“Is this the High Holy Days?” a friend asked me as the crowd swarmed into the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation for the Needle in the Bone launch party. With over 150 people finding seats around tables, against the walls, in the lobby outside the social hall, or simply standing in corners, it looked a little like we might launch into “Kol Nidre” instead of a presentation on this book about the survival and friendship of two local men, one a Holocaust survivor and one a Polish resistance fighter.
All day leading up to the event was a combination of all-okay and all-not-okay because, as Jarek said during the launch, “This is also very sad day because two people aren’t here.” When I started this book, it was about four people — Lou and Jane Frydman, and Jarek and Maura Piekalkiewicz. With both Maura and Lou dying in recent years, and on the same date (January 24 – 2011 for Maura and 2012 for Lou), it’s both tender and heartbreaking to share their stories with the community without them here.
Community came in abundance: well over 150 people showed up, the books sold out in a flash with many orders for more, and people listened intently to the presentation. Ken told me that the power point slide show about Lou and Jarek’s lives revealed just how important family was to each, starting with the family they lost and ending with the family they made in a new land.
Jarek spoke about he had a choice as to whether to risk his life against the Nazis, but Lou and other Jews didn’t have such a choice. He pointed out that Lou’s survival aimed Lou toward a life of family and service, reforming mental health laws that were damaging to children. He also said that even if Jews didn’t have saints, Lou was a saint to him as well as to many of us because of Lou’s heart and humor.
Jane told of how Lou survived, partially because of how smart his parents, brother and he was in thinking on their feet at crucial moments, and mostly because of “dumb luck,” such as the train out of the Warsaw Ghetto not going to Treblinka, which barely anyone survived an hour, but in saving grace, going to Majdanek instead. The near misses — while hiding in Warsaw on the Aryan side, in the camps, and even on the death march — kept Lou alive, but it was also his parents’ legacy that he could think so quickly and clearly on a dime of what to do or say to save his life.
I told about the four themes of the book, which I grappled with when writing it and will always grapple with: 1) What it means to survive such trauma, and how we carry such trauma within us; 2) The relationship of Poles to Jews when it comes to both anti-Semitism and how so many Polish families risked everything to save Jews; 3) The nature of good and evil, and how such a thing could happen; and 4) How we stand or could stand in relation to atrocities such as the Holocaust. Here is an excerpt of what I read:
Both Lou and Jarek bear an obligation, based on the holocausts they each went through, to create, educate, and make a difference. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing, a need to draw nourishment from the painful memory of near-annihilation: “The ultimately Jewish statement is the Messianic statement. We say this world will be redeemed; we say that human life will ultimately be worth everything. Anne Frank wrote in her diary that if she survived the war, she understood that she would have to make something of her life. The rabbis told us that the Messianic act is achieved when, in the face of total destruction, people choose to take on the grubbiness, the difficulties, the complexities of recreating life at all costs,” writes Eli Wiesel. Or maybe this is even more a human thing.
Surely, the weight of an experience such as the Holocaust is made bearable only by what we can make out of the wreckage.
In the end, there were lines of people hugging us and having us sign books, laktes, Kelley’s cookies, Terry’s vegetarian meatballs and lots of treats to eat, lingering visits while cleaning and packing up.
As Lou was dying, I knew he didn’t believe anything happened to us after death but that we simply and completely were no more. I believe quite the opposite, that the soul lives on (and not just in the hearts of loved ones). I told Lou that if I was right and he was wrong, he should send me a sign. This morning, I woke up to realize last night was a sign as well as a high holy day of its own.
Thank you to all who helped: the Lawrence Jewish Community for passing on all the food, drinks and wine left over from the Hanukkah celebration and hosting us, the Raven Bookstore, my husband Ken who worked with me for hours to prepare for and clean up from the event (as well as set up the AV), and many who helped: Sandy Snook, Kelley Hunt and Al Berman, Eve Levin, Forest Lassman and others. Special thanks to Jane and Jarek.