Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Red pine, dark cloud, pale beer

In Poland, even when driving to find your ancestors in a cemetery, there's no such thing as a simple walk in the forest.

Twenty kilometres or so from Łomża, my great grandfather's home town (and as far back as we can trace before him), a small forest of red pine and oak clots the rolling hills of farmland outside of the village of Tykocin. I stopped for some forest bathing. But something didn't seem right. I didn't get it when I saw the seven Israeli tour buses in the larger parking lot -- similar to the other seven I'd seen back at the town's synagogue, where 500 Israeli police officers, standing around waiving giant flags and touring the shul and the town with a Hebrew guide, watched me climb from my car and cross the road. “It’s too bad,” one particularly tall and handsome one told me. “You’ve just missed the ceremony. We read from the Torah. It was very moving.”

Nor did I get it when an Israeli security guard got out his car and asked me where I had driven from, where I was going, what I was doing here and if he could look at my luggage. He finally let me go. I walked into the forest, where piles of freshly cut pine logs lay stacked near the entrance. Someone had drawn a star of David on the cut end of one log. Two hundred feet down the trail, seemingly half the current Israeli army came around the corner. Walking at the front were a group of civilians. "Why are you here?" they asked. "Do you know what is here?" and looked at me the way I've looked at none too smart people in the past when they've made some terrible, unselfconscious admission of cluelessness -- with a kind of tender judgement and pity.

I should have done more research -- about historical killing squads in the area, about the curtain a forest provides, not just as a hiding space for those who flee, but a space to hide atrocity. In August 1941, while the blueberry bushes were ripening under the red pines of Tykosin forest, the Nazis took 2400 Jews from the village and other nearby communities and marched them into the forest, where they shot them in waves and buried them in three mass graves. A memorial put up by one woman lists those she lost: her entire family -- brothers, sisters, mother, father, grandparents, cousins. Similar killings were done in surrounding towns, including the one my family is from.

I stayed until the army had left and then until the police officers arrived with more Israeli flags, with which the memorial was already festooned. Another guard approached me, and I had to bite back my laughter when he said, "You can stay but take no images of the people and please don't go closer to them than 25 metres." Most of the faces I passed were frankly curious, they met my eye. Many Sephardic faces, a few Ashkenazi. They looked pitying when I said I didn't speak Hebrew. A healthy, tall, beautiful group. A jumble of competing emotions leapt up. The need to re-territorialize a monument. The right to remember. The right to be at home. The missing culture that would otherwise be here. The violence committed in Palestine. How home is never one thing. My father used to say that everyone should be cleared out of Israel and Palestine and the whole thing turned into a national park. I had tended to agree. But these groups complicated the issue again. Where else would we go? I thought, as I left the forest, sidled between the buses and said goodbye to the first guard, who asked me again, "Are you okay?"

I kept driving. Finally, in the late afternoon I found them. I parked the rental car and took a bag with umbrella, the ancestry listings, my camera and a giant beer. Walked down the outside edge of the wall and jumped it about 30 metres down, behind where some chickens were grazing. Landed in the Łomża Jewish cemetery where about a 50 years of Arkiers are buried -- between the 1890s and the beginning of the war, when anyone who was left here has the addition of the word "holocaust" or "Auschwitz" after their year of death. There are lots of my people here. There are lots of my people in the United States now, because of those who left before the war. And in Paris, and in Canada.

I walked through the rows of Hebrew script, taking a video for those who I'm in part making this trip for. Wild strawberries and vetch, buttercups and little blue flowers I didn't know the name of. A view of the little river and then up into small rolls of hills before the levelling to the plain again on the opposite side, to the south. A view you could not get tired of. I was glad of that. Houses surrounding the north side, and a farm to the east and west and a Catholic church far to the west. I started picking up empty snail shells and placing them on the stones.

What I felt wasn't sadness, finally, though something in my ribs hurt. What I felt, sitting as the first shower came over, taking a video of the storm with my umbrella in one hand and the beer beside me I had used a gravestone to pop the lid off of, was a kind of thick protection. A kind of happiness. A kind of feeling that I might never feel suicidal again, after this. A kind of in-pressing of the skin, as if being compressed while allowed to expand. I started reading out their names. Chaim. Wolf, Issac, Liba, Rytka, Malka, Chana, Mejer, Dawid. Then I started calling them. Then I started singing them. The air turned green and then the rain passed and the world turned gold and green for a few minutes before the next row of storm. There was a man digging in the far corner of the yard. The cuckoos started up again.

I came from the practical ones, I guess. It was freezing out. I didn't stay the night. I didn't sleep with them. No matter what we do there are regrets. I regret everything. Lying in this bed this morning in Bialystok, I just want to take car back there. Again. Again. And keep repeating the process until something snaps free from history and a whole culture springs from the earth as painters and dancers and scientists and poets and plumbers, and adds to the beauty of the world instead of falling into a pit in the forest. There's where the going back again and again leads. And they were practical. The ones I am directly from pulled up their 100 year roots and left their home, by horse and buggy, likely, before the great disasters. They got out of the way of the next storm.

So as I'm failing at this, failing to connect with the man who could have led me around the graves, failing to get the car before the meter expires, failing to check out in time, failing to decide where to go after Vilnius, I also feel amazing. I was so fucking proud of myself. Writing to everyone I knew, huddled on that grave, saying, "I found them! I found them!" Somewhat like the emotions written, I realize, on the Israelis' faces back at the forest of Tykocin.