Longing For Father’s House
Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.
I have been privileged to guide some extraordinary trips to Poland. The time I accompanied children of survivors to meet their father’s benefactor was a deeply emotional experience. The tour where we took a member of our group to locate and visit the attic hideout where her grandmother had hidden with her family was dramatic. But when Zaidy Markowitz outlined his motivation for his trip with his progeny, it didn’t have much in the way of excitement.
“I want to take my sons and their sons to see my father’s shtetl. Once we are going I want them to have the opportunity to have a complete tour of Kivrei Tzaddikim,(tombs of great rabbis), Jewish Heritage and Holocaust sites.”
A few questions later I knew this much. Zaidy’s father left Poland in 1913 as a teenager and made his way to the USA. There he married and raised a family. He came from a tiny village whose only claim to fame is that it is not far from a larger town that has a significant Jewish history. And no, we do not know the address of his father’s home or anything else of significance about his life in the shtetl. I must confess that I was intrigued. What was the drive to go back to a place where there was really nothing to see? I built the itinerary allowing what I thought was a generous two hours in Ratzk.
“No, no” said Zaidy, “we need more time there.” “What are we going to do there?” I asked. “We have ample time to drive through the village (takes 5 minutes if you drive the length of all the streets) and to visit the ruined cemetery (another 10 minutes.)” Zaidy explained: “We need to spend time just walking around and imbibing the atmosphere of Ratzk. This is the whole point of the trip. I want my kids to see my father’s home town.”
I must confess that I did not get it. I resigned myself to the fact that this one day of the trip would be kind of slow and uneventful. I would make sure to compensate with powerful experiences on the remaining days, where the program was left mostly to my discretion.
Zaidy spent Pesach in Israel with his son Shlomo and family. The day after Yomtov ended, Zaidy, Shlomo, Shlomo’s son and son-in law and I flew to Poland to begin our journey. A day later, with the arrival of Yitz, and his two teenage sons from New York, our party was complete and ready for action. Over an uplifting Shabbos in Warsaw I learned a little about the Markowitzs. Zaidy was a Ba’al Teshuva from the 70’s. Shlomo has a Kollel in Yerushalayim and is a serious Talmid Chacham as was evident from the Gemora open on his lap during our long drives. Yitz is Rosh Yeshiva of a post-Yeshiva learning center. The grandchildren are all exceptionally fine young men- a family to be proud of.
At the meals, Zaidy spoke of his delight in having his “boys” together and expressed his vision for the trip. He spoke with passion and with poetry, inserting Divrei Torah and quoting pesukim interweaving them with his own thoughts.
“This is the realization of a dream,” he said. “Ever since my first visit ten years ago, I have waited and wanted to take you all to my father’s home. Shlomo and Yitz, you remember the Pasuk that I hang on the door when you come to visit me: “Veata haloch halachta Ki Nichsof Nichsafta Lebeit Avicha” Lavan’s words to the departing Yaakov “You went now, for you longed for your father’s house.” (Breishit 31:30). This is why we are here. I am taking you to my father’s home.”
Sunday morning we set out early for a drive of several hours, our destination, an indiscernible dot on the map called Ratzk. Zaidy was busy with his phone trying to reach his Ratzk contact person without success. Ten years earlier he had met Agnieszka, a resident of the town who had considerable knowledge of its history and access to archives. He had emailed her telling of our planned visit today and arranged to meet with her, but had not spoken to her since their last exchange several weeks before.
I took advantage of some quiet time in the van to find out a little more of Zaidy’s story. He grew up in a culturally Jewish home. Most of the religious observance that came over with his father from Poland had quickly dissolved in the melting pot of America. Graduating medical school in the 60’s, filled with the ideals of peace and brotherhood he married and made his home on an Indian reservation, providing health services for the local population and enjoying the ethnic, rustic environment as the perfect place to raise his children.
“So how did you come from rural Nevada to having sons who are Torah scholars and grandsons in the top Yeshivot?” I probed. “I had an epiphany,” he declared. I waited expectantly, and he continued. “One day the Indians had a ceremonial dance celebrating one of their festivals. After the event I was talking with the chief, telling him how much I admire him and his people for the way they preserve their culture and traditions. How they pass their heritage down to their children and ensure that the chain that links their generations will continue. Then, like a flash of lightning before my eyes, it hit me. What about my traditions? What Jewish knowledge and customs will my children have?”
He wasted no time in contacting the closest Rabbi and began a process which brought him and his family to a small, warm Jewish community, Torah education and Mitzvah observance.
As we passed the green sign with the town name, indicating our arrival in Ratzk, Zaidy’s excitement was palpable. We we got out of the van in the village square gazing around at the somewhat shabby, low buildings. The rest of the family was trying valiantly to share Zaidy’s enthusiasm. “So here we are!” “Yeah! Here we are in Ratzk” But the questions, why we are in Ratzk and what are we looking for, were left unasked.
As we wandered around the square wondering exactly what should happen next a short, trim grey haired lady approached with a smile and a heartfelt “Witamy”. It was Agnieszka welcoming us in her only language, Polish. With our driver acting as interpreter, we entered her typical Polish village home. A few steps took us through the front room, with its open kitchen, into the living room. She seated us around the dining room table where she had prepared a spread. It took quite a bit of convincing by our driver until she accepted that we would not be able to eat anything in her house due to Kashrut considerations. All the while the smile never left her face and her evident delight at having us.
Zaidy chatted asking questions, checking up his bits of information that he had gleaned over the years from his father about life in pre-World War 1 Ratzk. The rest of us sat there taking in the unfamiliar surroundings. As our eyes wandered around the room, the shrine corner of the room with its icons and religious figurines reminded us of how far from home we were. We wondered if the antlers bedecking the walls were bought decorations or real trophies that her husband had brought home. We listened to the stream of Polish and English flowing back and forth, enjoying Zaidy’s thrill of being in his father’s shtetl and hearing about life there.
Then Agnieszka said something. Our Polish driver translated, his monotone English incongruous to the dramatic nature of the pronouncement:
“Do you want to see your father’s house?”
“My father’s house?” said Zaidy, his voice rising with excitement. You know where my father’s house is?” he asked incredulously.
“Tak, Dom twojego ojca!” she confirmed, as her wide smile stretched from ear to ear.
As we walked down the street in the unseasonably icy cold, Agnieszka pointed out houses where Jews had once lived. When reached a large empty lot which was the site of the shul, destroyed years before, we stopped to say tehillim, thinking of the small tenacious community that had davened there for some three hundred years. A left turn took us down a narrow lane passing between small wooden houses as a fierce snow flurry began.
The house we sought was the second last on the lane. It overlooks the stream that runs by the town, where Zaidy’s father had played as a child in the summer. A low fence encircled the small front garden. Although unoccupied, as the shuttered windows testified, the house was in fine condition. The lower walls had been reinforced with aluminum but the roof stilled showed evidence of the original wooden siding.
“My father’s house!” The excitement and energy now grabbed us all. We were no longer dispassionate and quizzical observers of an older man’s fancy. We were part of an adventure of discovery.
But I was still a little bemused. Why was this ordinary looking house so powerfully emotive?
As the snow stopped and the sky turned a brilliant blue it all came together. This was the conclusion of a voyage that began some forty years earlier with an epiphany on an Indian reservation in Nevada. Zaidy had set out to search for his religious heritage, the spiritual home of his fathers before him. Yet for Zaidy, it was not enough to begin anew and ensure a Jewish future for his family.
He was determined to repair the chain and reconnect his future to his past. “Nichsof Nichsafta LeBeit Avicha“– He longed for his father’s house. Finding this modest dwelling in this tiny shtetl together with his sons and grandsons was the symbol of Zaidy’s life’s work. Now I understood what had driven him to bring together three generations for these few hours in Ratzk.
We travelled on from Ratzk, visiting the major Jewish centers of Pre-war Poland. Synagogues, cemeteries and Hassidic Centers contrasted and counterpointed ghettos camps and execution sites. Each place had its unique emotion, intensity and experience, but through everything ran an iron strong chain connecting the past present and future.
Rabbi Ilan Segal is a noted speaker and educator, who lives in Jerusalem with his family. His personally guided trips in Poland are true Journeys to Inspiration. He can be reached at Ilan.firstname.lastname@example.org.