June 19, 2003
Sound of Silence
"So, maybe we should get to know each other."
My husband Glenn's voice cracked like an adolescent as he broke the hour-long quiet inside the car. Glenn looked expectantly toward Jacek, a partner at a Warsaw-based software company and Glenn's business contact.
When I had decided to tag along with my husband on his business trip to Poland, I had been surprised when his colleague volunteered to drive us during the three-day vacation portion of our trip.
Now Glenn's suggestion lingered in the air, as did most of our attempts at chatting with our new acquaintance over the last few hours. I felt bad for my loquacious husband, who rarely struggled for conversation. Funny, I always thought I'd enjoyed silence. As an only child until my teen years, I often relished quiet moments to myself. This week, it felt like I had a few too many. As our time with Jacek progressed, I noticed a parallel between our host's behavior and the history of his country.
A few days earlier, I had gone sightseeing in Warsaw. Unable to secure a tour from a local Jewish organization, I joined a regular bus and walking tour. I was baffled when the guide took us to the grounds of a historic palace and rattled on about government buildings for over an hour, but simply skimmed over the Jewish parts of the city. I was in total disbelief when we merely stopped by the Warsaw Ghetto. The other passengers agreed that since it was drizzling, we would view the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes through the cloudy bus windows rather than getting out to see it up close. Luckily, Jacek had taken us to the ghetto and the Nozyk Synagogue, Warsaw's only shul that survived World War II, the night before. During the visit, I'd assumed that his silence was a sign of respect.
After six of the quietest hours of my life, we arrived at Auschwitz. Before we got out of the car, Jacek reminded us that we still had a few hours of driving to get to our final destination, a mountain resort called Zakopane. I felt pressured as we entered the concentration camp I'd heard about since my Hebrew school days. Every time Glenn and I exited one of the exhibits, Jacek was waiting for us, having finished moments before. While I did my best to take everything in -- most memorably, a display containing a huge pile of human hair, a bin filled with confiscated children's clothing, suitcases marked with handwritten family names and rows of mug shot-like pictures of the prisoners -- I could swear that I felt Jacek's mounting impatience. My unease continued as we headed for Birkenau, the larger camp.
The gravel crunched under our feet as we made our way up the railroad tracks leading to the entrance. The sheer size of the facility was startling. Even though birds chirped and the grass sparkled green, I had the same sick feeling I get when I visit a cemetery. I became conscious of my furrowed brow. Glenn was contemplating whether it was wrong to take pictures. I assumed Jacek was thinking that we needed to hit the road. But this time, I was wrong.
"My father was Jewish," Jacek revealed quietly as we walked along the same tracks where more than a million Jews were sent to die. "Some of his family was killed here."
This time I couldn't speak. Why hadn't Jacek mentioned his half-Jewishness earlier? We mentioned our religion at least of dozen times in (attempted) conversation. Was he ashamed of it? Disconnected from it? Or did he, like me, feel hollow visiting the site where family members were killed?
It suddenly occurred to me that the Holocaust was an attempted silencing of the Jews. While World War II was decades ago -- and the camps were liberated -- the quiet lingers. We're so far away from it all in the United States. In Poland, the wounds are still raw and it isn't something that the locals are comfortable talking about.
I wondered if we reminded Jacek of his Jewish roots and brought up issues he didn't want to think about. Maybe he wanted to put history behind him. Or maybe we're simply very annoying guests.
Whatever the reason, Jacek's silence gave me the time to reflect and feel connected to my long-gone relatives in Poland. I hope our presence helped him feel more comfortable with his Jewish identity.