After wading through Old Town, I was struck by the focus on the Jewish experience in Kraków, and how much I was faced with my heritage from the other side of my family.
Before coming to Warsaw I had been told that for someone who is Polish-Jewish, the identities aren’t distinct. In the states we tend to think of Polish as being one category, and Jewish as something completely separate. This isn’t the case in Poland, where the identity of being Polish-Jewish is a distinct category unto itself. For someone who is half Polish on her father’s side and half Jewish on her mother’s side, it would be hard to explain that in my case, the two identities are actually separate.
Even though I don’t have Polish-Jewish heritage specifically, it was still chilling to be in Kraków. There are ghettos and Holocaust sites in almost every city; Kraków does not have the largest of these, but the weight of the history is overwhelming.
Given how anxious I was about missing my train the next day, I wasn’t going to be able to see Auschwitz or the Salt Mines this time around, so instead I decided to see Oskar Schindler’s factory. Located south of the Wisła, the factory was a little out of the way compared to other tourist locations.
I was expecting to learn more about Schindler’s life—like many Americans my knowledge of Oskar Schindler mostly came from the film Schindler’s List. However, the museum is more focused on the experience of the Holocaust and how it affected Kraków. The Jewish population had made up nearly a quarter of Kraków during the war. Now there are only a couple hundred Jews left in the city.
The museum itself is an incredible maze, taking you through the years before the war. Although it starts innocently enough, the happier photographs are marred with the knowledge of what is to come next. You then see the evolution of Nazism and how the Third Reich made its way through Poland. In the second half of the exhibit, the focus shifts more towards the Jewish experience, showing life in the ghetto, followed by an exhibit on the concentration camps. You have the experience of feeling as though you are actually walled into the ghetto, and you get to see parts of Schindler’s factory itself.
Since New York has such large Jewish population, there are several Holocaust memorials and museums where students as young as 13 are taken on field trips. But the exhibits in the states seem divorced from reality: Since there is a dwindling number of survivors in the states, living memory is fading, and people feel more and more detached from the genocide and its effects. This obviously isn’t true for Kraków; the history feels much more real, and, for some reason, much more recent.
It’s hard to put the feeling of visiting Schindler’s factory into words. It’s a deeply personal experience, especially for those with Jewish heritage, and writing about it almost seems like it wouldn’t do any justice to the memory of those who were killed.
On my way out of the exhibit, I saw a sign that proudly advertised “The Experience of Auschwitz” with a picture of a smiling woman. Originally I thought the advertisement was for tours of Auschwitz, but it turns out that it was for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think about how ironic and cheery it was in the face of a very dark history.
Some point during the 1950s: The Family History I’d Like to Forget
There’s a picture of my grandmother visiting Auschwitz.
There are plenty of people who visit Auschwitz every year. Mostly tourists, some even taking selfies. But this was shortly after the war, and I’m pretty sure my grandmother didn’t have great sentiments towards Jews. Whereas her sister and mother helped Jews flee during WWII, my grandmother often displayed unfortunate leanings towards anti-Semitism.
I don’t know what her motivations were behind visiting Auschwitz. I probably don’t want to know, even though there’s no lying to myself about her prejudices.
Would it be strange for me to follow her and visit the camp at some other point? It would feel artificial, treading on ground where so many people had been killed, now billed as a tourist attraction.
I left Kraków before I got the chance to make up my mind.
6 June 2015: Soviets Erasing History
I jumped off the train from Kraków at Dworzec Centralny. On my way to the bus I looked up at the Pałac Kultury i Nauki, awash in rainbow lights.
It’s hard for me to really appreciate the building to begin with. I cannot forget its Soviet history, and given my feelings about communism’s legacy I can’t really separate my resentment from any potential architectural wonderment.
But the Soviet side of the history wasn’t the only one I thought of upon returning from Kraków. Aside from several plaques sprinkled throughout Warsaw, I wouldn’t have known that the Pałac was built on the border of what was the Warsaw Ghetto. The absence of huge memorials everywhere on my walk to the bus stop was an even starker, more harrowing reminder of what had happened.
However, the palace creates a sense of eerie comfort. The spire is a guide to the center of the city, always assuring me that I can find my way home, and always assuring me that no matter what happens to a city, at least something will be rebuilt.
7 June 2015: Wandering Aimlessly around Łódź
I didn’t know what I was doing in Łódź. What was I supposed to do once I got there? Should I just explore different monuments? What famous sites were there? Was there any point in trying to find information about my family?
I did what I normally do and just walked. Walked so I could see as much of the city my family came from as possible. And, to be honest, there wasn’t much to see. I hit Piotrkowska Street early on. It was up Piotrkowska, through Old Town, down Zachodnia to Manufaktura, somehow walking towards the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Jana Kilińskiego, back over to Piotrkowska and down towards Tymienieckiego.
And that was it. I had pretty much seen most of Łódź.
I obviously hadn’t gotten a chance to visit every museum or every tourist spot, but unlike Kraków or Warsaw, I didn’t feel like there was that much left to discover. Perhaps if I were able to find someone who knew the city well they could show me hidden treasures and undiscovered places, but as a tourist all by myself I had done all I could.
My mistake had been coming on a Sunday—nearly all of the shops that generally liven Piotrkowska were closed. However, I don’t know how much of a difference it would have made if I had come some other time. Was Łódź really a city that had run its course?
There had definitely been some bright spots in its history. I hesitate to use the word bright—perhaps culturally significant would be a better phrase. In 1905 you have the Łódź uprising against the Russian Empire, an interesting comparison to other uprising memorials, which generally occurred during the Nazi occupation. And of course, the city had a huge role in WWII, notably with the existence of the Łódź Ghetto. The city had been an industrial hub, with factories now serving as museums. But the key words are had been, and now the Łódź I was able to see was deserted.
I couldn’t help but wonder which Łódź my family had lived in. Were they in the city center, in the tenements perhaps? My parents had mentioned something about my family not being particularly wealthy, but I didn’t know if that meant relative to Poland or the US. There was even the possibility that they hadn’t been in Łódź proper, and that this was all a wild goose chase.
Maybe one of these days the city would be revitalized, I thought. My research had told me that things were starting to improve again; more investment, lower unemployment rates, more safety. Maybe one of these days I could come back and explore some more, when I had more definitive information to work with.
7 June 2014: From Łódź to Lublin, or How My Family Became Cityless
Of course, as soon as I had booked my ticket to Łódź, my father told me that our family had actually lived closer to Lublin for at least part of the war.
The list of cities kept growing. I was now at Wolin, Torun, and Lublin for other cities my family was associated with. There was even a connection with Volodymyr-Volynsky in Ukraine. In the three weeks I had left there was no way that I would be able to visit all of these places. At the same time I was getting a clearer sense of how my family had spread out over the country and how they may have ended up where they did.
After returning from Łódź I had a conversation with a friend who also spent time trying to track down family in Poland.
“Were you able to find anything? Graves? Records?” he asked.
I hadn’t gone to Łódź with the intention of doing this. I hadn’t prepared enough information, or done enough research to be able to do that. But I had also not thought that that was something that I had wanted to do. I wanted my experience in Łódź to be more about experiencing the city my grandparents had lived in, not about sitting in bureaucratic offices hoping to find out some information. Besides, I knew that there was at least one grave that I wouldn’t be able to find.
If I were actually able to find anything, how much would it be of value? The most information I would be able to get would be a birthplace or maybe a marriage. But these records wouldn’t tell me anything about what their lives might have been like. Depending on how much Łódź had changed in the past seventy years, pretending that my being there was some profound experience might also be naïve, but at least now the mystery of where my family was from had at least been somewhat answered.
7 June 2015: Redefining Home
Łódź could never be home.
As I entered my Warsaw apartment that night, I felt the overwhelming relief of being home even though I was technically over 7,000 km away. As I tossed my bag on the kitchen table, all I could hear was the quietness of Wola. Living alone in a foreign country had given me the opportunity to invent the life I wanted to live, meaning for the first time I could create my own “home”. My home in Poland didn’t have to be the same as my family’s; people move, regrow roots, make their own homes. I had done this when I moved from New York to Ann Arbor, so there was no reason I couldn’t do it now and make Warsaw my own home base, at least for the time being.
Łódź could never be home, but Warsaw might be.
13 June 2015: Lublin and What It Means to be in Eastern Poland
I would have never thought that I would end up in Lublin. Not because I had anything against the city, but rather because I never would have thought of it as one of the first cities to visit in the few weeks I would be in Poland.
My family’s potential connection sparked my interest, of course. Plus I wanted to see as much of Poland as possible before leaving in two weeks, so why not? It was only a little over two hours away by train, and I could be back by later the same night.
Lublin had been described to me as a city between west and east. The cities I had visited so far all had a distinctly Central European feel to them. Perhaps it would be the same once I got to Lublin, but I couldn’t help but wonder if being in the eastern part of the country would be different and distinct.
In a way, Lublin was the most abroad I had felt since coming to Poland. Instead of feeling like Warsaw or Kraków, it reminded me more of when I had been in China several years ago. This was a confusing comparison, even in my own head, but I figured that it had to do with how much more lively and genuine than just bouncing between tourist attractions had been.
The strongest divide between west and east is Aleja Tysiąclecia. Bordering the end of the Old Town, Lublin Castle overlooks the street, displaying a similar regal architecture as other Old Towns in different parts of the country. The museum inside the castle only enhances the experience of walking where monarchs used to, displaying art and decorative materials that could have only been used by the wealthiest people.
On the other side of the street lie an open-air market and the bus station, selling everything from cebularz to clothing items. The market has more of what I’ve imagined to be an Eastern European vibe, more hectic and urban than anything I’d experienced in Poland so far.
Something that struck me about Lublin was how multicultural it is. The Orthodox Church is located near the corner of the bus terminal. Surrounding it are testaments to the Ukrainian population of the city: the Taras Shevchenko square, a Holodomor memorial, and the church itself.
And of course, there’s the Jewish heritage. In large cities like Warsaw, a Jewish population still remains; In Lublin, this isn’t the case. Almost the entirety of the Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust, and didn’t return after the liberation of the camps at the end of World War II. Majdanek, one of the concentration and extermination camps, lies at the edge of the city.
However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still dedications to the lost Jewish community. The city has created a Jewish heritage trail for visitors to follow and learn about the history. Included in this trail are two Jewish cemeteries in the Eastern part of the city, the old and the new cemetery.
Sometimes memorials don’t need to be complex. One of the Holocaust memorials is in the side of a grassy hill just north of the new Jewish cemetery, and if you climb all the way up the hill you can’t really tell the memorial is there. It’s much more overpowering to stand in the silence of the field where there are very few people, rather than being surrounded by other tourists in a museum or other crowded area.
Thinking back to my day in Lublin, it’s hard for me to reconcile that this was all in the same place. The contrast between Old Town and the area near the Jewish cemetery is so strong that I felt as if I had left Lublin and gone to another city.
I also had to consider what my father had told me about our possible connection to Lublin instead of Łódź. There’s no way to change a family history, but in my case there’s also no way to know it for sure. Part of me thought about claiming Lublin as an adoptive ancestral homeland, because there was no way that I would necessarily be wrong in doing so. But then again, if I did that it wouldn’t be family history any longer, but just a story I invented.
I’m not sure where my family fit in more, Łódź or Lublin. In the end, they probably fit in more in Stamford, Connecticut.
16 June 2015: What Living in Poland Means to Someone from the States
I really hadn’t been sure about coming to live in Poland for eight weeks. I had been nervous about whether or not I would like Warsaw, and if not, how I would manage.
Well, if I hadn’t liked it, the solution was obvious: I would suck it up and deal with it.
Fortunately I did like Warsaw. But even if I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been indicative of whether or not I liked living in Poland. Warsaw is so vastly different from Kraków from Łódź and from Lublin.
It was like moving out to the Midwest. Before going to the University of Michigan, I had never been in the Midwest before, and all of a sudden I found myself committing to live there for at least the next four years. Even though I had grown up in the same country, Michigan was a different culture filled with extreme politeness and saying pop instead of soda.
But even if I argued with my Ann Arbor friends about the correct word for carbonated beverages (it’s soda, by the way), we were still a part of the same country. We value the idea of being united, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t different cultures. And although we celebrate our cultures and histories, all countries have their dark pasts (a fact that is abundantly clear in American society).
Poland is the same way. A common misconception in the States is that Poland is homogeneous; after World War II, the only people who remained in or returned to Poland were the Poles. Although this is true to a certain extent, Poland can be diverse in different ways. The experience in each of these cities is different because they’ve been shaped by various combinations of historical events and cultural interactions.
So Łódź may have been disappointing, but the United States also has disappointing places (trust me, if you’ve ever been on the ten hour drive from New York to Ann Arbor you know that). And even if that’s where my family is really from, that doesn’t detract from the history of Warsaw, the culture of Kraków, or the liveliness of Lublin.
Traveling for me hasn’t been all about historic sites and walking around museums. It’s been about finding various beautiful streets and lonely delapidated buildings. Maybe these aren’t the most traveled streets, but they’re still new for me. The biggest test of whether of not I’m comfortable in a place is finding a running route I’ll miss.
And, to be honest, running through Sowińskiego Park has been pretty enjoyable
Written by Alexandra Jason, Summer 2015
This article was created thanks to the Campus Project organized by Culture.pl