To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Poland/1931 and Khurbn: Two Sources

In the course of writing Poland/1931 and Khurbn, having no direct experience of that ancestral world, I drew among other sources on the memories of those still close to me, notably two of my father’s younger brothers, Archie (Aaron) and Avrum Rothenberg. The Polish town from which they came to the U.S. – one in the 1920s, the other via Argentina in the 1940s – was Ostrów-Mazoviecka in its Polish naming, Ostrova among the Jews who lived there. It was located, as I later learned, only 15 miles or so from the World War Two death camp at Treblinka, and all those in my family who hadn’t left Poland before the war were murdered there in the ensuing khurbn. As with other small Polish/Jewish towns (shtetl in Yiddish, miasteczko in Polish), the Jewish survivors assembled a large memorial book, its narratives written in Yiddish by the memorialists themselves. Published in 1960, the book was in my possession when I began Poland/1931 at the end of that decade and was my guide to the town when I went there in the late 1980s. That it included pieces by both of my uncles was also meaningful to me – not writings about the holocaust as such but, like Poland/1931, with the holocaust as the inescapable background. Throughout Khurbn, but in the terminal poem in particular, I tried to emulate their voices as best I could, something evident, I think, in the two pieces that follow. Those pieces, now translated into English by Judie Ostroff Goldstein, are part of an ongoing project that has assembled a remarkable, possibly unprecedented data bank of local records and statistics, or what Ed Sanders, as a resource for “investigative poetry," used to call “data clusters.” The level of secularization and literacy in their accounts is also worth noting, while the fantastic or surreal elements in the ensuing poetry are of course my own doing.

My evocation of the town begins as follows:

What will I tell you sweet town?
that the sickness is still in you
that the dead continue to die
there is no end to the dying?
for this the departed would have had an answer:
a wedding in a graveyard
for you sweet town
they would have spoken they who are no longer among us
& would have shown forth in their splendor
would have danced pellmell
over your stones sweet town the living & the dead together .....

[from “Peroration for a Lost Town” in Khurbn & Other Poems, 1989, reprinted in Triptych, 2007]


I see you, my town, as when I was young… when I ran and played with a hoop from a barrel. A beautiful summer day and so many people are gathered in the market.

What is happening here? The First World War has broken out. Everyone is in terrible spirits. Men are called up for military service. Husbands and sons must leave their families.

The war leaves everyone with scars. In 1915, the Germans arrive. Life returned to normal. The first ray of light tore through the dark.

The first workers' institution is created and named for Bronisław Grosser. The workday is from eight in the morning until eleven, or midnight, as well as after the close of Shabes. There is no time for oneself – only Friday evening and Saturday during the day.

My first experience in the “Grosser-Club”: A gathering of about two hundred workers. Silence. Icchok Aron Sigier reads from Elgin's book: “Ven Kaytn Klingen” [“When Shackles Clank”]. What a holiday atmosphere!

The work expands. Meetings are scheduled more frequently – there are more lectures. Speakers were brought from other cities. The club members made the furniture for the club themselves – benches and tables. The young workers bring new ideas. Every Friday evening there is a social event. New workers join the club.

The young members develop by reading and learning. New institutions are being created. The first meeting of Poalei-Zion [Labor Zion] is held in the library. The organizers were Waldkowski and Tikora.

After that, unions came into being: Osiński and Wengrowicz were the founders. Communal organizations were blooming.

The Bund was the first, to plow up the old and sow new seeds - beautiful sprouts grew. The organizers of the Bund were: Icchok Aaron Sygier, Maier Jakob Sygier, Hilke Piekarz, Mordche Miller, and myself.

Subsequently, the Germans had to make a hasty departure from town. The Bund organizers were called to a meeting at Hinde Piantnica's. There was a message from the Bund Central Committee. The government is going to take up the workers' cause and the Bund must be prepared. This was a very serious meeting and ran very late. We noticed how quiet the streets had become. This is a sign of a new era: the workers' government is born, headed by Maraczewski. The 8-hour workday was introduced. Business had to close for two hours, noon until two in the afternoon, during the workday. A health insurance program was created in the larger cities, which was maintained by the government. The trade union was created – the first secretary is Luria. Preparations were made for the first shoemaker's strike. When the bosses became aware of the impending strike, they prepared a lot of boots ahead of time. Stasz, their leader, contested the demands set forth by the trade union. The strike was declared and there was no money available to help the strikers. A large fair was being held in Zambrów, where the bosses sold their boots. A group of people appeared, dressed as peasants, looked the boots over and cut them up – on the pretext that the boots were made of paper. These so-called peasants returned to the trade union local in Ostrova. The police raided the trade union and all those in the local were arrested. After a long inquiry, which lasted the entire night, they were freed. The bosses came to the trade union local in the morning and gave in to all the demands. The union had won the first strike.

Then began the hard work of organizing one trade after another. The bosses did not create any further problems for the trade union. At the same time, the Bund became involved in cultural activities. During a certain time there was a lot of unemployment. The trade union, along with the bosses, began the workers' soup kitchen at the trade union headquarters. At the first lunch, the bosses also came to eat along with the needy. Tears were seen in many eyes that day. The kitchen existed for only a short time. The bosses could no longer afford to give money. The situation had become very bleak for everyone. The workers were hungry; a tremendous tension was brewing. One Shabes, the boss's cholents were taken from the ovens, by the poor. Those starving were for a moment able to still their hunger. Nobody organized this – it was spontaneous.

The Youth-Movement rebelled against the Bund and took a radical turn. The entire Łomża District Committee of the Tzukunft organization in all the cities left the Bund. The first radical group was founded in Ostrova.

On a beautiful spring day during Passover the first meeting was held in Brok forest. Gathered there were Abraham Perec, Szija Fryd, and a guest from Warszawa. (He arrived at the Nutkiewicz's and Lejbl Krysztal from Łomża). They would set the policy for the radical movement. We were very busy. In a short time we were able to take over the trade union entirely. After a difficult struggle, the Bund had to capitulate and give the trade union over to the radical group.

We brought a secretary into the trade union. We brought a troupe to present plays. Their presentation of Perec Hirszenbejn's “Der Nevole” [“The Infamy”] in the town theatre was a great success. Community work was growing. The young people were enthusiastic and full of new ideas. They felt that maybe this was the beginning, that the day would come when the sun would shine fire red and the workers would all be free!

This is how we lived and hoped. It is so painful to think about what happened to our town, her beautiful forests, the lovely landscape, where our dear ones were so hideously tortured. No matter to which country or city I travel, Ostrova, none can ever take your place.


My little shtetl, how should I celebrate your existence? And how should I lament for you? How do I find the strength to bring out your beauty, your joy, your glory, your magnificence and the deep sorrow of your death?

I was young when I left you. I had lived for eighteen thriving springs. You gave us such a rich community. The softness of your earth, the dew in your fields and forests will remain eternal. This is where I lived out my childhood and youth. My shtetl, I see you as when I was a child running around your streets. My childhood came into existence at the same time as the First World War. I remember the first German military airplane flying over our shtetl. Everyone ran out of their houses in fear and raised their heads to the sky; the Germans arrived in the shtetl with their new, strict decrees. Typhus and dysentery epidemics raged. Women and children went into hiding, in order to avoid having their hair cut off. The epidemic raged and there were victims in every second house. The shtetl had an old custom that a poor bride must get married in a cemetery. A couple was found: the quiet, dejected Szepsel vaser treger [water carrier], who rambled, and an old maid, with a hunchback. The entire shtetl went to the wedding in the cemetery.

I see one of my many neighbours: Benjamin the contractor, in whose attic Jehudis lived. She was the oldest Hebrew teacher in the shtetl. She lived with her many grandchildren – orphans of her young daughter who had died. The oldest grandchild Perl, was also a teacher, an old maid, a tall woman with a dark, matte skin, with two burning black eyes in which her entire unlived life, with all her suppressed hopes and longings, were reflected. She was my teacher. Later she became insane and died in the hospital in Warszawa. And next is Mosze Haim the wine-maker – a polite Jew, honest and religious, with a blond beard and gentle, good-natured eyes. His wife would often become crazy during the summer heat and run around the shtetl. He took care of her as a father would a child. On the other side, exactly opposite our window – were Jankele and his wife Zelda. Zelda was always able to hide their poverty. She was always neat, elegantly dressed and wore a wig even during the week. Their son Mosz'ke Gecel, the playboy, before whom everyone in the shtetl trembled, even the Christians, as he could hit back. And here the Jewish, half-assimilated, pharmacist Stasz and his slim, gentle wife from Warszawa. Barely had he seen a bit of smoke from our bakery chimney than he would arrive with a pail of water to put out the fire. He was always afraid of a fire and did everything possible so that there would never be one in his pharmacy. Who does not remember and who did not like Goldsztejn the photographer, who among the Ostrovers would not find themselves in his photographs? There is so much we can write about him.

Goldsztejn, tall, thin with light, bright eyes, always happy and a witticism at every opportunity. He was the only Jew in the shtetl who owned a piano. Thanks to his artistic talent he became the leader of the dramatic troupe, and with his brother-in-law Lejb Kohn, Mrs. Lewita and others, put on plays several times a year and donated the money to the library. Who can forget their offering of “Kasza the Orphan” and a little later Przybyszewski's “Der Shney” [“The Snow”] and Strindberg's “Der Foter” [“The Father”], under the direction of the great artist Jacques Levy, who came especially from Warszawa to direct this play? How could I forget the first time I went to the library to borrow a book? I remember the first librarian, the tall, gentle Chuma Paskiewicz. She gave me my first book. Who could believe the joy and luck of having books to read? The Ostrova library, the pride of all the surrounding villages, became our school, our university; generations were educated and received knowledge through that library. We devoured worldly books and absorbed the Yiddish words in an attic corner or in the woods during the summer, where our parents would not see us. We became acquainted with great thinkers and poets; we were enriched with new worlds, new thoughts, aspirations and dreams. And afterwards, the unions, political parties and youth organizations came to life. New words - new slogans. Great ideas were born. I remember my first time at Poalei Zion, where the older comrades were devoted to education. My first teachers: Ajze Gąsior, Wladkowski, Skóra, Rozenberg – all intellectuals, sons from poor homes. Their lectures for youngsters about literature and political science, etc. opened new worlds for us.

Once, it was decided to hold a demonstration on the first of May. For many months preparations were made in secret, uniting all the parties, including the Polish Socialist Party. This happened in the first year of Poland's independence and freedom. But Piłsudski, with his legionnaires, already had a network of anti-Semitism and brutality ready. The great day arrived. A holiday spirit, with joy and songs in our hearts we left our houses. Everyone went to his party headquarters with a red silk flower in his lapel. Having gone a couple of streets, I came upon the Polish military doctor, who angrily screamed at me: “ You little rat! You already know how to carry a red flower.” With a wild anger he tore off my red flower. My joy was destroyed. My pain was great. I soon arrived at party headquarters. The comrades gave me another flower. The holiday feeling was back. We all stood outside in rows, the older comrades with Gąsior in front, us youngsters – at the back. And we marched to the Promenade garden. There all the parties came together, and we continued on together. But we stopped a couple of streets after the Sadzawke. The police were waiting and our demonstration turned around. This was the only demonstration that ever took place in Ostrova.

Who can forget the promenade streets and the forests? The narrow sidewalk from the jail to the town hall, the Promenade garden, the Sadzawka [pond], wide Warszawa Street, along which extended fields which in summer were full of tall, golden wheat stalks, that protected couples and secret party meetings from prying eyes and from the police.

A little further, on Warszawa Road, before arriving at the large forests, one would go through a young, small forest. There among the young trees stood two small wooden houses used as summer cottages. The owner was a Christian (a coffin maker) with his pretty, young daughter “Jenta” (Why a Yiddish name? Maybe because she spoke such a soft, charming Yiddish).

“Jenta” also owned a swing. On Shabes young men would go there, together with young women, and for a couple of groschen would be able to use the swing for a certain amount of time. There were great experts who would soar high in the air. And from “Jenta's” little forest it is only a few steps to the large, deep forests.

Ostrova's forests who can forget them? On the left side, Brok forest and across on the right side – the Warszawa. This is where we lived during the summer. All our young dreams and our longing for unknown worlds were woven there. There were no words to express our longing!

Yes, you were beautiful and honest, my shtetl. When we went out into the world and lay in small, poor rooms full of nightmarish nights of longing, we were always with you, my shtetl, living with you, walking your streets and forests, tasting your air. You gave us courage and consoled us.

You are not forgotten – my destroyed shtetl.

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