A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY By - Emanuel Tanay, M.D.
Sixty years ago I was liberated from the Nazi Germany's captivity. My mother, little sister and I survived the Holocaust in our native Poland by pretending to be Christians. In 1943 we escaped from occupied Poland to Slovakia and from there to Hungary . We were liberated in January 1945 in Budapest .
After we gained our freedom we wanted to return to Poland at once. Mother was hoping to find her beloved husband and we children were convinced that our resourceful father would be among the survivors in Poland . Mother expected to resume work as a physician in Poland .
In January 1945, the war was still going on. Not far from Budapest , the fighting was intense. It was too dangerous for Mother and my 10 year old sister Olga to travel under wartime conditions. I decided to go back home to Poland by myself. I was not quite 17 and a veteran of clandestine operations. I outwitted Germans in Poland , Slovakia , Hungary and Yugoslavia . “I will have no trouble to handle the Soviets” I told mother with a confidence of a wartime youth.
One cold morning in February 1945 I left Budapest . There was no civilian transportation. I set out on foot with a small backpack in which I carried food for the uncertain pilgrimage. I also had a few silk stockings and cigarettes that served as currency. European paper money was worthless at that time.
Mother tried to dissuade from going so soon. Shortly after I left Budapest , I was sitting by the roadside hoping to get a lift from the occasional Russian trucks. It was bitter cold. I was trying to bite the frozen bread and broke my front tooth. I took this as a bad omen for my trip. The hope that a Soviet military vehicle might give me a ride did not materialize. They did not stop for civilians. Getting on the roof of a freight train was the only alternative to walking.
I walked to the railroad station in Budapest in the hope of getting on a military train going north. To find out where a particular train was going was not easy. Once I found out the destination, getting on the train was another challenge. The trains were guarded by Soviet military police. I managed to get on the roof of a freight railroad car and lie flat for hours before the train began to move. I was hoping that my information was correct that the train was going to Bratislava , which was east of Budapest , but at least in Czechoslovakia . Once the train left the station, I sat up, holding on to a protrusion, fearful that I would fall asleep.
In Bratislava I met a Jew I knew from Budapest . He told me about a house in the middle of the city where liberated Jews gathered. I stayed there overnight, sleeping on the floor. The building had empty rooms and blankets on the floor. There was no working toilet and no running water. The only place to urinate or defecate was on the floor in the attic. Many of the men and women liberated from concentration camps suffered from dysentery and had to make many trips to the attic. The post-liberation lot of the survivors was not a very rosy one. Scrounging for food was another disagreeable task.
It was a long ordeal before I reached the Polish border. The train stopped in the middle of nowhere. I was glad to be back on Polish soil. A nearby village was visible on the horizon. It was risky to leave the train but I wanted to visit my first Polish community and I was hungry. As I walked towards the village I passed an elderly woman who smiled strangely and kept looking back after I passed her. It was obvious she wanted to tell me something. I turned back and caught up with her. “Pan jest Zydek?” (“You are a Jew?”) She asked. When I told her that I was, she suggested that I should not go to the village but was unwilling to give the reason for her advice. I realized that I would be in danger and returned to the freight train. I assumed that this was a Ukrainian village full of anti-Semitic people. It did not occur to me that I would be harmed in a Polish village after the war.
Once on the roof of the freight car a man sitting next to me started talking in a friendly manner. In the middle of the conversation he inserted a phrase “am who”. I had never heard it before but somehow understood that he was telling me that he was a Jew and wanted to know if I was one also. When he got his confirmation, he began to whisper to me that Poles killed returning Jews. I listened but could not believe what I was told.
After nearly a week on the road, I arrived in Krakow . I knew that father had been in Plaszow concentration camp and somewhere I heard the rumor that the Jews from Plaszow were sent to Mauthausen concentration camp. Whenever I ran into a “Katzetnik” (former concentration camp inmate) I would ask if he was in Mauthausen and if he had seen my father there. No one did. In Krakow there was a Jewish committee organized by the few survivors. They had a board that contained notices from survivors seeking relatives. I posted a message for my father. I looked for a message from him.
A few days later I made my way to Miechow, the place of happy childhood memories. I felt like a stranger in my hometown. Everything looked different. I did not know the people and they did not know me. I wandered about Miechow with a broken heart. The same street corners where we played as children were empty and dingy. People gave me suspicious and mean looks. I was struck by the absence of any traces of the Jews; thousands of them lived in this town for hundreds of years.
My purpose in coming to Miechow was to find my father and friends who might have survived. The first Jew I met was Mr. Polsky. He had no information for me about my father.
I also looked for Polish friends with whom my parents left some of our possessions. As I walked from one to house to another, I was met with varying degrees of hostility. I remember one lawyer who was awakened by his wife when I came in the morning. I recognized that he was wearing my father's silk pajamas and had slept in our custom made bedding. He told me firmly that he knew nothing about my father and that my parents left nothing with him. A doctor with whom my parents left various valuables for safekeeping gave me the same treatment. Not one did offer me a glass of water. Walking with a sense of gloom in the streets of my hometown, I met the mother of Dzidzia, my Polish childhood sweetheart.
Mrs. Wroblewska was cordial but concerned with my safety. She insisted that I not stay overnight in Miechow. I was not persuaded that I was in danger after the war but she told me, “They will kill you because you are a Jew”. She was serious and troubled by what she was telling me. She recounted incidents of survivors being killed by Jew hating Poles. She told me about recent killings of Jews in nearby Dzialoszyce. “I thought you could become my son-in-law,” she added laughingly trying to change the subject.
Some Poles now lived in our house and I was told by Mrs. Wroblewska that it was dangerous for me to visit it. I walked into the hallway without identifying myself and established that the initials “E.T.” were still on the door that separated the upstairs from the downstairs. I had carved those initials with a knife that I received for my tenth birthday. In my mind, the house on Pilsudski Street was still “our home”. At that point in my life I had not read Tom Wolfe and did not understand that you can't go home again particularly if you are a Polish Jew.
How strange, the war had ended, Nazi Germany was defeated, but I was still at risk of being killed by my neighbors. As I walked the familiar but unfriendly streets, I looked over my shoulders. I was in jeopardy but I felt more anger than fear. I accepted being hounded by the Germans for they were my sworn enemies. I expected to be safe in liberated Poland and welcomed in my native land.
We had taken it for granted that if we survived, we would return to our home in Miechow. The Germans could chase us out of our house but they could not take our home from us. We believed that whatever the Germans did, even though real, was illegitimate and would be undone at the end of the war. After the war, life would become normal like it was before the war. ”They will kill you because you are a Jew”, these words overshadowed the joy of survival. Mrs. Wroblewska might as well have said, “I pronounce you a man without a country.” Poland disowned me once again and this time it was final for me.
It was perplexing, even bizarre, that after the war it was not safe for me to remain overnight in my hometown. This is one of the most painful Holocaust related memories that I have. The anonymous “they” were frightening and reprehensible. I endured physical torture, I experienced life-threatening situations, but this was different. I did not expect it; I was not ready for it.
I soon discovered that it was unsafe to be suspected to be a Jew on a train. “MORDERSTWA POCIAGOWE” (Train murders) became part of the new vocabulary of the returning Jews. Groups of Poles searched for Jews on the trains and killed them. These murders created no news and remain little known to this day. I have never seen any reference to these killings in the literature. I will never forget hearing on a train a man declare that Hitler deserves a monument (the Polish word “ POM NIK” is more evocative) for getting rid of the Jews.
The 18th century English writer William Hazlitt said:
“ Those who wish to forget painful thoughts do well to absent themselves for a while from the ties and objects that recall them; but we can be said only to fulfill our destiny in the place that gave us birth .”
The place that “gave me birth” was ready to give me death as my “destiny”. I went back to being Jan Wojcik instead of Emanuel Tenenwurzel. I was not about to let the Poles kill me after I deprived the Germans of this pleasure. Once again I used the German issued Kennkarte (identity card) in the name of Jan Wojcik. This document helped me to escape the German efforts to make Poland “ Judenrein” (Jew clean) now it protected me from the Polish efforts to finish the job. I returned to Poland from Budapest few more times hoping to find my father always as Jan Wojcik.
The pre-war anti-Semitism was a way of life that all of us accepted as the fate of the Jews in the Diaspora. The wartime anti-Semitism was shameful but these were dreadful times. The Jewish community in spring of 1945 consisted of small number of survivors of death camps and those who managed to stay alive on Aryan papers. These were people whose condition cried out for compassion instead we faced murderous hostility.
Years later I read that Primo Levi arrived in his hometown as I did. As he entered the house he was welcomed by a celebratory chant of the concierge, “Ill Dottore!” His mother and family welcomed him. That night, he slept in the room in which he was born. His friends came to greet him. He suffered 20 months of terrible experiences in the concentration camp, but he, unlike a Polish Jew, did not fear for his life after the war. He had a hometown, his house was his house and he was in his country.
Forty-two years after my first visit, in November of 1987, I returned one more time to Poland . I was invited to give lectures to the Polish Institute of Neurology and Psychiatry in Warsaw . I was the guest of Polish Ministry of Health. As soon as I landed a voice on a loudspeaker announced “Professor Tanay please report to the special window.” I was given VIP treatment and whisked through customs. The director of the Polish Institute of Neurology and Psychiatry and my host, Professor Dombrowski, had a uniformed chauffeur from the ministry of health greet me. Few days later I once again I visited “my hometown”.
I asked the driver to park in the Town Square and I walked slowly towards the house. It was a drizzly November morning. I could see the lights in the upstairs windows where the bedrooms and my parents' offices were. The large distinctive balcony was still there but the flower boxes were gone. When I came closer, I noticed a large sign on the house that read “ School of Agriculture ”.
I entered the hallway, a woman in her thirties inquired if she could help me. She was in charge of the school. I said that I had lived in this house many years ago and merely wanted to look around. She responded in a huffy a manner, “I know nothing about that. All I know is we purchased this building from the previous owners and made it into a school.” At this point, I saw that the door with the initials “E.T.” had been removed and I realized, that this house was no longer my home. I wished the lady a good day and walked away.
Strangely enough, I was neither bitter nor angry. I was somber but not emotional. In 1945 I cried bitterly when I was unable to enter my home openly. In 1987, I had accepted the reality that my home was in Grosse Pointe , Michigan . I was an American and a Jew who was born in Poland . The house on Pilsudski Street 23 in Miechow is merely a symbol of the past. Robert Frost was right when he said, “Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to let you in.” There was no place in Poland where they had to let me in. .
In 1999 I went to Italy with a group from University of Michigan . We visited Pompeii . Our guide, an enthusiastic Italian art historian, made the ruins come alive. The archaeological work began in 1709 and continues to the present time. It was amazing to see the ancient structures so well preserved. The lecturer described the famous painting called “Last Days of Pompeii” but my thoughts wandered to my “hometown”.
The 2,000 citizens of Pompeii killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 2000 years ago are well remembered. The 4,000 Jews of Miechow are forgotten; they are submerged in the impersonal collective 6,000,000. The last days of Jewish Miechow are preserved only in the memory of the few survivors.
“Immigration is a desperate move, it should be avoided if at all possible,” I told a Polish born Swedish professor of literature visiting Detroit in 1990ties.
“But you chose to immigrate to America ,” she protested.
“I am different, I am a man without a country,” was my reply.
Professor Danuta Fjellestad looked at me and said: “I understand.” She realized that I was a Polish Jew without my telling her that she was mistaken in assuming that I was a Pole. We met by chance in Detroit when I visited the home of my Polish friend Professor of English Literature at Oakland University Kasia Kietlinska. Professor Fjellestad immigrated to Sweden after World War II. She married a Swede. Poland was her country, Sweden was the land where she chose to live and work.
Poland ceased to exist as my country in February of 1945. The words of concern spoken by Mrs. Wroblewska in 1945 “They will kill you because you are a Jew” changed my bond to my native land. I lost the illusion that Poland was my country. It happened before when I was a little boy. The teacher asked the class if anyone knew a poem. With the eagerness of a 7-year old boy trying to please the teacher, I recited a popular verse that began with “I am a little Pole and the white Eagle is my sign”. My Polish classmates reacted with hilarity; the Jewish children were self-consciously silent. The teacher was puzzled and I was devastated. Everyone but me knew that it was ridiculous for a “Zyd” (a Jew) to say, “Ja jestem Polak maly (I am a little Pole)”.
To this day there are Jews in Poland who hold on to the illusion that Poland is their Fatherland. Their predicament came into focus for me when I read the book by Agata Tuszynska “LOST LANDSCAPES”, subtitled “In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland”.
“I was late for his death,” is the first sentence of the biographical reflections of a young Polish author writing about the old Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Miss Tuszynska was not only too late for the death of Singer, she was too late for the death of Polish-Jewish culture and it is too late for her to acquire a Jewish sense of identity. Tuszynska unlike me is neither a Pole nor a Jew, her mother denied her Jewish identity for many years after the war as did many Jews who chose to stay in Poland .
Tuszynska tells her readers that she did not know “of Singer's existence until that moment in 1978 when he received a Nobel Prize in literature. I didn't know any Jews, or at least I thought I didn't.” Her mother kept the dreadful secret well.
She did not know if she did know some Jews because as late as 1968 most of the Jews who remained in Poland concealed their identity. Tuszynska did not know of her own Jewish background . Tuszynska celebrates Singer as the chronicler of the destroyed Polish-Jewish culture. She does it with affection, creativity and skill. She noted that Singer lived longer in New York than in Poland and believes that “he never really made the move to America . He wore the past like an overcoat, whatever the season. His permanent address remained in Poland .”
Ms. Tuszynska knows a great deal about Singer but she is mistaken about Singer's real address. Yitskhek Bashyevis Zinger (his name in Poland ) , and Singer never had a home in Poland merely a residence. Singer was an American writer writing in Yiddish about Jewish culture in Poland . Singer moved from Warsaw to New York , body and soul. Tuszynska unlike Singer has one foot in Warsaw and the other in New York . The subtitle of her book, “In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland ” tells her story.
Singer, like most Jews, was a stranger in Polish culture. Ms. Tuszynska was searching for her own identity, she is a newcomer to Jewish culture. Singer never lost his identity. Tuszynska discovered through Singer that she was a stranger in her own past. Thanks to Singer, she knows that on Zabia Street in Warsaw one could find the Jewish hatters and that on Franciszkanska Street were dealers in leather goods, textiles, rare books and pens. She learned a great deal from Singer about Jewish prayers, the Holocaust, and Polish anti-Semitism.
Exploring Singer's roots in Poland , Tuszynska discovered that she was a stranger in Poland . Leopold Wardak; a Pole she met on a train introduced her, in his words, to the “Big Lie” of Polish anti-Semitism. Polish anti-Semitism was merely a reaction to Jewish communism she was told. Mr. Wardak offered additional insight:
“Before the war there was no anti-Semitism, only some minor harassment. In my opinion, it's a matter of different personalities. A Jew liked to cheat, to trade; he didn't go out with Poles to drink vodka; he followed his own path. They didn't mingle with Poles. They were separate. Our young men harassed them. For example, combating Jews was part of National Unity Camp's program. ‘Don't buy from a Jew.' They set up picket lines in front of their stores. On the other hand, the Occupation was a planned tragedy. Dozens of Jews were shot in front of our eyes.”
The criteria for “No Anti-Semitism” of Mr. Wardak would be bizarre for an American, but were widespread in Poland . “There was no anti-Semitism” is a collective delusion held by many Poles that they maintain in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Tuszynska found another informant in the hometown of Singer - Mr. Stefan Modzelewski, who told her that Jews and Poles got along just fine:
“They leased orchards in the country. Trade was in their hands for the most part. They were very frugal. Sure, they cheated, but that wasn't why they controlled trade. The Jews had their own wholesaler from whom Jewish shopkeepers got a discount, more than the Pole got. That's why the Poles couldn't compete with them. A Jew always sold for less because he paid less at the wholesaler. That's why the slogan ‘Don't buy from a Jew' was designed to help Poles.”
In his view and many others anti-Semitic actions were self-defense; the Poles were victimized by the Jewish lack of fairness. Others told Tuszynska of the looting of Jewish stores by Poles when the Germans occupied Poland . She found out that Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and that the word “Jew” was an insult. She was informed, “they (the Jews) started communism everywhere, only not in their own country, not in Israel . They were communists everywhere, only not in their own country. No doubt if Hitler had taken a different position toward them, they would have served Hitler too.”
Tuszynska needed Singer to discover what it was like to be a Jew living in Poland . Most Poles hated Jews with the self-righteousness of true believers. They hated us because we were Christ killers. They hated us because we were shopkeepers, because we were professionals, because we were communists and because we were capitalists. They hated us because we were poor disease spreading peddlers and rich merchants and bankers who dominated Poland 's commerce.
In reality they hated us because of the misery life has heaped upon them. We were not the cause of their suffering; we were scapegoats for their misplaced rage. They did not see us as fellow sufferers, but as the cause of their wretchedness. If we were eliminated, Poland , known as “the sick man of Europe ”, would become a healthy country was the underlying notion.
Tuszynska lets the Poles speak their mind. That is what Claude Lanzmann, did many years before in his epic, nine-and-one-half hour long documentary, Shoa. He presented Poles with a cinematic self-portrait and they despised him for it. Tuszynska did the same on paper.
Tuszynska discovered that even reading Singer's books was offensive to some Poles she writes:
“During my trip back to Warsaw from Lublin , a young man on the train chews me out for reading a book by that disgusting Jew Singer. Don't we have enough real Polish writers?” he asked”
We are not told if Ms. Tuszynska informed her train companion that the “ disgusting Jew Singer” was the recipient of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Tuszynska believes that Singer left Poland on April 19, 1935 influenced by the “dark specter of Nazism” that was hanging over Europe . She is mistaken about that. In 1935, Polish Jews were concerned with anti-Semitism in Poland . Germany , so close geographically, was far removed from the daily life of Polish Jews.
The discovery of past and present hatred of the Jews in Poland created an identity crisis for Agata Tuszynska a Polish writer with Jewish ancestors. Tuszynska told her readers that she discovered Singer “ in 1978 when he received the Nobel Prize in literature”. Had she been in Stockholm on December 8, 1978 she would have heard him say:
“Children don't read to find their identity. They don't read to free themselves of guilt, to quench thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.”
Lost Landscapes, the title of her book could have been called Lost Identities . Landscapes can be visited, but neither reading nor writing can create identity.
On March 26, 1998 I attended a lecture Ms. Tuszynska gave at the University of Michigan . After the address Ms. Tuszynska and our mutual friend Kasia Kietlinska, sat down for an extended discussion. Agata and Kasia have very similar history. Agata's mother was Jewish and her father was a well known Polish sports journalist. Kasia's father was Jewish and her mother was a Polish political activist. Both women discovered only as adults their Jewish “blood”. In Poland decades after World War II parents protected their children from being stigmatized by Jewish heritage.
In 2005 Ms. Tuszynska published in Poland a book entitled “Rodzinna Historia Leku” (Family History of Anxiety). She writes:
“This book was in me for many years. Just like this secret. From the moment when I found out that I am not who I thought I am. From the moment when my mother decided to tell me that she is a Jew.”
What we called during the war as”living on false papers” has been called in English literature “passing”. In Victorian literature passing was presented as an affectation, an effort to be something one was not and therefore it was viewed with disdain. In a civilized society only criminals have realistic reasons for “passing” to escape arrest by police. To hide my identity during the Holocaust from the Germans and Poles was a badge of honor. To conceal my Jewish identity from Poles after the war would violate my self-respect. I chose to leave Poland in 1945. The only country accessible to Polish Jews in 1945 was Germany where I lived until end of1951.
After Nazi Germany was defeated we expected, if not a hero's welcome, at least a friendly reception in our native land. Instead the Jews were greeted with hostility and violence. Ironically Western Germany was the only place where liberated Jews could feel free and safe in the years after liberation. I lived in Germany from1945 till December 1951. I stayed in youth hostels when climbing the Alps in summer or skiing in winter. I stood in lines with Germans waiting for ski lifts and sat in crowded lecture halls with them at the university. I was taught and examined by German professors, and German doctors treated me when I became ill.
As the Secretary General of the Jewish Student Organization, I negotiated with German officials. I traveled extensively and frequently throughout Germany . I roamed about the country without any concern for my safety. I was never met with any hostility.
For a Polish Jew who was accustomed to pervasive ant-Semitism, this was striking. I remember German inhumanity during the Holocaust, but I have not forgotten German orderliness, politeness and considerate behavior in relation to the survivors after the war. They were barbarians in “ Eastern Territories ” during the war and good neighbors after the war. They were cruel in victory and decent in defeat; Dr. Jekylls as occupiers and Mr. Hydes when occupied. The German war behavior was horrendous during the war but they showed repentance in words and deeds after the war. Germany has undergone a dramatic transformation in political structure and national spirit. They have repudiated their past and reached out to the victims of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless I left Germany as soon as it became possible.
Poland is not my motherland or fatherland however it is more to me than “country of origin”, it is my native land. I agree with EURIPIDES who said in Medea:
There is no sorrow above
The loss of native land .
To understand the love for a country, one should analyze romantic love. To understand romantic love, one has to study the love of a child for a mother, the prototype of all love . A mother is the source of life; therefore even bad mothers are loved.
The wastelands of the Sahara Desert and the green hills of Ireland nurture its children and are loved as a homeland. I love Poland because I am from Poland , because Polish is my native language, because Poland nurtured me when I was growing up. The Poland of my childhood, unlike my mother, tormented me, and disowned me. The Poland of my adolescence tried to kill me. The Poland of my adult life was indifferent to my suffering. In my old age, Poland treats me with well and I welcome it.
I am attached to Poland but I remember the wrongs done by Poles to my people and me. I have a nostalgic feeling for Poland even though I know that I am more an American than I could ever be a Pole. My continued attachment to Poland is similar to Isaiah Berlin 's connection to Russia . He and I share some biographical similarities. He was born in Riga , which was then part of Czarist Russia and now is capital of Latvia . I was born in Wilno, which was Poland at the time of my birth. It is called Vilnius now and is the capital of Lithuania . He escaped Russian persecution of the Jews, became an Englishman with roots in Russian culture. I escaped Polish persecution of the Jews and became an American with roots in Polish culture.
In July 2005 I will go to Poland as a Scholar in Residence of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. I will be the resource person to graduate students seeking a degree in Holocaust Studies. This time unlike sixty years ago my life will not be in danger in my native land.