Monday, July 2, 2012

July 1, 2012 Mizritch, Partzevah, Lublin

Ode to Paul Harvey...

July 1, 2012               Mizritch and Partzevah, Poland

In my graduate school days serving as a T.A. at UCLA, one of my students, Leslie Rubin, asked if she could invite her aunt Nancy to observe my class.  It turns out Aunt Nancy is Nancy Rubin, a master educator from Berkeley High School.  She innovated a course that teaches students how to handle the realities of teenage life (it got the nickname “Life 101”).  She went on to write a best-selling book on the course.  Months later, a distant cousin sent me some family history documents, including an article on Aunt Nancy in the “California Monthly” magazine. It took a bit to put the pieces together…it turns out Aunt Nancy (and by extension, my student Leslie) were my cousins.  Tracing back, we realized that in 1898, two siblings, Isaac Rosenbloom and his little sister Merala, sat together in the town of Mizritch, Poland.  One decided to head to London while the other to the United States.  Four generations later, their great great grandchildren sat in a classroom at UCLA…without even knowing their connection.

Today, we visited Mizritch.

During my undergraduate days at Berkeley (Go Bears!), I researched the family history, sending letters of inquiry to every “Bureau of Vital Statistics” in every town of origin in eastern Europe.  Remarkably, I received a reply from a man named Richard in Mizritch.  In a series of letters back and forth (which I had to pay to get translated by a grad student in the Slavic Languages Dept. at Cal), I learned from Richard about Jewish life in Mizritch.  He sent photos of the Jewish cemetery (with headstones used to construct the walls that now surround it).  And, of course, an open invitation to visit.

Almost 30 years later, I took him up on his offer.  I pulled out the old family history boxes from under the house, got the correct Polish spelling of his full name….and went to facebook (where else).  In a matter of seconds, his name came up.  “Do you remember me?” I wrote.  He did remember me and thanks to phone calls with Helise in Warsaw, we arranged to meet up with him.

After a breakfast research meeting with Helise and Olga..

We packed up and headed out of Warsaw with Jakub as our translator, guide, and general guru.  We have a very comfortable 7 passenger van for the five of us, complete with internet, iphone charging, DVD player, and (yeah) really good air conditioning.

We drove east for about 2.5 hours.  It was exciting to see road signs listing the distance to Mizritch (in its Polish spelling). I was flashing back to my Great Aunt Tess, the daughter of Isaac and Leah who left Mizritch to come to the US.  I conducted oral histories of Aunt Tess and I was recalling her telling me about the town, even as she had never seen it.  I was also imagining that the family had traveled that road, in reverse, as they headed west, first to London, then to New York and San Francisco.

Jakub pushed a few buttons on his cel phone and up came Richard’s name on the screen.  That was freaky…to see that name from 1984 and know that in a few minutes, we’d meet.

We pulled into a parking lot on the outskirts of the town and there was Richard waiting.

I brought along all his letters, the photographs he’d taken on my behalf, as well as photo he’d sent of himself as a younger man.  With Jakub as translator, I thanked Richard for all he had done.  He invited us to his apartment for lunch. 

We crowded in to his third floor walk-up, in Communist-era apartment blocks, into a small living room, which he and his wife filled with every chair they could find.  It reminded me of many an Israeli meal with relatives, friends, or friends of friends we’d just met on the street who invited the tourists for a meal.

Richard invited his son over, a man in his mid-20s or so who just completed his MBA and is working for a multi-national corporation out of Gdansk.  Then, Richard explained that he knew an historian who could tell us about the history of early Mizritch.  A little later, another young man, and his girlfriend showed up. Remarkably, Lucas (the closest we could pronounce to his Polish name) had just completed a Master’s degree in the history of inter-war Jewish Mizritch.  We turned on the camcorder and started asking him every question we could.  His English was excellent and his command of the history remarkable.  He gave us the story from the earliest settlers to the dates and numbers liquidated in the Holocaust.

Richard and his family

Richard’s wife came out with many courses of food.  When we explained that we needed to start seeing the sites and get to our next two towns (today!), Richard pushed back, told us we needed to stay longer, relax, take a nap, etc. etc.  Now, I really felt like I was in Israel.

We all headed out, first to the Jewish cemetery, which Richard had photographed in the 1980s. 

Lucas warned us that it was in disrepair; that, and this was so painful to hear…it was in great shape until 1997 when the last Jew in Mizritch died.  This Jewish man took it upon himself to care for the cemetery and without him, it had become overgrown.

Overgrown was an understatement.  The weeds were shoulder-length high. 

It was infested with mosquitos (which took a toll on each of us!).  There were a few pathways, with dead rats sprawled out.  Lucas wanted me to see the headstones so he and I plowed through the brush.  We arrived at each headstone.  He read the Hebrew and the Polish.  He told me about the person and we moved to the next.  He came across the grave of three rabbis killed by the Nazis.  We paused as he explained how important these rabbis were.  At one point, he used his foot to clear away the dense brush from one of the headstones.  He stopped, looked up at me, and apologized.  He said that he had created a group of young people to start clearing the cemetery and it needed it again.  “I want to do it right, with respect” he said.  He didn’t want me to think that using his foot to clear a headstone was meant with disrespect.

We went next to the town center where Lucas showed us the site of the famed Mizritch Yeshiva, which was attended by Max Rubin, a cousin who lived over 100 years (Nancy’s grandfather, I believe) and spent most of his life in Berkeley.

Marc and Shayna reviewing notes about the Yeshiva, at the Yeshiva site.

Lucas, Lucas' girlfriend, Marc, Shayna, Richard's wife, Richard, Jakub in Mizritch

Mizritch Town Square

Then, he showed us the site of the Kahal, the Jewish organizational center of Mizritch from the pre-war years.

Shayna prepping for filming in front of the Kahal

Then, he took us to an old pre-war building and showed us the outline of where the mezuzah hung on the doorframe.  That took my breath away.

Look for the outline of a mezuzah.

In the town square, there now stands a beautiful statue called Prayer by Yael Artsi, donated by the people of Israel to remember the Jews of Mizritch.

From Mizritch, we traveled 50 kilometers to Partzvah (Parczew, in Polish), the birthplace of my father’s mother’s mother, Leah Wiseman Rosenbloom, after whom we named Shayna Leah Dollinger.  Jakub had the address of the synagogue and mikvah as well as a brief history of Partzevah Jewry.  The synagogue building was built in the 1920s (many earlier buildings had come and gone, including the one that Leah would have used) and is now a clothing company.  The mikvah is a movie theater.

Marc and Shayna filming in front of the synagogue building, the mikvah is the building to Marc's left.

We headed next to the Jewish cemetery…which does not appear to be a cemetery at all.  It presents as a park, with pathways, benches, trees, and folks with their children walking around.  All the headstones had been removed by the Nazis and any trace of its status as a cemetery gone.  In the post-Communist era, a single headstone was returned along with a commemoration plaque at one end of the park so folks will know that they are walking over the remains of Partzevah’s Jews, including, I am sure, my great great grandparents.

Partzevah Jewish cemetery

I gave a call to my Dad from the cemetery.  Leah was his grandmother so we could have an inter-generational moment.  From his perspective, his grand-daughter is visiting the birthplace of his grand-mother.  The historian in me, not to mention Dad, really likes that.

Oh, and the heat wave continues…  It’s been low 90’s and humid through all this so by the time we got back in the van to head to our hotel in Lublin, we were wiped out.

Helise had arranged for a tour of Jewish Lublin. Because the EuroCup final started at 8:45 pm in the evening, all touring needed to end by 8 pm.  We decided to go straight to tour, delay our hotel check in and dinner.

We were met by an incredibly energetic, inspirational, and wonderful man who is one of the organizers of Jewish life in Lublin.  He just loves his city, loves its Jewish past, and has committed his life to Jewish education, especially in the wake of the Holocaust.  He told us that 1/3 of Lublin was Jewish before the war; that it had synagogues every few blocks; that Lublin’s Catholic population got along very well with its Jewish residents, that churches and synagogues were built close together and that the Nazis had destroyed a wonderful example of religious pluralism in Poland. 

He brought us up a stairwell to see a view of the parking lot.  He showed us that the lot was in the shape of an eye, that is was, in his estimation, the eye of the tzaddik (righteous one) because that was the center of Jewish life in Lublin.

He then asked us to count the buildings alongside the eye-shaped parking lot…10…the minyan (required number of people in order to pray).  So even after the Holocaust, he said, the symbolism, at least, of Jewish life remained.

There is an archway that marked the end of the Jewish Lublin and the beginning of Catholic Lublin. 

He took us through a series of doors and narrow stairwells as we discovered that the archway was large enough to hold a series of odd-shaped rooms.  It was, before the war, the No-Name Jewish theater.  During the war, one of its rooms was used to hide a Jewish girl from the Nazis.  As we stood in that room, he told the story…and of the return of that girl, now a grandmother, to narrate what she remembered of that place.  They reconstructed the room according to her memory.

For the next hour, he walked us through the rooms, showing all the research work his organization had done to catalog each and every street, building, organization, and person killed from Lublin.  “It is our obligation,” he admonished us, “to maintain their memory because they were from Lublin, they were 1/3 of the city, and now they are gone.”  It was clear to us that he had taken this task quite personally.  I have a “yiddisheh nishamah” (a Jewish soul) he told us.

At the end of the tour, he brought us to an exhibit celebrating a ceremony they recently had in Lublin.  It turns out that the main synagogue and a large Catholic church were both destroyed in WWII.  The Chief Rabbi of Poland, whom we met in Warsaw, and the Bishop from Lublin, organized a candle-lighting vigil.  They wanted to encircle the site of the synagogue with people holding candles.  They wanted, then, to encircle the site of where the Catholic Church once stood. Then, they wanted to connect both sites with candle light.  To their surprise, 5,000 people showed up to participate.  At the synagogue, they brought several dozen Holocaust survivors to begin the candle lighting.  They grabbed dirt from the synagogue site, placed it in a box, and sent the box down the line.  At the site of the church, they brought several dozen Righteous Gentiles (non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews) who took dirt from the church and placed it in their box.  Each survivor and each Righteous One told their story…how they survived or how they helped a Jew survive.

When the boxes reached the center, they were given to a local Roman Catholic priest who mixed the dirt together and then used it to plant a tree, as the symbolic representation of the peace between the faiths.  Marci and I were both moved to tears.  Our guide told us that the video of the ceremony is on their website. I’ll forward the link when I get it.

With this, we headed to our hotel, ate a late dinner, and watched Spain defeat Italy 4-1 in the EuroCup final.  (Congrats to the Bilecas!)

Marc, Jakub, and our waiter in Lublin

An epic day…


PS Lucas, the young historian of Jews in Mizritch who guided us through the cemetery and town, who has devoted volunteer time to caring for the Jewish cemetery, is not Jewish.

PPS Our guide in Lublin, the one with the “yiddishe neshamah” who told us about the minyan (and the brilliance of Isaac Bashevis Singer (who wrote about Lublin), is not Jewish.

PPPS Jakub, our Hebrew speaking, Tel Aviv University educated driver, translator, and guide, is not Jewish.

PPPPS Richard, who absolutely refused to take any money from me in appreciation of the costs and time he incurred researching Jewish life in Mizritch for me, is the son of a Righteous Gentile who saved two Jews during the war and received a commendation from Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem).

And yes, PPPPPS That Roman Catholic priest who mixed the dirt at the end of the ceremony in Lublin was born Jewish, handed off to a Catholic family by his mother as she was on her way to the train station for deportation (and death) in the camps.  He would not learn about his Jewish birth until the 1970s, long after he became a priest.  He currently lives in Jerusalem.

And now you know (at least part of) the rest of the story...

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