My trip grew from a seed planted in the earliest of my days. It gradually took shape inside me and finally demanded to bloom into reality. My parents’ stories about this place populated my youthful dreams. Six decades before I was to walk it, I imagined the magic of this land with its clean air, blue skies and fluffy white clouds.
My coming back to Poland would complete a circle. My parents’ flight from this land almost 70 years ago featured midnight border crossings and false papers. My return trip was a transatlantic flight and a bus ride.
My mother had been a young career woman here, enjoying a highly cultured town and her many suitors. I wondered if they brought her flowers like the bright pink ones near my hotel. My father was a brilliant rabbinic student. Had he walked this very street to get to his Yeshiva, his academy? From their stories, I knew what their houses looked like and the names of their schools.
The Holocaust would change everything, but I was spared those details until much later.
Mommy told me of her childhood. Her father would bring milk from the family’s freshly milked cow to her bedside in the morning and sing the morning prayers with her. Daddy would remind himself of his family that was no more, “Ikh hob aikhet a mameh gehat!”, that he had a mother once too. I would beg, “Daddy, where is your Mommy? What does she look like? Where does she live? Take me to her, please, Daddy”. I hungered for the details that would make my dreams of this place more vivid.
So, I had finally made it here! It was Friday evening in the place of my dreams and I was one of eight Jews entering a tiny meeting space to celebrate the Sabbath. There was a rush to get ready. A young woman was placing candlesticks on the table, the only man of the group walked in with a pot of homemade humus. While others were busy in the adjacent tiny kitchen, I put out wine glasses and little plates.
The room was stuffy. I opened a window. The suddenly worried faces near me signaled that windows normally are kept shut for these events, to avoid trouble I guessed. The group was too embarrassed to admit their fear, so that night a window remained open and we had the fresh air I knew from my mother’s stories.
I was told that I was the ‘guest star’ of the evening but didn’t understand what was meant until we started chanting the blessings. To my surprise, I was the only one in the room who knew any Hebrew or Yiddish.
My off-key voice dominated by default as we sang the z’mirot, the Sabbath songs and chanted the prayers. I’ve always wished for a nice voice, but that night I ached for the vocal beauty that could transform this moment to the grandeur it deserved.
Aha! I should have realized that these Jews, ranging in age from age 12-70, had lived under regimes that would prevent them from knowing the richness of Jewish life while I, raised two continents and an ocean away, was steeped in the culture and languages that existed here before the war.
As we pulled chunks from the braided bread, I announced, “My father would be saying, “Akhe! Gishmak!”, Oh! How tasty! I tried my best to channel every bit of my daddy’s deep-voiced enthusiasm for a good challah. To my delight, the others, in turn, echoed my performance as if memorizing the phrase for future use. Giggles turned into hearty laughter around the table. Their faces had brightened and relaxed.
As we sat together, I wished that I could gather up this flock and wrap them up in my Mother’s stories just as I had experienced them on her lap. But, in our all too brief time together, I knew that I could feed them only a taste of what they craved to know about our shared legacy.
I offered up a wordless prayer of gratitude for my own freedom, so clearly etched against the image of my courageous friends in this repressed congregation.
This night had indeed been a celebration. I had completed the circle that my parents started. I had returned to walk this land, to stake my claim to its legacy and to recognize freedoms I had not fully appreciated before.
As I boarded the bus for the four hour ride to the airport, I realized that my dream really had come true. I found my parents’ magical land with its clean air, blue skies and fluffy white clouds. And what’s more, I found my fellow ‘Lantsman’, my townsfolk who, it turned out, needed me as much as I needed them.
About the Author: Esther K. Meyers, who lives in Los Angeles, California, is a Speech Pathologist. She was born in a DP camp at the close of the war to holocaust survivor parents. She is currently writing a memoir about the exploration of her legacy.