A few times a year throughout my childhood, my mother and I hauled a tan suitcase from the spare room. She would pop open the single working hinge and fish out stacks of sepia-toned photographs and frayed papers—curfew extensions, identity cards, immigration forms. We’d sort through the haphazard piles and decaying photo albums.
The suitcase held the remaining tangible links to my grandparents’ prewar lives and a slightly more robust postwar collection. We tried to decipher the old-fashioned, loopy scrawl that explained each picture. In them, she, a chic, blond-bobbed woman with a square face and wide smile, and he, a dapper and slightly older man, stared up at us. Holding these tangible relics, the past felt closer.
At the outbreak of World War II, my grandparents were forced from their homes in Poland and into labor and concentration camps. On nights the suitcase came out, we’d watch videos of my jovial grandpa remembering the miles of frozen marches and how he won my grandmother’s affection in the displaced persons camp after the war by scraping together ingredients to bake her a cake. Soon after, they married, got visas for Cuba, and jumped ship in New York City while en route.
Sabina, my grandmother, died long before I was born, and Carl, my grandfather, passed away when I was five, but I knew their stories by heart. Like the one when my grandmother’s parents and brother survived the war only to return to the rural village where they’d stored their belongings and be murdered by its postwar inhabitants.
“Never forget” wasn’t just a phrase for my family; it was a mantra.
But it was also a challenge: How could we remember what we never experienced? After years of dragging out the old suitcase, the pictures became two-dimensional, the stories took on a folkloric quality, and the pages of correspondence we’d exchanged with surviving relatives failed to satiate our curiosity.
My mom and I decided to set out for our ancestral land. Though my grandfather swore he’d never return to Poland, we felt drawn to fill in the backdrop for our family history. I thought of it as time travel—I imagined Poland was a country of ghosts, a crowd of bearded men walking down cobblestoned streets and hastily evacuated shtetls. A country stuck in the loop of 1939.
But the Krakow we encountered, with its soaring castle- and café-lined medieval squares, was nothing like that. Virtually unscathed by the invading Germans, it had the charm of a young, modern city set amid the mystique of an ancient one. On a warm July day, my mom and I landed armed with a jumble of addresses pulled from the sharp memory of an elderly cousin of my grandmother’s, and began a scavenger hunt in search of my grandparents’ past. Bursting with Jewish tours, museums, and shops, the city catered to tourists like us—pilgrims unearthing their heritage.
Krakow was a treasure trove of Jewish history and ephemera. Antique shops were stuffed with war-era newspapers, magazines, and boxes of unclaimed family photographs. A sprawling suburban flea market peddled oxidized menorahs and ashtrays decorated with Hitler’s face. The Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, had hosted the city’s Jewish population for nearly half a millennium, but fallen into disrepair after World War II, when its inhabitants were moved into the outlying ghetto before being shipped to concentration camps.
In the 1990s, after an onslaught of attention following the release of Schindler’s List, which was filmed in the district, the Kazimierz underwent a face-lift, with a focus on Jewish heritage. Now, thousands stream in for the annual Jewish Cultural Festival each summer; school groups and brigades of Israeli soldiers tour the historic synagogues; tourists dine at traditional Jewish eateries; and patrons browse Judaica Krakow’s bookstores and museum exhibits.
On a corner in the center of the city’s Old Town, we found the storefront site of the seasonally rotating ice cream parlor cum fur shop my great-grandparents, Fela and Moses, owned. Crossing a bridge into what once was the ghetto, we photographed a music school that now occupied the building my grandmother, her parents, aunt, and cousins were moved to in March 1941. As Jews were sent into ghettos, my blond-haired and blue-eyed grandmother was hidden for a time outside the city by a brave Christian Pole of noble descent, but she eventually returned to Krakow. He was later caught and badly beaten for this attempt to save a Jew. Two years later, Sabina and her aunt were taken to Plaszow, the camp outside Krakow. They’d spend two months after that in Auschwitz, where, upon arrival, Sabina’s aunt was given an orange ball gown to wear and Sabina was dressed in the fabric from an umbrella. They found this so hysterically grotesque, my grandmother later told a cousin, that they laughed until they cried. Their last wartime stop was Bergen-Belsen, where my grandmother and her aunt were when Allied forces arrived in 1945 to liberate the camp.
It was in the displaced persons camp of Bergen-Belsen where she and my grandfather met and were married, in a group wedding of 48 couples on the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer. More than a year after being freed, the new couple and her relatives set out for Cuba, hopping off in New York under the care of a distant cousin and promise of “less-than-two-month” stay, according to her nonimmigrant visa. Her nationality at the time is listed as “without.” In the interim, they’d started collecting the photos that now fill our fraying suitcase: David Ben-Gurion speaking to a large rally at Bergen-Belsen, a wedding day pose with my grandmother’s family, a blurry shot of the Statue of Liberty as their ship passed by.
Krakow was a beautiful city to wander through, but our aim was to see my grandmother’s family’s prewar apartment, the childhood home of a woman I knew only through photographs and who remained a faint memory to my mother, who was only 10 when Sabina died at the age of 37. Rising from the middle of Krakow, Wawel Royal Castle, a Polish renaissance complex, keeps a watchful eye on its city, and it was in the high-class streets surrounding it that we knew my grandmother grew up.
Our quest was shorted by a false start: a tour of 28 Podzamcze, a gift shop on a corner across from the castle. My mother let loose an uncontrollable stream of tears while the flabbergasted salesgirl tried in vain to find signs that the small space had once been an apartment. Unsuccessful, my mom plucked a small babushka magnet off a wall as a souvenir. Next to the row of colorful doll mementos was a selection of small magnetic Jews with black hats, curled payot and massive coins clutched in their hands.
We walked out disappointed in a lack of connection and wondering if we had the wrong address. But before we could right it, we were off for a day to Auschwitz, a bleak tour of the war’s most notorious death factory. From there, we hopped a train west to Bedzin, my grandfather’s hometown.
We found ourselves in a train compartment with no English speakers and little clue to where we were headed. A sign language conversation with a roving conductor signaled we should disembark at what was, we realized too late, a graffiti-covered old train station miles from Bedzin’s city lights we saw glittering against the sunset on the horizon. So, we set off on foot, walking for an hour past decrepit Soviet-style row houses without a sign of life.
Excerpt from JOURNEYS HOME (National Geographic Books; ISBN 978-1-4262-1381-6; hardcover $26) debuts on Feb 3, 2015.