Piecing together a remarkable past, through the lenses of 1st, 2nd & 3rd-generation survivors.
The images are far too familiar—the photos and videos of families pressed shoulder to shoulder in boats at double or triple the vessels’ capacity, desperate to flee the violence, oppression, and starvation in their home countries. Thousands, we’re told, perish during their attempts to escape. A lucky few make it to a safe haven. Millions are stuck—“warehoused,” I’ve learned, is the technical term—in bleak refugee camps, facing waits of unknown duration for a chance to start a new life somewhere, anywhere, safe and welcoming. Many wait their entire lives without getting that chance…–Georgia Hunter for Lit Hub
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.
I left you last month with a post about my editor—and I promise to update you on Jane’s encouraging feedback at a later date. This post, however, I’d like to dedicate to my grandmother, Caroline, who passed away on Tuesday, two days short of her 100th birthday.
My grandmother was born on December 18th, 1914, in Clinton, South Carolina. I marvel often at how she, a young Presbyterian from the South, ended up in Rio de Janeiro during the Second World War—and even more so at the fact that while in Brazil, she married my grandfather, her antipode—a gregarious, unflinching Polish Jew. I’ve filled many pages of The Lucky Ones with the story of how my grandparents met, of the meals and conversations I imagine they shared in those early years.
My grandmother was courteous. She was poised. She carried herself with confidence and ease, but (unlike my grandfather) had no interest in being the center of attention. She never complained. She welcomed young relatives from all over the world into her home, often for months at a time, with genuine warmth. Her niece Kathleen described Caroline as perhaps the kindest person she has ever known.
When I think of my childhood, I think of my grandmother. I think of us watering her purple pansies, creating art projects from the pages of expired calendars, playing endless games of Milles Bornes. I think of all of the birthdays we shared (I was born on her 64th), of the patience and encouragement with which she taught me to swim in the neighbor’s pool, of how she would painstakingly peel the tape from her Christmas presents in an effort not to rip the paper, which she would reuse the following year.
My grandfather died when I was fourteen. A year later, my English teacher assigned our class the task of uncovering a slice of our family histories–an “I-Search” project, Mr. Griffin called it. My mother suggested I interview my grandmother about how my grandfather came to America—a story I knew little about. I readily agreed, and soon found myself in my grandmother’s living room, listening intently as she recounted a chapter of life that my grandfather had chosen to leave behind. As I took it all in, I remember feeling like I’d unearthed something big. Something important. As our conversation came to an end, I hugged my grandmother and told her how much I appreciated the memories. She smiled and patted me on the knee and in her soft southern drawl said, “You know, Eddy had four siblings. You should interview their families, too. They’ve all got stories. Write them down, write a book about them. I know I’d love to read it.”
Thank you, Granny, for the suggestion. And for the tenderness, selflessness, honesty, and grace you so effortlessly embodied. I think of you often as I stumble through life, doing my best to emulate the way in which you carried yourself, the way you interacted with me, with others. You continue to inspire and shape me—as a granddaughter, a daughter, a friend, a wife, a mother.
I miss you more than words can describe. It was hard, celebrating my birthday this year without you. But I’m comforted in knowing that you are very much alive in the pages of my book, as well as in the hearts of your children and grandchildren, and in all those you touched.
“I know it may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long, but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish, it only magnifies the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.”
~ Stephen Colbert, on the passing of his mother
On Tuesday, I sent the latest version of The Lucky Ones to Jane Fransson, an editor who’s worked with a host of successful authors, several of whom I’ve read and loved (e.g., Pamela Druckerman, Bringing up Bébé; Sadia Shepard, The Girl from Foreign). Admittedly, I held my email captive in a draft folder for a full day until I finally summoned the courage to set it free. I knew the moment the book left my hands I’d review it and find a typo, or something I would change. But I also knew it was time to let go. And so I hit send, and when I did I was immediately relieved. And scared. And excited. But mostly relieved.
Jane will be the first person to read The Lucky Ones who hasn’t any previous knowledge of my family’s story, aside from what she’s read on my blog and the snippets I’ve shared with her in conversation. I’m both eager and anxious to get her thoughts, and I can’t help but wonder—will she be able to keep track of all of the characters? What will she think of the present tense? The conversational tone? Will she get half way through the manuscript (now 390 pages!) and want to put it down? Or will she be as fascinated by each of the story lines as I am?
Jane promised she’d have my manuscript back to me by the 26th of November. Thanksgiving Eve. Until then, in an effort not to obsess over what she might be thinking at this very second, my plan is to keep busy. I’m about to get to work on the book’s Introduction and Afterword. And to translate a slew of records I received last week from the International Red Cross (in response to an inquiry sent in 2011!). And to connect with a woman who contacted me recently through my blog, whose maternal grandmother married a Kurc from Radom—a young man she met at a Displaced Persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany (where my grandfather’s brother Jakob also resided after the war)—surely, Ms. Mariam White from Toronto and I are in some way related.
If I’ve learned anything since taking on this project, it’s that there is always something more to learn or someone to connect with when it comes to researching and recording a family history. So keep busy I will! Of course, I’ll also be secretly counting down the days until November 26th, and praying that my trusted editor will offer up some feedback I can be thankful for come turkey-carving day. Whatever Jane’s reaction, though, I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with her—I know we will make a good team—and for the chance to celebrate another much-anticipated milestone.
Last spring, I contacted the Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in DC, in hopes of tracking down some family records through the International Tracing Service (ITS), a German archive containing ~3o million WWII/Nazi-era documents. I submitted five separate inquiries, one for each of the Kurc siblings. I never heard back, and after a month, I marked ITS on my list of resources as “explored.”
And then—almost a year later—I woke up to an inbox full of news from a gentleman by the name of Bashi at USHMM’s Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center. Bashi apologized for not being able to locate any ITS records for my grandfather (unsurprising, as he was living in France at the outbreak of the war, and fled shortly after for Brazil)—but my inquiries, it turns out, had churned up a slew of documents for each of Addy’s siblings—one for Genek, five for Halina, six for Mila, and a whopping eight for Jakob. Overwhelmed with gratitude, I thanked Bashi for his help. Then I dug into his findings.
For Genek, Bashi had discovered the name “Gerszon Kurc” on a list of Jewish refugees serving with the Polish Army in Tehran. He found Mila’s name on a list of Polish Jews employed in Warsaw in 1945. Jakob and Maryla were listed among hundreds of refugees who passed through the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1946 (post-war). One document revealed that Halina had been confined to a prison in Krakow from August 1944 until January 1945 (when Soviet forces entered the city).
It took me weeks to translate and decode each of the records (20 in all). By the time I was finished, I’d filled several gaps in my family’s timeline. But I was also left scratching my head, suddenly consumed with a whole new set of questions.
What kind of will did it take, I wondered, for Maryla to walk through the gates to Bergen-Belsen, when she’d lost her parents to Treblinka just two years before? And how did Mila find work as a Jew in Warsaw? I was under the impression she’d gotten by with falsified Aryan papers, but the work records Bashi sent were entitled Wykaz Alfabetyczny Zydow Polskich: an Alphabetized List of Polish Jews. And what was it like for Halina, at 27 years old, to spend nearly half a year in Krakow’s notorious Montelupich Prison—one of the “most terrible Gestapo prisons in Poland?” (I’ve asked Krakow’s Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish for more details about her incarceration.)
Such is the nature, I’ve learned, of ancestry research: information garnered can be as mind boggling as it is revelational (e.g., I was aware Halina spent some time in jail, but now I know which jail, and for how long…that said, I’ll only ever be able to imagine what was going through her head during those five heinous months at Montelupich). But that’s okay. Because thanks to Bashi’s findings, my story is more complete. And because as a writer, filling in the missing details is, well, part of the gig.
Interested in Researching Your Family’s Holocaust Records?
If you’d like to try to track down your own family’s Holocaust records, I highly recommend contacting the International Tracing Service. You can submit an inquiry here, through the US Holocaust Museum. Keep in mind it may be months before you hear back. You can also try searching USHMM’s Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database, JewishGen (powered by Ancestry.com), Yad Vashem, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the The Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center (managed by the American Red Cross). For more advice on researching your family history, check out my page on Ancestry Search Tips.
I’m excited to report that an excerpt from The Lucky Ones has been published! Last month, the non-profit writing center 826 Seattle released its 2014 anthology, What to Read in the Rain, featuring works by “famous and not-yet-famous” adult and young writers. My submission, entitled No Looking Back (a chapter found midway through my manuscript), is set in 1942 in Nazi-occupied Poland; it describes my great-aunt Mila’s attempt to escape the ghetto with her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter in tow.
826 Seattle (one of 826 National’s eight chapters) was launched by writer, publisher, and philanthropist Dave Eggers, who believes that strong writing skills translate to better chances of success in life. Great leaps in learning can happen, Eggers says, by pairing children and teens with adult mentors. 826 Seattle’s youth writing initiatives include publishing programs, field trips, school visits, and workshops designed to be as wacky and inspiring as they sound: The Mad Scientist, Sense-Sational Stories, Tabletop Moviemaking and, my favorite (the product of which you can read in the New York Times), Letters to Michelle Obama.
A big thanks to my good friend, writing partner, and programming coordinator for 826 Seattle, Alicia, who recommended that my work be included in this year’s edition of What to Read in the Rain. As I wasn’t able to make it to the launch (where contributors famous and not-yet-famous gathered to celebrate and sign the freshly-pressed anthology), Alicia kindly sent me a copy. The day it arrived I held it on my lap for a while before opening it, marveling at the weight of it, the realness of it. I traced my fingertips over the the velvet-soft cover, and read and re-read the sticker inscribed with the exhilarating words, “Take Me Home!” (Many visitors to the Emerald City will find a copy of the anthology beside their hotel beds; “Simply slip this book into your luggage,” the sticker says, “The cost will automatically be debited to your room.“)
When I finally flipped through the book to page 207 to find a photograph of my face smiling back at me and my words strewn across the page, I panicked. Here was my story, my ancestry, my years of work, stamped in ink, for the world to read…would anyone like it? Was the writing really any good? Would I find a typo? But after skimming a few paragraphs, I willed the demons of self-doubt to disappear and soon my panic melted into a fusion of joy, and pride.
So—if you’re holed up as I am, bracing for another few months of winter, you might consider adding What to Read in the Rain to your stockpile of rainy (and snowy) day reads. Whether diving into a poem by sixth-grader Morgan White, a graphic novella by Nikki McClure, or a short story by bestselling author Susan Orlean, I’ve found every submission to be equally intruiging, inspiring, and rewarding. Of course, the anthology also offers a sneak peak into The Lucky Ones—a taste of my writing and, I hope, a better understanding of what it meant to be a young Polish-Jewish mother doing everything in her power to survive the Holocaust.
Proceeds from What to Read in the Rain, should you decide order a copy, benefit 826 Seattle and the young writers who frequent the center. A worthy cause, indeed.
Last night I watched a documentary called 50 Children, the Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus (available on HBO until 5/5), about a Philadelphia couple, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, who set off in 1939 on a mission to bring 50 Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Austria. The Krauses faced several daunting obstacles along the way—they themselves were Jewish, to start, and the mission required traveling through Berlin and Vienna; they were also hampered by an American bureaucracy that was surprisingly apathetic in its humanitarian efforts.
The Krauses’ story is told partly through Eleanor’s journals, which I found to be quite moving. In the excerpt below, Eleanor describes the hundreds of Jewish families who, upon learning of their mission, begged for the privilege to send their kids to America:
“To take a child from its mother seemed to be the lowest thing a human being could do, yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Every parent we met seemed to say: ‘Here. Yes. Freely. Gladly. Take my child to a safer shore.’ ”
This sentiment reminds me of a story passed down to me by Felicia, my grandfather’s oldest niece. Felicia was born in 1938 and is the only living Kurc able to share her first-hand memories of the war. By the time she was five, Felicia had narrowly survived a mass shooting; she’d escaped the Radom ghetto (twice); and she’d witnessed, crouched beneath a kitchen table in an apartment in Warsaw, the brutal death of a fellow Jew discovered in hiding.
Shortly after the Warsaw incident, Felicia’s mother Mila realized with despair that it was impossible for her to keep her daughter safe. So when she caught wind of a Catholic convent outside of the city accepting children, she went right away and begged the Mother Superior to take her daughter in. At the convent, Felicia’s hair was dyed blond. She learned to recite the Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed, and Hail Mary. And her name was no longer Felicia Kurc, it was Barbara Cedransk.
As a parent, it’s impossible for me to consider what it would take to give up my child, with the hope that he may be safer without me—hope being a key word. I’m heartbroken when I imagine what it must have felt like for Mila to leave her daughter for days (and often weeks) between visits to the convent. “It wasn’t easy for either of us,” Felicia told me. “When my mother would come, she’d stand outside the playground fence. I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. I could see her, but I had to pretend I didn’t know her. So I’d make my way casually toward the fence and bend over, pretending to tie my shoe; upside-down, I’d smile and wave.”
As difficult as those visits must have been, it’s a blessing, I realize, that Mila was able to check in, to see with her own eyes that Felicia was alive and well. How must the families in Austria have felt, I wonder, sending their children with two strangers across the Atlantic to an unfamiliar land, not knowing when, or if they’d reunite?
Eleanor Kraus wrote in her journal that she begged each of the parents not to wave goodbye from the tracks on the day the train carrying their kids pulled away from the station in Berlin. “To lift their hands,” Eleanor wrote, “would resemble a salute to Hitler—an illegal act for a Jew, punishable by death.” The image of those parents standing at the tracks, unable even to wave as their children, plucked fresh from their arms, disappeared before their eyes, will haunt me for years to come.
I’ll never forget the day I got the call. I was at my uncle’s house in Warwick, Rhode Island for dinner. My cell phone rang as we were sitting down to eat. Who did I know with a 919 area code? And then it dawned on me.
Eliska’s voice was deep, with a thick accent, her English impeccable. “I was so happy to get your letter,” she said. Her excitement was palpable. “Your grandfather and I were, as they say…quite an item!” I coughed, caught off guard. She laughed. “You mentioned you were coming to North Carolina—we have so much catching up to do, let’s talk in person.”
Soon, a letter arrived with several snapshots of Eliska and my grandfather, beginning in the early 1940’s when they first met—aboard the Alsina, a ship full of European refugees fleeing war-torn Europe for South America. She was stunning.
A month later, my mother and I flew to Chapel Hill, where Eliska insisted we spend the weekend as her guests in her retirement community. My stomach was a cage full of butterflies the day we parked our rental car in front of her home. How much did she remember, I wondered? Would she be comfortable talking to us candidly about her wartime experiences? About my grandfather?
For two days, we sat around Eliska’s small living room table, surrounded by a montage of photographs and documents she’d gathered in anticipation of our visit. Her Alsina ticket. Her temporary Brazilian visa. A beautiful leather-bound book that my grandfather had made from scratch—selling books was his means of supporting himself when he finally arrived in Rio without a coin to his name, Eliska said. “Addy was infinitely resourceful, and clever with his hands.”
At 88 years old, Eliska’s memory was impressively sharp. She filled my voice recorder with hours of colorful stories—about the concerts performed in the Alsina’s first class piano lounge (“Your grandfather shared the Steinway with some big names,” she said, “like the famous concert pianists, the Kranz brothers”); about the French battleship, the Richelieu, anchored next to the Alsina during the four months they were detained in Dakar (“Every day we wondered if the Allies would bomb the Richelieu…if they had, we’d have gone down with it”); about how her mother had been adamantly against her relationship with my grandfather, despite the fact that he treated la Grande Dame, as Eliska referred to her, with the utmost deference (“My mother was aloof, but Addy never gave up trying to win her over”).
Eliska not only helped me patch together my grandfather’s gripping WWII survival story, she also gave me a glimpse into his personality—into the man he was at 28 years old, when he left his home and his family and sailed for South America, without a clue as to what the future might hold—or whether he’d see his family again. “Your grandfather was ebullient and outgoing, and at the same time sensitive and introspective,” she said. “There were many occasions when his optimism, his faith in life’s goodness, kept the rest of us at bay of despair.”
Eliska laughed when she talked about my grandfather’s quirks—his unconventional style of attire, his hell-bent determination to learn the game of tennis—a sport she’d grown up playing, and one that he took up during their time in Rio.
Eliska and my grandfather never married. I wondered why, and asked the question on our last afternoon together. Eliska laughed. “Oh, we had our fun. Plenty of it.” Her blue eyes twinkled. “But your grandfather and I, we were too much alike. If we’d gotten married,” she said, raising her hands over her head, waving them at the ceiling, “there would have been fireworks!”
My mind turned to my grandmother, who is about the most gentle, honest and unflappable soul I’ve ever met. Eliska must have read my thoughts. She fumbled through her photos, retrieving one of my grandmother, flanked by her two best girlfriends. “When Addy met the beautiful, serene Caroline, we both knew she was to be his mainstay and love for the rest of his life.” I stared at the photo, blinking, and for a moment, I couldn’t speak.
“How is sweet Caroline?” Eliska wanted to know. I explained that her memory wasn’t so sharp, but that she was well. Eliska smiled. “Please tell her I say hello, wish her the best.” I nodded. “Of course,” I said. “I sure will.”
After its debut in January, We Were the Lucky Ones spent over four months on the…
We Were the Lucky Ones is selected by Harpers Bazaar as one of 14 Books You Need to Read in February…”a tale of resilience and commitment to one another amidst the direst of obstacles.”