A few times a year throughout my childhood, my mother and I sat around a tan suitcase. She’d pop open the single working hinge and pull out sepia-toned photographs and frayed papers—curfew extensions, identity cards, immigration forms. The suitcase held the remaining tangible links to my grandparents’ prewar lives.
In the early 1940s, my grandparents were forced from their homes in Poland into ghettos, and later into labor and concentration camps. On nights the suitcase came out, we’d watch videos of my jovial grandpa remembering the miles of frozen marches and how he won my grandmother’s affection by baking her a cake in a displaced persons camp. Soon after, they got married, boarded a ship for Cuba, and sneaked off in New York City. My grandmother died long before I was born, and my grandfather died when I was five, but I know their stories. I know that when my grandmother’s parents and brother returned to the rural house where they’d stored valuables, they were murdered by its postwar inhabitants. “Never forget” wasn’t just a phrase for my family; it was a mantra.
My grandfather swore he’d never return to his homeland, but my mom and I needed to go. I thought of it as time travel—Poland was a country of ghosts, a crowd of bearded men walking down cobblestoned streets and hastily evacuated shtetls. A country stuck in the loop of 1938. But the Krakow we encountered, with its soaring castle and café-lined medieval squares, was nothing like that. Virtually unscathed by the Germans, it had the charm of a young, modern city set amidst the mystery of an ancient one. Bursting with Jewish tours, museums, and shops, the city catered to tourists like us—pilgrims unearthing their heritage. Mom and I arrived with a jumble of addresses and began a scavenger hunt in search of my grandparents’ past. On a corner in the center of old town we found the storefront site of the seasonally rotating ice cream parlor/fur shop my great-grandparents owned, and across a bridge a music school now occupied the ghetto building they were forced to live in. But our main goal was to see my grandmother’s apartment, to touch the childhood home of a woman I never knew.
Rising from the middle of Krakow, a Polish renaissance castle keeps a watchful eye on its city. We found my grandmother’s building on a street encircling it, a classic limestone structure. Standing inside the dim hallway, my mother holding a note that explained our quest, we rapped on the wooden door of Number 2. A middle-aged woman cracked it open and greeted us hesitantly. Her eyes flitted over the handwritten note, and confusion melted into warmth. She introduced herself as Marta and ushered us in. The apartment was beautiful, with ornate inlaid wood floors. “It hasn’t been remodeled, except for the bathroom, since my mother bought it in 1949,” she said. Mom’s expression mirrored my own disbelief. I could almost imagine my great-grandparents stoking the green ceramic-tiled heater that stretched to the ceiling. We talked to Marta for an hour, lingering in the apartment that, save a war, could have been our home.
As my mother and I left, it was hard not to admit our unexpected love for Krakow. The city no longer conjured only fleeing Jews and ghetto walls. Along with them were pierogi festivals and imposing castles. I put mementoes of these in the suitcase where the old and new worlds could finally merge.
Nina Strochlic is a reporter for Newsweek and the Daily Beast.