Of all the grandparents I never got a chance to know, I feel closest to my mother’s father Lucian. Perhaps it was my mother’s vivid storytelling that made him seem accessible. I’ve inherited his talents and his temperament; so I was told. Sometimes I fantasize that I can time travel to Poland in the 1930s and meet my grandfather Lucian. How would I introduce myself to him? How would I communicate with him? He didn’t speak English, and I speak neither Polish, Russian, German, Italian—nor, for that matter, Latin. How would I make myself known to him? I’d have to bring photographs. Would he gasp in shock on first seeing me, the way a relative from overseas did, because I look so much like my grandmother Natalia?
As I write, Lucian’s image glows from a wall. Well into middle age my mother discovered the one extant photograph of her father. It was a group photograph, and Lucian is peering over a head from the third row in the back. My mother took the picture to a photographer, and Lucian’s face was enlarged and isolated. It now rests as a lamination on one of my walls, next to a profile of Natalia.
On my wall, my grandparents are reunited. Natalia is gazing at Lucian, and Lucian is looking straightforward, and ahead. A dark cap covers his bald head, his mouth is sensuous, and heavy lids hood his eyes. If I look from a certain angle, it appears as if Lucian is looking at me. What does he see? Lucian was demanding. Would my grandfather like me? Would he approve of me? What a gift it would have been for him to see his first grandchild born on his birthday. With the grandfather I never knew, I share a birthday. What else do we share? What else might we have shared?
Lucian Skotnicki, my grandfather, was born on December 6, 1889 in Sochacew, a village on the outskirts of Warsaw, in what was then a rebellious area of Tsarist Russia. When he reached military age his father Mauritz, a country doctor, injected him with the cholera bacterium in order to keep him from being conscripted into the Russian Army. As a side effect of the induced illness, Lucian lost his luxuriant black hair. It never grew back. He would be bald for life.
As a financially struggling student Lucian marketed himself as a tutor. He was consequently hired by a wealthy Warsaw family to help their youngest daughter with her homework. Sixteen-year-old Natalia fell in love with the sensuous-lipped and prematurely bald young man, an idealistic youth who was passionate about politics and social justice. They promised themselves to each other, and planned to marry. When Natalia’s mother got wind of the romance she ordered the tutor out of her house. Natalia was the youngest of three unmarried sisters, and seeing the youngest marry first would have shamed the older siblings. Also, this tutor was from the provinces, the son of a country doctor who accepted payment in the form of produce from his patients’ farms and fish from the local streams. This near-peasant was considered completely unsuitable for the sophisticated, city-bred Natalia.
Lucian retreated, and licked his wounds. At the outset of the First World War he somewhere found the funds to go what was then called “abroad,” for studies at the University of Zurich.
Life in Zurich during the First World War must have been an exhilarating experience for an intelligent and receptive young Pole. Neutral Switzerland served as a sanctuary, and its capital city became the centre of espionage, as well as a safe haven. The cafes and cabarets were teeming with artists, pacifists, philosophers, and revolutionaries engaged in heated debates. Did Lucian attend a Dadaist performance at the Café Voltaire? Did he cross paths with Lenin before the Bolshevik set off to lead his country in revolution? What is known is that, while abroad, Lucian discovered Italy and fell in love with all things Italian. This youthful affinity would have far-reaching effects.
Whatever his experiences, Lucian returned, post-war, to the newly formed republic of Poland, still a firebrand, but now a more cosmopolitan one, remaining both for the rest of his tragically short life. Setting up practice in Sochacew, the newly minted attorney remained stubbornly single, though not celibate. He entered into an affair with a local beauty who was married and the mother of a young daughter. This scandalous liaison was an open secret that became the talk of the small town.
In the mid-1920s Lucian’s first love Natalia was suddenly widowed, and in an unknown fashion he found her again. Destiny had been delayed, but it could not be denied. The Universe was offering them a second chance, and they seized it. The second time around, no overbearing mother could stop them. At the end of 1927, Lucian and Natalia were finally married. Before the end of 1928 Natalia would give birth to my mother, the only child they had together, a girl Lucian named Renata, the Italian version of “reborn.” The name proved a fortunate one. During the course of her long life Renata would have to reinvent and renew herself many, many times.
It seems as if Lucian and Natalia were brought together only long enough to produce my mother. Family interference soon tore them apart, and they were separated in 1935. I have made it my mission to ensure that my mother will be their lasting legacy to the world.
An exhausting legal battle followed in the wake of their separation. Lucian agreed to a divorce on condition that he was given sole custody of Renata. He reasoned that it was only fair, since Natalia had two other children of her own by her first marriage to her cousin Lipa Młynek. Natalia refused and argued that, as the mother, she had the right to sole custody of her child.
The presiding judge placed the decision in the hands of seven-year-old Renata. Without hesitation, she chose to go with her father.
Because of her half-sister’s hostility to Lucian and, by extension, to her, Renata felt like an outsider in her mother’s home. Natalia was torn between her child with Lucian and her two fatherless children. With Lucian, Renata knew she would come first. The judge then granted the couple joint custody, and a legal separation. Lucian and Natalia never divorced. Each year, for the few years left to them, Lucian and Natalia would reunite on Renata’s birthday. Tentatively they would reach out to each other, and shyly touch hands. Renata embraced her birthdays for no other reason than it gave her one day out of the year when she could have her parents back together again.
Natalia remained in Warsaw. Lucian returned to Sochacew, and to his mistress. In the late 1930s Lucian’s mistress gave birth to a second daughter who, it was rumoured, was not her husband’s child, but Lucian’s. Debate over the girl’s paternity is pointless. This child’s life would end in Treblinka.
Lucian seemed to recognize that Renata would be his legacy. He treated his only legitimate child as apprentice, successor and heir. In order to accelerate Renata’s academic progress he had her home-schooled. By the time he decided to register her in the local school, Renata was ready for the second grade.
Lucian supervised Renata’s reading and her academic studies, bringing in a tutor when she demonstrated a weakness in math. He demanded her best, and he got it. By the time Renata was ten years old, she was ready for high school.
Like her counterparts in North America, Renata was mesmerized by the magic of talking motion pictures. Conveniently, her best friend’s father owned the local kino. Renata and her friend spent many enchanted hours in the darkened hall, sighing with Greta Garbo, swooning over Robert Taylor, and lustily singing along with Disney’s seven dwarfs as they heigh-hoed off to work. Consequently Lucian enrolled the budding film buff in the international Shirley Temple fan club. He opened a charge account for her at the town’s ice cream parlour. He also sent in a photograph of Renata to the local newspaper, which was running a children’s beauty contest. Renata came in first runner-up. Officially, at the age of four, Renata was pronounced the second-most beautiful little girl in Sochacew. Proudly Lucian displayed the newspaper announcement and photograph on his desk. How I wish that photograph had survived, and I could have it now.
Renata read Dawid Kuperfeld in Polish translation, which introduced her to Charles Dickens; decades later, she would introduce me to the original, in English. She read Anne of Green Gables, which introduced her to the country that would become her adopted home. Most particularly Renata read Uncle Tom’s Cabin: how she cried at the plight of Stowe’s black slaves. The lawyer’s daughter had inherited her father’s sense of social justice. This privileged girl could never imagine that, within a few years, she would be enslaved, too.
Impatient, defiant and fearless, Lucian was as much ahead of his time as a hands-on parent as he was as an advocate. He built the town library. He created a drama circle and performed flamboyantly in its amateur theatricals.
It was understood, and accepted, that Renata would inherit her father’s law practice. She sat beside him in the town courtroom as he pleaded for the marginalized and fought for the underdog. He poured into her his love of great literature, his passion for social justice, and his blazing contempt for prejudice, ignorance, and narrow-minded fools.
Lucian was a maverick. Flaunting his disdain for organized religion, he would saunter in front of the rabbi’s home on Yom Kippur, blatantly puffing on cigarettes. He revered Mahatma Gandhi and wept at the death of Marshal Pilsudski. He also quoted Oscar Wilde. Lucian gave soaring orations denouncing the fascist government that followed in the later 1930s, a government that took it cues from the neighbouring Third Reich. He vociferously decried the renewed harassment of Jews. When warned to tone down the defender declared, “I am not running in a popularity contest!”
Lucian was sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and stuck in a small town. He alienated both the Catholic and the Jewish communities, and almost willfully courted disaster. He made life harder on himself than it needed to be, but his painfully honest nature wouldn’t allow him to live any other way. Who can judge whether isolation or conformity is harder? Lucian refused to shift with prevailing winds. I have discovered that I can be no less than the same way.
In 1937, the enemies Lucian had made found a way of having him disbarred. He hired a young lawyer to front for him in the courtroom, while continuing to work on cases behind the scenes. At the same time he went to work as an agent for an Italian insurance company. Along with a copy of Jules Verne’s Around The World in 80 Days, Lucian bought a policy for Renata, telling her, “When you’re 21, this policy will pay off and you’ll have money to travel the world.” The Italian insurance company refused to honour the policy when Renata filed a claim belatedly in 1954. She was again refused when she tried once more in 2004, yet before she was wenty-one Renata would travel in ways Lucian could never have dreamed.
In April of 1939, Lucian was in the middle of one of his regular card games with the town mayor and his cronies, and he was winning. In recent years the mayor had joined the ruling fascist party. He instructed Lucian to donate his winnings to the party. Lucian refused. The mayor accused him of a dangerous lack of patriotism. Lucian retorted, “I’m a better patriot than you, you son-of-a-bitch mayor!” The mayor’s response was to have Lucian arrested on charges of insulting the majesty of the government. A trial was held on the afternoon of April 27. Lucian was found guilty and sentenced to internment at Bereza Kartuska, a concentration camp already established. The Polish fascist party was anticipating what was to come.
In the evening, in his apartment, while ten-year-old Renata slept in an adjoining room, she later surmised that her father, who suffered from angina, felt the first stirrings of a heart attack. Perhaps he gasped and reached for the drawer that held his medication, but it was already too late. In old age, confronting her own end, Renata began to question the circumstances surrounding her father’s death. Through her work with a Jewish genealogy group, she discovered documents in her father’s handwriting. He had built and owned the triplex they lived in, most likely with Natalia’s money. He moved in his parents and his divorced sister.
When Natalia was driven out by Lucian’s mother Lucian’s married mistress, with her husband and her children, moved in upstairs. There was a janitor who lived on the premises. In an atmosphere when and where anti-Semitism was exploited and rewarded, the janitor’s disrespect and insubordination led Lucian to fire him. When the janitor refused to accept his dismissal, Lucian had to resort to legal measures in order to have him evicted. The janitor’s offenses must’ve been egregious, because a Polish judge ruled in Lucian’s favor.
The eviction was scheduled for April 28. Renata remembered being wakened by the sound of “a commotion.” Can a man dying and alone cause a commotion? Unless her memory was playing tricks on her, she began to believe she heard the scuffle of feet. By the time she reached her father’s room, he was dead. She fled out the door, into the corridor, and screamed for help. Her cries were answered by her aunt Salka and her father’s mistress Ina, who came running down the stairs from the upper floor. Renata then telephoned her mother in Warsaw. Lucian was one of the privileged few in town who owned a phone.
Aunt Salka and Ina stayed up with the distraught child all through a terror-ridden night. Lucian’s body was wrapped in a white sheet and laid on the floor. A candle was lit. Jewish male neighbours sat vigil and took turns keening and wailing over the dead body until dawn. Come morning, Lucian’s corpse was lifted into a plain narrow box and driven, by horse and buggy, to the Jewish cemetery. During the war this cemetery would be destroyed, and in Communist Poland it would be paved over by a parking lot. Later it was remade as a children’s playground.
Renata returned to Warsaw with her mother and her brother but briefly. She was unhappy in her mother’s home and, setting a template, rescued herself through resourcefulness and wit. She insisted on completing the school year in her father’s hometown. Her education must not be interrupted. Already the girl was honouring her father’s memory.
From the time of Lucian’s death until the end of June Renata lived in the apartment she had shared with him, seeing no one, speaking to no one. Her meals were prepared by the housekeeper, who stayed on to look after her. Her aunt kept an eye on her from next door, and her father’s mistress looked down on her from upstairs. Renata grew thin and wasted, but her grades did not suffer. If anything, they were even better than before. Each afternoon after school she headed to the Jewish cemetery, spread her textbooks and notebooks and pens and pencils on the grass, and spent the rest of the day doing her homework at the site of Lucian’s grave.
After my father’s sudden death over 30 years ago, I clung to my remaining parent. All I wanted was to keep my mother with me into my own old age, so that I wouldn’t have to live on for too long without her.
If not for a doctor’s negligence in repeatedly dismissing the symptoms of a slow-growing cancer, I most likely would have. Where does one park such pain? I do my work, part of which is preserving and safeguarding my mother’s legacy as a Holocaust educator. After this easy-to-catch cancer killed my mother I was startled to discover, in her bookcase, a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s seminal novel of the American South seemed out of place sitting in a personal library dominated by Holocaust literature. Then I thought again. A small town lawyer defies the mores of his time and place by defending a black man falsely accused of rape. The events are seen through the eyes of his fictional ten-year-old daughter, who grows up to become a writer who immortalizes her parent in an autobiographical novel.
In Lee’s novel, the hero Atticus Finch explains to his young daughter Scout that the expression “to kill a mockingbird” means to “hurt someone who has done no wrong.” Scout thereafter learns to live with the existence of evil without succumbing to despair. My personal journey into family history has taught me much about my grandfather Lucian, who made it his life’s mission to combat evil, and my mother Renata who, through her own courage, as well as the heroism of her older siblings, and devoted allies, managed to survive it. Both father and daughter were able to adjust to a world in which evil thrived. In the world in which we live, where justice and heartbreaking injustice seem to co-exist, can we?
S. Nadja Zajdman