Jewish Book Week 2023 Saturday 25 February - Sunday 05 March | Tickets now on sale

In the Name of the Father

How am I feeling today? Honestly speaking, love, I’m not so good. I’m weak, tired. This whole chemo, I think, might actually be worse than the disease itself. I don’t have the energy to fight anymore.

You want to know if I have any children? Yes, a daughter. She is 35.

Who does she take after? Her personality is like her father’s, that’s for sure. I don’t know what she got from me. Perhaps the eyes? But her eyes are like his too. The reality they both see is completely different.

When I first met my husband, I didn’t pay much attention to it. You know how things go, love. When a girl falls for a boy, she doesn’t ask any questions and only has eyes for him. It was several years into our marriage when I started having doubts. He was spending more and more time with his father who infected him with this obsession of his. It’s my father-in-law’s fault. He told him so many of those fables of his about what has not been. And later my husband passed it all to Zosia.

They walk around Warsaw together, in some daze, and say, “do you know that there used to be a street here, different houses stood here and that’s where all of them were taken from?” When I walk with them, I find it terribly embarrassing. Why are they so drawn to it?

And Zosia was such a good child, well-behaved, no problems at school. But, you know, love, when I think about it now, I realise something must have been going on already. She wanted to make all the decisions herself and do everything her way. She was stubborn. I kept telling her, “see how other children behave, you must do what they do”. And my husband was always too lenient with her, got into disputes with her. That’s the source of this obstinacy. Some company to have disputes with! As a result Zosia thought she could get away with anything. A child doesn’t know what is good for it, and if you don’t make it clear to it in time, this will spoil its character. And my in-laws, just like my husband, are very liberal in terms of parenting. If you ask me, love, that is exactly why they are so unhappy. And they brought this same unhappiness onto an innocent child.

The serious trouble started with Zosia asking questions about the family. You can’t even imagine what he told her about his parents. When she asked why the grandparents didn’t go to church, he said that nobody ever went to church in his family. That grandfather and grandmother didn’t speak Polish at home and that they had to change their surname. I think the worst was what he told her about his mother. Just guess, love, how he explained his mother’s mental problems? Supposedly during the Second World War she was in hiding in somebody’s flat. She was scared that if she were to leave, she might be taken for a Jew in the street by some German. What an exaggeration, if you ask me. I’ve never spotted any of those, you know, typical features in her.

They say that everybody has their own cross to bear in life. Mine is the Jews.

I was very upset that my husband put ideas into the child’s head. We argued over it many times. What’s more, he didn’t have any evidence to prove this alleged Jewishness of his. But he kept trying.

I wanted my daughter to have a good life. Not to be like her father and grandparents. They got completely confused. My husband’s mother barely opens her mouth and when she sees Zosia, she has tears in her eyes. She asks her sometimes, “what do they want from you, dear?” It’s clear she means me and my parents. My mother-in-law completely ignores me. She nods her head to say hello and sends me a cold gaze. My father-in-law only asks casually how I am. And since Zosia has painted those pictures, they insist on her constantly visiting them and they encourage this whole madness.

Let me explain about the pictures. Zosia has painted them for her graduation diploma at the Fine Art Academy. It was a whole set, ten pictures. Each showing contemporary Warsaw and ghosts of Jews looming against this backdrop. These were very good works in terms of technique. I know a bit about it, because I also went to an art school. Zosia is very talented and extremely hardworking. But, for God’s sake, couldn’t she choose a different theme, something more Polish? I was even planning to go to Zosia’s thesis defence, but in the end I’ve decided against it. I admit that I was concerned about the reaction of the teachers and the audience.
My husband hung one of those pictures in his office. I think it doesn’t work there at all. When somebody comes for a visit, I shut the door to his office to avoid awkward questions.

My husband once told me that his parents disguised their Jewishness after the war. Supposedly out of fear. Fear of what, I asked. After all they didn’t live in Nazi Germany but in Poland. “Fear of ones like you and your parents”. He had a go at me. Supposedly he found out after Zosia was born. Even if that’s true, I feel simply cheated. I could perhaps go along with it, if they and Zosia didn’t make it into such a big deal.

My parents were right. She should have been treated for it when it was still possible. Now her personality has already taken form. She is lost.

The worst thing with Zosia was when she was in high school. She and her father sat in the kitchen and talked about Jews for hours. About some alleged family to find, some archives. I disassociated myself from it completely. As I told you earlier, love, it annoys me so much that I just don’t want to know anything about it. Anyhow, they got totally obsessed with it. An intervention was necessary. It was the summer holidays right after she’d finished high school. We were at my parents’ place. My parents decided it was a good moment to talk to Zosia about her future, especially that my husband had stayed behind in Warsaw and couldn’t butt in. We tried to talk her out of this unreasonable interest in Jewishness. There were a few of us: my parents, both my sisters with their daughters, and me. The whole family shares the same views. I hoped that when she hears what we all had to say, she would understand what was right. My parents told her that she had been a problem for a while. That this was because of her father’s influence on her. That as a family we needed to do everything we could to protect her from it and that, for her own good, she needed to see a psychologist. It was evident for us all that Zosia had issues with herself. When one grows up in the Polish tradition and culture, one should adjust to it. And her behaviour questioned all the values I have taught her since a child.

You can’t even imagine, love, what disgrace she brought on me then, in front of my relatives. She behaved scandalously. She screamed about having finally understood what we had meant over all those years. That at last she knew what this thing was that we thought made her different than others, and that she couldn’t and didn’t want to change it. She also said that she didn’t care about our approval. She claimed that before she had tried hard to earn it. And then she called her father. Needless to say, he came to pick her up and took her home. She really upset my parents, who just said she was not welcome in their place until she apologised. And did she? What do you think? Not ever! She has not seen her grandparents for seventeen years.

And what did I do? What could I do, love? I can’t force a grown woman to call her grandparents. I have her and her father against me and I don’t have all the strength I used to have anymore.

Do you know what she came up with recently, love? She didn’t tell me this, but I heard her talking to somebody else on the phone, talking about how you change a religion. I think she wants to denounce our faith. But to be a Jew you need to born out of a Jewish mother. The father doesn’t count. No rabbi would ever allow this. And even if he did, who would she be then? Not a Pole, not a Jew, surely?

To be honest I eased off a bit recently. She is also careful around me, doesn’t talk about sensitive issues. Perhaps she realised how difficult this is for me, especially now, when I’m ill and weak. And when I get worse, who will bring me a glass of water? If only I had more children… But I only have her.

Ewa Cieplińska-Libner

Translated by Anna Blasiak