Finding Zbaraż began as an oral transcript of the Holocaust story of Ela Sas, my maternal grandmother, Sabti (whose surname I took in 1993). Long ago, I included that rough oral transcript as the appendix to my senior Literature thesis at Harvard on fragmentation and ellipsis in autobiographical narratives, including those of Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute. In the early 1990s I published fragments of the story in Japanese in the Tokyo-based journal Asunaro along with cliché-verre illustrations by artist Higashi Yoshizumi. As I struggled to elucidate the problems of representation of cultural disaster in my research, I also grappled to find a form for this story. Later, this work led me to travel to the locations where the story took place and to meet the people who might remember the events of those times.
Finding Zbaraż contains three key threads.
The first part contains my grandmother Sabti’s story of passing as a non-Jew with my two year old mother during World War II, as accurately as possible in her own words. Sabti recounts her birth to a wealthy, aristocratic Jewish family in the town of Zbaraż, a town that used to be in Eastern Poland (Galicia) but now is part of the Ukraine. She tells of her becoming a lawyer, and marrying the handsome Henrik Żarkower. The two move to the town of Gostynin to clerk with a judge and practice law. We get to know her irreverent style and the quirky characters she met on her way.
In September 1939, when the Germans invade Poland, Sabti tells what it was like for a well-educated young woman who now encounters her old classmates on the street–some of them treat her with loyalty, while others take advantage—so we get a clear picture of life under an increasingly oppressive regime during wartime.
Questions of everyday racism, as well as of the differential experiences of varying groups during cultural disaster —based in differences of class, gender, beauty, education, religion or ethnicity—come to light in a tangible manner in Finding Zbaraż. Sabti’s story—not of concentration camp experience, but of passing and hiding within Polish society as a Christian and hiding a child—highlights gendered and little-known aspects of Holocaust history.
Her story takes us through the murder of her husband and mother, and her decision to take on Aryan (“Arish”) papers. She escapes from her hometown under the identity of a non-Jewish Ukrainian with her daughter. An old acquaintance named Kazia chooses to take her in as a “cousin.”
The vicissitudes of rescue are many, but what is notable is how many individuals contribute . Though it’s a dark story in many ways, Sabti shows the many odd chance moments that allowed them to pass under the noses of the German Oberleiters. One girlfriend of a German Kommandant even directly helped them to stay out of danger.
After the “liberation” of Poland, Sabti gives a brief account of living in Soviet-run Poland where she works as a lawyer, before she flees to France and subsequently to Israel.
The second part of Finding Zbaraż follows my search for traces of that history and its impact in the present.
In 2012, I traveled to the town of Zbaraż, now open as part of an independent Ukraine. We located Kozaki, the tiny village where Kazia kept Sabti and my mother hidden in a schoolhouse. I found other key locations of Lopatyn, Zolochiv, Zydachiv, Mosciska and Pnikut from her narrative. Although all Polish people in the story had moved out in the massive resettlement swap of Ukrainians and Polish people at the end of the war, I show the locations of the story as they exist today. We embark on a journey through the present-day sites and learn new information about these events that had only existed for me in the form of family stories.
Inspired by works like Daniel Mendelsohn’s Lost, I explore the experiences of people in those places today. Eventually, I tell how unexpectedly we were able to connect with the grandchildren of the rescuers’ family. Kazia’s grandson Marek, it turns out, now lives in a Polish community in Chicago. He has his own idiosyncratic relation to this story, which is his family story as well, one he grew up hearing as a child.
The story from the rescuers’ side sounded so different from what I had heard from Sabti.
The rescuers had a lot of feelings and memories of their own of the war, and of what it meant to them to rescue and then lose track of the mother and child they saved. They had been looking for us.Why did Sabti not stay in touch? Two generations later, the families reopen this story that is so crucial to each.
My mother and I go visit Szczecin, in Poland, where the rest of the rescuers’ family settled after the war. We meet Stasia, one of the rescuer’s daughters, now in her seventies. Stasia, who was 12 at the time, remembers being jealous of my mother for her blond curls and the chocolates given to this smaller girl by German soldiers. We see Łodz where my mother went to kindergarten just after the war. And we go back to visit Zbaraż, the town my mother is from but that she hasn’t seen since she was a tiny girl. Marek, the grandson of one of those who rescued them, asks us to help get the prize from Yad Vashem for his mother as well, for her role as a “righteous gentile.” We try to help him get it.
Moments of present, moments of past
Between hearing the story and going to research in the Ukraine, I get back in touch with my lost brother Jonny, who has Down’s syndrome, a discovery project that in some ways directly leads to the historical/life searches that take me to the Ukraine. We hear of the days before Sabti’s death, with flashbacks of memories from her life as a director of a Jewish nursery school on West 86th Street in New York City. We hear also Sabti’s child’s (my mother’s) memories of liberation and living in Paris after the war. Lyrical reconstructions of key moments in Sabti’s story punctuate the starkly simple prose of Sabti’s own account Ela’s wedding to Henio; the birth of Stefciu on a pile of straw in a barn.
This work is a radical departure from my usual topics and writing styles. And yet for me, Finding Zbaraż frames a necessary grappling with stories and memories that have been passed down, sometimes through words and sometimes in silence, from my grandparents’ generation, especially from Sabti, and from my mother with fewer words—those “inheritable” memories and histories we carry in our bones.