Becoming a Foreigner

There’s more than one way to become a refugee.

My parents took the traditional route.

On paper they had promising beginnings compared to most. Pictures of my grandparents suggest a certain amount of material comfort. I’ve seen a black and white photo of my father’s aunt on the top of a ski slope framed by snowy mountaintops. Clad in skis, with poles by her side—she has a slight smile on her face. My maternal grandmother and her brother are the subject of another photograph. In the picture, they are nicely dressed—she wears a lace collar and makeup. She’s listening to a radio on headphones while reading a newspaper. Across the table from her, her brother—in suit and tie– strikes a match to light the cigarette in his mouth.

The pictures suggest my parents would have education, clothing, food and a roof over their head: few worries for their own security. But history intervened. Both my parents had the misfortune of being the wrong religion in the wrong place at the wrong time—Jews in in pre-WW II Poland.

Their survival required heroic action that in its detail strains credulity. My father lived in a small hamlet near the Russian border. German soldiers invaded when he was five years old and forced his family into a barracks style ghetto on the periphery of their town. On a dark night, he and my grandmother escaped—climbing out the window of their room, running through the fields, in search of a safe place to hide. His father had already left the ghetto, brought to the hospital to die of typhus. They walked and hid out in the woods for days until they came upon a church. It was run by a priest who’d established a network of Polish families willing to hide Jewish children. Instead of learning the alphabet in a kindergarten classroom, my father hid out in an attic for a year. He was moved to another family for three more years. His mother hid out in a different house, in an attic over a Gestapo office.

My Mother’s family was equally pressed to overcome their circumstances. Her mother learned quickly that one could not successfully hide from the Nazis while tending to a newborn. Just a babe in blankets–six weeks old– my mother was given to an older Polish woman who had taken in a two year old jewish boy. My grandmother was eventually captured and put on a train bound for Auschwitz. While the train was stopped at a station, she slipped out of a cattle car and ran for the forest. She went into hiding—somehow managing to survive while the world unraveled around her. Three years later, she returned to the older Polish woman to retrieve her child.

I didn’t know most of these details when I was a child. I only knew the “facts”. I knew my parents and grandmothers survived the Holocaust. I knew that after the war my father and his mother went to live with her brother in France. My mother and grandmother spent five years in a tent camp constructed for displaced persons. Both families waited for a visa granting them entrance to the United States.

Crossing the Atlantic marked a physical and emotional transition. Each day on the ship they moved further from the ruins of their families and the only life they’d ever known. They moved toward an unknown future; away from brutal discrimination and toward the chance to build a life in a country founded on religious freedom; a fresh start.

My parents sealed their toughest memories inside them; they shared some less painful pieces with my siblings and me when we were young. These transferred memories live in me in a new form; amplifying the importance of some of their experiences; compressing others. I have a deep gratitude for men and women who serve in the military. I feel a nearly overwhelming urge to hug anyone I see in military dress and thank them profusely for saving my family. Although my mother remembers the American servicemen, my father remembers the Russians. I realize that no one currently in uniform was directly involved in WWII, but my feelings stem from the recognition that I am a direct benefactor of our military tradition.

I also harbor a deep wariness. There was an unspoken understanding in my family that we were not to advertise our religion in public in any way. Answering a direct question about being Jewish was acceptable if it couldn’t be avoided, but offering unsolicited information was considered a mistake. Because of my dark curly hair people often assume I’m Italian or Greek and I don’t correct them.

What I never understood was the magnitude of their loss, which I neither witnessed nor heard about. The family lineage, that had once been traceable through living, breathing relatives suddenly only existed in stories handed down, and the few ragged photographs that had been saved; the land on which generations of their families had lived; their homes, friends, fathers; the future their parents had imagined for them; the sheer weight of unfulfilled plans.

Recent events in my own life have given me a more nuanced appreciation of what it means to leave a life behind. A couple of years shy of my fortieth birthday I was diagnosed with cancer. The process of uncovering my newly found cancer was something akin to being forcibly removed from my self-image. I was genuinely surprised to find myself trapped on a sinking ship on which I was the only passenger. My strongly held beliefs about my health, my emotional toughness, and my intentions for my future didn’t line up with the tale told by the scans and biopsies. The stress and pain of this testing made me a foreigner in my own body; someone I didn’t recognize. I was unprepared for such an intimate exile.

It started innocently enough—with a mysterious lump on my neck that I noticed one morning while brushing my teeth. The mystery lump turned out to be a tumor, evidence of lymphoma in bloom. I resisted this evidence and everything it implied to the best of my ability. I didn’t ask any questions at the first meeting with my newly assigned oncologist; facing him in his bright red tie and long white doctor’s coat; I was incredulous when he suggested a PET scan to look for other tumors. I had already been completely betrayed by my body with the initial tumor. How could there be more?

I resisted my first PET scan administered not in a radiology department, but in a trailer in a parking lot cordoned off by biohazard signs; I resisted the injection of radioactive material into my vein that allowed the scanner to highlight the other tumors in my body. I resisted the results of the scan, which suggested the presence of other tumors and the need for more biopsies.

I’d planned to escape from my doctor’s office as he readied me for the bone marrow biopsy. My whole body was shaking after the first injection of lidocaine into a vulnerable spot on my lower back; a reaction born of fear and discomfort. After the marrow samples had been extracted, the nurse tried to get a blood sample. We had to wait for twenty minutes, until I was on low tremble and my blood vessels were no longer constricted. I was still under the impression that I had control over my body: what had happened, what would happen.

Cancer made my plans for the future irrelevant. Although my resistance made these tests harder to manage, for me and for my doctors, it seemed like something akin to common sense to push back on this future. If this cancer overtook my body and I died, who would love my children and my husband like I did? Although multiple wardrobe changes are a part of my younger child’s morning ritual, who would understand that real progress was evidenced by the presence of shoes on her feet? Who would recognize that the self-consciousness of the older one has been a permanent feature—obvious by age two? Who would banter with my husband? Appreciate his jokes and make him laugh? What about my parents, my sister and brothers? My closest friends?

One of the most isolating aspects of coming down with cancer is the realization that once you have been relieved of your sense of security, there is no return. Anyone with cancer will tell you: the threat that this disease will recur (or spread in my case), although not always overbearing, is ever present.

At the last PET scan, there was a new tumor in my neck and something diabolical that lit up in my lungs. We’re delaying treatment in part because there is no cure for this brand of lymphoma; chemotherapy will kill the tumors that are present, but experience shows that they always come back. For now, while symptoms are minimal, I can afford to wait. In lymphoma circles I am fantastically lucky to have this slow growing form of the disease. I do, however, regret my membership in this club.

But regret contains within it a glimmer of acceptance. It represents progress over resistance. Now I need to find a new way to operate in the world. I could try to follow my parent’s example. Arriving in the US as children, they worked hard to integrate themselves into critical parts of their new culture, while still keeping whatever facets they could from their old lives. They pretended to understand the unfamiliar ways of their new home until they no longer seemed foreign.

I have lived in my new circumstance for long enough that some elements of it have their own familiarity. I have enough experience with my oncologist to know when I can push on suggestions to real effect and when my efforts to outrun a test will end in defeat. I’m not immune to the anxiety of the oncology waiting room. On my last visit one of the patient’s fainted on his way to get a blood draw. But, as I keep telling myself, importantly, he was revived. I haven’t found a way to mesh any remnant of my old research job back into my life. I miss the camaraderie of work life, the push and pull of a team effort; even the stress of a deadline, along with its resolution.

Since my diagnosis, I have figured out that perhaps more important than the fact that I have cancer, is the fact that I am living with cancer. I am hopeful that with some time and experience in the life I have right now, my new surroundings will grow into something that feels like home, too.


Paulette Kamenecka is a writer interested in our scientific understanding of health and the mysteries that persist about the human body. This essay is related to her manuscript, Hanging from the Cliff: My Adventures with Autoimmunity out on submission to various agents.

3 thoughts on “Becoming a Foreigner

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *