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. Yet one taboo topic led ineluctably to another, and soon the story had moved far beyond where it started, to become a story about the complexities of identity and empathy today. Where were the rescuers and how did they understand what had happened, and how did it affect their lives today? What had happened to my lost brother Jonny? What could we learn from it to help us navigate through today’s ongoing and sudden violences?
Finding Zbaraż contains two key threads.
The first interwoven thread contains my grandmother Sabti’s story of passing as a non-Jew with my two year old mother during World War II. 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 Ukraine. She tells of her becoming a lawyer, and marrying the handsome Henrik (Henio) 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 people 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. 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 thread of Finding Zbaraż follows my search for traces of that history and its meaning for today.
In 2012, I traveled to the town of Zbaraż, now at last open as part of an independent Ukraine. Two young Ukrainians and I searched and located Kozaki, the tiny village where Kazia kept Sabti and my mother hidden in a schoolhouse. 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, 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 legends.
Inspired by works like Daniel Mendelsohn’s Lost and Paula Fass’s Inheriting the Holocaust, I search for the rescuers’ family. Kazia’s grandson, it turns out, has his own idiosyncratic relation to this story.
The story from the rescuers’ side sounded so different from what I had heard from Sabti.
The rescuers had a lot of feelings and legends of their own of the war, and of losing track of the mother and child they saved. Why did Sabti not stay in touch? Two generations later, the families reopened this story that is so crucial to each.
Brunette Stasia, one of the rescuer’s daughters who was 12 at the time, remembers being jealous of my mother for her blond curls and the chocolates given to this smaller charmer by the German soldiers. Can we get the prize from Yad Vashem for her sister for her role as a “righteous gentile”? Whose testimony counts?
Moments of present, moments of past
Once I start to unpack my grandmother’s, my mother’s and my past, so many secrets and silences inevitably begin to rise up within my search, and I ultimately discover key hidden parts of my own past too, especially the story of my lost brother Jonny. How can I remain loyal to the myths that bind me, while discovering that not all is as it seems? Are there new forms of connection that only become possible when we see the past from its reverse side?
This work is a 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.