She cocooned herself against “March”. It was on a beautiful day, that Anna Trachtenherc was dismissed from her job.
“My parents did me a disservice”, says Anna Trachtenherc, half-jokingly, half seriously. She grew up in a home without a past, but that did not affect her. “Now, I only represent myself”. Years later, seeking a home, she found herself in internal exile. “I’m in a suspended state”.
I Didn’t Ask
Of her childhood, she describes it as beautiful and reinforced here naivete. She lived in harmony with her parents, she never rebelled. “I didn’t ask”. Well, maybe she did once. She was seven or eight-years old. In the yard, they called her a Jew. She wanted to know, who a Jew was. “My parents confirmed that we were Jews, but that we don’t go to synagogue. I accepted that in my daily life”.
Sometimes, her mother used to tell stories. For example, how in her home they would decorate a Christmas tree for her nanny who very much wanted to have a tree for the holiday. “Our housekeeper, Leokadia, was like a member of the family”, says Anna. “She lived with us. When our family decided to emigrate, she was shocked. She knew very well for whom she was working, but that wasn’t a problem for her. She had her own religious life and we had ours – one without religion. Sometimes, she would take me with her to church. My parents had nothing against that. They didn’t like the word ‘tolerance’. You don’t ‘tolerate’ people becasue they are different. You accept a person for who he is.
Christmas Eve. The table is covered with a white cloth. A pretext to get together.
“We invited single friends. We listened to carols, shared wafers – if someone had brought them. Under our Christmas tree, dad had spread a book, probably from Scandinavia. It was a lovely little house for which he had made the lights. He liked to tinker. Instead of a crib, we had a fairytale.”
The only uncles and aunts she had were friends of her parents. “It was a mixture of various people. I never wondered if Mrs. Jasińska was really Mrs. Jasińska, or whether she was once called something else, or whether the other people were Jews or Czechs. It just didn’t interest me.” She had friends at the TPD School No.5 (TPD – Association of Friends of Children – ed.). Years later, during a gathering of March emigrants, she discovered that many of them were Jews. “Maybe it was thanks to the school that I didn’t know who was who. The teachers brought us up in an environment of diversity.”
I Didn’t Understand
She cocooned herself against “March”. After matriculating, she attended a tertiary printing school, where she ended up after failing first-year psychology at Warsaw University. The Director warned students that joining the protest would be punishable by expulsion. “I avoided the riots. I had no contact with the activists, the university youth. The leaflet, that I’d accidently received from my friend, my mother flushed down the toilet. I wanted to graduate from school. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.” She succeeded. She obtained a job at the Wydawnictwo Szkolnictwa Zawodowego (Vocational Education Publishing House) as a technical editor.
“Those issues” and “those stories” gradually grew. Her father was one of two anaesthesiologists at the Ministry of Interior and Administration Hospital. In the mid-1960’s, it was suggested to him that he retire. In the publishing house where he worked part-time as a translator, he was told to stop coming to the office, that they would send him the work. Anna failed her psychology examination. At the time, she thought that she was insufficiently prepared for it. Years later, she realised that she had probably failed because of her origins. After March, friends of her parents rang and apologised that they could not drop in for coffee – they were scared of being eavesdropped. They suggested meeting in the park. “I was a great employee. I was praised. One beautiful day, the publishing house director called me into his office and, suddenly, I’d become bad, the worst. He gave me three months’ notice.” In 1969, the made the decision to emigrate. It was then that she realised just how many friends had left, how many are leaving. “Dad made the decision. Mum agreed because she was a good wife. In the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, where she worked, she was able to go onto a retirement pension. They valued her, they liked her and no one bothered her.”
“The apartment had been emptied, they were leaving.” They packed according to the list of permitted personal items. They gave away their furniture and renounced their citizenship. Everyone took their own books. Literature, which could be read between the lines, written in a language about which Anna says she has in her blood. Brzechwa and Tuwim linked her with her, now ending, youth. “I didn’t understand what it meant to leave everything behind.” She recently gave books to a Polish school in Göteborg. Clothing from her childhood she donated to the POLIN Museum. Although she says today that things mean nothing, people matter, she has a brooch left to her by her mother. It is an evidence of existence, a memory in an item which touches the past. “I didn’t have much and I’ve been left with even less.”
I Didn’t Miss It
“Didn’t we tell you?”, they heard from family in Israel when they left. In 1966, Anna visited them. She shared with them her love of Poland. In return, she heard, “Just wait. One fine day, they’ll tell that you’re not Polish at all, that you should get out”. “Why? How have I harmed anyone?”, she began wondering. “There’s no logic in that. We were scapegoats”.
At the border, some of the customs officials were embarrassed about what was happening. “If we had been criminals, it would have been easier from them.” But I also had the feeling that others were satisfied that they were finally ridding themselves of the ‘bottom-feeders’. They opened our boxes and touched everything inside. There are some things that a person just doesn’t want to remember.”
On the Swedish quay, in Ystad, to which we had sailed from Świnoujście, mum started crying – that evening, the suitcases, where we were, what was next. “I reacted harshly. I pointed out that it reminded of the behaviour of the brides in ‘Śluby Panieńskie’ [‘Maidens Vows’, a play by Aleksander Fredro –ed.]. At school, I played the role of Klara.” “Now, we needed to focus and move on” – Anna explained to her mother.
The local Jewish community council helped the Trachtenherc family. They guided them to an ‘intermediary’ and to a course in Swedish. As stateless individuals, we received “Nansen” passports. We were allocated an apartment in a small town between Göteborg and Stockholm. A year later, my father was working back in his profession. This sixty-year-old raced around like a young doctor on night shift in order to obtain the appropriate papers. Mum ran the home. The emptiness she felt brought on a depression. My parents had crossed out their Polish past.
“My country threw me out, so I don’t miss it.” Anna began a new life. She began studies, learned Russian and later obtained a job with Volvo. “I worked. I didn’t have time to think. I represented the company and the brand. I was a Swede.” She heard, “You may be a Swede, but you have a Slavic soul”. She became involved with Stig, a local going back to his great-grandfather. He never asked her about her background. Recently, his nephew, an eighteen-year-old, became interested. He asks many questions. Was it because the topic of refugees in Sweden has now become one of the most important?
Anna becomes indignant when she hears that she should be grateful to Gomułka. Both in Sweden and in Poland, they try to persuade her that she had got into a better, easier life, that she had avoided the period of martial, the queues and the shortages. “I’m not grateful to the regime. Maybe I did have it better materially, but it had cut me off from my roots.”
I Don’t Know
At seventy years of age, she began to think about what would have happened if … if she had not left, would she have ever felt that she belonged?
She began returning in stages – the first time in 1996, following her mother’s death. “I had no one to tell that I was in Poland.” She did not entirely come back for herself or to her home. She came in a delegation, to the coast. To her, Gdynia tasted of bananas. As a child, during a trip with her parents, she had tasted that fruit for the first time, which had arrived in the port city before it came to the capital. This time, she had left with the aroma of sausage. The selections of smoked meats and the kindness of the shop assistant made an impression on her. She came to Warsaw several years later. “It was kind of the same, but somehow different.” Only recently did she go to the home on Odyńca street, where she had lived with her parents. Only recently, also, did she discover Będzin, the town from which her mother’s family came.
“I regret that it was so many years too late. I met people there who know who the “Potoks” were, which they associate with the “Potok and Sons” brand of oil and margarine. Through memories of other people, she felt a connection to her ancestors.
“In Poland, you’re continuing the conversation where you’d left off”, said a friend during one of Anna’s subsequent visits.
“Home is where people are. I feel the lack of a family network – I feel very connected with the handful of relatives I have. I don’t know where my home is.”
Based on interviews conducted by Małgorzata Kozera and Przemysław Kaniecki
Translation by Andrew Rajcher