Cattle-car tourist

My trip to hell and back with mom and dad.

TRAIN TRACKS at Auschwitz. (photo credit: REUTERS)
TRAIN TRACKS at Auschwitz.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Home is supposed to be one’s safe haven, the place where you go to escape demons. But in my home in New York City, where I was raised by Polish Holocaust survivors, home was a place where demons thrived. Nazis. Hitler. Auschwitz.
I’d wondered about those words as they hissed out from time to time. I felt my parents’ vexation, the profound loss they wore like clothing full of bullet holes. Ghosts seemed to lurk everywhere. The photos of loved ones murdered by the Nazis haunted me. Mom was Jewish and Dad was Catholic, a family detail they kept from me until I was nine years old. Why were they so secretive?
My parents, Roza and Jack, were given to wild emotional swings, from joy to tears, silence to rage, sometimes to the brink of violence. The demons who’d accompanied them from Poland to the US seemed to hold them in a firm grip. Perhaps that explained why my parents transferred to me, their American-born son, the responsibility of keeping our household on an even keel, while they focused on rebuilding their lives.
I didn’t understand that back then. What I did know for certain was that fear had crept in. I couldn’t trust home as a place where I’d be safe.
While attempting to figure out who these people were, I was the proverbial outsider, and would be for most of my life. Home is the crucible where we’re all formed, after all.
And so I craved the future. I yearned for tomorrow, as today would likely be ruined by the past. The curious child growing up in the midst of the cosmopolitan kaleidoscope that was New York became a curious adult. I carved out a career as a journalist and a documentary filmmaker – sharing other people’s stories. And yet, the story that obsessively sang a siren call was the one my parents had hidden from me.
Then in 1998, the prevailing winds shifted. After the release of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List five years earlier, Hearst Entertainment hired me to write, produce and direct an A&E Biography episode about Oskar Schindler, the Nazi who’d turned against his own and saved 1,300 Jews.
When I told my parents about the Schindler project, it provoked them to finally open up about their unlikely pairing half a century ago, when the world went mad. My mother had a secret document she’d hidden away; it was a transcript of a post-Holocaust interview she’d given in 1955 to a Jewish historical society. Her horrific story painted a picture of tragedy and triumph, of human beings at their worst – and best. A remarkable piece of history, it was both revelatory and enigmatic.
It became clear that a pilgrimage was required to fully understand my parents’ story. We agreed to a family trip to Poland, which I would film to create a family documentary. But by the time I’d completed preparations for the trip, my mother was too frail to participate.
SHE URGED me to go with my father, a man I hardly knew. But if I were ever to understand my parents, or myself for that matter, I had to go.
On a whirlwind trip with my father and a video camera, we traveled to 21 cities in 21 days. As John Steinbeck once wrote, “We don’t take a trip. A trip takes us.”
The day I was taken to a crossroads I’d never expected was when I learned how my parents had met, and what that meant for my father, Jack, then a 19-year-old named Aleksander “Olek” Glazewski.
Roza, 20, known as Ziuta Kunstler back then, was on the run after Nazi field executioners had massacred 6,500 Jews in her ghettoized town of Rohatyn in southeastern Poland. With false identity papers procured by two older brothers who stayed behind to fight, she fled to Stalowa Wola, a town halfway across Poland. There she landed a job as a baker and waitress in a cafe that was crawling with Nazis and run by my father and his father. Within months, Olek fell in love with Ziuta.
In her 1955 testimony, my mother told the interviewer that there was finally a moment of truth between her and Olek: “When he just didn’t want to step away from me and continued to say that he wanted to marry me, I finally told him that I was Jewish.”
In 1942, to be a Jew in German-occupied Poland was to be living under a death sentence. In one brutal example after another, the Nazis made it clear that anyone hiding or giving aid or comfort to a Jew would meet the same fate.
Everyone knew that, including Olek.
According to my mother, my father responded to her revelation in no uncertain terms: “He said, ‘Oh, you’re Jewish? Well, now I have more reason to convince you how much I care. I could put my life on the line.’”
I asked my father about that moment. “She told me who she was,” he said. “And then I realized there was danger. But I was willing to take the chance and shelter her as much as I could. I was sure that I would not back down.”
As my father and I traveled across Poland 60 years after those events, I struggled to reconcile the distant, strict father of my childhood, with the daring, romantic hero; the Olek Glazewski who saved Ziuta Kunstler. While Jack Kent once threatened me with a knife when I was 12 for disturbing his sleep, and otherwise mostly ignored me, Olek Glazewski talked his way out of arrest time after time in wartime Poland.
He withstood a beating by the Gestapo; he boldly cheated Nazis while working at a granary; he faked an epileptic seizure in a Russian military base to avoid being drafted and leaving Ziuta alone.
He and Ziuta survived shootings, bombings, and even a death march. It was only when my father opened up to me for my family documentary that the two sides of his identity, past and present, began to merge.
FOR THE first time I was able to see my father as a man with an enormous capacity for love and courage, a man who’d put his life on the line to save his Jewish love.
In my parents’ desire to rebuild their lives in America, to tamp down the horrors they’d experienced during the Holocaust, this incredible story of heroism, survival and love had been lost.
After a lifetime of curiosity, anxiety and alienation, I was finally plunging into what Joseph Conrad called “the heart of darkness.” There was no stopping mid-leap.
We journeyed to Rohatyn, where a guide took us to the sites of two massacres, where two brave uncles I’d never known had been murdered after helping my mother escape from the ghetto. Reeling from the terror and devastation described to me, first by my mother in her “secret document” and then at the very places where they’d occurred, I continued on, to spend the worst day of my life – at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the sprawling death factory where over a million Jews, Poles and others had been systematically murdered.
Shambling through the barracks, the gas chambers and the crematoria was devastating. Here, in this man-made monstrosity, the demons and ghosts I’d imagined my whole life still mocked me.
When my father and I pulled ourselves together and emerged from the infamous death camp, free to leave, free to walk back into life, I felt as if I’d just awakened from a nightmare. Then a flash of insight revealed itself: This is the hell from which Olek had saved Ziuta, I thought. A moment of grace at last.
In 2003, a year after my father and I returned to the United States, after I’d submitted my family documentary and research to Yad Vashem, we were invited to commemorate the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles among 500 community members. With my sons, Spencer and Dylan, and my mother, Roza, beside me, officials presented my father with Israel’s highest honor, the Righteous Among the Nations’ medal – the very same award bestowed upon Oskar Schindler. My story had come full circle.
I came away from this extraordinary experience believing my father and mother were not the broken people I thought they were when I was growing up. Now, instead, I knew they were exceptional – albeit complicated – human beings.
My willing immersion into a landscape of ghosts and demons as a cattle-car tourist had cracked me open like a pomegranate. Bloody red seeds of insight spilled out everywhere.
“There is a crack in everything,” sang the Jewish poet-philosopher Leonard Cohen. “That’s how the light gets in.” I have no regrets I cracked open the family vault of secrets. It was both painful and beautiful, like a birth. Mom and Dad are gone now, but their story – our story – continues to enlighten.
The writer is a journalist and the Emmy Award-winning director of the documentary Oskar Schindler: The Man Behind the List.