Listening to the Knot in My Stomach: A Journey to Poland
“You’re going where?”
“To Poland, to visit Mama and Papa’s house, and to go see the concentration camps.”
“With a group though — right?”
“No, I’m going on my own.”
Earlier this year, I was going through a box of my grandparent’s old photographs. Inside, I found a folder, and in the folder were five printed yellow booklets. One for each grandchild. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just uncovered poetry my grandfather wrote right after the Holocaust ended, while still in Germany. It was written in Yiddish, so I couldn’t understand it.
There was a knot in my stomach. I intuitively knew I just found something important and quickly took photographs of the poems and sent them to Joe, a friend who speaks Yiddish. He confirmed right away that I stumbled upon something, big.
It had been about two years since Joe and I saw each other last, but the next day he was was sitting beside me, translating the words that my grandfather had left for us.
I imagine it would feel like closure, or would give me peace of mind. If you’ve had this fire, you understand.
Later I would find many journals that my Papa left. Before this, I didn’t know that he wrote.
My family didn’t quite understand my urge to go to Poland. To see where it all happened. Who could blame them?
There’s a fire in my stomach that wants to know more. That I can’t quite explain. It wants to understand. Understand what? I’m not exactly sure. I imagine it would feel like closure, or would give me peace of mind. If you’ve had this fire, you understand. I needed to go. So, I did.
April 16, 2014, I flew from New York through Germany to Poland.
Day 1: Auschwitz?
“Would you check the schedule for me? I checked and it looks like it stops at 8 AM in Lodz.”
“Yes, would you like us to call you a taxi?”
“Yes, thank you!”
“Do I need to reserve a bus ticket to Auschwitz for Thursday?”
“Auschwitz is closed this Thursday, it’s the day after Easter.”
“Oh. Are you sure?”
“Yes, I just checked for another guest.”
“Well, I guess I can go today and go to Lodz on Thursday.”
“Yes, you can take the 10 AM from the main station.”
I thought for a moment and realized I didn’t have much of choice, unless I wanted to extend my flight. But that would mean spending my birthday in Poland, instead of in Spain.
“Yes, I’ll go to Auschwitz today. Thank you.”
I went to my room and laid on my bed. Was I ready for this? A few deep breaths later, I gathered my journal, some money, a sweatshirt and my sunglasses and before I knew it, I was on the bus.
The bus was full
And so was my mind
With worries and thoughts
about the journey ahead.
Is it possible to get it?
I think I know
But still, it’s time to go.
To see what we can,
And know what we’ll know
Whatever it is
The bus just started to go.
While the music plays, I remember his words:
“Smoke and gas, with bodies in their midst
Music accompanying them all
Murdering innocent Jewish blood like this.”
And suddenly the music doesn’t sound so good.
My stomach starts to turn.
Finally, we arrived.
My grandfather wrote this poem about his experience in Auschwitz:
Day 2: Lodz
During my second day in Poland, I went to visit the town where my grandfather, Chaim Kusherman, grew up. While I was doing research for this trip, I learned that my grandfather’s brother Mosze had two children before the war: a son, Emanuel (he was 8 when his life was taken) and Zelda (she was 5 when hers was taken).
My Papa never once mentioned Emanuel and Zelda to us. When I found this out, the first thing that came to mind was my cousin’s child, who is now 5. I fell to my knees in pain.
I wrote this on my train train back from Lodz to Krakow:
A train away,
To see where Papa used to play,
On our way we go.
We arrived just on time,
Had enough money to the dime-
where do we go?
Just in that moment
The man came and pointed.
With a warm welcome
And showed us the way to go.
To our surprise,
People were inside.
Just about to start meal.
I stood all alone,
Without words of my own
Until I was welcomed inside.
Matzah, tuna, and gefilte
Chicken, potatoes, and prayers.
The words on the wall
Where oh very tall
And I wondered how long they’ve been there.
Just when I thought
It was time to talk,
The Rabbi stood on by.
Without any sharing,
I felt disappointed inside.
So we said our goodbyes,
And went right outside,
And walked to the center of town.
A few pictures later,
Got in a car to the station,
On a new journey we go.
So Papa I saw it.
The town where you played.
Where you prayed and jumped,
And went on with your days.
Where the sun always shone
“Until the darkness descended.
And you all comprehended
The upcoming devastation.”
To the Ghettos you went
And forced to labor
Tortured, hungry, and humiliated.
Do those words get it right?
No sign of any light
And to Russia they told you you’d be taken.
Instead you arrived,
In Auschwitz, oh my.
No words to describe.
I’m glad you made it out alive.
Was there more in Lodz?
This journey’s almost done
But forever will remain deep inside.
From a poem my grandfather left for my family about growing up in Lodz, Poland:
Day 3: Krakow
I took a break and enjoyed Easter in Krakow.
Day 4: Radom County
During the day, I went to visit the town of Wolanow, in Radom County. I had nothing but a picture of a house I received from close friends of my grandparents, which might have been where my grandmother grew up. And, I was determined to find it.
Today is your day,
We went on our way.
The train to bus to the town to the car.
The driver was kind
Without any words we were blind
Yet our hearts spoke
what they needed to say.
I showed him the picture,
And just when I thought, he’s given up,
He smiled as if to say —
Come here my child
Let’s stay for a while
And find where your grandma used to play.
We stopped by the bus
The crowd spoke with us,
Still with just questions
And returned with no answers.
We found a house down the road,
And before I knew it he went right inside.
A woman at garden
And in a moment a man too.
They tried to help
But just didn’t know.
Instead of stopping
They continued to go.
To a woman who maybe knew
But after just minutes
To the store they went
But to our regret,
It was almost time to go.
And finally I understood,
We did what we could.
We saw a home
It wasn’t it – but as a symbol it would fit.
Mama did you see me?
It’s pretty where you lived.
You had a family
Rivka, Sarah, and Moshe
And lots of cousins.
Maybe you played
Outside like kids do.
But alas we know,
What happened to you.
It was when I was sitting outside at Auschwitz, I finally understood, I will never understand. And that’s ok. The fire is still burning inside me, and I have this odd knowing, this is only the beginning.
In Sacred Memory – May You Rest In Peace
My great grandfather: Yisroel Tzvi son of Jacob David Kusherman– may they rest in peace.
My great grandmother: Toba daughter of Meir Ychial Kusherman– may they rest in peace.
My great uncles, aunts, and their families – may they rest in peace.
My great uncle Moshe Elye, his wife and child – may they rest in peace.
My great uncle Yehoshua Leib, his wife and child – may they rest in peace.
My great uncle Chaskel Meir – may he rest in peace.
My great aunt Hena Mindel, her husband Chaskel and two children – may they rest in peace.
My great grandfather: Hershel Kuszerman – may he rest in peace.
My great grandmother: Yeta, Jite, Lea Kuszerman – may she rest in peace.
My great uncles, aunts, and their families – may they rest in peace.
My great uncle Moshe – may he rest in peace.
My great aunt Rivka – may she rest in peace.
My great aunt Sarah– may she rest in peace.
To my grandparents, Chaim and Freida Kusherman, May You Rest in Peace
Listening to the Knot in My Stomach: A Journey to Poland top photo by Unsplash.