When I went to look for my grandmother’s house and her grave, I looked to one friend, Isaac Kot from Boston, to help me.
Isaac and I have known each other since 2002, when we both attended our first World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust conference. (Yes, I got it wrong in my last blog, because many of the survivors were also hidden children, and after a while, all those acronyms get confusing!)
On Saturday night, Isaac and I pored over maps and realized that while it was on the map’s index, we couldn’t find it. It was right near the Warsaw Ghetto Fighter’s monument, but it seemed invisible, and we thought we should find a magnifying glass. Anna Doziuk, a new friend, saw what we were doing and came over to help. Anna heads up the brand new 2G group in Warsaw and is president of the Jewish Social Welfare Commission of Poland. She chaired an emotional 2G and 3G workshop that very afternoon, and was happy to assist. In fact, she drove home and came back with a bigger map, but we still couldn’t find it.
Then she suggested we try “Mr. Google,” and so we did. But there were only a few tiny photos of number 35, and 8 Gesia, where my babby ran a pension, was nowhere to be found. (I have since received a photo of the house from Agneishka S. who was our guide in Krakow and Lublin.) We discovered, instead, that the Nazis had turned the bottom of the street into a prison camp toward the end. But nothing else could be found. The hotel staff tried to help us with google, too.
Isaac and I, joined by my roommate Yvonne Illich, set off in the morning to see what we could see. As we were leaving, Anna handed us a sheaf of information she had downloaded from the Internet. But I wasn’t hopeful. My mother had come to Warsaw at least a decade earlier in search of her mother’s grave, and didn’t find it. In fact, when I told her I was going to Warsaw, she shot at me in Yiddish, “Host eppes dorten farloiren?” “Did you lose something there?”
And I shot right back, “Yoh, mein Babbeh.” Yeah, my grandma.
She said, again in Yiddish, “I looked, I didn’t find it and neither will you.” So of course, I was even more determined find the grave.
Isaac, Yvonne and I walked out of the revolving doors and got into a taxi. Our driver’s name was Mariusz, and it turns out his brother lives in Linden, New Jersey, just a few miles from where I live. We asked him about Gesia Street and he said he knew precisely where it was. He took us straight to Rappaport’s Ghetto Fighters’ Memorial Plaza, where the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews was being built. “Gesia Street is under the museum,” he said.
“Better the fantastic new museum,” I thought, “than a parking lot or office building.” Just two weeks before I left, I had been asked to write for the North American Council of that very same museum! In fact, I was staying after the conference to learn more about it. I could only look at Isaac and Yvonne and shake my head, pull out my camera and take pictures.
At Rappaport’s monument, I also said a silent Kaddish for my uncle Yaakov, who had escaped from Treblinka, and came back to the ghetto to report what he had seen. He is a footnote in Ringleblum’s Diary and that is where I first found him on November 4, 1979, at the Zachor Conference in New York, a conference put together by Dr. Eva Fogelman, Bella Savrin and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg.
That was 31 years ago, and I remember calling my mother from a pay phone at the conference to ask about the footnote. She said it was her brother and told me that what he saw was recorded in Hillel Seidman’s Warsaw Ghetto Diary. When I asked her why she never told us about him, she asked me why I cared. How could I not? Then she told me he was killed in the first night of the fighting, with a rifle in his hand, on Seder night. Now I was more determined than ever to find his mother’s grave.
Mariusz drove us to the cemetery gate, and when we walked through, I was asked to hand over money…”But I am here to find my Babby,” I said, and could feel myself getting all farklempt. “You are looking for family?” said the toll keeper. “You don’t pay.”
Isaac, Yvonne and I began looking at the markers, and noticed they were very, very old, and that on our right, almost every grave belonged to a woman. But we couldn’t find it. I was afraid that she was buried among the mass graves, and went to look at them.
There, bigger than life, was a monument to the Eisner family and 1,000,000 children built by New Yorker, Jack Eisner, who died in 2003. He was survivor who appointed me to serve on the Goldberg Commission, which examined the role of American Jews in rescue in 1983. In 1985, He accompanied a group of 2Gs, including me, to Bergen-Belsen, where we protested Ronald Reagan’s visit to Bitburg to lay a wreath on the graves of the Waffen SS. And I had other connections with Jack as well. It was all very strange, all very wheels within wheels…and I was growing frustrated and sad. Where was my Babby’s grave? The cemetery was enormous! I would never find it. My mother was right.
The three of us stood at the mass graves and said Kaddish. Finally I looked at Isaac, stole a line from Yentl, which I, of course, edited, and started to cry—“Babby, can you hear me? Babby can you feel me?” and sobbed in Isaac’s arms. Suddenly, his cell phone rang. As he reached into his pocket, he said, “I shut it off before I came into the cemetery. Let me see who is trying to reach me,” and pulled it out. But it was off. The three of us looked at each other, and looked at the sky. Could it be possible my 19th century Babby was sending me a 21st century message? Nah, I thought, that’s just too weird…but all three of us got the chills, just the same.
When we climbed back into the cab, Mariusz gave us a grand tour of old Warsaw and told us about his adventures with American and Israeli VIPS. We were playing Jewography and there were one degree of separation. But it didn’t help me find my Babby.
On Monday morning, another new friend, Miriam G., who is Orthodox and works with the Jewish Community, heard our story and told me to see Israel Spielman, the director of the cemetery. So Isaac and I had another adventure, met an Israeli couple and entered the cemetery just as a group of Israeli female teens were heading out of it.
Mr. Spielman was sitting at his computer, had payos like the Gerer mashgiach at the Marriott, and when I asked told me he was a Bobover Hasid. I told him our story, and he said stranger things have happened, and we can’t always explain them.
When I told him who I was looking for, the Parczever Rebbitzen, Ita Rabinowicz, he said we were related and that every time he’s in Boro Park, Brooklyn, he davens (prays) in the Munkascer Shul—which has the latest morning services in New York. I said that the rebbe was my first cousin, and that the services were so late because he’s had trouble getting up in time for morning services since he was a teenager—and my mother had to throw water on him to wake him up.
Israel Speilman works really hard at the cemetery. When our mutual friend, Zalmen Mlotek of the National Yiddish Theatre told me Spielman had catalogued about 43,000 graves, I told Zalmen that to date, Spielman has catalogued approximately 88,000 graves—as a labor of love.
Yasher Koach, Israel Spielman, Kol Tuv and a Gut Yohr—May you have the strength to continue this important work, may everything good come your way and, please, have a Shana Tovah.