The Butterflies of Zaromb

Today only a delivery truck rumbles through it and the four of us are the only people walking through the square. There are a few parked bicycles and cars and a covered bus stop.

“Can you ask him if he remembers the Pryzant family?” I ask Ania.

She translates and he shakes his head. He would have been too young to remember them, I guess.

My camera stops working and we cram into the little general store in the square so I can buy batteries. But the camera refuses to cooperate. Ryszard loans me his disposable as we head toward St. Stanisław Church. We turn left onto Fama Street. A man in shin-high black boots with a walking stick says, “Dzień dobry.”

Ania says, “Dzień dobry, good day.” She says to me, “It is impolite not to respond in kind.”

One hundred years ago, this could have been my great-grandfather and he would have said, “Shalom Aleichem,” and the other person would have responded with, “Aleichem shalom.”

Fama Street is a new name for this lane. I ask, “Was this street once called Farbasker Street?” Farbasker is Yiddish for dyer.

Jasio replies, ‘Yes, it was the street where Jewish artisans lived.”

“My mother told me my great-grandfather was a printer,” I say to Ania.

“That’s unlikely here. But he could have been a dyer, a textile painter.” I fantasize that he lived on Farbasker Street. “He would have had a home connected to his business,” Ania says.

We continue down the graveled path of Fama Street and its hazelnut trees.

I see a shop. “Can we go in?” I ask.

I want to let my imagination run wild and pretend this was once my great-grandfather’s.

The linoleum curls on the floor and the shop, a kind of dry goods business, reminds me of the Soviet Union. The building itself looks like it would collapse during a Nor’easter. Maybe someone with a heavy-duty staple gun has attached these mustard-colored boards to the house. The front steps hide behind high weeds and the concrete foundation is cracked. The yellow paint on the front door peels to reveal white. The roof is a mishmash of materials Ania calls eternity, a roofing material like fiber board. Lace curtains hang in the windows, framed in claret-colored paint.

“Yellow houses like this one were Jewish ones,” says Jasio. “See that loft?” He points to an outside door in the second story. “Children would sleep in them at night in the summer.”

The memorial book tells me the street had once been called Yossel’s Street. For all I know, this house could have belonged to great-grandfather Yossel Pryzant and the street could have been named for him. My grandfather and his brothers could have slept in the loft and shared their dreams about leaving.

Jasio continues to lead us down Fama, past St. Mary Mother of the Harvest Church, whose steeple I have seen from the distance. We turn right onto an unnamed street. Jasio speaks to some people in Polish and evidently gains permission for us to cut across their backyard through a rusted fence to a field. The dewy grass reaches our thighs, and I calculate my steps to avoid placing my foot in cow manure. Amid all the green is a large patch of yellow grass, matched in tone with the goldenrod bushes.

“That’s what remains of the Brok River,” Jasio says. “It used to surround the town on three sides.” He points up a now imaginary river. “That’s where the Jews used to swim on Sunday afternoons.” When did the Brok dry up—before or after the round-ups? Did it die along with Zaromb’s Jews? Or did it cry in mourning until all its tears were used up?

My grandfather left the lush green fields and meadows to live in the dirt and squalor of New York City. Yet, the bustling city offered opportunity and a wife and kept him out of harm’s way. Did he ever miss his home? Did he ever wonder if he’d made a mistake by leaving Zaromb?

I snap away with Ryszard’s camera until I use up all the film. Ania now loans me her cell phone to take more pictures. In this way, we conspire to capture Jewish Zaromb. We tramp back along Fama Street toward the square. It turns into Kowalska Street on the other side of the square. Chickens cluck each time someone passes by. They hide behind a fence, although some escape. A rooster leads a procession of hen and chicks across the road. Just like in America, they cross to get to the other side.

“Was this ever Moshe the locksmith’s street?” I asked Ania to ask Ryszard to ask Jasio. I thought that’s what the memorial book said about Kowalska Street’s predecessor. It seems rather silly that there had been a locksmith. I can’t imagine having anything to lock up here.

Jasio takes us to the “new” cemetery and the first thing I notice is the prevalence of white butterflies. They flutter from bush to bush in no particular hurry and in no specific pattern. I tell myself they are the spirits of my dead ancestors, whose markers the Nazis used to build roads. All that remains visible is an iron fence. It is a pretty little place if I can forget the fact that there are probably two rows of ancestors beneath my feet. The land slopes to where the Brok River had once flowed. Daisies and dandelions spot the grounds and goldenrod clumps at the base of blue lilac bushes.

As in Ostrów Mazowiecka, there are no markers. There is something very dead about the place, no pun intended. Except for the butterflies. And now my mother has joined them.