The other day, when it registered that Wyatt would be starting school in a couple of weeks, I realized just how much of this summer has been devoted to The Eternal Ones. In some ways, it’s as if I’ve been living two parallel lives—one in the moment, and one in an alternate universe, seventy years in the past. July was all about incorporating the feedback I’d received in June from my editor, Sarah. When I wasn’t shuttling between soccer camp and swim practice, I was in full-fledged editing mode. By the time I sent off a revised manuscript at the end of the month, I was bleary-eyed and relieved to have the book off of my plate for a few weeks. I left the following day for Martha’s Vineyard, for a family gathering in honor of my grandmother, Caroline.
Twenty-four relatives flew and ferried in for our Vineyard get-together, from Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Oakland, Orange County, Miami, Chattanooga, Chelsea, and Boston. It was heartwarming, to share meals and reminisce together about the beautiful woman my grandmother was (if we could all just channel her virtue, her calm! we sighed)—and also surreal, to be surrounded by several of the family members whom I’d interviewed so long ago—for theirs were the stories that lay the groundwork for The Eternal Ones. I hadn’t seen many of these relatives in months (years, in some cases), but I was struck by a sense of familiarity the moment I greeted each, as if the process of immersing myself so deeply in our shared ancestral past had somehow brought us closer.
When I wasn’t at the beach or bent over a jigsaw puzzle or helping myself to a second portion of Anna’s Brazilian feijoada, I spent my free time on the island picking brains and pulling addresses from my manuscript, preparing for a trip I’d been wanting to take for years.
On the first of August, Robert and I tucked our passports, international driver’s licenses, and cameras into our carry-ons and set off from Edgartown through JFK and Paris to Warsaw, where we began a 1,100-kilometer journey on land through Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria. Our goal: to follow the path of the Kurc family, who traveled the same route seventy years ago, in search of freedom. Robert coined it our Eternal Quest.
We would explore Warsaw and Krakow, where several family members barely survived the war in hiding, or incarcerated. We would visit Radom, where my grandfather grew up. Ultimately, we would push south through Vienna to Villach, Austria, where, to avoid the border, the family opted to sneak over the Julian Alps into Italy—on foot. It was an ambitious itinerary but it was nothing, of course, compared to the trek the family faced.
As we entered our first address into our GPS at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport, my pulse thrummed with the anticipatory sense that I had no concept of what, exactly, the next ten days would bring. I hadn’t a clue that in a few hours I would meet a young Polish/French woman, Elena, whose grandmother had fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. I had no idea what it would feel like to discover a mezuzah affixed to the arched doorway at the family’s old address in Radom—one of the only remaining signs of pre-war Jewish life in the city. To run my fingers over it as my grandfather and his parents and brothers and sisters certainly had. I had no way of knowing I would fall in love with the medieval one-time capital city of Krakow, or that it would take me hours to find the strength to speak again after walking through the infamous death camp complex of Birkenau.
Robert and I are home now, happily exhausted and fulfilled. I’m still processing the experience, and it would take days to describe just how grounding, at times heartbreaking, and overwhelmingly inspiring the trip was—so for now I’ll simply share a few touching moments, in photographs.
But first—a thank you to Robert, the most adventurous person I know—the engine behind this endeavor, not to mention a tireless and phenomenal photographer and videographer. Thank you as well to Jakub and Olga, who took hours (and hours) out of their Monday to show us around Radom—exploring the city and its fascinating history through their eyes was truly priceless. And thank you to my mother Isabelle and my mother-in-law Margie, for tucking Wyatt under their wings while we were away. It took a village to bring the Eternal Quest to fruition, but we made it happen, and I will be forever grateful for the memories.