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Ghosts of My Grandfather’s Village

The Holocaust destroyed Plock’s Jewish community. But the exodus started decades earlier, after World War I.

Wayne Hoffman
April 19, 2013

The story of Jewish Plock is the story of the Jews who aren’t there.

My grandfather, a native of the Polish city, was one of those Jews, even though he never really talked about his hometown in any detail; he harbored no nostalgia for Poland, and he probably thought nobody he knew—let alone someone he’d spawn—would ever see it again.

Born in 1905 in Plock (or Plotzk, in Yiddish), Hanoch Bornstein fled Poland with his parents, his sister, and his two brothers when he was in his teens, shortly after World War I ended. Settling in Jersey City, Hanoch learned to speak unaccented English and became Henry. For the most part, Poland was never discussed again. When my mother was little, she would ask about “the old country” and her father would tell her succinctly: “It was awful. That’s why we left. If it was great, we would have stayed.” Of course, by the time my mother, born in 1940, was old enough to pose such questions, it was already clear what “staying” in Plock would have eventually entailed: Three decades after the Bornsteins left, their hometown’s seven-century-old Jewish community—which totaled roughly 40 percent of the city’s population of 30,000 when my grandfather was born—was almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust, reduced to just 300 survivors, all but a handful of whom emigrated within a few years.

Grandpa Henry’s lack of interest in his Polish roots filtered down to my mother and her sister, and finally to my siblings, my cousins, and me. Nobody in the family has set foot on Polish soil in almost a century, or even expressed an interest. I’ve traveled to more than 50 other countries. I’ve been next to Poland: Germany, the Czech Republic, even Slovakia (twice). I’ve visited other places steeped in less personal Jewish history, from Israel to Argentina to Spain. And I’ve filled up my passport with stamps from countries that hold no familial or religious connections at all, from Cambodia to Nicaragua, New Zealand to Iceland. I’ve been to Paraguay, for God’s sake, but never the country that holds my family’s history.

Since I never learned anything concrete about Plock before my grandfather died when I was 6, as I grew up, I filled in the blanks in my imagination, guessing what it might have been like: an old Jewish town of no sophistication, a Polish shtetl filled with rigidly observant and socially narrow-minded nudniks and busybodies, a place subject to routine discrimination and outbursts of anti-Semitic violence. Plock, in my young mind, was Anatevka, the fictional setting of Fiddler on the Roof—but, as the old joke goes, with less singing and dancing.

Today I had the chance to see for myself. When Tablet planned its staff trip to Warsaw, I looked at a map and realized I’d be just 70 miles from Plock, these days a picturesque riverside town of 126,000 with a booming petrochemical industry. While Plock’s Jewish community is now entirely nonexistent, one of its synagogues survived—a small 19th-century building that, having no congregation to serve anymore, was ultimately converted into a Jewish museum that opened just a few weeks ago. This was a sign, I decided: It was time for me to return to the place my grandfather left behind in every way, to see the town he never wanted to remember and his descendants never wanted to visit.

And it wasn’t Anatevka at all.

My husband and I rode in the back of a Skoda hatchback, with our translator Weronika up front with our driver, Michal. Warsaw’s urban jumble behind us, we drove past small farms and forests of very straight, narrow trees, before we arrived nearly two hours later on the outskirts of Plock. This was the new suburban part of the expanding city, with its KFC and McCafe and Media Markt electronics store, dreary gray communist-era apartment blocks standing alongside newer ones with better paint jobs, if not more interesting design. Grandpa would never have seen this area, which was probably still farmland a century ago, so I paid it little mind.

But downtown, Plock’s historic old city looked much the way it had before he left: ringed by narrow, early-20th-century residential buildings in the formerly Jewish area along Kwiatka Street and the small synagogue that now houses the new museum. I couldn’t suss out exactly where the Bornsteins had lived, but I know for certain that they walked along this street, went inside this building, stood on this sidewalk and saw this same view. I closed my eyes and tried to picture Henry—still Hanoch, just a boy—on this spot.

Still, something wasn’t right.

We entered the Museum of Mazovian Jews, a beautifully renovated, bright, and orderly space with a modest set of wall panels detailing the chronology of Plock’s now-extinct Jewish community: Postcards, watercolors, sepia-tone photos printed on glass, and bits of text in Polish and English explain the seven centuries of Jewish life here, right up to the Holocaust—which gets its own separate room, a dark and somber space where the timeline comes to a rather abrupt end. It’s a sadly familiar tale, from the increasingly restrictive series of Nazi decrees to the formation of a ghetto to the eventual deportation and extermination of virtually the entire community. Period. End of sentence.

In the main room, a half-dozen bilingual audio-visual stations explain very basic information about Judaism, from food and art to holidays and religious artifacts; a Torah sits in a display case in the center of the former sanctuary. Upstairs, in the women’s gallery overlooking the main room, is a space that can seat several dozen for lectures, concerts, films, or temporary exhibits about Jewish culture. Mariusz Wojtalewicz, the museum’s manager, noted that there are no Jews living in Plock today but said through our translator that “the memory of these people is very vital here.”

But memory is all that remains, and that memory feels weak; even the museum’s straightforward and easily accessible information can’t begin to explain what’s missing from the city. Outside, there wasn’t much else left to see of Jewish Plock. The Great Synagogue was desecrated by the Nazis and finally demolished in 1951. The former mikveh is now an art gallery, the cheder part of town hall. The old-folks home was destroyed; the old cemetery’s gravestones were stolen during the Holocaust.

Plock was never entirely Jewish, though, and much of the city from a century ago that wasn’t specifically Jewish remains intact today. So, we sat at a café and local brewery on the old city’s sedate main square, in front of town hall and a Catholic church, just two blocks from the museum and adjacent to the old Jewish quarter. This, I am certain, was a view my grandfather—who appreciated a bit of peace and quiet—enjoyed more than once. It’s a peaceful, grand, pedestrian square full of cobblestones and shaded benches, befitting a town that was once capital of Poland (more than 900 years ago) and is now one of the main hubs in the region of Mazovia. Plock, I now fully understood, was hardly a backwater shtetl

And yet, I still couldn’t quite access my grandfather’s story—how he lived, and why he left. Henry might have seen these buildings, Henry might have stood in this synagogue, Henry might have lived on one of these streets. But when he looked around a hundred years ago, he didn’t just see these structures. He saw people. Jews. And they are gone, all gone, less than ghosts.

And that, of course, is the story of the Holocaust. But my grandfather left decades before the Nazis invaded, before the armbands and the Gestapo and the murders in the forest and the deportations to Treblinka. So, the Holocaust, which looms so large as to absorb all of Plock’s Jewish history into a single endpoint—seeming to explain what happened to the city’s Jews with utter simplicity and veracity—does not, in fact, explain what happened to my grandfather and his family, and why they left when they did.

The city’s Jewish population fell between the world wars, from some 12,000 in 1910 to roughly 9,000 on the eve of World War II. A quarter of the city’s Jews left Plock—and yet, since this exodus pales next to the total annihilation of the 1940s, it warrants little comment in histories of Plock or the city’s new museum. Wojtalewicz suggested that relations between Jews and non-Jews around the time the Bornsteins emigrated were “positive” and “normal” and noted that while some Jews left for larger cities in Poland in search of work, there were no notable instances of anti-Semitic violence and no “major” immigration at that point. Economic considerations didn’t seem like my ancestors’ motivations, since they were apparently better off financially in Poland than they’d ever be in Jersey City.

So, what was it? A pogrom that has gone unrecorded, deemed insignificant compared to the events that followed? A backlash from the newly independent Poles following Germany’s occupation of the city during World War I in 1915—an allegedly non-destructive occupation for the community, which saw its political and cultural life expand greatly under the Germans? Something else?

My grandfather has been dead for 36 years. There’s nobody left who knows first-hand, or even second-hand. And coming here won’t change that. In the end, everything is not illuminated.

The horrors of the Shoah are so vast and so complete that everything before them reads as mere prelude.

It’s hard to tell a story about Jewish life in Poland that’s not about the Holocaust. The horrors of the Shoah are so vast and so complete that everything before them reads as mere prelude, rather than parallel narrative in its own right—a phenomenon known in some circles as “backshadowing.” But if a trip to Plock couldn’t fully make me understand why my grandfather left when he did, it did help me see what life was like in his early years.

Before we left Plock, I was able to close my eyes and think of the photographs of Jewish residents mounted by the dozen inside the museum and imagine those people multiplying and surrounding him, filling these empty streets with thousands upon thousands of Jews. My grandfather’s town had no fiddlers on roofs, no Tevye and his daughters. What it had was Henry, here sitting under a tree by the town hall, here chatting on the sidewalk outside the shul, here visiting friends in their new and narrow houses. And that, it turns out, is what’s missing now. Not an old mikveh or an overgrown cemetery. The people. The ones who were killed and the ones like my grandfather who—for whatever reason—got out of what they thought of as an awful place, before it was too late.

Wayne Hoffman is executive editor of Tablet Magazine.

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