I had never imagined visiting Eastern Europe, a place toward which I felt no attraction, or, if anything, a deep aversion. To my mind, these were the killing fields, where six million Jews, Roma, political prisoners, homosexuals, and others were massacred by the Nazis during World War II. As a bisexual Jew, a dark-skinned Middle Easterner sometimes taken for a gypsy, why would I want to go there?
But my husband, who was raised Catholic in Chicago, is of Polish and Lithuanian descent. He and his two sisters have talked for years about visiting the villages from which their grandparents, escaping economic hardship and military conscription, had emigrated early in the twentieth century. It remained wistful talk until Mike and I made plans to attend a yoga retreat in rural Denmark. We’d be so close, we reasoned, why not cross the Baltic to explore his ancestral homes? His two sisters readily agreed to join us.
Vilnius, Warsaw, Krakow: names I’d often heard, but not thought much about, during my Brooklyn childhood. The Ashkenazi Jewish parents and grandparents of my closest friends had lived in these and other Eastern European cities and shtetls. At my friends’ kitchen tables, I’d eaten whitefish and herring, dill pickles and borscht, watched as their mothers made kugel and potato pancakes on tiny apartment stoves. Exotic flavors to me back then, but which now—as I taste them again here in Poland and Lithuania—evoke the whole yiddishkeit world of post-War New York City, a world that shaped me as much as the Mediterranean world of my own home. No wonder Warsaw feels strangely familiar, Vilnius welcomes me like an old friend, and Krakow seems a place I’ve known in dreams.
Indeed, Warsaw beckons seductively as I sit on the balcony of our bed and breakfast near the rebuilt old city—destroyed by German bombing at the end of World War II—just beside the Ghetto, where 400,000 Jewish Poles were crammed in and then killed by poison gas, German bullets, or starvation and disease. Vilnius, although it betrayed its over 100,000 Jews during the war, lures me with its winding streets and bustling market; Krakow’s abandoned synagogues embrace me with their ancient stones.
I’ve known about the Holocaust for as long as I can remember: some of my Brooklyn neighbors bore tattooed numbers on their wrists; my favorite high school teacher had been a hidden child in Belgium. At sixteen, I’d watched Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog in mute horror; later, I’d been chilled by Claude Lanzmann’’s Shoah. I went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. the week it opened. I regularly taught Primo Levi’s harrowing Survival in Auschwitz, and even steeled myself to visit Dachau.
But actually to walk the streets that were once home to large, thriving Jewish communities is another thing entirely. My journey brings me closer to my Ashkenazi friends whose ancestors lived here. While my awareness of the Holocaust taught me about their deaths, this visit teaches me about their lives.
In the 1930’s, Jews made up nearly half of Vilnius’s population; in Warsaw they were over thirty percent; in Krakow, one in four. Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish population: over three million. Today, less than 30,000 remain or have returned. These numbers—along with the artifacts and monuments I encounter, the stones on which I step—allow me to glimpse a world I can never fully imagine, a world whose loss can never be adequately mourned.
The most moving exhibit I see is in the Old Synagogue in Krakow, where full-color photos of contemporary Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter, are seamlessly melded with historic black-and-white photos of precisely the same places. Young Jewish men on their way to shul, old women marketing, families being rounded up for transports shimmer like specters, haunting streets that today house tourist restaurants and trendy clubs.
The community of some 80,000 Egyptian Jews, from which my own family derives, cannot compare in size or significance to the communities of Eastern European Jews. And our dispersal after the establishment of the State of Israel and the rise of Arab nationalism—economically devastating and personally heartbreaking as it was— cannot in any way be equated with the Shoah.
This incommensurability of tragedies had, for many years, stifled and baffled Egyptian and other North African and Middle Eastern Jewish writers and artists. While many of us have recently begun to tell our tales, they remain of another order than those of European Jews, and our voices have, understandably, been marginalized.
Some Middle Eastern and North African Jews have sought to magnify their experiences by constructing narratives of victimization, suggesting that the Jews of Arab lands were persecuted as much as European Jews. This is palpably false. Part of the value of our stories is that they reveal a world of largely harmonious coexistence—convivencia. Muslims never held Jews responsible for killing their God, as did many of Europe’s Christians, even before the rise of Hitler. We know that if German General Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” had reached Alexandria, the Jews of Egypt might have suffered the same fate as those of Eastern Europe. But Rommel was stopped and that fate was averted.
Other North African and Middle Eastern Jews have argued that there is a moral, financial, and numerical equivalent between Palestinian and Jewish dislocation. This, too, is a disingenuous and misleading exercise.
We need not have suffered as much as others for our suffering to matter. Every voice is significant, every tale worth telling. It is incumbent upon me to open myself to the devastation experienced by Ashkenazi Jews, just as it is incumbent upon them to hear our stories of dispossession and displacement. And we all must hearken to the voices of suffering in our own time: persecuted Central American families in the United States, Muslim citizens sequestered now in Kashmir, Palestinians denied a homeland, black men and women unable to move freely in their American neighborhoods.
Our visit to Poland coincides with the Feast of the Assumption, a time when tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive on foot to pay homage to Our Lady of Częstochowa, Poland’s Black Madonna. I too am a pilgrim, visiting the sites, not of miracles but of martyrdom. As I make my way through what Pope John Paul II called “this Golgotha of modern times,” I am overcome; like him, I “am here kneeling down,” to implore Our Lady to help us heal the vast, still open wound that is our life on this earth.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from French of Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [My Sister, My Love], a novel celebrating Arab Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, forthcoming from New York Review Books.