Inner yard of a house in the War­saw Ghet­to, 2014

In the third week of July, 2019, we were in Poland: my hus­band, my son, my par­ents, my sib­lings, and the mem­o­ries of three mil­lion mur­dered Jews. The Jews were every­where: in the faint palimpsest of Yid­dish let­ter­ing on Warsaw’s old­er build­ings, in the emp­ty tree­less coun­try­side, and of course in their des­e­crat­ed grave­yards. I got to Poland and sur­prised myself by want­i­ng to sob. We were stay­ing in a real­ly nice hotel near Warsaw’s old town, and I got into the big clean bath­tub and cried until my eyes stung.

Well sure,” said Bin­nie, my old writ­ing teacher, who had been to Poland and warned me what to expect. Their ghosts are our ghosts.”

I don’t believe in ghosts,” I said.

That has noth­ing to do with it.”

My sis­ter had brought us here on a Jew­ish her­itage trip to bet­ter under­stand our family’s his­to­ry. Our pater­nal great-grand­par­ents emi­grat­ed from War­saw in the late 1910’s and a mater­nal great-great-grand­moth­er escaped Gali­cia in the 1890s. They had all got­ten out while the get­ting was good, and thank heav­ens for that, because if they’d stayed much longer not only would I not be here but my son would not be here either. I try not to spend too much time med­i­tat­ing on the direc­tion in which a but­ter­fly once flapped its wings, but frankly it’s remark­able to me that any of us are here, espe­cial­ly any of us Jews. My great-grand­par­ents – who could no more con­ceive of me than they could con­ceive of an iPhone – had the fore­sight to hand over the keys to the fish store and get on a boat to Amer­i­ca so that my future par­ents could meet and have me and then my sis­ter, who would take us back to Poland one day and put us up in lux­u­ry hotels.

While I cried in the bath­tub, my son ate a pork chop at the hotel bar and my father drank a martini. 


A Jew­ish her­itage jour­ney to Poland includes many stops, not all of which are depress­ing. The POLIN Muse­um of the His­to­ry of Pol­ish Jews, for instance, is dizzy­ing­ly com­pre­hen­sive and beau­ti­ful­ly arranged, locat­ed in the heart of what was Warsaw’s Jew­ish ghet­to. It takes you on a path from the ear­li­est Jew­ish set­tle­ments in Poland (some­time around 1000 AD), through the Mid­dle Ages and up to the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, with dis­plays on Yid­dish the­ater, polit­i­cal action, and the recre­ation of a giant wood­en syn­a­gogue. The audio guide is infor­ma­tive and charm­ing. Also, if you’re into this sort of thing, (I am) the muse­um restau­rant is outstanding. 

What else does the Jew­ish tourist encounter on a her­itage jour­ney in Poland? Kaz­imierz Square in Krakow, full of stalls sell­ing carved wood­en Hasidim danc­ing to inaudi­ble music; the Chmiel­nik syn­a­gogue; a few semi-restored ceme­ter­ies; the occa­sion­al klezmer con­cert; a van ride to Oświęcim, renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis after the 1939 invasion. 

We went on a Thurs­day morn­ing, all four­teen of us. The sky was daz­zling, an almost uncon­scionable blue. We were qui­et in the car, even the kids, and I looked out the win­dow and tried to imag­ine the bloody fight­ing that had tak­en place on this ground eighty years before, but it was impos­si­ble. The day was so sun­ny and cool, and the kids in the car had begun singing YMCA” along with the radio. 


I had been warned of all sorts of things about Auschwitz: that it would be full of mis­be­hav­ing tourists, that it would be too crowd­ed, that it would be too stripped of con­text, that it would be too over­whelm­ing to make it through the day. It was none of these things. It was, instead, exact­ly what I’d expect­ed: well-pre­served and vast and gut­ting. Wide open spaces pocked by train tracks and bunkers, watch­tow­ers and out­build­ings. Memo­ri­als. Tour guides. Ashen-faced vis­i­tors. You see as much as your imag­i­na­tion wants to fill in, and as a pro­fes­sion­al imag­in­er I saw it all – the stick-thin pris­on­ers being marched in and out of the bunkers, the guards shav­ing the pris­on­ers’ heads, the women relin­quish­ing their shoes (they’re still there, behind glass, the piles of eye­glass­es, suit­cas­es, shoes). You see the Auschwitz prison – a hell inside a hell where cap­tives were sent for infrac­tions” (tak­ing an extra scrap of bread, not hus­tling fast enough to roll call). One pun­ish­ment that still pops into my head at unpre­dictable moments is the tiny square of space where four pris­on­ers were forced to stand all night, unable to move. Just stand­ing next to each oth­er, breath­ing, try­ing to stay awake, try­ing to fall asleep.

There is not even a remote­ly com­fort­ing or sat­is­fy­ing end­ing here. Most of the inno­cent pris­on­ers were mur­dered; most of the guards and the staff escaped any pun­ish­ment. The Pol­ish gov­ern­ment did hang Rudolf Hoss, the first com­man­dant of Auschwitz, in 1947, but his fate is an anom­aly. The gib­bet is still there, not too far from the gas chamber. 


We didn’t have to go into the gas cham­ber – it was allowed, per­haps even advised, to skip it if you were feel­ing faint or tired. But my son was full of eleven year old brava­do and I didn’t want him to go in alone. So we walked into the small room, damp and dark, and stood there, and tried to imag­ine. But here even I, a pro­fes­sion­al imag­in­er, failed. 

What would it have been like to hold your eleven year old’s hand and breathe your last breaths full of Zyk­lon B? To suf­fo­cate in this room? Squished in with hun­dreds of strangers, a dark win­dow­less con­crete bunker with show­er­heads stream­ing gas and the stink­ing ter­ri­fy­ing smell of mur­der and the scream­ing? I squeezed Nate’s hand but he slipped away.


I seemed to be alone, some­how, in the room. Every­one else had left. But then I felt a sharp tug on my ponytail.


The tug again, even stronger. I whipped around. 

Nobody was there. 

I stood in the dusky room for anoth­er sec­ond, wait­ing for some­one, any­one – wait­ing to feel the tug again or to hear my kid’s feet dash­ing out the door from some dark­ened cor­ner, hav­ing suc­cess­ful­ly pranked me good. But I was utter­ly alone. 

Around me, the air was per­cep­ti­bly cooler. 


One of the ways in which the Holo­caust is sin­gu­lar is in its num­bers, but of course these mas­sive num­bers can blur the indi­vid­ual hor­ror of each death. I wrote a nov­el about this time, We Must Not Think of Our­selves, to try to zero in on one man among the mil­lions, to try to locate his ter­ror, his con­fu­sion, and even his stolen moments of hap­pi­ness in a time when the Nazis worked to take away, piece by piece, every­thing he count­ed on in his small, ordi­nary life. In my imag­i­na­tion, he was just one man, a lit­tle bet­ter in some ways than oth­er peo­ple and a lit­tle worse in oth­ers, sur­viv­ing the night­mare of the War­saw Ghet­to. He was not an every­man – he was unique­ly and only him­self. And it was his dis­tinc­tive­ness that he insist­ed on through­out the nov­el: this is who I am, this is what I do, I am not mere char­nel for your slaughterhouse. 

Unless, of course, he was.

Each nov­el I write becomes a bit of a game of what-would-I-do-if, but of each nov­el I’ve ever writ­ten, this was the one that felt most like a trap; every plot turn, a pos­si­ble death. How to imag­ine a way out? Even with the end­less stream of pos­si­bil­i­ties avail­able to the fic­tion writer, how could there be any way out?

It took every­thing I had to find an hon­est and plau­si­ble path for my one Jew­ish man among the mil­lions in War­saw, 1941. I wrote this nov­el to hon­or the peo­ple like him: those who died, those who some­how escaped, and, most of all, the gas chamber’s ghost, whose tug I can still feel at the roots of my hair.

We Must Not Think of Our­selves by Lau­ren Grodstein

Lau­ren Grod­stein is the author of Our Short His­to­ry, The Wash­ing­ton Post Book of the Year The Expla­na­tion for Every­thing, and the New York Times-best­selling A Friend of the Fam­i­ly, among oth­er works. Her sto­ries, essays, and arti­cles have appeared in var­i­ous lit­er­ary mag­a­zines and antholo­gies, and have been trans­lat­ed into French, Ger­man, Chi­nese, and Ital­ian, among oth­er lan­guages. Her work has also appeared in Elle, The New York Times, Refinery29, Salon​.com, Bar­rel­house, Post Road, and The Wash­ing­ton Post. She is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty-Cam­den, where she teach­es in the MFA pro­gram in cre­ative writing.