Why I Believe in Ghosts

April 24, 2017Aron Hirt-Manheimer

“I knew your father, of blessed memory, in Bendin,” the elderly man informed me in the midst of a bar mitzvah party. “I was there recently,” he continued, “and saw the building next to the railroad station on Malachowska Street where the Manheimers lived before the war. Are you planning to visit Poland anytime soon?”

“Maybe I’ll go there someday,” I said, not wanting to disappoint him. I asked him for a map and he drew one on the back of his business card. It was still in my wallet, when I received an invitation several weeks later to join a Jewish press tour to Poland.

The trip organizers granted my request to add Bendin (Bedzin in Polish) to the itinerary, as the town was not far from one of our scheduled destinations – Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In a few weeks, I would be able to see my father’s birthplace, and the death camp where he was enslaved and his parents murdered.  

As our van entered Bendin, the building next to the train station came immediately into view. I stepped out of the vehicle alone, slowly circled the building, and took a few photographs. At a nearby kiosk, I bought my sister a red comb. She had asked me to bring home a piece of Bendin she could hold in her hand.

Our guide noted that somewhere nearby was a plaque memorializing the town’s Jews who had perished in the Holocaust. Our group walked down Malachowska Street. The air smelled of factory waste. Respiratory diseases, we were told, are very common in this region of coal mines and heavy industry.

As we walked, I thought about what my life might have been in Bendin had Hitler not rechanneled the course of history. I couldn’t fathom myself a Bendiner. For the first time, I realized that what had happened to my parents during the war did not happen to me.

In that instant, the imaginary number lifted from my arm. At age 46, I felt liberated from an identity I had assumed for as long as I could remember, an identity that was not rightfully mine.

Our group eventually found the memorial plaque on the side of a brick building. We then ventured further in search of the Jewish cemetery, reportedly maintained from afar by a Holocaust survivor from Bendin. We asked every passerby for directions, but none knew the cemetery’s whereabouts.

Suddenly, from a distance, I saw a masonry gate inscribed with the Hebrew words for cemetery, Beit Olam. Stepping up the pace, I led my colleagues toward the gate, but when we got close, to my amazement, the Hebrew letters had disappeared.

Having come this far, we decided to pass through the portal. We soon came upon a steep, wooded slope. Facing us were about 100 long-abandoned Jewish gravestones. My colleagues watched in silence as I wandered among the ancient markers looking for recognizable names.

When we returned to the van, they took out their notepads and asked for my reactions. I told them of my epiphany on Malachowska Street – that I could never truly know what my parents had endured, never truly be a witness.

Only later did I understand the counter message: For a child of survivors, emotional disengagement is impossible, and the call to witness inescapable.

The Bendiner at the bar mitzvah party, the unforeseen press tour invitation, the vanished Beit Olam letters at the cemetery entrance – what was I, a rational person, to make of this curious chain of events?

I am now convinced that I had been summoned to Poland by my ancestral spirits to receive their desperate plea: Do not forget us!

Their message lies at the very heart of Judaism: A Jew is obliged to remember and bear witness, from Sinai to Auschwitz, no matter how many generations removed.

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