May 1 in Poland is Labor Day, a vestige from Communism that people don’t want to give up just yet, and May 3 is Constitution Day, so I decided to take my extra two days to visit Łódź, the city where my grandmother is from, and Kalisz, the town where my grandfather was from. I did it alone, not because I felt like this was a special journey I had to do by myself, but because in all honesty, I don’t know of anyone who would want to come with me.
This weekend has felt like an exercise in liminal spaces, where the real and unreal merge and separate like oil and water, like a mirage from the asphalt, like my meaning from my limited Polish vocabulary. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have anyone to talk to because my hostels were empty and there were far fewer tourists, so I just had the thoughts in my head and by halfway through this afternoon, it was starting to freak me out.
I came to Łódź and Kalisz hoping to find some piece of history, some sign that what happened to my grandparents is not just remembered or acknowledged but actually felt, perhaps even mourned. But that would be asking too much. (especially if you know the history of Jews in Poland, but we won’t get into that) Like everything, life has gone on in the almost 80 years since my grandparents left–well, were forced out of–these places. Even though half of Łódź looks like no one has repaired the buildings since someone bombed the shit out of them during WWII, people still live and walk around because life has moved on, it has to move on, and the profound historical moment has not been preserved except for maybe the spray paint on the sidewalk saying that the Łódź ghetto was here.
So this afternoon I was sitting at a cafe on the main square in quaint little Kalisz, a town where you would never guess so many people were forcibly expelled… There is not much in the way of memorials here, even less than Łódź. I walked around, wondering which of these buildings were ones my grandfather would have seen himself, which of these cafes used to be Jewish cafes or if that was another part of town altogether. My grandfather is no longer alive, and his only sister’s daughter no longer speaks to our side of the family, so I have no one to ask for directions. There is not much tourism, so there are no walking tours to point out historical districts. The wikipedia page on the history of Jews in Kalisz is pretty thorough, but the street names have changed, so there is nothing useful there.
I don’t speak to anyone because even though I usually understand what people want to say when they speak to me in Polish, I still don’t have anything to say back. So I’m sitting on the square reading Roberto Bolaño in Spanish, because for me he is a poet and author all about the in-between: between democracy and dictatorship, between revolution and apathy, between real and imagined. I’m reading his words and hoping maybe some new words or new ideas will occur. And in that space between reality and dreams, the mysteries of poetry, of the Polish language, of my family’s history will reveal themselves to me.
todos en la misma senda,
Donde se confunden y mezclan los tiempos:
Verbales y físicos, el ayer y la afasia
all on the same path,
where time gets confused and mixed up:
verbal and physical, yesterday and aphasia
“El Burro”, Roberto Bolaño (from Los perros románticos)