The Butterflies of Zaromb

We march to the new cemetery, which is now a pine forest. Patches of sunlight break through the boughs onto the ground. Shadows of trees bifurcate, creating halos. It is so still here, I can almost hear the moaning of the bodies, perhaps my own ancestors, under my feet.

Is my mother with them now? Has she joined them? Do spirits and souls cross countries and continents?

“The Nazis took the headstones to build roads,” Ania says, translating for Ryszard.

We embark on a mission to see if we can find any remnants. Ania finds the first piece of limestone with Hebrew writing. I mentally ask Grandma Rose to help me, and there among the moss, pine needles, and tree stumps, I find a piece. The engraving is too eroded to read it. We find about four pieces and I tuck a rounded edge of gravestone into my backpack. It has no writing.

What I know about Poles comes from two sources. The first, my mother and the stories she passed on from her father: Holocaust survivors returned to Zaromb and were shot in the head by the locals who didn’t want to give up the Jewish homes they had seized. The second source is the family of a boy I dated for five years from senior year in college to my first post-MBA job in corporate marketing. We had known each other since kindergarten and lived three blocks away from each other. His mother once ran into my mother at a supermarket, years after my father’s supermarket chain went bankrupt and we had to shop elsewhere. She said, “You Jews are so liberal,” because my mother allowed my boyfriend into my bedroom (trust me, nothing happened, even after five years). His mother called me every morning before I left for work to tell me about this Jew or that Jew who converted to Catholicism. I wasn’t about to do that. While not particularly observant, I am who I am, and I’m Jewish. I owe that to my family members who perished, I owe that to my grandparents who left everything behind to come to America.

Ania and Ryszard are, of course, Polish Poles. They each have some sort of affinity for Jewish culture. But the sense of Polish guilt for the Holocaust is palpable, like I can reach out and grab at it. When the Jews marched four across, as Ryszard said, what did the Poles do? I recently watched Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” and that gives a pretty good idea. Some Poles tried to help, while others, who were given the responsibility to feed the Jews, kept the money and food for themselves.

Here in Ostrova, I am not wearing a white armband with a blue Star of David on my right sleeve. I am roaming freely as my grandparents once did, although unlike my grandmother, I am wearing shoes.

The plan is to stay in town tonight and head to Zaromb tomorrow. Ryszard wants to come with us. His friend Jasio, Ania tells me, is giving us a tour. There seems to be a little network of Poles to deal with American Jewish tourists. I suppose it gives them good business.

Ania and I first settle in at our hotel in town and then walk a few blocks to Third May Street. The thought occurs to me: I am walking in the town my grandmother grew up in. The town her parents grew up in. Later in my hotel room, I open the window that looks out on a school soccer field. The air is so crisp and the barking of dogs so stark against it. I am home is the mantra that runs through my brain. I want to tell my mother about all I have seen so far. But I can’t. It was clear to me as she was dying that she did not have a great relationship with her father. She wrinkled her nose at the mention of him. She once said, “He wanted me to change the world.” But my mother preferred to attend a Benny Goodman concert at the Paramount Theater on a Thursday morning than look for work, for instance. She wanted to buy and have nice things, dance and show off her amazing gams, have lots of beaus. She emphatically did not want to change the world. She never noticed how much she looked like him, while her sister and brother looked like their mother with the small button nose. She always cried when she made the annual pilgrimage to her parents’ graves. I suppose, though, it wasn’t easy to live with a demanding father. My father, on the other hand, was a teddy bear, and teared up when he saw her dressed for a special occasion. He was so proud of her.