Ryszard is not a native of Ostrova. He was born in Komorowo nearby. He and his family were evacuated after the September 1, 1939 Nazi invasion. When the family returned, the Germans had taken over their apartment. The family moved to Ostrova. His father fought for Poland in World War I, the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919-1920, and World War II. Though not Jewish, he was executed at Auschwitz. Ryszard himself worked for the Germans for seven years as forced labor. He covers up any hard feelings with smiles and a certain joie de vivre. He probably slurps his soup or traditional Polish hunter’s stew, getting it all over the napkin he tucks into his shirt collar, as an expression of appreciation for such good food. But I get the sense he’s managed to push down all those hard-time sacrifices into a part of himself he’s walled off with his own barbed wire.
The fact that he gives me three A4-sized blue-grid pocket folders filled with maps, postcards, brochures, photocopied photos, and a 2004 commemorative journal of Ostrova and its 500-year-old history, tells me he is super organized, thorough, and proud of his adopted hometown. This bears out as he takes Ania and me on a tour of this 25,000-resident town, showing us the ghosts of Jewish life.
Ostrova is not at all what I pictured. It is a thriving, bustling town. I try to imagine the marketplace as it once was, lined on three sides with Jewish shops made of wood, all leaning on each other for support, and filled with horse-drawn droshkies on Market Day, voices yelling out about the fish, the books, the vegetables for sale.
Ryszard speaks no English, so Ania translates. “He wants us to follow him,” she says.
The sky is nearly cloudless, and anywhere else, this would be a beautiful day. But to me, the town is in black and white. People are going about their business but life itself is missing. The loss of the town’s Jewish population is palpable.
We cross the park and Ryszard points to the multi-storied buildings of the square. Ania says, “This was the Old Marketplace, which was on Third May Street—the town’s main street— until 1926. The Town Hall replaced the Jewish shops. The name Third May commemorated the date of the Polish constitution, the second in the world after the United States and the first in Europe.”
Ryszard reaches for the folders he’s given me and shows me what the marketplace used to look like. It is a complete overhaul. I look for vestiges of the old wooden and brick buildings among the more modern that advertise clothing and electronics. I want to peel back the 21st-century overcoat to reveal the gritty past. I can’t find it.
Ania chats with Ryszard as they lead me to the next stop on our tour. She says, “This was a butcher shop.” It looks more like an American school than a shop. Its date, 1903, appears in white above the doorway like a street address. The brickwork is elaborate. Clearly, the shop’s owners had money.
My grandmother’s mother’s family were butchers. I imagine that this shop belonged to them. She, Esther Toby, came to America. Some of her family made aliyah to Palestine in the 1930s; others were killed by the Nazis.
Through Ania, Ryszard explains: The Jews of Ostrova, the Yiddish name for the town, were murdered in the town itself. On September 10, 1939, there had been a fire in the Blumberg apartment building and Jews were arrested after that. Some were kept in the brewery and some in the basement of the Town Hall. They lined up four across with their suitcases and marched to their place of execution. A placard explained their accusation, the reason for the round-up, that the Jews had started the fire. Nazi propaganda.
I suppose this is Ryszard’s usual spiel. As he guides Ania and me around town, he spills information. The prayer house and shul were separate buildings. The Rynek, or marketplace, was huge. Mondays and Thursdays were market days and carriages and horses lined up.
Many of the street names have changed since my grandparents’ time. The street where the brick shul had stood was called Starobrokowska. I recall the name Brokowska. That was the return address my grandfather’s oldest brother used on a black-bordered postcard announcing their father’s death in 1926. Though the family lived in Zaromb, Icek moved to Ostrova and set up a drycleaning store. I am still thinking about Icek and whether he and his family were killed early in the Holocaust. The Nazis occupied Ostrova while the Soviets occupied Zaromb.
As if Ryszard could read my mind about death, he leads us to a gym. This is the former site of the old cemetery with a two-meter high brick wall. When the cemetery filled, a new cemetery toward the outskirts of town was established. Ryszard remembers lilacs in May over the walls of the old cemetery. Sports enthusiasts now pound on the brittle bones of my ancestors.
The Jewish school for girls was for the well-to-do. Their mothers or nannies picked them up. It wasn’t near the center of town; it was quite a shlep.
The Jews could leave at one point and go east, but many didn’t. There was no way they could have comprehended the consequences. No one would have had a frame of reference for the Holocaust.
The ghosts of my departed family surround me. Their souls fly over my head and wrap me in a fleece blanket. I am protected. I make a mental note to light Yahrzeit candles for them on Yom Kippur when I’m back home.