Agata Tuszynska’s memoir breaks your heart with an eloquent selflessness that transcends the personal journey of this 59-year-old Jewish woman’s quest to find herself. Her book is a resurrection of sorts about her mother’s family, most of whom perished in the Holocaust.
Tuszynska did not know she was Jewish until she was 19. The attractive blue-eyed blonde woman was raised by her gentile Polish broadcaster father, who came from working-class roots, and her Jewish mother, Halina, who decided after the war to bury any trace of her Jewish lineage forever.
Halina managed miraculously to survive the war when her own mother, Dela Goldstein, walked with her right out of the Leczyca Ghetto and into hiding. Dela Goldstein almost made it, but was mortally wounded by shrapnel during the waning days of the war walking to a market in Otwock. Yet Halina survived, and is still alive today. She was 16 when the war ended and fell quickly and passionately in love with Bogdan Tuszynska, hoping he would rescue her from the unspeakable pain she had endured.
Halina had decided not to look “behind her, or inside, either, where there was only fear and shame. Her new fate – Polish, Aryan, orderly, clear – could not be tainted by the dread: that is, by the memory of the ghetto, that is by being Jewish.
That had to stay a secret.” Much of the book is an introspective rumination on the cost of such secrets; we sense that Tuszynska is still troubled by her mother’s decision to keep so much from her for so long. When she found out about her Jewish lineage, it enveloped her with sadness, but also with hope. Her investigation into her maternal lineage seemed to connect her to something vital inside her that always felt missing.
The marriage that Tuszynska’s mother hoped for with her gentile husband exploded within seven years. Tuszynska admits to being traumatized by her parents’ divorce. She writes about it with the rawness of wounds still unhealed, claiming: “I don’t know why my father left us.
For a long time, I put his slippers out by the front door for him, certain he would come back.”
Her father never returned, but married and had other children and she confesses that she always felt there was some sort of obstacle between them she couldn’t identify.
Tuszynska never had any children of her own, but spent much of her adult life with her husband, Henryk Dasko, until he died. Dasko was a Polish intellectual Jew of some renown whom she loved passionately; their collaboration was thought by those closest to them to be a spectacular and enduring meeting of mind and heart.
Tuszynska never experienced any of the beauty of a traditional Jewish upbringing, but claims that she sensed when dining with her paternal relatives that something wasn’t quite right. She often felt out of place. She remembers the discomfort she felt at holiday meals when an agitation would overtake her that she didn’t understand.
She explains,“I wasn’t finicky about the potatoes with sour milk, or about the borscht with potatoes, but I felt I belonged elsewhere. How is it possible I could conceive this through food? Was it because my mother called this ‘peasant’ food? She had not been able to bear the czernina soup made with the blood of a goose or a duck that they served to her on her first meal in Lodz after the announcement of their engagement. They had done everything to give her a treat, and they had obviously missed all her culinary preferences. The same way that freshly steamed noodles with a greasy sauce had seemed unsuitable for such an occasion.”
The most tender chapters in the book are mini-biographies of her maternal relatives achingly pieced together by rigorous research that involved traveling back to Leczyca and interviewing the few remaining people who remembered her family, or their children. She enlisted the help of local historians and scholars who accompanied her and advised her to keep her own Jewish lineage secret for fear that it would scare the neighbors from talking.
She obeys, and is witness to many anti-Semitic diatribes that are chilling in their intensity.
She recognizes that “Jew” in Poland is still a dirty word, something tainted and unwelcome, but she continues to find out anything she can so that the lives she describes for us feel fully fleshed out – they burst off the page. We learn of their life as Jews in Poland during the years before the war, unaware of the fate that awaited them.
“People who no longer exist allow themselves to be fully described, in spite of nostalgia, and that is a comfort,” she writes. “The living, the nearest and dearest, can cause pain, but their life inside us is not complete. It goes on, in struggle or not, with love or without it, and always with a great need for contact.”
We learn of her paternal great-grandmother Jachet Gitel Herman, who perished in Treblinka with her own mother.
We hear about her paternal great-grandfather, Henoch Przedborski, who died in Lodz. We find out the fate of her maternal great-grandfather, Jakub Szlama Goldstein, who was a proprietor of a coal business and the father of six, all of whom died in the ghetto of Leczyca. We find out about the life of her maternal great-grandmother Chana Goldstein, who died in the ghetto of Leczyca in 1942. The author tells us that her mother’s family had lived in Poland for more than two centuries. Her maternal grandfather’s family were considered Jewish elite and lived assimilated lives; her maternal grandmother’s family were poor and Orthodox.
Tuszynska’s writing is filled with the pathos of someone struggling to fathom the magnitude of such losses and the effect it had on her mother and herself. She is still disturbed by her mother’s lengthy silence about her past, but as she learns more about the atrocities inflicted upon her family, she seems to almost grow quiet herself. By the end of this extraordinary work, we feel her anger and sadness, but confusion still reigns. She shares with us a recurring dream she has about her maternal relatives, whom she still has trouble imagining.
“I don’t know whether I should call it a dream or a wish. I would like to gather them all for a moment in the same room.
I would like to see them all present. All of those whom I never had, who I have not known, who were taken from me before I could get to know them, or who were silenced so that I wouldn’t know. Let them come to me now.”