The Butterflies of Zaromb

I remember my first trip to Europe my junior year in high school, when I spotted some cows from our luxury motor bus as we toured from Luxembourg to Trier, Germany. It hit me that the cows would not understand English.

Standing here before the town, I cannot believe I’ve come this far. I wish I had been able to make the trip before my mother died. To physically stand in the place my grandfather left overwhelms me. How many American Jews with roots in this place have stood here?

Before long we bump along a macadamized lane towards the square. My brain rambles: this is it, this is it, this is it. The place I have imagined for so long splays before me. I will see the square and the Brok River, and maybe if I’m lucky, evidence of my grandfather in some way.

We come into the square and turn left at the end.

This is pretty much the whole town. A market square and four streets, like a wagon wheel with four spokes. Now this is a shtetl. Where it could have housed so many people before the war, I cannot say.

I am in Zaromb. As black and white as Ostrów Mazowiecka seemed to me, that’s how colorful Zaromb is.

This is the place where my grandfather studied to become a rabbi, where an older sister and younger brother succumbed to cholera in 1899. There had been Yankel Dovid, Icek, Chaja Pesia, Moishe Aron—all older than my grandfather. Younger were Judka and Faygel. Yankel Dovid was 20 years older and Isaak 17 years older than my grandfather. Faygel was three years younger.

Zaromb is the place Yankel Dovid left when the Soviets took over the village in 1939. He went east to Uzbekhistan-Bukhara and eventually to Israel.

Zaromb is the place Icek left to run a cleaning business in Ostrów Mazowiecka. Ostrova fell under Nazi rule in 1939. He and his family were murdered.

Zaromb is the place Moishe Aron—whom my mother called Masharin, merging his two names—left in 1926 to come to America through Canada, because U.S. immigration restricted direct entry after 1924. He kept the name Pryzant and lived with his family in the Bronx. My grandfather, fearing the name Pryzant sounded too much like the English, “prison,” changed his name to Perlman.

My great-grandfather Yossel Chaim disowned my grandfather because he had the chutzpah to leave, and by so doing, taking away his father’s dream of having a rabbi in the family. Although my grandfather read the Yiddish daily newspaper, Forvarts, every day and belonged to the Zaromber landsmannschaft—a society of immigrants formerly from the town—he never entered an American shul and shunned anything religious. His mother and sister Faygel were forbidden to have any contact with him. All news must have traveled through Masharin.

We park in front of Jasio’s house. A single red rose bush behind the picket fence shoots out against the starkness of the white stucco house. Ryszard and Jasio slap each other on the back. Jasio, dressed in a white dress shirt with tie and a gray V-neck sweater, zips up his jacket. He is all business, and he and Ania confer. He then leads us up Czyżewska Street about ten steps and stops. I’m probably the first Jew he’s seen since the war. I wonder what memories that dredges up for him. I wonder what burdens he carries as the only person left in Zaromb who remembers.

“Across the street,” he says, pointing to a vacant lot with a decrepit wooden fence missing several slats and shrubbery grown to colossal proportion, “was the synagogue. It was big and made of red brick.”

Its image comes to my mind’s eye. The memorial book described the building. I could see the lights burning through the large, sky-high stained-glass windows, could hear the prayers and songs. Inside there would have been large leonine structures guarding the Torah ark. I am sure it was full of splendor, a beacon of hope in this poverty-stricken, one-streetlight hick town.

Jasio turns to face the opposite side of the street. “This is where the new synagogue was built. When the old one burned, before the Nazis, the Jews built another. And behind that were the bathhouse and the Jewish bakery.”

I stare at the building, imagining scurrying kerchiefed and wigged women. The thrill and anticipation of the Sabbath. The scent of freshly baked bread. I wonder how Jasio feels now, recalling a time when Zaromb was full of life and color.  I take copious notes in my journal.

We move into the square, the rynek. He halts at the top of it, near the directional sign that says, “Ostrów Maz 18,” 18 kilometers or about 11 miles. St. Stanislaw Church hides behind a veil of trees just beyond the square. Jasio turns to face the square and points:

“Here was Velvel Kilovich’s fish store. Then there was Lev Frydman’s barber shop, the police station and the jail, a shop for soap, and a shop for herring along one side and the Folkshule, drug store, inn, and butcher shop on the other. There were ten Jewish butchers.”

He recites this as if these buildings and businesses still stand. I recall a photo from the yizkor book of a wider square on Wednesday, Market Day, full of long-coated men, white-kerchiefed women, and horse-drawn wagons brimming with all sorts of wares, parked before ramshackle, rickety wooden structures.