A history revisited

BY PRIYA BALI
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 29, 2008

It's often said there are three sides to a story: yours, mine and the truth. In 2001, New York Daily News reporter and Michigan alum Erin Einhorn boarded a plane to Poland to find that elusive third side, the one that would tell her about her mother’s complex past and survival of the Holocaust. She found more: the larger story of World War Two in Nazi-occupied Poland. A year later, having learned a new language and returning with a journal filled with entries recounting her experiences, she began to write her first book. Her memoir, entitled “The Pages in Between: A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home,” will be the focus of her talk she'll give on Nov. 10 at the Residential College.

Illustration by Allison Ghamon/Daily

On her trip, Einhorn was able to track down the Skowronski family that sheltered her mother during the Holocaust. From Aug. 1943 to Nov. 1945, Einhorn's mother remained hidden, spending two-and-a-half years as a member of the Skowronski family. This situation was based on a deal made by Einhorn's grandfather, who begged the Skowronskis to hide his daughter in exchange for, among other things, allowing the family to live rent-free in a building he owned in Bedzin, Poland. Einhorn recalls the moment when she met Mrs. Skowronski’s son, who was essentially a brother to her mother.

“I walked into the life of an elderly man who was the son of the woman who saved my mother,” Einhorn said. “I showed up in his life one day and brought his long-lost sister back to life. I showed him a photograph of my mom as a little kid and he pointed to her and said that she was his sister.”

What followed was something Einhorn hadn’t anticipated: For years, she had only heard the reassuring yet inadequate tale of how her mother was always loved, and the reasons her grandfather had stopped associating with the Skowronskis. Now, Einhorn was being introduced to an entirely new family and country she'd never traveled to in order to fill in the gaps of a story she’d been trying to piece together for years. But matters became complicated when she found herself tying up loose ends of two families who never found closure from their pasts.

“It brought home for me the difference between memory and truth," Einhorn said. "It’s like a moment when your family intersected with history and everybody relates to that moment and then they’re inspired by it, and when you try to measure up that moment with provable facts, you find that it doesn’t necessarily align. In my case, I found a new version of how my grandmother may have died."

The understanding she gained of her family’s past was deeply rooted in Poland’s own history. The tale of the two families goes beyond Einhorn's own history and represents two larger stories, those of the Jews and Poles during a pivotal point in history. Although not a Holocaust memoir, Einhorn's personal story becomes a tale of how these people were driven apart and the ways in which the goals of reconciliation have been met.

Before Einhorn immersed herself in this project, she was a journalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. She covered small town life before moving to New York City, where she began reporting on the public school system and the city’s government.

But experiences outside the professional world were formative too, especially the ones at Michigan, where Einhorn earned a bachelors degree in 1995 and wrote for The Michigan Daily. Whether it was the Holocaust denial-ad protesters on the Diag, Bill Clinton on the steps of Hill Auditorium or guitarists on the steps of the Hatcher Graduate Library, all had an effect on her life. No matter where a person lives, environment doesn’t just become a backdrop against which things happen; it becomes the action itself.

Einhorn remembers this time as being crucial to the enhancement of her identity as a writer, and perhaps when she first realized what she calls the single greatest thing about journalism: “The excuse that you have to go up to people and just start asking them who they are and why there doing what they’re doing.”

In doing so, not only is curiosity about particular people and places fulfilled, but one can also share his or her newfound knowledge with others, and this is exactly what Einhorn has done with her book.

“Too often with the Holocaust, this mantra of ‘never forgot’ ends up being about the crimes committed and not about all of these lives, cultures and communities that survived for hundreds of years in Eastern Europe and were obliterated,” Einhorn said. Her book — and searching for one’s own personal history in general — presents one way to reduce this effect and live more fully within the spirit of “never forget.”

Rediscovering our own histories may seem like a daunting task. It may require visiting a strange country and learning about a time that is completely foreign to us: but at the same time, the process may provide us with the missing third side to a story.

“You look for slices of life that tell a larger tale,” Einhorn said.

So if you ever decide to travel half-way across the world to visit an old street corner, or to simply look into the eyes of relatives in antique photographs, pay attention to what you find: you might be surprised at what you uncover.