MY VISIT TO ZAMBRÓW
My mother, Menucha
bas Lipman Ber CHOROSZCZ z"l, was born in Zambrów in 1899. My research in
tracing her family tree took me back to the 1700's on both sides of her
parents. I now know 45 grandparents and over 5000 ancestors, with another
1500 in limbo waiting to be tied in. Beyond that, I am aware of family
lore; village life; etc. as this wonderful search reveals itself. This to
me is amazing, since I was only aware of less than fifty people --
immediate and past family. I was able to locate and purchase a copy of the
Sefer Zambrów (Yizkor Book), which gave me a micro-peek into the history
of this ancestral town. It described Zambrów or Zembrove, its humble
beginnings of 12 Jews in 1765 to a vibrant Jewish community that was
removed from the shtetl life that we had imagined. It had three
synagogues, two cemeteries, Hebrew schools, various social groups and
organizations and above all, a will to live and grow. This desire was
unfortunately smothered in 1939 by the invasion of first the Germans to be
replaced by the Russians and then the return of the Germans with their
death machine driven by the Einsatzgruppen murderers.
On the inside covers of the Yizkor book, a map was printed showing the town as it was remembered by a former resident. Armed with this map, pictures from the Yizkor book and a few aerial photos of the town from 1939, (German reconnaissance) I was able to envision the village of Zambrów. The book depicted the town square (Rynek) was shown as the center of activity, where merchants and farmers sold their goods and produce, The synagogue with its splendor, homes and shops, student groups, organizations and an historical indication of the former Jewish lifestyle.
Our trip began in Brussels where we rented a car to start our odyssey. We had planned our trip to last six weeks with Poland being one of our stops. Leaving Vienna, we entered Poland on its southern border with Czechoslovakia. Our first night in Poland was in Krakow. We left Krakow in the morning and headed for Auschwitz. After seeing the many signs that indicated the Death camp was listed as a national memorial, we arrived. Upon entering the parking lot, we were faced with an ice cream and souvenir stand. Entering the main building was equally void of any somber reminder that this was the final hell that our fellow Jews and family members faced their god. This "Museum" was nothing but a Polish museum. Any references to Jewish life
and death in this
facility had been virtually eradicated or ignored. We entered the camp
through the camp gate with its welcoming archway proclaiming the much
photographed "Arbeit Mach Frei". The pictures in the barrack halls were
hung from ceiling to floor. The problem was that all these pictures were
of non-Jewish inmates. It was if we never existed or were the victims. We
had earlier in our journey, visited another infamous camp, Matthausen, in
Austria. In this camp the fate of the Jews was evident. Auschwitz was
quite the opposite. It was at this camp (as well as Auschwitz), that our
cousin, Allen Kiron (Aaron Choroszcz) was confined. I guess the Poles have
a different view about what a memorial should be and who it should
remember. My experience at Dachau wasn't any different. We then continued
our journey with Warsaw being our next destination. The highlight of our
trip was to be the next day.
The excitement began early with the rising sun. It was bright and clear and promised a good day for driving. We left Warsaw, heading northeast, toward Bialystok. The road took us through the suburbs and then into farmland that was lush and flat as far as the eye could see. Farmers in the fields, horses hauling wagons loaded with hay, were all part of the idyllic scenery. A lone stork strutted through the field, oblivious of the stories of destruction and death that lay beneath its tilled soil. It was hard to believe that only a few short years ago, the savage German and Russian war machines roared unchallenged, down these quiet roads,
their messages of death and destruction.
Following the map, I located the Jablonka river. The cemetery was supposed to be just opposite the sawmill and a small bridge. We searched but couldn't locate it. I asked a woman with a child who happened to live next to the cemetery, if she spoke any of the languages that I was familiar with (Polish not being one). She,
unfortunately did not understand. I then drew a picture of a grave with a cross on it. She nodded. Crossing out the symbolic cross, I drew a Jewish star. I remembered the Polish word for cemetery (cmentarz). She held up two fingers and I was able to understand that two Jewish cemeteries were located about 500
As we approached the fence at this location, we saw nothing but trees on the other side. Upon entering through the fence and up a small slope, I spotted a small stone (sandstone boulder) peeking through the earth, which after closer inspection, I noted what appeared to be Hebraic writing. Brushing away the sand
confirmed my find.
This was it! Finally I would be able to find the resting places of my
grandparents and all my great-great-great's. I had envisioned placing my
hand on the gravestones of my ancestors z"l and offering a memorial
against it as it
belonged with the rest.
side yard of a farmhouse The side of this hill was supported by a large retaining wall constructed with all the gravestones from this long-forgotten cemetery. Even in death, there wasn't an iota of respect. The Polish cemetery on the main road was well tended. Needless to say, we were very saddened by our discovery. I then did something that probably was not heard in this village in almost fifty years. I recited a Kaddish for all the Jews who were interred in this forgotten cemetery and for the Jews of a much larger Jewish cemetery, Poland, who perished under the Nazis and in some cases, their fellow citizens and neighbors.
We left the cemetery to continue our search. Using the map, we located the synagogue (The White Shul), which was now a store of some sort. The shul of my mother, my grandparents, where they offered thanks to their G-d, married their children, bar-mitzvahed their sons and observed their love of Judaism. We then
searched for and located the street that my mother lived on. The address was given by our cousin Libby Choroszcz (Ajzenberg) who left Zambrow in November of 1938 at the age of thirteen.
The street was Swiento Krzyska, #15. We found the number on the side of the building. It was however, completely redeveloped with large apartment houses replacing the housing of time past. The rear of the building had the backs of the older, original homes with small sheds (mews). I can only assume that the original homestead was similar.
The town square
that was once the hub of activity was now a small park. The stores had
empty shelves. At the back of what was once the town square, tables were
setup with the local residents selling produce, meats and other wares.
This was the main economy of Zambrów.
Driving through the narrow streets, we noticed that some of the old houses had remained. This provided a mini-window into the past. Some of the houses were from pre-1939 era. New construction was evident in many of the areas. One side of the street opposite the little park had some small shops and house that were
also prewar. The
town in itself however, was cold and empty. The visible populace was
unsmiling, showing the effects of the poor economy.
We decided to leave Zambrów at that time to continue on to Choroszcz. This was a small town located about 5 miles outside Bialystok. I assume that this was the home of my family before the 1700's. We weren't able to find anything of interest there. The town was very tiny (perhaps 25 houses.)
We then continued to Tykocin. The story of Tykocin in of itself is an interesting and moving one. The old shul had been restored and what remaining beauty spoke of its history and the devastation inflicted upon the Jews of Tykocin. The town itself was intact, unscathed by war. The houses had the imprints where mezuzahs were once mounted. The house in the rear of the shul although with its stained glass window in the shape of a Mogen Dovid, was devoid of Jews.
To summarize, I must say that the trip was a very emotional and sad one. It was a return to a larger graveyard, Poland, where over 1000 years of Yiddishkeit was eradicated in a few short years. My hopes of finding anything remaining that concerned my family, were unfulfilled. However, just being able to stand and see where my mother z"l and my ancestors lived was in of itself, a deep and fulfilling experience.
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