The main gate, framed by tall brick arches, was closed. Two police cars were parked on the cobblestone road in front of it, with two or three policemen in each one.
“How to get in?” I asked, using my hands to help my Polish.
“Over there, to the right,” said the policeman nearest me.
I found a small path through the bushes lining the street, and beyond that another path leading to the road on the other side of the main gate. Cars, tourist buses, and taxis were parked on one side of the narrow road as far as I could see. As the radiant feeling spread through my body, I realized I was exactly where I needed to be.
Groups of students clustered together, one Polish, one Israeli, and two or more adult groups. I approached a few to hear what language they were speaking and then wandered off on my own. Polish couples with small children strolled by. Children were the focus this year because it was the 70th anniversary of the day in September 1942, two years before the ghetto was liquidated, when Chaim Rumkowksi was forced to make a terrible announcement in the ghetto: “Mothers and fathers. Give me your children.” All those unable to work—the sick, the elderly, and all children under ten—were to be surrendered.
As I strolled down the central road dividing the left and right sides, I felt soaked in warmth and happiness. I was surrounded by thousands and thousands of people who were dead, yet strangely alive to me. A hundred thousand Jewish mothers, a hundred thousand Jewish fathers. The matzevot also seemed alive, like guardians of their souls, inseparable from their crumbling bones below. Overgrown, sinking, some leaning against each other, the monuments were in every state from decomposition to loving care, many artful and unique. It was a place of indescribable beauty. The trees seemed like people too, their countless arms a protective canopy that encompassed this realm where life was inseparable from death.
Sunlight flickered and danced on the green moss. The wind softly whispered as I heard: We belonged here. None of it was an accident. I didn’t understand, but the urge to analyze was immobilized. Something else gave way as a well of emotion poured up from my belly caressing my face with tears of joy. Tears washed over me again and again. A chorus of souls was reaching out, drowning my notions of failure and regret.
Nothing was an accident. We belonged here. I felt it in every fiber, a sense of belonging that embraced everything and spilled over me. None of my journey had been an accident either.
After a while, I found my way into the flat, treeless ghetto field. One section had identical, small, black signs, about eight inches by six inches, ten inches above the ground, with Hebrew letters presumably naming someone buried there. But most of the massive field was rough grass with an occasional small old matzevah or an odd new one.
I didn’t know how many other relatives were buried here, only that my grandfather and his twin brother were in this ghetto field. Suddenly, I remembered that the page from the cemetery list with his burial location was in my backpack. Left side, CZ-VII, Nr. 288. I walked here and there, trying to figure out the system of rows and sections.
More and more, I sensed that my grandfather had led me here. Was I only imagining it? I remembered a comment Elizabeth had made two years earlier when I’d mentioned finding information about him almost by accident.
“Your grandfather is like you,” she’d said. “He wants you to know about him.”
The thought brought a tingle of warmth to my throat, though I wondered what a small factory owner and businessman born in 1891 in Piotrków could have in common with me.
When I was as close as I could get to where I thought he was probably buried, I thought, Now what? What’s the message? I noticed the sharpness of my inner voice, the familiar demand to have an answer and for it to be specific. Couldn’t it be that he wanted to bring me close? Suddenly I felt his love for me, and I knew it was real. I knew he was my grandfather and I was his grandchild.
My back was aching; I needed a rest. Kneeling down, I looked around and then stretched full out on the ghetto field over my grandfather’s body, almost seventy-one years in the ground. His bones are touching the earth that is touching my skin, so we are almost touching. Instantly I corrected myself. No, not almost—the contact was real.
The next day, I could barely move my limbs, yet I felt strangely full, content to move slowly or sit in one place. The feeling of my grandfather remained with me and became even stronger—as if I’d been swimming a very long time and finally reached land—an island of immense inner security and unchanging companionship without demand. Without asking, it remained until I fell asleep, like the love of an endless parent surrounding an innocent child.
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