Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022
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The birds of Auschwitz

A walk through Poland -- in the footsteps of ancestors

The birds of Auschwitz drew me to Central Europe. The birds and a cache of possessions, greater in sentiment than value: my mother's opera glasses and her diamond ring, its band pitted from years looped on a molar in her mouth; my father's wrist compass, worn when he escaped from Siberia, his gold pocket watch retrieved after the war.

Over time, the possessions mattered less and less. Every spring, the birds signified that my mother, who periodically succumbed to dark bouts of despair triggered by Holocaust memories, would regain her sunny disposition. Like many survivors, my parents rarely broke the silence of remembrance. They rarely spoke of their first spouses and children (who perished), or their arrival at Auschwitz, or how my mother, a petite, blue-eyed blonde with "Aryan looks," was scarred on her forehead from an operation to remove "the Jewish part" of her brain. They were more inclined to reminisce about their good lives before the war (never mentioning the names of their former spouses), about concerts, walks in the park, travels to nearby cities. Every so often my mother would sing, in her sweet soprano voice, about the birds of Auschwitz.

For years I would fondle the opera glasses, the compass, the ring and the watch in contemplation. I could not fathom how memories of their culturally rich lives could ever outshine their grief. In May, I was drawn to walk in their footsteps, to visit Poland: Lodz, where they lived and Warsaw and Krakow, which they visited by train or horse-drawn carriage. I needed to walk in Auschwitz, in the shadows of the vanished civilization that they had miraculously escaped. Ever since I was a child, I had always felt the emotional weight that came with "replacing" their previous children who had perished. I needed to lay my own guilt to rest.

There is a constant stream of international group pilgrimages to Poland that trace the paths where martyrs defended doomed ghettos or visit the camps where millions died. But I was determined to travel alone, unfettered by the emotional baggage of others.

To allay my family's worries about my 16-day journey, I promised to stay in secure hotels, hire private guides for remote trips, travel inconspicuously when alone and communicate daily. Armed with a few essentials I hopped on a flight to Warsaw. Warsaw

Warsaw was awash in a chill rain when I arrived, its wide boulevards lined with people huddled under umbrellas in endless queues for rush-hour buses. The modern Sheraton Warsaw was a welcome respite -- brilliantly illuminated inside, with a lobby bar bustling with business people. Its concierge would become an invaluable resource for the next few days, masterminding my entire trip within Poland.

Early next morning, I set out to explore the Old Town. Before World War II, Poland's capital was the cultural and intellectual heart of the Jewish Diaspora. It was also the birthplace or workplace of luminaries like writers Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Asch, theatrical personalities Esther and Ida Kaminska, scholars Samuel Poznanski and Isaac Cylkow. Most of them lived in a district near the Old Town where the Nazis set up the Warsaw Ghetto in November 1940. On June 22, 1942 they began deporting hundreds of thousands of people in cattle cars to their deaths at Treblinka. On April 19, 1943, some 300 Jews staged an unsuccessful uprising that ended with most of the leaders committing suicide in their bunker located at ulica Mila 18 to avoid capture. Of about 120,000, only 300 Jews had survived when the city was liberated on January 17, 1945. Most of Warsaw was razed to the ground during the war, invaded from the east by Russians and from the west by Germans.

Today Warsaw is a bustling metropolis, a mix of glum Stalin-era blocks and the elegant Trakt Krolewski, the King's "Royal Way" -- a string of patisseries, cafés, designer shops, churches and the graceful gates of Warsaw University. The Old Town itself, rebuilt within the original medieval walls, is an exact replica of the original with artful facades facing a lively market square.


As my guide and I head out in search of former Jewish sites, I come to understand the grim reality that the liquidation of the Jewish population left a void. Outside of a "Memory Lane" that follows a path of plaques and monuments signifying where Jews struggled and were martyred, there is nothing to see. I pause to reflect at a huge monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Its depiction of people approaching the train to Treblinka takes my breath away. On a huge rock at Mila 18 are the names of the uprising's leaders, including Marek Edelman, the only living survivor. With auspicious timing, we arrive at the Umschlagplatz Memorial Railway Platform from which people were shipped to Treblinka. A group of young Israeli students (on an educational "March of the Living" mission) is holding a commemorative service in the symbolic confines of the open air "railway car." Their guide, spotting me with camera and notebook, says, "You must go to Chelm. An archaeologist just unearthed the graves of thousands of people." I take note, knowing there isn't enough time to see all the places where memories lie.

We move on to the Nozyks Synagogue. The virtually intact building survived because it served as a Nazi stable. Today it serves a tiny, 200-member congregation. Adjacent is the Jewish newspaper, the Our Roots Jewish Travel Bureau and the Jewish community centre, which boasts a small but poignant collection of memorabilia from the Warsaw ghetto days found hidden in the floorboards of the building after the war.

Later, at the Jewish Institute, Museum and Archives, I shop for books about Lodz and Krakow. For serious research, the Institute documents Jewish history back to the 17th century with tens of thousands of books, manuscripts and some 30,000 precious photographs.

Early next morning I stroll past the overgrown graves and moss-covered tombstones of Warsaw's old Jewish cemetery. Stopping at tombstones I examine inscriptions and carvings faded with age -- two hands signifying priestly Cohens (like my father, a descendant of the high priest Aaron, brother of Moses), lions symbolizing the tribe of Judah, candlesticks honouring women who lit Sabbath candles, or broken trees for lives cut short. At a vast expanse of grass, where one small stone denotes a mass grave for the unknown dead, I feel an overwhelming emptiness watching visitors place pebbles or candles in remembrance.

By the time we arrive at Lazienkowski Park, where the Polish king Poniatowski commissioned a summer estate in 1766, the sun shines through the clouds, sending birds into flight and bringing trees to life with a spontaneous blush of blossoms and leaves. I picture my parents strolling along the lake before sitting on a bench for an outdoor concert.

Back in the hotel lobby bar, I chat with a University of Warsaw economics professor who earns extra zlotes as a marketing whiz for companies investing in or starting new businesses in Poland. Suddenly I fear that I am searching in vain for elusive vestiges of my parents' previous happiness. For the most part, their people and effects are gone. Monuments and testimonies are all that remain. More than half a century later, Warsaw and indeed all of Poland, is in a post-communism capitalist frenzy, intent on laying the past to rest and proceeding to the future. Lodz

After arriving in Lodz, anticipating two heart-wrenching days in my parents' town, I am perplexed by my blank reactions. Driving through the city in torrential rains (and on the now elegant street where they once lived) I feel my mother's presence.

A thriving industrial centre, Lodz was also a cultural and intellectual hub and the home of Poland's second-largest Jewish community. In the spring of 1940, the Nazis created one of its most notorious Jewish ghettos and evacuated most Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau. While standing on a hill beside a huge statue of Moses, overlooking a vast park where the former ghetto once stood, I feel the melancholy in the air. Later, as I walk through the New Cemetery founded in 1892, past centuries-old tombstones shrouded by nettles and shifted with time, I am haunted by the ghosts of the dead.

As I explore Lodz -- walking among the beautiful buildings of Piotrkowska Street to the former Jewish hospital (ulica Senatorska 13) and the palaces of rich industrialists and Jewish homes converted into a music academy, art gallery and cinematography museum -- I sense the city's thriving cultural life. When I arrive at the municipal photo archives, I am delighted by the curator's antique cameras and mesmerized by his original negatives of Lodz's streets and the ghetto. As I photograph them (hoping to later find my parents' faces), he expresses regret that recently the "American press is claiming the Poles caused the death to Jews."

That night talking with Marek Edelmen, the sole surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, I ask, "Why do you still live in Lodz?" He retorts, "Don't be a hochem [smart ass]. A Yid [Jew] can live where a Yid wants to live."

The next morning I meet Krzysztof Panas, the Mayor of Lodz, a certified medical doctor with high humanitarian ideals. That night, after attending the gala premier performance of Cole Porter's Can Can (in Polish, no less!) followed by a remarkable dinner, I feel a peace of sorts. My parents would be pleased, I feel, to see me welcomed here.

By the time I reach Krakow my emotions are rumbling in apprehension of my upcoming visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. For all my research about the city which escaped wartime destruction, Krakow is beautiful beyond anticipation; a vibrant old city spreading out from the base of the fairytale castle on Wawel Hill through enchanting winding streets to a broad market square lined with outdoor cafés. When the Germans occupied Krakow in September 1939, all the Jews of Kazimierz -- Poland's richest and most important Jewish community -- were forced to wear a Star of David and assigned to forced labour. Following the cordoning of the ghetto in March 1941, there were mass deportations to the concentration camps.

Krakow is undergoing a huge revival of interest in Jewish history and culture, much of it instigated at the Jagiellonian University. After a day exploring the old synagogues, the exquisite artifacts in the museum, the centuries-old cemetery of Kazimierz and the gates of the famed Schindler factory, I dine in one of Krakow's quintessential "stone vaulted basement" restaurants. Then I head for bed mentally prepared for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the morning. Auschwitz

The largest and most notorious Nazi extermination complex was centred around Oswiecim and nearby Brzezinka -- Polish for Auschwitz and Birkenau -- 64 kilometres west of Krakow. For all the pictures and movies that depict the horrors, I used to complain that my parents never shared explicit details. Yet after entering beneath the gate bearing the wrought iron banner Arbeit macht frei (work makes freedom) and after exploring the grounds block by block, I realize they had indeed depicted everything that mattered about its physical nature. While vast Birkenau is a flat barren land, crisscrossed by railway tracks that carried shipments of human cargo from the prisoners blocks to a distant crematorium (of which remains still exist). Auschwitz, by comparison, appears like a tidy museum. Its empty blocks of barracks showcase walls of prisoners' photos and pitiful collections of prisoners' suitcases, piles of shoes, mounds of eyeglasses and human hair. Certain blocks are devoted to survivors from nations around the world. The starkness of it all is stirring: the bent supports of the barbed wire fences, the square of torture, the claustrophobic cell of solitary confinement.

Following the long path where prisoners stood for hours on end, I imagine my mother in the "clinic" of experimental surgery. As I pass the women's block and head toward the gas chamber, I am startled by a surreal vision: cheerful little birds flying towards me from a nearby house surrounded by pretty green trees and blossoming shrubs. "What is that place?" I ask the guide.

"That was Rudolph Hess' house during the war," she says.

I leave Auschwitz feeling a surge of triumph that my parents survived, gratitude for the birds that gave my mother spiritual sustenance and hope and the lightness of heart that comes with shedding a burden of guilt.


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