The Pages In Between A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home

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  • Copyright: 2009-04-07
  • Publisher: Touchstone
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In a unique, intensely moving memoir, Erin Einhorn finds the family in Poland who saved her mother from the holocaust. But instead of a joyful reunion, Erin unearths a dispute that forces her to navigate the increasingly bitter crossroads between memory and truth.To a young newspaper reporter, it was the story of a lifetime: a Jewish infant born in the ghetto, saved from the Nazis by a Polish family, uprooted to Sweden after the war, repeatedly torn away from the people she knew as family -- all to take a transatlantic journey with a father she'd barely known toward a new life in the United States.Who wouldn't want to tell that tale? Growing up in suburban Detroit, Erin Einhorn pestered her mother to share details about the tumultuous, wartime childhood she'd experienced. "I was always loved," was all her mother would say, over and over again. But, for Erin, that answer simply wasn't satisfactory. She boarded a plane to Poland with a singular mission: to uncover the truth of what happened to her mother and reunite the two families who once worked together to save a child. But when Erin finds Wieslaw Skowronski, the elderly son of the woman who sheltered her mother, she discovers that her search will involve much more than just her mother's childhood.Sixty years prior, at the end of World War II, Wieslaw Skowronski claimed that Erin's grandfather had offered the Skowronskis his family home in exchange for hiding his daughter. But for both families, the details were murky. If the promise was real, fulfilling it would be arduous and expensive. To unravel the truth and resolve the decades-old land dispute, Erin must search through centuries of dusty records and maneuver an outdated, convoluted legal system.As she tries to help the Skowronski family, Erin must also confront the heart-wrenching circumstances of her family's tragic past while coping with unexpected events in her own life that will alter her mission completely.Six decades after two families were brought together by history, Erin is forced to separate the facts from the glimmers of fiction handed down in the stories of her ancestors. In this extraordinariy intimate memoir, journalist Erin Einhorn overcomes seemingly insurmountable barriers -- legal, financial, and emotional -- only to question her own motives and wonder how far she should go to right the wrongs of the past.

Author Biography

Erin Einhorn is a reporter for the Daily News (New York), where she has covered New York City government and education-related issues. She has also written for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Fortune. Einhorn lives in New York City.



Months later, wrestling the personal and historical demons my search had set free, I would look back on the first six weeks I lived in Krakow -- lovely weeks spent strolling the square -- and wonder if I had known something then, if a part of me had seen the future and divined the grief about to visit my family. I would look back on entire days devoted to "cultural reconnaissance" and wonder if I wasn't just savoring a last dance before an end to the party. It seemed easier at the time to attribute the delay in my search to something cosmic, to believe it served some purpose beyond the drag of my own fear. But if I had been honest with myself, if I had allowed even a hint of self-awareness, I would have had to acknowledge that those cheerful spring days were little more than creative diversions. Because as bold as I pretended to be, and as brave as I was to have made it that far, I recognize now that I was just afraid to continue. It was one thing to concoct an adventure, to boast to friends that I would locate the family who saved my mother from the Nazis. It was entirely another to begin that adventure -- born, as it was, of a lifelong dream -- and expose it to the looming possibility of failure.

It's not that I didn't know where to begin. I knew that if I boarded a train in Krakow and rode it two hours to the west, I could arrive in a city where I could switch to a bus that would take me to a town where I could wander around in search of the house that my family used to own. I knew that if I found the house, I could approach the people who lived in it and ask them, after all these years, if they could direct me to the people who had made my life possible. It was in that house, in the small city of Bdzin, Poland, where, in 1945, after his liberation from Auschwitz but before his departure from the country, my grandfather last saw the family who had saved his daughter. And so it would be to that house that I would return to find them again. But half a century had passed with our families on opposite sides of an ocean, and if these people were alive at all, I feared they had moved, disappeared without a forwarding address. And then what would I do? I worried that I'd never find them, that I'd be forced to go home with nothing.

But even more daunting than the prospect of never finding the family was the thought that its members were not only alive but living in what had been my family home. Of this I had been warned: "Be careful," hissed the man beside me one night in a Krakow bar when I told him why I had come to Poland. "You're wading into dangerous waters." He spoke of other foreigners he'd known, other Jews who'd returned, who'd tried to claim land seized first by the Nazis, then by the Soviets. They'd been spit on, accused of trying to steal a home from a family who had committed no crime. I assured this man that I had no interest in restitution, no desire to claim family property, but he told me it might not matter, that my motives might be questioned. His warnings were echoed by others, in other conversations, in other Polish bars. I heard of blistering debates over Jewish property in the Polish parliament. I heard that in towns where jobs were becoming increasingly scarce, Jews were once again becoming the scapegoats of choice. I feared my search would be viewed in this context and so I invented excuses. With a little more time, I reasoned, I could be more careful. I could form the right words.

But the first cold buds that had appeared on the trees soon after I arrived had already unfolded into blooms and were starting to curl into leaves. In the six weeks that I had been living in Krakow, March had become April, April had become May. And even my mother, who always insisted she had no interest in the family who had saved her life, had started to wonder, in her weekly calls from Detroit, when I would make my move. I told her, as I had told myself, that I was waiting for the right moment, but it sounded more like a lie when I said it out loud, and I knew I'd exhausted my excuses. And so, on a sunny morning in early May -- the year was 2001 -- I reluctantly took my first few diffident steps toward whatever would happen next.

"We have to be cautious," I told my flatmates, Krys and Magda, who agreed to come with me as interpreters. This was a delicate matter. We would take good notes, then retreat to plan an artful approach. "We have to stay under radar," I insisted. Krys and Magda looked at each other, smiled at me, and both burst out laughing. "Sure thing," Magda chortled. "Whatever you say." They giggled down the stairs from our apartment and all the way to the train station, but I could barely swallow. My hands wobbled as I bought three tickets and handed them, crumpled and clammy, to the conductor on the train. I tried to watch out the window, to focus on the blur of muddy fields and abandoned factories in the passing scene. I tried to hear above the grinding gears of the belching train a piece of Krys and Magda's Polish banter, but there was no room in my head for anything beyond the nervous pounding of my own quickened heart. It was a sound track I knew, the drum in my head from days spent clinging to a notch of stone or a hairline crack on a granite cliff. I'd taken up rock climbing to confront my fear of heights and had willed myself to the tops of soaring cliffs. I had scrambled to the infinite tips of desert spires but had never learned to suppress those moments of panic when my hands would become so sweaty I could barely hold on, when I would become intensely aware of the empty space below me, and when all I could do was close my eyes and regret my decision to relinquish the solid comfort of earth. I would stand there, my toe jammed into a thimble-like pocket, two fingers pinching the tiniest crimp of rock, and listen to the pulsing beat of terror in my head. Then I would focus on the small task -- the next move, the next handhold. And this was the lesson I applied now, sitting on the train beside Krys and Magda. I tried to relax, to calm my breath, to steady my hands.

As my flatmates laughed and chatted in Polish, I tried to divine at least the subject of their conversation, but after weeks of struggling to memorize strange-sounding verbs, I was still learning basic phrases. Discouraged, I dug through my bag for the photograph my mother had given me a few weeks before I left for Poland -- an ordinary studio portrait, yellowed with age and printed on a scalloped-edged postcard from the 1940s. There was nothing outwardly remarkable about the three people in the picture, posing stiffly in front of a blank screen, but there was something so arresting about them that I'd taken to examining the photo as though it were a clue to a mystery, an insight, perhaps, into the child at the center of the frame. It was my mom at age three, her round little head tucked into a white knit cap, sitting between a man I recognized as her father and a pretty woman I had never seen before. "Is this your mother?" I asked when Mom first handed me the picture. I thought I could see a vague reflection of my own features in the woman's oval face and high cheekbones. But no, Mom said. Her mother would have been dead by the time the picture was taken. I remember standing silently in my mother's study that day, stunned that something as precious as this had appeared, as if out of the air, out of time. I thought I'd seen everything my mom had kept from her childhood and couldn't quite figure how she'd never shown this to me before. Did she not know she had it? Had she forgotten? Had she been wanting to keep it to herself?

"I used to think maybe she was my mother," Mom said, sounding distant even as she stood beside me. "But it couldn't have been her." We stood for another few minutes looking down at the photo, its unanswered questions. "I've wondered if maybe she's the woman who saved me." She turned the card to show me the back, where, in a handwriting that was like my mother's but had less confidence, a younger version of her had written her best guess about the picture:Daddy, me and Polish lady caregiver,it said. Now, on the train, I turned the card over to admire my mother's lovely script, the loopy lines of her pen along the top edge of the card.

The picture caught Krys and Magda's attention, and they leaned in. Magda reached over to tilt the picture toward the window's light. I watched as she considered the image, squinted slightly, and pulled the picture closer to her face before pronouncing her verdict: "Your mom looks sad," she said, handing the photo back to me. I hadn't noticed this before, but sure enough, when I looked down at the picture again, I could see that my mother's eyes looked puffy, as though she'd been crying. "Look how she's holding on to her coat," Magda said, pointing. It was another detail I'd somehow failed to notice despite hours of staring at the picture. I blushed with the shame of my inattention, but Magda was right. With her small right hand, Mom was gently fingering the white fur trim on her coat, holding on to its softness for comfort. My grandfather, on his daughter's left in the photo, looked dashingly handsome in a dark suit and dark tie. His face, unsmiling, was smooth and proud. The woman in the picture was the only one who seemed happy to be there. She wasn't smiling exactly, but the quiet edges of her painted lips were slightly upturned. "You're sure this isn't your grandmother?" Krys asked. "They look so much like a family, a mother, a father, a child." But no, I said. The woman in the photo was unknown.

Bdzin was much bigger than I'd thought it would be, and much more urban. I'd pictured chickens and goats in the streets, but the bus from the train station dropped us on the side of a smog-choked highway beside a city center where three- and four-story buildings made of concrete and brick jostled for space along the crowded sidewalk. A young town historian named Jarek Krajniewski was overjoyed by our interest in his city and led an enthusiastic tour of its medieval castle and decaying neighborhoods. I'd made contact with Jarek a week earlier to arrange for this tour, and thrilled in walking the streets where my family story began. People seemed friendly. They waved to Jarek. They greeted us warmly. But I still couldn't shake the warnings in my head. I worried that people were watching us, that they could tell I was a Jew. I avoided eye contact. I took photos only covertly. I spent so much time glancing over my shoulder that I nearly knocked into Jarek when he suddenly stopped walking and grinned. "What's wrong?" I asked, glancing around. "That's it," he said, gesturing with his chin. "That's the house you asked about." I studied his face for a minute, not sure what he was saying or when I had asked about a house. Then I remembered that I told Jarek my family's old address when we met through a mutual friend in Krakow. That's when I realized where I was: the house I came to Poland to find.

I followed Jarek's gaze to a wide three-story town house of pinkish brick, covered with a layer of grime. It was the only building on the block that wasn't flush with the sidewalk. It sat, strangely, twenty feet back from the street beyond a square of grassless lawn, a large, thick tree, and a jarringly ugly aluminum shack. The house seemed almost to be hiding. Like the city itself, the house was much bigger than I'd thought it would be, and much more modern, but it was also dingier than I'd expected. Its bricks seemed coarsely placed, its rows of windows -- seven across the top, seven through the middle -- seemed to droop, to gape vacantly back at me. Upstairs, a sweatshirt hung drying from a balcony rail.

I felt suddenly winded. I realized I had been holding my breath and sharply released a lungful of air. We stood planted on the sidewalk, watching the house, waiting. I think it was Magda who broke the silence: "Do you think they're still here?" she asked.

"I doubt it," I said, my eyes still fixed on the house. "It's been a long time."

It had been a long time. It had been fifty-five years, five months, two weeks, and three days since my grandfather invited the family to live in his house, then left Poland forever. And yet there was a chance that behind one of these windows, I could still find the people who had saved my mother's life. After all these years, they could still be here, drying their laundry on the balcony rail. I could hear the heartbeat pulsing in my head again. I was back on the cliff, praying for an easy way down, an easy way out.

"Doesn't look like anyone's home," I said, as though saying it could make it true.

"What do you mean?" Krys asked. "Let's see if they're here."

"Oh, no," I said. "Not today. I just wanted to see the house and to -- "

My friends were already bounding down the brick path toward the building's central archway. I tried to stop them, tried to yell for them to return, but they continued into the staircase on the left side of the archway and intrepidly knocked on the first door they saw. I hung back, afraid of what would happen, hoping no one would answer. I cringed when the door edged open and a woman's face appeared. I nearly ducked behind the stairs so I wouldn't be seen.

Jarek introduced himself, asking the woman if she knew a family named Skowroski who used to live here. The woman hesitated, skeptically eyeing the strangers in front of her, then slowly nodded. She said something in Polish, pointed toward the sky, then disappeared back into her apartment. It was the news I had both feared and secretly hoped for:

"They're dead?" I asked.

"No," Krys said, laughing, patting me playfully on the shoulder. "They live upstairs." I was dumbfounded. Upstairs? They were still here? But how? And what if we went upstairs and they slammed the door? My friends had already started up to the second floor as I hurried to catch them. "Listen," I said. "Maybe we should send a letter first. It'd be less confrontational." The first approach was crucial. It needed to be handled with care, not rushed like this, but my friends were almost giddy as they rang the bell beside a door on the second landing. That was when I noticed that the small tag beside the doorbell said: skowroska, honorata. That was the name of the woman who had saved my mom. She couldn't still be alive, could she? If she'd been an adult during the war, she'd be...

I should have brought water with me. I was starting to feel light-headed. The stairwell had a faint stench of urine and rot. The iron railings were twisted as though beaten and bruised. On the turquoise walls, ribbons of graffiti swirled around the badly chipped paint. I just wasn't ready for this, not yet. I wanted to leave the house and put an end to this stressful day -- to go back to Krakow and write a carefully worded letter to introduce myself to the family to assure them that my intentions were innocuous. When no one answered the door, I felt enormous relief and pleaded with my friends to leave with me. I argued that we would miss our train back to Krakow, but they wanted to talk to the neighbors. They wanted to ring another bell, then another, until we were joined in the narrow stairwell by an old man and his wife who lived across the hall and an even older lady who came out to investigate the commotion. Jarek addressed them in what seemed like a formal tone, asking if they knew that their neighbor Mrs. Skowroska had sheltered a Jewish baby during the occupation. The neighbors seemed surprised, but yes, they seemed to be saying, "She did shelter a Jewish child." Then they all started talking at once, smiling and nodding and interrupting one another to tell the story they'd heard from their neighbor. I picked out a few words. I heardBaby. Jewish. War.

"Mrs. Skowroska told them about your mother," Magda whispered to me. "She talked about her all the time. She's dead now, but her son still lives here." My friends started pointing at me and sayingcórka,which meansdaughter."She's the daughter of the baby who lived with Mrs. Skowroska." The neighbors started gesturing with their hands, telling more of the story. The old man pointed to the Skowroska door, but we told him that no one was home. "Oh, they're home, they're home," the old man seemed to be saying as he stepped around us to the door and knocked. No one answered, so the old man knocked again, this time harder."SKUV-ROYN-SKI!"he yelled, pounding like a cop without a warrant."MASZ GOSCI!" You have guests.

The man continued to pound on the door, and the muted sound of his fist against the wood echoed up and down the stairs. That was when I really started to fluster. I needed subtlety, not seven people in a stairwell and one of them pounding on the door. What if someone actually opened the door to this?"SKUV-ROYN-SKIII!!!"The man raised his voice to a shout. "Really," I said. "If they're not -- " Then the door opened and a confused older face emerged. I saw blue eyes, startled and wide, tucked into a blanket of soft creases. The owner of the eyes blinked as though he'd been sleeping. Then everyone started talking at once, pointing and nodding -- Krys, Magda, Jarek, the old man with the pounding fist, his wife, the lady across the hall -- they were a buzzing cacophony of Slavic confusion interrupted for me only by the same few words:Mother. Baby. War.And now they were pointing at me. They were pointing at me and sayingcórka,daughter. I blushed. Everyone was talking except me and the man with the startled blue eyes. While they talked, we kept looking at each other. Finally, I put out my hand and said in broken Polish something I hoped was: "Hello, sir, nice to meet you." He took my hand and told me the meeting was his pleasure.

"My name is Erin," I told him. His name was Wiesaw (VYE-swahf). He invited us into his living room, a small rectangular space with two windows facing the street; a beat-up sofa; a square table with a collection of mismatched chairs; and a large ceramic heater in the corner. Krys, Magda, Jarek, and I stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, not sure if we should stand or sit, if we should say something or wait for him to speak. Wiesaw stood wordlessly, as though trying to decide if we were real or if he was dreaming in his sleep. He kept blinking. Not sure what else to do, I reached into my bag for the photo of my mother at three, with her father and a dark-haired woman. I handed the picture to Wiesaw, who started.

"My God," he said, closing his eyes and opening them again."To moja matka."That's my mother. I smiled, touched his arm, and pointed to the girl in the picture.

"And that'smymother," I told him.Moja matka.

Wiesaw looked from the picture to me and then back to the picture. This was my proof. He took me in his arms and started to cry. "She was my sister," he told me. Tears welled in his eyes. "I was her big brother. Is she still alive? Is she okay?"

I turned to Magda for translation, then answered, "Yes, of course." I could feel tears forming in my eyes, too. "She's doing well."

I had been worried he would hate me. Instead, I'd just brought his long-lost sister back to life. "How old is she?" he asked as my friends translated. "She's fifty-nine," I said. He shook his head and marveled. Did she marry young? How many children did she have? When was she coming to Poland to see him? He asked if I had a picture of her today, and I pulled from my bag a snapshot I had taken in February of Mom in her kitchen, smiling and cute. "She looks so young! She's so pretty!" he said. "You're really going to bring her to see me?"

My face was starting to hurt from grinning. I couldn't wait to bring her here, couldn't believe this was happening. I thought of Mom at home, how she hadn't exactly agreed to come to Poland. I thought of something else I knew about her that I couldn't tell him yet. "It's expensive to come over," I said. "It's very far. But she'll come. She told me she wants to come." Wiesaw put his hands on my shoulders and told me that his mother had waited her life for this moment. She'd prayed that someday the girl she loved as a daughter would return. And that was when I did something I would later live to regret. I smiled up at Wiesaw's soft blue eyes and, searching for the words to address him in Polish, promised that no matter what happened, no matter what it cost me, I would bring him his sister. I would bring my mother to Bdzin and the two would meet again.

Copyright © 2008 by Erin Einhorn

Excerpted from The Pages in Between: A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home by Erin Einhorn
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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