By Manya Friedman
That quaint small town in central Poland, my hometown, Chmielnik, once teemed with Jewish life. There were houses of worship, including the “big synagogue,” and houses of learning. The orthodox young men studied the Torah; others, after attending public school in the morning, attended Hebrew schools. Most belonged to Zionist and socialist organizations. There were sport clubs and cultural clubs (intelligentsia), every one actively dedicated to its cause. Jewish youth dreamed of going to the land of Israel and of a better future.
Being a small town, everybody knew everybody and what took place in everyone’s household. There were no secrets, and there was plenty of gossip and jealousy. There were rich and poor families—Jewish professionals, craftsmen, and businessmen. And there were even beggars. There was romance and betrayal, squabbles and reconciliation, even among the two presiding rabbis in town. It all added to the charm and character of that small town.
In this small town I spent my happy childhood among a loving family, relatives, and friends. Here I got my first kiss, a peck on the cheek by a boy who ran away like a thief who had stolen something.
All this is no longer. Hitler’s aim to exterminate all European Jews reached even this small town. Now, only memories are left.
After viewing a recent videotape of the town, brought back by relatives who visited Poland, my heart grieves. The town is void of any Jewish existence. The worship houses are destroyed, the “big synagogue” unrecognizable, standing in disrepair, with gaping holes where windows used to be. There is horse manure in front of the entrance, and the place is used for grain storage. And a short distance away, the Jewish cemetery is gone as well.
A place once considered sacred, an eternal resting place for our dear ones, the ones that were “fortunate” to die in peace, in their own beds, and be buried in marked graves, attended by family and friends, is now a soccer field. I watched with disbelief a group of young boys kicking around a ball where the Jewish cemetery once was, completely oblivious that they were trampling over human bodies. The sight of that bare cemetery stirred memories from way back of a woman, my grandmother, who was put to rest there a long time ago.
When father brought grandmother home from the hospital in Kraków, the best hospital in the country at the time, and announced that the operation was unsuccessful, everyone in the family was devastated. Over 70 years ago a simple cataract operation was very risky, and she had become blind.
My parents worried what would become of her now after she had had such an active life in business through her adulthood. Her husband had died very young and left her with several small children and no means of support. She was too proud to be on welfare, so she had contacted some local farmers to deliver milk every morning and she sold it to neighbors. From the leftover milk she also made cheese and butter and in this way had supported her family.
The grandchildren were concerned how their friends would react, since grandmother would now be living with them and she was blind. Their fears were pointless. At first their friends started to come in out of curiosity but later were drawn by grandmother’s inexhaustible supply of stories, many taken from the Bible, each ending with a moral. And the folds of her long, wide skirt seemed to hold a variety of pockets each containing hidden treasures. Like magic she could pull out some candies or other goodies, and when the need arose to mend a scraped knee or wipe a running nose, there were also clean pieces of white linen torn off of an old bedsheet and hidden in those pockets.
What most amazed the youngsters was the fact that grandmother could tell who was approaching or who had just gotten a haircut. Sometimes they hesitated to believe that grandmother could not see. By now the children were competing for a place to sit next to her or who would lend her a hand while crossing the street.
On Saturdays we used to walk her to the synagogue. She was very devout, and the path to the synagogue was very familiar to her. All we needed to do was help her cross the streets and when we reached the synagogue put her hand on the railing of the stairs leading up to the women’s section. In those days, the text of the prayer books was only in Hebrew, not translated, nor did the leader tell what page to turn to, but as soon as grandmother heard the flipping of pages, she knew that some of the women had lost their places, so she would tell them what page to turn to. She knew the prayers by heart. That made us very proud of her.
This remarkable woman was my paternal grandmother. She died at a ripe old age before the war, the last in our family laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery in my hometown. While in the camps, I used to dream about her, that she brought me food. During the war whenever I thought of her, I was at ease that she died in her own bed with her family around her. She even blessed each one of us before she died. I still recall how she held my hands in hers and said how much good those little hands had done. She had a decent funeral and was buried in a marked grave.
Seeing that desecrated Jewish cemetery on tape, the uprooted headstones probably used to pave the streets and people trampling in their boots over them, is a painful reminder of Hitler and his Nazi party who not only executed millions of people but would not even let the deceased rest in peace.
©2011, Manya Friedman. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.