© 2019 by Michelle Levy. 

Poland diary excerpts

 

From September 2018 to July 2019, I relocated to Warsaw, Poland to investigate details around the testimony of Paulina Hirsch– a Polish Jewish woman, born 1902, who fended her way through Nazi-occupied Poland and survived, on her own, but lost her husband and daughter. I had discovered Paulina's testimony when I was looking for records on my great-grandmother-- Paulina was apparently her niece.  

 

Research culminated in a journey with Patrycja Dołowy, the Polish artist/ writer who first translated the testimony for me -- together we would follow Paulina's wartime path across Poland and Ukraine.

The following are some selections from my personal diary, little pieces of the puzzle, in the months leading up to the trip with Patrycja. (Revelations from the actual journey, together with Patrycja's, are being woven into our developing performance project, "Paulina").

* The testimony was filed by the Central Jewish Historical Committee in 1945, and is in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw.

October 29, 2018

This morning I met with O. (genealogist) at JHI*. I had barely slept. I have been waiting for this meeting for so long– the pressure for it to be what I hoped for, and to get there on time, and just overall anticipation... a recipe for insomnia. I woke up with enough time, but when I left, I made horrible transportation decisions, and I ended up on a bus in the middle of rush hour. O. was late too, and I was grateful. We went for a coffee, and I explained the scenario re: Paulina.

 

O. is an exuberant being. I asked to take her photo. She agreed shyly.  She is Jewish, but no one else in her family identifies. It is interesting to see, more and more, how being Jewish here is a choice, a radical and brave one.

According to O., Paulina's testimony is written very strangely. She said it was Joyce-ian and added that her brain also functions that way. “My brain is like James Joyce”- direct quote.

 

She commented that some of the stories in the testimony seem fake—not that she believed they were, but they were the kind of stories you hear from later testimonies that were influenced by movies. For example, the smuggling people out of the ghetto from under potato peels also turns up in the story of the famous Zookeeper -- she asked if I read the book about him, and I said no, but I saw the movie. She is not a fan of the movie (or of that answer... from foreigners). 

 

Once we were back in the office and hooked into the databases, with the whole genealogy team, they found the name of Paulina’s daughter, Irena. Born 1922.

 

And soon after, the confirmation that, as suspected, Paulina was not a Hirsch by birth.

Her maiden name was Immerglück. 

My pulse was racing for the rest of the day.

 

...

I got home wired and short of breath, and messaged Patrycja about Paulina’s daughter, and the confirmation that she is not my relative, to which she replied, this is even more proof that there is something we are supposed to find from this story -- there is a reason it came out of the woodwork and attached itself to us.

*Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw, where I discovered Paulina's testimony, on a visit in 2017

Nov. 7, 2018

 

It’s interesting.

 

Since I found out for certain that Paulina is not related to me, I have been having some emotional difficulty. I had suspected this for a while, but seeing the proof so clearly (and how quickly it was pulled up during my meeting, reflecting the big oversight originally made) – was deflating. But. There was the thrill of seeing further evidence of this woman whose story has been my obsession for so long: her maiden name, her family, the promise of uncovering more about her (now that I am looking for the right woman) and what happened to her after the war. Yet as days went on, I became increasingly insecure about what I am doing here.  Especially after my meeting with Patrycja, which I had hoped would offer reassurance, as she has been my life-line here.  But Patrycja appeared to be having hesitations of her own. I wrote down in my notebook that she said, "things are very strange now," because the uneasiness around her words was palpable. Or maybe I am paranoid. Regardless, I walked away full of doubt. 

...

There is something thrilling and terrifying about coming face to face with a record from the no-longer-living. Such an encounter shakes you out of your self-constructed realm of comfort and forces a direct confrontation with the past. The brain (or at least my brain) can only handle so much raw truth at a time. This is my argument for why it took so long to see who Paulina really was, while it was always right in front of me: the fear of learning something that I wasn’t ready to know.

Nov. 27, 2018

 

I am writing this to observe the sentiments that run through my mind, not to be hard on myself, but so that I remember them later. The hole left behind by the discovery that Paulina is not related to me continues to create echoes. I feel as though a tether has been cut that anchored me here. Suddenly, I am faced with the fear that I am self-deluded, that rather than being here to do something important; I am just a loser, using Paulina’s story to fill a void in my own life. (Must these be mutually exclusive?) I have dedicated nearly two years to Paulina with blinders on. I have not been able to do anything else since her testimony was given to me. What is it about her story that promised/promises meaning for me? What void in Patrycja led her to commit to me and this project, and how has that changed for her as this/our story has changed? How can we reconcile this for both of us?

 

 

Side note: whenever I am describing Paulina for the first time to someone, I always have this urge to say she survived the Holocaust with flying colors. Is it EVER ok to say that? (No)

December 2, 2018

 

Yesterday Patrycja and I met just to talk. I had been feeling so up and down and emotional, and have not been sharing any of this with her. But it turns out she sensed I have been having a hard time, so it was very good that we had a conversation. All of our other meetings have been focused on project planning with no time for thoughts and feelings. I can see now that Patrycja needs these thoughts-and-feelings conversations too. It is always hard to gauge with a new person – especially when there is a cultural barrier – when it is time to open up, but I am glad we started this process. I think we both feel relieved. The experience I had of a tether being cut, and some magic connection to my grandmother, lost, Patrycja felt it too. It had been important to her that she was helping me shed light on my family. This feeling of loss took us by surprise. Intellectually, we both know that it shouldn't make a difference- that she IS OUR family.

 

December 30, 2018 

 

A life in someone else’s shoes.  Her name was Paulina Hirsch.

I have been in Poland for three months.

 

If you choose to follow a thread, it will always lead somewhere (especially in Poland). Which story you choose is less important than your commitment to it. I take this commitment to an extreme level, it is true.

 

I wish I could say: I chose to research the story of Paulina Hirsch because of such and such theory, and with the proposed outcome of such and such community benefit. She represents xyz of the female/Jewish demographic, and etc etc. But the truth is I chose to research her story because it spoke to me, it cast me under its spell, and I needed to follow it. This is, in many ways, spiritual. As a contemporary artist, following this “spiritual” route can be tricky. But this story, with all of its complication, is the ultimate for me, creatively speaking. This is about meaning-making and the conflicts and dangers we face in the process. The risky part (and crucial part) is that I sincerely give myself over to it. I am here in Poland not only to research a woman’s story but to put myself in the vulnerable position of being a part of the story. One tenuous result is the possibility that this is not art at all … and that I don’t, therefore, know what it is. I am left hovering in an in-between space that holds me back from being all-in.

 

But. Being all-in is the key to really following Paulina and her story to the end. She was resourceful and did what she needed to do, no matter what. While she remains a mystery in so many ways, I need to create a clear picture of her to take the next steps forward.  

December 31, 2018

 

(To Paulina)

 

Yesterday I had a conversation with G. who had been at the recent sharing of your testimony, and she said her first impression was that it was not real. She is a brilliant woman dedicated to memory work around the Holocaust and Jewish life here. She said her comment was not a criticism, but an observation. She doesn’t actually believe your testimony is false, but her first reaction was to question it. It has something to do with the style in which it is written down-- so many isolated details without any broader context. She is not the first person to make this observation.  O., the genealogist, had said that the scenarios described read like a condensed compilation of so many others’ experiences. She knew the testimony couldn’t actually be made up, because of its early date, yet she was still struck by the oddness.

This brings me back to the earliest moment of discovery with Patrycja when she decoded your text for me.  I was startled, as I had never experienced any story like this, and deferred to Patrycja who said your testimony was very different from the others she had seen. It read like the plot of a movie, she said, further convincing me of its/your unusualness.  L., who did the most comprehensive translation (and has read dozens of these testimonies), also expressed the text to be unusual because of the amount of attention given to other people and “subplots.” This brings me back to the evening we shared your testimony with a group of mostly women at the Warsaw JCC. The looks on their faces from one passage to the next, their reflexes to turn to each other and comment, gasp and grimace from disbelief, sometimes incredulous laughte, at the turns of luck in your favor, and your brazen choices. Someone (M.) proposed your resourcefulness, exquisite recall, and read on character were so remarkable the Soviets could have recruited you as a spy. 

. . .

 

Today is the eve of your birthday.

January 2, 2019

Yesterday, January 1st (your birthday), I was too tired to do anything. I was upset with myself because I was completely hungover from New Year's Eve. The beautiful day I imagined became a day of convalescence. As I lay about, I wondered about you and the many New Years days/birthdays you spent throughout your life. How would you celebrate, Paulina? For how many of these, if any, were you convalescing as well?  

 

I spent half of the day reading Holocaust-related texts. Everything I read now, watch, see or hear, I wonder about your placement within its scene. I can’t help but feel that whatever ends up before my eyes has been put there for a reason. There is a clue to you in everything. Part of me really believes we are really having a conversation. Delusion or not, I indulge. You are the one I spend most of my time with here.

 

. . .

 

When I could no longer read, I decided to watch a film. I chose something Polish, settling on Korczak by Andrzej Wajda. I am still adjusting to the new knowledge that you lived until 1991, into my own childhood. You could have actually seen this film. As I watched, I continued to wonder where you would have been during different moments in the scenes.

 

My conversation with you is affecting my relationship to the past.

January 10, 2019

 

I had very vivid dreams last night. I woke up around 4:30 a.m. and felt as if a strong presence was with me.  Could it be you? It is now evening and the details have faded, but this imprint remains: in the dream, I knew I was pregnant.  I was starting a new life, on my own, somewhere between Poland and the US (it was both places simultaneously). I had a test done for my health, and the results brought back a positive for pregnancy. Most of the dream was focused on how I shared the news, one by one, to people I knew. I was aware I wasn’t supposed to share such news so soon, but my mom was very supportive of it, so I went ahead. This knowledge of my future child was very strong, and while my life circumstances were not the most ideal for bringing a child into the world, people were happy for me. I remember, after sharing the news with multiple people, I finally asked someone, “don’t you even want to know who the father is?” And when I asked that, an inner voice said he was a “Polskiego” man. I remember planning out the rest of my time here, that I would arrive home in my eighth month-- essentially the very last moment that a pregnant woman could fly. I had no memory of the Polish man who got me pregnant, or when this could have happened. I was also very aware of your presence.  Just before I woke up from the dream, I looked again at my test results and saw that they had been taken from an old sample of my blood from two years ago. I knew I would then have to contact all the people I had told and explain to them that I couldn’t possibly be pregnant. But the knowledge of being pregnant came with such a strong feeling that I couldn’t shake, and it was connected with you.  I woke up with the haunting sensation that I had been in the presence of the unknowable, the dead.

February 6, 2019

 

I almost wrote this is my 34th Birthday. I wish it was my 34th birthday. I still think I am 34, but I am 43. While I dread being this age, this is an important milestone, as we crisscross our paths. You were 43 when the war ended, and when you gave your testimony. That moment is frozen in time- the moment of your sharing/ retelling, as is the moment when Patrycja and I discovered it together, almost exactly 2 years ago today (Friday is our day).

March 9, 2019

Questions for Paulina regarding your husband, Jozef

 

Did you laugh together?

Was he serious?

Do you feel like he understood you?

Did you respect each other?

Did you feel safe with him?

Were you able to confide in him?

Were you in love with him when you got married?

Was he handsome?

Was he tall?

How old were you when you first saw him?

Did you want to be married that young?

Were you frightened?

Did you feel comfortable in your body when you were with him?

Was there passion between you?

Did you share secrets together?

Did you have big plans for the future?

Did you understand his work?

Did he talk to you about his work? 

Were you a unified front?

Did you eat dinner together every night?

Did you listen to music?

Did you dance?

Did you read the same books?

Did you write letters to each other?

Did you travel together?

Did you let down your guard with him?

Did you ever act wild and crazy?

Did you bring out the boy in him?

Were you ever dishonest with each other?

Did he ever betray your trust?

Did you ever betray his?

Was he a good father?

April 19 -

Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and 1st night of Passover

Today, there were hundreds of people all over the city, wearing and carrying the yellow daffodils, a symbol of remembrance. This is not a graveyard, but a place of the living, fighting spirit. 

 

On my way to the commemoration, it struck me that this city has become the center of everything. The most important. A monolith. Maybe it is the massive size of the former ghetto-- how you walk huge stretches of the city and are still within its boundary. It is impossible to comprehend that time, and yet it all feels so present. This was a diverse city, one of the most diverse. When I heard Yiddish, the language of my grandparents, sung in tribute, I felt abstract pain. There is a resilience of memory here- even in so much absence. There are people here who are links to the past, whose existence every day has meaning because they are here.

 

This is a sobering place, a serious place. It is filled the spirits of many striving to live a life with purpose – a purpose informed by what was suffered and what has been lost, and how to overcome. To live here requires being deliberate in your choices, to be careful with your words. To show respect to older generations, to show deep care for younger generations.

 

I am distanced from my Jewish past, but I identify with it deeply. It is powerful to be in Poland and to feel the responsibility of representation and preservation. I have permission to be here because I should have been here.  I can imagine living... existing here in a way I can't even imagine in NY. New York is where “we” all went, but Warsaw represents the heart of where we all came from.

 

I want to write something real. I want to write about trying to feel Paulina, and perhaps about feeling a city more than a person– but through this person, I have been able to channel a city? About the lack of access to a thing (like Warsaw's modern buildings and massive intersections, like Paulina's terse, impenetrable text), while at the same time, having something flow in from beneath, from cracks in the sides.

 

I have so much I want to write, but can’t. I want to labor for days over these words. I am torn between this and protecting myself, the desire to feel safe, to enjoy, to not get weighed down. But I also feel very strongly that I need to go deeper into something here. It is about Warsaw, and about living in the past and the present together. It is about living with the awareness and memory of a woman who had lived here during the war– living with her all the time. Somehow this integrates me into the fabric, even though I can barely speak the language. Even though I have barely idea of what is going on on a daily basis, as an outsider. Like a ghost.

 

Am I making sense yet? I am not even scratching the surface.