To Poland To Remember

To be Jewish is to remember. We remember that we were slaves in Egypt, a defining moment in our history. Historians in ancient Egypt did not write about the Exodus from their own point of view. Maybe they found the story embarrassing; maybe it was of no importance to them. Our memories, in the Torah and repeated at our festivals, are the only record of the Exodus.

The fact that Jagiellonian University has a center on Jewish Studies and that its faculty members — non-Jews — can speak Yiddish or Hebrew should not surprise us. Jagiellonian is a distinguished university, one of the oldest in the world, and any area of scholarship may be pursued at a great center of learning. More to the point, Poland between the two world wars had the second largest Jewish population in the world, below America’s but above the USSR’s, and contains buildings and documents of a lost population — records that cry out for study. Nevertheless, some people are surprised. “Why should those anti-Semites study Jews? They must feel guilty for what they did,” I was told on many occasions.

Our festivals are also the time when we remember our departed relatives. We would have no festivals if Jews had not remembered. Our holidays are not only matters of Jewish law but also of memory—memories of Jewish customs, local customs, family customs. That is why it is appropriate to say the memorial prayer, Yizkor, at our three pilgrim festivals. When we remember the departed, we also remember life, as our ancestors lived it and as we do ourselves.

In 1990 and again in 1995 1 went on a trip to Poland. The first time, Carol and I went; the second time we were accompanied by our daughter Eve. It was a way for me to say Yizkor. Many people thought we were doing something strange. "Poland is a graveyard," they said. But we do visit graveyards; we consider it a mitzvah. "Poland was a killing field," some people said. It was, and there are those who go there because they feel an obligation to visit Auschwitz. But Poland, and all of Eastern Europe, was something else as well: it was the place where my ancestors not only died but lived. It was the place where Yiddish developed into the language we know today. It was the place where blintzes and borsht and rye bread became part of Jewish cuisine, where Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote, where the Hasidim and their opponents, the Misnagdim, came from. It was also the place where most Zionist movements developed and where many of Israel's founders learned to believe in the idea of a Jewish state.

Carol and I arrived in Cracow on a Friday. We heard the sounds of a Jewish service coming from a private dining room, and we joined the worshippers, a group of United Synagogue Youth, to greet the Sabbath. They invited us to walk with them to shul the next morning, the Remu shul, named after Rabbi Moses Isserles. On the way to shul we walked down Dietla Street, where my father had lived. We found the street before we looked for it. It was a wide street with a green strip in the middle, just as my father had described it. It looked very familiar. It suggested Eastern Parkway, Ocean Parkway, the Grand Concourse— all the wide residential streets that are so typical of Jewish neighborhoods in America. Seeing Kazimierz, the former Jewish section of Cracow, made me realize something. The Jews who lived there were not like Tevye, simple and rural—not like Wanda Landowska, cultured but not recognizably Jewish—but like me. Kazimierz is not a slum; it is not the Lower East Side. The Remu shul felt like a shtibl I had attended with my grandfather in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in the 1940s. There were no songs in the service, and the variety of Hebrew used in the service was quite local: The pronunciation of "amen" was not ah men, as in Israel, nor aw main, as it is in many American synagogues, but oo mine.

Five years later, my daughter Eve went to study at Jagiellonian University as part of an NYU summer program in Jewish studies. I had not thought I would visit Poland again, but I felt that I wanted to show Eve my father's house, even though I knew she could find it as easily as I had. As it turned out, it was Eve who showed me the location of my mother's house. We were driving to a town, a shtetl, Ropshits in Yiddish, Ropczyce in Polish, where my mother came from. Our driver could speak English. In 1990, we had tried to follow the landmarks my mother had given us, but we couldn't find them. In 1995, having questioned my mother and my uncle about details, and with an English-speaking driver, we tried again. It was Eve who spotted the roadside shrines to St. Florian and to the Virgin Mary that my mother had told us to look for. The house had been demolished ten years earlier to make way for a suburban style home, but local people said it had belonged to a family called Niwo. My grandparents had sold it to the Niwo family in 1930.

We spoke to a woman who looked about 100 years old. She didn't recognize my mother's name, and the translator asked me what my grandfather's name had been. I said "Shimshon," and the translator said there was no such Polish name. The old woman shouted out "Szymszowa," meaning "Shimshon's woman," which is what my grandmother had been called in Polish. She said that Eve looked like Szymszowa, which she does.

There is still a place called cmentarz żydowski, meaning Jewish cemetery. A mausoleum was under construction for the Ropshitser Rebbe, Naftali Tsvi. The reconstruction is being financed by Jakob Muller, who is restoring Jewish cemeteries. Other than that, the cemetery was simply a green field with one stone in it. There was a Star of David and an inscription in Polish, saying that the Nazis had destroyed all the stones in the cemetery. I had brought a prayer book with me and said El Mole Rakhamim, a prayer often recited at cemeteries.

Cultures are very complex. Jewish and Polish societies were partly in contact and partly quite separate. Poland has drunks who stagger and collapse on the sidewalk—certainly not a part of my image of Jews. On the other hand, there is a style of speaking, a combination of taking life very seriously and still being humorous, that looked very familiar. It turned out I knew a number of Polish words: kaczka (duck), indyk (turkey). My mother's cucumber salad, which I had thought of as her own invention, was served everywhere. Blintzes (naleśniki) and pirogen (pierogi) are not served in ordinary restaurants but only in milk bars, called bar mleczny. Can this be a survival of contact with a society that kept kosher? I must add, however, that meat may be used to stuff the pierogi in a bar mleczny.

We Jews remember. But if our ancestors came from Eastern Europe, we often don't remember what town they came from, or even what country. We say that the town isn't there any more. True, the Jewish residents of these places are gone. But the towns still are there. Jews lived there for centuries and were shaped by them. Not only that, the towns were shaped by Jews.

Memory is personal. My memorial visit to a Poland I had never seen will strike many as inappropriate. But for my family and me, the trip added depth and understanding to our experience.

This article appeared in And Then, Vol. 9 (1999)

This article appeared in The Queens College Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 4, 2002