Time after time, my mother managed to transfer her parents to the different towns that the road now unfolds to us.
Finally, in Dabrowa, one of those peaceful, sleepy villages that today seems an unlikely setting for treachery and terror, her string ran out. Her family, worn down by the strain, refused her plea to move further. My mother, worn down by her responsibilities, gave in and returned to Krakow alone. Her father, sister and brother remain . . . and their fates are assured.
In her office the next day, my mother receives the news: There had been a roundup; her family was caught and shipped to the city of Tarnow, and then to a concentration camp. Her brother has been shot at the train station, trying to escape. She knew the others were doomed.
Now, 40 years later, as we rode through Tarnow, my mother retreated into silence and communed with ghosts. I began to feel how deeply my mother's American life had misrepresented her. The woman whose experience seemed bounded by menu planning and needlepoint had, in her time, straddled the knife-edge.
Our tour of Krakow continued, past the gently bending Wisla River, where tourists and locals sun themselves on the sloping banks.
No. 4 Jozefinska St. is on an apartment block in a tranquil residential suburb across the bridge. As we approached it, my mother grew jittery, agitated.
Forty-five years ago, this neighborhood was the sector designated as the ghetto, where Krakow's Jews were herded before their final evacuation. Here my mother learned what it was to be hunted like an animal--and, like an animal, to resist.
This row of buildings on Jozefinska formed one of the ghetto's borders. Before every evacuation, a cordon of guards was stationed along the block to isolate it.
When my mother saw these guards, it signaled her to scurry for the latrine on the balcony and cram herself into the false ceiling, where no human being could be expected to fit.
She huddled there while the Germans, just a few feet away, conducted their search. She waited until the shrieking and commotion of the roundup subsided. Eventually there was nothing left but the quiet of a tomb. She was safe . . . until the next time.
I was struck by a thought: At the age when I was attending college lectures and resting on college lawns, my mother was wedged into the crannies of this building, hiding for her life.
Site of Labor Camp
No. 4 Jozefinska exists untouched by time, but our next destination had been obliterated.
In the suburban hills of Krakow, we searched for the remnants of Plaszow, the labor camp to which my mother was sent when she was finally caught; the camp where she became a slave. More than 30,000 inmates lived here at any given time, shoehorned into row upon row of prison barracks.
The terrain is now lush country land, undisturbed except for some grazing cows. It's hard to believe that the horrors of mass dehumanization ever existed here. Yet, they did. At the base of a hill we stumbled on a plaque commemorating the camp's existence.
Without physical reminders, only the imagination can reconstruct the earlier scenes.
Somewhere here, my mother marched into camp for the first time and realized that it had been built on the former site of the Jewish cemetery, where her mother was buried; the headstones of the graves were gone, used for paving the camp's roads.
Here, where the hills now lie in blissful quiet, my mother developed the ability to go diligently about her work while fellow prisoners were being shot only 50 yards away. Here she hid among mounds of discarded, disease-ridden prisoners' clothing.
My mother remained among the last 150 prisoners. When the camp finally closed, they were marched to Auschwitz.
Horror and Mystery
The Auschwitz we visited, with a busload of tourists, remains largely the way it was at the moment of its liberation.
My mother roamed the grounds, following the camp's intricate path of death, which no prisoner knew. After 40 years, the pain and the horror were rivaled by the awe and mystery of this place.
\o7 "Grundlichkeit, Grundlichkeit \f7 (efficiency)," my mother repeated grimly, bitterly. One wonders, over and over: What sort of human beings could proceed so calmly and efficiently about the business of murder?
Wandering through this landscape of death, a lost vignette recurred to me. I was a young boy watching my mother play mah-jongg with three American-born housewives from the neighborhood.
Despite their common interests and concerns, she seemed to me to be different from the others in some crucial way. After several months, my mother parted from the group and never again sought out non-Europeans for friends. For those who survived the Auschwitz experience, the gulf between themselves and those who couldn't even imagine such a world would remain a hard one to bridge.