The man who stayed
Marian Turski has more than defied the terrible odds stacked against him in his youth. Here his granddaughter Klaudia shares her perspective on her grandfather.
As a high school student in Illinois, USA, I often phoned my grandfather, Marian Turski, to discuss what I was learning in my European history class. To my 15-year-old self, the French Revolution was abstract, but a conversation with my grandpa in Poland brought it to life. At that age, I had no idea about the things that he was doing on the other side of the ocean – my world was the United States; plus, universal teenage dramas clouded my mind. Poland was barely a part of my identity.
We could not have had more different teenage years. He grew up in the city of Łódź, then the second largest city in Poland. When my grandpa was the same age that I was nonchalantly paging through a European history textbook, he was forced to live in the Łodź ghetto, robbed of any semblance of a ‘normal’ adolescence. He and his family lived in an apartment in the ghetto with two rooms and a kitchen. One room housed the hosts, a family of four, and the second room housed his family – also a family of four. His aunt and her daughter lived in the small kitchen. There was no toilet; they had to go to the courtyard. “But still, for the ghetto, it was not a bad house,” he says. Until the beginning of 1941, there were functioning schools inside the ghetto, so my grandpa was able to complete two years of high school while being there.
Unlike other ghettos, the Łodź ghetto was fully sealed. It was practically impossible to escape. And unlike the Warsaw ghetto, there was greater security along the Łódź ghetto’s perimeter, as well as orders specifically prohibiting commercial exchanges between Jews and non-Jews. Jews caught on the Aryan side would be shot. Also unlike Warsaw, many Germans were living around this ghetto, and they were loyal to the Nazis.
My grandpa was in the ghetto until the last day of its liquidation, on 29 August 1944. That day he was transported to Auschwitz. He was deemed fit to work upon arrival. His father and brother, however, were sent to the gas chamber. After a few months in Auschwitz, my grandpa survived the winter death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. And then a second, 16-day death march from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt – the last existing camp-ghetto of the war. When he was liberated in May 1945 he weighed 32 kg. After several months in hospitals, most of those on the verge of death, he was offered the chance to go to Great Britain, Canada or America by Jewish organisations. He chose to stay in Poland, and settled in Warsaw. In 1958, he joined the historical department of the newsweekly magazine Polityka, where he remains to this day, in the same position. In March 1965, he participated in Martin Luther King’s march against racial segregation in the south of the USA from Selma to Montgomery
My grandpa has such experience and wisdom, he sees things that most other people don’t. For example, he is concerned about a possible ‘Polexit’ – more in symbolic terms than in actual reality – and the implications such an estrangement can have. He recalls that British and French people, back in 1939, would say, “Why should we die for Danzig?” Poland, he recalls, “was alone, totally alone.” He believes that Poland needs to be a good partner in order to prevent something like that happening again. “We need to convince our allies that Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia are almost a part of Britain, France or America,” he says. “But if you lose the sympathy of great allies, then their people will say: ‘Why should we die for them?’” Good alliances, he says, require engagement and dialogue. They also need leaders with a strong sense of moral leadership and perspective, and he bemoans the lack of such leaders today. “A politician is a man who looks at the short term,” he says. “A statesman should foresee the great dangers to Poland, and how to effectively prevent them.” Good leaders, he states, also look for consensus. And consensus, he emphasizes, can only be reached by compromise – something, he strongly believes, today’s politicians would do well to keep in mind.
Marion Turski is head of the history department at newsweekly magazine Polityka. He was one of the main drivers behind the creation of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and serves as Chairman of the Museum Council. He also serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland. On his 90th birthday in June 2016 he received greetings from around the world, including from President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel and former President of Israel Shimon Peres. President Obama wrote: “In the example you have set throughout your life, we see the resolve and courage the human spirit is capable of summoning. I deeply appreciated the chance to meet you during my visit to Poland in 2011. I was particularly moved by your recollection of marching alongside Dr. King — a reflection of the extraordinary power of solidarity and the universality of the ideals we carry in our hearts.”
Photos: Photo archive of the Prince of Whales, Magdalena Starowieyska (POLIN Museum), Polityka, Marek Edelman Dialogue Center.