Basia Monka – Far from my sea — An accidental walk, on the 50th anniversary of ‘March ‘68’
re-printed by permission from Basia Monka the times of Israel
I walk through Warsaw like a tourist… I have been here for two weeks, almost, but all this time at the hospital with my mum. And what do I see? A pro-Israel demonstration at the Gdanski train station — the place from which Jews left Poland in 1968. As I walk, I suddenly spot a group of 30 old people praying for Poland, protected by no fewer than six police cars (apparently, the people meet to pray every month, and apparently, they do not hard enough, if they need that much police protection). It’s unbelievable. I keep walking, shops are closed, kind of like Shabbat in Israel — it’s the first Sunday since the new law, for just before the cafes, there’s a sign: “We are open on Sundays.”
Eilat 1993, Mum tells me: “For the first time, I regret I didn’t leave Poland in 1968.” She had tears in her eyes. I was 16, I understood and also did not understand, at the same time. I had always known that 1968 was the year that changed life for my family. Mum graduated from university with honors. She was supposed to start her doctoral studies — professors were already congratulating her — when suddenly they were cancelled, taken away, because she was Jewish. She was a beautiful young women with dark curly hair, not exactly the typical Polish look. But she never thought of herself as different. She told me that once she had had a date — a guy who called himself brave for being willing to date a Jewish girl. She never went out with him again. Instead, friends leaving for Sweden set her up with a Jewish man — he was educated, raised in the Soviet Union…my father.
My brother was born a year after they married. Seven years later, I came along. It was a Jewish secular home. For many years, I was sure that all the Jews were not religious, while all Poles were. As a child, I had wanted to have a church wedding so that I could wear a white dress. At that time, Jews had only civil weddings.
Why didn’t Mum leave Poland in 1968? Nine years before, my family had just returned to Poland. My grandfather, Bancjan Monka, loved his homeland. His daughter Tamara, my mother, had to learn Polish to graduate high school. The language is similar to Russian, but also so different that it was a new language, of course. She was not ready for another big move.
Warsaw, 2013. I work as a journalist for Polish public television. An Arab from Syria works in the studio on the technical side of things. He moved here in 1981. He makes me Arabic coffee, I bring him tea from my vacation in Israel. We joke that we are the Middle East corner of the editing room. One day, I tell him: “You have been here for 30 years; I have been here for a thousand — but we are treated same way, as a minority.”
“Don’t nag Basia because she is different.” So said my grade-school teacher. She really liked me, and had no idea that she had said something wrong. But her sentence has stayed with me my whole life. I was 8 or 9 years old. Kids from the playground wanted to throttle me, twice — “because the nun said Jews killed Jesus.” All because I did not go to church, and my surname was Ejgenberg, instead of Kowalska. Finally, one Easter, I was afraid to leave home.
I actually gave the church few chances. I took my doll with me, and we accompanied a Christian friend to Sunday mass. The wafer pinched my tongue. My friend Ola said that it was because I didn’t believe in G-d. I then put on a show for my friends: I dressed up in a white dress and white shoes to match, and pretended I had gone to take the Holy Communion. My parents were divorced, so I told them pretty easily that I’d taken it when I’d been at my father’s. But kids are cruel — and smart. They investigated why I didn’t have “the white week.” Eventually, they gave up. But the next year, Mum moved me to a new school.
I was fine for about a year. The new school was in the center of Warsaw, where people were more open-minded. Except for the girl who kicked my leg and called me a pagan. My mother picked me up from that school too for a while.
It is 2012, and I am at work. One reporter, a colleague says: “Basia, take the Christmas shift, you don’t observe it anyway.” He was not my friend. We had never talked about holidays we celebrate.
Paris, my 33th birthday. I look the same as all the others. I look so French that they believe I’m native. It feels so good. I don’t look different among blonde girls.
Tel Aviv, Jerusalem: “Are you Jewish?” “Did you convert?” “How did your family survive the war?” How many times can I say: NOT ALL OF THEM SURVIVED!
Tel Aviv, January 2018. I am watching a Polish documentary about a Yiddish poet my grandpa used to like, Mordechai Gebirtig. My Israeli friends don’t know his songs. So strange and hard to be a Polish Jew, I think to myself.
Warsaw, January 2018. My friends — Polish intellectuals and actors — are ashamed of the anti-Semitic atmosphere that the Polish government engendered. They write on social media: not-in-my-name.
Warsaw, February 2018. My mother is trying to get compensation for the war crimes committed against her. But her petition is declined, because she was born in Russia. The people who examined her case maintain that her mother had left Poland, but had not been deported. No, not deported — just left in the cattle cars. The clerk must have thought it was fun for them. My grandmother Pesa Melach was the ninth child. Her oldest sister had immigrated to New York before the war and opened a hotel — that’s all I know. The rest of family was killed, including my grandmother’s sister who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Each year, on April 19th, Mum takes me to the ghetto memorial to place a flower there, and light a candle for my great-aunt. Since I was a child, we treated that place as if it were her grave.
March, 2018. I am in Warsaw. My dear friend asks me: “After four years in Israel, are you still Polish or have you already become Israeli?” I joke: “Me, I am an Italian.”
My grandfather told me that people are good or bad. And then he only saw the good in everyone.
A double identity is something we Jews possess, whether we want it or not. Did my double passport change it? No. I just hope I keep both — and that I’ll always will have the choice to do so.
Most of my good friends are not Jews, and I strongly believe that most Poles are not anti-Semites. When I saw the Polish demonstration of solidarity with Israel and with Polish Jews, I felt like sharing: Look! There are Polish people who stand against the madness of current politics. At that same moment, I felt, for the very first time, like writting down everything I’ve written here.
I love Polish theater; I miss Polish mountains and the Mazury & Warmia lakes. I love my sea in Israel.
My name is Basia – in Polish, that’s short for Barbara or for the Ashkenazic version of the Hebrew name Batya, the daughter of the pharaoh, who raised Moses.
I come from the rabbinic family Maisels on one side of my family, and the Queen of Sheba on the other side. The Queen of Sheba. My Communist grandmother Chana believed in that heritage, so I do, too.
March, 2018. I can’t rule out living here in Warsaw again one day, but on this day, I walked through Warsaw like a tourist. In my city. Far from my sea…