This story followed me through life. From the playground of my childhood, in the little Polish town, to far away places in my travels and into my expat life, it demanded to be told. I finally found the right words to attempt to connect moments and experiences, slowly threading the memory beads onto a string of text. My yearning for the world that is lost and the people that went with it, for realities so intimately linked with my home, fuelled my writing.
This collection of moments is dedicated to Leonard Cohen in time of his death.
For where his parents came from, he could have been my neighbour and his kids, my childhood friends.
“Macewa”. What is it? I never heard that word before.
I let it roll around my tongue as I stared at the old, naked skeleton, displayed in the museum’s glass case. I was fourteen and standing in the tiniest of tiny museums, in my small home town, in central Poland, Northern Mazovia. Rather foolishly, I prided myself at that young age on my extensive knowledge of Polish… but this word was an unknown. I kept repeating it, feeling how it sat on my lips, as I looked at tiny, dainty brown bones, arranged together to form an outline of a body, displayed in a glass-box.
Weird, unusual, unknown.
In English, that word is Matzevah. It means “pillar” or a “sacred pillar” in Hebrew. It is a dedication or an acknowledgement of the covenant between man and God. Also a headstone or tombstone marking a grave on a Jewish cemetery.
I can pinpoint my sudden premonition of another world to that very moment. This flash of another language, entering my very Polish, domesticated world, hinted at parallel reality, peaking through ajar doors.
This was the Jewish history of my town; its Jewish past – and the glaring, unknown and unknowing emptiness it left in the present.
Quoting after the Virtual Shtetl website, at the beginning of 19th century, my hometown of Ciechanów was the third largest Jewish centre in the region of Northern Mazovia. In total the town had nearly 1,400 residents, and out of that total, almost 1,200 people were of Jewish faith – constituting approximately 86 percent the entire population. The years 1865-1918 witnessed a further influx of Jewish migrants who were allowed to settle there without any restrictions. In 1893, 63.5 percent of the population was Jewish; in 1910 nearly 60 percent. The decrease of the Jewish share was mainly due to the Polish migration from the countryside.
In the second half of the 19th century, my hometown became an important centre of Hasidism, this most Eastern European of all Jewish movements. Between 1819 and 1875 the court became the seat of the rabbi and Hasidic leader Abraham Landau, known as Ciechanower. Then, the first group of Zionists was founded in the early twentieth century. Its founder was Samuel Jakub Kohen.
I remember those blissful moments, sinking in a golden fog of childhood memories – I see a five-year-old me, running around the playground next to my grandma’s house. A slide, which was a realisation of every kid’s dream; huge and shiny, stood near the entrance to the playground. Kids used to slide down and then, turn around and run all the way back to the top to slide again. Back and forth, sliding down, and running back up with laughter, mirth, boundless energy.
It was only about 20 years later that I realised, what had previously adorned the top of this unnaturally looking, flat hill. As a child I did not question it, even though my adult eyes see that it looks a bit strange, very broad and wide.
Before World War 2, the main synagogue of the town stood in the place of my childhood playground. The street where my grandma’s block was later built was one of the main side streets of the Jewish market. Nothing remains of that synagogue. Not even a photo or a mention, not even a thought.
Through the golden haze of childhood memories, I see the shadows of ghostly Jewish people, moving back and forth between the ruined walls of their prayer house. Blissfully unaware of the shadow world passing around me, in the prayer and mourning, the five-year-old me runs up and slides down with laughter.
Ciechanów’s Jews worked in trade and crafts. In 19th and beginning of 20th century, the town was booming with trade, manufacturing and the cultural life. There were theatres, publishing houses, synagogues, multiple shops, ritual butchers, private Jewish religious schools, old-school cheders, a small yeshiva. Countless political organisations and trade associations, like the Jewish Merchants Association of Ciechanów, brought life into the town. There was also death, sweetened by a lasting memory. Silent cemeteries slept under the skies, dotted with countless Matzevahs hidden in the grass – little stony promises of an eternal life that would always exist in the bowels of this land.
Nothing of this life is left.
Only this one, small and so terribly lonely skeleton in front of the teenage me, displayed in a glass cage under yellow, fluorescent lights, in the tiniest museum in the whole world.
I frequently sensed the phantom-like nature of my birthplace – the phantom feeling was all-encompassing. It was as if the whole entity within my hometown ceased to exist, yet the current citizens still felt the loss. Like a phantom limb syndrome; my town missed half of its identity in a painful way.
This is probably the truest way and the only way to describe it. I did not think it up. This was bigger than my imagination, and very real. I could sense it around me. The feeling of loss was very acute.
I remember walking down one of the central streets of my town and having this vivid image of an underground town, beaming with life, energy, dynamic, vivaciousness. I could see the underground passages, hanging like bridges of Moria, burrowing deeper and deeper into the crevasses of an underground, lit with amazing purple, red and golden dancing lights. I could hear the deep echo of the culture, buried underground. My bookish childish mind came up with this image of the underground town to supplement whatever my eyes did not see around me: the broken life.
Ciechanów was seized by the Nazis in 1939. Immediately after the takeover, the persecution of the Jewish population of the town started. The synagogue was demolished as early as 8th of September 1939 and what was left of it was later turned into a car repair shop. People were forced into a senseless labour; humiliated, robbed, beaten up and attacked.
In October, the Nazis deprived the Jewish merchants and craftsmen of their workshops, as they were banned from running any type of business activity. Closing down the main, central streets to the Jewish population in 1940 marked an effective lock-down of the ghetto and a total isolation of the Jewish population. Forced to work, expelled from their homes, with limited access to clean water and food, Jews of the town started to die of hunger and disease.
At the same time, Ciechanów was made into the “poster child” – the perfect Eastern Prussia Nazi town. Big parts of the old town, including the Jewish district, were demolished and redeveloped into the new “Zichenau”. Squares and streets were renamed. The whole new district of the town developed. Big swastika posters adorned building facades.
“We did not like them very much. You could not trust them”.
A twelve year old me sits on the floor, leaning against an armchair, in which my grandmother sits, drinking tea. She is always slightly on edge, literally and metaphorically, like a bird with ruffled feathers, ready to take off, fly away on moment’s notice. In front of me, a pile of pages with scribbled names and hastily drawn lines and arrows. I am working on my own little handmade project, a family tree, listening to my grandma reminiscing about her youth in Ciechanów, before and during World War 2. She has already told me about her sister (“she has always had an easier life, even when we both worked in that sewing factory for that German man during the war”) and my great-grandfather on her husband’s side, who “made it to New York on a big ship” before World War 1 but inexplicably, came back home in 1910.. And then, after a short pause, she starts telling the story of her Jewish neighbours, killed by the Nazis in the extensive courtyard of the Ducal castle in Ciechanów.
She speaks slowly:
“We did not like them very much. You could not trust them. They always kept to themselves, had their own lives, in their own shops, and you would notice just how many businesses in town belonged to them. You never knew if you were getting the fair price when you walked into one of them, just because you were not Jewish. It is not that we wished bad things would happen to them, but when the Germans came and started to arrest some of them, we did not protest. Jewish people were Jewish people and they were not us.”
My mouth opened in shock in reaction to these revelations. I am twelve, but I have been taught about World War 2 from books, movies, in school… The survivor civilisation did not care much to hide horrors from its children. No one cared about not traumatising the kids. In my childhood, in this part of the world, the threat of another political conflict always loomed extensively large – so better get them ready early, tell them the painful truth to keep aware.
But in this moment, nothing about my grandmas’ words sounded like acceptable “truths”; no one who survived the horrors of World War 2 should be saying things like that. But to my quiet protest of “… umm, grandma, don’t say this…” she brushes me off: “what do you know, you did not live in those horrid times”.
Just for a moment, I glimpse a primordial fear in her eyes.
She brushes off and disappears into the shadows.
Cut off from the outside world, Ciechanów Jews were still holding out hope, to no avail. On 11 December 1941, many of them were herded into the castle. Soon after they were deported to labour and death camps. The remaining population faced an increase in persecutions, in order to suppress any future resistance. On 14 July 1942, five people were hanged at the market square in Ciechanów for an ‘inappropriate behaviour towards the occupier.’
The destruction of the Jewish district was followed by plundering of the Jewish cemetery. The fence was dismantled. Tombstones were broken into pieces and used to build sidewalks. They were also placed underneath the asphalt, which covered one of the new, wide main streets of the redesigned Nazi town.
This is where they remain up to this day, silently and in darkness.
Quoting after the Virtual Shtetl again, numerous public executions were held: four people hanged at the castle yard, two more in the town centre. One was hung by his own son, who initially refused, but was forced to kill his own father, under the threat of death to the rest of the family. Jews from all over Ciechanów were brought to watch the execution. Children looked on as their fathers hung. Children watched as other children helped to kill their parents. Crying was punishable by death.
At the beginning of November 1942, all Jews were rounded up and prepared to leave town. This was seen as a death sentence. On 6th of November Jews gathered in the castle, where they were divided into two groups, fit and unfit for work. That day, 1,500 men were transported to Upper Silesia to the work camp. On 7th November, among the remaining group, the women were separated from men, the old were taken to the hospital to be killed. The others were packed into carts and transported to the ghetto in nearby town, to be then sent to their deaths, when that ghetto was liquidated.
All of them were gone.
No one remained.
As an adult, I started to slowly piece together the traces of the Jewish past of my town, out of my need to understand the missing part of my crippled town. The times in which I got to grew up brought in a new context. Sixty, seventy years passed since the time of horrors. I grew up in a free Poland, and time continued to push forward, the Iron Curtain fall disappearing in the fog of the past. This was the first time and the only time when we, as a generation, could do more than just survive. We started to dream. We started to plan and hope.
We started to turn around and face the past.
In many places, all over Poland, people woke up from the nightmare of World War 2 and the slumber of Communism and were trying to make sense and make peace with the past. Looking for the roots, trying to weave the narrative of the family, community, neighbours and friends, when the raw wounds closed up and the biographies became stories, and stories, the recent history.
A case of arrested development, Poland… perhaps.
It was no coincidence that a few years before I moved to Krakow to attend the University there, the Jewish culture festival was instituted in what used to be the Jewish town, Kazimierz, in the heart of Krakow. In many places people would organize Jewish culture festivals, without Jews in town – which puzzled one BBC reporter in 2014.
What he wrote struck a chord with me, because he was on point: “Something else has emerged in the last 20 years: a growing number of Poles who feel profound loss about the Jewish nation that vanished from their midst. I came across some of them strolling in Warsaw’s vast Jewish cemetery. They were buying brightly-coloured memorial lanterns to place on graves of people they had no personal connection with, but wanted to honour and remember.”
The missing half.
My life sometimes seems like a dream or a movie. Maybe that’s living as an expat, always trying out something new, open and engaged. One of those dream-like moments happened in 2004, when I found myself extending congratulations to the Nobel Price winner.
I lived in Sweden that year. I remember checking the news one day, 6th of October 2004, and reading this very familiar sounding name… The headline said that”The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation jointly to Aaron Ciechanover, Avram Hershko and Irwin Rose”. This pulled on the strings of my heart, unexpectedly bringing the feeling of a missing phantom home to the forefront of my mind. Seeing the name of my town as a surname of someone from Israel felt like finding a long-lost neighbor. I just knew I needed to say “congratulations”.
I looked up his email address on the university website. I wrote “Please accept my heartfelt congratulations on you winning the Nobel Prize. Could you please tell me, if your roots lead to this little Mazovian Polish town of Ciechanów, where I come from?” and sent it to him. A day later he responded, saying yes. He has never been to visit, never. His immediate family left Ciechanów before the war, but his extended family suffered and perished in the Holocaust. His parents settled in what used to be the British Mandate of Palestine. He was touched by my congratulations, coming to him directly from the town of his grandparents.
He came to visit Ciechanów for the first time in his life in 2007. He came just for a couple of hours, taking time away from his official visit at the University in Warsaw. I did not know about his visit. I would like to think that maybe my message had something to do with him wanting to see the town, where his family came from,or maybe giving him a push to realize that dream. I hope it did.
The connection was made.
In 2006, in a really hot summer, I was walking one of the most magical streets that I ever got to walk in my life. I was visiting my Canadian love, getting to know his home as I stayed there over two long, warm, hazy months of summer. On this particular day I was walking St. Laurent’s Boulevard, also known as “The Main”, with the ambition to walk its whole length, more than 11 kilometers, in one day. The Boulevard in and of itself was a borderline and an adventure in space and time. It was an axis in the body of the city, separating the predominantly English-speaking Montreal (to the West) and French-speaking Montreal (to the East) and at the same time, a conglomerate of cultures and immigrant communities dotting its line.
Walking form the south-east end of the island and the street, with old Montreal and the old port, through Chinatown, Greek quarter, Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, with little Portugal and Little Italy, one gets to see, smell and taste the individual cultural neighbourhoods, clustered together around the main axis, still centered in the same areas as they were more than a century ago. Many of these ethnic communities, Chinese, Italian, Belgian, Arab, Haitian, Ukrainian and Jewish, played a crucial role as the first stop for immigrants coming ashore for nearly 150 years.
I was walking in the area of the Eastern European/Ukrainian community – it might have been somewhere in the Mile End, I might have strayed a little and stumbled somewhere into Rue St. Viateur, looking for a taste of home, an Ukrainian bakery on the other end of the world. Out of nowhere, two people on the streets caught my eye and made my heart skip a beat. I got more of the taste of “home” than I ever gambled for. I missed a step, looking after them: a father and a son, both in a traditional Hasidic dress, black coats, wide-brimmed black hats, side curls – crossing the street together, on the way maybe to study or maybe back home. Their silhouettes delicate and black, as if cut out from an ash memory and placed in the golden sun. I took a few more steps and then stood still, looking at them in awe and with this acute sense of loss in the same moment. They seemed to me as if they were coming out of a hazy golden dream – not reality.
This was the first time ever that I touched the non-existent world – so immediately and so directly. The first time I could really experience it around me. As I stared after them, in a hot sun of 2006 I realized, these were the children of the people, who were my great-grandmother’s neighbors. According to many remaining records, many Ciechanow Jews found refuge in Montreal, home to the biggest Ashkenazi communities in North America.
These people seemed to me as if they were transported to the other end of the world, almost in a dream. My grandmother saw them – their forefathers- around her on the streets of Ciechanów in 1906. These people were children of individuals that once used to populate my home. They used to call its streets with yiddish names, long forgotten. They wore those hats and those coats, and walked down the streets that now covered their tombs, to a prayer in a synagogue. This was them, the unknown, the non-existent, the long-gone, the missing ones. I wanted to run after them and yet, my legs were of stone. I wanted to keep the dream alive for as long as possible.
I stood there for a really long time after both of them have disappeared from my sight.
And later that evening, when my boyfriend took me to the legendary Jewish smoked meat deli on St. Laurent’s Boulevard, Schwartz’s – I was not surprised that everything, from the smoked meat and rye bread to the pickles and coleslaw on the side tasted just like home.
I expected nothing less, nothing more.
I was asked in 2009 to speak to the Irish public and then-president of Ireland at the Holocaust Memorial Day, a commemoration organised every year by the Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland. Prior to that I wrote down some of my recollections of my town. On the basis of the text I wrote, I was invited to talk to the Irish people about missing realities and hope for connection. I was invited as a member of the Polish community in Ireland, migrants into the Irish society, in efforts to help integration. As I stood on the stage of that event, slowly reading the words about my town, it dawned on me just how important it is to talk about these things, also in new cultures, to people that never grew up in phantom towns, in missing shadows – to talk and remember everything, every memory I uncovered. I spoke slowly, deliberately, and when I finished, I was met with a heavy but meaningful silence.
People listened and it seemed to me, they listened more attentively than they had to any other previous speaker. They came to me afterwards, including the Irish president, and told me my words really moved them. It was important.
One needs to remember and bring that memory to many people.
Remember, reflect and share.
As I sit in my Hamburg flat and look through the window into the courtyard of the townhouse, all I see is a ruined synagogue. It’s front and side walls are still standing and I can see the ornamental portal above what used to be the main doors, still there, still in place. But otherwise next to nothing remains, just some bricks with a hole of an old window, overgrown with plants. The area where I rent my flat used to be heavily Jewish in the 19th and 20th century. Hamburg did not have a Jewish town as a separate entity, but in Neustadt there were at least two active synagogues, a Jewish cemetery, and a thriving community.
Passing by some other buildings on my street, I saw a notice: another Stolperstein will be put into the sidewalk of my street. Stolpersteine are part of the project started in 1992, existing all over Germany and beyond, aiming to remember individual Jewish people that lived on German streets, their dates of birth, and ways and times they died. Those “stumbling blocks” are concrete cubes with a brass plate with information, put directly into the sidewalks. Part of this project relates to the Jewish matzevahs, lining the pavements during WW2, when Jewish cemeteries were destroyed. It looks at “the desecration of the memory of the dead (which) was implicitly intended, as people had to walk on the gravestones and tread on the inscriptions. The Stolpersteine provocatively hint at this act of desecration, as they lack any kind of defense against new acts of shame.”
I find myself wishing I had enough skill to be able to write my story about the underground town and in that way, bring back the missing “half”. I wish that I could find a way to make my characters alive: maybe the father and son from Montreal, walking back on a small town street, maybe a synagogue in the place of my childhood playground, a Nobel Prize winner visiting a devastated cemetery, maybe a kosher vendor serving the smoked meat on the market square. These people and their town live in my imagination.
But maybe what I can do right now is keep my thoughts alive with writing. And maybe try to bring Stolpersteine project into my town.
I was born and grew up in a phantom town, in a Jewish graveyard, among broken memories that were always brushed aside as insignificant, invisible – and never talked about. Finding ways to replace the phantom, missing part of the town with a physical identity – a stone in a sidewalk, a callback to its past – could be the first, most needed step in the process of healing.