Family History Of Fear: A Memoir by Agata TuszynskaFamily History Of Fear: A Memoir by Agata Tuszynska

Family History Of Fear: A Memoir

byAgata Tuszynska

Paperback | May 16, 2017

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It wasn’t until she was nineteen that Agata Tuszyńska, one of Poland’s most admired poets and cultural historians, discovered that she was Jewish. In this profoundly moving and resonant work, she uncovers the truth about her family’s history—a mother who entered the Warsaw Ghetto at age eight and escaped just before the uprising; a father, one of five thousand Polish soldiers taken prisoner in 1939, who would become the country’s most famous radio sports announcer; and other relatives and their mysterious pasts—as she tries to make sense of anti-Semitism in her country. The poignant story of one woman coming to terms with herself, Family History of Fear is also a searing portrait of Polish Jewish life, before and after Hitler’s Third Reich.
Agata Tuszyńska is the author of six collections of internationally translated poetry, a biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Vera Gran: The Accused, and Bruno Schulz’s Fiancée. Tuszyńska is the recipient of the Polish PEN Club Ksawery Pruszyński Prize, a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, a Fulbright scholarship, and won the Canadi...
Title:Family History Of Fear: A MemoirFormat:PaperbackDimensions:432 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 0.9 inPublished:May 16, 2017Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:038572196X

ISBN - 13:9780385721967

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Read from the Book

1The secretThis book has been in me for years. Along with this secret. From the instant I found out I was not who I thought I was. From the moment my mother told me she was Jewish.I was born in Poland, in Warsaw, several years after the war. I had blue eyes and blond hair, a source of great pride to my mother, whose own eyes and hair were dark.Today, I realize she wanted a Polish child, for fear of the fate her daughter might inherit otherwise, a fate like her own. And even though the war was officially part of the past in a new socialist Poland, where everyone was equal by definition, she resolved to obscure her origins.We are our memory. We are what we remember. And what others remember about us.Even more than that, I often find myself thinking, we are our lapses of memory. We are what we forget, what in self-­defense we blot out of our memory, chase from our consciousness, avoid in our thinking. We conceal memories to make life easier or lighter, so it will not hurt.I do not remember when my mother told me she was Jewish. I remember nothing about it—­not the day, nor the season, nor the place; not whether we were sitting at the table or by the window; not the tone of her voice, nor the color of her words. I have no memory of any such conversation. Maybe she told me that she hid in a cellar during the war. That was not unusual—­many Poles were forced to hide in cellars or attics. Maybe she said she had to run away from the Germans, escape, like many others—­Poles who were hunted down by the Nazis, rounded up at work, machine-­gunned in the streets and forests, sent to the camps.She does not remember exactly how she went about it, but she certainly did not begin with the persecutions and the walls, the marks, the distinguishing insignia of the yellow star. She began by telling me stories. About the curtain, at first. Then, about the chinchilla coat and the muff. Then about the coach in front of the ghetto wall. Nothing more direct. Little by little. To make it easier.She wanted her child to be without a stigma. She was happy to have brought a little blue-­eyed blonde into the world. This little girl had a proper Polish father. She taught me how to live in this country.She didn’t want to weigh me down with a burden heavier than I could bear. She didn’t want her child to have to grow up with a feeling of injustice and fear. In her estimation, one could always broach the subject when a child was capable of handling it and taking care of herself.She is sure she told me when I was nineteen. I have no reason not to believe her.Every family has a story. Many Polish families have tragic ones. In those days, people did not always tell children about their hardships during the war—­the Resistance, the Home Army, participation in the uprisings in Warsaw and fighting in the forests. It took them years to start talking about what they had been through, about the pain as much as the heroism. These stories, when they finally came out, drew the generations together and gave them strength. But my mother’s experience was not like that. It was more, much more. Not only in the depth of the suffering and tragedy but also in their consequences. There was nothing in it to brag about or cling to, nothing to wear out by retelling. There were no heroic deaths, no patriotic examples, no sacred traditions, no hope for the future. It had to be concealed. This thing.Years passed before I found the strength to admit it. Before my spirit abandoned its defenses and took it in. I needed time. Without accepting it, to be sure, but still inwardly weighing the possibility. It took about ten years.Has it happened? Can I say “I am Jewish”?No.Did my mother tell me her war stories? Did she actually tell me, or did she only want to tell them without quite having the strength to go through with it? No, it’s not enmity that you absorb with your mother’s milk. It’s fear.On the subject of the fur coat. It had to be taken out and aired. Especially a coat as respectable as one of chinchilla. Especially one that has been kept in a wardrobe on the Aryan side for years. When Mama and her mother slipped out of the ghetto and reached the safety of their first hideout, they often went for walks after dark. They were afraid of being caught, but they were also hungry for some fresh air and the chance to get their blood moving. My grandmother also wanted her coat to get a good airing. A coat that was already beginning to fall apart, by the way. Fur wears out faster than a human being does. In the end, with a heavy heart, my grandmother had it cut up into small pieces. In a snapshot taken in Zakopane after the war, Mother was carrying a chinchilla muff; the coat didn’t make it much farther than that.Concerning the curtain. In fact, this story is all about salt. My mother and grandmother were hiding in a small apartment at 18 Krasiński Street in the Fourth Colony, where they used to live before the war. The place belonged to two sisters who worked in the neighborhood as domestics. In the kitchen’s pantry, a curtain with dark blue flowers on it. One night, the boyfriend of one of the sisters, Helenka, came over. She’d made barley soup for him, but she didn’t salt it enough. He complained. She went to borrow some salt from a neighbor. Left alone, he decided to find some himself. In the pantry, behind the curtain. Mama was twelve years old and held her breath. Her mother held the curtain closed. He understood. They had to move out.If only the soup had been salty enough, they might have been able to stay together a little while longer behind that curtain. Until the moment when a knife or a dish was needed, because that’s where they were kept too.If the boyfriend had wanted to, he could have turned them in to the Gestapo then and there.If . . . When my mother came out of the ghetto, it was summer. A chilly August day. The young girl, small in size, with shiny black braids, was wearing several pairs of striped stockings and two dresses, one on top of the other, and a dark blue coat with a collar, and a scarf tied under her chin. She walked beside her mother, who kept a tight grip on her little hand. They had to go right through the courthouses on Leszno Street. She knew she had to walk with a sure step, with no hesitation. Constantly surrounded; it was better in a crowd, where others, many others—­Jews and non-­Jews, ordinary people—­went about their business. The two of them climbed stairs, went down hallways, and then took more stairs, this time going down. So simple. And yet so hard to do. The girl didn’t see her mother take off her armband. Nobody was paying attention to them anyway.She does not recall the faces of the people who suddenly appeared in front of them like another wall. Several men and a woman wearing a scarf, with strands of hair sticking out. Mama and her mother were afraid of Germans. But these were not Germans. “All right, you little kike, hand it over, all of it, c’mon,” they heard. “Or we’ll turn you in to the Gestapo.”They huddled together as if they were thieves. My mother’s mother tried to defend herself, protesting, explaining, and finally begging. To no avail. That was when the coach pulled up.The driver, one of those Poles with a great thick mustache, took their side. “Leave the woman alone!” he cried. “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see the little girl is scared to death?” And to them, he said, “Get in!”They piled into the coach. Her mother gave him an address in a voice filled with relief, and they drove away. The little girl held on to her mother’s coat, watching the buildings go by. They did not recognize that part of town. They had never been there before. It was starting to get dark. Shop windows sparkled all around them. They passed streetcars and black German limousines. A group came out of a corner restaurant, laughing. The hats that the women were wearing looked brand new. A little farther, in a large square by a church, some boys were playing ball. The city was keeping itself busy. The world did not end at Umschlagplatz after all, they thought. The coach turned into Szucha Avenue and pulled up in front of Gestapo headquarters.The driver turned around. “What did you think, Żydówo, dirty, fucking Jew?? That I wouldn’t take you back where you belong?” Laughing, he pushed them toward the entrance.Polish policemen were prepared for fugitives from the ghetto. They locked them up in a room and demanded money. On the other side of the door, they could hear the sound of German boots and voices. In the ghetto, that meant death. The little girl watched her mother take off her ring and her wedding band, and then her watch. After a moment, without a word, she started to unbutton her coat. Then she reached down toward her garter belt and extricated, one by one, twenty-­dollar gold coins that had been stitched into the cloth. She placed them on the wooden table. Six in all. “It’s not enough,” a man said. “Not enough.” It was all they had.She asked if she could make a phone call. They deliberated for a while, mentioning sums that made the little girl’s head spin. Her mother, in an expressionless voice, repeated each amount into the receiver. Who was she talking to? Who was willing to pay that kind of money for us? Her aunt’s husband was the only name she could come up with, the one who had arranged their escape from the ghetto. They settled on a time and place. The money would be delivered to that address.They were on the Aryan side.That story stuck to me, against my will. It keeps coming back, in various versions, in my dreams. I can’t get rid of it.In this dream, I am the little girl with the striped stockings and the scarf tied under her chin. It is definitely my scarf; it’s the color of the ocean, and so is the little bucket filled with sand that I’m holding. I am not kicking pebbles as I go, like the other dark-­eyed Jewish children, and in this dream I ask myself why not. I have the same eyes as they do, dark and full of fear. Better look down. I am walking beside my mother. I am not sure whether it’s my own mother or the grandmother I never knew. She holds herself very straight, unnaturally stiff, and squeezes my hand. A cold sun shines.We walk along at a steady pace even though I want to run. Run and yell, as if, after wandering for hours in a gloomy forest, I had suddenly discovered a sunlit clearing. The air feels different on the other side. Feels alive.I do not recall the faces of the other people who suddenly appear in front of them like another wall. My mind is on the little girl, because nobody else is looking after her, she is only twelve and the Germans frighten her. But these are not Germans. “All right, you little kike, hand it over, all of it, c’mon.” They get it; we get it. And then the metallic sound of the word “Gestapo” . . . sta, PO. I would not have known the word “Gestapo” at that age. There were no books about the war yet. I learned it much later, even though I was still carrying sand in my bucket.Mother, or maybe Grandmother, hid her face in her hands, like a child, repeating, “Leave us alone, leave us alone.” I cannot move. I just stand there, staring at them, and little by little I recognize the face of this one and that one: neighbors, acquaintances, friends. I look them straight in the eye. Then the coach arrives. The driver has a mustache, a huge Polish mustache like the one worn by my Jewish great-­grandfather, Henryk, from Przedrynek adjacent to Łęczyca’s main marketplace. He could even wiggle the ends when he held his granddaughter, my mother, on his lap and sang her the song about the cobbler’s wife and her paper slippers.“Leave the woman alone!” he cries. “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see the little girl is scared to death?”With a shrug, he invites us to climb into his coach. The horse smiles.But this is not Grandfather Przedborski; this is his Polish brother. Not for nothing have so many generations lived together under the same roof. In the name of this house, shared for centuries on Polish soil, he cannot allow anybody to insult us. He takes us under his protective wing, and the enchanted carriage rolls along, clattering on the cobblestones and carrying us, carrying us, carrying. Grandmother is on the verge of saying, in a strangled voice, clumsy words of gratitude, full of shame and thankfulness, and more. She is about to speak when we turn abruptly. The sand is spilling out of my bucket. “What is a bucket doing here?” I wonder. An hourglass with sand in it, perhaps, time passing. The last moments.We are approaching Szucha Avenue.“What did you think, Żydówo, dirty, fucking Jew?? That I wouldn’t take you back where you belong?”What do I do with this dream? I thought. With this story? Life has a cost; you have to do what’s right, pay the price. The wedding band and the engagement ring were not enough. The Omega watch, the gold coins sewn into the garter belt, not enough. So they gave the mother and daughter one last chance. A rich relative. You don’t come across that every day. Welcome to the Aryan side.I am still holding the little girl’s hand when I wake up. I am protecting her from her Polish brothers. But then I ask myself how I would treat her. I ask myself if I wouldn’t be afraid to play with her in the backyard, if I would have shared my slice of sugared bread with her. If I would have had the strength, like others did, to hide her in my closet or in my attic. Even when the money ran out and there was no more hope.

Editorial Reviews

“Illuminating. . . . Tuszyńska offers us vignettes and personal narratives that track the ever-shifting course of Polish-Jewish relations in the 20th century.” —The Wall Street Journal“Family History of Fear is not only a memoir or work of restorative personal history. It’s an act of un-erasure. Tracing her bloodlines of fear, secrecy and self-loathing, [Tuszyńska] uncovers a history of survival and solidarity, of profound love.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)“A work of fierce courage. . . . [Family History of Fear] is Tuszyńska’s beautiful, terrifying fight to bring her heritage alive.” —The Jewish Book Council   “A family saga meticulously re-created . . . A literary account of searching for one’s identity.” — Ryszard Kapuściński´, author of The Soccer War and Imperium“A moving memoir.” —Toronto Star