by David DuVal
In 1990 I traveled to Borzna, a small town one hundred miles northeast of Kiev in Ukraine. 86 years earlier (1904), my father's family left Borzna to emigrate to America. My great-grandparents on my mother's side had come to America much earlier than that from Kleczew in Poland. The arrangements I had to visit Ukraine did not offer me a chance to go also to Poland. I felt fortunate to have just been able to get to Borzna. Now (1992), I was returning to Ukraine, to meet again with friends I had made there, and to try to visit Borzna a second time. This time I would try to visit Kleczew.
The same questions I had before visiting Borzna were now there for Kleczew: What did it look like now? What was the area surrounding it like? Was there any evidence that "we" had once been there -- cemeteries, synagogues, etc.? And, of course, there was the obvious one: How would I get there? Although I had studied Russian before going to Borzna, I did not know Polish. What city would I have for my base: Warsaw, or the closer Posnan? Should I go to Poland first -- or to Kiev?
The trip was very different from the one to Borzna. In Ukraine there was rich, dark soil, thick forests with farm land between. The Polish countryside was rural, and the land was not fertile and appeared sandy. We stopped and got out along the way to consult a map and to have some pears that we brought along. As we got closer, we stopped to walk over the land. We could see a forest where Jan said that Kleczew was located. We were walking around an extensive coal-mining area with large strip-mining basins cut into the ground. On the left was a narrow gauge railway that cut through the fields in which grew sugar beets.
As we drove into Kleczew, we passed at least two sign announcing its presence, which seemed surrounded by a wrought iron fence. It was like a gated community back home. Finally we drove into the town and parked. In the town center was an overgrown garden of roses, unattended for many years. There was a fountain (unworking) in the middle. It was not difficult imagining a Jewish market here. Of course, since the Second World War, the Nazis had eliminated the Jewish population from this town.
My ancestors had come from here long before--in the 1860's--so there was little to imagine. I'm sure that there were no surviving structures from that time, but most of the structures were surviving the Russian period, and some were from pre-WWII.
We spoke (in Polish) to two or three people who lived there along the square. Along the eastern edge there were some stores (we went into a butcher's shop, where I spoke with the owner in Russian. Later we spoke with a man and a woman who lived in one of the three story apartments that lined the northern edge. They said the Nazis had totally eliminated the Jews from this town.
The cemetery, which I was anxious to visit, had been completely destroyed. A soccer stadium had been built in its place, and there were no stones remaining.
Along the western edge the buildings were primarily of wood and looked as though they were "Jewish" in origin. They were storefronts built at ground level. The owners could have easily lived in the rear quarters. I asked if there was a tannery, since I knew that Jacob had apprenticed there many years previous. Yes, they said. There was a store (pointing to the western edge) that specialized in leather goods. As we looked, a wagon hitched to a horse drove by and parked there. I remembered reading how Lehman took a wagon with his father to another town. It was probable the same kind of wagon then (without the rubber tires.) This still seemed the main method of transportation here, both for individuals and commercial. The town, according to these people, was a dying one. There was no industry there to keep young people coming, and they were continuing to move out. They felt that Kleczew would eventually be a ghost town.
As an aside, I was interested that the town was pronounced both with and without an uh at the end. Either way was correct I was told, and later discovered that, in Polish, if a word ended in V or other consonant, the language usually added an uh at the end.
The church, Catholic, was located outside the square, along the road we had driven in on. We could hear the bells ringing. The other "church" was along the southern side of the square. This was the one-time Synagogue. It was the largest building there; now it is used as a movie theater. I could tell that there was once a sizable Jewish population there, since this was a large building. It was the only thing there that was definably Jewish. I took a seisin of sandy soil from in front of this building. The buildings along that side next to the Synagogue-movie theater were, according to Jan, of German architecture, built high (4-6 steps) above ground level. They were obvious office buildings, maybe used now as apartments.
We decided not to go to the stadium but instead drove out of the town looking for a "cornfield". This was mentioned in Jacob's memoirs as a field he hid in from the Russians. Along the path, which now was not macademed and was rutted to wagon wheels, we encountered a bearded man in a large wagon (and large horse), a rifle, and ammunition criss-crossing his chest. He was evidently a hunter and rather menacing to me. They stopped the car and we conversed with him. Actually he was friendly and interested in the American in the car. He told us about the monument which we were to see later.
We drove through the forest a little ways. We came to a large cultivated field -- of corn! Could this be THE corn field? I'll never know, but for me it was. Back in the forest, we found the large monument to the Polish victims of Hitler's war. Jan said that the trees around us were not cut down because of the large number of bullets in them left over from the war -they would break the saws of those that would lumber the trees.
Back to KLECZEW Main Page
Copyright © 1998, 2004 David DuVal