Precious Time with a Great Storyteller

For a month this summer, I had the privilege of staying with author/researcher/activist Paul Polansky in the small village of Knez Selo in southern Serbia. His home is filled with three decades of academic research materials on the origins and the plight of Romani (aka Roma/Gypsies) in Europe. My task was to organize his many years of research materials to facilitate the creation of a PhD program on the Romani people for a U.S. university in the future.

Mr. Polansky is one of the most incredible individuals I have ever met. A former very successful real estate investor who made millions; over 30 years ago he donated all his money to family and charities and has spent his life writing books and poetry while serving the most vulnerable. In America he wrote about—and lived amongst—the homeless long before it was an issue for cable news. In Europe his focus has been on the Roma. Polansky is one of the leading authorities in Europe on these subjugated people.

While living in his house, I was helping him cook, and during our meals he would always let me in on one of his many life stories. The one that captivated me the most was a story another man told Mr. Polansky after his poetry reading at a Barnes and Noble in New York. During the  reading, he read his poems based on the oral histories of Roma Holocaust survivors he interviewed, who reported that they escaped from Auschwitz through a sewage pipe.

Right after his reading, he was approached by a man who said, “Everything you just read is true.” The man was a car mechanic and explained that an elderly Jewish woman came to his front door to get her Cadillac fixed one day. The second she saw him, she froze for thirty seconds and asked him if he was Roma. He was stunned since nobody had ever asked him such a question in the U.S. and replied that he does indeed come from a Roma background. She smiled and handed over her car keys, saying, “It’s yours to keep.” She later explained to him that the Roma in Auschwitz helped her escape with them through the sewage pipe, confirming the oral histories that Mr. Polansky had collected on a different continent.

After hearing this amazing story, I tried to do a little research of my own and see if I could find anything on Roma escapes from Auschwitz. Amazingly enough, I couldn’t find any articles. This got me thinking about how much history is left out of our history books, or how those writing them chose not to bother to record the heroics of others—and the tragedies of many.

During another meal, Mr. Polansky told me about an experience he had while going through archives in the Czech town of Lety looking for information about his own genealogy. Through his research, he stumbled upon documents about a concentration camp for Roma that was established, managed, and eventually closed down by Czechs in the Czech Republic. The camp was up and running even before the Nazis occupied the country, and during the occupation, the Czechs did such a good job on their own that the Gestapo left the locals alone to run the camp. The camp’s information had been buried decades ago by both the previous communist regime and the newly established democratic government of the world-renowned late Czech president, Vaclav Havel. When Polanski tried to bring attention to it, he started receiving multiple threats from the Czech Republic and other countries. The narrative of the always “historically polite” Czechs, who were subjugated by the Nazis and then the Soviets, was shattered by Polansky.

During my stay he also inspired me to write poetry, and we held daily writing seminars at a cafe with my sister and another young teenage writer. Polansky critiqued my writing, telling me that I shouldn’t let the truth come in the way of a good story in poetry/creative writing. However, stories such as these are more powerful than anything someone can make up because they actually occurred in real life. Having published thirty-eight books and traveled worldwide to collect oral histories, Mr. Polansky has led a life that very few will. The beauty of oral histories is that through them, families remember their heritage and details about their ancestors. Now not only will I be able to hold dear the experience I had with Mr. Polansky, but I will also carry a tiny bit of the knowledge that he dedicated his life to collecting.

Mr. Polansky and me, sitting on his porch