2017-09-18 07:04:03
Personal Journeys: From Poland to Lithuania: A Writer’s Search for Her Jewish Past

I think I was in an iced-over bus lot in northeastern Poland, standing in front of a mound of desecrated gravestones, when I first had the feeling that Jewish heritage travel in Europe might be a mistake. I had been walking with a guide and an interpreter, both Polish men in late middle age, through Makow Mazowiecki, a small town about 45 miles north of Warsaw. This was where two of my great-grandparents were born in the late 19th century, when Jews made up nearly half the local population.

Like the vast majority of American Jews, I descend from Yiddish-speaking Europeans who settled along the Rhine River around the first millennium. Known as Ashkenazi Jews (Ashkenazi being an old term for German), they later moved to the edges of the Russian Empire, the so-called Pale of Settlement, an area spanning much of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Moldova, where Jews were allowed to reside.

All eight of my great-grandparents immigrated around the turn of the century from the Pale to the United States. They settled in New Jersey, where my father grew up, and Kansas City, Mo., where my mother, and later my brothers and I, were raised among the mowed lawns and flush supermarkets of Midwestern suburbia.

“They lived in shtetls,” my parents would say, using the Yiddish diminutive for town. “Backward, mud-caked, poverty-stricken little villages surrounded by anti-Semites.” Or something along those lines.

It wasn’t until recently, after a decade of living in Europe, that I decided to find out more about my ancestors, to travel to the places they were from and see what, if anything, was remained of the shtetl world they had left behind.

In this, I wasn’t alone. Jewish heritage tourism has been growing steadily since the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the former Pale of Settlement began to open up to Western tourists. The influx of foreign interest has encouraged a re-examination of Jewish history, especially in larger urban centers. New museums, most notably Warsaw’s phenomenal Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, but also smaller institutions throughout Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic nations, cater to visitors of Eastern European Jewish descent.

“It’s a tremendous change,” said Tomasz Cebulski, a Polish Holocaust scholar who I contacted early in my heritage quest. “Within the last 25 years in this country, it’s like day and night,” said Mr. Cebulski, whose company, Polin Travel, offers Jewish heritage tours and genealogical services. He attributes the change partly to the lifting of taboos around discussion of Judaism and the Holocaust — but also to growing interest in ancestral research.

In addition to hundreds of booming genealogical resources like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, there are numerous sites geared to Jews, most notably JewishGen, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the New York-based Museum of Jewish Heritage, with more than 20 million records and links to country-specific Jewish record archives, like Jewish Records Indexing-Poland (JRI-Poland.org).

But like most genealogical quests, mine started the old-fashioned way, through talking to relatives. My mother knew a few facts. Samuel Frank Wengrover, her maternal grandfather, was a tailor from Makow Mazowiecki. After arriving in New York around the turn of the century, he moved to Alabama and opened a tailor shop. It was almost immediately burned down by Klansmen types. “So he picked up and moved to Kansas City and tried it again,” my mother said.

My father knew that his mother’s family, the Russaks, moved around the same time from Lodz, Poland, to the Jewish section of Paterson, N.J. The whole family had once been Orthodox, but had forsaken religion and “turned into Communists.” Of his father’s Lithuanian parents, he knew almost nothing.

I set up an account on Ancestry.com and began building a tree, adding facts the website extracted from now-digitized public records.

At the same time, I started reaching out through the JewishGen databases to people who had searched similar name-and-place combinations. That’s where I found Kathy Herman. I had never heard of her, but she turned out to be my second cousin on the Russak side. Her grandfather, Benny, was the brother of my great-grandfather Joe. She was the first to tell me the names of their parents: Moishe Meyer Russak and Mindel Stetin.

“Family lore is that she was raped by a Cossack, and my grandfather killed the guy,” she wrote in an email. “They hanged my grandfather by his hair (I don’t even really know what that means), and then the Russaks had to get Benny out fast.”

That, Kathy said, is why the Russaks moved to the United States. Not exactly “Fievel Goes West,” but I was hooked. She had two addresses in Lodz where the Russaks had lived. Armed with these anecdotal scraps and scant genealogical documents, I was off. Old Country or bust.

In Warsaw I met a man who has been working for decades as a fixer for Jewish visitors researching their Polish roots. It’s a job that often stirs resentment in Poland, especially since the current right-wing government came to power, said the fixer, a retiree with kind eyes and a talkative, disheveled demeanor who asked that his identity be concealed. Widespread anti-Semitism persists, he said, and there is fear, especially in remote, provincial areas — shtetl country that the descendants of Polish Jews will come back and claim their stolen property.

“Keep in mind that Poland before the Second World War was like the United States. We had a huge mixture of minorities, and the Jews made up 10 percent of the prewar Polish population,” he said, as we drove past fields of black currants, lindens and the occasional roadside taverns, until we reached Plock.

Situated about 60 miles west of Warsaw, Plock is one of the oldest cities in Poland. Its antique grain silos and riverside Romanesque cathedral harken back to a time when the Kingdom of Poland was a bastion of liberalism that became a haven for Jews escaping persecution and exile elsewhere on the continent.

A local historian met us at a cafe on the edge of the Old Town Square with photocopies of what he thought were my family’s records. My great-great-grandparents Kasile and Cecile Hipsh seemed to match up with a Kasryel and Tsissa Hipsz in the archive. According to the book of residency, Kasryel was married twice and had at least eight children, including my great-grandfather, who went by Harry in Kansas City, where he started a textile business with his sons. But he had apparently grown up as Yakob, in the Jewish quarter of Plock, just a few blocks from where we sat.

With its cobbled streets and 19th-century rowhouses, Plock’s old Jewish district looks like a film set. Nearly all the remnants of its thriving Jewish community, which once made up nearly half the population, are long gone or repurposed beyond recognition. The one small remaining synagogue reopened in 2013, after decades of disuse, as the Museum of Mazovian Jews. The project, funded partially by the European Union, educates visitors on Jewish culture, and aims to tell their 700-year history in Plock and the surrounding region — a period in which they contributed greatly to the expansion of trade, crafts and industrialization, up until the Nazi occupation of Poland, when those who hadn’t fled poverty and persecution were confined to a ghetto and murdered in the camps.

I watched in numb silence as the faces of Holocaust victims from Plock flashed on a light box over a model of a dinner table set for Shabbat. I thought of my grandfather and namesake, Charlie Hipsh, who rose from poverty to become a banker and philanthropist, marrying my elegant grandmother, Dorothy Wengrover, and having four college-educated daughters. I thought of my own expensive American education, of my record collection and my German health insurance, of how it is such a shifting, fickle fault line that separates the privileged from the damned. Then I signed the guest book, “the great-great-granddaughter of Kasryel and Tsissa Hipsz of Plock” and headed for the car.

We drove about an hour east to Makow Mazowiecki, once a thriving market town. But as we approached, it was apparent how unkind the 20th century had been: Empty, snow-piled streets were lined with prefabricated residential buildings and billboards advertising outlet malls or fast-food restaurants with names like Western Chicken.

All of Makow Mazowiecki’s Jewish records were destroyed in a synagogue fire in 1897, so there was no archival research to be done. Instead, we went to the local school, where the principal, the mayor and a local historian, Piotr Matejuk, welcomed us. Mr. Matejuk walked us to the old town square, which today is a small park lined with discount shops.

It was here, he explained, that Jewish merchants would sell their wares on market days. They all lived in an area just north of the square, as was required by a 19th-century czarist decree limiting Jews to specific areas.

We walked through the old Jewish district, past a ramshackle house where Mr. Matejuk said the rabbi used to live, and where once stood “the most beautiful synagogue in this part of the country.” He told me he remembered as a small boy crawling onto the roof of his house and watching Nazis dismantle it and hang the leaders of the Jewish community on makeshift gallows.

We continued until we reached the empty, iced-over bus lot where the cemetery used to be. In the corner, Jewish gravestones had been cemented together into a semi-pyramidal mound.

“This is a memorial to Jews built by the current residents of Makow,” said Mr. Matejuk as my fixer translated. He explained that the Germans removed the stones and used them for paving streets and making curbs. After the war, locals excavated the stones and made this monument.

“You have to sift all these things and judge for yourself,” my fixer said. “After the war they decided to use this area as a bus terminal without any respect for this place,” he added, visibly angered. “They smashed what was left of the Jewish cemetery, and just to clean their conscience, they made this.”

Only then did the realization rip through me that my ancestors were probably buried beneath my feet, under this frozen bus lot. The “memorial” was a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster made of desecrated graves.

The following day, we headed to Lodz, Poland’s third-largest city. For about 200 years, it was one of Europe’s most important urban centers, a textile manufacturing hub and multicultural metropolis, home to Germans, Russians and Jews, who began arriving en masse when Poland was partitioned at the end of the 18th century.

But in the post-Soviet era, Lodz fell into decline, and today, grand, but dilapidated, 19th-century factory facades line windblown boulevards veined with screeching, electrified, steel-rail streetcars — most rusted out and caked in a layer of dirt. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the city’s haunted, decrepit beauty took me by surprise.

After hours scouring Cyrillic microfilms on outmoded computers in the public archives, we found my family’s records. My great-grandfather wasn’t Joe at all, but Juda Arie. His father, Moishe Meyer, was a weaver born in Warta; his wife, Mindel (Chaja Mindla Szczecina), had grown up in Dobra. We even found an entry in the book of records describing my great-grandfather’s birth, signed in shaky Yiddish by Moishe Meyer.

Mindel died in Lodz in 1905 at 48. Within weeks of her death, other members of the family were issued passports. Remarkably, we found that my great-grandfather’s brother Benny (Berysz) was sent away to be “punished” for two years, until 1907, when the entire family emigrated. It was as close to a confirmation of the Cossack rape revenge story as I could possibly expect.

The Russaks’ former address led us to a bleak, graffiti-covered high-rise in the middle of what was, under Nazi occupation, the Lodz Ghetto. From there, it was a few minutes to the Radegast train station, from which around 200,000 Jews were transported to the extermination camps at Chelmno and Auschwitz. Today it’s the site of a small memorial to those victims. I flipped through the prisoner transport lists to “R” until I found Russak after Russak after Russak.

As we drove back to Warsaw, I felt the landscape morph and bend into imagery that haunted my youth: rusted train tracks ribboning through a frozen field; skeleton trees against a white sky; the scream of a train whistle, a particular Polish melancholy. I had always recoiled from the idea of identifying with the victims of the Holocaust. My ancestors left decades before the Nazis arrived, and I grew up as a middle-class white person in 1980s and ’90s suburban America, one of the greatest bubbles of privilege and prosperity the world has ever seen. And yet the closer I was getting, both geographically and psychologically, to the once-great Yiddish European civilization of my forebears, the more I began to experience the dull horror of its annihilation.

As the moon rose over the Polish plains, my fixer told me something he said is only known to close friends and family. He, too, is of Jewish descent. His father’s parents both died in the camps, and he was raised to hide his heritage. “Doing this,” he said, “is my way of reconnecting.”

I couldn’t help hoping that Lithuania would be less grim. The Jewish story was similar, but Lithuania was not quite as central to the Holocaust. And whereas Poland is governed today by the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party, Lithuania’s current two-term president, Dalia Grybauskaite, is a multilingual, Europhile, unmarried woman with a black belt in karate and a reputation for sticking it to Vladimir Putin.

Working with a researcher, I learned that in 1869, my great-grandfather Harris Wiener was born Abram Girsha Vainer in Anyksciai, a small town in northeastern Lithuania. He later moved to nearby Jonava, where he married my great-grandmother Chana Bassa Joselevich. They had six children; four died of pneumonia. Then they immigrated to Paterson, where my grandfather and his sister were born. Unlike my other great-grandparents, the Wieners never really assimilated, my father told me, clinging to their old language and strict religiosity. Chana never spoke a word of English.

I flew into Vilnius with my brother Sam, rented a car, and headed west, watching as the exurban post-Soviet sprawl of the capital gave way to rolling hills, farms and pinewoods. Finally we reached Jonava, a midsize city in central Lithuania that’s home to the massive Achema fertilizer factory, the site of a 1989 chemical explosion considered the worst ecological disaster in the country’s history.

We met with a young historian, Renate Kilinskaite, who walked us through the industrial blight of the city center until we turned a corner to what felt like another dimension: the remaining section of Jonava’s old town. One- and two-story pitched-roof houses stood end to end on 19th-century streets, remnants of a time when Jonava was 93 percent Jewish.

Established as a private town in 1750 at the intersection of several important roads, Jonava became a trading-and-transport hub where Jews were granted property rights and encouraged to settle permanently. It was home to Jewish schools and hospitals, a library, bank, social clubs and seven synagogues, each serving a different trade.

Nearly the entire population of Jonava was wiped out by World War II and the Holocaust; the current residents were brought in afterward from other parts of Lithuania and the Soviet Union, said Renate, many to build and staff the state-owned Achema factory. Today, most of the buildings in the Old Town look darkened and disused, remote from the postwar city built up around it. I thought of Don DeLillo’s phrase: “There is a world inside the world.”

From Jonava, we drove two hours to Anyksciai. I had rented a cabin in the hills, from which we could see across the town to the Anyksciai Pinewoods, an ancient forest webbed with riverbeds bearing imprints of prehistoric armored fish.

In the morning, we met with a local historian, Tautvydas Kontrimavicius, who walked us through the old Jewish section neighboring the market square. He showed us the remaining one of five synagogues and the stream where the Jews collected water.

In 1941, the entire Jewish community of Anyksciai was taken to the woods beyond the stream and shot, their bodies thrown into a mass grave, marked today by a stone memorial.

That’s where I thought we were driving — to another genocide spot, another desecrated burial ground — when we suddenly stopped at the side of the road by a wooded hill. At the bottom was a gate marked with a Star of David.

We climbed up the hill, which was so steep we sometimes had to use our hands. As we neared the top, I began seeing Hebrew-lettered gravestones, overgrown and weatherworn, jutting from the grass. The cemetery had been left alone, Tautvydas explained. Because Anysciai is filled with quarries, there was no need to take the stones. “So even in wartime,” he said, “it was left peaceful and untouched.”

We looked out over this unspeakably beautiful site, this ancestral resting place we’d never known existed, and onto the distant rolling Lithuanian landscape. I let my eyes blur and saw only the greens and grays of the earth, felt only the wind and the light. I let my mind drift into a distant future when, like these stones, all the buildings and bridges might erode with the passing time, until only the hill remains.