It is June 2008, and I step on the welcome mat of the Jewish funeral home near where my eldest sister lives. The mat has a butterfly design, and I smile. My mother would have liked that. She had a penchant for butterflies and wore a diamond version around her neck. Seeing the welcome mat signals to me that she is now in God’s care.
For years I have wanted to go to Poland to my mother’s parents’ villages. I wanted to see the slope of the grass by the Brok River, to see the marketplace where my grandfather may have snatched a piece of fruit. I intended to go in May 2008, but then my mother at 87 didn’t rally from her gall bladder operation. She was holed up in rehab, muttering, “Mama, Mama.” It was just as well that a representative of the Polish airline, LOT, called me on the day of departure and said, “We’re not leaving tonight. The plane has technical problems.” Someone called again the next night. I postponed the trip, and within six weeks my mother was dead.
Three months later, I sit in Warsaw’s Old Marketplace at the Kamienne Schodki café. I inhale cigarette smoke and history and a wave comes over me, as it sometimes does. An intuitive wave that whispers to me. Today, September 7, 2008, it says: I am home. Home of my mother’s family for maybe hundreds of years. Now an American descendant returns, the Prodigal Daughter. But the world of my ancestors is gone.
I look out into the marketplace at the four-storied buildings in hues of apricot, periwinkle, and terracotta. Before them stand tented eating areas and in the middle of the square, row upon row of artwork for sale. Pigeons peck at the ice cream toppled from toddlers’ cones and whole families ride by on their bicycles.
It is a Sunday, early evening. I don’t understand the language. But the feeling of déjà vu is unmistakable. I have come home.
I initially told people I was going to Poland to research my grandfather’s shtetl, Zaręby Kośćielne (or Zaromb in Yiddish) for a novel I am working on, that I wanted to see the view from the marketplace and hear the peal of the church bells. As I sit here enveloped in a crisp breeze and spooning wild mushroom soup, I wonder. Perhaps I am making this trip for my mother, her older sister, her younger brother who never asked their parents about Poland.
My grandmother, Rose, arrived in New York in June, 1914 on one of the last ships out of Europe before World War I. She came from Ostrów Mazowiecka (Ostrova in Yiddish) with her mother, aunt, and cousins. Her father, older brother, and sister were already in America. My grandfather, Max, came in 1913 from France, but his hometown, Zaromb, was only 18 kilometers from Ostrova, and prior to his father marrying his mother, his family had lived in Ostrova as well.
I wish I had known my grandparents better. All I remember of my grandmother is that she cut up oranges into eighths and gave silver dollars on birthdays and for Chanukah. I was seven when she died. All I remember of my grandfather is that he gave me and my twin sister horsie rides on his knees. He died when I was three.
Two days later, my Polish guide, Ania, picks me up at my hotel in her green Peugeot. With shoulder-length blonde hair, blue eyes, a long, thin face, and small gold earrings, Ania could be a hippie. She wears her button-down shirt untucked into her blue jeans. There is something of a rebel about her, something that rejects expectations of her as a daughter, wife, and mother of a young boy. She is a rebel with a cause, driving that olive-green Peugeot outside the driving lanes on the road to Bialystok. No one would guess she is a scholar of nineteenth-century Jewish life, the subject of her doctoral dissertation from the University of Bydgoszcz. She is keen on becoming a writer in the English language and pummels me with questions about how to get published in America. Ania is one of two guides recommended by the Jewish Records Indexing – Poland genealogy initiative, on whose board of directors I used to sit. She could have been an Aryan child the Nazis would have stolen from her school or home had she been living in the 1940s.
Ania calls someone on her cell phone and announces, “Ryszard is ready for us.”
My nerves mount. I tell myself: I am actually in Poland. In Poland! I’ve been abroad before—that high school trip to Germany and Austria over spring break and my junior year abroad with Rutgers University in southern Germany. But I’ve never felt like this. That I belong in this place. The feeling only intensifies when we reach Ostrova. It reminds me of my own hometown of Kearny, New Jersey. A town, not a village. I am in the town my grandmother came from. I could be walking along her very steps.
Ania pulls up to a park by the town hall and introduces me to Ryszard. If joy could be shaped into a 5’6” frame and age to a ripened eighty, its name would be Ryszard. His head is crowned like Caesar’s with graying hair. He has a wide face, wide cheekbones, a wide nose. He wears a blue button-down shirt with chest pockets, jeans, and a navy-blue cross-body bag, all of which in America would scream Walmart. His smile shows his prized gold teeth, the soles of his shoes thick with the history of this town, Ostrow Mazowiecka. He has only until three o’clock with Ania and me today. He has to pick up his grandson from school. He walks with a cane, but the cane needs him more than he needs it. It’s likely he found the cane somewhere and wanted to give it a good home. He is apparently the unofficial greeter to Americans, presumably mostly Jews who want to know more about their roots.