Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Traces of Those Who Have Gone Before

Today was a day of discovery on many levels. We had originally planned to explore Kazimierz Dolny and visit Madjanek and Lublin, but the archives had promised documents today and Michalina was available to assist me in the morning. We decided to drive to Radom and see what they had found.

They provided me with a number of identity papers, some with photos, but the most exciting find was the file from 1823 when Jews took last names. Clearly written in one column was the patronymic. In the next was the name they assumed. Among them was Berek Herszkowicz (1774-1839), my great-great-great grandfather who assumed the name Rubinstazjn. I had already conjectured that was his name based on a number of sources. I had found marriage records of his daughters that named their parents as Berek and Chaia Rubinsztajn. I then found a patronymic record from 1811, the birth and death of a son to Berek Herszkowicz and Chaia Herszkowicz. As they were the only Berek and Chaia I assumed they must be the same people as the later Berek and Chaia Rubinsztajn. What made me fairly sure of this was the fact that Berek died in 1839 and his first grandson was named Herszek Berek in 1942. The typical naming pattern for an Ashkenazic Jew is after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent. If my theory was correct this name captured both the grandfather and great-grandfather’s names. Still it was only well-founded conjecture. The discovery of this file confirmed it without a doubt.

As the file was not lengthy I asked if they could copy the entire file so I could share it on the Shtetlink website with other researchers. I also asked for a complete copy of a file that listed contributors to the synagogue from 1892. There I found my great-grandfather’s name. Other finds included a listing of Jews who owned property which identified a family name and family members who lived in a particular home. I was also provided with a number of Russian documents that I will review on my return visit to the archives. I need to review my Russian in order to quickly recognize information with family names.

It was difficult to pull myself away from the wealth of information that was available, but we needed to head out for the next portion of our day in Lublin and Madjanek. First we stopped at a restaurant in route where we had a meal of pierogies. The waitress spoke no English so we attempted the phrase from our phrasebook requesting vegetarian food which narrowed the selection sufficiently. Pointing at what we would like seems to get us through the basic language limitations when it comes to food. It doesn’t allow for the questions I usually ask, but it suffices.

We arrived in Lublin and proceeded on to Madjanek which was a few minutes outside of Lublin. Madjanek has the unique distinction of being the only concentration camp located just outside of a city. It also is the only intact concentration camp as the Germans didn’t have time to destroy the evidence of their deeds before the Russians arrived to liberate the camp. Thus it still has its crematorium and the rooms in which they gassed the prisoners. It is an enormous complex with rows and rows of barracks. We were most struck by a room which had wire cribs filled with shoes of the victims of the Nazis, mens’ shoes, womens’ shoes, children’s shoes in endless piles filled the room. The room reeked of leather causing one to recoil upon entering it. It reminded me of the shoe memorial along the Danube in Budapest. Shoes carry such a sense of the person who wore them, conforming to the unique form of their feet. It was as if the spirits of all of those people were in that room. We could easily see Lublin from the camp and while the city no doubt has expanded, the inmates could also have seen the lights of the city in the distance, a reminder of what was once a normal life. Walking in the space in which these acts of genocide were committed made them very real and yet the enormity of what occurred is still difficult to grasp.

When we left Madjanek we stopped in Lublin where we visited the old town. Lublin had many unusual historic buildings with paintings and designs on them. The old city gates frame the colorful buildings and cafes and galleries fill the streets.

We then returned to Kazimierz Dolny where we stopped at the old Jewish cemetery and memorial just past our hotel. Many of the tombstones were damaged by the Nazis, but the memorial used the fragments and constructed a mosaic wall out of them. In the wall is a large crack through which one could walk. It signifies the break in the Jewish community that once occupied Kazimierz Dolny. Walking through the crack was a bit like walking into a different world. From sunshine, one walked into dark forest. It felt like a sacred and magical place. A number of intact tombstones still stood, all with detailed and unusual designs. Tzedakah (charity) boxes with hands dropping coins in, candles broken to signify the death and books, many books were sculpted on the tombstones. Several of those on the wall still had the residue of painted colors. I have never experienced a memorial that was so moving.

And so ends our day. Tomorrow we explore Kazimierz Dolny and then head for Sienno, the town where my great-great grandparents lived, in route to several days in Krakow.

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