A limited edition of this yizkor book was self-published in 1982 and before long all copies were distributed to families, landsmen and various Jewish archives. Over the ensuing years, occasionally I was contacted by individuals interested in the community, but it was not until the early 1990s that I became aware of the passion of two former Dubrowa residents to restore the desecrated and decaying Jewish cemetery. The sisters Rena Holstein and Lilly Gritz, both of Silver Springs, Maryland, single-mindedly raised money and overcame bureaucratic obstacles until their mission was accomplished.
In the summer of 1995 my wife Phyllis and I, along with a small group from the United States, Israel and Poland were privileged to participate in a moving rededication cemetery. This second edition includes material from that memorable trip including a report from Mrs. Sarah Maslow, the daughter of Rena Holstein. Rena died shortly after the cemetery restoration project was completed. I am delighted .that this second edition will continue to honor the memory of the Jews of Dubrowa.
August 20, 1939. Everyone is talking about Roncha Schlachter. She got a visa to America in just two weeks, but doesn't want to go. Her mother won't let her stay; she's forcing her to go. Poor Roncha; she can never make a decision.
August 28, 1939. Roncha is crying and begs her mother to let her stay just until Rosh Hashanah. To no avail, her brother escorts her to Gdansk to the boat. The political climate is dangerous, just like before the Great War. Aaron Shmuel hugs his precious sister and mournfully says, Please don't forget my children.
September 1, 1939. Germany invades Poland and starts World War II. Two years later Jewish shtetl life in Dubrowa, Poland ends.
Passover; 1988. Roncha and her children Stanley and Sarah plan to return to Dubrowa although they have heard that nothing remains of the town. Roncha never had forgotten about the children or about her mother, her sister and their families who suffered so terribly at the hands of the Nazis.
July 21, 1988. Roncha (Rena Holstein), her children Sarah Maslow and Dr. Stanley Holstein and her sister Leycha (Lilly Gritz) buy enough kosher food for their five day trip to Communist Poland. Their itinerary is to see Warsaw, Rena's husband's town Jerardov, Treblinka, Auschwitz and then to spend a day in Dubrowa. Everything was tragically emotional, but nothing else had the same magnetic pull that the visit to Dubrowa promised. The sisters said that they needed to smell the air of Dubrowa again.
July 23, 1988. The group drives to Dubrowa and pulls up to the farm home of high school friend Jan Jarjecki. The table is set with a feast of food that the visitors can't eat. Jan says to Roncha in Polish, '1 bet you can't eat this food because it isn't kosher. She's moved by his memory of Jewish practices from 50 years earlier. Jan looks at Roncha's son and says, He doesn't look Jewish.
Jan takes the group on a three block walk to the Jewish cemetery, the place where the sisters' father and ancestors were buried. The shock of finding a Jewish presence in the destroyed town was overwhelming. Many headstones were clearly recognizable and the sisters were able to identify the Tzadik's meyerol. But while searching the headstones there were teenagers smoking and drinking and defiling the holy place, the only remnant of hundreds of years of Jewish life in the town of Dubrowa.
July 25, 1988. In the coffee shop of the Forum Hotel in Warsaw, Roncha meets acquaintances from Washington, D.C. who also had made a family pilgrimage to Poland. There in the coffee shop begins what would be an eight year mission to never forget the children. With the
Washington friend's advice they decide to raise money to put a fence around the cemetery to prevent the hooligans from destroying the holy land.
January, 1989. The sisters send a $2000 check to the Jewish Heritage Society but are told that at most this will pay for a chicken wire fence. When they write to Jewish organizations they find that they are not interested in helping a private project. The sisters decide to raise money from people of their generation who personally remembered shtetl life and also write hundreds of letters to descendants of former Dubrowa residents.
They are disappointed that the Chevra Bnai Menachem Mendel (the town's landsmanshaftn) is unwilling to donate anything to help preserve the cemetery where the tzadick Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his family were buried. But this doesn't stop the sisters. They continue their calls and letters and send money to their high school friend Jan Jarjecki who arranges with an architect to design a solid wall to enclose the cemetery. Jan also contacts the town magistrate to ensure that everything is done according to code.
June, 1992. A woman whose deceased husband came from Dubrowa calls Lilly to tell her that her son took her to visit the town and reports that. there was no wall around the cemetery. The sisters had received photos of the wall showing that it was: 3/4 built and only waiting for more money to complete the project. By then they had sent $15,000 to their friend Jarjecki, a fortune in Polish terms. The sisters can't believe that their friend would deceive them and decide that they will visit to see for themselves.
July 1992. Roncha, Lilly, Lilly's daughter Maxine, nephew Seymour Hein and his wife Marilyn and Mordechai Grabinski of Israel return on their second pilgrimage to Dubrowa. Again they are greeted warmly and Jan Jarjecki's wife serves a feast. This time chicken and not meat because they thought this would be sufficiently kosher. They visit the cemetery and find that indeed 3/4 of the wall has been built and with it a newly installed entrance gate with a proud blue Jewish star on top. They are energized to see the job completed and decide to place a permanent marker at the cemetery entrance in memory of those who had perished at the hands of the Nazis.
October; 1992. The Washington Post publishes an article about the sisters and their mission which brings in donations from strangers who are moved by the story of the friendship between the sisters and their gentile friend. More newspaper articles and radio interviews continue to fuel the project and final plans for the memorial stone are made. The government of nearby Bialystok visits the cemetery and identifies and documents Jewish graves dating back to the 1750s.
June 24, 1995. Finally, the last mission returns to Poland. It consists of Rena Holstein, Lilly Gritz, Mordechai Grabinski, Dr. Stanley Holstein,
Sarah Maslow, Marlene Mugmon and Maxine Shuman, Avraham and Motel Fluke (two brothers from Israel whose father grew up in Dubrowa), Rabbi Reuven Fink and Dr. Michael Nevins and his wife Phyllis.
Again, the Jarjecki's table is bedecked with a feast, but this time fruit and dairy food is served to the guests. The group assembles at the cemetery gate where the Governor of Bialystok, the mayor of Dubrowa, a Polish journalist, the entire Jarjecki family and an international group of family and landsmen gather to dedicate the completed and permanent Jewish cemetery.
Roncha speaks movingly both in Polish and in English. Then the Polish officials and Jan Jarjecki speak in Polish and Rabbi Fink and Dr. Nevins in English. Stanley Holstein sings the Kel Moleh Rachamim prayer. Finally, Roncha has a few words for her long long deceased brother Aaron Shmuel Schlachter, I didn't forget the children.
Written by Sarah Maslow in honor of Lilly Leycha Gritz and in loving memory of her mothe1; Rena Roncha Holstein who died on January 23, 1996:
We've gathered in Dubrowa to make connections between distant places and other times. In a way it's like having our own Passover seder for when we recall our common heritage, we're better able to understand the present as well as the future. Indeed, Dubrowa's story is a microcosm of modern European Jewish history.
My own connection with this place is through my father's parents, Hyman and Celia Nevins, who were an integral part of my childhood when I grew up in the Bronx. When my grandparents met here in 1890 they both were twelve years old and had come to shul to say kaddish for their recently deceased parents -his father Nissan Neviadomsky and her mother Freda Zaban. Grandpa fled Russia in 1896 to avoid the draft, and when he arrived in New York, for some unknown reason, he changed the family surname to Nevins. He wrote to Celia and five year~ later she joined him.
I won't recount my grandparents' lives in America except to say that in 1923 when Grandpa learned that his wife's father, Moshe Aaron Zaban had died in Dubrowa, he didn't tell Grandma for three whole years for fear of upsetting her. When I was born thirteen years later in 1936, my Hebrew name was selected in honor of that great grandfather who lies somewhere in this place.
Grandpa died in 1962, Grandma in 1966 but I didn't become inter- ested in learning about my family roots until a dozen years later. All I knew was that Grandpa once said that he had come from a place called White Russia. When I finally did begin to ask questions, I had the good fortune to meet their cousin, Phillip Sidransky, a former school teacher in Dubrowa and longtime President of the landsmanshaften in Brooklyn. It was he who inspired me to write the yizkor book which was published in 1982.
Between the end of the 18th and 19th centuries, Dubrowa's Jewish population roughly tripled to a high of about 1,500, then declined slightly as a result of emigration. The Black Book published by Yad Vashem estimated that the town's Jewish population before World War II was 1,218 but this was based on a Polish census that had been done twenty years earlier in 1921. The town's total population then was 3,018 so the Jews constituted about 40% or more.
Through the 1920s and 30s the Jewish population was fairly stable so the estimate of about 1,200 slain in the holocaust seems like a reasonably good estimate. After the war survivors in Israel knew of only a half dozen survivors. Their pooled memory of victims was registered at Yad Vashem and amounted to only a few hundred names so we can't be sure precisely how many were killed. Sonia Grabinsky, the only survivor of the nearly two years when the Germans occupied Dubrowa, estimated for me that about two hundred young people remained in town temporarily after the older ones were deported and later they too were shipped to Treblinka.
Just a week ago on the same day that Phyllis and I began our trip, the New York Times Sunday Magazine Section featured an article about YIVO, the great archive which memorializes Eastern European Jewish history. It contained a scrap of a poignant love poem that was written long ago by Gittel Farkas of Bialystok which is only a few kilometers from here: The shtetl is sleeping. The farm is shut. I come to you in the night... For me the words are haunting because they remind us that the story of the Jews of Dubrowa is not only about death and despair, but also about good times. I think of my teenage grandparents who met and fell in love here more than one hundred years ago.
Sometimes when I've visited our family graves in the cemetery in Queens where former Dubrowa natives are buried, my eyes have drifted upward to the descending airplanes which approach JFK airport. It happens that a main flight path runs directly over the Dubrowa society's plot. Next week when Phyllis and I return home, we will land at JFK and as we look down from the airplane window, we will be completing a symbolic linkage of these two Jewish cemeteries. I believe that my grandparents would have been pleased that we've made this connection and that somewhere they will be smiling.
Finally, I'd like to present to Jan Jarjecki what is the last copy of the memorial book that I wrote thirteen years ago about the Jews of Dubrowa. I can think of no better custodian for it than Jan who, after all, has been such a devoted caretaker of our departed ancestors. The inscription reads:
To Jan Jarjecki -
Whether directly or indirectly, we all are children of Dubrowa who have come to mourn our loss and to celebrate our heritage. Your work in restoring this quiet memorial place has served to dignify the dead. Such is the act of a righteous man and for this we thank you.
|Street sign at entrance to Dabrowa Bialostocka (Dubrowa)|
|Cemetery stones in overgrown forest|
|Lilly Gritz, Rena Holstein and Jan Jarjecki in front of the new cemetery gate|
|Memorial stone inscribed in Hebrew and Polish|
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