In August 2008, I took an unexpected journey into my family’s past. It began with an e-mail forwarded to me by the hospital where I worked. It was labeled “possible spam” and came from a Michal Lorenc of Rymanow, Galicia, Poland, and it read as follows: “I have very urgent information for Dr. Alfred Münzer. In his mother’s hometown Rymanow in Poland is organized the special celebration to honor the people who died in Holocaust. Could you give my e-mail to Mr. Münzer? I’ll send him more information. Sincerely, Michal Lorenc.”
Rymanow was indeed my mother’s hometown. Sometimes she’d mockingly call it “Grimanisch.” At other times she’d tell me about the mountain landscapes and the small streams she’d wade across on an errand to bring food to a frightful, ungrateful, maiden aunt, Mima Chavele, who referred to her nieces and nephews as machshas, something I took to mean rabble. Or she’d tell me about the town’s lone policeman—nicknamed Bamboulla—or about the town’s well, dug in a way reminiscent of the wise men of Chelm, on top of a hill, thus ensuring that it would always be dry and serve only as an apocryphal final resting place for all the town’s dead cats.
She told me about the Christian hilltop cemetery called Kalvaria, which became a favorite meeting place for young Jewish lovers on Shabbat afternoons. She told me about the cheder (Jewish elementary school) that lacked enough seats. She’d be asked to sit on a trunk, which caused her to walk out in a huff. That led to a confrontation with her father and her teacher. The teacher was so poor that his Hebrew language exercises always dealt with requests for money or forgiveness of debt. This teacher was also the subject of one of my mother’s first watercolors, which—to her lasting regret—showed him picking his nose.
Rymanow was also the home of the Hassidic dynasty of Menachem Mendel and his chosen successor, the orphaned tailor’s apprentice Zvi Hirsch of Rymanow. My mother told me of her friendship with the great-granddaughter of Rabbi Hirsch, who, late on Shabbat as the lights were out, told stories of lost souls that still haunted the rabbi’s house.
But Rymanow was also the home of a Jewish theater and the birthplace of Isidor Isaac Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize in physics. Rymanow was a gentle and tough little town where, unlike New York, according to my mother, no amount of snow would ever stop the trains. A prosperous little town where Christians and Jews had lived mostly in harmony for centuries, Rymanow was the place my mother left in 1925, but where her parents, brothers, and sisters remained as disaster struck in 1939.
Poland was not high on my list of places to visit. And my partner, Joel, whose own family came from a town about 40 miles from Rymanow, had vowed never to set foot in Poland. But after a few more e-mails I wrote: “Dear Michal Lorenc, I plan to attend the commemoration in Rymanov with my friend Joel Wind. Our plan is to arrive in Rymanow the afternoon of 11 August and leave early 14 August. I would appreciate it if you could let me know about bus schedules from Krakow to Rymanov. Warm regards, Alfred Münzer.”
Joel and I flew to Krakow, a lively, beautifully preserved medieval city only an hour’s drive from Auschwitz-Birkenau. We spent two days in the Kazimierz—the Jewish quarter of Krakow—where the signs on the buildings are once again in Hebrew and Yiddish, and where a dozen synagogues, including the High, the Isaac, the Old, the New, and the Popper, have mostly been converted into art galleries or museums where you can buy wood-carved Hassidic figures or CDs of klezmer music.
Rymanow is about four hours by bus from Krakow. It sits in the lush green foothills of the Carpathians and is every bit the fairy tale little town my mother had told me about. The Rynek, or main square, sits high on a hill with the village streets and houses tumbling down below. In the distance is a patchwork of fields, farmhouses, and other little towns or shtetls just like Rymanow. The infamous well has been covered; in its place is now is a kiosk selling newspapers and soft drinks. But Kalvaria, the site of those Jewish dalliances, is still there, about half a mile from town, just up the hill and across from the Jewish cemetery.
Michal Lorenz had picked the August 13 date for what he, in his fluent but imperfect English, called a “celebration” instead of a “commemoration”—because that was the day in 1942 when the last of the town’s Jews were deported from Rymanow. Together with hundreds of Poles who had never been inside a Jewish house of worship, we visited the once-magnificent 17th-century synagogue that had been a ruin a few years before but that was now being restored. It was here that Hassidim who are followers of Menachem Mendel and Zvi Hirsch gather on the yahrzeits of the two great rabbis.
We said kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) at an ecumenical memorial service in the Jewish cemetery where 500 disabled or elderly Jews had been shot early that same day in 1942. We attended a rally in the town square where the remaining 800 Jews—my aunts and uncles among them—had been told to report with all their belongings. And together with about a hundred others, we then followed in their footsteps for a five-kilometer march to the railway station in Wroblik.
Rymanow, you see, did not have its own railway station, because when the rails were laid early in the 20th century, its citizens objected on environmental grounds, fearing that the trains would frighten their cows or cause forest fires. At the Wroblik station, we watched as local, national, American, and Israeli dignitaries laid wreaths in a cattle car of the same vintage as the ones used for deportation.
And we listened as a young violinist from the local high school led the crowd in the Polish national anthem. And we then joined in as Malka Oren, an Israeli woman who at age four had last seen her mother in Rymanow that day in 1942, performed “Hatikvah”—Israel’s national anthem—on a violin borrowed from the town’s mayor.
All of us have moments when we seek to remember and rediscover our roots, moments when we want to bring the images of old faded photographs and stories told by parents or grandparents back to life. For most Americans, those moments translate into nostalgic tours of the old country, but for others whose ancestors arrived as slaves, or for those of us whose family came here to escape persecution or genocide, heritage tours have poignancy and a complex mix of emotions that cannot be put into words. They often leave us with more questions than answers.
The urge to discover links to the past can, of course, become an unending, obsessive search for physical links to our ancestry. Countless genealogy websites promise to find our coat of arms. And now there is a fascination with genetic testing. Soon, no doubt, we will all be able to trace ourselves way back to the great apes.
I found some distant family links with others who had traveled to Rymanow to attend the ceremony. But I did not find the names of any of my forebears on the gravestones. The rabbi’s house—with all the ghosts that had frightened my mother—has been demolished. But what I longed for, I realize now, wasn’t to discover a physical or a genealogical connection to a bygone era, but to satisfy a far deeper emotional and spiritual need, a thirst for some sign of redemption from the horrors of that day in August 1942.
The answer came in surprising ways. It did not come in the “Eyl moley rachamim” prayer movingly chanted by the rabbi or in the sincere words of the parish priest. It came in the conviction and persistence of Michal Lorenc and his many cohorts who are doing all they can to awaken the conscience of their town, Rymanow, and their country, Poland, to the horrific fate of their Jewish brothers and sisters. It came in the form of the high school students who spent part of their vacation cleaning the Jewish cemetery. And it came, above all, in the form of an elderly, somewhat frightened Polish woman standing with bowed head at the foot of the ancient grave of Menachem Mendel. She seemed to hesitate, then closed her eyes in prayer and crossed herself. She used a gesture sacred to her Catholic faith to pay homage to a sainted Jewish figure. Is there a more profound act of contrition and appeal for reconciliation?
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