A Family History of Fear

Book Institute, Poland

This book has been inside me for years, like this secret, ever since I found out that I’m not who I thought I was – from the moment my mother decided to tell me she’s a Jew.
I was nineteen, but I didn’t immediately understand the meaning of her words, or their consequences. At least ten years went by before I began to assimilate the idea, and several more before I was able to do something about it. I was brought up in a Polish family. For a long time I lived a schizophrenic double life, not knowing how to reveal to the world the, as I saw it, terrible truth. This book is a record of my family history.
I was born in Poland, in Warsaw, more than ten years after the war. I had blue eyes and fair hair, which was an incomprehensible source of pride for my dark-eyed, dark-haired mother.
We are all composed of memory – the things we remember, and the things other people remember about us.
More and more often I think we are even more greatly composed of lost memories, the things we forget, that we erase from memory, wipe from our consciousness, or drop from our thoughts in self-defence. We invalidate them, just to make life easier or lighter, so it won’t hurt or remind us of pain.
I can’t remember when my mother told me she was Jewish. I can’t remember the day, the time of year, whether she was at the table or by the window, the tone of her voice or her exact words. I can’t remember any such conversation. In fact, I can’t remember anything.
Maybe she said that during the war she hid in a cellar. That didn’t have to have any deeper meaning, because lots of Poles hid in cellars and bunkers during the war. Maybe she said she had to run away from the Germans – again, that’s just like other Poles who were hunted down by the Nazis, taken away in round-ups, shot in the streets or the forest, or sent to labour camps.
She can’t remember how she told me either, but she can’t have started with persecution and ghetto walls, identifying marks and labels or yellow patches. She began by telling me stories, first about a curtain, then about a muff and some dewberries; then about a droshky outside the ghetto walls – not all at once, but gradually, to make it easier.
She didn’t want me to carry a burden. She was happy to have given birth to a blue-eyed child with fair hair. The girl had a Polish father. She brought me up to live in this country, and she didn’t want to encumber her child with an onus that she wouldn’t be able to bear. She didn’t want her daughter to grow up in fear, or with a sense of wrong. She reckoned she could broach the subject once her child was able to take it on, and ultimately to defend herself. She says she told me when I reached the age of nineteen, and I have no reason to disbelieve her.
Every family has a history. Many Polish families have tragic histories. In those days parents did not always tell their children about their wartime experiences, their involvement in the resistance, the Home Army, the Warsaw Uprising or the forest. Only years later did they start to talk about their experiences, including both the suffering and the heroism. This built ties between the generations and gave both of them strength. But my mother’s news was not of this kind. It was something bigger, much bigger – not just in the degree of suffering and tragedy involved, but also in its consequences. It wasn’t something to boast about, mention in public, or gain advantage from. There was no heroic death, no patriotic role models, no sacred tradition or hope for the future. It was something that had to be hidden.
Years must have gone by before I found the strength to take this information on board, before I let it get through to my consciousness, which had been defending itself against it. I needed time to take it in – not yet to accept it, but to consider the possibility. And that’s what happened over the next ten years.
Did it really happen? Can I say of myself: “I am a Jew”?
No, I can’t.
Did my mother really tell me her wartime history? Did she tell me, or did she just want to tell me, but lacked the strength? No, you take in enmity with your mother’s milk. You inherit fear.

When my mother left the closed Jewish quarter for the other side of the wall it was summer - a cold, rainy day in August. A small girl with black plaits, she was wearing several pairs of ribbed stockings and two dresses, one on top of the other, as well as a dark-blue overcoat with a collar and a headscarf tied under her chin. She walked along with her mother, who held her hand tightly. They had to pass the courthouse on Leszno Street. She knew she had to walk confidently, without any hesitation, and always in the crowd – it was best to be in the crowd, like others, like lots of Jews and non-Jews, just people going about their business, going up stairs, along corridors and down more stairs. That was all, that much, and it was arduous. She didn’t notice her mother take off her armband. No one paid them any attention.
She can’t remember the faces of the people who sprang up in front of them like another wall. There were several men and one woman, also in a headscarf, with strands of hair protruding from under it. They were afraid of the Germans, but these people weren’t German. “Hey, Jewess, give us what you’ve got,” they heard. “Or we’ll take you to the Gestapo.”
They cringed as if caught red-handed. My mother’s mother tried to defend herself, by denying, explaining, and finally pleading, but nothing produced a result. And that was when the droshky drove up, and a Pole with handlebar moustaches came to their defence.
“Leave the woman alone,” he cried. “What do you want from her? Can’t you see she’s got a child with her? It’s almost scared to death!” Then he turned to them and said: “Get in!”.
They hurriedly leaped into the droshky, and the mother gave a pre-arranged address. There was more than just relief in her voice as they set off. The little girl held onto her mother’s coat tails as they passed street after street, driving for a long time. They didn’t recognise the city, because they had never known it well in any case. Dusk fell, and the shop windows began to glow. They passed trams and black German vehicles. They saw a merry company emerging from a corner restaurant. The women’s fancy hats looked as if they’d come straight from the milliner’s. A little further on, in a large square by a church, some boys were kicking around a football. The city was busy with itself. “The world doesn’t end at the Umschlagplatz”, they both thought. The droshky drove into Szuch Avenue, and soon stopped outside the Gestapo building.
The driver turned round on the box and said: “Well then, Jewess, did you really think I wouldn’t take you back to your rightful place?” He smiled and pushed them towards a side entrance.

Agata Tuszyńska
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones