Night in Berlin. I am making a film about building a German memorial to the six million murdered Jews of Europe. Like a criminal looking for a victim, I walk the streets of Berlin under a full moon. A car touches the curb but no one is at the steering wheel. I look in the car and see the motionless body of a young woman lying on the seat. Suffocated by carbon monoxide? Suicide? A man comes to me and says, “Touching the victim is against the law.” The German police arrive, and they pull out more bodies from the car, men and women. They are all alive. They were just sleeping after a party.
* * *
The Making of a Dream. My friend Howard and I talk about the loneliness of his 40-year-old daughter, who cannot find a job or a man. Another friend, Andrzej, tells me about a 40-year-old woman’s battle with cancer.
People with flowers gather inside an old factory, the kind of factory that’s in my films about Communist Russia. An old woman comes to me and says, “My daughter died at 40, of loneliness. I am happy her funeral will be on television.”
Andrzej, a silver expert, tells me that an old silver proof has a lion’s face. Then I watch the funeral of Mother Teresa on television. People kiss her hands and her legs. Her eyes are open and striking.
I am inside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, where the Cardinal of France celebrates a funeral mass. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, they open the casket with the body of the woman so family and friends can kiss her lips. Inside the casket, I see a stuffed lioness with human eyes. Her mother says, “These were the eyes of my daughter.”
The name of the cardinal is Maurice Lustiger. He was a Jewish boy in hiding during the war, as I was. After his mother perished, he entered the seminary and became a priest. I think that if my mother had not survived the Holocaust, I could have become the Cardinal of Poland.
* * *
Jewish Christmas Day, 5:00 p.m. Grazyna, the Catholic wife, who blasphemously confesses that she hates Christmas, cries from the kitchen: “Don’t come downstairs until I call you!” Immersed in writing his book of dreams, the Jewish husband yells back: “Why do you hate Christmas, Gagulku?” “I hate being forced to buy presents and I hate tasteless food”—meaning the holly-poppyseed noodles her mother used to cook for Christmas. (I loved those holly-poppyseed noodles my mother-in-law served. She severed her relationship with her brother after he said something nasty about Grazyna marrying a Jew.)
Our combined Jewish-Catholic families trace their origins to Kushner, a bagel baker in Belarus; to Herman, a print-shop and liquor-store owner in Leczyca; to Przedborski, a land owner; to the Marzynskis, my stepfather’s family, which owned a toy store in Pabianice; to Jankowski, a supervisor of the Tzar’s forests; and to the Mackiewiczes, 19th-century Polish revolutionaries exiled in Siberia. We come from two religions, but we retain none.
The experiment with religion started with my great-grandfather Marcus Przedborski. Wearing a bushy, old-Polish-style mustache, he drove his carriage every Sunday to the Catholic Church to join in prayers with the peasants of the hamlet Kuchary he owned. But converting from Judaism to Catholicism doesn’t make a Jew a Pole. One day, the peasants set fire to his estate, and his career as a Polish nobleman ended. My father had a better idea: in 1937, he saw the war coming and decided to name me Marian after the Virgin Mary instead of Moshe after my grandfather Kushner. He resisted his parents’ pressure to circumcise me. The result is that I am alive today, having survived the Holocaust.
In the house of the Przedborskis, my non-practicing grandparents, candles were lit on every Shabbat, so that “our Jews,” the neighbors, wouldn’t be offended. But inside, they ate a godless meal. Only Grandpa Kushner, the dentist, remained a religious Jew. When the Germans entered Leczyca, his patients dragged him from his dental office and brought him before a German soldier, who killed him with one shot in the middle of the town square. In Moshe Kushner’s pocket, my mother found a small sack of gold fillings. After we escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, she carried the gold fillings in her bra so she could use them for bribes.
I was smuggled out of the ghetto before the deportation of all Jewish children to the concentration camps began. On the Christian side of Warsaw, the Nazis posted notices announcing the death penalty for anyone caught hiding a Jew. I rode in a horse-drawn wagon with a woman smuggler. When I screamed, “I want to go back to the ghetto! I want mama!” she held her hand over my mouth.
At the age of five I was hidden in the Catholic orphanage near Warsaw, where the smell of the fresh Christmas tree mixed with the smell of freshly baked white bread. Once a year, we starving orphans had a feast with the Brothers Orione; for the rest of the year, my habit was to sneak to the brothers’ dining room, where white bread was eaten daily. With saliva on my finger, I gathered the crumbs. This is something I still do when there is fresh bread on the table.
* * *
Jewish Christmas Day, 6:00 p.m. In the Warsaw Ghetto, I wanted to be a fireman. In the orphanage, I was an altar boy waiting for his turn to serve at mass with one of the brothers. When the Germans appeared, Brother Pazibroda hid me behind the altar or under his robe, which felt like my mother’s. By that time I was an expert on God because I had two of them. The Catholic God was a short, nice man, not like the Jewish one, who stood on the ground in his enormous shoes, his head high in the clouds. I knew my God was Jewish, but on my mother’s orders I prayed to the Catholic one.
When the war was over, my priest, Kaminski, invited me to his church in Warsaw so I could serve the mass. The altar was very high, and when I reached for the cruets with water and wine, one of them dropped on the floor and broke. It was then that I understood: I was an impostor. God had figured it out.
My mother remarried a family friend, Daneczek, whose wife and son my age were killed in Auschwitz. One day after the war, he walked with me on the street and spoke loudly so everyone could hear: “Marianku, you are a Jew! Everybody knows about it! Now you can admit it!” As I started to run away, he continued with an even louder voice: “Don’t worry, my dear little rotten Jew! If anybody bothers you, I’ll bust his mug!”
In postwar Poland, my mother and I bought Christmas trees from the prywaciarze, a negative name created by communists for people who were in private enterprise. My stepfather Daneczek, a party member, called these people anti-socialist for these reasons: 1) the trees were stolen from state forests; 2) nature was disturbed; 3) the Christmas ritual didn’t make sense; it was pure banjaluka. (Banja Luka, I recently discovered, was the name of the Bosnian town in the center of the Serbian-Muslim war, which didn’t make sense either.)
After the war, in our Polish, Danish, and American homes, we sang Christmas carols, but the story of Jesus seemed too invented. A barn? Joseph the carpenter as the father? Immaculate conception? Three kings walking on their own feet? All of this was as artificial as our baptism during the war. After the priest splashed water on my mother’s head and mine, Pani Baranowa, who was hiding us, told my mother: “I am so happy for you! Finally you do not smell Jew.”
To us, Easter was more convincing: the death of Christ was a Jewish death. I may be godless, but I had my own gods: my parents Bolek Kushner and Bronka Przedborska created me in their image and gave me their commandments, but did not force me to follow them. For my parents, all religions were alien. “It is better not to sin, so you don’t have to ask for forgiveness,” my mother used to say. I don’t know where my father’s grave is. He was killed after escaping from a train on the way to the gas chamber. My mother hated funerals. “There is nothing in it for the dead,” she said. The urn with her ashes was mailed from the place she died to our American homestead, in Providence, Rhode Island. When my fingers touch the cold metal and the engraved letters “Bronislawa Marzynski, 1905–1987,” this is what I think: here is God’s birthplace and the place where God died.
* * *
My Murderer and I. His knife is already inside my body. I grab him by his hand, and using this hand I remove the knife. My murderer stares at me like a child holding my hand tightly. Everyone watches us from the street, but nobody approaches us, still holding hands. We are on a trolley in Poland. I want someone to arrest my murderer and bring him to justice, but no policeman is interested in him. We walk for weeks and cover nearly half the world. My murderer grows thinner and thinner until walking is hard for him. I decide to carry him in my hands. We are at the airport and stand in line for tickets. Still, nobody pays attention to us. We are walking on a busy street in Paris. My murderer’s body is completely flattened from holding onto me so closely. He has turned into a wooden marionette painted in bright colors. His legs and his hands are on metal hinges. When I pull his right hand his right leg lifts. He’s so small that I can hold him in the palm of my hand or fold him and put him in my pocket so no policeman will ever arrest him. I wake full of joy and laughing, as if returning from a circus.
* * *
Rabbi of Poland. With only a few thousand Jews left in Poland after the Holocaust, most of them secular, there were no working synagogues. When one man declared himself the Rabbi of Poland, the communist government placed him in a psychiatric hospital. Later he immigrated to America, and now he is back in Poland, fighting for the rabbinical throne.
I go to Lodz, where Rabbi Morejno launched his quest. Through the door intercom he tells me his story: some former Jewish communists, now criminals in New York City, have installed an idiot as the Rabbi of Poland. Do I have proof that I was not sent by his opponent?
Wearing his black and red silk rabbinical robe, he opens the door and with stale breath asks me for an ID. My Illinois driver’s license does not convince him, so I open an envelope with old pictures from the shtet Bransk, which I made a film about. “Do you know Eva Golde?” he asks me. “Of course I do,” I say. “Before the war her parents had a photo studio in Bransk. Now she lives in a nursing home in Baltimore.” He believes me and introduces me to the rebetzin. Her szarlotka apple pie is already on the table.
“How can he be Jewish with a goyish name like Marzynski?” He turns his head to his wife, a Jew of flesh and blood. “His father didn’t circumcise him, and after the war another non-religious Jew adopted him. Now he is a big artist in America. If he can make a film about the Holocaust, the anti-Semites can say that it never happened. That’s why a rabbi must tell his Jews not to watch such films. We don’t believe in shows, only the words of God.
“And what was the Holocaust?” asks the rabbi, and answers, “It was God’s punishment for Jewish sins! The Talmud says that when a Jew eats so much cabbage that he can eat no more, and there is still cabbage in his basement and another Jew steals it, they are both sinners: the thief must be punished for stealing the cabbage and the wealthy Jew for not feeding the poor.”
As is proper, the rebetzin doesn’t say a word, but I love her szarlotka. Her husband gives me a court file that contains arguments about why Polish Jews should elect him their rabbi. He says to me, “You must have connections; show it on television!”
* * *
New Year. The morning of the New Year I get out of the bathtub thinking again about the writer Jerzy Kosinski. What kind of plastic bag did he put on his head? One of those grocery bags that Grazyna won’t let me throw out? Grazyna’s mother, too, had a fascination with saving plastic bags, but for what reason? Perhaps Kosinski used a sheet of plastic and tied it around his neck. Was his head already covered when he entered the bathtub, or did he do it just before he submerged himself in water? I skimmed his last book, about a writer who decided to end his life in the bathtub after he failed to perform sexually. I dislike his books for their overdose of ideas and underdose of sincerity. Only his death sounds real. I do like the idea of making our own decision about the length of our lives.
In the afternoon, husband and wife go shopping for the New Year. The Polish writer Kazimierz Brandys once wrote about the unfulfilled urge for clothing under communism. After 30 years of capitalism my wife has certainly fulfilled this urge. Why then, does her New Year’s pilgrimage to Bloomingdale’s take five to six hours?
Watching her eyes fixate on the clothing racks and the shoe shelves, I think about my Catholic orphanage during the war. When I was a child, I meditated on the death of Jesus Christ and wanted to be with him in heaven. Is Bloomingdale’s Gagulka’s heaven?
“I am quietly hanging on the rack,” the silky red shirt tells me. “Suddenly Gagulka approaches me. I feel the warmth of her hands. She checks to see if I wrinkle, she tries me on her body, and we both stare at the mirror until she throws me on the floor. Other shirts fall on me. I am short of breath.”
My meditations at the orphanage were about something untouchable. Here, I already own my clothing. I much prefer going with my wife to Home Depot and buying wood to build a house.
* * *
Bush Sat on My Lap. We eat cake and drink champagne with Peter’s parents, who introduce the topic of Polish success in America. “Polish women know how to clean,” says Peter’s mother, who came in second in the Boston Marathon in the “women over 60” category—the reason for the champagne. “Poles are good carpenters,” says Peter’s father, a retired airline pilot. “A Polish woman, Barbara Piasecka, inherited the Johnson & Johnson fortune,” says my wife. “She tortured her aging husband until he changed his will,” I say, trying to elevate the conversation.
Who is Peter? He is an American living in Berlin who helped me with my nightmarish film about German guilt after World War II. Here in Boston, he has been working with me on my film about the American Revolutionary War. This morning he and I returned from an all-night shoot: the British forces confronted American patriots accused of possessing gunpowder, an illegal weapon of not-quite-mass destruction. I take all this to my sleep.
President Bush lies again about the war with Iraq and is summoned to Congress to explain himself. To me Congress looks like the Polish parliament, across the street from where I lived in Warsaw. At this Polish Sejm, the air conditioning is not working and the temperature is unbearable. I sit in the balcony and take my shirt off. Bush enters and immediately recognizes me. Instead of going to his podium, he takes the stairs, comes to my chair, and sits on my lap. Giving me his usual naughty-boy smile, he starts to explain to me that he hasn’t lied. Rather, he’s been given wrong information by his staff.
I understand that from then on I am to become a celebrity: a man with a naked torso and a thick accent on whose lap, explaining himself, sat the number 40-something president of the United States. I return home, but am drawn back to the parliament. This time it looks like the German Reichstag. When I see Bush speaking from the podium, I run to the street, where loudspeakers on light poles carry his voice. They are the same loudspeakers I remember from the streets of German-occupied Warsaw. Painfully loud.
* * *
My Shtetl. I made a film called “Shtetl,” a name for a small town in Yiddish. I was born in Warsaw and never lived in a small town, but in my dream I create a shtetl of my own.
In my shtetl there was no Holocaust and the Jews have lived in peace with the Christians for some three hundred years. I am visiting my teenage sister who lives there and the beauty of this dream is that a 60-year-old man, who was born as an only child, can have a teenage sister and nobody asks about it. My sister has won a piano competition, and she will be going to Paris to play Chopin’s mazurkas. In the town square, people congratulate me for having such a gifted sister, but someone raises a concern: we have so many gifted young pianists here; isn’t it strange that the only one going to Paris is Jewish?
My brother also lives in this town. He married a local Christian girl whose father owns a grocery store. One day we gather the entire family and come up with a plan. I will invest some money in a musical café, we will buy a grand piano, and young pianists can prepare themselves for Chopin competitions. When my sister returns from Paris, he will be able to give piano lessons to gifted children.
It looks like I have been living for some time in this town. The café has opened and, one after another, non-Jewish pianists from the town go off to Paris. One day I organize a voice competition. Later, in the middle of the town square, we stage a Broadway-style show. My sister is the musical director, my brother is the choreographer, and I have written the lyrics. We call it “My Shtetl.”
* * *
Last Judgment Day. One night FBI agents invade my house. To save my life, I need to come up with a crime to match the indictment. The FBI agents bring me to a huge courtroom, and there I see my wife and children, all of my friends, acquaintances and coworkers, but none of them wears a smile. They will all testify against me. In a moment my trial will begin. I am accused of murdering the Nazis and their families during the war, instead of being their victim. I am accused of being unfaithful to my wife, of not loving my children, of plotting to kill my parents, of forging my university diploma, of coming to America illegally, of stealing my creative ideas from others. I listen to these accusations and when they ask me to plead guilty, I run to the window and from there, like a bird, I soar out over the street. I’ve flown before, but never so fast. Below, I see the police chasing me. I land in the middle of a field, surrounded by them. Their circle tightens around me. One of them walks up to me smiling and says, “Your flying convinced us. You are acquitted.”