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My Mother's Hometown in Poland
By Nina Youkelson
In August of 2002, I visited the town in Poland where my mother was born and raised. It is about 65 miles north of Warsaw and is called Strzegowo. Maybe 2,000 people call it home, none of them Jews. All of the Jews of Strzegowo were killed by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945--all those, that is, who hadn't left in earlier years for America, for all those reasons people from all over the world still come here: fleeing persecution, to break the ancient cycle of poverty, and for education and opportunity for their children.
My mother, Feygl Bisberg Youkelson, was one of the millions of Jews from Eastern Europe who came to the United States before World War II. She came in 1925 with her mother, a brother, and a sister. Her father had died in 1915 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Strzegowo. So when I went to see my mother's birthplace, I also wanted to go to the Jewish cemetery in the town, to pay my respects to the grandfather I had never known and, more generally, to honor with my presence those Strzegowo Jews who had died during World War II.
In the 1950s, my mother had contacted all the Strzegowo survivors she could find: those who had left before 1939 and those few who had somehow escaped the concentration camps and ghettos of wartime Poland. She urged them to write of their memories of their town and to send her photographs and other written memorabilia of their lives in Strzegowo. From France, England, Israel, and the United States came articles in Yiddish, family pictures, and maps of the town drawn from memory. She published a book of these collected memories. Jewish people from many other towns in Eastern Europe did the same. These books are called yizkor books, memorial volumes commemorating vanished communities. My mother also raised some money to have constructed in the Strzegowo Jewish cemetery a small and simple monument to honor specifically those Jews who had perished in the Strzegowo ghetto that existed from 1941 to 1943.
So there I was on a hot day in August 2002, at my mother's birthplace, accompanied by a man who wore three hats--driver, guide, and translator-- and to whom I was grateful beyond measure for his ability to translate from the daunting Polish language into English. At the City Hall in Strzegowo, he learned with some difficulty the location of the Jewish cemetery, and after walking around the town for a bit--it was too hot to walk very much--we drove through a farmer's field and stopped by a wood, thick with trees. There was no sign of a cemetery at all.
We walked into the terrifically overgrown woods, pushing aside branches and making our way as best we could over uneven ground covered with grasses, bushes, and roots. We could find no headstones at all at first, but after persistent looking while holding back branches, we managed to uncover two headstones that had toppled over and one that was upright. The Hebrew and Yiddish inscriptions were worn and impossible to read in their entirety. The memorial monument that my mother had had erected in the cemetery had clearly been vandalized. It lay in several pieces on the ground among broken bottles and stones. What an unnerving and sad experience. There had been no Jews since 1945 to care for the cemetery, and so it had fallen into terrible disrepair. And, far worse, the cemetery did not even exist in the memories of most of the townspeople.
Shortly after I returned to San Francisco, I got a call from Barbara Goldman in New York City. Her mother also came from Strzegowo, and Barbara also had been to the Jewish cemetery there. She found it as troubling and sad as I had.
Then she told me about the Polish Jewish Cemeteries Restoration Project, an organization started by one Norman Weinberg of Buffalo, N.Y. His parents had also been from Poland--not Strzegowo, but from another little town whose cemetery lay in ruin and neglect. Norman, after visiting there, contacted everyone in his own family and other "landsleit," folks from his parents' town, and raised enough money to restore and renovate the cemetery. When it was done, there was a ceremony honoring its renewal, and a promise from the people of the town to look after it.
Barbara gave me the address of this organization. I sent them some money and asked that it be applied to the restoration of the Strzegowo Jewish cemetery. To my delight and amazement, a year and a half later, Barbara called again and told me that the restoration was in progress and the date for the ceremony marking its completion would be April 16, 2004. Did I want to go? Yes, of course.
I met Barbara in Warsaw on April 11. The weather was beautiful, crisp, and sunny, and the trees were just budding. We visited, the second time for each of us, the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto, Mila 18--the spot where thousands of Warsaw Jews were loaded into boxcars and were taken to Auschwitz and other camps--and other spots designated for honoring both the Jews and the Poles who resisted the Nazis.
Then on April 16, we were taken to Strzegowo to participate in the dedication ceremony at the cemetery. The beautiful weather continued; it was warm and the trees were beginning to leaf. Barbara and I were amazed to see that there were about a hundred people already there! We certainly had not expected this; perhaps a rabbi, Norman Weinberg, and us--maybe a few more people--but there were so many! A BBC cameraman was filming the proceedings. The local priest, without whose blessing and help this project could not have happened, was there in his long black cassock. About 40 students from the local high school, all of whom had researched the history of the Jews of Strzegowo and had written essays on what they had discovered, were there with the principal of the school and their teacher.
A representative from the Israeli consulate in Warsaw spoke. A letter was read from the American ambassador to Poland, who could not attend. A rabbi from Warsaw was indeed there, and alternated with the priest giving blessings. And the mayor of the town, with his entourage of employees, also spoke. There were many residents of the town present as well, especially the elderly people. One was 95 years old, still walking, erect, and handsome with a well-cared-for large white mustache. There were many others, also; I never did find out who they were. Barbara spoke too, for both of us, with a full heart. And Norman Weinberg spoke. Everything was translated either from Polish to English or the other way around.
The cemetery now had a new chest-high, cement-block wall around it. All the trees, save four, had been cut down, the lush growth pulled out, the gravestones revealed and put upright, and the memorial to the Strzegowo ghetto put back together. We placed flowers on the memorial and on the wall. I learned that the Nazis had used many of the headstones from Strzegowo and other Jewish cemeteries to pave the roads or to grind into gravel for construction purposes. Unfortunately, my grandfather's gravestone was not among the few that had survived. The large assembly of people entered the cemetery through the new gates and stood in small groups talking, remembering, discussing, regrouping, and shortly after, dispersing and returning to town and to Warsaw.
The two young men who served as our drivers and translators, Raphael and Tadeuz, best friends and very funny, smart, and wonderful, were also making a video of the proceedings. So we went with them to Barbara's mother's house, which was still standing and occupied, and they filmed Barbara there speaking of her mother's childhood. Then we moved on to where my mother had lived. A much newer house was now on the spot where hers had been, but it was good to stand there on that ground and imagine her life there. She had told me some stories of her growing-up years, but not enough, I now realized.
We all walked down to the little river that ran through Strzegowo, and I recalled many photographs of my mother and her girlfriends, beautiful young women posing among the flowers on the banks of this very river.
This little trip took only six days. I'm home now and my life has resumed its familiar rhythm. But frequently, unbidden, into my head comes a picture of the cemetery at Strzegowo, the few gravestones bathed in sunlight, the four remaining trees dappling the ground, and I know that my mother, wherever she is, is smiling.
As director of the Noe Valley Co-op Nursery School for the past 35 years, Nina Youkelson has had the unique pleasure of teaching several generations of neighborhood families. She is also in demand as a photographer, specializing in black-and-white family portraits. She has lived in Noe Valley since 1975, and has three grown sons and two granddaughters, all of whom are now attending or are graduates of San Francisco public schools.
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