Experiencing Violence, Shaping Identity, Negotiating Life

by Barbara Strassberg

Identity re-membered in community can be more than the sum of the past's fragmented and violent experiences.

BARBARA STRASSBERG teaches at Aurora University. This essay was originally presented in slightly different form at the conference "Talking Across Boundaries: Cultures of Violence -- Cultures of Peace" (The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies University of Notre Dame, April 3-4, 1998).

Dora was born in Poland in a small town near Wroclaw, in 1947.(1) Her father was from Warsaw and her mother was from a small shtetl, Lubaszowa, near Warsaw. Her parents survived the war in Russia and returned to Poland in 1946. In 1963, she emigrated to the United States. Dora's story exemplifies the evolution of identity through experiences of violence.

Growing up in Poland, Dora was aware that she was "different," but she did not know why. Silence covered her parents' past until one day, in a dramatic way, she found out that she was Jewish and what it meant to be Jewish.

What Dora Remembers

"My father, I think, had a book of photographs. I am not sure where they were from. They were either from the Warsaw ghetto or Auschwitz and I was very close with my father. . . But I remember there was the time my father was looking through the pictures in the book; he was not approachable. That was his quiet time and I remember as a really little girl, when he looked through the pictures. At that time I didn't even know they were pictures. He was not approachable, he was looking through a magnifying glass and I am assuming now that maybe that was Warsaw, maybe pictures of the Warsaw ghetto and maybe he was looking for his family. . . But I was never permitted to touch the book. . . and for some reason I knew it was sacred and I never went after that book.

"I don't know how old I was but it had to be somewhere between age 5 or 6, when the Polish girls in my building that I always played with were getting ready to go to church in their white dresses to get their Communion. They were getting ready for months. Well, I wanted their dresses. . . They looked like little brides to me. . . And I said to my father one day, 'I want a dress! I want a white dress!' And my father has never said 'No' to me. . . So I thought I'll tell my father that I want this dress and of course I'm going to get it. And I remember him saying, 'No.' And I said, 'Why not?' And he said, 'Because you are Jewish.' 'I don't want to be Jewish. I want a dress!' was my answer.

"I think that was the first time he put me on his lap and we looked at the book and I remember being shocked by it. But I also knew that being Jewish was very important because finally he let me look at the book. And we sat down, looked at this book and then he said. . . and that's kind of what lets me believe, or maybe it's wishful thinking, or maybe my imagination is telling me, that this was a picture from the Warsaw ghetto, and he was searching for his family. Because his answer to me was something that probably shouldn't have made sense, but it did. He said, 'You are Jewish, this could be my sister, this could be her child' and there were just piles of bodies, all mangled skeletons. Death, that's all I saw. Death. And he said, 'So they didn't die in vain.' And I remember this had an incredible impact on me. I was Jewish. . .

"He also explained to me that he and his little sister left Poland. . . and for some reason I understood that that too meant to be Jewish. And I didn't want that dress any more."

Later on, Dora found out what prompted her father to leave Poland.

"My father remembers very distinctly the Germans marching into Warsaw. He remembers those boots and them marching in formations. He showed me the spot he was standing on when they marched into Warsaw. The story that he tells, it was obviously very vivid to him, that he had this wonderful coat made in Poland. . . He just picked up his coat and he came out of a movie theater with a bunch of friends and he saw a couple of SS walking to him. He had this coat that day. . . And these two SS officers walked up and one of them simply slapped my father across the face, no provocation. My father said, if he were alone he would have been dead because he would have slapped him right back. And of course the German had a gun and would have shot him to death but his friends grabbed him and my father went home and these officers passed. And that's why he left."

Dora's mother also escaped from Poland in an atmosphere of violence. Here is the story that Dora remembers:

"My mother got to Russia basically on foot. She was a baby in a family of seven brothers and sisters. There were four brothers and three sisters. One day all of her sisters ran away because all the men were shot. And that was a signal for them to run because my grandmother was afraid that they are going to be shot in a matter of hours. They ran to the woods and they ran during the night and slept during the day in the woods. My mother always described the beautiful woods around where she grew up. They made it on foot to the Russian border."

At that point Dora understood that to be Jewish in Poland meant either death or the necessity to search for a safer place to live. The narratives about the violence her family members experienced indirectly provided her with a frame in which she could start to develop her own hyphenated Polish-Jewish identity.

Being Jewish in Poland

The formation of Dora's identity in Poland was also influenced by violence she experienced directly.

"Both of my parents were very proud of being Jewish and very militant. Both of them. I remember from early on my father telling me to be strong. He must have known that I was called 'a Jew' and I was hurt. He knew that I am going to be in situations where I'll have to fight for myself. He said, 'It's O.K. to get hurt, but you have to fight and not avoid the situation.' I was in a fight in school with a guy and I hurt him badly. His jaw was dislocated. My mother had to come to school. She gave me a hard time in front of the teacher and principal, and she took me home supposedly to punish me. But when we were far enough that no one could see us she 'gave me a five.' That was a very proud story that they told me.

"When I was going to the Jewish school, I experienced some forms of anti-Semitism on a daily basis. I was leaving early in the morning and coming back in the evening. Once in a while traveling to school I was attacked. There was a Catholic church across the street from where the streetcar stopped to let us off. I never traveled alone to school, it was the virtue of the times, but you still had to walk from the streetcar two or three blocks. They always waited for us, the Polish kids in the church. They waited with rocks, and rocks always flew. I am not sure it was on a daily basis but it is still vivid in my mind. It was frequent enough. We threw rocks back and I remember carrying rocks in my pockets all the time."

Violence experienced in postwar Poland pushed Dora's family out of their country for the second time.

"We applied for permission to leave Poland before 1963. Our original plan was to go to Israel but then our passports expired and my parents thought it's either going to be Australia or the United States, whichever comes first. We'll go somewhere. My father was out of jail but still in 1963, he couldn't get his visa.(2) I remember this vividly, going to Warsaw to the American Consulate and my father coming pale out of a meeting with the Consul. He said, 'We have 5 minutes before he wants to see Dora,' meaning me, and my mother says, 'Why?' and he says, 'It's a long story but he will give her a visa.' And the Consul handed me my visa that day. . . They questioned me in details and I don't remember any of the questions because all I wanted was this visa."

Leaving Poland for the United States

So as her parents did at the outbreak of World War II, Dora, as a Polish Jew, emigrated in search for a safer place for her and her parents.

She said: "So I was the first one to leave. I left in 1963. . . I was very happy. I didn't feel any fear at all. I was 16 and I had just finished the second grade of high school."

Dora traveled by boat to Montreal and then to Chicago to stay with her aunt, her father's sister. After a year of living with her aunt and attending school, Dora's parents joined her in Chicago. They all moved to a separate apartment and her parents started to work right away. In 1968, Dora got married to an American Jew of German Jewish background. Now, they live in one of the upscale, predominantly Jewish, communities and are very successful, living a comfortable life with their three children, a son, and two daughters.

In the United States, Dora's identity changed from Polish Jewish to American Jewish with a residual Polish component. This process involved complex transformations of the three components of her new identity.

Redefinition of the Polish Component of Identity

"When I was asked where I came from I answered, 'Poland.' My only problem with identification was that when I was labeled 'Polish,' I would rebuttal: 'I am from Poland but I am not Polish, I am Jewish. . .' I was attached to people in Poland but they all left as well. I never thought in Poland that that was my country. When people were arguing here that I am Polish, I was saying that I never was Polish in Poland. I cannot be Polish now. People don't understand that and there is nothing more that you can say. . .

Redefinition of the Jewish Component of Identity

Dora was married in a Jewish Reform temple because that was what her in-laws wanted. Her son was circumcised and a bar mitzvah. Her daughters had no interest in religion and were not bat mitzvahs. One of her daughters "dropped out" of the Jewish religious life in a context, although indirectly, related to violence. This time it was violence depicted in the scriptures.

"My daughter, at a certain point in life, expressed curiosity about what goes on in the temple and I remember taking her to a temple where my girl-friend belonged. . . And my daughter was appalled by the sermon that the Rabbi gave. She took it very literally. . . She didn't know any biblical stories and that was about sacrificing of a son to God and the Rabbi's point of view was: 'You've got to do it!' And we came home and she said, 'Thank God we are not religious. I am not sacrificing my brother. . .' She didn't go through bat mitzvah."

Dora and her family are neither very religious nor very observant Jews. Interestingly however, Dora added: "All of my friends are Jewish, American Jews. One is Puerto Rican but she is married to a Jew. Their personalities are the bond. We are Jewish but not in the sense of religion. We observe only the holidays in the traditional way which my mother taught me. The only non-Jewish Pole I know is my maid."

Today, within the new American Jewish context, Dora negotiates her new Jewish identity.

"I am an American citizen that is Jewish and was born in Poland.. . . My Polish-Jewish origin is definitely not a burden. I am not ashamed of it. I think it gives me a certain edge of being exposed to a different culture and makes me perceive this culture in a different way. . . I feel different because of my background, of a set of rules, some cultural decisions that are made. Also, I experienced some hostility here when I first came. . . as an immigrant rather than a Jew.

Shaping the American Component of Identity

"I am very comfortable here but I am very selective in choosing items of American culture. Whether I am Americanized? Absolutely not!. . . The big thing that comes to my mind, maybe because I have kids college age and I am always shocked by it, is when my daughter was a freshman in college and I met parents of kids who were freshmen. They would never talk about education, never about academics, but only about social life in school. I cannot understand, neither I am willing to understand, why after spending a whole year on preparation and applying and probably your whole life on getting ready for this event of going to college, where you have to be accepted or rejected based on what you have done, that your primary talk would be about being accepted or rejected by this particular boy or girl. . ."

When elements of American culture clash with elements of Dora's Polish Jewish culture, the elements of American culture are often evaluated negatively and even rejected. A dynamic process of identity transformation in the context of emigration and assimilation accompanied Dora's renegotiating a past characterized by experiences of violence.

Negotiating Life

In Dora's family, the past was shrouded in silence. Her father was unwilling to share with her the stories of his own experiences of violence nor the stories of his family members' death. Only when he decided that it was necessary for her to learn about her roots did he break the silence. Dora's mother intentionally "buried" the past so that she would not have to transmit any stories to the younger generations.

"My mother just moved from the old house to a condo and I really thought when I helped her move -- she lived in that house for 20 odd years, ever since I was married, just about -- and I really thought, the things that I looked forward to, searching through her letters, documents, papers. . . There wasn't a scrap! It's like, she seems to be sentimental because she misses the tree that my father planted for her but not a scrap of correspondence, a scrap of anything, very few pictures and they were not well taken care of. It is like her past does not exist. And that was upsetting to me."

Even though Dora was upset by her parents' silence, she herself failed to tell her own children the story of her past. Toward the end of the interview, Dora switched in her story to the most recent event that reflected the transformation of her attitude toward her own past.

In 1990, there was a reunion of Polish Jews in the Catskills. Dora found out about the reunion but did not want to go. Some of her childhood Polish Jewish friends came over for lunch to talk about that reunion. It became a lunch Dora would not forget.

"I had absolutely no feelings; it was only an obligation. But my kids were excited. We got to my childhood and the stories were just hysterical and we were laughing so much that I felt like having a home full of people. And all three kids were silent. They all listened. We had an audience. And my older daughter has never sat with my friends. . . That day she was at my side. She was here with the video camera. They mentioned the reunion. My family asked, 'Why don't you go?' and I said, 'I don't know anybody, nobody will remember me, I'll be bored. I left when I was sixteen, it's a life-time since. . . I would have nothing to say to these people!' And turning to my daughter I asked, 'Would you be friends with Lucy? With whom you were friends in junior high? Of course you wouldn't! It's the same thing!' And my older daughter said to me, 'I want to go, I want to be there. I want to go! You've got to go!. . .' "

After making all the arrangements and reservations, Dora and her two daughters went to the reunion in the Catskills.

"My reaction there was very unexpected. I wasn't prepared for the emotions, I think at all. . . I got to the reunion and the first person I saw was Ewa.(3) I recognized only one person and probably I wouldn't have recognized if I hadn't looked at a picture album that I haven't seen since I left Poland. I had a hard time even finding this album. It was a birthday present for me, still from Poland. It has all inscriptions in Polish, 'March 19, 1959. Happy Birthday. . .' At the reunion I saw this kid that looked like her. I looked at the kid and asked, 'Where is your mother?' And here she is coming. . . I would have never recognized her if not the kid. At the reunion we were thirteen, back again [when] we were thirteen. We never touched upon the present, only barely. . . We had a few conversations about our present, we were talking about the past.

"I recognized Wala. She hasn't changed. I was mean to her because I was a good girl and Wala was wild. It was a lot of fun to be at the reunion. I recognized another person, Piotr. He hasn't changed. He started crying and I was so happy that I made him happy. And people recognized me! One more person was Maciek. He was my teacher and I had the worst crush on him. In fact we both had a crush.

"Now I want to attend future reunions and kids would never let me not to. I keep in touch with a few people from the reunion. I left Poland when I was a child and I think my memories are child memories, teenager's memories and not of an adult. I really thought I was going to America to meet Ricky Nelson. . . Now, I am happy that my children are growing up here. I don't think that there is a 'dream country' for us. I think this is fine."


Karen Malpede writes in "Thoughts on a Theater of Witness. . .":

What was dismembered needs to be re-membered;. . . it requires the gathering together of forgotten and denied fragments from dreams, memories, history. It asks to bear witness to the shattered narratives of survivors. . . The wholeness. . . suggests that the true self is fluid, changeable, inclusive. . . that it might be broken and then be re-membered, emerging stronger and more varied than before.(4)

I believe that this is what happened to Dora in 1990, when for the first time she attended the reunion of Polish Jews. The cycle of violence against members of her family was finally broken here in the United States. Her children, unlike her, were growing up in a context of peace and could comfortably be reintroduced to the family's past. Hansen's Law of the Third Generation, which says that "the grandson wants to remember what the son tried to forget," seems to work in the case of Dora's family. Violence she experienced in Poland, indirectly through the stories told by her parents or forever trapped in their silence, and directly in the streets of Wroclaw, did not encourage her to search for the family past in a more aggressive way. Her children, however, unaware of the violence that might have been experienced by Polish Jews, became open to that past and ready to help their mother break the silence and by participation in the reunion introduce them to her past.

Dora realizes that the United States is a good country for her and her children and finally now, her dis-membered Polish Jewish and American identity can be re-membered and incorporated into her new identity within which all three components -- the Polish, the Jewish, and the American -- might become a whole. By remembering her past, she can put the violence experienced by her and her family behind them in a constructive way -- that is, a way that can help her keep all the pieces of her new identity together.


1. [Back to text]  This paper is based on an exploratory study which aimed at the reconstruction and interpretation, on the basis of memories of representatives of the postwar generation of Polish Jews, of the experiences of their Polish past, their passage from Poland to the United States, and their American present. The focus of my study was the development of Polish Jewish identity and the transformations of this identity in the context of migration, and the structural, cultural, and individual assimilation in the United States. My sample was composed of twelve Polish Jews (six females and six males) selected on the basis of their self-identification, born in Poland in 1945 or after, who spent no fewer than thirteen years in Poland, and immigrated to the United States in 1958 or after. I conducted this research in 1990, by means of personal interviews. The questionnaire consisted of three parts: the Polish past -- 58 questions; the passage -- 25 questions; and the American present -- 166 questions. The interviewing took between two to eight hours.

Among the narratives which served the construction of memories from the past, there were numerous stories of violence, experienced by the interviewees, their parents, siblings, other family members, and friends. For the purpose of this presentation, I have selected fragments of stories narrated by one of my female respondents, Dora.

2. [Back to text]  He was allegedly held responsible and sentenced to jail as a director of a company in which somebody else had embezzled money.

3. [Back to text]  Ewa was Dora's best friend when they were little girls in Poland.

4. [Back to text]  Karen Malpede, "Thoughts on a Theater of Witness and Excerpts from Two Plays of Witness: Better People, The Beekeeper's Daughter," in Genocide, War, and Human Survival, ed. Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), 232-33.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1999/2000, Vol. 49  Issue 4.