This story is published in collaboration with Moment Magazine.
Three months after my pilgrimage to Poland in June of 2018, I received an unexpected call from a sales representative at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin. He explained it was time to order a headstone for my son’s grave. While we had a perfectly professional conversation on the phone, I broke down upon hanging up. It wasn’t as if the call had been a shocking trigger. In that first year of loss I found myself facing crippling waves of grief daily, set off by any of hundreds of ordinary activities. This was just one more.
I sat at my desk and looked out at the beautiful fall Friday. On a day like this, in any of the past twenty years, Zach and I would have been taking advantage of the newly resurfaced public tennis courts around the corner in our neighborhood park. We would have been gearing up to watch our hometown Wisconsin Badgers play football. He’d have been up late working on his DraftKings picks for Sunday. All of that came to an end on Saturday night, April 21, 2018, when Zach, having finished a poker tournament, was struck by a car in the parking lot of a local bowling alley. He was twenty-six.
My wife Diane and I had planned on joining my brother Bob and his wife for the Poland trip months before we lost our beloved son, the younger of our two boys. Over the weeks following the accident, we’d asked friends and counselors if we should still go. None of them said no. So with heavy hearts, in mid-June we flew from Chicago to Toronto to Warsaw. Once there, cemeteries turned out to be key destinations. If you are Jewish and returning to search for your Polish roots, the two most likely destinations are death camps and cemeteries.
We noticed a theme among the graves: Some of the surviving memorial stones, most from the 18th and 19th centuries or the first forty or so years of the 20th, were in the shape of tree stumps; others had a stylized, broken tree as decoration. Our guide, Tomasz Wisniewski, the author of The Lost World of Small-Town Jewish Cemeteries and Jewish Bialystok, among others, explained that these were symbols of lives cut short. Although we hadn’t discussed it in Poland, Diane and I both had been impressed with the artistry and poignancy of these traditional designs. When we discussed the call from Sunset Gardens, we decided we’d try to follow this tradition with our son. I sent the salesman a few of the pictures we’d taken in Poland.
The frequency of these broken tree motifs was a stark reminder of the harsh life of those times—and not just for Jews—before vaccines and antibiotics, in a country with rampant poverty. But in Poland, in the years before and after my grandfather and grandmother fled to America in 1921, life was particularly and calculatingly cruel for the Jews. In addition to natural deaths, many Jews, then ten percent of the region’s population, had been killed in violent pogroms, attacks sparked by a dangerous stew of motivations. The foundation was deep-seated anti-Semitism based on religious animosity and otherness. Another factor was long-term covetous machinations calculated to diminish the Jewish population economically, while producing the opportunity for immediate rewards via pillaging. The end game: to demoralize the Jews into emigration and in doing so to root out what was considered revolutionary thinking, and ultimately “return Poland to the Poles.” This thread of nativism continues, and in its modern incarnation has made Poland one of the least hospitable European destinations for modern immigration. The general attitude was expressed neatly by the pick-up college-age guide who helped us tour old Warsaw. “At last,” he gushed, “Poland has become a country where we all speak the same language, all look the same.”
Many of the worst of these attacks came in the late 19th and early 20th century, when Poland was part of czarist Russia. Despite optimism that Polish autonomy might make anti-Semitism a thing of the past, animosity towards the Jewish population only paused after WWI when Poland regained its independence.
Through the 1920s and 1930s, a steady increase in institutionalized anti-Semitism was demonstrated in stricter Jewish quotas at universities and such ignominies as “ghetto seating” for those who did get in (specified benches for any Jews at a lecture). Over these years a series of escalating harsh impositions on Jewish businesses were enacted into law, including state-sponsored and supported competition and the requirement to banner the business owner’s name, facilitating the regular waves of boycotts of Jewish stores. Even more telling was purely vindictive legislation, such as a ban on kosher butchering, or measures that effectively eliminated the Jewish population from welfare benefits. It’s no wonder that large number of Jews fled Poland. Many resettled in other parts of Europe; some went to Palestine and other destinations; but the largest number, like my grandmother Rachel and grandfather Gdalia, came to the United States. Some two million Eastern European Jews emigrated to the U.S. between 1880 and 1921, at which time new quotas began to stifle the flow.
Our Polish trip had been long in coming. My older brother and I had been talking casually about visiting the birthplaces of our paternal grandfather and grandmother for years. We knew that none of their descendants had ventured back. It was my brother, now a retired rabbi, who finally took the initiative, booking our guide Wisniewski and hotels, and later asking if we’d like to join his itinerary. My wife and I readily agreed. Now, as I packed, feeling increasingly emptied as the suitcase filled, I found myself apologizing out loud to my Zachary for leaving just two months after the last time we’d heard his voice.
The missing stones
If you are a Jewish tourist in Poland, chances are you will not see the actual gravestones of your ancestors—most of these are long gone. The Germans took them to pave roads, sidewalks, and to lay building foundations. Local farmers have been found using them as grinding stones. Depending on location, you may find an explanatory plaque, a few headstones left behind, even some that have been returned by the minority of locals with an interest in commemorating their former neighbors. Sometimes you just stare at an empty, walled field, knowing that the bones lie below.
It’s no wonder that I wept there. On June 18, 2018, I was crying in a sprawling graveyard in Bialystok. My grandmother’s hometown, Bialystok had been a bustling industrial town since the mid-19th century, a textile center where most of the major factories and virtually all of the merchant shops had been owned by Jews. It’s the largest city in northeast Poland, with a modern population of nearly 300,000, just thirty miles from the Russian frontier. In 1939, on the eve of WWII, about 60,000 Jews lived there, constituting close to two-thirds of the population. Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor, internationally acclaimed lawyer, and advisor to U.S. presidents, writes about his childhood in Bialystok in his 1979 memoir, Blood and Hope. He describes it from his family’s position of affluence (his father owned one of the first automobiles in Bialystok)—“a bustling commercial crossroad” full of “political movements associated with reform socialism, Zionism, and revolutionary labor” which “mingled with the teaching of the Torah.”
But in her introduction to the memoir of Puah Rakovsky of Bialystok, My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman, the Yale historian Paula Hyman notes that most of the Jews of Bialystok were impoverished by today’s standards. As was typical across the region, this did not diminish the Jewish obsession with books and education, which for centuries had given the Jewish population the distinction of virtually universal literacy. Children began long days of study at age four to six in kheyders, and moved on to Jewish or secular secondary schools. The region was spotted with prestigious yeshivas for Talmudic training of teenage boys. During my grandmother’s childhood and adolescence and up until WWI, Poland was under the control of czarist Russia, and the secular schools, including the Bialystok high school, were taught in Russian. Jewish youth, as a result, were much more likely to speak Russian, in addition to their native Yiddish, than Polish. Jewish boys also were also instructed in Hebrew (the script used for written Yiddish); girls much less commonly. One telling anecdote: When Jewish children in nearby Ciechanowiec were first exposed to radio in the mid-1920s they were described as fascinated, even though they couldn’t understand a word of the Polish-language broadcast.
By the turn of the 20th century, Jewish bookishness went far beyond the centuries-old focus on holy texts, via the sweeping influence of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. The Jewish population of virtually every city and town in the Pale of Settlement, the broad region that is now western Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania—the region where Jews were required to reside—took pride in their lending libraries, which offered Yiddish translations of the great works of literature from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky plus less elevated popular works such as Zane Grey’s westerns.
The thirty two-acre Bagnowka Jewish cemetery we visited in Bialystok was ancient looking, uneven, shaded by mature trees. Of the original 43,000 gravestones, some 7,000 are left. Tomacz Wisniewski estimates that in 1939 there were up to 270,000 Jewish grave markers in Bialystok’s numerous Jewish cemeteries, with just 14,000 surviving the war.
As I looked over the fields of gravestones and memorials, many of them half-buried or broken, I kept picturing Zach’s plain, currently unmarked gravesite in the new Jewish cemetery back home, a flat grass field with a few recently planted saplings, just a few blocks from the only home he could remember. I closed my eyes and confabulated his presence, his physicality so familiar that I could pull this trick at will. I could feel him standing next to me, his voice still clear in my ears.
What I heard him say was, “Why are you so far away?” and then, “Have you forgotten me?” The pain of his words, his presence in the face of the reality of his absence, was crippling, compounded by my fear that he was fading by the day, that soon I would no longer be able to pull off this conjuring. People told us that it would get better, the grief. But how was this different from forgetting? Throughout Poland we’d crossed paths with Israeli bus tours. School trips to Poland are as routine for them as our tradition of touring Washington DC. The last Holocaust survivors are dying and the leaders of Israel, my age peers, also fear the forgetting.
A few months after we returned from Poland, I took on the unwelcome task of completing Zach’s last tax return. He’d recently started working full time at a local insurance company while studying for his third, challenging actuary test, reading up on topics such as “Put-Call Parity,” “The Binomial Model of Replicating Portfolios,” and “Modeling Stock Prices with the Lognormal Distribution.” He’d always liked math and carried a school district ID he’d received to authorize his volunteer tutoring at the local high school. Our accountant was surprised to find a 1099 from DraftKings among his income statements. He said it was the first one he’d ever seen.
Zach took his gaming pretty seriously. Although his self-criticism when playing tennis or computer games was creative, loud, and often profane, he never had an unkind word for anyone else. At the extremes, he would recognize the absurd humor in these self-deprecations. In one high school tennis match he so thoroughly debased himself after a long rally his opponent felt the need to call out, “You do realize you won that point?” Upon which both players along with audience broke into laughter. He didn’t hold grudges either, despite the shining examples his father set before him.
As we were straightening up the basement around that time, my wife pointed me to the dusty Nintendo Game Cube sitting in the corner with its maze of cords. “Should we see if one his friends wants it?” she asked. I choked up and could only shake my head. I was thinking of the day it had appeared. Zach had been around fourteen, his older brother just off to college. Ever since I spied my first Nintendo game console, I had been leery of what I assessed was addictive allure. We had forbidden the purchase of any of the subsequent game systems, imagining naively that our boys would instead spend the time exploring the outdoor world or reading. Zach had saved up his birthday gifts and spare change and walked a couple miles to the game store in the mall and bought the used Game Cube.
“You’re going to make me take it back, aren’t you?” he asked, when I first noticed it. I told him no, that it obviously meant a lot for him to arrange the purchase and he was old enough to make the decision on his own. He soon began to improve his already considerable gaming skills, focusing on Mario Kart, in which Mario raced through various dream-like courses on a little go-cart. For practicing these races Nintendo had created a clever system in which a soft image of the gamer’s previous best cart ride could be seen and chased. Gamers called these “ghosts.” In the summer of 2017, Zach announced he wanted to drive the 325 miles to Grand Rapids, Michigan to compete in a one-day Mario Kart tournament. “I think I can win,” he said. “Unless a ringer shows up. Winner gets $1,200.” Mario Karters like to post their best times on a website and Zach’s times were clearly better than the past participants. His plan was to leave at four in the morning, drive up for the tournament and then drive back late that same night. By the time we’d worked out the details, he was taking my car instead of grandma’s inherited 1997 beater and staying overnight at a hotel. He won the tournament handily, but only brought back a partial purse. Zach told us that the guy who runs the tournament—and who had, it turns out, won the previous events—didn’t have the cash, “But he’d send me money monthly.”
I warned him that he might never see that money, but the checks steadily arrived. So did Vincent, the tournament director, on the day of Zach’s funeral. He was standing in front of the synagogue when my extended family arrived. My wife noticed him immediately as “someone who looked like a friend” and went over to introduce herself. He had driven the five hours—“because I had to,” he said. Even though he’d only known Zach for a day. The summer after the funeral he held the tournament again, and renamed it “The Zach Tabak Memorial Mario Kart Tournament.”
All of which flashed before me when Diane suggested we give away the Game Cube. I didn’t know how to explain in that instant this whole story and how inside the Cube, on the hard drive, along with each of the Mario Kart courses, Zach’s ghost was standing by, ready to race.
The Jews of Bialystok
There are no modern graves in the Jewish section of that Bialystok graveyard. For one thing there is scarcely a resident Jew left within a hundred miles. We were told that out of 300,000 people there were five known Jews. A 2018 survey by University of Warsaw sociologists revealed that 85% of contemporary Poles have never met a Jew in person. The few loose rocks perched on top of gravestones as tributes had been left by people like us: American tourists, Israelis, descendants of immigrants who had gotten away in time. As I wandered deeper into the cemetery, Wisniewski pointed out a ten-foot black marble tower, a memorial to the victims of the 1906 pogrom, an orchestrated multi-day attack on Jewish businesses and persons. The murdered were buried in this cemetery in a mass grave. Along with a Hebrew poem titled “Pillar of Sorrow,” the monument lists the names of the official count of eighty-eight victims, although some accounts put the toll at closer to two hundred. Regular troops of the czarist army took part, with undisciplined Cossacks leading the way, backed by imported thugs, with the local police either passive or joining in. Many of the victims were shot, but much of the damage was done in more primitive fashion: Homes were invaded and looted, the inhabitants, including small children, beaten with clubs and tire irons or attacked with sabers. While repressed in contemporaneous accounts, rape was rampant.
This 1906 attack was hardly a singular event for the region’s Jews. Even for Bialystok: Twenty-five Jews were killed in a military-led pogrom in July, 1905, and twenty-two were killed by military fire in October, 1905. It is hard, in modern America, to come to any terms with this kind of institutional violence from a standing army directed at a pacific and industrious minority. Perhaps the closest parallel is our country’s awful legacy of brutality against Native Americans. And like Native Americans, Jews were regularly expelled from their homes and forced to settle in proscribed areas. And not just in Poland and Russia (Jews were expelled from Moscow in 1891): Over the centuries every European country had, at one time or another, expelled its Jews. And while the Holocaust overshadows all the atrocities preceding it, some 100,000 Jews were killed or wounded during the Russian Civil War pogroms of 1919-1920. In addition to sparking migration, the pogroms formed the backdrop for “the politicization of the Jewish masses together with the rise of the Zionist movement,” as put by Jonanthan Dekel-Chen in his 2011 book, Anti-Jewish Violence, Rethinking the Pogroms in East European History. My grandmother, Rachel, was born in Bialystok in 1887 and would have been nineteen at the time of the 1906 pogrom. No family diaries, memoirs, or oral traditions exist to tell us what horrors she witnessed or personally experienced during those days; whether she successfully hid from the marauding, raping troops, or whether she was one of the surviving victims. Rachel died at age fifty (“heart,” said the cursory coroner’s conclusion) in 1937, sixteen years after arriving in America, when my father was just fourteen. This eyewitness account of the pogrom by David Sohn provides a sense of what she might have suffered. It’s excerpted from the Bialystok Yizkor book (one of hundreds of memorial books published by Jewish survivors and former residents of cities and towns across eastern Europe in the years after WWII):
Hundreds of hooligans armed with crowbars, knives and axes escorted by police and soldiers, fanned out into the centre of the city smashing doors and windows of houses and stores, looting and pillaging everything in sight. The unarmed Jewish population, terrified by these murderous acts, ran for cover in airless cellars and attics, where they hid for the entire three days, hungry and prostrate, anticipating death at any moment. The sound of gunfire echoed throughout the city. Armed soldiers and police went shooting in the streets and houses while bandits broke into and robbed the stores. On Thursday and Friday nights, the shooting increased…Either they shot people on the spot or forced a whole group out into the street and killed them there. Worst of all was when these vicious criminals gouged people’s eyes out with their nails or stuffed their cut-open abdomens with feathers. Some of the victims included small children whose heads and other organs were removed. A particularly grim scene unfolded at the Bialystok railroad station where hooligans helped by the railroad personnel killed many Jewish passengers arriving on the train. The stationmaster laughed at this tragic scene.
Two months later, this stationmaster was assassinated, part of a calibrated retribution by Jewish activists. And while there was little hope for Jews caught in the open by mobs or unlucky enough to step off the wrong train, it was not true that the Jewish citizens of Bialystok and other cities were passive. It was a common practice, when pogroms threatened, for Jewish leaders to attempt to intercede, often via bribes to city officials, including the police, and they tried to do so in Bialystok in 1906. Unfortunately, the local officials at the time were either not accommodating or powerless against the arrayed forces. Post-Soviet scholarship has uncovered definitive evidence that this pogrom and others were orchestrated by Czarist generals, no doubt convinced that Jewish intellectualism and Bolshevism were interchangeable. Jewish defense leagues had been organized in many towns, typically by the labor unions, and were capable of standing off the ordinary mob of ruffians and peasants behind a typical pogrom. But to deflect the full power of the well armed and organized czarist army was too much to ask of any rough militia, although the Bialystok neighborhoods with the strongest defenses (limited as they were to pistols and homemade bombs) were, with a fight, able to deter the troops and mobs, saving many from destruction. Perhaps my grandmother had been lucky enough to be a resident of such a neighborhood.
Later, from home, I read through the names inscribed on the Pillar of Sorrow. Among the victims were Israel Kustin, Moses Liberman, and Josef Burl, all aged three, and Jonah Kon and Avron Grynhojz, aged twenty-six. As I read this long list, I once again cried, thinking of them and their surviving families. Of my grandmother and her family under siege. Of my people. Of senseless loss.
April 21 had been a busy and happy day for Zach. I’d been at my desk around noon when he bounded past in the hall on his way to the bathroom, having completed one of his favorite activities: sleeping in on Saturday morning. I later found out he was racing to make the entry to one of the larger stakes poker tournaments of the year at the local bowling alley—$60 buy-in. It was the last time I’d see him alive.
After bombing out of the tournament, he’d switched activities by driving over to another nearby bowling alley to compete in their monthly pinball tournament. One of the pinball club members took a group shot that night, the last photo we have of him. He’s wearing one of the “Poker Room” sweatshirts he’d won when the local Native American casino still ran games. We have a dresser drawer stuffed with them. Afterwards, Zach headed back to the first alley to put in some cash game action and was outside, getting directions to an after-hours game at a private home when he was struck. The paramedics arrived within minutes but never got a pulse.
From the main synagogue at the center of Bialystok to the cemetery would have been a long four-mile funeral procession in horse-drawn carts. That trip is no longer possible. For one, there are no synagogues left in Bialystok, even with its population of 300,000. The Jewish cemetery has been closed to any new prospects, should there have been any, since soon after the Nazis came to town in 1941, within days of their surprise invasion of their short-term ally, Stalinist Russia.
We made the ride from downtown Bialystok in ten minutes, stuffed into Tomasz Wisniewksi’s Korean mini-wagon. Wisniewski is a professional historian, author, and filmmaker who specializes in the Jewish history of Poland, particularly in his hometown Bialystok and the surrounding towns of eastern Poland. He doesn’t do a lot of tours like this, but he took us on, perhaps because the request came from my brother the rabbi. Perhaps he was also intrigued by our specific interest in our grandfather’s city of origin, Ciechanowiec, about fifty miles southwest of Bialystok and about sixty miles west of the current Russian border. Or perhaps he was taken that my grandmother once lived and walked along the Bialystok avenues he knows best, like Suraska Street, where the Great Synagogue of Bialystok stood until the Germans burned it down on June 27, 1941 after packing it as full of as many Jews as possible (estimated at two to three thousand).
The Bialystok that my grandmother, Rachel Pogorelski, would have remembered from her childhood in the late 19th century was a city in transition, yet one which would have looked more familiar to a time traveler from two hundred years prior than one from thirty years in her future. Horse-drawn carts plied the streets; the bustling women on the sidewalks wore long dresses and traditional headscarves, similar in modesty but distinct enough in style to distinguish Christian from Jew. The businessmen of both religions hurried along in dark suits and brimmed hats. The traditionalist black-hatted, black-coated Hasidic Jews, a distinct minority of the Jewish population, would fit seamlessly into today’s Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
The Jews not only had their own houses of worships and schools, but their own bakeries and butchers, their own civic organizations and charitable aid societies, their own elected council of governors, even a separate court system. While assimilation of minorities, including the Jews, was a notion at times championed by both the Polish and Russian governments and by a segment of the Jewish population, it was not a popular concept with the Polish Christian majority who felt a God-given superiority over the Jews. They’d been taught by the Catholic Church that Jews were apostates who were responsible for the death of Jesus. The church, well into the 20th century, was also the occasional source of charges of blood libel, the bizarre but incendiary accusation that Jews would routinely murder a Christian child in the production of their Passover matzo. Nor was the prospect of assimilation popular with mainstream Jewish leadership, particularly the rabbinate, which quite correctly recognized the danger to its influence and to the integrity of their community that would likely come with full integration into society, as we’ve witnessed in the United States.
The 1900 edition of The Jewish Encyclopedia, written when the city’s oral history still existed, has it that the Jews came to Bialystok in 1749 by invitation from the local royal, Count Branicki, who built houses and stores for them as well as a wooden synagogue. Rachel would have been thirteen years old at the time of the encyclopedia’s publication, perhaps a student at the city’s large Jewish school, the Talmud Torah, which served some 500 children. Prior to WWI, her family was financially secure, as her father had a position of responsibility in the textile industry. In addition to merchants and artisans (the mainstay occupations of Jews in Poland), an emerging class of successful and increasingly wealthy Jews owned the large mills and breweries and controlled the regional tobacco trade. My grandfather’s family, who lived in a smaller city in eastern Poland, were likely employed in the tobacco industry at some point, since “Tabak” or its variants is the word for tobacco in Yiddish, Russian, and other European tongues, and occupations were a main source of surnames when they became required in the 1800s.
On Monday, June 18, our overnight in Bialystok happened to coincide with the concluding concert of the Eleventh Annual Jewish Cultural Festival of Bialystok. The festival has been run since its inception by Lucy Lisowska, the most prominent member of Bialystok’s tiny Jewish population. The performer was Gerard Edery, a Moroccan-born New Yorker who was living in Warsaw. He is a self-described master of classical guitar and a former operetta singer who specializes in over-the-top performances of Sephardic Jewish music. The standing-room-only crowd, some two hundred people gathered in the grand ballroom of the Branicki Palace, absolutely loved him. This fascination with, and romanticization of, lost Jewish culture, which has become a cottage industry in Krakow, struck me as uncomfortably ironic, considering the historic efforts of Polish institutions to thwart Jewish culture. What to make of the enthusiastic applause for sacred Hebrew chants, bereft of understanding or context?
While we have no written or oral history of my grandmother’s childhood and early adulthood in Bialystok, there is, by a wonderful chance—considering the small population and the absolute rarity of fin de siècle memoirs by women—a contemporaneous autobiography. This is not to say that My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman, by Puah Rakovsky, represents a typical experience for a female Bialystoker at the turn of the 20th century. Rakovsky was born into a financially secure family with a long and proud lineage of rabbis (“thirty-six generations”) and was from an early age a child prodigy, a talent that was sometimes reluctantly supported by her family in a time where many believed the Talmudic proclamation that educating a girl was tantamount to encouraging licentiousness.
All of which makes Rakovsky’s account of her early life even more enlightening, because the account of her teenage and early twenties is much less focused on intellectual development than it is on the roughshod parental machinations and subsequent enforcement of arranged marriages for her and her peers. Intra-family alliances were particularly popular, and, at age fifteen, Rakovsky was promised to an uncle who was just two years older. When this fell through she was matched with a more distant relative, a great-grandson of a prominent rabbi. Despite her ardent opposition, which descended into a kind of depressive inertia, Rakovsky was married at seventeen to the rabbi’s descendent and before her teenage years were over had two children. In addition to a clear portrait of a lack of women’s control over life choices, one element that her memoir illuminates is the stark bifurcation of Jewish and Christian life in Poland. Despite being a gregarious and prominent member of society, Rakovsky describes her first personal relationship with a non-Jew occurring at age fifty-eight, when she visited her younger brother in Soviet Moscow and met his Christian-born wife.
What might have been
On Tuesday morning we left early for my grandfather’s hometown, Ciechanowiec. We have no record of the family politics that brought my grandmother Rachel in Bialystok into a union with my grandfather, whose family members were prominent small business owners in this village some fifty miles away. It’s likely there was some commercial association. One of the family enterprises in Ciechanowiec is said to be button making, which is cited as one of the town’s specialties.
Ciechanowiec was very much a typical shtetl (Yiddish for small town) where Jews had been at its commercial hub for centuries. Yet by the turn of the 20th century the Jewish merchant and artisan class were not leading lives of economic comfort. In her memoir, Sentenced to Life, A Survivor’s Memoir, Cecilie Klein observed that in a shtetl, “poor meant eating meat once a week, middle class three times, and rich every day.” Families were large, infant mortality was high, childbirth was dangerous. Typical Jewish homes were small and drafty, heated by a central wood-burning cast-iron stove, which also served for cooking. Floors were more often than not packed dirt. A census taken near the turn of the century put average occupancy at five per room.
In early 2016 I immersed myself for two months in the Price Library of Judaica at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I was doing background for a novel I wanted to set in pre-War Poland. Although the specific citation has escaped me, I was much taken by the story I read of an American social worker who visited relatives in Poland in the 1930s. Having worked among the poorest of Americans in Appalachia, she was shocked to find her family living in conditions that were equal or worse in terms of material comfort, yet not in terms of culture. She described the Appalachians as mired in ignorance and superstition but was actually intimidated by the level of discourse at her relatives’ dinner table in Poland. Everyone read multiple newspapers and was current on world events, and not only had a deep understanding of the sacred texts, but a familiarity with modern literature as well.
Meanwhile, as modest an existence as these small-town Jews led, theirs was richer than the farming population which surrounded them. Polish peasants, who constituted 70% of the population of Poland through the 1920s, were either tenant farmers or owners of farms too small to produce much more than sustenance crops. Not only was poverty rampant, but the peasants did not have the benefit of the social institutions that Jews built wherever they lived. An elderly Polish woman in Marian Marzynksi’s 1996 documentary Shtetl is interviewed in Bransk, the next village down the road from Ciechanowiec. She’s asked what is different without the Jews. Her response is that the Jews were constantly raising money for the poor, whereas, “In our community, if someone is poor, he gets poorer and nobody will help him.” Polish peasants often pulled their children out of schools, when schools were even available, as soon as they could work the fields. Official figures from 1921 put rural illiteracy at 40%.
In a privately published family memoir, a nephew of my grandfather’s, David Tabak, gives us the only written record of my ancestors’ life in Ciechanowiec. From this we know my great-grandfather, Shlomo Shimon Tabak, was something of a macher (a big shot) in town. He had ten children with his first wife, who died giving birth to the last at age twenty-nine. Shlomo Shimon remarried and had four children with a second wife. (It’s unclear how many of these children survived infancy, but almost certainly not all, since the infant mortality rate—death before age one—in Eastern Europe at the time was somewhere in the 20-25% range.)
Ciechanowiec was virtually destroyed in WWI and many Jews had to flee to nearby towns. The once prosperous Shlomo Shimon Tabak died during the war, destitute. The period after WWI was in many ways as difficult as the war years. In the year following the war, only 15% of Poland’s industrial workers were employed. The Polish-Russian war of 1919-20 produced more destruction and economic chaos, even though Poland surprised the world with its victory and established itself as an independent country for the first time in more than a hundred years. The Bolshevik army occupied Ciechanowiec for a short time in 1920. When Polish nationals retook the city, Jews were broadly accused of collaboration and a pogrom ensued, with Jewish shops pillaged along with the standard accompaniment of beatings and rapes.
As tough as the early decades of the 20th century were for Polish Jews, no one predicted that their world was soon to be violently annihilated. Among the Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust listed in the Memorial Book for Ciechanowiec, Poland are nine Tabaks. They would have likely died when the Ciechanowiec ghetto was liquidated on November 2, 1942 or soon thereafter in nearby Treblinka. When my brother and I and Diane and sister-in-law Ruth pulled into town on June 19th we were almost assuredly the first Tabaks to step foot there in seventy-six years, and certainly the only Jews in town.
As we parked near the center of the city it was hard for me to match the scene of sunny, tree-lined streets and modern cars with my mental image of Ciechanowiec. As we crossed the street to the city offices I tried to imagine my grandfather, half my age, in long pants and white shirt with a tailored sports coat (Jewish tailoring being a major occupation throughout Poland), hatless—a modern man, walking these sidewalks alongside black-coated white-bearded elders; Jewish women in shin-length skirts, wearing a mix of fancy hats and modest headscarves; girls in long dresses and boys sporting their short-brimmed hats. I’d prepared this image in my mind, but couldn’t place it here.
We parked just a block away from the former market square, now only partially ringed by modern businesses. The former importance of these twice-weekly markets could be surmised by the expanse: At least two football fields could be laid inside its borders, now circled by paved roads, the center spliced into parking spaces and tree-lined islands. Prior to WWII, these markets would be packed twice a week, with hundreds of Jewish merchants working their storefronts and table displays and peasant carts full of farm produce, caged geese, and chickens. The cacophony of bargaining, honking geese, the smells of grilling sausages and fresh baked bread, and the drifting odors from the nearby acre of parked horses would have been overwhelming. It’s hard to imagine while gazing across the broad and quiet square.
Thanks to our guide’s preparatory work our first stop was the mayor’s office in a modern building with a red-tiled roof: Urzad Miejski—City Hall. We were greeted in English by the mayor himself—Burmistrz Miroslaw Reczko, who had studied in the U.S. at the University of Detroit and was pursuing a PhD in history from the University of Bialystok. Mayor Reczko had prepared a spot for us around a table in his office, with a bowl of fresh, locally grown cherries as a centerpiece. He’s a six-foot-tall, middle-aged man, with bushy brows and reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. He had a serious mien, which matches his original career path into the priesthood.
Mayor Reczko had graciously taken the afternoon off to show us his town’s Jewish history. It was great fortune and quite unusual in small-town Poland to find a mayor not only conversant in English, but a historian with a particular interest in the Jewish history of his town. Small town modern Poland has not proven to be entirely hospitable to such pursuits. In nearby Bransk a Catholic city official, Zbyszek Romaniuk, found his similar interest leading to accusations of his own ancestry and a series of threats, including a Star of David carved into his door.
Small town and rural Poland is where the right-wing and nativist Law and Justice Party—and its current Polish President, Andrzej Duda—has its deepest support, not unlike the urban/rural political divisions in the U.S. Also, much like the U.S., small town and rural Poland has seen much less of the economic boom of the past fifteen years that has centered in the big cities and rewarded the educated. The mayor told us that the official population of Ciechanowiec was just under 5,000, about half of what it was pre-WWII. It is likely that the respondents of similar cities make up much of the 25% of the today’s Polish population that believes modern Jews should be held responsible for the death of Jesus, and the 53% who concur that Jews conspire to control the world’s economy.
Neither was small-town Poland, where the majority of Jews in Poland once lived, a sanctuary for them during the Holocaust. In May 2018 the Jewish Telegraph Agency previewed a book by the historians Barbara Engelking (Polish Center for Holocaust Research) and Jan Grabowski (University of Ottawa), which details how dangerous small Polish towns (“death traps”) were for Jews. Places where “everyone knows everyone” were nowhere to hide or attempt to get by on false papers. Ciechanowiec also holds the sad distinction of being one of the many locales in which a handful of Holocaust survivors returned to their hometowns only to be attacked and murdered by their former neighbors, most often in fear that they would reclaim their houses and businesses.
From City Hall we walked a short distance to Ciechanowiec’s former synagogue. It’s a tall two stories, the bottom half weathered red brick showing some remains of white plaster, its upper level bricks still mostly covered in plaster. Only its arched first and second floor windows, unmatched elsewhere in town other than the towering Catholic church, hint at its religious backdrop. I was moved as we circled the building, letting my hand graze the bricks, imagining the hundreds of times my grandfather and his family had walked with Sabbath-best-dressed throngs through the city on Friday nights to come to the packed services. The Mayor stopped and pointed at the bricks at the bottom of the foundation. “We believe these date back to the 1600s,” he said.
Under the Mayor’s leadership the synagogue has been refurbished, including the installation of a new red-tile roof, and repurposed as the city’s art center. A plaque near the entrance doesn’t speak to the building’s religious origins, but instead summarizes in Polish and English the Jewish presence in town since the 16th century: “From the 18th C. until WWII they comprised a majority of the town’s citizens.” And in a carefully worded statement that hedges the post-war tendency of Poles to absolve themselves from all Holocaust responsibility, the plaque ends, “In memory of the Jewish citizens of this land killed in the Holocaust by those who served the German Nazism.” I looked down at the worn steps leading into the building and found myself saddened but honored to be able to replicate those countless footsteps, taken over hundreds of years.
The main floor, where the sanctuary once stood, is an open meeting hall. Upstairs is a wood-floored dance studio and a music room, where old and dented brass instruments dating back to WWII and earlier are shelved and still played. A previous Jewish tourist, touched by the reconstruction, had sent the mayor a family heirloom, a young girl’s Hebrew report card from a nearby Jewish school, along with her picture. It is framed and hangs in the hallway of the second floor.
My wife has carefully preserved similar mementos of our sons in a series of large scrapbooks. These include snapshots of little ten-year old Zach with a tennis trophy next to other finalists, in the same age bracket but, as was almost always the case, a head taller. Programs from the all-city middle school band. Ticket stubs from the Itzhak Perlman and Bob Dylan concerts we attended when he was fourteen. Although, like legions of his fellow nerdy contemporaries, his social skills were nil, we assured ourselves there was time aplenty for that. We’d allowed ourselves to imagine the pleasure of a future girlfriend or wife—even children, thumbing through the scrapbooks over Zach’s embarrassed protestations. Who will ever care now?
After piling into the city’s van, the mayor drove us across town, pointing out the boundaries of the WWII ghetto, where some 4,000 Jews were confined. Then on to the site of the Jewish cemetery, on uneven, rolling terrain. It was for decades following WWII bare of headstones. But under the Mayor’s leadership, matzevas (gravestones) removed by the Nazis and uncovered during construction and renovation work have been returned. We saw some seventy in various condition, many with legible Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish inscriptions. I was deeply moved that this Christian man had taken such a lead even though the dredging up of Jewish memories might not be popular among many of his constituents. It was probably a factor in his losing bid for reelection a few months after our visit. I hope my thanks conveyed the depth of my gratitude. My great-grandfather, along with many other ancestors, had likely been buried here.
In the years after WWI, unable to effectively collect taxes even from those who had the resources to pay, the Polish government printed money, devaluating the currency and sparking hyperinflation. In 1919 there were one billion Polish marks in circulation, two years later there were 229 billion. By December 1923, 125 trillion marks were circulating. Charity from relatives and Jewish relief organizations in America became fundamental to the survival of millions of Polish Jews. A U.S. dollar bought twelve Polish marks in 1919; by September 1921 it took 6,500 marks to buy a dollar. This economic crisis, combined with anti-Jewish violence, pushed more Polish Jews to emigrate. My grandfather and grandmother left Bialystok and boarded the S.S. Mongolia in Antwerp in January 1921, and sailed to New York.
When my father retired in 1988 I badgered him to write down some of his reminiscences, and he finally started putting some memories on paper. The one that captured his youngest years began with his trip to boot camp after joining the army at age eighteen, in 1941. For him, his life began the day he left his Yiddish-speaking house and began living as a full-fledged American. My grandfather, who struggled to survive in America via odd jobs, emigrated for a better life, especially for his descendants. He would have been astounded at how fully his grandchildren had fulfilled these hopes. I’d like to think he’d have been equally proud that two of us felt the need to return to see where he and his forebears had lived in a complex, challenging, and now vanished Yiddish culture.
The past is always a world beyond our reach, but for Jews visiting Poland, it is more than visiting a lost world; it’s an exercise of suffering in the presence of a past erased. Like the loss of a son, it also inevitably leads to contemplation of what might have been. What would Poland have become with the “People of the Book” as the 20th century evolved into the age of the knowledge worker? Would Poland have become a center of technological innovation, the way Israel has? Or would Poland’s Jews have remained repressed and taken the first chance to emigrate, à la Russia’s Jews? (There are now more Russian Jews in Israel than in Russia.)
On a similar tangent, I contemplate what our lives would have been with my son present through my final years, instead of those years having the defining characteristic of the aching absence of his presence.
In June of 2019 our extended family unveiled Zach’s gravestone, his matzeva. It has a brown and green stylized tree arching across the stone, broken where the trunk expands into branches. It’s exactly what we envisioned, even as it’s the last thing anyone with a child would care to see. As we walked the graveyards of our ancestors in Poland we didn’t realize that here was something we could take back with us.
Still, I can’t say my feelings about our trip that coalesced as we visited the shell of my grandfather’s synagogue, the graveyards missing our family’s names, were wrong. Our trip to Poland, it turned out, was much the same as our trip home: a return to an empty house full of reminders of bottomless loss.