Book review: The past revealed

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When Agata Tuszynska was 19-years-old, her mother revealed a secret: she was Jewish. It would be several decades before Tuszynska came to terms with the idea as she writes in “Family History of Fear: A Memoir” (Alfred A. Knopf). Until she was an adult, Tuszynska, who lived in Poland, believed no one she knew was Jewish. That’s because after World War II, one either identified as Jewish (and left the country) or pretended to be of Polish ancestry. This doesn’t mean that Tuszynska had never heard anyone speak about Jews: her Polish father said uncomplimentary things about them, although none of his relatives seemed prejudiced. The author also remembers that, during high school, one classmate “delivered a glowing report in our civics class, praising Hitler for having resolved the Jewish problem. He said that Hitler had purified Poland of its Jewish scurvy, something many had tried to pull off before the war without success. The teacher made no objection. I did not understand what he was talking about.”
Tuszynska’s first reaction to her mother’s revelation was not positive: “I took my cue from [my mother], but I not only hid it from the world, I hid it from myself. I considered her secret as a humiliation and a disfiguring feature, something it is appropriate to be ashamed of. Otherwise, she would never have hidden it from me. These Jews, who were so rarely mentioned and who were the target of inexplicable outbursts by my father, were suddenly revealed as family.” Tuszynska had never learned the story of what happened to her mother’s family during World War II. Only years later, when she began to research both sides of her family – her parents’ unsuccessful marriage, and the lives of her grandparents, great-grandparents and other relatives – did she discover what occurred.
For Jewish readers, the sections about her mother’s family will be of the greatest interest. Tuszynska learns the majority of her mother’s relatives moved to the Jewish ghetto after Germany conquered the country. Her grandfather, who was in the Polish army, was captured and taken to a POW camp, where the Jewish soldiers were segregated into their own barrack. Her grandmother and very young mother managed to escape from the ghetto and separated in order to survive. Unfortunately, her grandmother died just before the war ended. The relatives who remained in the ghetto were all killed by the Nazis. Her great-aunt Frania managed to escape because she was originally married to Polish man, Aleksander, who had divorced his wife to be with her. They also divorced and pretended to be brother and sister so that Frania wouldn’t have to move to the ghetto. The man then saved another Jewish woman by pretending she was married to him. He accomplished that by telling everyone she was really his first wife – who had been Polish. The three lived together even after the war: Both women had children by him and they remained together until the women’s deaths.
Tuszynska finds few records of the oldest generation of Jewish relatives. Traveling to the countryside, she pretends she’s not Jewish when interviewing people, which turns out to be a good idea because some of those interviewed still believe that Jews ritually murdered Christian children. She notes that, “for the first time in years, the primitive Polish anti-Semitism struck me again, the prejudices, the hatred, the aggression.” Tuszynska also discovers that people are worried the purpose of her visit is to discover what property had belonged to the Jewish community in order to reclaim it: “Many inhabitants of these old Jewish settlements in my country react the same way; they are afraid of visits by people from the outside. They are afraid because those people were once the owners of their homes, their orchards, their farms, their furniture, and their cups and plates.”
After the war, Tuszynska’s grandfather reclaimed her mother, but their relationship never recovered. His second, non-Jewish wife never became close to her stepdaughter. Tuszynska’s grandfather suffered from depression, although he managed to continue working – at least, until 1968, when Polish antisemitism became mixed with anti-Zionism. Israel was blamed for all the ills of the country and many Jews lost their jobs. The impact was great: “The anti-Semitic campaign of March 1968 touched almost all the remaining Jews in Poland. In offices and universities, in editorial meetings and in factories, in scientific institutions and in film studios, in Party meetings and in specially called conferences, they called Jews by their names and, having chastised them for their hostility to communism and their hostility to Poland, dismissed them from their work and the Communist Party.” Tuszynska believes that most of the Jews who had remained in the country were surprised by these attacks because they considered themselves Polish, not Jewish. Several of her relatives left Poland during the period, something which caused a split in the family – with those remaining believing the emigres had betrayed their socialist ideals.
While Tuszynska writes about the members of her family in great detail, it feels as if parts of her own life are missing, particularly how she relates to being Jewish. She notes that she doesn’t want “to choose only one heritage. Both of them – the Polish and the Jewish – are alive in me. Both of them make me what I am. Even if they oppose each other and accuse each other – I belong to both.” Yet, she never explains exactly what being Jewish means to her beyond the fact that members of her family are Jewish. Perhaps the author can’t write about her heritage until she has laid the past to rest, but this important issue – the meaning of her Jewish identity– is never addressed.