In conversation with Arnold Zable

February 24, 2016

Arnold, what is your connection to Poland?

Poland has been a significant part of my life. As a child, growing up in Carlton, I would hear my parents talk about mythical places—Bialystok, Grodek, Bransk, Orly and Bielsk. These places were my childhood dreaming. My parents were from the eastern Polish city of Bialystok. My father was born there, and my mother moved there from the nearby shtetl, Grodek, when she was an infant. She grew up in Bialystok, except for a sojourn back in Grodek during the First World War. They lived in Poland for about the first thirty years of their lives. Both my paternal and maternal grandparents were born in the sthetl of Orla, and moved to Bialystok to work as weavers. My paternal grandfather Bishke changed jobs and stood for forty years near the Bialystok town clock, selling Yiddish newspapers. Everyone knew him. My paternal grandmother was born in the nearby shtetl of Bransk. All this is depicted and recreated in my book Jewels and Ashes.

My parents were fortunate to get out before the war – first my mother, who at first came to Melbourne, but was deported for reasons I describe in Jewels and Ashes. New Zealand saved her life. Otherwise she would have been sent back to almost certain death. She was able to bring over my father to NZ, before the gates closed. Those they left behind were murdered, including all four grandparents, six of my mother’s siblings, all except for two sisters; and all my father’s family, his cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, including a brother who had disappeared in Russia.

Poland was also a country where the Jewish Labour Bund flourished pre-war. Both my parents were Bundists and as a child in SKIF I heard many stories about the Bund’s activities in Poland. My father and mother embraced the Bund culture and Yiddish language. My father was a Yiddish poet, my mother, a pre-war singer in Poland of Yiddish song. As a child, I read many novels and stories in the original Yiddish—stories set in Poland, and the Polish landscape.

In 1986, I realised, through a series of events, that while i had lived and travelled in many places, I had never been to Poland. I finally journey there in 1986. It was a personal quest. I was compelled to see with my own eyes where my parents, my grandparents, and their families, and many generations of forebears came from. I was in search of the missing link in the ancestral chain, the entire generation of grandparents, and many of my cousins, uncles and aunts, and extended family, who had been wiped out in the Shoah. I went alone, and I went for months. As I travelled I kept a journal, and in the back of my mind, there was the possibility that it may become a book. It was published in 1991 as Jewels and Ashes.

Poland has since featured in several other of my books including the novels, Cafe Scheherazade, Scraps of Heaven, and in several stories in my collections The Fig Tree, and Violin Lessons, and in my book about Yiddish theatre Wanderers and Dreamers, where I explore among other things, the great era of Yiddish theatre in Poland, and how it was transported to Australia. I touch on Poland again in my forthcoming book The Fighter.

I returned to Poland in 2006—exactly 20 years after my first journey—this time with my son Alexander, who was about to turn 13. I wanted him to see first hand, where his grandparents came from. It was wonderful travelling with him in the Bialystok region.

When I was leaving for Poland, back in 1986, the last thing my father said was: ‘Give my regards to the town clock.’ After all, that was where his father, Bishke, had stood for those forty years selling newspapers, announcing the coming of wars, the major news of the day, the latest occupier, the latest treaty in far off places that determined his people’s fate. He was in effect, the town crier. But on the eve of my journey, as he asked me to pass on his regards, my father doubted if the town clock still stood. It had been bombed during the war, he said. But to my relief, on the day i finally arrived in Bialystok, there it was. Still standing. But, so I was told, it was a replica, restored brick by brick. It rose from the ruins, after the war. I saw also the site where Bishke and his wife Sheine, had been shot in the Bialystok ghetto in 1943 and the site of the massacre in the grand synagogue. That night I wrote in my journal, a passage that was eventually published in Jewels and Ashes:

“Romance and terror, replicas and originals, hover side by side, while within me there’s a sense of awe and a silent refrain: I am here, at last I am here; and it is far more beautiful than I had imagined. And far more devastating. Yet, somehow, never have I felt so much at peace.”

Yes, Poland has always been a part of me. And it was, throughout my youth and young adulthood, a double-edged affair, both romance and something darker.

Arnold, What foods did you eat whilst growing up that represented Poland?

My mother regularly made latkes, brisket, chopped liver, borscht, schnitzel, gefilte fish, apple compote, chicken soup, and other foods associated with Poland. My father also had his unique way of making latkes, from a recipe he inherited from his mother, Sheine Liberman. I depict this in Jewels and Ashes.

What visuals did you get of Poland as a child?

In my book Jewels and Ashes, I describe the impact on me as a child, of the Bialystok memorial book – the Yiskor book, published soon after the war. The book is full of photos of the community, its history, the city’s buildings, the surrounding landscape, and its people. It includes a photo of my grandfather Bishke the newspaper seller as one of the ‘memorable characters’ of Bialystok.

I was also fascinated by the bound volumes of 1920s and 1930s Yiddish journals my father brought with him from Poland—these included The Illustrated Weekly, Literary Pages, and others. They haunted me as a child, as did the Memory book. They were stored in a cupboard in the dining room and I often took them out and was mesmerised by the pages, the images of a lost world, a world that was both alien and familiar. I also created visual images of Poland from the works of Yiddish Writers such as Sholem Aleichem, I.L.Peretz, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many others. They recreated the sthetl vividly. They transported me there. In later years, after Jewels and Ashes, was published, I was privileged to explore indigenous Melbourne with Aboriginal elders, and also to participate with Aboriginal storytellers in various events, and I often found that we shared that point of contact—of having come from ancestral places that we were now desperately trying to recreate and restore, at least in out stories. In other words, we both shared in common a kind of dreaming of lost places. I have also felt this with various immigrant and refugee groups. It is encapsulated in the Greek word: Nos-Thal-Ghea: Literally, ‘the pain of longing for the return’. I explore this concept in my novel Sea of Many Returns, this time in a Greek setting. Sharing my own story of family loss and longing for another place, has enabled me to understand the longing for lost places that lie in the heart of other communities.

Did you meet any characters along the way during your journey that you can talk about?

When I travelled to Poland in 1986, I journeyed for several months. I depict many of the characters I met in Jewels and Ashes. Among them are the four of the last pre-war Jews living in Bialystok; several feature in the exhibition photos. I also met the some of the last pre-war Jews living in the surrounding shtetlakh, and members of the Jewish communities of Warsaw, Krakow and other cities. They feature in many stories and vignettes recounted in Jewels and Ashes. I also depict some of the Polish characters I met, in two of the stories in the book Violin Lessons—one of them is the renowned Polish environmentalist and photographer, Włodzimierz Puchalski. He was a great lover of the Eastern Polish landscape. I was taken to his beautiful cottage, an idyll of Polish pastoral life. I depict the cottage in all its detail in the story, ‘Capriccio.’

When I travelled in Poland in 2006, I met the legendary Marek Edelman, the Bund leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, who remained in Poland after the war, and became a renowned member of Solidarnosc and the movement for democracy culminating in his membership in parliament. I wrote a feature about him that was published in The Age. He was, to the surprise of his Bundist mates—some of whom were mentors of mine in Melbourne—who left post-war Poland, ‘the one who stayed’. Among those who were with him in Lodz, in 1948, on the eve of their escape from Poland, were Bono and Pinche Wiener, and Avram Zeleznikow, the proprietor of Cafe Scheherazade. Edelman was a passionate believer in democratic freedoms and human rights, and an innovative cardiologist, and when he died in 2009, he was given a state funeral. I attach my story about him.

How did your journey shape your opinion of Poland?

It shaped me in profound ways. I write of some this in Jewels and Ashes, and in various essays and other stories. As I write in the artist statement, I travelled alone, and for months. It was a personal quest. This is the key fact that enabled me to see Poland in an independent light. I was not influenced by group speak. It was a personal quest. I was compelled to walk the shtetlakh where my parents, grandparents and my forebears lived for many generations. I travelled Trans-Siberian and entered Poland from the east. The country was behind the ‘iron curtain,’ pervaded by a spirit of longing. Travelling on my own enabled me to get close to the earth, the people, the farmlands and forests, and the old ways, depicted in the Yiddish novels, songs and stories I heard and read as a child. I was surprised at how familiar it seemed. I felt strangely at home.

There were unexpected encounters. I met activists in the Solidarity movement, and was taken by their courage and spirit. I was drawn to the beauty of the countryside, and experienced a Polish ‘golden autumn’. I was welcomed into Polish homes, and met people who understood and supported my quest. I was drawn to the proud spirit of the Polish underground movement, and came to understand the Polish vulnerability to the great powers that were always threatening them—the vast Soviet Union, and republics to the East, and Germany in the West—and how that had shaped their thinking and their attitudes.

I returned to Melbourne with a deeper understanding of, and empathy for both Polish culture and Yiddish Culture. Beyond my inheritance of Yiddish writers, Yiddish theatre, and musicians, I had grown up with. I was introduced to great Polish language writers such as Julian Tuwim, and Bruno Schultz, and to singers such as the extraordinary Ewa Demarczyk. I felt close to both Polish and Polish-Yiddish culture.

On my return to Melbourne, a new conversation opened up with my parents. I had walked the streets and paths of their pre-war lives. I returned with the maps of their youth. I would mention a street, and it would trigger off yet another story. Many of the stories that appear in Jewels and Ashes, were triggered by the journey. The title of the book captures the tenor of the journey, the interplay between light and dark.

When I returned in 2006 with my son, Alexander, Poland had changed almost beyond recognition. In 1986, it was behind ‘the iron curtain’, a satellite state of the Soviet Empire. All this had changed back in 1989, and by 2006, as Marek Edelman said, democracy had taken root. I felt lighter in this second journey. I think this was partly due to the fact that I had completed my quest back in 1986, and reworked it into a book; and partly because in 2006 there was a sense of freedom among people, that had not been there when I first travelled. I also became aware of new initiatives, such as the Green lungs of Poland movement, in Eastern Europe, which celebrates the North-Eastern Polish landscape, adjoining the Bialystok region. This too is part of a new consciousness evolving in Poland, on issues ranging from Polish-Jewish relations, to environmental protection of the countryside celebrated in some of the works of Polish-Yiddish poets, a century ago.

Do you think there is a Jewish future in Poland?

Whenever I am asked this question, all I can say for certain is—there is an evolving Jewish ‘present’ and ‘presence’ in Poland. Since my journey in 1986, an increasing number of Poles have been discovering their hidden Jewish roots. Back in 1986, there was hardly enough Jews for a minyin in the old Krakow synagogue, for instance. Now there are Jewish festivals there, as well as in Warsaw and elsewhere, the extraordinary Museum of Jews in Warsaw. Many more Jews have now made their second and third generation journeys. How it will evolve, and how strong it will become, cannot be predicted. I don’t have a crystal ball. But no one would have foreseen what is taking place now back in 1986 when I first journeyed there.

Is there a strong Jewish consciousness? If so, what does it look like?

Again, this is a work-in-progress, an exploration, and a period of transition. It will inevitably, take its own unique forms, within a new twenty-first century context. We see in Lindsay Goldberg’s photos and the accompanying stories, some of the directions this consciousness is taking. She documents the process of discovery, by Poles, of their Jewish ancestry.

I saw early forms of this back in 1986. The story of Monica for instance who I met in Krakow, as a worker in the Jewish museum—there are parallels in other cultures—in Australia for instance, people can be transformed by the discovery of their Aboriginal heritage, if suppressed identities. Such discoveries can quickly change a person’s consciousness. They trigger journeys of discovery, a re-examination of the self. Such discoveries can be either traumatic or joyous, or a bit of both. Where it leads, only time will tell. Meanwhile, the fact of discovery alone has shifted ones self-understanding in profound ways.

Did you witness anti-Semitism in Poland?

There were moments, when I sensed it, especially in the countryside, and in one instance, in a Warsaw church, in 2006, where right wing anti-Semitic literature was being sold. On the other hand, I also encountered Philo-Semites — Poles who were drawn to Jewish culture, and they were drawn towards, and helped me in my quest. I was in particular, supported by members of solidarity which, in 1986, which was at that time, an underground movement.

Among many examples, one stands out—a group of young Poles who I met in the Eastern Polish shtetl of Tykocin. They had taken it upon themselves to help rebuild and preserve the beautiful Tykocin synagogue and to explore the town’s Jewish past. They would also meet there, regularly, to discuss this past, and to read the works of Bruno Schultz, a Polish writer, from a Jewish background, who was loved for his extraordinary Polish prose and literary style. I attended one of these gatherings, and stayed in the town as a guest for a couple of days.

There are many such groups springing up now, foremost among them, the Forum for dialogue, fostering Polish-Jewish dialogue, with its visionary founder and president, Andrzej Folwarczny, at the helm, who I was privileged to meet, when he was here late last year. The forum in turn has fostered many initiatives throughout Poland, in which the residents of Polish towns are exploring Jewish presence, and hosting Jewish visitors in search of their roots. There was, from what in observed, very few parallels with this back in 1986, except for the odd local historian who like Tomas* was obsessed with documenting the Jewish past of a particular area.

What does this exhibition mean to you?

Coming exactly 30 years after my first journey, and 256 years after the publication of Jewels and Ashes, and in a new post-Soviet era Poland, it gives me a chance to enter into the discussion and dialogue about contemporary Poland. To do it, initially, through the photos, my writing and through art, is a wonderful basis for the forums and program that accompany the exhibition.

It has triggered in me a return to themes I have explored in numerous ways over the years. It enables me to explore and enter into dialogue with new generations to their Polish and Eastern European heritage.

It is great to share the photographic exhibition with Lindsay Goldberg, a gifted photographer of a younger generation. Her work is extraordinary, and already, in the months leading to the exhibition, we have had many conversations about our work, our journeys to Poland in such different times, and about the themes of our joint exhibition. We both share a passion for the stories behind the images—in my case they were documented in a memoir, and in the written word, and Lindsay’s, in the stories that have been literally written into her images. It will be fascinating to see the conversations, the debates, and the responses this exhibition will generate in coming months.

Does your work deal with the question: to stay or to leave?

Yes. This is implicit in what I have written above. But it was a question that came up in various forms even back in 1986. I met a few Poles who were beginning to explore their Jewish roots. I also met people in Warsaw, who were the forerunners of the growing Jewish presence there, and among those who would, in coming years, nurture the awakening interest in the Jewish past, and potential future—including, activist Stanisław Krajewski, a long time activist for recognition of Jewish presence in Poland, and his wife, Monika Krajewska, who has long documented that presence through various mediums, including photography. I think that perhaps the most intriguing story in relation to this question of ‘To stay or leave’ is Marek Edelman, and some of the younger Jewish and Polish people I met on my 2006 journey, who pointed out that ironically, there may be less anti Semitism in Poland now than in other more Western European countries.

Arnold you are emblematic of your generation’s desire to know more about Poland today. On what level do you think people are interested in the journey?

There is no doubt that an increasing number of Jews going to Poland to explore their roots in various ways. Back in 1986, I was among the few. Now there are many. To my knowledge, Jewels and Ashes was the first book length depiction of a second-generation journey to Poland published in Australia. There have been others since. There is now the Journey of the Living, which, in response to critiques, is broadening its vision and scope and beginning to engage more with the Polish community. And there is a Jewish calendar and festivals attracting visitors, and new generations exploring their roots.

One of the most impressive is the Helix Project. Founded in 2011, it conducts study programs that culminate with month-long explorations of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, within the context of multi ethnic diversity. In its own words: ‘Helix transforms scholars, artists, and activists into cultural archaeologists on the landscapes of Eastern Europe.’

I would still contend, that if it is possible, the best way to approach Poland is as a personal quest—travelling as an individual, or with a parent of the first generation, or with family—in a spirit of exploration and openness, to both the living present as well as the ghosts of the past—travelling with an open mind, and an open eye.

Perhaps, in this way, we finally arrive at that point of silence, and wonder—that point where the questions stop for a while, the mind calms down, our tribal loyalties are put aside, and we come to understand, that beyond it all, there is something that unites us beyond the boundaries of race, culture and creed. Only then, can the journey be fulfilled. Only then can we come to the paradox, that here, of all places: Never have I felt so much at peace.

Arnold Zable, artist
Poland 1986 – A quest
Bialystok, Krakow, Warsaw, and ancestral villages of Eastern Poland, 1986