These stories are drawn from an excerpt from Rejwach (2017), a book of short stories by the Polish Jewish writer Mikołaj Grynberg. The excerpt, translated by Sean Gasper Bye, was featured as a Jewish Currents 2019 winter gift to subscribers, along with a conversation between Bye and Grynberg. This publication marked the first time that Grynberg’s writing has appeared in English. The stories are inspired by Grynberg’s work leading oral history workshops in towns and cities all over Poland, where he is the first living Jew some of his countrymen have ever met.
The stories are interspersed with photos taken by the author that first appeared in the Polish edition of Rejwach. According to Grynberg, any attempt to connect the pictures to the stories is “doomed to fail.”
I was properly scared to meet you in my town. What’s to say no one would recognize you? Better to keep our heads down than have somebody see us both there. Maybe somebody’s read one of those Jewish books of yours? That kind of trouble I don’t need one bit. I thought to myself, I’ll get on a train, a couple hours and I’m there, and I’m sure it’s more comfortable for you to meet locally than ride those couple hours. It’s good you agreed, I was worried you’d insist on coming with some documents or photos to look at. We’d have had to hide for sure. Just like those people in your books. I’d have been ashamed and that would have been the end of it, because how would that look—inviting a Jew to come hide.
If you want to ask me some questions, go ahead, but I’ll warn you I’ve got everything thought through already. Well, maybe not everything, but plenty. First of all, how are you going to make sure no one works out it’s me? Because I’d rather leave out my town, my name, my age, my job, and definitely how I look. Because, I mean, that’s the easiest way to recognize a person. That’s probably enough, right? I think it’s enough, and you’ve got to promise that’s exactly what you’ll do. I’m sorry to be so blunt right off the bat, but you know how it is. The kind of trouble you write about in those books of yours, I don’t need that one bit.
Speaking of which, all that is more than a normal person can imagine. You made up a few of those stories there, right? About half of them have got to be made up, which means the rest are true, right? Fine, it’s no business of mine anyhow, even without you I’ve got enough trouble of my own.
Will you tell me what it is about you, you Jews, that whatever anyone says about you, it’s never a neutral subject? I’m talking so much because I’ve got a story to tell you but I somehow can’t get started. I’d planned out just about everything on the train, but in person like this it feels totally different. Listen, what is it with you guys that you make everything so complicated? Things with me are simple, because I work where I told you, I’m as old as I said was, I’ve already described my family, and just like that everything’s clear. But not you guys! First you’ve got to deceive everybody, then frighten everybody, then shock them, and then at the very end you die and leave a great big mess. You get what I’m talking about? Maybe I’m talking in circles—I don’t want to say talking like a Jew—I’m working up to it, but I’m doing the best I can.
Luckily, I bought a two-way ticket, so I wouldn’t have too much time with you. That’s why I keep looking at my watch, not out of bad manners. Has anybody else wanted to tell you a story or am I the only one? Well, what does it matter to me, anyhow. All right, now or never! I have a lot of questions, a lot of resentment, but you’re the least guilty of anyone in all this. It’s not your fault my sister showed me your books. But it had already come up before then! Only that’s not your fault either.
Will you tell me if for you guys it works like in the jokes about Jews, that when a Jewish man dies, he summons his whole family and they stand around him, and he pronounces these words of wisdom and says something special to everyone? Because if it is, I don’t know why you joke about it! Does death amuse you? Death isn’t fun to me, especially when someone close to you dies. Someone where you’ve known her since you were born and know everything about her, because her whole life she told every one of us her stories a hundred times each. And then you find out you know a little bit, but mostly you don’t.
Our grandmother died, almost a year ago now. But before she did, she managed to tell us what you’re probably already imagining. We’re standing beside that bed of hers, the whole family. Parents, me and my sister and our little kids, and suddenly, before you know it, she’s saying she’s a Jew and she couldn’t pass away without telling us. We look at one another and can’t believe our ears, because we didn’t hardly look like Jews at all.
My sister takes me off to the side and says grandma’s not getting enough oxygen now, that’s why she’s talking like that. But grandma doesn’t give up. She starts telling our family story. About those ghettos of yours, those camps, Auschwitzes, sisters, brothers, gas and all the rest. What’s a normal person supposed to make of all that? And I’m telling you, it wasn’t like in a Jewish joke.
The next day our grandmother, a non-Jew her entire life, died. And who was left? Her Jewish daughter and her Jewish grandkids, right? Because that’s how it works with you guys, right? And what are we expected to do? We’re not even sure anybody knows about this except us and you. It wasn’t a message she passed on to us, it was fear. I came here on behalf of my family to thank you for that fear. Who was I supposed to go to, the parish priest? Your stories, you deal with them yourself. I’m going, or else I’ll miss my train.
You know how fall gets here. Rain or shine, the dog’s got to go out. I run into various unfortunates from around the world, wandering baffled through my neighborhood. They have distinguishing marks: a map of Warsaw in one hand, a map of the ghetto printed off the internet in the other. They come all year round, but fall is when I feel most sorry for them. They’re looking around, you can tell from a distance they’re helpless as babies. And I stand there with my dog and think to myself: to help or not to help? Sometimes I go up to them, though my English is so terrible I don’t really talk to them. I just give a friendly smile and say, “ken I help you?” They mainly ask for “bunker Mila” and “Rapoport,” though recently I’ve also gotten “myuzeum.” The Jewish museum is easy, the Jewish partisans’ bunker on Miła Street I also got quickly, it took me a while to work out “Rapoport” referred to the sculptor of the Ghetto memorial.
Most of them are really distrustful. I get why, but it’s hard to reach out to someone who’s being so prickly. “Bunker Mila,” all right—let’s go. I live nearer to John Paul II Avenue, so it’s about a third of a mile to the bunker on Miła Street. The conversation doesn’t flow, because I look like an adult, but one who doesn’t know how to talk. I do my best, I smile…I stay a little off to one side, a little ahead, so they feel safe. And I wonder what stories their parents or grandparents told them about us Poles. They talk amongst themselves in various languages, usually Hebrew or English.
Normally I take a straight path to the bunker, but if there are any excavations going on, I change my route, I avoid them, because I’m afraid of what they might see there. This I learned with some young people, from Israel I think. We’re walking, smiling warmly, gorgeous weather because it’s summer, then they stop all of a sudden and peer into this pit. I’m standing a little farther off, but even from there I know what they’ve seen. They turn to me and ask, “hyuman bons?” And I mean, what am I supposed to tell them? I nod sadly. They’ve worked it out it anyway, they’re only looking for confirmation. They’re standing there, the two of them, tears flowing down their cheeks, and I don’t know what to do with myself. If I knew how, I’d work up the courage to say I cry over those bones too. I’d give them a hug, and maybe they’d even return the embrace.
I prefer older tourists, they’re nicer, more open, I talk to them more as we walk that third of a mile. A lot of the time young people treat me like I’m trying to get money out of them. I swallow these silent insults. I know by the corner of Miła and Dubois they’ll want to get rid of me, but a few try to pay me. I can cope with that. The worst is when they’re thanking me and they say, “you ar a gud Pol.” I can’t even explain how much that hurts me. If they knew that for years I’ve been collecting all the bones sticking out of the ground and looking for a fitting place for them, then maybe they’d say I’m a “very gud Pol.”
I used to inform the city, I would ask them to make sure the bones got buried. Then I would call around to various Jewish organizations. I was looking for a contact to the Jewish Community. But I realized that for religious reasons the rabbis would fight to halt the construction and I got scared of how the locals would react. Now I don’t call anyone. I come at night and gather up the bones in plastic bags. At first, I used to take them to the Jewish cemetery and quietly bury them right beside the wall. But someone might have thought I was digging something up, not burying it. Recently, I’ve found a perfect place for them. I hope their souls will finally find eternal rest there.
I bury them at night on a slope by the Arkadia mall. I walk home with my dog, believing I’ve done good.
AN ELEGANT PURSE
I used to keep leaving, now I can’t stop coming back.
I thought everyone fought with their mothers, so I didn’t worry about it too much. We fought ferociously and in silence, mother and daughter. There were no explosions, just the sort of hiss of a lit fuse. Obviously, a hiss leads to an explosion and it’s something to be afraid of. How many times could it hiss without exploding? I figured Mom could hiss without me, so I ran away to the edge of Europe. I’d finished my first year of studying something or other, which I wasn’t enjoying anyway. Leaving was the christening of my adulthood. I was working, paying for a room, cultivating dreadlocks and also a notebook full of resentments toward the entire world.
A year later, I returned for the funeral of a distant cousin on my father’s side. I didn’t stick around long. I made it back to the edge of Europe before that familiar hiss had the chance to start up again. All in all, I could count that as a successful trip.
In my new place, I started studying something much more interesting, and I traded my room for a student apartment. I grew my dreads out and kept writing to my mom. I could feel how important we were to one another, but doing it on paper kept us safe from non-explosions.
I went back for the second time a few years later, unexpectedly. Dad got sick. I dropped out of my last semester of college. While we were burying Dad, I asked if we could go visit Mom’s family grave. I’d never been there but I knew it existed because I’d heard her mention it to Dad. We didn’t go. Mom was hissing again.
I went back home. Now I had my own life, a boyfriend, a shared apartment and a new citizenship. I stopped writing to Mom. We kept email and Skype on hand in case of anything unanticipated. I graduated, got married, had a daughter. I cut off my dreads and moved into my own apartment. I wrote to Mom that I was an adult and I wanted to be treated like one. Mom wrote back three weeks later saying she was inviting me home. I left my daughter with my husband and I came. We’d both missed each other a lot.
I demanded we go together to Mom’s family grave. Mom stopped talking to me. I didn’t set eyes on the grave. I changed my ticket and went back to my family early.
It took another few years for Mom to make up her mind to get in touch. I’d really been hoping she would, though in my heart of hearts I didn’t believe anything good would come of it. She wanted to see her granddaughter. I said on one condition: You show me your family and I’ll show you mine. She said she had another year until she retired and she couldn’t do it until then. I didn’t understand why the grave was dependent on her retirement. I flew over. I stayed with a friend. I asked Mom to meet. In a coffee shop.
I treated it as our last chance. I was tough, cold, and standoffish. I thought I was in the right. Mom’s eyes were swollen, her makeup was smudged a little, and she had an elegant purse, her good luck charm. She brought it whenever she was meeting someone important and apparently it never failed her. We were sitting at a café table that held two cups of tea and a sugar bowl; above them, I locked my eyes on Mom and she couldn’t withstand my gaze. I kept saying: contact with her granddaughter in exchange for the family grave. Tears ran down Mom’s cheeks and finally messed up all her makeup. She begged me to wait a year. I didn’t give an inch. A long silence fell. I had the feeling I was finally winning and Mom was giving in. She got up and went to the bathroom. She came back with her face washed and red. She put money for the tea on the table, took me by the hand and we left. She told me to hail a cab. She got in and said: the corner of Anielewicz and Okopowa. The whole way, she didn’t say a word, just cried. I didn’t know where we were going. We held each other’s hands but I didn’t let her hug me. We got out of the taxi and in ten steps we found ourselves at the gate of the Jewish cemetery. Mom took a tissue out of her lucky purse and wiped her face thoroughly. Again, she took me by the hand and, looking every which way, grasped the handle on the metal gate.
We passed a little building and turned right. Mom was walking faster than usual, though every now and again she lost her way. After a few minutes, we found ourselves standing at something like an obelisk with a lot of different names on it. I asked what we were doing there. Mom said this was the grave I wanted to see so badly. But Mom, it doesn’t have your maiden name on it. It’s there, but it got changed when I was little. It expired.
I was finally standing at my grandparents’ grave. Before it dawned on me that my mother was Jewish, I heard her say I was too. Mom, why did you want to wait until you retired to do this? Once you’re retired then you’re safe, my girl. They won’t throw you out of your job, they won’t take away your benefits. There’s no more risk. Did Dad know? He didn’t ask, and whenever I started talking about it myself, he’d wait for me to finish and never bring it up again.
After getting back to my new country I went to a rabbi to find out when my daughter’s name day was. It turns out there’s no such thing as a Jewish name day. I’m learning how to be a daughter all over again. My mom doesn’t hiss anymore.
Mikołaj Grynberg is a photographer and writer with a background in psychology. His photographs have been exhibited worldwide. He is the author of the photo books Many Women (2009) and Auschwitz—What Am I Doing Here? (2010); the documentary books Survivors of the 20th Century (2012), I Accuse Auschwitz: Family Stories (2014), and The Book of Exodus (2018); and the short story collection Rejwach (2017). His work focuses on the experiences of Polish Jews in the 20th century, explored through dialogue.
Sean Gasper Bye has translated works by Polish authors such as Lidia Ostałowska, Filip Springer, Szczepan Twardoch, and Małgorzata Szejnert. His shorter translations of fiction, reportage, and drama have appeared in Words Without Borders, Catapult, Continents, and elsewhere. He is a 2016 Asymptote Close Approximations prizewinner and a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts translation fellow. From 2014 to 2019 he was Literature and Humanities Curator at the Polish Cultural Institute New York.