In this personal essay, Polish translator Marta Dziurosz explores her Jewish roots, her uneasy path to engaging with them, and how literature helped her along the way.
There are rooms of silence attached to this piece of writing. Things I don’t know; things I should know; things I’ve been asked not to write about; things I know but wish I didn’t; things my mother’s uncle said he’d found out but wouldn’t tell her because knowing would destroy her; things I’d written down but had second thoughts about – mainly regarding others. In Poland, in the second half of the twentieth century and later, the throat just closes sometimes. But I have been wanting to think out loud – in words – about my decision that other people’s writing, and my own, was how I was going to commemorate certain things. I almost want to say ‘atone for’.
We had a small, thick book of jokes I loved: the first Jewish text I read, as a child. I still know the entire score to The Fiddler of the Roof, which I listened to on cassette tape (this is Poland, early nineties). Through two levels of unfamiliarity – the English lyrics and Jewish culture – I found something I couldn’t let go of, that tore things out of me to the extent that I had to fast forward through Anatevka, couldn’t listen to Sunrise, Sunset. I must have been told at some point that this was an actual – if small – part of my identity, but (the way you’re told at some point about the birds and the bees) I can’t remember the conversation. What I do know is that there was no shock, no unpleasant surprise, just a quiet gladness. A recognition. And I went on, innocently glad to know this about myself, even though I saw the word ‘Jew’ and its derivatives used mostly as an insult then, spray-painted on walls.
The idea of being unwelcome. The idea of my thirteen-year-old mother in 1968. In 1968 there was a purge, to put it in simplest terms. Anyone who had survived and stayed came to be a useful smokescreen for other political crises, and unfinished business. People suddenly left for Sweden or were encouraged to retire. My grandfather, for example, had a nervous breakdown. It might have been before that, or after, that someone painted a star of David on the door of their flat. My mother’s family home was filled with such deafening silence about stars of David and such things that she had to go to the library to find out what it meant. Thirty-odd years later I first listen to The Klezmatics’ Possessed. In the song An Undoing World there’s a phrase: ‘how unwelcome everywhere we’ve been’. And it feels the same like when the first notes of Anatevka start: something acrid and raw, something I can’t allow too close or I’ll break.
For years, there was a quiet magnetism to all things Jewish. My hometown, Katowice, had a dilapidated Jewish cemetery. It was difficult to see behind its walls, but for much of my youth it stood for a link to an identity I didn’t really have a way to be in touch with. I passed it by once on a walk with a friend, late in the evening. She said it terrified her, because it made her hear prayers she couldn’t understand. I didn’t feel like that at all: it seemed inviting, living proof of the existence of the people I wanted to connect with. But it felt precarious, its status and sanctity uncertain. I remember one or two tours, a gate repaired, but the fact that someone was looking after that derelict expanse of stone and overgrown foliage seemed tenuous. Cats prowled around and someone’s laundry was sometimes hung out to dry just beyond the wall. In the mid-noughties I volunteered there for a while. During a cleaning-up session on a damp, cold day I cut the back of my calf on some broken glass. I didn’t notice until I came home and undressed to take a shower. It was a biggish cut, so I walked slowly to the nearest A&E. I ended up with stitches, a tetanus shot, and fingers dyed navy blue by the soaked leather gloves I’d been wearing all day. I still have the scar.
Along with the magnetism came the fear and shame. It was probably in the late nineties that I discovered there was some sort of Jewish community centre in Katowice. A small plaque by the door of a tenement on one of the main streets said ‘Gmina Wyznaniowa Żydowska’. I had no idea what to expect, what it could be, but I had a feeling it might have to do with old people among old furniture talking about things alien to me and their own intricate affairs. Still, I’d get a little secret thrill every time I passed it. Maybe in there I could find people who knew things I wanted to know. Once, I did get into the tenement house somehow – I must have pressed the buzzer, my heart going, scared of what I might find and of whether I’d be allowed and of being judged. I walked up a floor or two, but then paced back and forth for a while on a landing. Before I got to the right flat, an elderly woman leaned out her own door and demanded what I was doing there, or something along these lines. She spooked me: I ran. Now I think she might have had good intentions, perhaps wanted to protect the community members from intrusion. All I know is I never went back. I check online now. The gmina has a page on the Polish Wikipedia, and there’s a phone number and an email address.
I had been carrying all this and more for years when I moved to Wrocław, a beautiful old city which has had many names. Its Old Jewish Cemetery is a true city of the dead, a museum in flux – it is actually the Museum of Funerary Art now. Over 11 acres of greenery and words etched in stone. I visited once, in my early twenties, and it was there that I made up my mind about something. These people, their memories, the things they had wanted to build, their relationships, the music they played in the evenings, what they knew and what they believed in, it was all so gone. At that cemetery, the evil of adding years of dedicated, scrupulous destruction of top of that suddenly became apparent to me in its enormity. I had known the history, but there was a shift that day. I was fierce with loss. Some sort of promise to myself and others emerged; in my own small way I would preserve what I could, I’d learn and pass things on, I’d make a vessel in me to be able to gather things and then share with others.
Some years later I sat, along other women, in the balcony of the newly re-opened, newly radiant White Stork Synagogue in Wrocław. A few years later again, a man burned an effigy of an Orthodox Jew in Wrocław’s main square during a nationalist demonstration. Poland now seems to be sitting on some sort of see-saw of unprocessed historical shock, veering from celebration to condemnation, from restaurants with menus written in Hebrew-inspired fonts to conspiracy theories and violence. Still, there are festivals of Jewish literature, culture, food and music; the ŻIH (Jewish Historical Institute), the POLIN Museum and other organisations help reunite people with their own past. From an emigrant’s distance, I can afford to be optimistic.
From there I moved to London – North London. One Sunday afternoon I walked the half hour from a friend’s house near Amhurst Park to a Pilates class off Stoke Newington Church Street. I’d never walked that route before. For most of the time it felt like I was the only non-Orthodox Jewish person around; little boys with payot ran from house to house with backpacks on their backs, small groups of girls in mid-calf skirts chatted. I walked among them feeling like an intruder, but also distantly, helplessly euphoric – there it was, Jewish life. The friendly shouts across the street, the windows lit from within. Of course this was only the most visible aspect of the Jewish presence I’d encounter in London, and there were so many more: friends; my therapist; the synagogue around the corner from where I live; the yeasty, warm smell from a baking class at JW3 when I was there for an event; a queer Hanukkah party called Butt Mitzvah where people dressed up as sexy dreidels and I picked up a tiny metallic piece of confetti in the shape of the star of David off the bar and put it in my wallet. I popped into Moshe’s Delicatessen in North-West London by chance, when in the area to see a doctor. The kosher sushi was being prepared by a Polish woman. I heard her teaching her colleague, a man in a kippah, short Polish phrases. I wondered whether his grandparents ever lived in a shtetl, and also listened to my language – or maybe they spoke it too. All these people, alive and living with their past in their present.
There’s that term: ‘People of the Book’. While I don’t see myself actively participating in a religion, texts and words have been the foundation of my engagement with Jewishness. My mother kept on reading – I remember her with Philip Roth and Romain Gary. For a long time in my childhood, there was a black-and-white photo of Leonard Cohen pinned to the pantry door. I watched Agnieszka Holland’s adaptation of Ansky’s Dybbuk on TV when I was sixteen and wrote the words of fervent, sensual/spiritual devotion spoken by Leah and Khanan in my diary that night. Now, twenty years later, words are my profession and preoccupation. I think about the translation into Polish I do for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the books I translated into English or contributed translations for: most of them were written by a Jewish person, or someone with a Jewish background (Barry Cohen, Janusz Korczak, Renia Spiegel, Marcin Wicha). They all speak of the Polish-Jewish experience. Having this sort of focus is not too difficult when you translate Polish literature, but I sense that for me it started with that shift at Wrocław’s Old Jewish Cemetery. Now that I know the word, I suppose it’s a mitzvah of sorts. Even if it sometimes feels like I’m making myself sick on purpose, I will pass those words through me so that more people can read them. So that they know and remember.
Having said that, I’m never not worried about what my claim to my Jewish ancestry can really be; I’m the oft-ridiculed 1/16th, the barely-there, and to people who have been able to be in touch with their heritage on a daily basis all this might seem ridiculous. But for most of my life there has been so little to latch on to, and so much of what there was reeked of genocide, prejudice and denial, that I have found it important to live with my roots, to not make myself seem pure, homogenous and untouched by the past. What I respond to is the term ‘third generation’, maybe because it immediately brings to mind the two generations that came before me, their trauma and their history. It emphasises the things I’ve inherited. It makes me feel grateful that after my grandfather’s silence, and my mother’s quiet, patient conversations with me, I now have so many ways to speak.