Journal of Our Trip to Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania October 9-20, 1996
Jean Avnet Morse and I have planned this trip to trace the footsteps of the Avnet family. We have been drawn together through the process of assisting a Fainsod cousin in tracing the families’ intertwined genealogy. We have known we are cousins since my father, Lester Avnet (1912-1970), telephoned her father, Dr. Samuel Avnet (1911-1986), to declare that since all Avnets are related, they must be cousins. It is true that both of our family lines come from the region that is now Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania, more specifically, from the shtetls (hamlets) of Kuznitza, Sokolka, Indura (Amdur), and the cities of Bialystok, Grodno and Vilna. Jews in those areas were required to adopt a family name between 1828 and 1835. We are cousins, in fact, but we became friends at Harvard Law School.
And while we still do not know the name of our common Avnet ancestor, we surmise that he was either born around 1790-1800, thus of the generation that would make him the father of our great-great-grandfather(s) or his brother. My great-great grandfather was Ephraim Avnet (c. 1820-before 1876). We do not know the name of Ephraim’s wife or any brother or sister. We know only that Ephraim was the father of my great-grandfather, Joseph “Yossel” Avnet (1845-Nov. 7, 1927) and the grandfather of Grandpa Charles “Gedal’ya” Avnet (Feb. 3, 1888-Dec. 24, 1979). Grandpa Charlie came to the United States by himself in February 1904 from Kuznitza.
Jean’s great-great-grandfather was Menachem Mendel Avnet (c.1825-1890); her great-grandfather was Hillel Avnet (1851-1905), whose son was her grandfather, Hyman Avnet (1878-1959). Hillel emigrated with his family to Kingston, N.Y. from Amdur/Grodno about 1890. Our working hypothesis is that Menachem Mendel was one of Ephraim’s brothers.
The flight from Washington to Newark arrived quite late, thus I must hurry to get to the international terminal. There are no signs announcing that the Monorail is out of operation; so after lugging my bags up and down the escalators, I have to take a taxi (and am informed that the minimum fare is $8, plus an extra $2 for luggage) to get to the international terminal. At the LOT check-in area, the waiting lines are askew but the people checking in are calm; all of the LOT personnel and passengers are speaking Polish. Although Jean had urged that we travel light enough not to check anything, I have quickly perceived that my handling of the concept “packing light” is once again a major failure. Still, I had a good excuse for toting two pairs of boots (high and low), hats, scarves and enough silk undergarments to swathe two female figures twice––it would be cold.
I finally find Jean in the darkened LOT gate area. As we wait, we notice an exuberant group of Israeli kids, who are flying home to Tel Aviv after an American visit. On the aircraft, I move to a seat in the section nearer to Jean’s and happily find three center seats on which to sleep. The new sleep-ing pill, Ambien, works well, and I do not awake for 6 hours, until breakfast is being served. The cabin attendants barely speak English; in fact, between his accent, intonation and speed, the words of the man who makes the official announcements in English are simply not comprehensible.
We land on time and wheel our bags to the LOT domestic terminal. Jean has already figured out that the mere presence of the wheels defeats our ostensible goal of not being too noticeable. We have plenty of time to survey the mid-morning scene since our departure to Krakow is already delayed an hour from 11:15 [ultimately, the flight leaves after 1:15]. We meet an English-speaking Polish woman, Malgorzata, and share tea (“herbata”) in the domestic terminal’s cafe.
The smiling driver in Krakow finds us easily at the almost empty airport, but hardly speaks Russian, let alone English. Though it is only 3:00 p.m., we drive past groups people waiting at bus stops in the suburbs. We also notice large areas of new home building on the way to the Hotel Elektor. The hotel on Ulica Szpitalna in the old city is small in the best sense, and we have a very large, white-tiled bathroom, a living room, and a medium-sized bedroom. Agnieska, the woman at the desk, is intelligently talkative and offers help.
As we choose beds, I worry about the room being too hot, and Jean is concerned about being cold. With Henryk Halkowski, who advertises himself as the only Jewish guide in Krakow, Jean and I tour the old town--the Market Square and Sukennice--and the Jagiellonian University district. I look for signs that my son Ned has been in all these places, and wonder what he is doing now in Jerusalem. Later, back in the Maly Rynek, we run into acquaintances of Henryk’s--David, who teaches political science at Hobart and William Smith, and his girlfriend, Ann, an architecture critic and book reviewer for a paper in Sydney, Australia. Henryk runs off to a lecture (we later see on a poster that the series had included Eva Hoffman, whom we both have read, earlier),and we decide to have dinner with them at a new restaurant, Orient Express. After, we stroll the old town streets with throngs of young Poles and Israeli visitors.
Henryk turns up almost an hour late. We then have some comic miscalculations when Jean goes into the bank across the street to change money, emerges and crosses back to the Hotel, but cannot spot Henryk and me as we stand on the opposite side of the street, outside to the left of the bank. Although we set off late, we cross the Market Square then walk to Wawel Castle. There we particularly enjoy the throne room, with its neo-classical ceiling squares, each filled with a sculpture of a different head--a king a prince, a baker, a butcher, a knight, a coachman, and a number of female figures, including one with her mouth bound. Today, Henryk, with evil breath, pitifully scuffed shoes, and his tattered European intellectual hangdog demeanor, is getting on Jean’s nerves. As she makes her own way, I am left with him trailing me. We launch into inevitably animated exchanges about history and sociopolitics, but his ability to pick up social cues is limited, and he insists on delivering his entire guide spiel even when we politely, but deliberately, display a lack of interest.
We descend the hill and begin our tour of Jewish Krakow on foot. In Kazimierz, Henryk talks our way into the Tempel Synagogue which is under reconstruction (but he tells us we won’t want to go to services there tonight, because there will be 100 traveling Israeli kids there). We then walk past the long side of the Kupa synagogue. I take several pictures of Varda Gross Daniel’s grandfather’s house at 34 Miodowa.
At the cemetery, which I visited in spring 1963 with Jay Featherstone, there is somewhat more order than I recall. Jean admires the shaped tin roofs that have been placed over many of the oldest stones to fend off further damage from acid rain. We have our big meal, lunch/dinner at Ariel’s Cafe, which is supposed to offer authentic Jewish cooking. A friend of the owner, Hendryk confides that the cooks have recreated the dishes from old family recipes. The borscht and trout are excellent, but Jean is not too pleased with the herring.
The Jewish Museum is located in what was the Stara Synagoga––clearly once quite splendid. There are a series of woodcuts depicting early 20th century Jewish life in Krakow, done by Ilya Schor. He had designed the doors for the ark in the original sanctuary at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, where I grew up and married, no less.
We stay at the Jewish Museum right up until 5:00, when services are to begin at the nearby Remuh Synagogue. This time, I get separated from Jean and Henryk, and, frantic about missing the services, go up the street to the Synagogue and take a place in the women’s section. I wrap my scarf around my head, then stand in front of the first bench, where I can look through the lace curtain into the main––that is, the men’s––area, and attempt to keep up with the prayers. I end up calling out to a man on the other side by holding up my prayer book, begging by gesture to ascertain the correct page.
A score of teen-aged Israeli girls, dressed in suitably modest skirts and sweaters--the ample cloth dusting the floor and hiding their elbows--enter already quite late, and take up positions in the pews and at the tables near the doors, without ending their tittering talk. Several women and I eventually begin to utter extended “SH...SH” sounds in the hope of making it possible to hear and participate in the men’s prayers. After 45 minutes, I exit in a crowd of still vocal girls to find Jean outside, standing in the middle of the street; she is quite reasonably upset that we had gotten separated back at the Museum. This time, it was she who had finally given up on finding me after waiting at the museum, and had gone into the Shul, but had not spotted me in my front row station.
At ten, Jean and I go to Czartoryski Palace Museum on our own; having stumbled on the group entrance, we join a group of Polish visitors. We are startled into admiration of the Turkish tents, with exquisite oriental rugs, as well as the armor, taken from the Ottomans at the Battle of Vienna (1683). We spend a great deal of time before Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine. I keep returning to take in the exceptionally clever placement of the animal in the composition—using the woman’s arms and the ermine’s back to form strong, parallel horizontal lines.
We then visit the museum in the home on Ulica Florianska of Jan Mateyko, a Polish artist who died in 1893. On the second story, there is his collection of clothes and fabrics, particularly an early 19th Century empire style dress I thoroughly admire. On the street, we watch the Poles sample the wares and foods (bialys, ice cream, hot corn, popped corn) and visit the packed stores. In one nearby shop, we try on almost a dozen fur hats, and even buy an inexpensive Karakul jacket. We visit St. Mary’s Church, then walk in the old town, visiting the repaired St. Barbara’s Church, and attend a wedding, uninvited. We are struck by the large number of people praying in the churches off the Rynek, and the family groups returning from Sunday dinner at McDonald’s, the children proudly brandishing their kids’ meal souvenir boxes. After walking and watching, we dine near the Rynek at Stare Polska: I have pancakes, Jean chooses mushroom soup. Later, we enjoy a coffee in the Wine Tavern of the Elektor Hotel.
Our 21:00 plane is met in Warsaw by “George” of Our Roots travel agency, with whom we had been making plans over many weeks. He is really Jerzy Malynczyk, a tall, slight, Polish intellectual, the son of Polish partisans, he almost always has a soft expression. Our room at the Victoria Hotel, a non-smoking one, is bright and well-furnished with firm beds, a bidet, bathrobes and every small convenience typically found in a Western hotel. George promises to try to get us visas for Belarus on Sunday, while we are touring Warsaw, to avoid losing time on Monday morning.
Promptly at 9:00 a.m., we set out in a minivan, first canvassing various hotels to pick up any other visitors who have elected the morning tour of Jewish Warsaw. Our guide, Benjamin Saionc, is superb from the start, articulate, knowledgeable, smart and friendly. The van holds an American couple from Wilmington, Delaware, and Jossef Perl. We soon learn that Jossef is Israeli-born, now an American citizen living in Dallas where he works as a production engineer for PepsiCo. His specialty is distribution. He is consulting in Warsaw, and decided at the last moment to try the Jewish Warsaw tour.
One can “see” the former Jewish Warsaw only by imagining it, in hindsight, as one stands before small physical fragments, unsatisfactory remnants of the utterly destroyed reality. Ben also has photos to show us when we arrive a crucial areas: one piece of the Ghetto wall, a main gate into the Ghetto, buildings just outside the old ghetto areas that remain. For example, we explore an apartment house across the street from the ghetto gate, filthy, smelly, with mounds of dog leavings in inconvenient places. Still we notice a well-dressed mother and child exit. I enter the apartment building, then climb up several flights of stairs to force an “experience” of the interior. From the degenerating courtyard, we see simple laundry, jeans, kitchen towels and shirts, hanging on a crumbling balcony to which a television antenna is was attached. We stop at the intersection where the residents of Warsaw could watch the imprisoned Jews crossing a footbridge from one side of the Ghetto to the other, while they went about their also-war-bent lives on the Aryan side. The photo Ben produces is very familiar. Three of the four buildings forming the wartime corner in the photo remain standing for us to see this October day in 1996.
We drive to the Nozyk synagogue, which is filled with light pouring from two stories of arched windows. The chazan starts to speak to us in yiddish; I do my best to respond. The monument at Umschlagplatz (loading square)––where the Jews were forced to sit on the ground and wait until the vehicles to transport them arrived––consists of vertical slabs of white marble, engraved with the most common Jewish Polish first names. It is easy to find Moshe, Ida, Ester, Herschel, Chaim, Lea. When we stop at Janusz Korczak’s Orphanage, I begin to cry and must step away from Ben’s quiet, continuing commentary, and what seem to be purposely provocative questions and inappropriate challenges hurled at Ben by Jossef. I listen instead to the cadence of the outdoor mass being sung next door.
We drive then to the Cemetery. Here there are other groups of visitors paralleling our steps. It feels harder to make sense of anything. The men get into arguments, abruptly disputing each other’s ideas. Jossef wants to know how Ben can live as a Jew in Poland, and why he doesn’t just move. We pass a bus stop named for Mordechai Anielewicz; I muse to myself that his mother would like to know this.
As we finish, Jossef asks to join Jean and my afternoon tour of the main sights of Warsaw. We agree without having to consult each other. We have begun to enjoy his energy, feistiness. The fact that he is just now, at 47, beginning his quest to know what it means to be a Jew in our times, intrigues us.
The Stare Miasto (old town) is fun to visit, as the street are overfull with promenading Polish families, flower-sellers and groups of young people in their idiosyncratic version of Western dress. We go down the walk above the moat to find the peddler from whom Jossef refused to buy a carved wooden statue of an old Jew the day before for 300 zlotys. He is there in the spot Joseph remembers, and this time he hawks his same ware to Jossef for 200 zlotys (the price Jossef had later settled on with another seller). Jossef and Ben are convinced that the peddler, with his empty, ice blue eyes, carved cheeks and jaw, is the very Pole that turned in Jews or killed them unassisted. I do not know. But the strength of their mutual conviction requires that I think, if not respond.
In the other parts of the city, where the villainously ugly, Stalinist House of Culture is succeeded by older palaces and still stately residences, now housing ministry bureaucracies of mixed Communist-cum-free Poland origins, we are able to resume the mantle of tourist––ethnicity and religion unknown. The children feeding the ducks in Lazienki Park, right under the demanding Chopin statue are comforting.
At 4:30 we visit Monika and Stashik Krajewski at 4 Ulica Pogrodna. A friend of Jean’s friend, Hillel Levine, Monika is very gracious, considering that she is entering the hospital the next day. Her two boys, Gabriel, about ten, and Daniel, a Downs child about four years old, boisterously play bowling together. We sit with tea at the dining room table (right next to the queen-size master bed), discussing Jewish life and the struggles of people to shape an identity, to find adequate funds, and otherwise to make the transition to life in the new capitalist Poland.
Jossef is to meet us for dinner at Pod Bazyliszek, named for the mythic Warsaw dragon, in the Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Market Square). We dress up, take a taxi to be on time. Once there, Joseph, Jean and I order wine and bigos, then roast duck with apples.
To get visas, we are required to go the Belorussian consulate, then to their special bank, then back to the consulate. The bank is a present day Polish puzzle. In this beautifully decorated (by Polish standards) room, we watch while the teller writes out our payments first on the computer, then, old-style, by hand, in exacting detail. Then we are instructed to go to one Cashier desk only, number 2 (of 4), then to return to the original desk. In conversations during the trip, we are repeatedly told that: that you cannot simply go to a bank and get a loan (to buy a house or open a small business); that the banks are inept, even ignorant of the purposes that banks serve under capitalism. To beat inflation, they typically charge 20% interest on an unsecured loan.
With visas finally in hand, we leave Warsaw with George in his Mercedes sedan, heading in the direction of Bialystok. En route, we visit Treblinka.
My brother, Jon, was right in his prediction that the site would “blow your socks off.” The memorial is deceptively simple. The stones draw you on and into the history of this death camp. During the visit, I buy a candle in red glass cup. I cannot seem to get the candle to light until I create a mini-screen out of hunks of wax left from other, incompletely burned ones.
The only other visitors there are Australians: an older man and three younger men in their 30s. One in a white shirt, with dark curly hair, and heavy rimmed glasses is arguing while they are walking through the stones. He talks about how he has noticed that while the memorial area is so quiet, he could hear his relatives conversing when he moved 150 meters away. I reflect that the whole countryside could hear the trains, the guns, the groans of pain and death. Unnamed parts of my body ache.
As we are resettling ourselves in the car, the older man approaches. He gives his name as David Grynberg, from Melbourne, Australia. His cousin, Rotschwab [i.e., Roschwalb], lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I promise to call the cousin on my return. The younger men are his grandsons. He starts to tell us his story. He was from a town near Krakow, and was taken to the ghetto. He opens his wallet to show us the card he always carries with the date of his deportation from the Lodz ghetto to Treblinka: August 14?, 1943, as well as the date of his liberation [May 1944––when the Soviet army arrived].
Then he brings out his leather-bound siddur. Inside it is a handwritten list of all the members of his family who perished: his mother, father, three sisters and several brothers, each listed by name and date of birth. As he talks, I am overtaken by tears, great, wet drops falling on the pages with the names in dark blue ink. I apologize and try to stop. When I look up, the most handsome of the grandsons has walked away, and stands well beyond our car, his face turned from us and his shoulders shaking. In front of us, one of the other grandsons is crying aloud.
Tykocin (Tiktin): As we enter the small town, we see the old dust-laden wooden houses, laid out in a street pattern that has not been altered. People still live on two sides of the small river; on the dirt bank, a trio of boys is playing. Two thousand Jews made up more than 50 percent of the town before the War. They had to be given permission to live on both the Jewish side and on the far side of the river. Tiktin’s Jews were murdered in August 1941 in a nearby village, Lopuchowo. The Synagogue is closed but George persists, talking avidly to the woman guardian. I tell her in poor Russo-Polish that I have traveled 10,000 kilometers to see it. She fetches another woman who opens the iron lock. The Synagogue has been restored as a museum: a velvet cloth on the Aron Ha Kodesh attributes the work to the Lauder foundation. The four-story room overflows with light from the large arched windows. The Bima itself, many of its frescoes remaining, stretches up nearly 3 stories. The off-white walls on all four sides are covered with frescoed prayers; these are adorned with Jewish folk art motifs, which I photograph to show to our family’s artist, Barbara Avnet. The tower contains two rooms, furnished awkwardly with obvious anachronisms, as the dining and living room of the former Rabbi and his family.
We decide to have dinner in a very new, small restaurant in the basement floor of a building to the right of the Shul. The sign for the restaurant includes Hebrew letters I cannot translate. The owner has just fed a group, and tells us she has left only one schnitzel and one stuffed cabbage, which George and I order to share. We also get soup for Jean and him, then two portions of potato kugel, served in pound cake-shaped and -sized slices.
George and I speak to the owner, who does all the cooking herself. She is tallish, with bangs and black hair pulled back, large wisps falling over her right ear, but she smiles with strength and has a distinguished though shy bearing. I offer some advice about decorating a bit more, and feeding non-kosher Jews meals, or even snacks. George says that all the Jewish groups are kids from Israel, who are taken to Poland before they enter the army, and can only eat in two kosher places in Poland (one is the Menorah Restaurant). We drive to the cemetery where we photograph some of the graves and talk to a small girl named Ruta carrying a toy pail. As we travel we note the shape of a typical horse-drawn, wooden cart. The flat bottom is made of three 2” by 8” planks; similar planks form the sides, which widen as they slant upward. When the carts return home in the late afternoon, we see a wife or daughter, in peasant skirts or modern pants—patterns of dress that span a hundred years––seated up front next to the driver or on top of the produce in back.
En route George talks about his wife and four children, 4 to 16. In 1992, he sold his flat, bought land 25 kilometers fromWarsaw, and began constructing a house; as inflation took off, he had to halt the project, and move all of them into his mother-in-law’s two-room city flat. He merged his small travel agency with another to form “Our Roots,” which is doing fine but is far from lucreative. Flush with our experience in the capitalist West, Jean and I, both lawyers, too boldly suggest ways to market and expand the agency.
We ask George how he views the notorious history of antisemitism in Poland. When he replies that it resulted from economic competition, I bristle. It is too facile an answer. One history we have read argues that the Jews, like the Orthodox Belarussians, Ukrainians, Germans and, in this region, Islamic Tartars, were different from the Poles in religion, language and culture, and that the majority of Jews lived separately. But that a distinguishing element of Polish antipathy to Jews is that the variety of nationalistic feeling that predominated in Polish thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries gave new force to the view of the Jews as alien, as a race or caste of three million undesirable guests––and the Jews’ 1000-year presence on Polish soil as a threat to Polish nationhood, religion and culture. Without broad acceptance of a superseding concept of belonging through citizenship, open to all who contribute to a “community” of Poland––regardless of ethnic differences––this perception of Jews as aliens was given added credence by right-wing press support of this chauvinistic nationalism, and led to acts of violence against the Jews before the war.
When we arrive in the city of Bialystok, it is almost dark, but there are many people on the streets. We park on a sidewalk, and wait in the car while George seeks instructions to the Belarussian consulate or travel agent. Jean dozes; I walk around the block, up to a fairly new school which teaches children in the day, but advertises in large print on the main windows that it holds “Britanskie-Amerikanskie” English courses in the evening.
The Hotel Cristal, which is located across from the entrance to the wartime ghetto, is in the middle of serious renovations, and George complains when he finds the usual entrance to the parking lot blocked by men who are still at work. He has to drive three-quarters of the way back around and park on the sidewalk, where other vehicles are parked. The room is a great disappointment after the Victoria. There are no lights in the hotel corridor. The overhead fluorescent light is a blinding gray white. The three available incandescent lamps are dim. We read the Treblinka books, then depressed, of course, we go down to dinner to meet Tomek Wisniewski.
Tomasz Wisniewski is short, round-faced and blond; he immediately com-plains, again, about the Gurskys’ failure to contact him after he sent them a response, just as when I called him from Washington. Though he first tried to beg off tonight’s prearranged encounter, he has agreed to come to the Hotel restaurant to meet us, but very briefly. Tomek authored the book on synagogues in the former shtetls of the Bialystok region. Though he has received the material we faxed, he complains that he has already answered the same questions. [This is not true to my knowledge.] He does give me a copy of his latest book, Bialystok in Old Postcards, and says that if we want him to do research for us, we must send him a very specific, letter-contract. He also tells us that there was a street in the ghetto named Avnet Strasse. Jean takes the directions and early the next morning, tries to locate it; but discovers that many of the old streets were replaced by large apartment blocks. [Upon our return, our cousin, Flora Gursky, reports that there was once also an Avnet Theater on that street.]
We visit Bialystok, Sokolka, and Kuznitza (Kuznica), then return to Bialystok to catch the Viacomex bus to Grodno, Belarus. Many Avnets, Fainsods and spouses were born or lived in Bialystok. Among them were Dina Hoffman and her husband, Saul Kling; and Toibe Fainsod Hoffman, later Yossel Avnet’s third wife. Now we stare at former synagogues; one is now a bank, painted beige and orange; another one, a commercial building, is brown with scalloped white trim. We also see former Jewish communal buildings and yeshivas. Everywhere there are ochre wooden houses, in clusters or solo, interspersed among ungainly Soviet-era apartment blocks. One, in the commercial heart of the city, near the old synagogue, still has its garden in place, neatly fenced. Around 1900, before the wars and the proclamation in 1920 of a Polish Soviet Socialist government by Felix Dzerzynski, the city was 70% Jewish. In a flat square of a park, there is a plaque covered with fallen leaves––a monument to the torching of the Great Synagogue: when the Nazis set it on fire in June 1941, 1,000 Jews died inside. On Ulica Malmeda, we see the bust of Ludwik Zamenhof, who created Esperanto in 1867. The story of the Ghetto is heart-wrenching; on August 16, 1943, the inhabitants revolted to no avail.
Our last stop––the cemetery––is at the edge of town, right next to a large group of substantial new houses. The gate is marked. As we enter, I am so engaged in assessing the green and orange disarray, that I fall sharply, caught by a deep crevice in the everywhere uneven ground. I seriously turn my already scarred left ankle. The tombs in the cemetery are choking with weeds and errant shrubs. Jean helps me photograph a few tombstones.
We search for several cold drink cans to use as an ice pack; George stops at an ochre colored combo-shop before the highway; three cans of Fanta, Sprite, and Coke, not very cold, is the best we can do. Still stunned by the visit to Treblinka, we drift into a debate about resistance and about how the heads of the Judenrats––Jewish councils created upon the Nazis’ demand––in various wartime ghettos elected to respond to the role forced upon them. While some, like Jakub Gens in Vilna and Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz, prepared lists of Jews to be deported to certain death, others, like Adam Czerniakow in Warsaw, committed suicide, and still others, such as Ilya Muszkin in Minsk, refused to cooperate in any way and were killed. I hear my voice rising as I protest that it is not fair for people safely ensconced in their upholstered lives in 1996 to judge the relative morality of each choice through the seemingly precise lens of hindsight.
Sokolka: We enter the town then learn that the small historical museum is closed. We are immediately drawn to the market place. We stroll; Jean does a general survey, while I look at leeks, cabbages (white and red), onions, beets, apples, clothing. We buy sugared breads, then fresh cheeses from two women (the cheese maker herself was born in July 1942). These are her only produce, and we have bought her out. We talk with her about our family roots here, then with her neighbor, an older woman with her granddaughter. The round cheese is perfect in smell and texture; exactly the cheese of our Brooklyn village. I think of Grandpa Charlie, his cousin Charlie Wolf, and Great-Grandpa Yossel Avnet buying cheese here. I have a copy of an administrative record showing that Yossel voted here in 1919. He left for Palestine, on a boat out of Trieste about two years later, without divorcing his third wife, Toibe (Taube) Leah Fainsod Fainsod Hoffman Halperin Avnet (five marriages, 1855-c.1929).
We eat our lunch in the market center parking lot in the Sokolka yellow autumn sun. After, we spend two hours photographing many of the six hundred graves in the cemetery. Jean finds an area filled with mounds of plucked chicken feathers. Jean holds back weeds, while I photograph stone after stone. The lettering on the older stones is moving beyond legibility. We see first names––Moshe, Ari, Avraham, Elka and Elchanan––but no Avnets that we can discern.
On the road to Kuznitza, five miles or more before the town, we begin to see trucks in strings of a dozen, then scores of private cars, stopped and parked, but taking up the entire right lane of this two-lane road. They are waiting in a two to four-day line to cross the border at Kuznitza into Belarus. It is a crude game, in which the private and commercial travelers lose hours and days, while the Belarussians gain middling amounts of hard currency but tons of enmity and ridicule. To drive forward, we must wait until traffic is clear, and travel in the left, oncoming, lane. Around us are hectares of slightly hilly, but still countryside. The grass is silver green. On the right, men are plowing at this hour using a wooden plow pulled by a stooped horse; at the next farm, two men use a tractor. When we reach the town, I become slightly giddy at the mere thought that I am here, in Kuznitza. I think of Grandpa, at eight years old, with his saucy smile and sunglasses, then at fourteen and forty, at his eightieth birthday party, and quietly retreating into death at 92. When he has almost ceased to eat or to speak English, my mother consoles him in Yiddish. Then I sit on the ottoman next to his brown chair in the den at East Bay Drive. I ask him questions in Russian. He answers in Russian and puts on for a last time that shy, bemused grin. He was clever to grow up here and clever, indeed, to leave when he did in 1903. Baruch Ha Shem. God, bless him and give him perfect rest. Here on the soil of Kuznitza, I salute him with a deep, adoring smile, and call out to Daddy, and to Lillian, Norman, Alan, Jay, Carole and Jonny, that here I––and we––stand.
In the town, I take a photograph of a group of boy soldiers gathered on the balcony of the barracks by the train station. A slightly older sergeant, I presume, comes over and tells me not to shoot there. We enter the station to use the ancient facilities. The smell of the ineffective disinfectant is piercing. Once again in the sun, we walk on a rough dirt lane leading away from the train station, parallel to the tracks, on the opposite side from the barracks. At one squat wooden house, I talk to a 40 year-old woman with four visible teeth. Her garden holds flowers, lettuce, cabbages. As I turn back, one neighbor is carrying water home in balanced pails, while another washes her daughter’s face at the outdoor pump.
We start our sightseeing along the main street (Sokolka Ulica). Then we move slowly along the five or so side streets, where we can see that a great number of the old houses have been renovated, updated; many other houses appear new. I peer down main street toward the border crossing, where I can see small cubicles selling drinks and food and masses of trailer trucks and cars. We walk or drive along every street. Along the northernmost street paralleling the railroad tracks, we again see satellite dishes patched onto old wooden houses. Four retired men are building a driveway entrance; I play with their black poodle puppy, Kuba, feeding him the fresh cheese from Sokolka.
When George pulls the car into an empty lot off the main street––which he believes leads to the Jewish cemetery––we see drunken men lying, talking animatedly, on the ground below the cemetery hill. Two are asleep; one laid out flat, face up to the autumn sun, yellow-pink skin. We climb up the hill, then crawl under the new fence at a spot where it is a good two feet above the ground. I am shocked at the lack of stones. This is not the 20 graves I was first told of, or the eight or nine that was the next figure given. I immediately start to photograph the three remaining graves, each bracketed by two stones.
I keep coming back to the missing gravestones; I am possessed by the idea that they must be our family’s. This is Grandpa’s place. The Avnets, many of them, lived here for more than a century, or centuries. Grandpa’s older brother, Chaim Shema (his wife, Leah Masha, had died about 1937), and one of their five children, Lena Avnet, her husband and children, were all living here in Kuznitza in 1941. We believe that they were killed in Kuznitza when the Nazis came through. There is no sign at the gate or on the monument in the cemetery. Who thought up, or paid for the new fence? Where are our stones? and where are the remains and bones of Great-great-grandfather Ephraim Avnet, his brothers, sisters, and the generations before him? Jean does not know where her Avnet ancestors are buried either. I want to walk every square foot of this cemetery, at the top, around the monument, over the oddly plowed earth and patches of overturned sod. As I look out at the hilly countryside, I see what are pleasant vistas of farmsteads and old wooden houses on one side; to the West are newer, more substantial houses that appear to have been put up in a group, and on the Eastern side, a large concrete building is under construction. I sense an anger mixed with awkward jealousy. Was the cemetery shrunken to its present size? Are those houses on our sacred ground? Did those people know, witness or participate in the destruction of our close relatives? Did these thoughts also eat at Grandpa such that he could not speak of it to us? Is there any reason why my dear Uncle Norman is so indifferent, ignorant of it all? What does Aunt Lillian remember?
George tells Jean that the cemetery may have been fenced because of the continuing construction of a large new road along the eastern side of the cemetery that may be intended to replace the old border crossing. Jean also notices still fresh tread marks of a tractor that may have plowed under more Jewish gravestones, and new sod which has begun to dry out apparently from lack of care.
Only when I am getting ready to leave by climbing back under the fence do I notice the menorah pattern in the far side of the new fence. The pattern on this side I cannot parse. As I descend in the mud, I stumble then slip. Five of the drunken men are gathered under the only substantial tree; three are looking right at me. They call out to me in Polish. I pretend to ignore them, then decide to attempt a picture. At the sight of the camera, several turn or duck their heads, one becomes a chicken as he plunges his head into the side of his open green cardigan.
As I stroll up to the parked car, I watch another of the drunken men approach Jean and George, who are now seated in it; eyes wide, he apolo-gizes for being drunk and extends his hand into the car toward George, who winces. He then offers to carve a local rock as a headstone for Jean’s relatives. He describes himself as experienced in doing Catholic stones, but unemployed. Jean later tells me that George was extremely critical of these sots, who drink themselves into stupor after work, while their wives dutifully tend their children and homes.
We drive back toward the main square where children are now pouring out of the school, and three mothers are chatting, while waiting. We take photographs of the school and the fountain next to it. Behind us is the small, main square, with a middle-sized Catholic Church. Jean asks George to photograph the two of us together, in particular, our Avnet noses from the front, and in profile. A quintet of blond boys watches us closely. I ask them in Polish their ages and classes, and two girls join in answering.
As we move along the remaining North-South street, I jump out to photo-graph a kerchiefed woman in the yard of an old, but large and well-kept wooden house. I start to address her in Russian, asking about Grandpa’s family. She answers, in a mixture of Polish and Russian, that down the street lives an older woman who remembers the Avnets. We amble down the street at her pace to the house of the “babcia”, Vikiya Yefimovna, who is 95. When I wish her “sto lat” (100 years), she laughs and says “nie, nie.” At first she states that the Avnets lived on her street; then she cannot recall where. [We are aware that Poland has not yet clarified whether pre-war owners whose property was seized may reclaim it now.] She does say that Chaim Shema Avnet was a “skladnik” who owned many shops on main street. She worked for the family, so did her mother and other relatives. Another man, walking along the street, is hailed and invited by; he adds his voice. He claims that his family also knew and remember the Avnets well. There is a heated discussion of where the Avnets were killed, that tapers off with no stated resolution. Jean expresses certainty that the residents of Kuznitza witnessed the murders.
We have to leave Kuznitza now. We must return in a great hurry to Bialystok to catch the 17:24 Viacomex bus, which will take Jean and me back through the Kuznitza border crossing to Grodno. In the rush to find decent seats on the bus, buy food and water, and find a bathroom (in a cavernous hall full of small booths, larger shops and food kiosks), my camera is taken along with the last two rolls of film of Kuznitza.
The bus reaches the border crossing in an hour. It pulls off to stop in a special curved left lane, behind two other Viacomex busses, far from the scores of trucks and private cars, trapped in the two right lanes enduring days of waiting. I talk to my neighbor. Does he know anything? He understands my Russian. I am told there is a rumor on the bus that it will be held up because there are Americans on it. The bus is full of Belarussians returning home from shopping. In the back, one set of couples has piled in nearly twenty large, cheap, plaid, plastic totes; full of what? We can’t even guess. The driver announces that we can get off the bus for fifteen minutes. We find decent bathrooms in a fairly new trailer-like building. For the next two hours, I stand outside speaking in Russian to eight young men, who tell jokes, cajole and flirt, but ask, seriously, very basic questions about life in America. These are the questions I heard on trips to Russia twenty and thirty years ago: how much does a car cost, a television, a house? How much does a college education cost? How much do you earn (they do preface that question with “May I ask, Pani,”); and your husband? How many channels do you get? Cable? Satellites? How do you think relations between the USA and Belarus are? And Russia? How do you compare Belarus and Poland? and Germany? and the USA? “Are you Catholic”––his pal cuts him off and insists: “she’s Protestant; don’t you know––that’s what they are in America.” “What’s “Protestant,” the first speaker asks him.
Another more thoughtful man, thirty-something, tells me in bookish English that he is a musician who plays regular gigs in Poland, near Krakow. He recounts that his friend, a musician who tried to make it playing music in Atlanta, has returned to Belarus. He had to be a waiter, but could barely earn enough for rent. “Ah,” I say: “It’s La Boheme in the American South of 1996. Artists do not have an easy time living solely off their art in the USA.”
There are no streetlights when we finally arrive at the open air bus depot in Grodno after a border crossing that takes four hours and nine separate inspections. The night air is thick and dingy. The promised guide does not materialize, so I must negotiate with a taxi driver. I am very concerned about our welfare and our pocketbooks. But when we reach the hotel, I conclude that the driver has been completely aboveboard with us. The Hotel is dreadful, what ever wood or tile fixings have not yet fallen apart, are mismatched, in need of paint, peeling, or cracking before our eyes.
I wake up too early in the crumbling Hotel Turist in Grodno. Outside the hotel window, with its unhemmed, carmine satin curtains, the sky, the ground and the nearby buildings are the same opaque gray. Jean has slept poorly since there is no heat. Soon, Jean figures out more or less how to work the single extended faucet that serves both the sink and the tub. Suddenly, there is a shriek from the bathroom. “The tub,” she calls out; “it has a seat covering half of it.” She then explains that she slid off the “seat” into the two-foot square tub part, which is about eighteen inches deeper. We have paid $25 apiece for the room, but locals pay less. We pack, grateful that we will be leaving this evening, she for Bialystok [then Philadelphia], and I for Vilnius, Lithuania. We are relieved to watch it turn warm and sunny outside.
Downstairs, it takes some repeat questioning of the two prettily-dressed, but stolid women behind the front desk until I get our passports back and finally establish that we can eat breakfast in the Bar or upstairs in the Restoran. But they also tell me that we will have to pay. There is already a line of four people waiting for the money changing office to open. I change twenty dollars into worthless thousands of Belorussian rubles. In the bar, we eat bread, yogurt, tea, water. Jean gets a boiled egg, a sweet roll and bread. When the guide and a woman from Intourist arrive, they introduce themselves, and clearly treat us with deference. They also say we do not have to pay for breakfast. In a minute, we have tea, already sweetened, from a silver samovar, mineral water, rolls and eggs.
Our guide is Professor Nikolai Bespamyatnykh, Ph.D. He takes my Viacomex bus ticket and telephones to inquire about my missing camera. I expect little to come of this. He then insists that we get his camera for me to use. We visit his very neat, five-room apartment at 109-5 Dzerzhynsky Ulitza. He has lived here with his mother until her death two months ago. He tells Jean that he has left her room exactly as it was. Jean later reports that Nikolai’s long-time companion occupies the third room we noticed.
With Nikolai’s camera in hand, we go to buy film at a former state depart-ment store, now owned by its employees. There are about six very cheap Kodak cameras for sale but they are too rudimentary. There is a decent array of produce for sale, but it does not compare with Poland. Outside the store, a kiosk is blasting pop-rock; the people hanging around have the right to try out tapes before they buy them. We see a statue of Lenin, hand extended, in a square at the university. The street names, which have not been updated, include Lenin Square, Karl Marx and Engels Vulitsa.
We visit the main Synagogue. Nikolai states that attendance is down to a few old men, but points to the Sukkah that he helped to build. It stands on a flat roofed area between the two main towers that flank the facade. The building, which is being repaired, is locked. But as we are leaving, the head of the Jewish Religious Society, Yuri Chaimovich Boiarski, drives up in a once white Lada. He recognizes Nikolai. Soon we are in his office, where he insists on speaking Yiddish, although we answer in Russian (Ros) and Anglo/German (Jean). Yuri assures us that he has a minyan (men only). We visit the interior of the synagogue, and through blue air thick with cold plaster dust, we see that this was an imposing structure, and may be again.
Yuri has a Russian wife and two sons who live in Grodno. His parents were Chaim (1895-1943) and Basebe (born 1900). Yuri was born in 1924, and spent 1941 to 1946 in Chelyabinsk, USSR Jean is struck by how much Yuri, who is tall with green-hazel eyes, but is not a blood relative, resembles her Avnet relatives in appearance and mannerisms. Yuri tells us that his uncle by marriage was Jacob “Judel” Avnet from Indura. Jacob made shoes and stored apples, which he sold in the winter. We end up going to Yuri’s apartment to see the photo of Judel (born 1890) and his brother, Dovid. The uncle is tall, handsome, and exceptionally athletic-looking. But he and his wife, Chavka (born 1897-98), had no children.
Then Yuri makes a phone call to the “last living Jew” in Indura and arranges for us to visit. Jean and I agree that this is how we want to spend our Grodno afternoon. On the way to and from the synagogue, we see all the old yeshivas and Jewish communal buildings. Grandpa Charlie told me that he switched to one of these yeshivas, after he started out in another yeshiva, “5 miles to the left” [west](probably in Sokolka). “Why did I do that,” Grandpa continued: “I changed schools because I wanted to learn more.”
We ride in the pea green van to Amdur. The seats remind me of the old Citroen Deux Chevaux seats. They consist of a metal lawn chair frame onto which a canvas sling seat has been sewn. All the windows are blocked by bordeaux cotton curtains. I climb around, trying to pull them back and fix them in place with ties. It is not far to Amdur, which looks about the size of Kuznitza. On the main street there is a handsome, and imposing Orthodox Church. Situated across the main street from the church is Eli Peisachovich “Aleksei” Gol’dfand’s wooden house.
We spend several hours in rapt conversation with Mr. Gol’dfand, who was born in 1919. By entering the Soviet army in 1940, Aleksei survived World War II. He returned from the War to learn that “Everybody I liked had died.” He is the son of Peisach Moiseivich Gol’dfand (1887-19 ). Another grandfather, Alter Narbe, emigrated (to Israel, America?) in 1885, from the shtetl Chechernik outside of Kaminetz-Podolsk in the Western Ukraine. Aleksei describes that shtetl as right next to Grading (Graydunk), where my maternal grandparents lived until they, too, emigrated.
Aleksei had heard that everyone who remained in Amdur had been killed during the War. He went back to find out if his Jewish fiancee had survived. It took him some time to do enough research that he was satisfied that she had died. Then he married this Russian woman, whom he met when they were both in the army. We see pictures of Mrs. Gol’dfand as a girl; natural-ly pretty in an archetypal Russian way, but also strong. Today she defers, sitting very quietly, on the couch behind her husband’s seat at the dining room table. I urge her to join us. She tells us that she held five different jobs; the last one as a deputy auditor of health care providers. We learn that they have a grown daughter (40) and a granddaughter, who live in Grodno. Yuri Chaimovich drops in at one point; Aleksei does not look happy about it.
Aleksei decides to ignore Yuri and continue his tales of Jewish life in Amdur when he was growing up. Aleksei recalls Chaim Avnet of Amdur, who owned horses and also made a living buying flax from peasants and selling it in Grodno. He was a good “khozyain” (manager, boss). The village of Kuznitza is about 14 kilometers away, he said. There were about 5 or 6 Avnet families living there; but now there are none. Some may have emigrated to Israel, [the others were killed “street by street.”] He recalled one Kleinbord from Amdur as cheerful, cultured, upright and rich. “He never said a mean word to anyone. We thought he had relatives in America who sent him money.” The Avnets owned shops and also traded food and items produced by the peasants in the larger towns and Grodno.
He also dwells at length on his poor but very happy childhood in Amdur. The family of a poor sapozhnik (shoemaker), at the Jewish holidays, they often lacked foods now common in the town. Some days there even was no bread, but, following Jewish tradition (tzedaka), the wealthier Jews in the town tried to help the poor. Among his happiest memories he includes lots of friends and company, singing, and walks in the beautiful forests. He attributes the poverty to the fact that Jews could not own land or sell alcohol or cigarettes; thus they became artisans––furniture makers, shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, dyers––or worked in construction. He recalls a Walinson family in Indura that were stone makers.
During his youth, the Jewish community was filled with organized groups espousing many causes and ideologies––Bundists, Hassidim, Zionists such as Ha Shomer Ha tza’ir, Chaletz Ha tza’ir; assimilators and secularists. Many of the Jews were uncultured (“nekulturniy”), and there were conflicts among the different groups’ leaders as well. On Saturday evenings, enormous crowds strolled along the main street (now Rogachevskaya Ulitza). He remembers playing dreidl at Hanukkah using nuts. He also went to a Jewish pioneer camp in Suwalki (Sokolka?). In 1937, many of the young people left for Israel to live on kibbutzim.
In 1936, a pogrom occurred that began with a fight over his cousin, who became furious when a Polish sailor went off with his girlfriend. The next day, the cousin went back, grabbed the girl and killed the sailor. In the violence, thirty Jewish shops were attacked.
In 1937-38 some of the Poles again wanted to make a pogrom in Indura, where the majority of residents were Jewish. They painted slogans on the walls––”Don’t buy anything from the Jews!” On Polish Independence Day, November 11, there were Poles roaming the street with guns. At school, the teacher declared: if you find a group that is Communist, then 90% of the members are Jews. [Here, Aleksei states that in fact the majority of Jews were Communists or socialists.] The Mayor of Amdur, Himmelfarb, was Jewish. But it was the priest who stopped the pogrom before it could start, when he announced to his flock: “Dear people, if one drop of blood is spilled, no one will be allowed in this church.”
Aleksei’s wife disappears for quite a while. I eventually find her cooking in the kitchen; I ask if I may help. She offers us quite a dinner: salami, fried fresh eggs from her chickens, fresh cheese, cabbage and pepper salad made by her daughter; fruit. A bit later, I visit the garden; there are ducks and chickens, a well, and an outdoor privy. The sink in the kitchen is a soup pot with an opening that serves as a spout. You push up on the thin metal rod protruding from the bottom, to make the water come out. If the pot no longer has enough water in it, you remove the top, and spoon in large ladles-full from pots of water standing on a counter to the left of the sink.
We return to the table. She brings out pictures of their daughter, of Aleksei, of herself in the Russian army and as a decorated Soviet worker. When it is time for us to leave, she cries. I put my arm around her, and kiss her on the cheek. I tell her its is good that she is crying. It makes us happy to know she has so enjoyed meeting us.
Nikolai delivers me right onto the train, and, I believe, explains to the conduct-or that he is to watch out for me. I share the train compartment with Czesla, a fortyish Polish woman [Czeslava Stankewicz]. Years later, the Jewish family, whom her parents helped during the war, invited her, in 1995, to visit them to New York. Once there, she found through a newspaper a job as a mother’s helper for the mother of a Hasidic family with 12 children in Monroe, New York, whom she admires. She is open-minded, spiritual; she enjoys sharing insights and talking at great length about all she has seen in life.
The border crossing manifests itself in†multiple phases as soldiers of Poland, then Belorussia, then later Lietuva, enter the train by the dozen, demanding that we produce our passports and locate for them our luggage. Czesla grows very angry when a Lithuanian soldier tells her that she cannot take her collection of used clothing into Lithuania, where she lives; she calls it bigotry. I volunteer to carry her items in my bags and wear one of her sweaters. When we get off the train I carry her backpack and a heavy duffel.
Upon arrival at the Vilna station, my driver, Romas Glinkas, is standing at the top of the iron staircase, above the outdoor quai. The air is ash-gray, full of mist and train and truck smoke. But it feels cool. Czesla’s duffel is very heavy but I get it through the Lithuanian “control.” In the end, all of her sacks of used Polish clothes are admitted. She meets me at the top of the stairs and introduces her son; I tell him in Russian to take good care of her. Romas directs me across the iron bridge to his light gray Volvo 760 station wagon, then drives to the Lietuva Hotel — a former, late 1980s Intourist hotel, across the river from the heart of the city.
I notice that the mattress on the slim, wood-encased bed in Room 416, though not really old, looks collapsed, even broken, at the mid-point, where one’s body weight is heaviest. I surmise that it has never been rotated or turned over. The lower left side of my back is burning dully. I decide to skip a bath, and try to go to sleep on my right side. As I get up again to brush my teeth, my back goes into a series of relentless spasms. I cannot straighten up and I cannot stop the pain.
With my available arm, I pull the mattress pad and linen sheet-wrapped blanket ensemble onto the floor, and try in increasing desperation to stop the spasms. I cry in gasps, then counsel myself––find a pain-free position. The large bottle of Ibuprofen is with the unneeded luggage, stored in Warsaw. I turn down from 6 to 3 the sound knob on the Soviet era radio built into the night table, which is now playing a jaunty, untitled polka trot. Then, seeking to avoid even a nuance of rush, I try a series of “healthy back book” positions, then yoga stretches. Only an extreme position, with my bent left knee jammed tightly into my chest with the help of both arms, brings any surcease. But I cannot stay, let alone, sleep this way. I give up, turn on the light and turn to the New York Times crossword puzzle I carried with me. The once pain-free position ceases to relieve. The spasms break through the phony calm I have been pretending.
Tears, tense fears assert themselves. Jean has returned to Warsaw, and I am here alone. Once again, the radio music, vapid standbys from the Soviet era, insists on being heard. The shallow soprano of drumsticks brushing snare drum skin, vibrate through the cloth cover of the radio speaker in a familiar ballroom dance rhythm––brush, tap-a-tap, brush, tap-a-tap. I am at a bar mitzvah and the band will not take its break. This foxtrot is obliga-tory; any pleasant nuances give way to a sense of damnation––this band will play on forever. I reach over to the radio knob to turn it down again, this time from three, left towards the zero. As I turn it, the knob snaps down to zero, but does not turn the damn radio off. Instead, the knob continues plunging down below the zero. There will be no moments free of damn Russian muzak this night.
Before going to bed, I had called Rachel Rostanian Danzig, a Deputy Director of the Jewish Museum, and learned from her husband Hendryk that, the day after she told me she would be a guide for me, she was invited to a conference of museum directors in Berlin. She will be away, but he will meet me at the Museum at 11 tomorrow morning.
In the morning, Dahlia (from the agency that succeeded Intourist) introduces my guide for the tour of Jewish Vilna––Ilja (Elie) Lempertas (“Historian & Guide” reads his card). En route to the Ghetto, we go looking for the Hebrew Academy which Grandpa Charlie was attending in 1902-1903. According to Grandpa, you were excused from military service if you enrolled, but you had to learn five languages. He flunked his Russian exam at the end of his first year, then was allotted time to study over the summer in order to retake the exam. But, he confesses, he whiled away the time fish-ing and swimming. That was how and when he decided to leave for America. He was convinced that if he took the exam a second time and flunked, his “father would kill” him. At the time, he was living in Vilna with his sister Chaya, her husband, Natan Sviklich, who was an insurance broker, and their three children.
Elie has made himself an expert on the events surrounding the Vilna Ghetto and the history of the Vilna Jewish community. In 1939, there were 60,000 to 80,000 Jews in Vilna; there were more than 100 synagogues and shuls, and 6 daily Jewish newspapers. The artists, Isaak Levitan and Jacques Lipschutz (whom I visited with my father), were born here. We walk alongside a major ghetto building to the place where the main gate stood (Rudininku Gatve). To the right, up the street, is the former Jewish hospital building; the Catholic Church to which some Jews successfully fled is just ahead; back to the left is the precise locale (two balconies) where the leaders of the short-lived uprising signaled each other to fire. The uprising was cut short. The residents of the ghetto did not support it. Soon after, 8,000 of the Vilna Jews were exiled to Latvia, and managed to survive. About 6,000 others survived: partisans and others who escaped to the woods or to the Aryan side. When we walk over to see the room near the library and offices of the activist Hebrew youth groups (right-wing and left-wing Zionists), communists and socialists where they planned the resistance, we find that only two and a half walls remain, as the workmen are at that moment tearing down this historical spot as part of a reconstruction of the building.
We visit many of the sites shown in the documentary, Partisans of Vilna, made by my friend, Aviva Kempner: the courtyards with interior wooden balconies of the apartment houses; the balconies over the street, including the one from which one of the bravest young leaders, foolishly stuck out his head, only to be shot dead; the eerie woods and circular pits of Ponari (Paneriai), where 100,000 people, 70,000 of them Jews, were murdered.
I eat dinner at Poniu Laime on Gedimino Prospektas. Bright and colorful, the bar and snack cafe area is full, especially of young people. The dining area — white table cloths, overstarched linen napkins––fills steadily as I have my meal. I select a cauliflower and banana salad. It comes on lettuce, smothered in unsweetened whipped cream. This is my reward for asking before ordering only whether the dressing contained mayonnaise. The main dish, trout, French-style, in a white wine, cream sauce, garnished with julienne vegetables, is excellent. Dessert is typically Lithuanian: a parfait glass full of ice cream, embellished with canned fruit, weakly whipped cream, pomegranate seeds and a burning candle.
Romas Glinkas is in the Lobby on time, ready to drive. I go for a quick breakfast, but notice the cheese blintzes (blyneliai), stuffed dough (cepelinai (knishes)), and potato pancakes (bulviniai blynai). I now know to eat a substantial meal: muesli cereal with milk and a bit of apple butter, orange segments, blintzes, Vittel water, tea and black bread. On the first morning, I tried: the oatmeal-like porridge, but found it much too salty; the egg soufflÈ (bland), the crepes (too hard, perhaps from hours on the hot plate); and a polenta-like kugel. For snacks and lunch for Romas and me, I take with me: apple halves and banana thirds (in the skin); hard boiled eggs; rolls (sweet, like challah or Portuguese sweet bread) with cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers; for Romas, sandwiches of beef terrine or salami with cucumbers. Scrambled eggs, fried sausage or meat are on the hot table. There are also beet salad, coleslaw, pickles, liver terrine, but these will not travel well. I see Grandpa Charlie grinning as he takes extra rolls from a restaurant in Pass A Grille, Florida, and blithely tucks them into his jacket pockets, telling my sister Carole and me just how to plan for the next meal.
Today, I speak to two Italian business men, seated at the next table, and animatedly setting prices for items that must be reproductions of great art, referring to one as “Michelangelo.” They later explain that they are in Lithuania to sell high-quality ladies undergarments. Says one: “That’s the problem. They are too high priced for this market.”
We leave for Kaunas (Kovno) hoping to reach Mark Zingeris at his office at Laikinoji Sostine before he has to go out to gather his “best sellers of the week” information from local book shops. I notice the large number of new gas stations springing up along the highways and main roads; Romas points out a Texaco station. Kaunas is shrouded. Mark and I walk to the theater where his new play premiered last week. We have good coffee. Mark recounts that his Grandmother told him never to trust Polish Jews––they will deceive you. Her stereotype vastly favors the Lithuanian Jew as progressive, enlightened, rationalistic, humorous, skeptical and ironic. In contrast, a Polish Jew is mystic, alienated from the secular society and culture, prone to dark beliefs, a kind of religious Jewish everyman.
While he writes his best sellers column, I visit three museums. The devil museum has a remarkable and charming collection of devil figures from across the world. It is however filled with†small armies of children who are appropriately impressed but only from moment to moment. At the Ciurlionis Museum, I do enjoy the collection of the Lithuanian painter’s series of turn of the century paintings: the sonata to the sun and the sea. The carved wooden seated figure of Jesus Christ, the folk clothing and fabric exhibit, and two other painters, Kolpakis and Virginis are memorable. The museum of modern art building is more striking than the collection inside, which while good is not great. At Antikvariatas Viktorija (11 Donelacio Gatve), I find a Russian art nouveau pin and old wooden implements used for washing clothes. The owner makes a gift of a three-foot butter churn I admire. I am stuck; it is huge, and quite heavy.
When I meet Mark later, we share Metaxa in his office with three colleagues who are finishing their feature pieces for the next day. Then we walk to a department store to locate an inexpensive expandable duffel in which to put the churn and implements. We have dinner at the small restaurant on the main, pedestrianized street––”where your forefathers strolled,” says Mark––and where the reception following the opening of the play took place. The quartet from the Kaunas Music Academy is excellent. After one German Baroque piece, I recognize a refined rendition of the Beatles’ “I Give Her All My Love.” We both have fried mushrooms to dip in “cheese sauce,” good trout, and wonderfully tart cranberry ice cream.
Mostly we talk: about the innate pessimism of people in Lithuania; how to raise a Jewish son in a tiny community (Mark’s son hates the nearest Sunday school); the plight of his mother, Polina, a camp survivor, who has never received a cent of reparations from the Germans; the possibilities of bringing his play to other audiences; his poetry, which I have found very moving even in translation.
Mark took part in the January 1991 defense of the Kaunas television tower–the only operating one after the Soviet takeover in Vilnius that killed 13 people. In harrowing detail, he recounts that he took his place, holding the hands of an aged woman and a child in the circle formed to defend the tower. He had been told that the drivers of the Soviet tanks threatening them were given narcotics before being sent off to destroy human beings. Knowing that, he was overwhelmed by the vulnerability of the Lithuanian defenders. At the Vilnius tower, thirteen traditional wooden crosses mark the tragic deaths caused by the Soviets. The great, terrible surprise, was that, despite the vile acts the marauding Soviet troops committed, at the TV Tower and Parliament building (where Emmanuel was), the Soviets did not prevail. Mark and Emanuel are Jews and patriotic Lithuanians. Emanuel, the former head of the Vilna Jewish community and the only Jewish member of the Lithuanian parliament, is running for reelection on Monday, October 21, 1996. One senses that one of Mark’s deepest hopes is that history, in the form of the crass geopolitics of power, will not again in the future, hand his country another crushing blow. He walks me back to the Volvo, and I return to Vilna.
On this rainy Saturday, my last day, we travel to Trakai to see the late medieval castle (built in 1362-82 by Kestutis, the father of Grand Duke Vytautas), in a region of small lakes. It is wonderful to walk from island to island, then over the now-empty moat. Most of this site (where the Lithuanians staved off the Teutonic Knights) has been painstakingly reconstructed from ruins. The castle museum contains five rooms with period furnishings, old books and splendid maps, objets d’art, tools, money and armor. The wooden cottages on the island are inhabited by 150 Karaites, a Judaist sect that originated in Baghdad, which follows only Mosaic law. They were brought here from Crimea around 1400 by Vytautas to serve as bodyguards. There is even a small Kenessa (prayer house).
Back in the city, we deliver a collection of warm clothes for Polina Zingeris to the Jewish Museum office. Then, Romas takes me to a state store that sells inexpensive but appealing Lithuanian table linens and fabrics. I enjoy selecting tablecloths and gift. We have lunch at the Beer Tavern at the new private Hotel Stikliai on Gaono Gatve in the old city. I persuade the two female chefs to give me their recipe for the mushroom barley soup (Lietuviska Grybu Sriuba), which is Just Like Mother Made.
As I am about to leave, Emanuel Zingeris turns up, looking very, very tired from campaigning. With him are his wife,Virginia, Ester (7) and David (11). We talk as the kids share fruit and ice cream. Romas is frantic that I will miss the overnight train to Warsaw. He manages to extract me by repeated anxious interventions, and quiet pleas to Emanuel. But the indomitable Emanuel says they will come to the station to say good-bye. On the way there, Romas confides: “Mr. Zingeris loves to talk. I meet him before. He gets lost in talking, forgets everything but talking.” I accept his candor, grateful for his combined professional and paternal concern. I am truly pleased to give him a tip and a parting gift.
* * * * *
Romas and I lug the hanging sack and duffel with the butter churn (and new linens) onto the first class sleeping wagon. A Polish woman, her neck swathed in a scarf to cure her laryngitis, is sharing the cabin with me; at least I have been assigned the middle of the three berths. There is a private sink in each compartment. I do get to talk to Emanuel’s family and to watch other people perform elaborate farewells.
The train is not as dirty as one might fear. One passenger, a young, white blond, Lithuanian woman introduces herself as Lila. Her husband is an electronics engineer in Germany––and she is traveling home with her dog, Dzhonni. She has been drinking to her departure from Vilna; she is tall, pretty in a fragile way, but sturdy. I converse with her, my cabin mate, a businessman who sells Neapolitan ice cream, “Fantaziya” (available at Bialystok’s Hotel Cristal) and the conductor in Russian. “When do we sleep?,” I ask one. “After border control” is the reply.
It is not until the border control round robin begins that the trip takes on unexpected urgency. The Lithuanian border police come first, followed by phase one of the Belarussians (“Deklaratzia” [list of currency] they demand). Phase two begins with the appearance of several pairs of youthful Belarussian soldiers. This is a labor-intensive activity. One of them endlessly flips through my passport. I am uncertain what he is looking for or finding, but have utterly stopped speaking Russian to him or anyone else in the sleeping car. He consults with another soldier, who then tells me in English: “You have not a transit visa. You have to buy one.”
I elect to argue. “No,” I say. “Look, here; I bought one in Bialystok.” “See,” I say louder; “here it is; it is written right here––good until October 20, 1996.”
“No, your transit visa is no good.” He points to a line which indicates: only one passage through Belarus is permitted. Since the two pieces of evidence are in conflict, with normal good will, the poor traveler who has already paid $55 should get the benefit of the doubt. This, however, is another land, another time.
He continues: “You must get off the train in Grodno. You must buy a transit visa. You pay in dollars US or Deutschmarks.”
I have travelers checks and a good bit of Polish money, which I thought was fully convertible; but I do not have enough cash dollars left to part easily with $45, unless my life in fact depends upon it. I tell him, “I will not get off the train. I have a plane to get in Warsaw, and I cannot miss it.” I say all of this in English, clinging to the rule that you must never negotiate anything important in any language but your own.
He gets adamant: “I give you a choice. You get off in Grodno, pay in Grodno or you go back to Lithuania.”
As I think, I remember the spring of 1963, when Jay Featherstone and I were on a train exiting Poland to head through East Germany back to Berlin. The East German border patrol came into our train car and took off a couple from West Berlin. We never saw them again.
The pair of soldiers leave. I feel sweaty, perturbed, uncertain. An attractive, energetic Polish woman, Jolanta (whom I have not yet met) from further up the car, voluntarily appears at the cabin door. “Hello. You must pay, you know,” she says, in poor but vivid English. “There is no other way.” She describes herself as a new Polish business woman. She runs her own freight company with five big trucks, two of them refrigerated, she explains.
“I don’t have enough money. I already paid them. I don’t want to get
off the train, because I am afraid I will be stuck in Belarus or worse.”
“You must get money. Can I help?”
Lila and Dzhonni appear in the corridor next to her.
“Lila, no matter what, I cannot get off the train,” I assert again. “Please explain it to Jolanta in Polish.”
Lila, now drunker, sits down on the open berth and says to Jolanta and me: “It is all this Belarussian shi-it. Shit. Every time I go to my mother, and back, they come to me, take me off. They ask me: ”’do you have papers for your dog?’ I have papers, they know. It is shit, shit; they are carazy, these Russians.”
She shows me a folded yellow card. The dog evidently has his own WHO passport, which attests to his inoculations and citizenship. He is in better shape than I may be.
Jolanta returns and asks to see my money. She says to me again: “You must pay. You have twenty minutes until Grodno II. And it is better no, no talking.” She concludes her counsel in a gesture, covering her mouth completely with four extended fingers. “No word.” When she finishes counting the zlotys in my wallet, she takes four fifty-zloty bills.
Before I do more than let myself recognize that she is undoubtedly right about acquiescing and paying, she has walked away. Lila reappears and fills a plastic cup with cherry smelling aperitif. “Drink, drink, it is the only way with their shit.” It is indistinguishable from the Cheracol cough syrup of my childhood. When I ask Lila if she has any children, she pulls back under the upper berth, then says in a loud whisper: ”I am thirty-two. I have a baby but he die in one week. So I bought Dzhonni, and the people laugh at me. You have your fur child, they say. Now you don’t need a baby.”
In the harsh fluorescent light, her skin is gray, and there is a large
tear bulging at the outer edge of one soft blue eye.
“Is that true?,’ I answer. ‘Guess what?”
She continues, not hearing. “And the next time, I am pregnant, and whoosh, it is gone in not three months. Something is very wrong with me.” She drops her chin, and sobs.
“Oh, that is hard, I know. I know. Listen to me. Please, listen.” This
last time I lean toward her, take her shoulders in my hands, and turn her
“Listen, please, Lila. This happened to me, too. My first baby was born very early. He didn’t live a week like yours, but only a few hours. Then less than a year later, I had another bad time, an early miscarriage, like you. But after that, things changed, and I ended up having three fine children. It just took a longer time, eight years. You will be O.K. You will.” She has just begun to edge her face out from under the berth. I can’t tell how much she has heard or understood as she floats, half-drunk, in her small sea of grief.
I start again. “You know, with our first child, we were aware that it might not work out. It came so early. By the time they asked us to name him, he was already dead. We had to name a dead baby. But we had an idea. The hospital was in Brookline, in Boston. We decided to name him for President Kennedy. He was already dead, too. We gave the baby the name, John Fitzgerald Lazarus. He was buried there, too.” By the middle of my speech, she is looking right at me, acknowledging my words with her gaze.
“You named him John Kennedy. Oh. Oh. ”
“You will be O.K., Lila. I know you will.”
You will be, too,” she now shouts, unfolding her long limbs into a brave
stance, with Dzhonni curled under her arm. “You will get off the train
at Grodno like me. Dzhonni and I will go with you and come back to the
“You mean the train will still be here? Will it wait for us?”
“Oh, yes, they do this to me over again.”
I see Jolanta in the corridor, glowing. She hands me $50, American cash.
She has gotten it, she confides, from the conductor. Lila pushes a cup
of cherry spirits toward her; she only takes a sip.
“Jolanta, is it true that the train will wait while they take me off? Nobody told me this before”.
“Yes. It waits for everyone.”
“Are you sure?”
When a new cluster of older Belarussian soldiers arrives at the cabin door, I agree to go. Lila gestures that she must stay until they make her go off with Dzhonni. The lead soldier is stocky, even his eyes smile. He tries to make a joke in a combination English and Russian. I remember to act as if I cannot understand a word, be pleasant, communicate obedience with strength. I am replaying the advice I have myself given many witnesses and clients in the past. In the train station office, they take my $45 dollars, paste a new transit visa into my passport, and hand me a receipt.
“l walk to train with you,” the not-so-menacing soldier says, setting
a brisk tempo; then, reaching for my arm, he helps me climb back up the
short steep stair to the sleeping car. “Do Widzenie, and Good-bye.”
“Bozhe moi” [“Got zol ophitn”], I sigh to myself, with only a trace of satisfaction.
* * * * *
After the two-hour stops in Grodno I and II, the train moves on to Poland; at Kuznitza, the border control lasts about fifteen minutes, but twenty men work over an hour to change the gauge of the train wheels back to the Polish measure from the Russian one (24 centimeters wider). We hardly sleep at all. The train reaches Warsaw precisely as scheduled at 5:57 a.m.
I say good-bye to Jolanta, Lila and Dzhonni. I arrive at the Victoria Hotel in pitch dark, and leave my coat, hanging sack, and the duffel with the bell captain. George is not due to arrive until 11:00. When I return from a hot breakfast, my luggage is no longer visible. Upon inquiry, the bell captain offers no explanation. But it seems that during that half-hour, the bell captain dozed while a group leaving on a bus tour, came down and deposited their luggage on the floor next to the bell station. My bags were then loaded onto their bus along with theirs.
Instead of visiting the Royal Castle, I get to spend the next hours at the swimming pool and sauna. When George finally arrives, I tell him how delighted I am to see him. He responds that he is astonished that I am so calm given the fact that all of my luggage has disappeared just as I am about to fly back to Washington. I shrug my shoulders just as I have seen countless Poles and Jews do when faced with the arbitrariness and sheer impossibility of life in these times. “Nu, poshli, Pan Malynczyk, or we’ll be late,” I conclude.
* * * * *
It is clear that Jean and I traveled, not just out of curiousity to see the streets where our grandparents once walked, but more importantly to jar ourselves into a greater understanding of who we are by learning about an aspect of our families’ history from which we had been cut off. We sought to experience whatever remains in a geographic form of the places from which the Avnets came.
Viewed in this sense, we are going at it in reverse order. That is, we both knew and loved our grandparents well into young adulthood. We listened with open hearts to their stories. But we could only absorb from these oral histories what any young woman of that age can understand. Now, blessed with the hard earned wisdom of two additional decades, but deprived by time of the voices of those grandparents, and even of our parents, we have sought additional available means to understand our own and our people’s history.
Thus, I realized, that as the young Belarussians stood in the icy air of the Kuznitza border crossing and took in my answers to their myriad questions about America — that America, which they learn about chiefly from bits of television, radio and music, exists mostly in a contemporary form of myth; clearly, they have no expectation that it will ever become a real part of their lives. In a similar way, the Kuznitza of my Grandfather’s youth existed for me largely as a place of myth. The combined effects of massive social and political change in my Grandfather’s own lifetime, of distance — squared by two devastating wars, the calculated destruction of half of my people, and of the decades of stifling communist rule — rendered the Poland and Russia of our Jewish past even more remote and unknowable than thousands of kilometers and iron-fenced borders could convey. Although there were places called Kuznitza, Grodno and Vilna on maps in the atlases in our school libraries, the actual lands of our grandparents could not readily be located, let alone visited. This explains much of the exhiliration I felt merely in finding in place the same streets and houses that Grandpa knew, and viewing the buildings where he attended school or prayed, and the hills, lakes and farms that he, too, found beautiful.
As we read sterling works on Jewish history and on the Holocaust in preparation for the trip, we tried to steel ourselves for the emptiness and loss we would inevitably perceive and for the shock of standing so close to the monuments and traces of the maniacal evil, enduring hatreds and sense of alienness that permeate the history of the Jews in the former Pale of Settlement. For whereever we went and whomever we met, we were always conscious that the Jewish people no longer reside in Kuznitza or Amdur, Bialystok or Memel.
Those of our greater Avnet family who do live, can be found now in Haifa, Moscow, and Mexico City. To get to know them is our next task.
Hotel Victoria, Warsaw. Lost Luggage: Call from
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phone: 8 - 22 tel. 657 - 8011.
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