Gate­house Auschwitz II (Birke­nau), 2007


Pil­grim­age isn’t the right word. Jour­ney doesn’t work either. Maybe funer­al pro­ces­sion? That sort of fits and sort of doesn’t, because a pro­ces­sion is full of peo­ple and I don’t see any­one else around.

This pro­ces­sion of mine set off as soon as I asked my mom about her par­ents. I was a nosy lit­tle girl, but until that moment I could ask her about any­thing. On that day, when I broached the sub­ject of my grand­par­ents for the first time, my march began. That was the day I start­ed to break down. My mind and my heart were break­ing down, though I didn’t know it yet.

I quick­ly accept­ed the con­di­tions of silence. Maybe once or twice I tried ask­ing again, but I didn’t learn any­thing new. Instead of four grand­par­ents I had two. My oth­er two remained con­cealed beneath a thick blan­ket of word­less­ness. Not a sound escaped from under it. I stayed silent too— until my two liv­ing grand­par­ents died. Once I had no one of that gen­er­a­tion left, I went on the attack. I asked my dad, I asked my mom — noth­ing. I begged, I threat­ened — noth­ing. I secret­ly rifled through the cab­i­nets in their room — noth­ing. Then some­thing strange hap­pened to me. The fam­i­ly secret iso­lat­ed me, con­demned me to loneliness.

I under­stood I had to look some­where else. I grew clos­er to data­bas­es and gov­ern­ment archives than I was to my fam­i­ly home. It was by comb­ing through them that I found my grand­par­ents. Now I knew where they lived, what their names were, and how many chil­dren they had. I knew that in July 1942 they were arrest­ed by the French police and tak­en, along with over ten thou­sand Parisian Jews, to the Vélo­drome d’Hiver. The French state rail­road trans­port­ed them right to the doors of the gas chambers.

Yet beyond that I couldn’t under­stand why my par­ents had put so much ener­gy into keep­ing this infor­ma­tion from me. Why in all the Jew­ish fam­i­lies I knew the dead lived on in the mem­o­ries of their loved ones, but my grand­par­ents had been exiled to the archives. For­bid­den from remind­ing any­one of their existence.

I kept on the look­out for an excuse to talk, but I knew that I had to seize a moment when they wouldn’t be able to ignore me or get away from me.

Then the ide­al oppor­tu­ni­ty came along — my mother’s uncle’s birth­day. My great-uncle remem­bers his sis­ter, my grand­moth­er, very well. They were very close sib­lings and he prac­ti­cal­ly dot­ed on all three of his nieces and nephews.

On that day, when I broached the sub­ject of my grand­par­ents for the first time, my march began.

I wait­ed through the aper­i­tif, I wait­ed through the appe­tiz­ers, I even wait­ed through the main course. Between the sal­ad and the cheese course, I attacked. I tapped my knife on a wine glass. Every­one went qui­et. They all prob­a­bly thought I’d final­ly found a future hus­band. I launched my offen­sive and I have no regrets.

What about Grand­pa? I ask. Silence. I know I’ve only got a moment, because before long my deep-laid plan will get that muf­fling blan­ket thrown over it and I won’t be able to lift even one cor­ner. I stand and shout that they have no right to cut me out of know­ing about my grand­fa­ther. And who answers me? My moth­er, who gave me noth­ing but silence on this sub­ject for thir­ty-five years. She screams that she’s ashamed of me, that I’ve poi­soned so much of her life, that she can’t go on with this. She shouts that my grand­fa­ther was a cow­ard, because if he’d lis­tened to my great-uncle sit­ting here, he’d prob­a­bly have sur­vived. He and his fam­i­ly. But my grand­fa­ther knew best and didn’t believe that he had to hide and wait it out. My cow­ard grand­fa­ther believed in his French com­pa­tri­ots, who sent him and his whole fam­i­ly straight to the ovens in Poland. Almost his whole fam­i­ly, because she— my moth­er — was lucky to be stay­ing with her aunt and uncle at the time. That’s the kind of hero he was. He didn’t want to lis­ten to smarter peo­ple, and when the time came, he didn’t even try to escape.

Now I bare­ly speak to my moth­er. A lit­tle to my dad, but he doesn’t know how to fit in between us. My great-uncle is hap­py to be in touch, except I can’t lis­ten to his words of hatred and dis­dain for my grandfather.

My pro­ces­sion is still on its way. I’ve come from Paris by train, because that’s how my grand­fa­ther and his fam­i­ly were brought here. I’m going to take the train all the way to Auschwitz.

Though mourn­ers’ march­es end at the ceme­tery, mine is going to con­tin­ue on, just in the oppo­site direc­tion. I’m going to bring hon­or back to my grand­fa­ther. In spite of my whole fam­i­ly. And that’s why I need you. You’re the child of sur­vivors, a psy­chol­o­gist and a pho­tog­ra­ph­er — no one will under­stand me bet­ter. I want you to make a por­trait of me, but one that will let me con­nect with my grand­fa­ther. I’ve found doc­u­ments in the camp archive. The Ger­mans were method­i­cal, doing their book­keep­ing untrou­bled by guilt. My grand­fa­ther was mur­dered on Sep­tem­ber 20 at 6:05 p.m. They wrote that he died of a heart attack — the same as every­one else.

On Sep­tem­ber 20 let’s meet at your stu­dio and at 6:05 exact­ly you’ll push the shut­ter release.


Funer­al pro­ces­sion isn’t such a bad phrase after all. All this time my fam­i­ly has been walk­ing in it togeth­er, in silence.

Copy­right © 2017 by Mikołaj Gryn­berg Eng­lish lan­guage trans­la­tion © 2021 by Sean Gasper Bye. This excerpt orig­i­nal­ly appeared in I’d Like to Say Sor­ry, but There’s No One to Say Sor­ry To, pub­lished by The New Press. Reprint­ed here with permission.

Mikołaj Gryn­berg is a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, author, and trained psy­chol­o­gist. He has pub­lished three col­lec­tions: Sur­vivors of the 20th Cen­tu­ryI Accuse Auschwitz, and The Book of Exo­dusI’d Like to Say Sor­ry, but There’s No One to Say Sor­ry To (The New Press), his first work of fic­tion, was a final­ist for the Nike, Poland’s top lit­er­ary prize. He lives in Poland.

Sean Gasper Bye is a trans­la­tor of Pol­ish lit­er­a­ture. He is a win­ner of the EBRD Lit­er­ary Prize and the Asymp­tote Close Approx­i­ma­tions Prize, was short­list­ed for the War­wick Women in Trans­la­tion Prize and longlist­ed for the Nation­al Trans­la­tion Award. He was for­mer­ly trans­la­tor-in-res­i­dence at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, a Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts trans­la­tion fel­low, and Lit­er­a­ture and Human­i­ties Cura­tor at the Pol­ish Cul­tur­al Insti­tute New York.