Forward Thinking

Warsaw on My Mind

By Annette Zajdenberg

  • Print
  • Share Share
Getty Images
Today: Atop the former Warsaw Ghetto site sites the new Museum of Polish Jews, set to open this month.

In a city built on the scars of its destruction, I’ve come to Warsaw hobbled with old scars of my own.

As the daughter of Polish Jews, I never felt drawn to the country where they died. Until last month, when it became clear that I must make the trip to attend the 70th commemoration of the Ghetto uprising and touch the ground where my father may have toiled and died.

I’ve come with questions that can never be fully answered. Yet, I’m determined to understand why I needed to be here.

Would an architectural jewel, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews erected on the site of Europe’s once flourishing Jewish culture, allow me to make peace with my past? What lessons could be learned from this symbol of Jewish revival in a country where so many were murdered? Could this place have been my father’s grave?

His name was Chaim Zajdenberg and he gave his birthplace as Lublin in southeast Poland. As a young man, he moved to Paris, became a portrait photographer with a glamorous clientele of theater people and signed his pictures Studio Charles. My mother, Ruchla, was born in Warsaw at the turn of the last century. She emigrated in her late twenties and in France was called Rachel. Charles and Rachel met and married and I was born two years later. A curly haired sister was born when I was six, two days before the Nazis entered Paris. No longer the center of attention, I was devastated.

Getty Images
1945: The Nazis decimated the Warsaw Ghetto during the war. Prisoners at near by camps, like the author’s father, were sent to clean up the rubble.

Family life came to an end in 1942. My mother and sister were arrested in November by French police and sent to the French camp of Drancy, then on to Auschwitz. That winter, I later read, turned bitter cold, especially in the East. They were never heard from again.

Meanwhile my father knocked on the doors of some of his well connected French clients to get his wife and child located and freed. To no avail. In April 1943, after trundling through one or another hiding place in Paris, we were both arrested in a small hotel in the Latin Quarter. As a French citizen, I was let go in the care of a relative.

Around the same time, in Warsaw, the Ghetto uprising started but within two months it was crushed and the Nazis carpet bombed the whole Jewish district in North Warsaw. Afterwards, they brought in forced labor crews from the nearby concentration camps to clean up the rubble. According to Bernard Zajdenberg, a relative who worked on one of those crews, my father was sent to Warsaw where Bernard saw him collapse of exhaustion and shortly thereafter die from typhus.

Why should it matter whether or not his crumbled bones lie under the Museum’s imposing glass and cement structure since there is no way I can ever ascertain it?

When those we love and depend on for sustenance and protection disappear from our life, rage then despair slowly ebb away. In their place, a gnawing need to know. To know that their last breath still hangs in the air that we breathe. That, as the last generation to remember the sound of their steps, the warmth of a smile, we must experience time and again the discomforts of memory. Yet in parallel, an ode to joy, to kvell that their actions allowed us to live.

Indeed on that day in April 1943, when we were arrested, my father could have chosen to keep me by his side. Instead, under the stare of a guard, he hugged me with eyes closed. Then he gently pushed me away into the arms of a French relative: “Go Annette and have no fear, you were born under a lucky star.”

April 16 is my father’s birthday and ironically, I feel grateful that I never had to watch him die of old age. He will always remain in my mind as a young man…and a magician. Once, he took me into his dark room, dipped a blank sheet of paper in a clear liquid and slowly a face appeared. Something a 4-year old never forgets.

This weekend, I’ll walk a couple of reconstructed blocks from Nowolipki in the old ghetto to attend the official opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, realizing at long last that they are indeed my ancestors. And that their resiliency must be part of my DNA.

Facing the killing fields of Poland in North Warsaw and kvelling over what this Museum will teach generations of visitors has energized my Jewishness. Even if I will never know for sure that Chaim Zajdenberg lies buried here.

Note: Annette Zajdenberg is the author’s birth name, she often writes under the name Claudia Carlin.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: warsaw ghetto uprising, museum of polish jews, Warsaw, Poland, Jewish Museum

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.