Just about every time I come to Warsaw I take a pilgrimage to this spot.
My mind turns inward to the way I remember it in my imagination, based on my mother’s stories and archival photos. Back then, these stairs led to a neighborhood of narrow streets where old cottages sat beside brick businesses, and where my grandfather built my grandmother a three story villa behind a cast iron fence.
When I visited today, I pictured roads instead of pathways. With buildings on either side. The villa would have been straight down and on the left, just after the path that runs perpendicular.
For some reason I started to wonder what my mother’s life would have been like if there hadn’t been any war. Would she have married her first love, a priest? Or would he have decided to honor his vows to the church? No doubt, she would not have waited to have children. I imagine her with four, including the daughter that was born instead of me, only 10 years earlier. No need to wait through the war, dozens of surgeries, migration, and illness to start a family. Would she have resigned from her dream of becoming a doctor, or found a way to balance her home and work responsibilities? Maybe she would have lived with her active young family in the villa, where her mother could help.
And the daughter that was born instead of me would no doubt be a grandmother, with a grandchild the same age as my son.
Without the Nazi invasion, Poland’s Jews would not have been murdered, and the Soviets would not have imposed 45 years of state socialism. Instead of being destroyed, Warsaw would have continued to grow, its Jewish population an important component of the city’s economic and cultural vitality. Poles would have had to figure out how to live within a country full of diversity, where the Polish nation could not be defined as ethnically pure or exclusively Catholic.
Would my family still have hidden their Jewish heritage in such a Poland? I wonder. What do you think?