August 27, 2004 5:58 AM   Subscribe

Radzilow. Memorial to a once-vibrant Jewish shtetl.
posted by plep (23 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Interesting - I'm just reading "Everything Is Illuminated" now, so this is very timely. And unsettling. 3 days ago I didn't know what a shtetl was; great link, thanks!
posted by freebird at 7:53 AM on August 27, 2004

Wow. Great site, and amazing material. From the Letters section:
June 7, 1939, Grodno, Poland

To my dear, sweet aunt!

My dear aunt! I haven't written to you for a long time and I ask for forgiveness, but it has been difficult for me to write.

I am no longer at home and soon it will be a year since I started studying at Grodno Yeshiva.

At first I thought that I would study only until my thirteenth year, which should have been Shabbat Nachamu [July 29, 1939] but at this time the two giants are preparing for war and especially Judaism and humanity, above whom dark clouds cover, and the world stands at a crossroad, questioning whether to go forward and continue civilization or return backward to the Middle Ages, where he who has power governs.

We have to return to the wellspring from which our forefathers obtained comfort, and for which our forefathers were killed or burnt in Germany and France and even killed each other and their wives and children during the Crusades. And our forefathers continued under the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. We have to return to the Torah, and the tradition that has been like rays of sun during the dark days of exile, and still continues the chain of gold of our forefathers.

I don't have enough words to express the feeling of my heart at this time, but each time I hear about the content of the White Paper, the masters should know that it won't be easy for them to do what they're thinking. They should know that the time that we used to go like sheep to the slaughter has passed, we who run away from the sound of a falling leaf. The time has passed and will never return that we only be killed sanctifying G-d's name.

The time has come that we shall kill and be killed sanctifying G-d's name, and if the oppressors wish to do us evil and steal from us our land then we shall fight like lions for freedom and show the world that our Hasmonean blood is still running. Soon I shall have my thirteenth birthday and we shall have a party.

How are you doing? How is Yisraelke [Israel is the name of his aunt's first child, born in 1936] and how is the uncle? I send my greeting of peace to all of you.

Your nephew,

P.S. I am asking that when you write a letter to my father, write to me too.

[Note: Ephraim was the oldest of five children of Jankiel Gutsztejn from Radzilow. Jankiel was one of my grandfather's (Moshe Gutsztejn) brothers. The entire family was killed in the Holocaust: Jankiel (age 40, died 1940), wife Yocheved (died 1941), and children, Ephraim (age 14, died 1941), Menachem (age 12, died 1941), Yisrael (age 10, died 1941), and twins Yitzhak and Rywka (age 8, died 1941).]
That letter was written by a kid not yet thirteen, who didn't live to be sixteen. Alav hashalom.
posted by languagehat at 8:00 AM on August 27, 2004

Plep, fabulous link. The complete devastation of Jewish cities and Jewish property/effects in Poland is well-documented, but rarely discussed. As memory fades and memorials are lost, it is important to bear witness to such destruction, as in the next decade, the survivors of WWII will only be gravestones and memories.

In Poland (as well as Lithuania, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe ) between 1939 and 1944, a Hitlerian lust destroyed all representations of Jewish culture. This included the synagogue, monument to Jewish religion and study. Most of the synagogues were made of wood, and were built during the 18th century. Hundreds of such wooden synagogue constructs were destroyed by fire, and the stone/brick ones were torn down, left in ruins. Fortuitously, in 1923, the Institute of Polish Architecture catalogued and inventoried the myriad synagogues...and this is the only visual method to document their former appearance. Completely vanished are the synagogues and reliquaries themselves.

Two great sources I know of for further research are through books and artwork. First there is a book by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka from 1959 called "Wooden Synagogues" that has wonderful reproductions of the IPA's documentary photographs as well as essays concerning architecture. Second, contemporary New York artist Frank Stella has a very large series that he worked on in the early 1970s called "The Polish Village Series". His method of representation adhered to his abstract expressionist sensibilities, which are perfect for reconstructions. He created assemblages intended to memorialize the destroyed synagogues of the lost Jewish villages in pre-WWII Poland, and named each series after a Polish town that had lost a synagogue: Brzozdowce, Glinne, Felsztyn, Jedwabne, Nasielsk…and so on and so forth…and the list continues until a depressing comprehension grasps at how much is forever lost.
posted by naxosaxur at 8:15 AM on August 27, 2004

I'm glad my grandparents got the fsck out out Lithuania in the early 1900's.
posted by PenDevil at 8:33 AM on August 27, 2004

And Russia, forget to mention my other grandparents got out of there... My great aunt, when she was alive, would've smacked me upside the head me her calling her a Litvak.
posted by PenDevil at 8:38 AM on August 27, 2004

Some of the stories linked from the site indicate that the SS-Einsatzgruppen were probably involved in the July 7, 1941 barn atrocity. Their modus operandi was, at first anyway, to rely upon local partisans to do the dirty work as the German army moved east.

I highly recommend Richard Rhodes's book, Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust for a history of the SS-Einsatzgruppen and the mostly untold story of the millions of Jews killed directly or indirectly by them. The book is also significant in that Rhodes's thesis is that for the most part, the SS-Einsatzgruppen weren't working out—it was causing too many morale and discipline problems to murder large numbers of people by hand. Thus, the "final solution".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:49 AM on August 27, 2004

PenDevil, I'm glad my grandmother and grandfather got the fuck out of Warsaw in 1930...
posted by naxosaxur at 8:57 AM on August 27, 2004

Some of the stories linked from the site indicate that the SS-Einsatzgruppen were probably involved in the July 7 1941 barn atrocity.

As you doubtless know, EB, this is an enormously controversial topic -- on which I am not really qualified to comment, except to draw attention to the existence of the controversy. But the emerging consensus seems to be that the perpetrators of the massacres at Jedwabne and Radzilow were Poles, and that they were not simply acting on German instructions. This article casts doubt on claims that German soldiers were present to supervise the massacre; and this article provides further details (warning: very harrowing reading).
posted by verstegan at 9:19 AM on August 27, 2004

My impression was that they thought that an SS officer was there who incited the Poles to do it? As I wrote, this was the m.o. for the Einzattzengruppen, early on, as described by Rhodes. They'd get local mobs to do the dirty work. Later on, they did it themselves as the need for subterfuge decreased and the numbers killed increased.

But it's controversial because the Poles have liked to believe that the Germans did it and they were innocent bystanders? But that's a common story throughout Europe.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:28 AM on August 27, 2004

plep, after reading the site for so long, it's good to get to finally thank you for the quality of your links. This one is wonderful.

Languagehat, I noticed the letter too. Of the many sadnesses the Holocaust evokes, the loss of intellectual and artistic potential is more subtle. But there are so many essential Jewish European artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers of the 20th century that it is hard to imagine the list decimated. But that's exactly what it is.
Who knows what that child would have given the world if he'd been permitted?

These pictures were particularly affecting, too. Rachel Sawicki, the beautiful girl on the bicycle, dead in 1941. Each caption: dead, dead, dead, unknown, with only one known survivor.

And Russia, forget to mention my other grandparents got out of there

Count me in for thanking the Russian grandparents, too, PenDevil. I just wish I'd known enough to do it while they were still alive.
posted by melissa may at 10:43 AM on August 27, 2004

Wow. Makes me wish there was something like this for me: my great-grandparents came from a Unkrainian shtetl, but details & the name have long been lost thanks to war, anti-semitism, and the last one from there dying a few years back.

That was over 100 years ago, tho...
posted by volk at 11:48 AM on August 27, 2004

Given the high levels of anti-Semitism in Poland, before, during, and even after the war, I am not at all surprised that some citizens took "initiative" under the aegis of the Germans.
posted by Krrrlson at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2004

For Volk and others: Your ancestors' history does *not* have to stay undercover and forgotten, you *can* find the towns and lineages again; there's more of a paper trail than you may think. You can order death certificates from the cities they died in (which list their parents' names), marriage and birth certificates (list parent's names and mother's maiden name and sometimes town of birth), the Social Security application cards (i.e. SS-5's, which list parents' names and mother's maiden name), census records, naturalization petitions (which list hometown), Chevra Kaddisha and cemetery records (were they buried in a plot owned by landsmen, i.e. people from the same ancestral town? are their parents' Hebrew names on the gravestones, i.e. So-and-so Bar/Bat Somebody?). Trust me, there's a lot out there.

Some online resources to start the search:

The Ellis Island Database- all records online, all free, but only if your folks came to the US via the island (which was in operation 1892-1925[?]). Earlier records are microfilmed and housed at NARA. Make sure to try spelling variants; some of my ancestors came through under their mother's maiden name, or names that were spelled "wrong", or just misread from the handwritten sheets when they got put into the computer system.

JewishGen- Jewish Genealogy (and more shtetl memorial pages and necrologies). Loads and loads of stuff here, lots of databases from all over the world. > 800,000 Holocaust records (names of survivors, too).

Also, the JRI-Poland vital records database, hosted at JewishGen. Online, free. The SCHREIER's listed in Nadworna (formerly in Galicia, today in the Ukraine) in that database are my family.

And ancestry.com is really, really great for US-based stuff (census records! yay!), and totally worth all the money I pay to subscribe to it yearly.

Also, a big THANK YOU to the Mormons, for microfilming Jewish vital records all across Eastern Europe. Microfilms are avilable at LDS Family Centers; once you find the town your folks are from, you can order the microfilm and print out a copy of the records (which, alas, will be in Polish/Russian/German, but you can get them translated).
posted by Asparagirl at 12:38 PM on August 27, 2004

You rock, Asparagirl! Thanks for the info!

Was aware of the standard sites (ancestry.com, ellis island), but the name was changed pretty drastically when coming across (in Boston, to boot), so we've had a bit of trouble. Hadn't looked at JewishGen, tho. Looks promising...
posted by volk at 12:58 PM on August 27, 2004

You're welcome! As may have noticed, I'm a big genealogy dork. :-)

A suggestion for you: try researching the death certificates (you can even see their cause of death!) and the SS-5's (order the Xeroxed full version, costs about $27 each, not the cheaper computer printouts) first off; they were really helpful when I was doing my own tree research. And even Boston's immigration records were microfilmed, I would think, but alas, NARA hasn't put their stuff online yet, so that means tedious Soundex searches and dusty microfilm machines for you (sorry!).

And yeah, just keep doing searches in the various JewishGen databases for your original last name until you find a town with a lot of them, and start searching in a radius from there. And it's always fun when you come across a town with a lot of Spielberg's or Shatner's or Burstyn's or Seinfeld's or other famous last names.

Good luck in your search!

(And golly, you're really in Alaska? Keep going west and you'll find yourself back in the shtetl before you know it. :-) )
posted by Asparagirl at 1:16 PM on August 27, 2004

Yep, really in AK. Almost did make it back to the shtetl, but am actually moving slowly east now! Well, I actually made it to a gulag town or two, but that was close 'nuff...

Good info on the Boston stuff. Have 3 different spellings (in both languages) for the primary last name, but there's an offshoot of the family (great-grandfather's brother) with a completely different name. And they swapped 'em from time to time 'till they made it over here. So it'll be interesting...
posted by volk at 1:43 PM on August 27, 2004

Ah, that'll probably be an ancestor's maiden name. Jewish marriages (which were usually religious) weren't always recognized or registered by Polish/Russian civil authorities, so the kids were often legally considered bastards and therefore given their mothers' last names. As I mentioned in the comment above, my great-grandfather is listed in the Ellis Island database as having his mother's maiden name; he switched it back to Schreier when he got to the US, because that's what his name "really" was, regardless of what the jerks in the Old Country would accept. So your branch and the branch with the other name were probably having to ping-pong between what their family name should have been and what the Poles/Russians would accept it on legal documents (and passports) as being. Fun!
posted by Asparagirl at 1:56 PM on August 27, 2004

...And parallels to the current situation in the US where the state won't always recognize same-sex marriages and thus treats the parties as unrelated and their children as only having one parent should be self-evident. Twenty-second century genealogists are going to have to wade through today's domestic partnership documents to find out why *their* ancestors' names kept changing or why they were listed as single on their census records...
posted by Asparagirl at 2:03 PM on August 27, 2004

Dunno. Could be, but it's Austrian. Family lore says that an ancestor escaped the tsar's army by stealing documents from a dead soldier during the russo-german wars in the 1800's. Being the only male in the family with a last name was a military exemption, apparently (so that your family line wouldn't be extinguished).

Or so the legend says. I just think it's cool to say. And we still have (distant) relatives with the old, so-called original name! One of my hopes was to find out if the rumor was true.

Ironically, it's the traditional wester-european part of my heritage that took on their wives' names. They documented most of it, though...

... which is what I'm having to do. My daughter is getting her mother's name (we're married, but separate names). Let persecution that way (not the jewish part, it's just a bad name - like having a last name of "dork" would be bad).
posted by volk at 2:07 PM on August 27, 2004

Lemme guess, you're a Lifshitz or a Fuchs? :-)
posted by Asparagirl at 3:00 PM on August 27, 2004

Nope. Funnier than that, but every bit as humiliating. Think of some form of Austrian/German "from Vienna" type of name. Perfectly acceptable all over the world... just not here...
posted by volk at 3:48 PM on August 27, 2004

volk :- Got it, very amusing. :)

The author of the Radzilow site has written pointing out a new book on Radzilow and Jedwabne. The book is currently published in Polish, but English, Spanish and Hebrew translations are due out soon. The publisher's link is here.

More on the history of Jedwabne at the Yizkor Book Project on jewishgen.org. More on Jan T. Gross's book 'Neighbours' and the reaction to it in Poland in this New Yorker interview.
posted by plep at 12:23 PM on August 28, 2004

(Sorry, New Yorker link is here).
posted by plep at 12:28 PM on August 28, 2004

« Older Something to brighten your friday.   |   warez.metafilter.com Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments