(Un)Folding Secrets: Part II
Tracing my mother’s journey from Warsaw to New Zealand via Palestine.
- In the 1960s, my mother began to receive letters from her cousin Lusia, the one other survivor of her shattered family. My mother folded them away and burned them.
- She never spoke about the contents of the letters. But at night she would blurt out their secrets in her restless sleep.
When historical and personal trauma mingles, it often leaves survivors determined to erase their memories. But there is an emotional and social cost to this “forgetting.” Jonathan Gil Harris is a New Zealand-born, Jewish writer and academic, who currently lives in India.
In this multi-part series he traces the story of his mother, Stella, from her childhood in a bourgeois Jewish family in Warsaw in the 1930s, through deportation to camps in Russia and Uzbekistan, to undivided Palestine, and finally New Zealand.
Step-by-step he unfolds the secrets that his mother kept folded away in a Chinese chest in her living room. In the process, he draws evocative, and worrying, parallels between the India of the present, Europe in the years leading up to the second world war and Israel in the years since the war.
People keep silent for many reasons, he concludes. But this silence can be as toxic as the events it conceals.
A change of circumstances
Shortly after the visit of Stella’s Dream Uncle to the house on Granicza Street, Germany invaded western Poland, in September of 1939. Nathan Freud — who some months earlier had been conscripted to serve in the Polish army—deserted.
He moved his wife and two daughters to Lvov, in Soviet-occupied Poland. There they holed up with his mother, two brothers, their wives, daughters, and daughters’ children.
Used to the luxury of their palatial apartment in Warsaw, sharing a smaller house with a large extended family would have been a shock.
For five-year-old Stella, however, it was a liberation into a world of human connections she had fiercely coveted all her life.
In particular, she revelled in the company of her cousin Lusia’s little three-year-old son, Viki. She mothered Viki, treating him as her personal human doll.
Sometime in the spring of 1940, Nathan Freud made a fateful decision. Heartened by “news”— read: wishful thinking — that the German occupation wasn’t as bad as everyone had feared it would be, he decided to return home.
The fantasy was not just his. Others, Jews as much as Gentiles, wanted to avert their gaze from the horrors unfolding. Nathan was only happy to follow their lead. He announced that he would be moving his daughters and wife back to Warsaw.
Lucky break? Soviet deportation
As daft as Nathan’s decision was, it probably saved Stella’s life. A few days after leaving Lvov, Nathan, Lola, Mariska and Stella were detained by the Soviet authorities at the border with German-occupied western Poland.
The German invasion of Warsaw had been enabled by the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939. Under its terms Stalin received a promise from Hitler of non-aggression between their two countries in exchange for Soviet control of territories in eastern Poland and German control of the west.
Russian camp for Poles
In the Soviet-occupied part of Poland, desertion from the national army was a crime; Nathan, Lola, and the girls were promptly deported as anti-nationals to a Russian camp for Poles, near Archangelsk, in the Arctic Circle.
They had unwittingly dodged a bullet. In June of 1941, the German army broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invaded eastern Poland, including Lvov.
All the members of the Freud household in Lvov were deported to Auschwitz. Save one: little Viki died when the Germans came to their house.
Many years later, my mother began to receive letters from her cousin Lusia, Viki’s mother. Lusia alone among the Lvov Freuds had managed to survive her time in Auschwitz.
in the 1960s she felt a need to reach out to my mother, the one other survivor of her shattered family.
Folding and burning
She wrote Stella a letter that my mother, upon receiving, immediately stuffed in the Chinese chest. Luisa then wrote a follow-up letter, in which she revealed what had happened the day Germans arrived at the Freud house in Lvov in June 1941.
She told my mother that Viki had been taken from her and ripped apart in front of her eyes by two Nazi soldiers. Stella folded Lusia’s last letter. And then burned it. She never revealed its contents to her children.
I found out what Lusia had written in her letter only many years later. It was when my father haltingly shared with me something he had overheard decades earlier from my mother.
She hadn’t deliberately opened up, even to him, about what had happened to Viki. He had gleaned it by accident: at the height of her distress, in the middle of a sleepless night, she had muttered aloud to herself about Viki’s murder.