Recreating WWII Poland: A Novelist’s Trip Back in Time

Posted on April 29, 2020

by Jennifer Rosner

“You’re going to Poland in December?” My family and friends asked.

“Yes!” I answered, adding yet another thick pair of socks to my pack.

From the snug comfort of my window seat in western Massachusetts, I’d been writing a novel set in the countryside of northeastern Poland. I’d read innumerable books and researched the area; I’d even “walked” the banks of the Narew River via Google Earth.

It was time for more.

 The fictional world I’d built was distant in space and time. (The action of my novel takes place in a German-occupied region of Poland during WWII). I knew that much would be altered. Still, I’d be able to discover how a day’s first light splintered through the wall cracks of a barn, the way forest mushrooms grew around tree trunks, what a coming snow smelled like. Sensory details that feed a novelist.

Remnant of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall.
Copyright © 2020 Jennifer Rosner

My story followed a Jewish mother and her daughter in hiding, at first in a hayloft, later in a convent and a primeval wood. Even before booking flights, I searched for a guide. I found a young man named Pawel, who led tours around Warsaw and beyond. One thing that stood out about him was that he served as a museum guide at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Several email exchanges confirmed that he was a perfect choice—knowledgeable, sensitive, and interested in continuing to learn. He offered to read my manuscript in advance so that he could figure out where best to take me. I sent him a copy and our planning began.

First Communion Day (exhibited at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, re-photographed by Jennifer Rosner)

My older daughter, Sophia, asked to come along, and I was happy to have her accompany me. When we arrived in Warsaw, we were met by Pawel, his friend Rafal (also a guide), and our driver, Tomasz. We piled into the car and began driving. Over the course of our trip, we would see a still-standing barn that harbored a Jewish family, a Catholic orphanage that hid Jewish children, and a forest where Jewish partisans camped—the settings of my novel, though they’d be entirely fictionalized.

In the Land of Open Shutters, in the valley of the river Narew, we viewed farmhouses typical of the region. I was keen to discover how barns were situated in relation to farmhouses; how visible they were from the road, and how near to the nearest neighbors (this was very important for the details of my novel). The farmhouses were plotted on narrow swaths of land running in close lines, road to river, dotted with potato cellars topped by storks’ nests. Townsfolk kept a close eye on the goings-on, then and now; we were queried by several locals as to what we were doing.

My entourage waited patiently as I sat inside a barn, watching the light change…

Listen to an excerpt of The Yellow Bird Sings.

We stayed that first night in a cottage, all of us, out in the remote Polish countryside. Over the course of our time together, I would come to think of Pawel, Rafal, and Tomasz as friends (especially Tomasz, who sprinkled outrageous amounts of black pepper and hot sauce on everything he ate and whipped out his phone to show us photos of his beautiful family). But on this night, they were still strangers, men we didn’t know. I locked the door of the room I shared with Sophia, thinking how I’d inadvertently recreated a feeling present in my novel—a mother’s fear for her daughter and herself—in circumstances remote and vulnerable. But the night was uneventful. We were, in fact, safe.

The next day, we saw houses with beautifully painted shutters and visited Orthodox churches. During car rides, and then again at night back in the cottage, Pawel gave me comments on my manuscript. He advised me on the names of my characters (pointing out socioeconomic implications I could not have gathered from internet searches). He translated apt sections of research books and memoirs published only in Polish. Tales of Jews hiding in caverns and in animal holes underground; always on the move, taking to barns, bushes, stables, fields, high grains, water quarries. Sucking nourishment from tree roots, drinking rainwater. Surviving because they had money or could speak Polish, because they had “passing” (non-Semitic) features, or most crucially, false papers. Few of the details would make it into my novel, but they confirmed my research and stimulated my story instincts.

We traveled to a Catholic orphanage that harbored Jewish children during the war. The building was brick, not stone; poorer and shabbier than the convent of my imagination, but full of warmth. The scent of onion soup filled the air as we toured. Sister Stanisława, her soft eyes beaming behind thick-rimmed glasses, showed us the small partitioned space that kept children safe, and a particularly beautiful statue of Mary that provided comfort.

Primeval Forest in Eastern Poland.
Copyright © 2020 Jennifer Rosner

Our next stop was the Knyszyn Forest, steeped in harsh winter, the trees crystallized in ice. Jewish Partisans hid here after the uprising in the Białystok ghetto. The woods were dense and the temperatures frigid; it was hard to imagine a person surviving the night here, never mind months on end.

All told, the trip was a novelist’s dream, full of sensory detail. Back at my window seat in Massachusetts, I continued writing, invigorated by the smells, tastes, textures—and friendships—of Poland. Having put myself physically into the place of my characters, I felt newly steeped in their story. As a writer, the opportunity to travel was a true gift.

Still, when thinking of where to set my next novel, I’d imagine somewhere warmer. Greece, perhaps?

© Elizabeth Solaka

Jennifer Rosner is the author of If A Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard, a memoir about raising her deaf daughters in a hearing, speaking world. Her children’s book, The Mitten String, is a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable. Jennifer’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, The ForwardGood Housekeeping, and elsewhere. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family. The Yellow Bird Sings is her debut novel and is being published around the world.

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