Part 5 of “Wreckage, Wonder & Ways Through the Impossible: Writing Life’s Hard Stuff”
Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, my forthcoming non-fiction books, tells the stories of Lou Frydman, who survived six concentration camps and three death marches, and Jarek Piekalkiewicz, a Polish resistance fighter who, at age 18, commanded 1,000 men in the Warsaw Uprising. Based on extensive oral histories with the men, I wrote this book to share their astonishing stories but also to grapple with some impossibilities: the nature of good and evil, how the most methodological and mechanized murder could happen, and what it means to be one of the only survivors of large, loving families. To write this as honestly as I could, I used a lot of the conversations I had with the men and their wives, Jane and Maura, word-for-word, showing them telling their stories rather than telling what these stories mean. I also braided my own responses, questions, moments of horror and confusion through the curving lines of their stories and the extensive research I did on the Holocaust and Polish Underground.
Here’s an excerpt about a conversation we had over dinner at my house after most of the interviewing was done:
I ask Lou what he sees in Jarek’s story. “He was a caring Polish nationalist, but not an exclusive nationalist. He had a big tent under his nationalism and Jews were included. I see bravery and human caring, and also devotion to Poland, Poland in a big tent. Inclusive.”
He also reflects on the fact that, all too often, he and Jarek faced the same edge of death. “There were many, many different times he had close calls,” Lou says of Jarek. “The same thing with me, like when I gave up on the death march. Expect the bullets, something happens, and you go on. When you’re that tired, you can’t even ask for mercy.”
“Do you still see life this way? Things happen and you go on?”
“Absolutely,” both men answer in unison.
In their present lives, Lou, Jarek, Jane, and Maura still carry the old worlds into the new one. Identity becomes a maze or forest when the world you came from is gone.
“How do you think of yourself, as an American or a Pole?”
“An American,” says Jarek, without hesitation.
Lou laughs. “I just think of myself as a Jew.”
“I’m Irish. Once you’re Irish, you’ll always be Irish,” Maura boldly announces.
Jane smiles quietly, then says, “I think of myself as a citizen of the world. I don’t identify with any country as my own.”
All of them, except perhaps Maura, come from worlds either buried or turned inside out. What they’re making is a new life in a new land, new families out of thin air that, while not replacing the ones that have been lost, at least help them make visible what they value most. They make meaning out of what’s beyond meaning.
Surely, the weight of an experience such as the Holocaust is made bearable only by what we can make out of the wreckage. Writing Needle in the Bone was a gift that keeps unfolding in my life. As writers, we have the potential to be containers for the stories of others, the history incident by incident, specific detail by specific detail of our communities. The writer as witness, and the witness honored enough to write between the visible and forgotten worlds.