The City of My Youth
Mark Rakowski, Warsaw
Everything flowed and passed in our lives. Everything turned into shadow. But there is a kind of magical power in the memories of the past.
Everyone, especially in adulthood, bears a small cemetery in the depths of his heart, not just for relatives, friends and others who were dear to him but also for events and occasions to which he is strongly tied.
Recollections become more distant in the course of time, and are even erased from our memories. Then a day comes, and forgotten incidents suddenly appear, coming to mind. The dead leave their graves, speaking and smiling with their colorless lips. Great sadness encompasses our hearts then. We feel lonely, and the thought that everything has passed, never to return, does not let us be. It seems to us that we would give anything for one day of that beautiful life, the life of youth and happiness, which will never return.
An enormous impetus to visit the places where we were once happy and carefree awakens in us. I have a few cities like these: Malkin, where I was born and which I left as a child of ten; Ostrolenka, the city of my flowering youth, from which my whole family moved to Bialystok at the time of World War I; and finally, Warsaw-Otwock of the period of my literary activity.
After World War II, during my various travels and wanderings, I do not know why these two cities, Ostrolenka and Bialystok, tempted and winked at me, like distant lights in the dark night.
On the banks of the enchanting Black Sea, in the shadow of the intoxicating scents of the tropical trees on the Crimean Peninsula, on the deck of the ship on which I sailed on the waves of the Volga River, and also when I struggled with death at all these places, there rose before my eyes, as if from a fog, the Rivers Narew, Visla, Swider and Bialy the murky stream of Bialystok. As if on a screen, shadows of the cities of my childhood and youth pass.
These experiences are not just sadness and longing. They are sick, pathological experiences this is nostalgia. Sadness and longing are passing phenomena, caused by chance failure in life or disappointed hope, or even by stormy weather continuing for many days. These feelings are there one night and lost the next. But nostalgia is a disease that gnaws at you day and night, weakens the body and brings about despair.
In a bitter movement of the soul, I travel to Ostrolenka. The train cars are spacious, there is no crowding. No Jewish faces can be seen in them. And what would Jews seek here, when in the entire region between Warsaw and Ostrolenka, not even one Jew is to be found?
The monotonous rumble of the wheels is heard. Beyond the window, the landscape flashes by. In them, I seek some reminder of years gone by, something familiar to grab on to but in vain. My thoughts run with the speed of the rising and falling telegraph wires, toward the distant past, when train cars were full of many Jews, jammed and crowded in. I see before me Ostrolenka of old, as it is frozen in my memories. Megalomania takes control of me. Here I am, the only Jewish wanderer to tread on his tortured brothers' ground, and I can find no rest. I am the modern enemy, bewailing the bitter fate of his annihilated nation, his family, his relatives and friends. I am the unconsumed burning bush.
Ostrolenka! I feel like a man who wakes from a terrible nightmare in the night, in a dark room. He has lost direction and lies with wide-open eyes, thinking that he did not lie there the night before. He looks for the door, the window, the closet, groping in the dark, exerting himself until he arrives at the conclusion that he is indeed lying in the very same place.
I leave the railway car and pass familiar places. I look into people's eyes, searching for familiar faces. I am ready to approach the first person I encounter and ask to shake his hand. But I feel strangeness in a place where once everyone knew me. A wave of cold passes
through all my limbs. No one knows me and I do not know anyone.
It seems to me that I am not myself, but someone else, because someone took the me of old far from here, and now only my shadow hovers in the emptiness all around. My city, where every door and window was always open to me, where at every step of the way I met acquaintances, is unfamiliar to me now.
Where have they disappeared to, the soft, wide carriages, harnessed to a pair of horses, which took passengers to the railway station? Where are the mighty, tall wagoners, the giant Seka, who from the heights of their seats, like a figures of authority, waved their whips with a whistle and sang to the tempo of the galloping horses' gait and the clatter of the wheels in iron hoops?
The image of Meir Hersz appears before me, the typical Jewish wagoner from Mendele Mocher Seforim's [Mendele the Bookseller] town of Kapcansk, with his gaunt horse and its decrepit cart, bouncing and creaking as it went, a beggar who took care of half a dozen children. His customers, for the most part, had heavy loads. Crowds of children shouted Special delivery! and ran after his wagon, which was like a large wheelbarrow. Every few months, he appeared dressed in his Sabbath kapote on a weekday. Then, everyone understood that his horse had died, and they collected about fifteen-twenty rubles for him to buy a new horse.
In front of the railway station, once teeming with life, full of wagons and carriages, now stands one forlorn bus. People get on slowly, without haste, indifferently as if traveling without a purpose.
The bus passes quietly near a row of houses close to the road, where the little synagogue built of wood, for a few prayer quorums of Jews, once stood, built thanks to my father's great efforts.
My head spins. The old places revive forgotten people, precisely in this synagogue. On Sabbaths, those wagoners sat near its eastern wall, dressed in festive kapotas, washed, the smell of soap and kerosene wafting from them and among them, my father, Jakow Meir, dressed in a short coat, with a collar and tie. My father liked them, with their folksiness, and befriended them, as though he were one of them.
I must admit that this simple environment was so close to me and, thanks to these laborers, tenderness and love for the simple man was rooted in my heart.
I cannot recognize the place where our house stood. The marsh that stretched behind it has disappeared as if it never was, the storks stepping proudly are no longer seen, the croaking of frogs is no longer heard. Only a few neglected structures stand as though enchanted in the silence all around, and people are sunk in a deep slumber.
There is no longer the movement of old along the five kilometers between Kaczyny and the city. The long wagons, full of heavy sacks, barrels and all kinds of merchandise are gone forever. I remember Meir Josel, the strong porter. Even a crate weighing over a hundred kilos did not bend his back, which was as straight as a ruler. Here, alongside the road, stood the windmill of Szaje the Grinder (Milner), who used to tell wonderful tales of ghosts and reincarnations. Opposite was the smithy of Awraham the Blacksmith, who was adorned with a long beard, and who my father nicknamed Strong-Hammer, because he understood the Torah commentaries. He was not a drunk by nature, but on Simchat Torah, he drank well and properly, until he almost lost his senses. When he sang in a sobbing voice, those around him began to shout Kieliszek wodki podawaj! (Give him a shot of vodka!).
Like shadows, images pass before my eyes and disappear. Cars go by quickly and, from time to time, a farmer's cart. The entire area has changed until it is unrecognizable. Swamps have been drained, trees cut down, and numerous new houses built in their stead.
At the entrance to the city of Ostrolenka, I had the impression that nothing had changed. Tall modern buildings had not sprung up. The same low huts remained on both sides of the road. Only here and there an empty lot stuck out, a remembrance of the last destruction.
Where were the people and the farmers with their wagons, the empty lot leading to Benedon's barracks, which shrank because of the newly built buildings? Where were the dozens of Jews men and women crowding around farmers' wagons loaded with grains and vegetables? The rurals are no longer seen with huge baskets full of chickens, ducks and geese, and the Jewish housewives prodding them, weighing and blowing on their rumps to reveal the flesh and check their quality.
No one cares that their townsman of old, who the whole town once knew, has arrived after forty years, brokenhearted, to have a look at the place of his childhood and youth, where his young life passed happily and in great hope.
Ostrowa Street has also remained as it was. It has not been made wider, and its houses are no taller. But it is more beautiful and cleaner, and looks festive. Only the steps leading to the doors of the stores of the Jews are missing.
A beautiful public park with flowerbeds and new benches placed in the central square. Three of its sides have been renovated or rebuilt. The city hall and post office are unchanged. Only the house in which Hacek's store was has been completely erased. From there, an empty area continues on to the River Narew. The houses on the street leading to the bridge have also disappeared. Nothing remains of the houses on Synagogue Street, where the Hotel Polski was, or Thylim's house, in which the Markiewicz couple lived, and where we enjoyed ourselves and laughed over a cup of tea. The place is now surrounded by a wooden fence; behind it, makeshift shacks have been built. And another empty area in the direction of Bialy's sawmill.
But where is the bridge? Often, when I was in a foreign country, through the eyes of my spirit, I saw the banks of our River Narew and, spanning it, the wooden bridge leading to the Rozan road, surrounded by many trees and bushes. At those moments, it was as if I had broken through the dense wall of the past, and stood face to face with the years of my youth. Now I feel as if something has shattered. The thread of my life's path has snapped, the bridge has disappeared, and there gapes the deep abyss of those years in which I was as free as a bird, when the days flowed without worry.
Sunk in respective thoughts, I ramble slowly through the streets of present-day Ostrolenka, which has expanded, primarily in the direction of Wojciechowice. Clearly, a great deal of effort has been invested to restore the ruins and build new, modern houses. A huge bridge has been built over the River Narew, at the continuation of Lomza Street. In Wojciechowice, a big paper factory has been erected, said to produce hundreds of thousands of tons of paper a year.
But not a scintilla of joy has awakened in my heart, because not even one Jew remains in the city. I feel that I am losing my balance, my head is spinning; the order and look of the houses has changed. With each additional step, the spark of my life is extinguished.
Here, on the corner, not far from the post office, was the iron goods store of the father of my friend, Awigdor Melin. There, near the city hall, still stands Flakser the father's stone house, with the steps. He was an important community worker in our city. The attorney, Mosze Rubinsztejn, lived on Ostrowa Street. Here was the wooden shack in which Herszel Moszkes produced oil, there on Synagogue Street Herszel Szperling's foodstuffs business. I remember the place where Dr. Koen and his three sons, who went to Russia, lived.
On Lomza Street, near the confectionary, hung the three copper dishes of the medical assistant and barber, Gutman, whose speech was a mixture of German, Yiddish and Polish. People placed great trust in him, as in a doctor and even more so. He attended to the city's inhabitants, and farmers in the area came to him, as well. He was very sure of himself, claiming that he attached cupping glasses so tightly to his patients, that they would stick even during the jolts of the road to Petersburg. In 1940, I met his son, the doctor, and his wife in Bialystok. I do not know what became of them.
I also thought about Yisroel Shtern, but my memories about him are tied to Warsaw, where I found out from him that we were from the same town. In the Yizkor book of Jonas Turkow, I read of his road of pain in the ghetto and in Warsaw. Together with him disappeared our shared work of translation from the English The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. I never succeeded in including it in the book I wanted to publish. One printed copy disappeared with Shtern and another copy with my wife, who was murdered by the Germans in Otwock.
Here and there I see a few stores, with outmoded, unfashionable merchandise in the shop windows. On the main street, are a few large and beautiful stores for the sale of food and a few large restaurants that will not be empty, so long as one can get some liquid refreshment there. Most of the buildings that contained stores have become apartment houses, their windows adorned with plants and curtains. What I liked in the restored Ostrolenka was the new bridge, built according to the dernier cri of construction, the new stone houses on the way to the municipal park, the public gardens with an abundance of flowers and greenery. But Ostrolenka should be ashamed of its movie house. It is located in a filthy shed, in a side alley full of mud off Ostrowa Street, opposite the courtyard of the synagogue of which not a vestige has remained. It is all muddy and ruined. A barren spot. All around are scattered scrap iron wrecks and piles of garbage. When I passed the place, I was startled by some cats burrowing in the trash and a pair of dogs fighting over a bone.
Evening draws near. I feel lonely and helpless. So, a king who has lost his crown and his possessions must feel; so, a singer who has lost his voice in his old age must feel.
Again, I stand in the market square. In the past, at this hour, it was full of wagons and carriages. The air echoed with tumult and noise, shouts of wagoners, porters and crowds of Jews loaded with packages and along the sidewalk strolled the youths. Now, only the hasty steps of passersby hurrying home can be heard.
Without realizing it, I have arrived at the new bridge. The sun's last rays have disappeared. A pale moon has appeared, drifting between translucent clouds; its pale light cuts the River Narew. I stand alone, with my long shadow, and look into the endlessly flowing waters of the river, that took with them forever my youth, my happiness, my dreams. I look at the shallows, lit, gilded and quivering in the moonlight, changing colors, as though pouring from thousands of eyes that were extinguished too soon. I hear the murmur of the flowing water and it seems to me that someone is whispering in my ears the fatal, merciless utterance: Never again! Never!
One of our townsmen, in present-day Poland, writes about Ostrolenka:
Ostrolenka today is without Jews. At the time I visited there, everyone was talking about the big paper production factory, where thousands of people will be employed, and which will produce thousands of tons of paper a year.
Present-day Ostrolenka is a clean, polished, adorned city, but it has lost its soul and no longer speaks to the Jewish heart
A friend of mine traveled to Ostrolenka with me. He told me that he had received a letter from an Ostrolenkan Jew named Golubowski, who is the manager of a wine production factory in Grodno. He asked me to get documents for him to enable him to return to the city of his birth in Poland. We sent him the requested papers, but he did not make further contact with us. Apparently, he decided not to come
The Jews are to blame for everything
This was a well-known expression, even before the mass destruction of the Jewish community in Poland by the Nazis. Although there is a negligible Jewish minority in Poland now, once again they claim that the Jews are to blame for everything. Even the Jews who were annihilated can serve some purpose Why shouldn't a Jew be blamed?!
There is no trace of Jews in Ostrolenka, but if any kind of recurring problem is discussed then the Jews are to blame
This is a report published in Zycie Warszawy (Warsaw Life), a popular newspaper appearing in Warsaw, on 6 February 1958, called Tongues of Fire and Slander, signed by A. W. The conscience of the non-Jews in Ostrolenka is not clean concerning the Jews, and the nightmare of the Jewish martyrs does not let them rest. They believe that the Jews came down from heaven and set fire to their homes (recently, many fires broke out in the city), in order to revenge themselves on them.
In the paper it is written In fact, it is hard to know what is sadder, that a young man set fire to houses in Ostrolenka, or the wild slander and rumors that spread and were inflated by a large part of the inhabitants.
Let us recall the events: between the 15th of October last year, and the 24th of January this year, nine fires broke out in Ostrolenka. The fire destroyed many farm buildings, in which was a large inventory, both animate and inanimate. The person guilty of the arson could not be caught, despite the vigor of the police and a civil guard organized by the inhabitants. A great panic arose in the city. Fear of fires and rumors of all kinds spread. Finally, after the ninth fire, an Ostrolenkan inhabitant, Witold Szoplinski, was arrested and confessed to setting the fires. When questioned, he gave as a reason for his actions the opposition of his mother to his marriage to his beloved and, after that, his hasty marriage to another woman, which ended in divorce.
I had the opportunity to discuss this subject with many Ostrolenkans, especially when the crime was recreated at the location of the arson. Nearly half of the inhabitants of the city gathered to have a look at Szoplinski, the arson suspect. We heard not a few completely unfounded things there.
The rumors maintained, and until today repeat, that the Jews of Ostrolenka, in fact, were guilty of the arson. Why the Jews and not the Christians? Obviously was the answer because they want to revenge themselves on the city's Christians. At the time of the German occupation, when the Jews of the city fled, the wagoners who helped them flee stole their property.
The rumors spread far beyond Ostrolenka, because similar arsons occurred in other places as well.
If the rumors had spread among simple, naïve, uneducated people, one could regret that someone was spreading them intentionally, to confuse those who had been harmed by the disaster.
The article continued with matter-of-fact details of the investigation, opinions of experts, psychologists, etc.
The article ends thus:
It is impossible to stand idly by, and look on indifferently at the tumult in the city. One should and must discount the dangerous slander. A party committee and a city council exist; there are institutions with workers capable of thinking logically and of explaining the matter to the satisfaction of naïve people. He who is in power he must impose authority.
of the Jewish heroes who were killed
Our honored townsman, Mark Rakowski, took upon himself a mission both holy and difficult, imposed on him by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw to photograph destroyed Jewish sites in Poland, such as public buildings, synagogues, homes of rabbis, etc. He sent us pictures from present-day Ostrolenka and wrote to us:
I took upon myself the Jewish Historical Institute mission to travel all over Poland, to cities and towns, accompanied by a photographer, in order to perpetuate in photographs the remains of religious and cultural Jewish life. At dusk, in this role, I sometimes feel like the Eternal Jew, who wanders tirelessly all over the world, treading on destroyed cemeteries, their graves crumbling, on the ashes of the six million, spread all over this country.
I suffer, my heart drips blood when I look at this great Vale of Tears. I am tormented more spiritually than physically. My head is full of painful impressions, endlessly passing. When I come to familiar places, the now and real life disappear for me, and I remain face to face with the past, which has become tangible.
I was photographed at the railroad station of Ostrolenka (Kaczyny). In the place where our home was, a large stone house now stands and, next to it, a kiosk. When they pointed out the old houses that had been restored, I did not recognize them. Once, they were about 200 meters from the main road; now, they are a short leap away. The road has come closer to the houses, and near them, a wide sidewalk has been paved. I was photographed with two local inhabitants who knew my family, but did not know me, nor I them In addition, I was photographed in Ostrolenka proper. I photographed the house in which my aunt, Czila Rakowski-Pawlowska, a dentist, lived. (She was murdered in the Bialystok Ghetto.) I photographed a number of places where public buildings stood not a trace of them remains. Where the synagogue was, there is an empty lot; an apartment house stands on one part. Around it ruined houses. In praise of the city of Ostrolenka, it must be said that it is hard to recognize it. Most of the wooden buildings have disappeared and, in their places, stone houses have grown. In the market square a beautiful park with trees, benches and colorful flowerbeds. All this would be well and good, if the Jews had remained in Ostrolenka to enjoy the restored city.
I also visited the cemetery and photographed it. It has been completely taken over by weeds and green trees, and not even one gravestone remains. The Germans removed them, to use them as foundations for buildings and to pave roads. There remain only a few crumbling graves, and every piece of stone shouts 'For the stone shall cry out of the wall' and awakens anger and rage against the Fascists, the modern cannibals, who did not allow even the dead to rest.
I took special care to photograph the square and some of the streets around it. Besides this, I photographed the 'Pomnik' (monument) in the grove, on the other side of the River Narew. It was erected in memory of Poles who were murdered, but it should read: J e w s!
In this place, several hundred Jews were shot and murdered
At the railway station (Kaczyny)
In the picture: Rakowski (on the right) and two neighbors from the past
the Powszechna Szkoła Jewish Primary School
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