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[Page 481]

Riva Gonska

Ciechanow in 1956

Of this small town I will tell a few things in memory of all my dear ones who were wiped out, to my best friend Adele Pepe and to each Jewish home in this Jewish town which will light and remember the past and from which we drew out future life. It has been my heart's yearning ever since to see the town once again, to see and not to forget. I wanted to go over the whole place, to feel every corner where I'd grown up, to see with my own eyes and to be as one in a spiritual way with the past. I wanted to search. Perhaps a person would be found, or something which would be able to tell me how it happened. How were the dear ones, relatives, our birth-giving parents, brothers and sisters and all of the Jewish community wiped out. I wished this very much and so it was.

In the midst of the summer of 1956 I visited Poland and my hometown of Ciechanow. I knew very little on my coming to Poland, only what I'd read. However, as much as I read, the information didn't match my childhood memories or past feelings and didn't fit the present general picture of Ciechanow.

New Poland was, in my mind, a new building project after the destruction, with new busy streets, streetcars and a renewal of spiritual life. However, what about us with our special lives -- what about the Jewish town, the Jewish school, language, prayers on holidays, the Jews in the synagogues, in the market, and at work? And what about the youth? All those aspects which marked our childhood experiences. Through some unrealistic, secret yearnings I wanted to see them all, so that it was worth knocking on every door, approaching every person who remained, to release all the orphan-like sorrow in the hearts of those who were from this place. I hoped to absorb the feelings of the past and to see every person in his place at the time of his suffering and torture and to know he stood the test of those times and that the bonds of national brotherhood were not broken in those insane times. I will ask people, maybe they remember how it happened. Where are the lively youth? Where is their final resting place?

An unexplained fear fills me despite my clear decision that no matter what, I am to see the city of my birth. Fear of what? I had pleasant memories of childhood and youth with every place connected to a youthful tale, so that I thought the skies of the city were the most beautiful in the world. The big house on the main street, the most beautiful of houses, the public park full of charm, the old house where I grew up which stood on the main street and especially the big yard within which are hidden the sorrow and happiness of tens of children who grew up in those yards. I retained all the beauty of this city and now was afraid to be disappointed. After all, I've seen the big world. What if the value of all that was precious to me will be minimized and a vacuum created in the place of this majestic period, above all, that of a Jewish family, dear Jews, memories of whom are still engraved in my heart? The old one in his kitl on Yom Kippur standing outside the synagogue saying “Next year in Jerusalem.” G-d willing, I will meet some Jews there.

I was fearful lest it be difficult for me to deal with the extent of destruction and the national and personal orphan-like loss. Fear that I would not find anything I was searching for and that the break [down] would be immense, the biggest in one's life.

There are two train stations in Warsaw, one being the main one and one in the east from which one goes on to Ciechanow. I boarded the train on a rainy and gray day even though it was the month of August, mid-summer. It was Friday, the market day in the city. Lots of farmers and especially farmers' wives got on the train with their baskets as in the past, to sell their produce. At every station wave after wave board and disembark from the train. The ticket-checker was calling the names of the stations and with every name, a chain of memories. Memories of people who were and are no more. I barely had room between all the people. Conversation was about prices, produce and untimely rains. I asked here and there some routine questions without disclosing my background. Some of the girls spoke of clothing prices and I asked them if the new regime and its changes is to their liking. One of the types of gentiles whom we knew in the past, who at the look of their eyes a chill would go through my body for the hate of Israel which is in their eyes, answered, “I tell you, one thing good we have today is when I go into a store and they tell me how much a dress costs, I know that's the price and I pay it. No more are there those Jews who took us for all they were worth. Once when we paid we knew we were paying too much. We finished with them forever.” A classic response from those days, which apparently is not related to the regime, heard in the time of grandfather and father. Will it really be repeated in all generations under all regimes?

The ticket-checker calls the station for Ciechanow. In the area opposite the train station stands an “auto”, questionable if it is a transport car for the transporting of cattle, or one which reminds me from my childhood used in transporting the gypsies. Now instead of horses, a motor. The rain turns everything ugly, both the clothing and the wind. My eyes follow those going into the auto. I muster all my memory. Maybe I'll see some figure whom I'll recognize. The arguing farmers pile into the car. The auto takes them to the city, to the distant market. I imagined my entry into the city differently. I became one of the travelers. Two stops are made along the way -- one near the new garden and the other on the main street upon entering the market, where everyone gets off. I also disembarked and stood at the side of the way not knowing where to turn. I looked around everything so familiar and yet so strange. This is the main road on which we strolled and walked back and forth on holidays and Shabbat, in our best clothing, in holiday spirits. Here is the big house of K, and in a few more meters opposite, according to all the signs, should be the big yard with our house towards the back. I enter; however there is no sign of the house. The place has changed. There is a new house. This was the first “isn't” I saw. Beside the sidewalk is a familiar house and upon it a sign, “Watches repaired here.”

[Page 482]

I entered and recognized the man. It was our neighbor from back then. I asked him if he still remembers the Jewish man who lived in this yard before the war -- an old man with a red beard who had two sons and two daughters. I told him I am one of those daughters. He remembers, lifting his eyes from the watch. He remembers the G. family but his father remembers even better. And he tells me, “It was on one day in September or October. The Germans put out a flyer that all the Jews in the city must leave their homes, young, old and babes, women and men, divided by age and sex. The elders had to run to the fort where it would be decided what each one would have to do. All the men up to middle age were put on the car to go afar.

Many women and children were shot in view of fathers and husbands. Amongst them my sister-in-law and her children. Your mother went with the other elders to the central place. They hurried her along, but she couldn't keep up and tripped here and there. When she fell a German shot her on the spot.

You should know that they led an honest life. I heard many stories about the Jews of the town. We also didn't have it easy. We suffered much with many casualties. In this town there is only one Jew who remains. He lives opposite. Go to him, maybe he can tell you more.

I left dumbfounded and decided to get my wits about me before another encounter. I entered the plaza in front of the new city hall. The nicest building in the city today. I wandered around and passed all the streets which led to the market. Nothing had changed. Every house familiar, though a bit smaller and old-fashioned, perhaps from age or from suffering. All of a sudden I saw a sign with the names of the past Jewish owners: Z. It is possible that there was a mistake. I knocked at the door and entered. Despite the early hour there was a kerosene light. The house so recognizable was totally different outside than from within. This was not a Jewish home. Sacred pictures and beside them two thick wax candles. An old woman sitting and sewing. I asked her if she has any connection with the name on the sign outside. “No, ma'am. There were many empty homes after the war. All the Jews left or were killed. Many came from afar and got the empty apartments. My children were also killed and I am here with my grandchildren. There is no point looking for Jews here. There are none. There is only one, go on the street….” She also sent me to the one, the only one remaining. On the main street on the corner stands the house so well known to me with the bakery in front. In the yard is a red brick house. One of the dearest families and my soul-mate friend lived in this house. I wanted to walk again on the same path I'd walked so many times in the past, where my childhood and young dreams were woven -- my dreams and hers, my friend Adele. The house stood, cold, awakening memories but rejecting. The power of a house, bigger than that of a person. It absorbs and rejects and remains as is. The people living there now know nothing of the previous occupants.

I went to the home of the remaining Jew. I was welcomed by a young man who went through the whole hellish experience while still a young boy, the concentration camp, and exterminations.

[Page 484]

Like many youngsters his age he witnessed the horrid annihilation, the ovens, the millions of pairs of shoes, the burnt clothing and the many skeletons of his people and his townsmen. He lives but cannot free himself from the nightmare in which he lives. Those are the eyes that have seen it all, and will certainly not see much joy, and happiness will not be found in them. He told me of many survivors, who left the town, of those who emigrated and of a few who went to HaEretz. He told me of the heroism of Rosa Robota, may her memory be blessed. Everyone knew of her and was proud of this daughter of our town. Of those I ask him about, he knew only a few. He was after all only a boy then. I went through the whole town with him in all directions, each road big and small, and all remained as was. The house in which hundreds of Jewish children studied remained as was. Only the children are missing. It seems that any minute a familiar face will appear from the gymnasium, the market or whatever. The roads are full of people and particularly carts harnessed to horses. The sidewalk is narrow, as is the road. The stores along the roads are small. There are no storefront show windows, rather glass dripping rain. The impression of everything is sad and monochrome, with no light, much mud and plaster. The old homes stand close one to another. The park is as if nothing happened. The benches stand as does the hill above the park and children are even running in the paths. Only a few new homes were built by the Germans near the gymnasium, two-story homes with a garden around according to best German tradition. Now the city's wealthy live in them with radio, telephone and baths. Once, a telephone was had by only two of the townspeople. And a radio by the same number. I couldn't say who the rich are now. In the vicinity of the cemetery there was once a shack, a place where there was a Shomeir Hatzair meeting place. The place stands empty, the windows closed with boards. Perhaps people hid out there in bad times. When you go around and want to see the cemetery, you simply can't. I will probably not get there. There is destruction and damage. I didn't go because I couldn't bear the horrors that a living person's eyes could see. I turned quickly and took off.

After this I understood. In this place no Jews would live. The living left because it is not possible to create new life. Here there remains only one artifact of the horrid period that lives in the memory of the past and tries to live on. He will also not start a new generation as there is no place here for a Jewish baby. There is nothing on which to raise a Jewish child. On that we agreed.

I saw the whole town with all the bravery and pain with the words of the song of the great poet: “Rise and go to the city of killing and come to the gardens and your eyes shall see..”

I saw with my own eyes, and felt, and left with the ache of a Jewish orphan for what has been done to us. I saw one of the places where the dawn will never see a Jewish town because a Jewish child will never be born there.

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