As a literature scholar, I see the links between the past, present, and future as inextricably linked together. Jérémie Dres‘ autobiographical graphic novelWe Won’t See Auschwitz (2011) highlights these linkages in a concrete manner as it chronicles Jérémie and his brother Martin’s trip to Poland to trace their family’s roots before the Holocaust. As the title suggests, the brothers do not go to Auschwitz. Instead, they travel from Warsaw to Żelechów to Krakow discovering the past that their grandmother Tema told them about in her stories.
Writing about Tema in the afterward, Martin expresses how she served as the link connecting Jérémie and himself with the past: “Our grandmother was a link across several generations. A link between the war and today: for although tradition called for silence, she could never stop talking to us. . . . She linked us all-grandchildren, aunts, and uncles.” Tema’s stories, and Jérémie and Martin’s, conjoin time, reaching, from the present, back to the past and forward into the future, bridging these moments in tangible ways.
Through the publication of We Won’t See Auschwitz, Jérémie gives voice to Tema’s experiences, presenting her recollections for others to hear, and he continues by creating his own experiences in finding the tangible connections between her stories and life and his own. Along with the personal revelations and recollections, the book also comments on the national construction of the past, something I have written about numerous times on this blog and elsewhere.
Last fall, I had the opportunity to visit Warsaw to give a talk at the university. I knew about the destruction of the city during World War II and the painstaking efforts to rebuild, from the rubble, an exact replication of what the Old Town of Warsaw looked like before the war. I walked around that part of Warsaw, amazed at the buildings looked much older than their actual age, which is only about 60-70 years.
I went to the Uprising Museum one day, a museum that details the Polish resistance to Nazi occupation, and I visited Pawiak, a former prison that the Gestapo used during the war. Each of these spaces had items and information detailing the Nazi atrocities inflicted upon the Jewish population, but these stories existed within relation to a broader narrative of Polish national history.
Along with these spaces, I walked around Warsaw in search of remnants of the ghetto wall. After going to the address, seeing a sign, and not being able to enter due to a locked gate, I had to walk around the building to enter the courtyard where the remnant stands. Across the street from a modern mall, and hidden in the courtyard, I walked up to this part of the wall. It’s not easy to find, and a small plaque indicates its history.
After the wall, I went to Noźyk Synagogue, the only synagogue that survived the destruction of the war. Again, a plaque explained the synagogue and some its story. To enter, I had to pay and go through security that consisted of a guard and a metal detector. Guards walked around the perimeter as well. The operating synagogue has information about the space and what occurred, but it mainly focuses, it appears, on the present lives of its congregants. For me, there is nothing with that.
I relate my experiences because Jérémie and Martin essentially did the same thing. We Won’t See Auschwitz begins with Jérémie on his own in Warsaw. Walking the streets, he searches for his grandmother’s house. As he wanders, he thinks about the reconstruction of the Old Town. Jérémie talks about the reconstruction of the Old Town in 1949 and the fact that UNESCO has classified it as a World Heritage Site. The whole area makes Jérémie feel conflicted: “I have to admit I find this exceptional historical initiative discomfiting.” He sees the resilience of the people in rebuilding, but something does not seem right.
That discomfort arises from the ways that the rebuilding relates a selective narrative of the past. He states, “The nearly total reproduction of a part of history for Poland’s greater glory results from a selective remembering.” This “selective remembering” erases the Jewish presence in these spaces, relegating them to spaces such as the Noźyk Synagogue, the hidden courtyard, and the museums. The silencing of the Jewish presence in a space where the Jewish community thrived is telling, and Jérémie notes this: “These forgotten things, Warsaw’s once-thriving Jewish community . . . I’ve not seen the slightest trace of them since setting foo on the ground.”
Jérémie finds Tema’s house, but it does not look like the way she described it. For instance, instead of six floors, it’s three floors. Jérémie fantasizes about walking into the building and encountering someone who knew his grandmother; however, all he can actually do it look at the building and then sit down on a bench outside nursing a headache. The overwhelming emotional impact gets to him.
Later, he meets with Jan Spiewak, from the youth organization Zoom. Jan tells Jérémie about the history of Polish Jews and he talks about the rebuilding of the Old Town he tells Jérémie that it “was rebuilt using Canaletto’s paintings from the 18th century, a glorious time.” Jérémie mentions the lack of “Jewish memory,” and Jan simply replies, “Yeah. they only rebuilt the old town. The ghetto was the poorest part of Warsaw. Didn’t hold much interest.” The “selective remembering” privileges one narrative while suppressing all the others in public spaces such as a rebuilt Old Town.
When Martin arrives, the brothers visit part of the remaining parts of the ghetto wall and Noźyk Synagogue. Even though they visited a different remnant, the brothers found it “in the courtyard of an apartment building.” These remnants have markers that ask visitors to remain respectful and provide information about the site. Apart from this, they are in residential areas, within apartment courtyards. Unless you are actively looking for these sites, you will not come across them. I went to the mall across the street from the remnant I visited at least twice before I went to the wall. Each trip, I had no clue I was so close to the former ghetto.
Jan takes the brothers around town, showing them the “Ulica Prozna, the last actual trace of former Jewish life,” sadly in disrepair, and a renovation project that the Jewish Renaissance Foundation started. The project would be a recreation of a Jewish street, “but,” as Jan tells them, “it cost too much. It’s quite possible these buildings will end up demolished when the facades start crumbling.” Jan finishes by taking them to Noźyk Synagogue and tells them that Nazis used it as a stable during the war and after the war “the city council and the community fought over ownership.” Eventually, the court ruled that the synagogue belongs to the community.
Dres’ We Won’t See Auschwitz presents an exploration of memory and the ways we remember the past. The stories we tell, and the ways that we tell them, have meaning. The past existed, but in all honesty, the past is for the present. It affects the present. The stories we construct about the past inform the present. They influence the present. Unless we are open to the truth of the past, in all of its many facets, then we construct narratives that continue to suppress individuals and relegate them to the margins of history and present existence.
This post does not discuss every aspect of We Won’t See Auschwitz. I highly recommend Dres’ book for its personal journey into his family’s past. What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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