Photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Edward Knab June 14, 2006
One time I was watching my mother crush left over pieces of dried bread into breadcrumbs. She'd gather the odd bits into a paper bag until they were completely dried out and when she needed breadcrumbs she'd pull out her wooden bread board and rolling pin. Bread was considered something sacred at our house. It was never wasted and if a piece of bread happened to fall on the floor she taught us to pick it up and kiss it. In apology for being careless with it? In gratitude for its presence in our lives? Perhaps for all of these reasons and my mother was the most fervent in this action.
The action of crushing crusts of dried bread into usable breadcrumbs tended to generate a lot of memories for my mama especially the scarcity of bread, not just during the war, but while growing up as well. Her mother had kept it under lock and key and parceled it out carefully to make sure that what she baked lasted a whole week.
The really hardened pieces of bread that wouldn't give under the rolling were covered with a clean dishcloth and attacked with a hammer. She was really whacking at the bread one day when she told me how, during the occupation of Poland, while she was living and working in Kraków, she wanted to send bread to her sister Hanka who was imprisoned in Auschwitz - not too great a distance from herin terms of miles yet impossible to reach through the barbed wire.
"The loaf of bread had to be completely dried in order not to spoil before it reached her," she tells me, "as well as the piece of sausage. The package could only weigh so many ounces including the wrapping paper, the string and the food. I remember I had to pay in reichmarks which were hard to come by." I can see her now, bringing that hammer down on the bread. I was what? 12? 13 years old? but it was a story I heard often.
Fast forward some fifty years. It's 2006 and I am at Auschwitz, at the archives located on the grounds. I am trying to find information about my Ciocia (aunt) Hanka, my mother's sister, the one who spent almost two years in Auschwitz, the one to whom my mother sent dried bread. We are cordially met by a female archivist who is very kind and very helpful, producing a letter that my aunt wrote to her family while at Auschwitz. The archivist tells me she was among those who were death marched from Auschwitz westward towards Germany to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in the closing weeks of the war. She explains to me what it was to be in a death march in January of 1945: freezing cold with a single blanket for warmth; marching on foot, then packed into cattle cars and again by foot; little or no food, no place to sleep except barns or the open sky; prisoners who can't keep up and/or those attempting to escape are shot on the spot; it's a distance of some 500 miles. It's a miracle she survived, she tells me gently, seeing me fight back tears.
When we take our leave, the archivist sees us to the door and as we emerge outside I catch site of men in full Górale folk dress carrying the Polish flag and banners as if having marched in a parade. I ask the archivist what was going on and she tells me: "Today is the 66th anniversary of the first transport of Polish political prisoners to arrive at Auschwitz from the city of Tarnów in 1940. The first major group of people to be imprisoned at this concentration camp were Poles, not Jews, and survivors and their families have come to commemorate the event." Most of the prisoners brought in that day were from the southern region of Poland, including people who from the mountain region, called górale.
It was June 14, 2006. That we were there on this important day was not planned but I doubt I'll ever forget the day. Through the information I received at the archives I found out that my aunt also arrived at Auschwitz via the Kraków-Tarnów line of transport as a political prisoner three years later in January of 1943. In addition, in the one letter she was allowed to send home to her family in 1944, she writes, " Everything you have sent me, I received, and in good condition..." and I think of my mother hammering at crusts of bread and the value of a loaf of dried bread.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.