Things long buried

If you come to visit me in Warsaw, it’s likely I’ll suggest visiting the Jewish cemetery in Bródno. And we’ll get on a tram and head to the entrance, on Sw. Wincentego Street.

And there, you may start to wonder if I’ve got the right place. Isn’t that just an old, overgrown forest of silver birch that could do with some TLC?

I’ll forgive you for doubting me, since it doesn’t look much like a cemetery. It’s not well maintained, or cared for. It isn’t even named. There doesn’t, at first sight, seem to be any graves. Although there are a few clues. The bas-relief of Jews praying, in grey cement by the gate. The stars of David on the fence posts. Some Hebrew inscriptions.

The graves are there, too, of course. But to see them, we need to make our way inside. You used to be able to walk in through the front gate, but it’s been welded shut now. Perhaps to try and stop the people who build bonfires and drink beer on the central memorial, and deter the neo-Nazi skinheads who meet there to graffiti swastikas on the stones. So we’ll go around to the east side, where we’ll crawl through a section that’s been cut out of the fence. The drunks and homeless people use this passage to get back in. They’ve lived here for years, after all.

We’ll walk straight ahead for about 20 metres, veer slightly to the right, and from there we can see the graves.  To be more precise, it’s the headstones — the matzevah — we can now see. We’ve been walking over the graves, which aren’t marked any more. All the tombstones have been pulled up and stacked in giant piles. The Nazis did this with matzevah from Jewish cemeteries all over occupied Poland. They used the stone for building projects. Roads, pavements and buildings all over the country are built with Jewish headstones.

I struggle to think of a more calculated, deliberate way to violate the history of a people.

They got as far as stacking these ones up when the war ended. They’ve sat there, unmoved, ever since.

About then is when I’ll turn to you and share with you what this place represents to me. Which is the absence of the descendents of these people in this city. That of all the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren of the millions of souls who lie buried here, there are not enough left that the shameful state of what remains here now has not been brought to light and rectified.

I mean this with the deepest respect. But there’s always been a part of me that’s questioned whether I have the right to tell this story. Since it’s not mine.

Or so I thought.

From the colour of my skin it’s obvious the roots of my family tree curl back through this continent, but I had no idea its tendrils spread into this country. When I saw the word ‘Poland’ as my great-great-great grandfather’s place of birth on his 1885 Victorian death certificate, no-one could have been more surprised than me. A shiver ran up my spine as surely as if he’d walked through the door.

Although I couldn’t say why, it suddenly seemed very important for me to know where he’d come from. Where his people lived, and whether anything might remain of their legacy that I could visit.

Finding out wasn’t easy. The leads went cold a dozen times. It seemed I may have had to be content with knowing that their names were written in registers, somewhere here, that I would never find.

Until a few days ago, when one final search turned up the information I’d been looking for: My great-great-great grandfather Louis Lewinsohn, son of Hirsch (a gold lace-maker), was born in the village of Kcynia, near Bydgoszcz, Poland, in 1828. He emigrated to the US with his brother and sister in the mid-1800s. His siblings stayed there and their descendents are still active in the American Jewish community, as far as I can tell.

Louis took a different path. He changed his name to the Anglophone Harrison, married an Englishwoman, and in around 1860 sailed for Australia. It was like he wanted to put as much distance between himself and his past as he could. That, as far as I know, was the end of anyone I was related to thinking of ourselves as either Polish or Jewish, so in that his quest succeeded.

Now that I knew, I could ask my next question: did anything remain of their legacy here?

A few more hours on a Jewish cemetery site, and I had the answer. “During the second world war, on Nazi orders, the Kcynia grave stones were torn up. They were used to make the footpaths by the current ‘Eagle’ Theatre”, I read. “The workers were told to erase the epitaphs, although despite that, some of them weren’t. The stones were laid with their inscriptions facing the ground.”

I’d read many such stories. But that suddenly felt very personal.

On Louis’ death certificate, Louis’ son listed his grandfather as Henry Harrison, a clergyman. I wonder if he even knew about his heritage. Louis did a thorough job of hiding where he came from. Burying his Jewish heritage like the Nazis buried the headstone of his father. Erasing his own name before others could do it for him.

So now I know. It doesn’t change much. It doesn’t make me feel at all Polish, or Jewish.

But I will show people Bródno cemetery, in its shameful state, and tell them what it represents to me. In honour of those who didn’t survive, and those who did.

I have the right to tell that story.

Note: it’s possible to visit Warsaw’s Bródno cemetery as I’ve described here. However it’s home to many undesirable characters, so be alert.

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