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A reporter describes her journey back to her native Poland to uncover the true story of her mother's childhood and the Polish family that had saved her during the Holocaust, revealing a decades-old land dispute linked to a promise to hide the Jewish child in exchange for possession of their house. 50,000 first printing.
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Erin Einhorn is a reporter for the New York Daily News where she's covered New York City's government and the nation's largest public school system. She has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Fortune. A contributor to public radio's This American Life, Einhorn and her story were the basis for one of the show's most popular episodes. She lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Months later, wrestling the personal and historical demons my search had set free, I would look back on the first six weeks I lived in Krakow -- lovely weeks spent strolling the square -- and wonder if I had known something then, if a part of me had seen the future and divined the grief about to visit my family. I would look back on entire days devoted to "cultural reconnaissance" and wonder if I wasn't just savoring a last dance before an end to the party. It seemed easier at the time to attribute the delay in my search to something cosmic, to believe it served some purpose beyond the drag of my own fear. But if I had been honest with myself, if I had allowed even a hint of self-awareness, I would have had to acknowledge that those cheerful spring days were little more than creative diversions. Because as bold as I pretended to be, and as brave as I was to have made it that far, I recognize now that I was just afraid to continue. It was one thing to concoct an adventure, to boast to friends that I would locate the family who saved my mother from the Nazis. It was entirely another to begin that adventure -- born, as it was, of a lifelong dream -- and expose it to the looming possibility of failure.
It's not that I didn't know where to begin. I knew that if I boarded a train in Krakow and rode it two hours to the west, I could arrive in a city where I could switch to a bus that would take me to a town where I could wander around in search of the house that my family used to own. I knew that if I found the house, I could approach the people who lived in it and ask them, after all these years, if they could direct me to the people who had made my life possible. It was in that house, in the small city of Bdzin, Poland, where, in 1945, after his liberation from Auschwitz but before his departure from the country, my grandfather last saw the family who had saved his daughter. And so it would be to that house that I would return to find them again. But half a century had passed with our families on opposite sides of an ocean, and if these people were alive at all, I feared they had moved, disappeared without a forwarding address. And then what would I do? I worried that I'd never find them, that I'd be forced to go home with nothing.
But even more daunting than the prospect of never finding the family was the thought that its members were not only alive but living in what had been my family home. Of this I had been warned: "Be careful," hissed the man beside me one night in a Krakow bar when I told him why I had come to Poland. "You're wading into dangerous waters." He spoke of other foreigners he'd known, other Jews who'd returned, who'd tried to claim land seized first by the Nazis, then by the Soviets. They'd been spit on, accused of trying to steal a home from a family who had committed no crime. I assured this man that I had no interest in restitution, no desire to claim family property, but he told me it might not matter, that my motives might be questioned. His warnings were echoed by others, in other conversations, in other Polish bars. I heard of blistering debates over Jewish property in the Polish parliament. I heard that in towns where jobs were becoming increasingly scarce, Jews were once again becoming the scapegoats of choice. I feared my search would be viewed in this context and so I invented excuses. With a little more time, I reasoned, I could be more careful. I could form the right words.
But the first cold buds that had appeared on the trees soon after I arrived had already unfolded into blooms and were starting to curl into leaves. In the six weeks that I had been living in Krakow, March had become April, April had become May. And even my mother, who always insisted she had no interest in the family who had saved her life, had started to wonder, in her weekly calls from Detroit, when I would make my move. I told her, as I had told myself, that I was waiting for the right moment, but it sounded more like a lie when I said it out loud, and I knew I'd exhausted my excuses. And so, on a sunny morning in early May -- the year was 2001 -- I reluctantly took my first few diffident steps toward whatever would happen next.
"We have to be cautious," I told my flatmates, Krys and Magda, who agreed to come with me as interpreters. This was a delicate matter. We would take good notes, then retreat to plan an artful approach. "We have to stay under radar," I insisted. Krys and Magda looked at each other, smiled at me, and both burst out laughing. "Sure thing," Magda chortled. "Whatever you say." They giggled down the stairs from our apartment and all the way to the train station, but I could barely swallow. My hands wobbled as I bought three tickets and handed them, crumpled and clammy, to the conductor on the train. I tried to watch out the window, to focus on the blur of muddy fields and abandoned factories in the passing scene. I tried to hear above the grinding gears of the belching train a piece of Krys and Magda's Polish banter, but there was no room in my head for anything beyond the nervous pounding of my own quickened heart. It was a sound track I knew, the drum in my head from days spent clinging to a notch of stone or a hairline crack on a granite cliff. I'd taken up rock climbing to confront my fear of heights and had willed myself to the tops of soaring cliffs. I had scrambled to the infinite tips of desert spires but had never learned to suppress those moments of panic when my hands would become so sweaty I could barely hold on, when I would become intensely aware of the empty space below me, and when all I could do was close my eyes and regret my decision to relinquish the solid comfort of earth. I would stand there, my toe jammed into a thimble-like pocket, two fingers pinching the tiniest crimp of rock, and listen to the pulsing beat of terror in my head. Then I would focus on the small task -- the next move, the next handhold. And this was the lesson I applied now, sitting on the train beside Krys and Magda. I tried to relax, to calm my breath, to steady my hands.
As my flatmates laughed and chatted in Polish, I tried to divine at least the subject of their conversation, but after weeks of struggling to memorize strange-sounding verbs, I was still learning basic phrases. Discouraged, I dug through my bag for the photograph my mother had given me a few weeks before I left for Poland -- an ordinary studio portrait, yellowed with age and printed on a scalloped-edged postcard from the 1940s. There was nothing outwardly remarkable about the three people in the picture, posing stiffly in front of a blank screen, but there was something so arresting about them that I'd taken to examining the photo as though it were a clue to a mystery, an insight, perhaps, into the child at the center of the frame. It was my mom at age three, her round little head tucked into a white knit cap, sitting between a man I recognized as her father and a pretty woman I had never seen before. "Is this your mother?" I asked when Mom first handed me the picture. I thought I could see a vague reflection of my own features in the woman's oval face and high cheekbones. But no, Mom said. Her mother would have been dead by the time the picture was taken. I remember standing silently in my mother's study that day, stunned that something as precious as this had appeared, as if out of the air, out of time. I thought I'd seen everything my mom had kept from her childhood and couldn't quite figure how she'd never shown this to me before. Did she not know she had it? Had she forgotten? Had she been wanting to keep it to herself?
"I used to think maybe she was my mother," Mom said, sounding distant even as she stood beside me. "But it couldn't have been her." We stood for another few minutes looking down at the photo, its unanswered questions. "I've wondered if maybe she's the woman who saved me." She turned the card to show me the back, where, in a handwriting that was like my mother's but had less confidence, a younger version of her had written her best guess about the picture: Daddy, me and Polish lady caregiver, it said. Now, on the train, I turned the card over to admire my mother's lovely script, the loopy lines of her pen along the top edge of the card.
The picture caught Krys and Magda's attention, and they leaned in. Magda reached over to tilt the picture toward the window's light. I watched as she considered the image, squinted slightly, and pulled the picture closer to her face before pronouncing her verdict: "Your mom looks sad," she said, handing the photo back to me. I hadn't noticed this before, but sure enough, when I looked down at the picture again, I could see that my mother's eyes looked puffy, as though she'd been crying. "Look how she's holding on to her coat," Magda said, pointing. It was another detail I'd somehow failed to notice despite hours of staring at the picture. I blushed with the shame of my inattention, but Magda was right. With her small right hand, Mom was gently fingering the white fur trim on her coat, holding on to its softness for comfort. My grandfather, on his daughter's left in the photo, looked dashingly handsome in a dark suit and dark tie. His face, unsmiling, was smooth and proud. The woman in the picture was the only one who seemed happy to be there. She wasn't smiling exactly, but the quiet edges of her painted lips were slightly upturned. "You're sure this isn't your grandmother?" Krys asked. "They look so much like a family, a mother, a father, a child." But no, I said. The woman in the photo was unknown.
Bdzin was much bigger than I'd thought it would be, and much more urban. I'd pictured chickens and goats in the streets, but the bus from the train station dropped us on the side of a smog-choked highway beside a city center where three- and four-story buildings made of concrete and brick jostled for space along the crowded sidewalk. A young town historian named Jarek Krajniewski was overjoyed by our interest in his city and led an enthusiastic tour of its medieval castle and decaying neighborhoods. I'd made contact with Jarek a...
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