By Barbara Krasner
Jasio remembered the day in September 1941, when Papa, bloodied and calloused, dragged himself through the door and announced the Jews were gone and would never return.
Jasio knew this, because one Jew did come back to Zareby Koscielne after the war. Police Chief Górski shot him dead with one bullet through his head in the middle of the market square.
Today, more than sixty years later, another Jew was coming. An American Jew. Since Ryszard’s call, Jasio had done nothing but think about the tour he’d give the American. Ryszard himself couldn’t very well do it. He’d never lived in the town. As Jasio buttoned his darned white shirt, twisted the knot into his tie, and pulled on his vest, he determined the route. He’d show where the synagogues had been, where the cemetery had been, and maybe if time permitted, Ryszard could take them all out to the place in Sembor eight kilometers away where the town’s Jews were executed.
All he knew about the American was that her grandfather left “Zaromb” in 1913. That was well before Jasio’s time. He hadn’t been born till 1929. He ambled about his kitchen, made so much smaller since Maria died three years ago. Plastic bags filled with toilet paper and soap lined the kitchen table. He unbuttoned his top button and inhaled deeply. It had been easier when Maria was alive. Her constant chatter filled his brain with meaningless drivel that stuffed his nightmares into the hard-to-get crevices of his mind. He crossed himself as he thanked God for his Maria.
He had only been twelve when the Jews left. What did a twelve-year-old know? Nothing. He looked at his watch. Ten thirty. Where were they? Ryszard was never on time. Jasio poured himself his morning glass of vodka and drank.
The horn beeped outside his front window. A green Peugeot had pulled up. Ryszard waved from his window and he got out with the help of his cane. Yes, they were all getting older. But Ryszard was as ruddy-faced as ever, not from vodka but from his love of life. Lucky bastard.
A tall middle-aged woman, the American, Jasio presumed, wearing heavy black shoes, sunglasses, and a camera emerged from the passenger side.
“Dzien dobry,” Ryszard said as Jasio approached them. “Good day. Thank you for agreeing to show us Zareby Koscielne.” He shook his hand and smiled. He introduced the American, but Jasio didn’t comprehend the name. He didn’t need to know her name.
“Dzien dobry,” the American said. Her Polish sounded native, but she was the first foreigner besides the Soviets and Nazis to come to the village.
“Her family,” Ryszard translated, “came from Zareby Koscielne. The Pryzants.”
Jasio shook his head. He had never heard of such a family. The American’s eyes lowered and she folded back a page of her notebook. She drew a grid of the street’s layout and snapped some photos with her expensive-looking camera.
Ryszard continued to translate while he, too, shot pictures, but he had only a disposable. “Her great-grandfather was a textile painter.”
“Then he would have lived on Fama Street,” Jasio said. “Back in those days, it was called Farbasker Street. Where all the Jewish artisans lived.” What had Shmuel Ruskolenker called it?
Ruskolenker. The name made Jasio shudder. He hadn’t thought of that family in such a long time. Ruskolenker had survived the war, hidden in a loft by a Catholic family on the outskirts of town. He became Górski’s victim, because the police chief had taken over Ruskolenker’s house, the biggest in town, and he was in no mood to give it back.
Yossel’s street, that’s what Ruskolenker called the street.
“Your great-grandfather,” Jasio said, “was his name Yossel?”
The American brightened at this and conversed with Ryszard in English. Finally, Ryszard said as he zipped up his beige jacket over his gray shirt and gray trousers, “Yes, his name was Yossel. He died in 1926. May we see the street?”
“Of course,” Jasio said. Ryszard took him by the arm.
What was there to see? Zareby only had a marketplace and four streets, like an ill-made wagon wheel. He’d be done with the tour by 11:30 and then he’d down another vodka, put on the radio to hear his beloved Chopin, and rest. Yes, rest with his five-toed black and white cat, Marshal Pilsudski, named for the leader of Polish independence in 1918. He could already feel the feline fur against his skin, so comforting.
Jasio led them up Czyzewska Street about ten steps and stopped. “Across the street,” he said as he pointed to a vacant lot, “was the synagogue. It was big and made of red brick.” Its image came to his mind’s eye. He could see the lights burning through the large, sky-high windows, hear the prayers and songs.
In those days, the town had color. The windows were stained glass. In those days, two thousand people crammed into four streets, most of them Jews. Saturdays had been quiet. The shops at the Rynek, the square, were closed.
He turned to face the opposite side of the street. “This is where the new synagogue was built. When the old one burned, before the Nazis, the Jews built another. And behind that were the bathhouse and the Jewish bakery.”
Jasio could smell the heavenly scent of freshly baked bread, especially on a Friday, and the scurry of the kerchiefed and wigged women into the shop.
No one ventured out much these days. Every now and then, some delivery trucks might roar into the square to the grocery store, setting off the roosters and dogs and the more than occasional cow.
“The water pump was at this end of the street,” Jasio said at the foot of Market Street, which turned right off Czyzewska. Ryszard and the American were babbling in English and handing off her camera from one to the other.
“Her camera’s not working,” Ryszard said. “Is there a place to buy batteries? Maybe that’s all she needs.”
Jasio took them to the grocery store, a shop really, only big enough for the owner and maybe six people. By village standards, it was big. On the way, Ryszard bragged about his grandson and how he picked him up from school every day. Every gold tooth in Ryszard’s mouth twinkled as he beamed about his grandson. He pulled out a photo from his wallet to show him. Jasio nodded and smiled. He and Maria never had children.
He looked at the square now, a shadow of its former self. On Wednesdays, Market Days, the square had been so crowded with droshkis and peasants and the Jewish peddlers that not even his cat could have navigated his way through. Today was a Wednesday and they were the only people in the square.
He looked at his watch. How could it already be eleven thirty? They hadn’t even made it out of the square yet. Damn the American and her camera. Now he’d have to give up his nap.
The batteries didn’t help the American, so Ryszard lent her his disposable. So like him. He’d give the shirt off his back. He’d always had a special sympathy for the Jews since the war, when his father had been a POW and taken to one of the camps, treated like a Jew. Jasio had known this since their days together in forced labor at the Nazi-run factory in Komorowo. Ryszard now served as the liaison for the town of Ostrów Mazowiecka eighteen kilometers away to roots-seeking Jewish families, mostly American, presenting them with old photos and narratives neatly organized in archival-safe folders.
Jasio stood beneath the directional signs at the top of the marketplace. One by one he recounted the stores that had been there. “Here was Lev Frydman’s barber shop. Next to it was Velvel Kilovich’s fish store and next to that the police station and the jail.” He described the school and study house, the inn, and the butcher shop. He saw the buildings now, sagging toward each other, wooden structures poorly built like a growing fungus out of the old foundations, remnants of former buildings left behind after the Russians burned the originals during their retreat in 1914. The sounds of roosters strutting about and vendor cries of food and merchandise for sale. The symphony of smells from the fish, poultry, and horses. And behind it all was the constant ticking of Grynbaum’s electric mill.
The American snapped photos in rapid succession and wrote furiously in her notebook. No matter what she captured, she couldn’t bring it back.
“We’d like to see the Brok River,” Ryszard said.
Jasio laughed. “The Brok? It dried up.” He led them out of the square and right onto Fama Street, past the houses roofed with tar paper. He turned by the Church of Mary of the Holy Harvest onto a road with no name.
The Brok used to surround the town on three sides.
The bells of St. Stanislaw rang out. Noon. Shit. He would have to hurry the American along.
She used up all the photos on Ryszard’s camera and was now using his cell phone. Jasio didn’t even understand how all that would work. Like those Warsaw couples now moving into newly built homes near the forest with their satellite dishes obstructing the view.
Thank God, Zareby still had its lush pastures and fields, even if the Brok was gone.
He asked a fellow for his permission to cut across his backyard. He led Ryszard and the American to the back and through a rusted fence. The weeds reached their thighs. “Where the grass is yellow,” he said, “is where the Brok used to flow. Further upstream was the ‘Jewish Place,’ where the Jews would swim on a Sunday afternoon.”
The American would no doubt want to see that. Impossible, though, as it was difficult to sidestep the cow manure. Jasio glanced at her talking to Ryszard and wiping the sweat from her face with a tissue.
They tramped back to the road, along Fama Street again, and now onto Kowalska Street. Ryszard announced, “She wants to know if this was once Moshe the locksmith’s street.” She spoke to him again and he translated. “She says the memorial book, the book surviving Jews wrote about Zareby, mentioned it.”
Jasio shrugged. “Maybe.” It sounded vaguely familiar. Had it been called Kowalska Street back before the war? Had he known a Jew named Moshe who’d been a locksmith? He shrugged again. What would anyone in Zareby have needed to lock up?
“We’ll go to the cemetery now,” Jasio said. “It’s at the end of Kowalska.”
Which house had been Moshe the locksmith’s? He didn’t know. The Germans had been thorough in their destruction of the town. The Soviets had occupied the town for two years and did nothing except steal an occasional boot. They were more interested in building trenches in the forests that gave the town part of its name: forest of churches.
The cemetery was a pretty little place if one could forget about what lay beneath. The land swooped down to where the Brok had flowed. Daisies and dandelions grew in spots and goldenrod clumped at the base of blue lilac bushes.
The ground no longer bore any markers. “The Nazis used the monuments to build roads,” he told Ryszard in Polish. They were stepping on the decrepit and decaying bodies of dead Jews, two rows deep, dating back to 1364. Jasio knew this because his friend Avram had told him once.
The American scooped up some small stones.
“I found a piece of headstone,” Ryszard said. He dusted away the dirt. “There’s Hebrew writing.” Only the American would be able to read it, but the lettering was so eroded, it was illegible. So maybe the Nazis hadn’t been as thorough as they’d claimed.
He could steal out on a summer’s night, pretend to be looking for Marshall Pilsudski, and wander over to the road leading to Andrzejewo. He could close his eyes, meditate on the stillness and hear once again only the clicking of the electric mill. When Zareby Koscielne was alive. When he was young and alive.
Once Jasio died, no one in Zareby would know 1200 Jews ever lived here. He was the lone survivor who knew this plot of land was no mere pasture, the only resident who knew that it covered shrouded skeletons in their pine coffins.
In sixty years, he had told no one. At first, he didn’t have to. Everyone else knew just as he did. His parents died. His neighbors died. And then dear Maria. Who would he tell? Who would believe him? He wasn’t about to drag out his shovel and dig up bodies.
Small white butterflies flitted about his shoulders. He’d never noticed them before. One landed on his arm. The spirit of a Jew, maybe his friend Avram Ruskolenker.
“Why did you allow us to be killed? Your father buried me alive. Shoveled the dirt of Sembor on my face while I screamed, ‘You know me, you know me!’ But I was too weak from the bayonet wounds. But you can hear me, Jasio, can’t you?”
Jasio instinctively flicked his arm, but the butterfly wouldn’t leave. He took off his jacket and left it on the ground.
The American held the piece of headstone that Ryszard had found. “She’d like to bring it home,” Ryszard said. “Do you think that’s all right, legal?”
Jasio shrugged. What did he care?
It was two o’clock now.
They climbed into the Peugot and Ryzard drove them along 11 Listopada Street, named to commemorate the November day of Polish independence. After three kilometers, they reached the train station built in 1921. They meandered into the adjacent pine forest, virtually undisturbed since the Russians monitored the railways. Their trenches remained among the pine needles and pine cones. Jasio could visualize the Soviets in their uniforms, the smoke from their mouths and nostrils in the winter cold. The smell of pine surrounding them. Pine had made the town famous for its tar.
Jasio held Ryszard steady. This was no place for a cane. The American collected pine cones. Jasio could see her trying to imagine this place during her grandfather’s time – a Sabbath stroll perhaps. Should he tell her? The Jews would walk along the road in the afternoon with their books and picnic treats and read in the forest until it was time for them to return for evening prayers. Sundays they were back at work in their shops and the boys back in school. Jasio and his parents passed them on their way to St. Stanislaw in the morning.
He checked his watch. Three-thirty.
Jasio had heard that some Jews had hid in the forest during the Nazi occupation in 1941. Who told the Germans about Mr. Migdal and Mr. Rosen? He didn’t know. For days, he looked at every man’s face. Who had tattled?
Sometimes during the war, Jasio thought he heard noises in the cellar, accessible through the trap door concealed by a threadbare carpet. A scratching, a cough, a sneeze. Every Zareby home had such a cellar, built after the Germans ravaged the town in World War I. Zareby Koscielne had always been on the front, a casualty of some political tug of war.
When he had asked Papa about the noises, he got no answer other than a smack on the head. Mama always changed the subject, usually to a babka or cake she’d just made.
He and Maria married after the war and lived in this house, the house of his birth, the house he’d never left. Even then the linoleum was peeling, the pipes were rusting, and the paint on the table revealed the wood underneath. In their second year of marriage, he went down to the cellar to help her put up her apple and plum preserves. It was then he saw the piles of bound ledger books with careful handwriting, the years 1868 to 1918 in Russian, and the rest until 1941 in Polish. He opened one for birth records and read, “So it happened on the 3rd of December, 1891 in the town of Zareby Koscielne that the Orthodox Jew Joseph Pryzant, textile painter, age 34, son of Jukel, presented in front of witnesses Shmuel Ruskolenker and Velvel Kilovich, his newborn son Mendel, born the day before…”
Startled by the memory, he stared at the American. She came closer to him and touched his arm. She turned to Ryszard and spoke. He translated, “Are you all right?”
He nodded, but he was drained and exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to rest when Ryszard drove back to his house. The American reached into her backpack and pulled out some zloty and two blue metallic packages. “Dziekuje, thank you.” She shook his hand.
“Wait,” Jasio said in Polish, expecting the American to understand. “I have something for you.” The American nodded.
Jasio went through his back door into the kitchen and down into the basement. There he pulled a box to him. He dragged it up the stairs and was sweating by the time he reached the kitchen.
“Ryszard!” he yelled through the back door. “Help me with this!” He grabbed one of the plastic bags on the table. Both Ryszard and the American rushed to the back of the house. Jasio handed the American the bag and motioned to her that she should open it.
She unraveled it and raised her eyebrows. “Mezuzot,” she said. She looked at him, asking the question with her eyes, “Why do you have these?” She cupped a few in her hand and touched them like they were the finest silk.
The day after the Jews left, Jasio had gone around town, gouging out the scrolls he found nailed into the right doorposts with his penknife. Maybe he meant to sell them once, but they were pretty, some of them, with their raised lettering and mosaic designs.
“Dziekuje,” the American said. But her eyes still asked why.
Then he pushed the box forward, full of the bound metrical books, the ledgers of Jewish birth, marriage, and death records, not including, of course, any documentation recording the 1941 execution.
“These are for her,” he said.
Ryszard stooped down to check the contents of the box. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Maybe they should go to Warsaw.”
Jasio shook his head. He motioned the American to the box. He picked through the box to 1891, thumbed to the page, and showed her. “Mendel Pryzant,” he said, pointing to the name.
She took the book from him and traced the letters of the name with her fingertip. She nodded and called to Ryszard. She was crying.
“Her grandfather,” he said. “He was her grandfather.”
She hugged Jasio, a gesture he did not expect, and he stiffened. It was time for them to leave.
He waved them goodbye and went back into the house. He poured some milk for the cat and a full glass of vodka for himself. Maybe now he’d be able to rest peacefully.
He opened the blue packages of chocolate chip cookies the American had given him. He had never had them before and they tasted good.
He had waited so long. He just didn’t know he’d been waiting for her.