In 1949, when I was nineteen months old, we sailed from Europe to Canada on the H.M.S. General Black. We took Hitler along with us on the journey. Although I was too young to know it at the time, we were stuck with him for good. Wherever we went, my parents would drag his dead body with them, sitting him down at the kitchen table for a meal or on the couch as we sat watching old war movies.
In 1949, the General Black was just one of hundreds of freighters and ex-troop ships spilling some 100,000 DPs onto Canada’s shores – people just like us: Displaced Persons, who have been driven or expelled from their homelands by war, famine, tyranny, or all of the above. World War II created an overabundance of DPs, a wave that has since swelled into a worldwide tsunami.
We had left the American-run DP camp in Germany where my parents met, and where they had conceived me. I was their main reason to hope that life could continue despite what they had lost. They left Europe, never to return. Nothing but ash and graves remained there, unattended, until some forty years later when I went in search of my history.
We had arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, Canada’s Ellis Island, where we sat with so many others waiting to be processed. During the voyage, I had shared a crib with another baby, and as I was bereft of cousins, aunts and uncles, Issie, my crib mate, would become my ship-brother and his older sister, Guta, my ship-sister. I took our familial relationship seriously, but since they had arrived with an abundance of living relatives, I don’t think they did.
Once processed at Pier 21, we were transferred to a train waiting outside, and chugged along to Montreal, which has been my home ever since. And my history, lacking anything other than the charred stump of a family tree, began there, in the company of Hitler and the stories I didn’t want to hear about a world that had been incinerated. I always thought of myself as a part of that generation Don McLean sang about in “American Pie”: “There we were all in one place, a generation lost in space.”
My longing for some personal history began in 2000 with a casual revisit to Pier 21, now a national museum. Walking through the cavernous, almost empty hall, I read the panels and recognized in the stories the familiar mixture of hope and sadness. It’s inherent in every immigrant tale about what was lost or left behind, mingled with what might be found or formed in this new land, not yet home.
In the centre of the exhibit stood two banks of pews, and facing them, an old wooden desk. I sat down and surveyed the immensity of the space, now so quiet, so empty, save for the stories of immigrants crowding the panels. But when I turned around, I was dumbfounded.
As if in a dream, I recognized the tableau. Above the desk, was a sign, proclaiming in six languages: “Welcome to Canada.” But it was the little wooden desk that sparked a memory, a recollection of big block letters written in blue. Across the front of it, one word: IMMIGRATION.
I suppose our little family had sat there for a very long time. If I could recall the sign, I thought somewhat irrationally, what else was buried in my memory?
When you are without history, all you’re left with is hope.
What if, I thought, I went back to my birthplace in Passau, Germany, or to Chrzanow, where my mother was born? By some miracle, could I dig up something of my past, some family history I could wrap myself in like a prayer shawl?
When you grow up with a deficit of aunts, uncles and grandparents, jealousy rears its head on every birthday and holiday. And although on my father’s side I did have two aunts, one lived in Israel and the other in Argentina – as far away from Montreal as the moon.
My mother methodically fed me family stories: about life in Poland before the war; what was lost; how she met my father. But my mother’s stories were not what I wanted to hear. It was her road to sanity, but for me, a road littered with corpses. When she died in 1976, I believed that the stories, like all the dead relatives, had been laid to rest in the ground beside her.
Oddly, however, even today if you ask me where I come from, it is my parents’ stories I tell - how my father left Belarus, a wife, and three children when conscripted by the Soviet army. He went to Siberia, they went to Auschwitz. My mother and her husband escaped to Uzbekistan where she had a son. Her husband died of malaria, her son of starvation. When my parents met, they married to begin life anew. I was the new, but in those days, I didn’t want the history.
Then in my forties, inexplicably, I wanted more than stories. I wanted facts, street addresses, genealogy that goes back past grandparents born in the 1800s. I wanted to ask questions and get answers. But who to ask? Everybody was dead.
When I was young, I had hopes of being a journalist but quickly learned I wasn’t very good at asking the tough questions. I became a publicist instead; putting a positive spin on things has always been my nature. Yet, suddenly, I would have gladly traded my rose-tinted glasses for a mere twig on the family tree.
So I planned an odyssey, to my place of birth in Passau, Germany and to Chrzanow, just fifteen kilometers north of Auschwitz. Someplace I didn’t want to go, but I had learned to leave all options open.
When you don’t know what you’re after, it’s hard to make a concrete plan.
My journey began in Munich, just two hours west of Passau, where I had friends. On my first day, Elke and I walked through the town centre into the Marienplatz with its neo-Gothic town hall, the famous glockenspiel mechanical clock and the Frauenkirch with neat rows of window boxes where blood-red geraniums splashed colour onto white walls. Afterwards, we meandered into the English Gardens, a testament to the German love of open spaces and biergartens. There are four in the 900-acre park in the centre of Munich. Elke chose the Chinesischer Turm. In the background, the Chinese pagoda, built in the eighteenth century, was enchanting but eventually, and unbidden, the beer garden scene from the movie Cabaret began to play in my head. I heard the strains of a high young voice beginning to sing “The Future Belongs to Me.” There I was, all these years later, and Hitler was still tagging along on my journey.
Guiltily, I glanced over at Elke, who had once asked me, “What must you think of us?” It was not a question that would ever be asked in Canada.
The next day, I took the train for a day trip to Passau. The town where I was born has buried its strong Nazi past, according to Anna Rosmus, a Passauer and the author of several books, including Out of Passau: The Town That Hitler Called Home. I was blasé about being a wandering Jew in Passau, having been to Germany several years before when the first sight to greet me in Frankfurt Airport was a pious Jew, facing west, saying his morning prayers wrapped in phylacteries and a tallis. I took that as an omen that it was safe to come back.
Passau is a little jewel of a town and I played the tourist because, although I was born there, I’m plainly not from there. (Just as I’ve lived in Canada most of my life but never felt I was from there either.) In a small shop adjacent to St. Stephen’s, an exquisite Baroque cathedral, I was startled to find a tiny Star of David with an amethyst in the centre. Leonardo da Vinci thought amethyst was able to dissipate evil thoughts. I bought the charm and placed it on my bracelet, ensuring I would have a story to tell when I got back to Montreal.
In Passau, three is a magic number. Three rivers in three colours - the black Ilz, the green Inn and the blue Danube merge. Three countries - Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic – touch borders. And here, my father, mother and their respective ghosts came together to form me.
Where no memories exist, I invent metaphors.
I roamed along the picturesque riverbanks and through the streets taking photos of interesting architecture, but found nothing on which to hang a memory. But while heading back to the train station, I picked up one unforgettable souvenir. As I was passing a travel agency, I stopped to admire its window filled with maple leaf flags and signs touting the wonders of Canada. One stated simply: Human Nature. I caught my reflection superimposed on the Canadian flag and had to smile.
Standing in the Jewish cemetery in Chrzanow, I held in my hand a piece of paper with the names of five Klugers who are buried there, the last one in 1924. Months earlier, in Montreal, I had optimistically printed the list off the JewishGen ancestry site, but I was no longer sure what I was doing in that cemetery. I had no idea how those names were related to me; merely that my mother had been a Kluger, so these gravestones and I were somehow connected by the tenuous lines formed by six Hebrew letters. The memories she had passed on to me and these names were all I had to prove that I have roots that I come from somewhere I could claim as mine. I wasn’t from Poland, my mother’s homeland, or Belarus, my father’s. I was born in Germany. What history would I want to or could I claim from there?
Beside me a large snail trailed slime across a gravestone. My driver, Zniebiew, said that many tons of these fat, juicy snails were exported from Poland to France each year. I wondered if some were harvested in cemeteries like these.
I came to my mother’s home town of Chrzanow, 35 km west of Krakow, looking for my roots, but I had very little to go on. In this neglected and overgrown Jewish graveyard, a thought wormed its way through the numbness I had worn as a mantle since arriving in Poland twenty-four hours earlier: the weeds seemed to have deeper roots here than I did.
In Chrzanow, there was nothing of my history left at all. After the cemetery, my driver took me to the City Hall where a young man explained that all the records of local Jews had been destroyed during the war. Just in case someone made it back and wanted to reclaim their home or possessions. Only the cemetery remained, he said.
Unhappy with the answer, Zniebiew tried rephrasing the question, but there was not so much as a thread left to tie myself to that place. A kind man, he looked at me sadly. The young clerk also seemed sad to have disappointed me.
Canadian-born, my ex-husband liked to bring me down a peg by calling me a mockie. In Jewish Montreal, it was a word that separated new immigrants arriving after World War II from the old ones who had come decades earlier and had established a life wedged between the English and French cultures. The derivation of the word is from the Hebrew mahkeh meaning plague. We new immigrants were a plague, arriving as we did with our war stories and the shadow of Hitler behind us, told in thick accents and reminding those established of what they themselves had once been.
In Passau and Chrzanow, I was looking for the past, some connection to a line of people whose lives would help me connect to something other than stories. But what are we if not the sum total of all the lives lived in all the places where someone once came as an immigrant?
We are our stories.
- The End –