It was almost 4 pm and I was still at work. Still undecided, if to go or not, when my co-worker implored me, “Why don’t you leave already, aren’t you taking the plane tonight?” My anxiety intensified just to be reminded. After hasty goodbyes, I left the office. At home my suitcase was packed, the neighbor had the keys to the apartment to water the plants and pick up the mail.
I was supposed to meet my husband, Vachel, in Frankfurt the next morning and that night take the train to Warsaw. Vachel was in Germany working on a movie. Originally, he thought that after the filming was finished, he would go to Lodz, the city where I was born, ‘to walk on the cobblestones’ I ‘walked on,’ he proclaimed. So I drew him a simple map of where my apartment was located at the end of the courtyard. I also tried to teach him a few Polish words like, ‘dziekuje’ and ‘prosze’ which would be helpful. But with his Midwestern accent, I didn’t think anyone would understand him.
One of our sons was staying with us for a week, and while listening to all the excitement of my husband going to Poland, turned to me saying: “Why don’t you go with dad, he will be lost there without you.” My stomach sank, my throat contracted. I thought, I’ll die. I never, never thought of going back to Poland.
Vachel, before he left, arranged for my visa from the Polish Council, reserved a flight on Pan Am, and made sure my passport was in order. I was supposed to meet him in two weeks. After innumerable calls from Vachel from Germany, usually at three in the morning, encouraging me, assuring me, I began preparing for the trip.
It was November, 1980, the solidarity movement in Poland was already active, the shipyard workers, in Gdansk, were on strike, and Russian tanks were at the ready at the Polish border. The State Department advised Americans not to travel to Poland.
So on a gloomy Thursday, the first week in November, I found myself at the corner of 123rd street and Amsterdam Ave. desperately trying to flag down a cab. A soft snow was falling and it was dark by five o’clock. I was cold, miserable, and felt utterly alone. No one was there to wish me a ‘happy journey,’ or give me a hug. Both my sons were by then back in San Francisco.
The cab driver, an immigrant from Pakistan, didn’t know the route to the East Side Terminal, kept losing his way in the rush hour traffic. It was a few minutes before take-off when I arrived at the Pan American counter, so they rushed me to the plane just as the gates were about to close. Inside, the plane was dim and cheerless with very few passengers. The upholstery on the seats looked dilapidated. In a way it reflected my state of mind, dark, chaotic. I recall seeing only two passengers. On the same row as mine, on the opposite isle, sat an elderly man; he had a long, white beard and was leaning over a giant open book resting on his lap. The man didn’t even take water from the hostess throughout the trip, and seemed in the same position each time I looked his way. Nothing could be seen out the airplane window, except for rivulets of water streaming down to the ledge. Directly behind me sat a young American soldier. He looked friendly and responded to my ‘hi’ with ‘…evening mam.’ I surmised he was from the South. He informed me that he was going to the American Army Base in Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt. That’s where my husband was filming. “Will you take care of me?” I asked him, expecting a calamity from this journey. “Yes, maam,” he assured me with a slight grin, probably thinking that I was one of those crazed New York women.
Next morning, Vachel was waiting for me at the airport in Frankfurt, and after searching among the maze of local trains, we found the one to Wiesbaden where he was staying. The film company extended Vachel’s hotel room for one day more so I could rest up before taking off for Poland on the 10 o’clock train that night. Thinking that there may not be a dining car, Vachel went out to get a few provisions, apples, bread, cheese, water for the 22 hour journey. As soon as Vachel left I wanted him back. Couldn’t stand being alone in this sterile room, with paintings of German bucolic landscapes. It was so terribly serene looking. Everything repulsed me: the cleanliness, the way the towels were folded in the bathroom, the immaculate sheets—kept looking at the lampshades on the night table. But exhaustion overcame me. I did lay down, fully clothed, placing my own washcloth over the pillow so as not to touch their aseptic linens.
In the afternoon, Vachel showed me the places he filmed, the restaurants he ate in, and introduced me to a few Germans he got to know. Even though Vachel read about and knew from my telling of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, he could never fathom what went on inside of me. I just wanted to get out, to leave this land.
We tracked our way back to Frankfurt’s main railway station. Vachel left me by a magazine kiosk while he went to get a cart and change some dollars for Polish zloty. There I was standing, our suitcases behind me, looking at the milling crowd, men, women rushing past me. Were they all Nazis who shed their uniforms? And the younger ones, with their fair skin and blond hair, would they all march to the tune of Hitler Youth? Images of 40 years ago kept flashing through my mind. A man in a trench coat approached me, saying something in German that I recognized as a greeting, but I responded in English that I didn’t understand. He then shifted to a faulting English. Just by him trying to communicate in my own tongue, made him look more human. He was pleasant looking, about 45 or 50. I don’t remember the conversation, probably where I was going or where I came from. I do recall enjoying his attention. He invited me for a drink, but I said I couldn’t, so he excused himself and came back with 2 tall cans of beer. That’s when I told him that I was waiting for my husband who went to get a cart and change money and would be back any minute. Shortly after, the German man wished me a good trip and left.
Vachel arrived with cart and Polish zloty. He loaded up the cart and we went to find the platform that our train would arrive on. It was already after 9 and to make sure we were heading in the right direction, I asked a railroad worker if the train to Warsaw stopped there. He muttered something incomprehensibly, pointing to the nearest platform. How I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Vachel, not knowing any German, all the inquiries and reading of directions were left to me. It was getting closer to our departure; I was nervously looking up and down the unending platform for signs of a train. Vachel was pushing the cart behind me, leisurely, while reading part of the New York Times I brought from the states. Were we on the correct platform? When to my right I heard a rumble from a distance. Soon the roar of an incoming train filled the station. A feeling of foreboding befell me. Trains, the symbol of war, deportations, relocation, extermination. Peering into the dark track, two bright headlights came into sight. Gradually the train slowed, revealing its destination in giant letters on the side of the cars: Parysz, Warszawa, Moscwa. The familiar names were consoling to my soul.
The engineer jumped down from the locomotive, I immediately recognized him as Polish from the navy cap with a shallow visor. I ran over and asked him if he spoke Polish, ‘Naturalnie,’ he replied bemusingly. “I’m going to Warsaw, will you help me?” “Tak, tak,” he answered hurriedly, “Let me detach the cars first.” I turned to Vachel and began jumping up and down on the platform, the beer spilling from the can I was holding. “I am home, I am home.” I cried out. The detached train went around to the left track and came to a stop. The announcement, first in German then in clear Polish, that the train was leaving in 10 minutes for Warsaw resonated through the station. We rushed across the platform, found our compartment and once inside, I realized I did not have my shoulder bag, instead I was holding the can of beer. I was horrified, I wanted the shoulder bag with my toilet articles, maps, addresses, pictures of my children, my book. No, I couldn’t leave without them. The train gave a jolt, Vach implored me not to leave, he would go he said, ‘the train may start.’ While he stood on the steps, I jumped down onto the platform, running toward the middle where a picnic table stood. There it was sitting right on top of it. I ran back, clutching the bag close to me. Vachel pulled me up. The train made another jolt but still did not move. After settling down, on opposite benches with the window between us, we smiled at each other as if to say ‘we made it,’ when a tap on the window startled us. The German man was standing outside gesticulating. Vachel lifted up the window. In his accented English, the man apologized for not bringing me flowers, he then handed me a bottle of wine and an enormous chocolate. He couldn’t find a flower shop, and didn’t want to miss my departure, he explained. I introduced him to Vachel. While we shook hands through the open window, the train began moving slowly. The German man was walking alongside the car, wishing us a good voyage. I leaned out, and for the first time, spoke to him in German. “Danke shon, danke shon.” He kept waving his arm, running alongside. I too kept waving, leaning all the way out. His figure grew smaller, standing on the empty platform, till he disappeared when the train turned the bend.
I plopped down on the cushioned seat next to Vachel, puzzling over this amazing encounter, in a train station in Germany, on the way to cold, scary Poland, where I was bidden goodbye, so warmly by a German man I did not know and will probably never see again.
Tonia Rotkopf Blair was born on September 18, 1925 in Lodz, Poland. During the Second World War she was in the Lodz Ghetto, then Auschwitz, then Mauthausen. Eventually she came to New York City and married her husband and they had two sons. She has three grandchildren. While her children were teenagers, she went to Columbia University and earned her Bachelor’s degree.